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Eric Hobsbawm: A Tribute


Romila Thapar


(1917-2012) Eric Hobsbawm will be remembered for his historical reconstruction of the emergence of modern Europe on which he wrote with skill and sensitivity. He has been read as a historian who has asked new questions of existing sources which have given answers different from the familiar ones; as an historian who has explored the nuances of Marxism; and as one among a group of British historians who introduced social and economic history to a public for whom history meant political and diplomatic history. The initial push for social and economic history was made by Marxist historians in the late 1930s, and their Marxism was of various hues. They were referred to as the British Historians Group to which the qualifier was added, of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The historians in the group were Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, EP Thomson, Raphael Samuel and some others. As it happened, a generation or so later, the same historian, turn by turn visited India at the invitation of a few universities assisted by the British Council, and their lectures helped to further the effort that Indian historians were making to introduce social and economic history in the history syllabus of Indian universities. The same group started publishing the now famous journal, Past and Present, in 1952. It began as a journal for Marxist historical writing but gradually widened its scope to include the varied ways in which historical writing in general was reflecting and developing on what had begun as Marxist views. Hobsbawm's initial research was on the Fabian Society and the labour movement in Britain. He then turned to a study of peasant protests in England and in various parts of Europe. To place them in a wider context of social concerns gave an additional dimension to the study of such movements. His studies gave currency to phrases such as 'social bandits' and 'primitive rebels'. Parallel to this were two other themes on both of which he wrote at length from the 1960s. His study of industry and empire incorporated a study of capitalism and labour, which he developed further in his histories of modern Europe. This is also what he drew on in his analysis of the colonial economy at a seminar in Aligarh, on his first visit to India. His essays published as On History provide an introduction to the debates on historical interpretation current in the latter part ...


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