Eric Hobsbawm, the famous historian, passed away on October 1st, 2012. He was 95.  I had the pleasure of meeting him in New York during my graduate studies at Columbia University when I regularly attended seminars at the New School. He was a Visiting Professor at that time who was generous with his time and insights. His writings spanned sixty years and covered a range of topics, from British labor, to revolution and democracy.

He was one of the 20th century’s great thinkers who combined ideals with scholarship. He was a Marxist, who even in the face of abuses of power in the Soviet Union, refused to give up on the ideals of the left. It was not until the early 1990s that he let his membership of the party lapse.  He believed that individuals could change the world around them and told rich historical narratives that reflected this empowerment.

Debates on his work persist and will do so, especially his work on Marxism. For me, however, many of his books stay with me. His sweeping but detailed description of nationalism opened up an understanding of how societies come together with differences. The idea of “invention of tradition” captured how elites construct rituals and practices to hold onto or gain power. So often, these “inventions” are now part of everyday life – not just in Europe, but also in Southeast Asia.  This practice of constructing national narratives has helped me better understand regional politics.

I was also struck by vignettes of Robin Hood and Pancho Villa in his book entitled “Bandits” where he examined why in some cases men become heroes and in other they are deemed criminals. Context and community combine to shape perceptions of opposition to power. This theme of rebellion and justice wove through his writings, as he examined both the reasons for resistance to power and the outcome of opposition.

I recall thanking him for a book recommendation. I cannot recall what the book was that he recommended or even what it was about, but I recall how quickly and detailed he answered. Hobsbawm’s writings will live on well after he is gone, but take a moment to look at them and be inspired as I was by his insights.

A list of his writings can be found here: