The next issue of The Nation, available Thursday, contains a remarkable essay by historian and Gandhi biographer Ramachandra Guha about the late Eric Hobsbawm, whose posthumous essay collection Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century was published earlier this year. Shortly after Hobsbawm’s death last October, at the age of 95, Nation editorial board member Eric Foner celebrated Hobsbawm in our pages as a man whose “life and writings will long serve as an inspiration to those who believe that a knowledge of history is essential to understanding the current world, and to the struggle to create a better one.”
Hobsbawm himself first wrote for The Nation in 1965, with an essay that the magazine’s editors wrote “should be required reading in the White House and in the Pentagon.” In “Goliath and the Guerilla: The Pentagon’s Dilemma” (July 19, 1965), a sweeping study of the history and strategic nuances of guerilla warfare and Western military attempts to suppress it, Hobsbawm argued, even at that relatively early date, that the United States could not possibly win a war in Vietnam. He urged recognition of this reality and presciently warned of the consequences of ignoring it:
In orthodox warfare the purpose of indiscriminate mass destruction is to break the morale of population and government, and to destroy the industrial and administrative base on which any orthodox war effort must rest. Neither task is as easy in guerilla war, because there are hardly any cities, factories, communications or other installations to destroy, and nothing like the vulnerable central administration machine of an advanced state. On the other hand, more modest success may pay off. If terror convinces even a single area to withhold support from the guerillas, and thus to drive them elsewhere, this is a net gain for the anti-guerillas. So the temptation to go on bombing and burning at random is irresistible, especially for countries like the United States which could stripe the entire surface of South Vietnam of life, without dipping too deeply into its supply of armaments or money….
Having three times as many nuclear bombs as the rest of the world is very impressive, but it will not stop people from making revolutions of which Mr. McGeorge Bundy disapproves…If the United States can come to terms with the realities of Southeast Asia, it will find itself very much where it was before—the most formidable power in the world, whose position and influence nobody wants to challenge, if only because nobody can, but which, like all other powers, past and present, must live in a world it does not altogether like.
His next contribution to The Nation was on a very different topic: the philosophy of Antonio Gramsci, on whose contributions to leftist politics and thought no Nation writer had yet written, even thirty years after his death. Much of what Hobsbawm celebrated in Gramsci could with few changes be said of Hobsbawm himself, not least the claim that Gramsci’s “analysis led him into a variety of remarkable insights into the way in which political societies operate, the function of culture and intellectuals within them, and the development of his own nation.”
Just one month before the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, Hobsbawm published an essay in The Nation titled “The Perils of the New Nationalism” (November 4, 1991). Hobsbawm expressed sympathy with the many nationalist movements erupting in the wake of the Cold War, noting that they helped people cope with the “insecurity and disorientation” caused by the disruptions of the twentieth century. But Hobsbawm argued that such movements should not be confused with movements for real independence from the major political powers and economic forces which continued to dominate the world.