Eric Hobsbawm, Historian Embracing Marxism, Dies at 95

(Corrects date of French revolution in third paragraph of story published Oct. 1.)

Professor Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian and lifelong socialist, has died. He was 95.

Hobsbawm, who was president of Birkbeck College at the University of London, died of pneumonia in the Royal Free Hospital in the U.K. capital after a long illness, his daughter Julia said today by telephone.

His best-known works were a trilogy on what he called the long 19th century, covering the period from the French Revolution in 1789 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, and his history of the 20th century, The Age of Extremes. His final book, How to Change the World, was published last year.

“We are certainly not entering an age of peace and quiet,” Hobsbawm said in an interview with Bloomberg in May. “It’s a very problematic age in which nobody really knows what’s going to happen but nobody is very optimistic.”

Born in Alexandria in Egypt on June 9, 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, he was orphaned by the age of 14. Adopted by his maternal aunt and paternal uncle, the family moved to London from Berlin in 1933.

He became a history lecturer at Birkbeck College at London University in 1947 and was professor of history there between 1970 and 1982. He was a visiting professor after his retirement until 1987, a post he had held in the 1960s at Stanford University in the U.S. He became president of Birkbeck in 2002.

Committed Socialist

Hobsbawm joined the Communist Party in 1936 and remained a member after the former Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, although he signed a public letter of protest against it.

In the 1960s, his views moderated and he no longer supported Soviet-style socialism. A regular contributor to the now-defunct Marxism Today magazine, Hobsbawm supported former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock’s efforts to move back into the U.K. political mainstream in the mid-1980s.

Some writers, including Harvard University’s Niall Ferguson, regarded him as one of the best historians of the 20th century. Others, such as David Pryce-Jones, whose books include the Hungarian Revolution in 1969, said his support of communism affected his professional judgement.

Much of Hobsbawm’s interest lay in how events and political systems affected ordinary people. In the interview at his north London home in May, Hobsbawm said the international community had to deal with Greece’s financial problems.

“The people that of course tend to be forgotten in all of this are the actual Greeks,” Hobsbawm said. “Greece is bankrupt and it has got to somehow or other declare it.”

Hobsbawm is survived by his wife Marlene, his three children, Julia, Andy and Joseph, seven grandchildren and one great grandchild, according to a statement issued by his family to the British Broadcasting Corp.

To contact the reporters on this story: Peter Woodifield in Edinburgh at pwoodifield@bloomberg.net; Simon Clark in London at sclark4@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Douglas Lytle at dlytle@bloomberg.net.

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