Eric J. Hobsbawm, RIP

Eric J. Hobsbawm, 1917-2012

The New York Times notes the death of Eric Hobsbawm, Britain’s preeminent social and labor historian whose work on capitalism and the lower-class unrest in Europe of “pre-political” road agents, millenarians, levellers, and urban rioters in 18th and 19th century society helped shed new light on the Age of Revolution. He moved historical understanding of the period from solely examining the record through the lens of great men to a close examination of working men and women. An unrepentant Marxist, he only in recent years chose silence regarding his ideology after decades of supporting the Communist Party instead refuting his beliefs, a decision that made him enormously controversial even in left-wing intellectual circles. His politics always baffled me: How can someone remain in the CP when you die at 95, old enough to have witnessed firsthand the depredations of Stalin and the ruthlessness of the Soviets crushing Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan? His own comments on his choice to remain loyal to the party smack of the Red utopianism that has often seduced European and American intellectuals:

Why I stayed in the Communist Party is not a political question about communism, it’s a one-off biographical question. It wasn’t out of idealisation of the October Revolution. I’m not an idealiser. One should not delude oneself about the people or things one cares most about in one’s life. Communism is one of these things and I’ve done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and to its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the passion it aroused is specific to the twentieth century. It was a combination of the great hopes which were brought with progress and the belief in human improvement during the nineteenth century along with the discovery that the bourgeois society in which we live (however great and successful) did not work and at certain stages looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. And it did collapse and generated awful nightmares.

The wealth and peace after World War II (the longest period without warfare in the history of Europe since the pax romana) was never what it seemed to be — at least that’s what Hobsbawm indicated through most of his work. Furthermore, he was a dedicated anti-fascist who lived through the rise of Hitler and National Socialism, so I wonder what he did want society to achieve if the defeat of the Nazis wasn’t enough to verify the benefits of democratic capitalism.  No matter: Hobsbawm argued that Stalin was the real hero that created the West’s economic expansion, as an obituary in The Telegraph outlines along with other interesting quotes regarding his politicsNihil nisi bonum.  Great minds are often inconsistent minds, but his contribution to reshaping study of Revolutionary America included influencing historians who began to study how riotous behavior in Boston and New York motivated independence as much as ideology. Alas, when you get Marxists or their New Left fellow travelers in the room, someone always starts to talk about class in America — and that’s when I leave the room to find the Consensus Historians all agreeing to go out to the nearest pub. RIP.

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October 7, 2012 · 4:48 am

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