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Revolution in the head

He ended his life a British national treasure but Eric Hobsbawm never lost faith in his youthful communism, finds John Bew
© PAOLA AGOSTI/OPALE/LEEMAGE / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History by Richard J Evans (Little, Brown, £35)

As a bookish grammar school boy in northwest London in the mid-1930s, described by his cousin as “ugly as sin but a mind,” Eric Hobsbawm fantasised in his diary about bringing about a communist revolution in Britain. Based on his reading of Russian and Irish history, he thought the best chance would be for dedicated revolutionaries to orchestrate a coup, preferably following a general strike. There was a reasonable prospect, he calculated, that part of the army would join the cause. But first the revolutionary vanguard would have to act decisively: blowing up railway lines; blockading the Thames; building barricades in the slums; seizing the factories and banks; cutting telegraph wires and taking control of the radio. Once the capital fell, the rest of the country would shortly follow.

By the time of his death in 2012 at the age of 95, Hobsbawm had never seen anything approaching a revolution in Britain. But he had lived through and commented on some of the major events of world history since his birth in 1917, fittingly the year of the Bolshevik Revolution. In that time, he had also become one of the best-read historians in the world. His fame stretched far and wide—from India, where his death was front-page news, to Brazil, where his friends and admirers included the future socialist president, Lula da Silva. His books became international bestsellers, bequeathing the world enduring concepts—“primitive rebels,” the “invention of tradition”—and epoch-defining titles like the “age of revolution” and the “age of extremes.”

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In Prospect’s March issue: Gaby Hinsliff explains why all sides of the Brexit debate feel like they’re losing. She says that the Brexit war has raged on for two and half years and disfigured British politics in the process, leaving Remainers in mourning and Leavers crying betrayal. Elsewhere in the issue: James Ball, Martin Moore and Barbara Speed examine how we should be less worried about the tech giants Facebook, Amazon and Google and more worried about the data they hold about us. Ball argues that breaking up these huge companies isn’t the answer; Moore asks what would happens when a tech giant wants to run a smart city, and Speed looks at the increasing trend of tracking everything in our daily lives from the amount of water we drink to how many notifications we receive to our smartphone. Also, Rachel Sylvester profiles Sajid Javid, the Cabinet minister positioning himself for the top job.