Eric Hobsbawm: Marxist Historian

Following the recent death of the eminent Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, we thought this would be an ideal opportunity to celebrate his achievements and highlight the resources of our ETV Collection, which is unique in its coverage of the history of the British Labour Movement as well as the influence of Communism.

Although he spent most of his life in Britain, Eric Hobsbawm was born in Egypt to Jewish parents in 1917. Far away in Russia  a revolution was beginning, the reverberations of which would be felt globally, as documented in ETV’s Chronicle of October 1917.

Chronicle of October 1917 : ETV Films Ltd

In his autobiography Hobsbawm said

I belong to the generation for whom the October Revolution represented the hope of the world.

The  family moved to Vienna but by the time Hitler began his rise to power Hobsbawm had been orphaned and was living with his uncle in Berlin. They were moving to a country in the grip of significant political change: ‘How to Make Cannon Fodder’ is an account of the rise of Nazism in Germany at this time and its focus on the country’s youth.

How To Make Cannon Fodder : ETV Ltd 1963

As a result of his experiences in Berlin, Hobsbawm joined the Communist Party at the age of 14;

Anybody who saw Hitler’s rise happen first hand could not have helped but be shaped by it, politically. That boy is still somewhere inside, always will be..

He moved with his uncle to London  in 1933 and as a gangly teenage boy had to adapt to a new language and culture. He clearly managed this with some success and went on to win a scholarship to Cambridge where he made many communist friends. Here he would eventually gain his PhD, after a break in his studies during the war which he spent as a sapper on the home front. This experience gave him an opportunity to meet and work alongside working class Britons.

In 1947  he began his long career as a history lecturer at Birkbeck College. By now he had determined his ongoing commitment to  radical socialism, which remained throughout the cold war, to the detriment of the progression of his academic career.

The Allies : ETV Films Ltd 1965

Hobsbawm considered himself part of the international communist movement, a position echoed in the work of ETV, a distribution company aiming to make the movement available through alternative newsreels. For instance  ’The Allies’ is a documentary film made by the DEFA Studio  (the state-owned film studio of the German Democratic Republic) which gives an account of how the successful military alliance between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies in World War II led to the defeat of Germany. The film interprets these events from a Soviet perspective and stresses the huge price paid by Russia (20 million dead) to help bring an end to the Nazi regime.

Following his post-war research into the Fabians, Hobsbawm developed a great and continuing interest in the growth of the British Labour Movement. Many years later, in 1983, he supported Neil Kinnock’s controversial transformation of the British Labour Party  into what would eventually become known as ‘New Labour’.  A 1985 Channel 4 News Clip focusing on splits within the British Communist Party ( including an interview with Hobsbawm) goes on to discuss the resulting impact on the entire Labour Movement.

Fifty Fighting Years: ETV Films Ltd 1972

Fifty Fighting Years was made as a tribute to the journal ‘Labour Monthly’ and documents the struggles of the British Labour Movement from 1921-1971. The film was directed and produced by Stanley Forman, ETV’s founder and a contemporary of Hobsbawm, whose life also was strongly influenced by the Communist movement.

Hobsbawm’s views – political and historical – were formed by his reactions to the great conflicts of the 20th Century which he called ‘the most extraordinary and terrible century of human history’. His formidable reputation as a historian, however, was established mainly by his quartet of books  spanning  events from the French Revolution to the present day (The Age of RevolutionThe Age of CapitalThe Age of Empire and The Age of Extremes).

He believed world events are driven largely by economic and social forces rather than through the power of individual leaders. He said

Social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought….the world will not get better on its own.


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