Eric Hobsbawm
October 1, 2012 6:44 AM   Subscribe

British Marxist historian and lover of jazz, Eric Hobsbawm is dead: Guardian obit. His key works: Industry and Empire (1968); and the "Age of" series, which he began with The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, first published in 1962. Followed in 1975 by The Age of Capital: 1848-1875. And in 1987, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914. A fourth volume, The Age of Extremes: 1914-91, was published in 1994. He also found time to be castaway on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs (5 March 1995). Other than the music, his choice of book was a collection of Neruda's poems and his "luxury item" was a pair of binoculars. stream or download
posted by Mister Bijou (53 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by condour75 at 6:49 AM on October 1, 2012


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I hoped somebody would post this today. Hobsbawm is one of those historians that made me look at history in a completely new light, relentlessly smart and erudite, not to mention unapologetically socialist, not ashamed of his own communist past but not blind to communism's faults either.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:53 AM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


His social stuff like Captain Swing and Labouring Men rather than the grand narratives was his best work for my money.
posted by Abiezer at 6:53 AM on October 1, 2012


The Age of Capital might be the best history book I've ever read and I have a friend who swears by Jazz Scene. I was sorry to hear the news - what a brilliant mind.

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posted by ersatz at 6:56 AM on October 1, 2012


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posted by biffa at 7:02 AM on October 1, 2012


Brilliant scholar. The Invention of Tradition, which he co-edited, is also a great read.
posted by carter at 7:08 AM on October 1, 2012


... was his best work for my money

You bloody capitalist!
posted by the quidnunc kid at 7:13 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


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posted by Rumple at 7:14 AM on October 1, 2012


You bloody capitalist!
Tribute to the Blairite turn of the great man's latter years.
posted by Abiezer at 7:21 AM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


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posted by kariebookish at 7:23 AM on October 1, 2012


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posted by ead at 7:27 AM on October 1, 2012


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posted by readery at 7:30 AM on October 1, 2012


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posted by Cash4Lead at 7:31 AM on October 1, 2012


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posted by daniel_charms at 7:38 AM on October 1, 2012


*raises fist*
posted by scody at 8:20 AM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


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posted by drlith at 8:20 AM on October 1, 2012


Glad to see this here, amazing writer.
posted by PHINC at 8:29 AM on October 1, 2012


I heard about his passing on the Beeb this morning. There was an nice bit about the irony of his being both a literally card-carrying member of the CPGB (which he left in spirit in 1956 and in toto when it disbanded 1991) and a Companion of Honour of the Commonweath Realms, an honour limited to 65 living persons, 45 from the UK. Not quite a knighthood, but still . . . .

He was awarded the honour in 1998 for works that "address problems in history and politics that have re-emerged to disturb the complacency of Europe".

Hobsbawn said at the time -- somewhat paraphasing a oft-repeated quote by LBJ -- "better to have a Labour government than not."

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posted by Herodios at 8:34 AM on October 1, 2012


We're rapidly losing our political consciousness-raisers. Hobsbawm's passing is on the heels of Marxist social theorist Neil R. Smith's death on Saturday.
posted by tidecat at 8:41 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


This exchange still gives me chills.
Hobsbawm explained: "Because in a period in which, as you might say, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing. Now the point is, looking back as an historian, I would say that the sacrifices made by the Russian people were probably only marginally worthwhile. The sacrifices were enormous, they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I'm looking back at it now and I'm saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I'm not sure."

Ignatieff then said: "What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?"

Hobsbawm immediately said: "Yes."
posted by BobbyVan at 8:45 AM on October 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


Wow. Hats off to a great one.
posted by spitbull at 8:49 AM on October 1, 2012


“The test of a progressive policy is not private but public, not just rising income and consumption for individuals, but widening the opportunities and what Amartya Sen calls the 'capabilities' of all through collective action. But that means, it must mean, public non-profit initiative, even if only in redistributing private accumulation. Public decisions aimed at collective social improvement from which all human lives should gain. That is the basis of progressive policy—not maximising economic growth and personal incomes. Nowhere will this be more important than in tackling the greatest problem facing us this century, the environmental crisis. Whatever ideological logo we choose for it, it will mean a major shift away from the free market and towards public action, a bigger shift than the British government has yet envisaged. And, given the acuteness of the economic crisis, probably a fairly rapid shift. Time is not on our side.”
― Eric J. Hobsbawm
posted by molisk at 8:51 AM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have read some of his work, and it's thoughtful and inlightening. It is sad that his death reminds me that I ought read it all.
posted by Jehan at 8:51 AM on October 1, 2012


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posted by ariel_caliban at 9:36 AM on October 1, 2012


Surely we consider the deaths of revolutionary patriots in the American War of Independence, how ever many souls were lost in that cost, to have been "justified" if we are American citizens f a patriotic sort, right? The concept of a life lived and lost not in vain but in honor is not a Marxist idea.
posted by spitbull at 9:51 AM on October 1, 2012


(especially)
posted by spitbull at 9:51 AM on October 1, 2012


Surely we consider the deaths of revolutionary patriots in the American War of Independence, how ever many souls were lost in that cost, to have been "justified" if we are American citizens f a patriotic sort, right? The concept of a life lived and lost not in vain but in honor is not a Marxist idea.

Am I misreading you or are you saying that the millions- yes, millions- of Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin were "revolutionary patriots"? If so, can you say the same thing about Rwandans dying on a pile of corpses, bleeding to death from the stumps that used be their arms and legs?

It's very different to die for a cause versus being murdered for one.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:56 AM on October 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


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posted by lucien_reeve at 9:58 AM on October 1, 2012


Wouldn't be a proper obit thread without the commemorative red-baiting!

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posted by RogerB at 10:08 AM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Utopianism is probably a necessary social device for generating the superhuman efforts without which no major revolution is achieved"

Eric Hobsbawm

Rest in peace.
posted by elmono at 10:26 AM on October 1, 2012


Wouldn't be a proper obit thread without the commemorative red-baiting!

I've got every sympathy with Hobsbawm and his decision to remain in the party when many of the other principled Marxists left. It isn't as though he supported things like the Hungarian invasion, or that he was silent on the issue -- but much as Americans tend to believe in the idea of America as a vehicle for social change and improvement -- despite enormous amounts of evidence to the contrary -- so Hobsbawm was committed to the idea and the project of the Communist Party as the vehicle for social and economic justice.

Was he wrong about a pile of stuff? Yes, of course he was. History is provisional and contingent. He went to his grave knowing that a lot of the stuff he'd devoted his life to hadn't panned out, and probably wasn't ever going to. But should he be ashamed of his commitment to that cause? I don't think so.

I think that that his comment about the 15m deaths was ill-judged and seems tactless today -- but I understand the point that he was making. It was the same point that people used to defend World War I -- the war to end all wars. There'd be this one splurge of deaths, but that would result in utopia and humanity would never have to go through through that kind of injustice again. Today, we can recognize that as a position grounded in faith, not rationality -- but when you're in the centre of a cult, every aspect of which is given up to reinforcing that faith, it's understandable to me that someone could make such an error. And I do think that such positions are made easier to hold when you lead a very comfortable life in the centre of an ivory tower.

I'll miss him. As Abeizer says, his social history -- the stuff about bandits and revolutionaries, his work with George Rude, etc. was central to my intellectual development. I'm sure if I re-read it today, I'd be astonished at how he reached the conclusions he did from the data -- but neverthless, old Eric showed me that the lives of the sub-lumpen-proletariat *did* have historical significance, and that they could be important political actors. And that the lives and the struggles of people in the 17th and 18th Centuries weren't *that* different to our lives and struggles today.

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posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:28 AM on October 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


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posted by monotreme at 10:41 AM on October 1, 2012


Am I misreading you or are you saying that the millions- yes, millions- of Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin were "revolutionary patriots"? If so, can you say the same thing about Rwandans dying on a pile of corpses, bleeding to death from the stumps that used be their arms and legs?

Plenty of people weren't given much choice in halting the spread of Nazism, do you think they all died in vain? Its much easier to percieve the potential benefit of collective sacrifice if there is an actual collective gain. The problem is that in the case of communist Russia the benefit didn't happen, but from the other side of history, before the result is in, then it might look like future sacrifice is worthwhile. That doesn't stop it being shit for you if you are rounded up for collective sacrifice.

In the specific example, and if the revolution has produced a utopian society of justice, equitability and wealth for all, then the sacrifice might look something that can be better justified, as with the defeat of Nazism. To take the other perspective, if the Allies has been kicked out of Europe and the Russians and Nazis called a truce, would we now be bemoaning the pointless sacrifice of the armies pointlessly thrown against Hitler?
posted by biffa at 10:48 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hobsbawm basically invented the idea of a "Long 19th Century" which is fairly common understanding today as a singular period from 1789 and 1914. He also laid out the "twin revolution thesis", that says the French Revolution (political) and Industrial Revolution (economic) were inseparably important for the development of modern world history. This seems obvious but incredibly I have run into people who discredit the French Revolution as not being very important in the big picture (saying the American Revolution did it first and better, but of course America was nothing compared to France at the time or in the development of history). Hobsbawm also made a claim for a "short 20th century" but since we are still in the 20th century (probably) it seems premature to make that call. Then again, maybe the 21st century started with the fall of the USSR in the early 90s.
posted by stbalbach at 11:42 AM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


A long and influential life. I can't imagine historiography without Hobsbawm.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:46 AM on October 1, 2012


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posted by quazichimp at 12:19 PM on October 1, 2012


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posted by parmanparman at 1:33 PM on October 1, 2012


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posted by runincircles at 1:45 PM on October 1, 2012


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posted by robcorr at 3:50 PM on October 1, 2012


Very likely the greatest historian of the 20th century. Meaning not only the greatest to be born and live through the century, but the best student of its lessons.

The best I can say about his politics is that he never (to my knowledge, and I've read pretty much everything he wrote) let it distort his extraordinary historical perception. He wrote about Communism as dispassionately and searchingly as he did about everything else.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:43 PM on October 1, 2012


Incidentally, anyone interesting in Hobsbawm on Marxism might find this book interesting. Its a collection of his essays on the history of Marxism, from start to finish (although Hobsbawm wouldn't describe it that way, of course). It made me kind of hope that he was planning to write an actual straight-up history of Marxism, but it appears that will never happen now.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:48 PM on October 1, 2012


Interested, rather.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:58 PM on October 1, 2012


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posted by hot soup girl at 8:50 PM on October 1, 2012


Wouldn't be a proper obit thread without the commemorative red-baiting!

It's not "baiting" if you're a self-declared "red." Still, as a historian of Europe, I have to admit that he had an enormous impact on the field.

PS: I am surprised no one has done an obit for Eugene Genovese, the American historian known for his massive book on slavery, Roll Jordan Roll, who died on September 26). Starting his career as a Marxist who openly welcomed a Viet Cong victory in the Vietnam war, he ended his life as a traditional conservative, in the mold of the Southern Agrarians.
posted by dhens at 10:04 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hobsbawm explained: "Because in a period in which, as you might say, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing. Now the point is, looking back as an historian, I would say that the sacrifices made by the Russian people were probably only marginally worthwhile. The sacrifices were enormous, they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I'm looking back at it now and I'm saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I'm not sure."

Ignatieff then said: "What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?"

Hobsbawm immediately said: "Yes."


What's remarkable here is not only how plain spoken it is, warts and all, but how applicable it is to the development of the the US, or even the Americas. You'd have no trouble finding folks hailing the American experiment to be largely a success, for a variety of reasons. And I'd agree. But the tremendous cost in human lives and suffering, either unintentionally via things such as introduced disease, or intentionally via extermination and enslavement, is undeniable. The result we enjoy today, perhaps the most prosperous and open society ever for the most people ever, was never really intentional, yet it's a result we can still be proud of. Maybe even moreso because what we have was never intentional, but at best, just a glimmer of idealism that appeared and yielded reality many times over the course of centuries. Forged in that fire of misery, suffering and oppression, came the modern enlightened world that's still playing it by ear, doomed to repeat mistakes, even more, were it not for the few key values that have survived and guide us to who knows where.

Had the Soviet experiment managed to thrive, perhaps in a few centuries all the misery that came from the movement would be little more than an often overlooked footnote of history. But this is something we'll never know, and all we have to reflect on is the trail of death and destruction still easily visible in that rear view mirror.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:55 PM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


2N2222 - except the extermination and enslavement that took place in the Americas were mostly orthogonal to the creation of a prosperous and open society, whereas modern collectivization - whether it takes place in the Soviet Union or China - necessarily demands a monstrous human price. And not just in the birthing process either. Maintaining social cohesion within an unnatural political order requires the constant pruning of dissidents and their sympathizers, who must be reeducated or otherwise made to disappear.
posted by BobbyVan at 8:21 AM on October 2, 2012


Jacobin: Marc Mulholland on the death of the 20th century’s greatest historian.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:23 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


except the extermination and enslavement that took place in the Americas were mostly orthogonal to the creation of a prosperous and open society, whereas modern collectivization - whether it takes place in the Soviet Union or China - necessarily demands a monstrous human price. And not just in the birthing process either. Maintaining social cohesion within an unnatural political order requires the constant pruning of dissidents and their sympathizers, who must be reeducated or otherwise made to disappear.

I'm not sure it makes much of a difference in the end. The American experiment doesn't get a pass because it had good intentions. Particularly since there are plenty of times where it didn't. This is something I find myself harping on over and over on MF: good intentions don't matter, when it results in violence, misery, enslavement, death all the same.

I don't vindicate Hobsbawm by any means. I find the way he carried water for some of the biggest monsters of the modern era to be extremely repugnant. However, the part you quoted makes him something of a realist. And in an odd way hits uncomfortably close to home. It puts us in an thorny position of pondering the debt owed to the untold masses who suffered and were sacrificed against their will only to have those injustices become the grease that made the West the economic, cultural, and moral powerhouse of the globe. Stalin was up front about having to break eggs, an indication of his terrifying inhumanity. We are in the position of having to face not one big Stalin in our lineage, but thousands or millions of tiny Stalins mostly lost to history, contributing over the course of centuries, who ended up somehow making a world greater than the sum of its parts. We can deny complicity, being largely separated by time and anonymity. But how many are willing to deny the prosperity, knowing that it was seeded, even if long ago, with the blood of innocents?
posted by 2N2222 at 10:00 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some extracts from his work.
'It is the business of historians to remember what others forget' .
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posted by adamvasco at 2:22 PM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


In what way were extermination and enslavement 'orthogonal' to the American experiment? The country stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific thanks to one of history's most thorough genocides, and slave labor was essential to the early nation's prosperity
posted by moorooka at 2:40 PM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dissent Magazine: Eric Hobsbawm and the Limits of Marxism
While Hobsbawm will be remembered as a historian of singular gifts, his writings already seem less a harbinger of the shape of things to come than sterling examples of an older kind of scholarship at its best. The distorting effects of his Communist partisanship have already received much commentary, but less remarked upon is the larger intellectual framework that guided his thinking—a framework that made the kind of sweeping histories Hobsbawm called for possible while exacting considerable analytic costs.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:20 PM on October 2, 2012


Prospect Magazine: Eric Hobsbawm: A British internationalist
In a pure, technical sense, Hobsbawm may have been the more skilled historian. He knew more languages, and he had a surer grasp of technology and economics. But Thompson was the more evocative writer and, in political (and dare I say moral) terms, the more courageous man. When the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956, Thompson left the Communist party, but Hobsbawm stayed, a loyal party man till the end.

The costs of this political obstinacy were not insignificant. His orthodox Marxism did not allow him to engage with exciting new historical trends such as cultural history and environmental history. When, in the late 1980s, Past and Present began publishing essays on the history of forests and wildlife, he grumbled to a mutual friend, the Catalan polymath Joan Martinez Alier, that the radicalism of the journal was being diverted and diluted by mere fashion.
Four interesting links to interviews, etc. with Hobsbawm at the bottom of that one.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:17 AM on October 6, 2012


the extermination and enslavement that took place in the Americas were mostly orthogonal to the creation of a prosperous and open society

Oh what utter tosh.
posted by howfar at 11:14 AM on October 10, 2012


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