Eric Hobsbawm changed how we think about culture | Art and design | The Guardian
The historian Eric Hobsbawm, who has died aged 95, is rightly being mourned as a great intellectual of modern times. Yet Hobsbawm was more than a powerful historian and political thinker; nor should he be remembered in solitary splendour. He was part of a group of British Marxist scholars who profoundly influenced our understanding of what culture is.
More than 50 years ago, a bunch of dissident Oxbridge-educated academic historians changed the way the British saw culture. They understood, long before anyone else, that culture is what shapes the world. They also saw that culture is totally democratic and comes from the people. While the official guardians of the arts, such as Kenneth Clark, were praising the “civilisation” of the elite on television and in print, Hobsbawm and co were resurrecting the lost cultures of Luddites, the masked poachers and anyonymous letter writers, of William Blake and John Milton. They discovered and popularised the value of popular culture – something so integral to our lives today it seems bizarre it was ever denigrated.
Culture, in the tradition of social analysis that took its lead from Karl Marx, was seen as a secondary and superficial aspect of human life. The economic base, according to the old Marxists, determines everything else; art and literature merely reflect that economic base. The English 18th-century portrait, for instance, reflects the rise of bourgeois individualism. Marx himself believed in the economic determinants of culture. The example he gave was Daniel Defoe‘s novel Robinson Crusoe, which he saw as a utopian portrait of the self-helping capitalist.
Hobsbawm was one of a generation of brilliant British historians, along with EP Thompson and Christopher Hill, who embraced Marxism but rejected its crude attitude to culture. Thompson’s classic book The Making of the English Working Class is not so much about factories and working conditions as about the rituals and symbols in which resistance is expressed: his working class made itself, through culture. Similarly, Hill draws together Milton and the Ranters in his recreations of the culture of the “English revolution” that overthrew Charles I, releasing a carnival of radical thought.