How to Change History

The recent death of Eric Hobsbawm provides a fitting occasion to take stock of the entire trajectory of his work. Taking his final book, How to Change the World, as its starting point, this essay considers Hobsbawm's effort to change the way history was written. It divides his career into three main phases: 1) during the 1940s and 50s when he served his apprenticeship and emerged as a leading labor historian of modern Britain. Working in conjunction with colleagues in the Communist Party Historian's group, Hobsbawm helped to raise Marxist history to academic respectability; 2) during the 1960s and 70s, Hobsbawm reached the apogee of his career, publishing the first two volumes of his synoptic history of modern capitalism, as well a multitude of more specialized and critical works. No longer just one among a group of Marxist scholars, he-along with E. P. Thompson-became one of the most famous and influential historians in the world. 3) For Hobsbawm, as for other Marxists, the 1980s and 1990s were a time of crisis, when Marxism was destabilized and communism collapsed. Ironically, this essay argues, it was during this challenging period that Hobsbawm's most influential work appeared-most notably, his studies of modern nationalism and his analysis of the 'invention of tradition'. Whereas the early Hobsbawm had worked to bring Marxist history into the academy, the later Hobsbawm (perhaps inadvertently) showed how the academy could absorb analytical elements initially formulated in a Marxist framework by translating them into non-Marxist terms. Whatever one thinks of Hobsbawm's intellectual legacy, one must acknowledge his status as a polymathic giant who wrote global history that was at once theoretically grounded, publicly accessible, and historiographically consequential.