Uncovering the Many Eric Hobsbawms

Eric Hobsbawm's work spanned everything from jazz to the history of banditry, in thousands of texts he wrote in several languages. A new project has brought together his writings in a searchable database — offering readers a goldmine of work by Britain's greatest Marxist historian.

British Marxist historian and sociologist Eric Hobsbawm in Carpi, Italy, 2006. (Leonardo Cendamo / Getty Images)

Until recently, anyone with a scholarly interest in Eric Hobsbawm would sooner or later be told to contact Keith McClelland. The reason was simple: He held the (virtual) keys to an extraordinary document — a PDF file that contained details of almost everything Hobsbawm ever wrote. It ran to over a hundred thirty pages and included details of multiple editions, translations, and a dizzying array of cross-references. It was — and still is — an unprecedented visualization of Hobsbawm’s productivity and commercial success.

The story behind this remarkable document goes back to the early 1980s. At the time, some of Hobsbawm’s students and colleagues prepared an edited volume to celebrate his retirement from Birkbeck College, London. As the two editors — Raphael Samuel and Gareth Stedman Jones — started to put the book together, they realized that one way to mark Hobsbawm’s contribution was to commission someone to prepare a comprehensive bibliography of his writings. They invited Keith, then a labor historian and frequent attendee at Hobsbawm’s Social History seminar at London’s Institute of Historical Research, to undertake the work.

Even in the early 1980s, this was an enormous task. Hobsbawm had published numerous books — single-authored and edited — and he had been involved in myriad editorial projects, ranging from the historical journal Past & Present to the multiauthor, multi-volume Storia del marxismo (History of Marxism) series, instigated by the Italian publisher Einaudi. Most of all, he had published a bewildering number of essays, articles, and reviews across a range of international publications.

It is worth remembering that there was no Internet to help track down esoteric references. Keith could not turn to Project Muse or Google Books. Instead, he had to rely on the index cards of the British Library in London and Hobsbawm’s own imperfect memory. He spent long hours in the Hobsbawm residence on Nassington Road in North London chasing publication dates, identifying forgotten cross-references, and classifying unexpected translations.

The end result was a thirty-page bibliography, published in 1982 as the final chapter of the edited volume Culture, Ideology and Politics: Essays for Eric Hobsbawm. It was a milestone in the world of Hobsbawm studies. For the first time, it was possible to track ideas across different texts, formats, and, in some cases, languages. Keith’s decision, taken in collaboration with the editors, to group writings by theme revealed trends and clusters that would otherwise have remained hidden.

The problem was, there was still a lot more Hobsbawm left to come after 1982. He had not even published the third part of his “Ages” tetralogy — Age of Empire came out in 1987 — let alone the hundreds of articles, lectures, book chapters, op-eds, and interviews that accompanied the publication of Age of Extremes in 1994 and his memoir, Interesting Times, in 2003.

This incessant production meant that Keith was continuously in the process of adding to his bibliography. The most substantial revision came in 2010, when he was invited by Eric and Marlene Hobsbawm to take stock of everything that had appeared since 1982. The bibliography mushroomed as he catalogued hundreds of new texts, many of which were associated with Hobsbawm’s newfound status as a public intellectual. Keith added entire categories to the bibliography — like “globalization” — absent from the 1982 edition.

Hobsbawm died in 2012, but even this was not enough to stem the tide. Several collections of his essays were published posthumously, and interviews, lectures, and TV appearances continued to surface online. Moreover, the decision to deposit Hobsbawm’s papers in the Modern Records Centre archive at the University of Warwick opened a rich additional angle for a bibliography. It would soon be possible to compare Hobsbawm’s published and unpublished writings, as well as his private diaries, scattered correspondence, and dozens of research notebooks.

Crossing the Digital Frontier

The Eric Hobsbawm Bibliography — which began in 2019 as part of a UK Arts and Humanities Research Council project on Hobsbawm’s intellectual biography — was initially conceived as an attempt to bring order to this increasingly chaotic bibliographical landscape.

The aim was simple: We wanted to convert the most recent version of Keith’s bibliography into an open-access database, to which we would add the complete catalogue of Hobsbawm’s archive. This would then form the basis of a multilingual website that would allow anyone to search the bibliography according to a range of criteria. To preserve the spirit of Keith’s original bibliography, we also wanted to create curated lists of publications grouped under certain thematic headings, such as “Capitalism: origins, development, results,” “Jazz,” and “Labour history.” These would provide ready-made reading lists for those looking for Hobsbawm’s thoughts on a particular subject.

Given that much of the hard work had already been done by Keith over the past thirty years, we expected it to be a straightforward task to convert his bibliography into a flexible digital format. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

For a start, we faced endless technical challenges. Our coding wizard, Richard Hadden, struggled heroically to convert obsolete or proprietary formats into an easily accessible XML database. Nevertheless, formatting went missing, numbering systems broke halfway through sequences, and inconsistencies in presentation that passed without notice in the paper version of the bibliography were ruthlessly exposed by the exigencies of programming.

We also found ourselves asking difficult conceptual questions about how our database should be organized and presented. Which should take priority in search results: the form of a publication (book, article, review, etc.) or the date of publication? Should monographs always appear higher in search results than other kinds of publication, thereby suggesting that they are the most valuable form of intellectual output? What is the proper relationship between an original text and its translations? Should the Spanish version of the website display Spanish-language translations above the English originals? In the case of texts that underwent substantial revisions, which should be the “master” version: the original or the latest edition?

Most historians, librarians, and archivists are used to making these snap judgements as a matter of course — and the answers are usually complex and context-specific. But building a database and search engine is unforgiving; programming languages work according to rational, hierarchical rules. It is possible to build in fuzzy logic or clever algorithms, but some hard decisions have to be made.

Incorporating unpublished material led to further issues. Our intention was to connect Hobsbawm’s papers to his published output, whether through curated lists or as links within a particular entry. In this way, someone interested in the reception and response to one of Hobsbawm’s books could start with the book itself and then move on to associated correspondence, reviews, or contractual details.

But what is the status of an unpublished manuscript draft? Should it appear alongside the published book? And what counts as “associated” material? Early conference papers? Research notebooks? These questions have been the subject of intense debate by intellectual historians and scholars of political thought. We had to choose one of two answers: “yes, this belongs” or “no, let’s leave it out.”

The finished product, then, turned out to be rather different than what had come before. We retained the architecture of the 1982 bibliography, but our discussions and additions transformed a static reference document into a vast and flexible database, which included outbound links to journal repositories like JSTOR and the WorldCat international library catalogue. When it went live in late 2020, the Eric Hobsbawm Bibliography became the most comprehensive and complex record of Hobsbawm’s writings currently available.

Hobsbawm and the Written Word

When we began the process of building the new bibliography, we imagined that it would serve as a useful tool for further research on Hobsbawm and his generation of Marxist intellectuals. By making his back catalogue accessible to anyone with an internet connection, we wanted to help our colleagues, our students, and anyone interested in Hobsbawm. It was conceived as an exercise in professional service.

Yet the process of compiling and revising the bibliography simultaneously revealed vital aspects of Hobsbawm’s intellectual biography, most of which have not been probed in any depth.

The first and surely the most striking aspect of the bibliography is its size. The database contains more than three thousand entries. Almost all of these refer either to individual texts authored by Hobsbawm or archival boxes that contain drafts, notes, and correspondence (the latter is very fragmentary). Most reviewers and commentators have remarked on Hobsbawm’s productivity, but this bibliography lays bare its sheer scale. It would be no exaggeration to say that he was obsessed with the written word.

From his earliest teenage writings to his political interventions in his nineties, everything was mediated through text. He wrote quickly, fluently, and often in one take. Regardless of the subject matter — and there were many of them — the words poured onto the page. At no point in his career does he seem to have suffered from serious writer’s block. Rather, he continued to write even through some of his most difficult personal circumstances.

He kept a diary for several years as an orphaned teenager in London; he maintained a handsome portfolio of book reviews and jazz criticism as his first marriage collapsed in the early 1950s; he processed the trauma of the Communist schism of 1956 by researching and writing Primitive Rebels; and he tried to understand the terminal decline and collapse of Communism in the late 1980s and ’90s by writing endless numbers of books, articles, and essays. For Hobsbawm, writing was more than a by-product of an intellectual life; it was an intensely personal act of communication.

At the same time, his bibliography shows just how well he mastered an essential academic skill: the art of repetition. He was an expert in repackaging his ideas. Student lectures became book chapters; newspaper op-eds became long essays; and key arguments found their way into a myriad of different formats. Hobsbawm was a strikingly original thinker. The range of concepts for which he became known — including the “dual revolution,” “primitive rebellion,” “invented traditions,” and “the short twentieth-century” — indicate a restless mind. But his productivity was also the result of a willingness to recycle his greatest hits.

This tendency was reinforced by his international success. One of the most difficult parts of the bibliography was identifying translations, some of which were unauthorized. Transliteration of titles was often unstandardized, and therefore search engines did not always successfully detect their publication details. Separating bogus from legitimate references was a painstaking task, but it means that the database now contains the most reliable record of Hobsbawm’s international reach. We tracked hundreds of publications that were translated into at least one other language. Especially impressive were the number of translations of some of his most famous books: we identified twenty-four translations of The Age of Revolution (1962) and The Age of Capital (1987); twenty-seven translations of Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (1990); and no less than thirty-one translations of The Age of Extremes (1994).

The circulation of texts in other languages multiplied the impact of his writings. In most cases, Hobsbawm had little or no input into a translation — and we know from his correspondence that he sometimes complained about the quality of the text in languages he could understand. But the truth was that each translation expanded his potential market. Without coming up with new ideas, he could reach new audiences. The written word was his passport to global fame.

This virtuous circle could work the other way, too. In some cases, he trialed ideas and arguments in non-English publications before introducing them to his English-language audience. This was especially true of his writings and interventions in Italy. In the 1950s and ’60s, he explored the relevance of Antonio Gramsci in Italian before incorporating some of these ideas into his English-language work in subsequent decades. Later, in the early 1970s, he used the left-wing Italian press to develop key ideas about the future of the labor movement that he then applied to the British Labour Party after the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Another consequence of this dense web of translated texts was a time lag in the reception of Hobsbawm’s ideas. This is clearly visible in the bibliography. Translations often appeared years — sometimes decades — after the original English text. One of the best examples of this is the translation of Hobsbawm’s classic articles on the “transition debate” and his essays on labor history, most of which were originally published in English in the 1950s and ’60s. These only appeared in Spanish and Portuguese in the 1970s. The time lag pulled Hobsbawm back to questions and themes on which he had written almost nothing for many years. The staggered temporalities of translation meant that he could cash in on his fame without actually producing new work.

It goes without saying that Hobsbawm’s commercial savvy is amply documented in his bibliography. For a career academic, he navigated the business of publishing with remarkable assurance. As a young scholar, he did a good deal of journalistic writing, for which he almost always received some kind of fee. Whether in the form of book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement or articles on jazz for the New Statesman, he was clearly focused on making a living from his craft.

He went one step further in 1959, when he signed a contract with David Higham, one of Britain’s most formidable literary agents. This guaranteed ever more lucrative book deals and allowed him to keep close control on the sale of foreign rights. It helped that his generalist historical writing hit the market at a time in the 1960s and ’70s when demand for cheap paperbacks was soaring. He quickly became one of the lucky few academics who was able to make money from something that was also central to his intellectual identity.

Beyond Hobsbawm himself, the bibliography speaks to the shape of both the historical profession and left-wing intellectual life in postwar Europe. One of the most obvious points is that these were overwhelmingly male spaces. There are vanishingly few women listed in the bibliography. They do not appear much as coeditors, collaborators, or even subjects of research. Even the interviews listed in the database are invariably with men or by men.

Some women, such as academic and fellow Communist Margot Heinemann, clearly had an important influence on Hobsbawm, but their absence in the database raises questions about their absence in his writings. The days and weeks of childcare that enabled Hobsbawm to travel to international conferences with two young children at home in the 1960s was also a precondition for his voluminous published output.

When some of his female students took him to task for neglecting women’s history in the late 1970s, they were not simply fighting a historiographical battle. They were also pushing back against an intellectual world overwhelmingly led by men who relied on the hidden labor of their wives, assistants, and secretaries.

The hundreds of cross-references in the bibliography also reflect the importance of intellectual and political contacts. Hobsbawm’s professional universe was made up of a dense web of overlapping international networks that steadily expanded over time. At each stage of his career, the things he published were a result of personal connections with magazine editors, old Cambridge alumni, foreign academics, and political activists.

When he was an apprentice historian in the late 1940s and early ’50s, his publications reflected his limited reach, which only stretched as far as British labor historians and economic historians, and a handful of French historians connected to the Annales school. By the 1970s, he was publishing a lot of material in places he had visited in previous years: He was a regular contributor to left-wing Italian newspapers and journals, and he was being translated into Spanish and Portuguese for dissemination across Latin America.

Like most intellectuals, his professional networks were unevenly distributed. By the time he died, his books and articles were easily accessible in the Americas, Western Europe, and South Asia. But the paucity of translations into Eastern European or Asian languages, let alone any major African language, indicate those regions where his ideas did not reach a wide audience. It is surely no coincidence that these were also the regions that received the least coverage in his work. Hobsbawm’s bibliography stands as a stark reminder that the subjects scholars choose to write about are, in most cases, determined by who they know and where they have been.

A Goldmine

The Eric Hobsbawm Bibliography was intended as a tool for understanding the published corpus of one of the world’s best-known Marxist historians. However, the digitization and compilation process also revealed the ways that intellectual capital was built and sustained in the second half of the twentieth century.

It was not Hobsbawm’s intrinsic genius that made him a superstar; it was his combination of strategic networking, commercial intelligence, and facility with the written word. Focusing on the physical infrastructure of Hobsbawm’s writings is a reminder to scholars of intellectual life that the form in which ideas are packaged is almost as important as the content. And this is surely just as true in the age of Twitter as it was during the golden age of the mass-market Penguin paperback.