The Man Who Knew Almost Everything

The Man Who Knew Almost Everything

Inside the great social historian Eric Hobsbawm there was an aesthete waiting to come out.


I first read Eric Hobsbawm as a doctoral student in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in the 1980s. I started with his books on popular protest, Primitive Rebels (1959) and Bandits (1969), before moving on to his trilogy on the ages, respectively, of revolution, capital and empire. In October 2012, when Hobsbawm died at 95, I happened to be in London. Curious to see how a historian of such enormous influence was remembered, I picked up every paper at the newsstand next to my hotel. The Guardian had a large photograph of Hobsbawm on the front page, a fulsome full-page obituary (by two writers associated with the Communist Party), and an editorial saying that his death was a “shared national loss.” Another news report in the same paper carried the heartfelt homage of Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (whose father, the Marxist political theorist Ralph Miliband, had been a friend). Hobsbawm was “an extraordinary historian…who brought history out of the ivory tower and into people’s lives,” Miliband the younger proclaimed.

The Guardian is, of course, the standard-bearer of left-liberalism in Britain (and beyond). Meanwhile, the centrist Times and Independent both ran long and respectful obits. However, the conservative Daily Telegraph carried a skeptical signed piece by the distinguished anti-communist historian Michael Burleigh. Captioned “A believer in the Red utopia to the very end,” it overlooked Hobsbawm’s contributions to history from below; dismissed the synthetic global histories, such as The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire, with faint praise (“dazzles readers with the author’s apparent fluency as he zigzags from First to Third World contexts—unless you happen to be an expert on Cuba, Mexico or Venezuela”); and ended by saying that “Hobsbawm’s implacable refusal to recant his [Marxist] views when faced with their grotesque consequences tells us something about the belligerent mindset of the wider British Left.” 

Clearly, even as The Guardian composed its editorial, the national consensus was under stress—and would break down completely when the Daily Mail’s assessment appeared with the headline “He hated Britain and excused Stalin’s genocide. But was hero of the BBC and the Guardian, Eric Hobsbawm a TRAITOR too?” The paper went on to assert that “Hobsbawm himself will sink without trace. His books will not be read in the future. They are little better than propaganda, and, in spite of the slavish language in the obituaries, are badly written.”

A year after his death, many of Hobsbawm’s books are still in the stores, still read by history buffs, still assigned in university courses. And new ones have begun appearing, composed of lectures and essays in scattered publications that have never before appeared in hardcover. Just before he died, a collection of his writings on Marx and Marxism, titled How to Change the World, was published. The posthumous collection Fractured Times followed, dealing chiefly with culture and the arts. It is likely that more thematic anthologies will appear in the months and years ahead. Evidently, the hard-nosed capitalists at the helm of today’s global publishing conglomerates think that the works (and words) of this Marxist can still make them some money.

One can see why. Hobsbawm was a lifelong member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, but because his historical works dealt chiefly with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, his political commitment did not really disfigure his scholarship. (It was only late in his career, when he came to write on the events of his own lifetime, that one could see his biases more clearly.) As a historian qua historian, he was without equal among his contemporaries.

In both disciplinary and geographical terms, Hobsbawm was an anti-chauvinist. He had paid his dues in the archives, but he’d also read widely in sociology, anthropology and philosophy. He had a keen interest in the arts and a keener interest in music, being especially knowledgeable about jazz. (He wrote a jazz column for the New Statesman under the pseudonym “Francis Newton.”) And while most other British historians concerned themselves exclusively with their home (or Home) country, Hobsbawm—born in Alexandria, raised in Vienna, a high school student in Berlin before fleeing Hitler for Britain—was fluent in French, German, Italian and Spanish (and could read in Portuguese, Dutch and Catalan). He was familiar with the intricate details of nearly every European nation: their ethnic composition, their political parties’ programs, their wars won and lost, their most renowned (or most notorious) artists and writers. Furthermore, he had taught for long periods in the United States and traveled a great deal in Latin America.

Hobsbawm’s best-known books focused on the material side of human life, or on what Marxists term “the forces and relations of production”—namely, technological trends, wealth creation, class formation and class struggle. But on the evidence of Fractured Times, inside this materialist there was an aesthete waiting to come out. The collection is a fascinating and intensely observed history of the cultural twentieth century, and a worthy complement to Hobsbawm’s economic, political and social histories.

* * *

The book begins with Hobsbawm recalling the imperial center of the Vienna of his boyhood—dominated by a ring of great public buildings housing the stock exchange, the theater, the university, the art and natural history museums, “and, of course, the heart of every self-respecting nineteenth-century bourgeois city, the Grand Opera.” However, despite the occasional note of nostalgia, this is an excavation of, rather than a paean to, the era of European cultural hegemony that was eclipsed by the rise of a more generalized mass culture with an American inflection.

As a good internationalist (and perhaps as a good European too), Hobsbawm is sanguine about the prospects of resistance to wholesale Americanization. The essay “A Century of Cultural Symbiosis?” mentions a community of Indian weavers in Ecuador whose young people wear jeans and Reeboks while retaining their traditional hats and long plaits (as well as their language). Hobsbawm thinks—or hopes—that Ecuador is emblematic: that in remote places being rapidly exposed to the modern globalized world, what we are witnessing is not a conquest of one culture or way of life by another, but the emergence of “a heterogeneous world of cultural confusion, coexistence or even perhaps a world of syncretisms.” The West itself is now becoming more open, more willing to allow external cultural influences to proudly exhibit themselves. In the 1930s, when Jews dominated Hollywood as directors and producers, the films themselves had no sign of Jewish influence. More recently, however, the growth of an Italian community in the United States has produced “the genre of the glamorising Mafia film.” Likewise, from a culinary point of view, India has now conquered England, as immigrants from South Asia have found acceptance through their food (or at least a simplified, customized version of it), so that the most xenophobic Englishman has no problem consuming samosas and chicken tikka, while the more broad-minded Englishman comes to see them as part of his own “national” cuisine.

Hobsbawm outlined this argument in a lecture in Salzburg in 2000, where he also directed the attention of his former fellow countrymen to the French, whose victory in the recent soccer World Cup had led to a surge in admiration for players of African origin. He told his audience that “the course of historical development leads in the direction” of the French-Algerian soccer star Zinedine Zidane, not that of the anti-immigrant Austrian politician Jörg Haider. This rosy view fell apart in 2005 with the race riots in Paris and the subsequent resurgence of the chauvinist National Front.

To be sure, Hobsbawm was not the first—nor will he be the last—historian to definitively delineate trends that would soon go awry. But his language is noteworthy: Is there, as he suggests, a clear, readily identifiable course of historical development? Or is such language (and such hopes) the residue of a progressivist Marxism that saw itself as a science—an activist science—confidently charting humanity’s future and willing the rest of us along to fulfill it? Hobsbawm’s historical apparatus was sensitive and supple—he knew his Weber as well as he knew his Marx—and although he never wrote a full-fledged biography, he could write of individuals with an empathetic understanding unusual for a Marxist. Yet human history for him had a certain logic, a clear direction; that chance and contingency have played a massive role in determining the future of nations and cultures was not something he would easily acknowledge.

One of Hobsbawm’s more appealing prejudices is with regard to contemporary art. He insists that the fine arts, and especially painting, have been killed off—or, at the very least, perverted—by the rise of the camera, the motion picture and the mass market. Because their traditional preserve, pictorial representation, has been lost to them by the advent of photography, artists “have ideas, sometimes bad ones,” leading to installations and videos that “are less interesting than the work of stage designers and advertising specialists.” Avant-garde art, he states pungently, is merely “a subdepartment of marketing.”

Hobsbawm knows almost everything about Europe, as well as about the Americas. His grasp of the East is less sure. This leads him to some rare errors of generalization, as when he claims that poetry was never intended “as a work for public performance.” It certainly was in South Asia, where Urdu poets declaimed to audiences of many thousands; likewise, Parsi and Arabic poetry were meant, above all, to be read aloud. There are also errors of projection, as when, while lamenting the “narrowness of the core public for live [Western] classical music,” he hopes that wealthy Indians and Chinese will fund its revival. I can’t speak for the Chinese, but the Indians have their own traditions of classical music—the Hindustani and the Carnatic—which this great Europeanist did not know of (or perhaps didn’t consider to be proper art forms). Incidentally, while audiences for performances of Mozart and Beethoven may be shrinking in New York, in the city of Chennai (formerly Madras), there is an astonishing efflorescence under way with the annual winter “season”—a monthlong show, spread across many venues, with as many as a dozen performances daily—attended by tens of thousands of people, both local residents and nonresident Madrasis, flocking home from all parts of India and the world.

* * *

If one central theme of the book—the fate of the cultural artifacts of high European civilization—is connected to Hobsbawm’s upbringing in early twentieth-century Vienna, a second theme is linked to his ethnic origins. In his book-length works, Hobsbawm did not write about Jewish history per se. Included in Fractured Times, however, are two brilliant essays on Jewish history, which consider the astonishing contributions of Jews to science, literature, music, and politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In many of these fields (such as the sciences), Jews had not previously made major contributions to global scholarship. Why now? The answer, argues the historian, lies not in “genetic association, but [in] lack of fixity, and therefore innovation.” As a result of assimilation and their exposure to a world far wider (in all senses) than the ghetto, he explains, gifted young Jews were, for the first time in their history, able to participate in the cultural and intellectual life of the nations in which they were previously isolated and segregated. Now, liberated at last, they composed superb symphonies, starred as piano and violin soloists, wrote evocative plays and novels, invented new technologies and scientific theories, and led and staffed major political parties and movements.

Hobsbawm goes on to note that while Jews continue to enrich world literature, art, music and science enormously, these contributions come disproportionately from Jews living in North America and Europe. Despite its large population of Jews, Israel has made a “relatively rather disappointing contribution.” And so this non-Jewish Jew concludes that “it would seem that living among and addressing the gentiles is a stimulus for the higher creative efforts, as it is for jokes, films and pop music. In this respect it is still much better to come from Brooklyn than Tel Aviv.” 

A third theme of Fractured Times is connected to the author’s profession—that of the career academic—who influences a classroom, colleagues and perhaps the world by his or her research and writing. One essay laments the declining influence of intellectuals in the general culture. Movements for global justice, for example, now turn to Bono for endorsement and validation, whereas they might once have turned to the likes of Bertrand Russell.

Hobsbawm sketches portraits of two remarkable British scientists with whom he had several things in common: allegiance to the same academic institutions, a serious interest in disciplines other than their own, and an internationalist vision (both intellectual and personal, as in a love of travel overseas). Not least, they also shared an enchantment with Marxism leading to a close affiliation with, and sometimes a blind loyalty to, the Communist Party of Great Britain (which was itself in a position of subservience to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union).

One of these scientists is J.D. Bernal, a senior colleague of Hobsbawm’s at Birkbeck College. Bernal did pioneering research in crystallography and mentored several Nobel laureates. The second is Joseph Needham—like Hobsbawm, a Cambridge man. Needham did excellent work in biochemistry but is better known for his monumental histories of science in China. These two men were part of a wider circle of scientists who “tended to combine the imaginations of art and science with endless energy, free love, eccentricity and revolutionary politics.” 

One wishes that Hobsbawm had written an essay on the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane as well. Haldane was a more influential scientist than either Bernal or Needham, and an equally political animal. He too was close to the Communists until, disgusted by Stalin’s promotion of the charlatan biologist T.D. Lysenko, who rejected Mendelian genetics, he broke decisively with the party. Shortly afterward he moved to Kolkata, took up Indian citizenship, and became a keen student of the life and legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. In his last years, Haldane tried heroically to synthesize his inherited Darwinism with his acquired Gandhism. “India has made many contributions to world culture,” he remarked: “Perhaps the greatest is the ideal of non-violence. Europe’s greatest contribution is the scientific method. If these can be married, their offspring may raise mankind to a new level.”

It may be that Haldane does not appeal to Hobsbawm because he’d repudiated Marxism. Bernal and Needham, on the other hand, had some reservations and were occasionally ambivalent, but on the whole went along with the party line. Hobsbawm enters a special plea on behalf of his Birkbeck colleague, saying that there has never been “any evidence or any serious suggestion of relations with the Soviet intelligence services.” Of Bernal’s senseless endorsement of the bogus biological theories of Lysenko, his loyal friend claims that in doing so, “possibly he was moved by concerns about world peace and the hope of influencing developments within the Soviet Union.” Even so, Hobsbawm is constrained to admit that Bernal’s “total public identification with Stalinism did him serious harm.” Hobsbawm’s own identification did him less harm because it was largely private, and because as a historian he largely worked on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, writing of themes and controversies in which Lenin and Stalin and their party played no part. When he came closer to our own time, his interpretations were more problematic, as in his analysis of collectivization in his late work The Age of Extremes, which more or less runs along the lines of “One cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

* * *

A close reading of Fractured Times reveals Hobsbawm simultaneously affirming and partially distancing himself from his lifelong political beliefs. On the first page of the book’s first chapter, he tells us that his “intellectual life” began at the age of 15, when as a schoolboy in Berlin he read Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, which, on that and subsequent readings, impressed him for its “wonderful, irresistible style” and its “soaring analytical vision of world change.” On the next page, he deplores the replacement of “manifestoes”—once so ubiquitously offered by social movements, political parties and groups of artists alike—by the “mission statement,” that “appalling invention” of the late twentieth century, a product of business society and its hordes of MBAs, and composed always and invariably of “badly written platitudes.”

From these statements, one may conclude that Hobsbawm’s communism was unreconstructed and unrepentant (he maintained his membership in the CPGB until the party dissolved itself in 1991). A later essay, however, refers in passing to the “twilight years of the Soviet empire” and to “the grim times of Josef Stalin.” In another essay, we read of how Soviet communism “claimed to be democratic in theory and nomenclature, but was in practice an unlimited dictatorship.”

This spare, direct, accurate description was published in 1995. But surely, to a person as smart and worldly as Hobsbawm, this should have been clear in 1956 (after the Soviet invasion of Hungary), if not in 1937 (when the facts about the gulag and the purges were becoming widely known). Why did it take him so long to see this? Why did he stick so stubbornly to the party, even when his closest colleagues and friends in the historical profession (such as E.P. Thompson and John Saville) had left it? It was only well after the breakup of the Soviet Union that Hobsbawm ever wrote anything remotely critical of Stalin and Stalinism.

Still, one can—one must—be unforgiving of Hobsbawm’s blinkered politics while yet saluting his magnificent scholarship. Even this late work, composed chiefly of lectures and occasional essays, brims over with stimulating insights and analyses. Consider these three statements from among the many small and large pieces of knowledge that I gleaned from Fractured Times:

§ The best-known cultural festivals of today are held not in New York or London, Berlin or Paris—the great centers of Western economic and political power—but in smaller towns and villages, such as Hay-on-Wye in Britain, Mantua in Italy and Segovia in Spain. 

§ Among the most active suffragettes in the early twentieth century were upper-class Englishwomen. As many as three duchesses, three marchionesses and sixteen countesses served as office-bearers of the Conservative and Unionist Suffrage Association. 

§ In the year 1965, the French fashion industry, for the first time, produced more trousers than skirts. 

This attention to historical detail is matched with a penetrating comparative sociology. In an essay (appropriately the last in the book) on the myth of the American cowboy as represented in novels and films, Hobsbawm remarks that the lone man riding on a horse into the sunset represents “the ideal of individualist freedom” (sometimes shading into “anti-immigrant racism”). This is unexceptionable and perhaps also commonplace. Then, in a contrast that may not so easily (if at all) appeal to the US historian, Hobsbawm notes that the nation to the north also has its horseman-hero, who is seen, however, not as a self-willed individualist, but as a loyal member of a public institution. Such is the officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Mountie—who, on his horse, symbolizes “the myth of the imposition of government and public order”—rather than, as with the cowboy, the “myth of a Hobbesian state of nature mitigated only by individual and collective self-help.”

Hobsbawm’s comparativism also informs an essay on the increasing role of religion in politics worldwide, which he links to the declining influence of elites in the public sphere. The educated men (and they were all men) who ran governments, labor unions, and political parties in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were largely secularized individuals. However, with the coming of universal suffrage, groups prone to religiosity and faith—such as women, peasants and the unorganized poor—came to play an ever-increasing role in mass politics.

Hobsbawm considers, and then contrasts, two major right-wing movements: Wahhabist Islam and evangelical Christianity. As a cosmopolitan socialist, he has little enthusiasm for either, but as a historical sociologist, he is yet compelled to point to one critical difference between them: radical Islam is both reactionary and authoritarian. It erases local cults and mystical traditions, imposing a single standardized version of the faith on all believers. On the other hand, evangelical groups like the Pentecostals—sweeping all before them in Latin America—foreground ecstatic rituals such as speaking in tongues and divine healing. They are conservative and communitarian, rooting themselves in specific local contexts and hence appealing greatly to erstwhile Catholics taught to take their orders from a distant pope.

At first reading, this comparison (and contrast) seems convincing, but then some questions begin to surface: While the account appears true of Latin American evangelicalism, is the North American variant so free of totalizing and imperialist tendencies? Did it not influence George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? And speaking of Latin America itself, what impact might the selection of an Argentine pope have on bringing lapsed Catholics back into the fold?

That these questions come to mind is proof perhaps of the originality of Hobsbawm’s mind and scholarship. Workmanlike historians merely educate their readers; the really skilled ones stimulate and provoke them as well. His at times shame-faced loyalty to Soviet Russia notwithstanding, Eric Hobsbawm’s work may have been more consequential—for both scholar and lay reader—than that of any historian since Marc Bloch, who was, incidentally, also a Jew who lived among and addressed gentiles.

Ad Policy