Thinking About the Poor   /   Fall 2014   /    Book Reviews

Bye-Bye, Bourgeoisie

Jay Tolson

William Morrris designed pattern, 1880s, National Library New Zealand; flickr.

What to make of Eric Hobsbawm and his work?

A young man who isn’t a socialist hasn’t got a heart; an old man who is a socialist hasn't got a head.” That maxim, attributed variously to Winston Churchill and Georges Clemenceau, has few better tests of its truth than the intellectual career of the late historian Eric Hobsbawm (1917–2012). Born in Alexandria, Egypt, the son of an English father and Viennese mother, Hobsbawm lived most of his childhood in Vienna and Berlin, shaped by the Mitteleuropean culture of his Jewish family. A convert to communism in 1931, he became a party member just as Hitler rose to power and just before the family that had adopted him and his sister moved to England. Educated at Cambridge University, Hobsbawm remained a true believer through events that disillusioned many other fellow travelers: the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Ukrainian Holodomor (forced famine), and the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, to name but a few. Even during the last decades of the twentieth century, as his communism gradually modulated into something less doctrinaire, he continued to see the world through a Marxist lens. The dynamics of class and class struggle figured centrally in many of his some thirty books, perhaps most notably in his masterful trilogy on the “long century” from the French Revolution through the outbreak of World War I.

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