06/10/12 – The Guardian

Eric Hobsbawm

The first time I met Eric Hobsbawm was at an annual gathering of the Economic History Society. As a fellow historian I had long admired his historical writing. But it was not until a couple of years later that I was to actually get to know him. By this time I had changed my clothes and become editor of Marxism Today. Having read Eric’s articles in the now-defunct New Society, I was aware he had much of great interest to say about contemporary politics. I phoned him in autumn 1978 soon after commencing my editorial duties and we had lunch at Birkbeck College. I wanted to run a special issue on the tenth anniversary of 1968 and it was patently obvious that there was no better author than Eric to write the overview. He did not disappoint. The grand sweep of the piece was breath taking. It was typical Eric.

A little later I heard that he had given a lecture entitled ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ By the late seventies I had come to the view that the labour movement was in historical decline. But Eric arguing such a contrary view was an entirely different matter. I asked him to send me a copy and I was not disappointed. It was marvellous, drawing on the range of his historical repertoire to contradict the common sense of the time. It was to become a famous and hugely influential article that was to change the thinking of the left. Already established as a great historian, it marked the emergence of Eric as a major political figure, albeit a somewhat reluctant one.

He was to write numerous articles for Marxism Today, many of them classics. We had plenty of fine writers but Eric was indisputably the best and the most influential. Without him, Marxism Today would never have become the most influential political journal of the Thatcher era. Our editorial relationship could hardly have been more straightforward. I would meet him at Birkbeck, or later at his home, and suggest a theme. And always well before the deadline, he would phone and ask me to come round to his home and pick it up. I would read it with a huge sense of anticipation: Eric’s magic was that you never quite knew what he was going to say. He was possessed of the most remarkably original mind. If the left was characterised by a deadly predictability, Eric was the antithesis of such a mindset. There was, however, one thing about which Eric was entirely predictable. The typescript was always delivered in a perfectly finished condition. The most that I ever remember doing was changing a comma to a semi-colon (and this from an extremely demanding editor who often took excellent writers to four or five drafts).

It was difficult not to be in awe of Eric: the breadth of his knowledge, his extraordinary analytical powers, his wonderfully lucid writing style, his laser-like ability to get to the heart of the matter, and his remarkable originality. Over the fourteen years of my editorship of Marxism Today that sense of distance steadily diminished, conversation flowed evermore easily and we became the closest of friends, sharing many conversations, stories, intimacies and views. When my wife Hari died in a Hong Kong hospital, Eric joined me at her bedside, gently trying to coax me to do what I could not bear to do: leave her for the last time. And just a few hours before he died in hospital, I stood at his bedside, holding his hand and gently thanking him for all that he had given me. He was an intellectual giant without compare. Politically and intellectually, he influenced me more than any other living person. I will forever be in his debt.

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