Sunday, June 18, 2017
Eric Hobsbawm’s Long Century. By JOSEPH FRONCZAK
One long century ago, on June 9, 1917, not quite halfway between the February Revolution and the October Revolution, Eric Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria, Egypt. The lifelong communist died only five years ago, in 2012 at the age of ninety-five. He spent his final years placidly convinced that socialism belonged still to the future, to the twenty-first century. A founding member of the legendary British Communist Party Historians’ Group that fashioned “history from below,” Hobsbawm was a titanic figure among the twentieth-century intelligentsia. Prodigiously active as an intellectual, scholar, and, as he put it, “participant observer” in political life, he was, ironically, defined by the time of his death by what he did not do: he was the one who did not leave the Communist Party.
In the wake of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, the other prominent British communist historians, like Christopher Hill and E. P. Thompson, all resigned. Likewise their French counterparts like François Furet, who called quitting the French Communist Party the most intelligent thing he ever did. But Hobsbawm, the most intelligent of the lot, never left the party.
The Great Transformation
Instead, Hobsbawm stayed in the party but retreated from active everyday politics. He poured himself into his academic labors and spent the rest of the Cold War writing an unparalleled body of historical work, all the while his career in academia — most of all, his chances for a prestigious post in the United States — remained hampered by his obstinate communism.
Even without his masterpiece four-volume history of the modern world, Hobsbawm would rank among the most accomplished historians ever to write. In 1952, he co-founded the still glorious academic journal Past & Present; he wrote a classic history of the British industrial revolution (Industry and Empire) and co-wrote a classic history of workers’ direct-action resistance against it (Captain Swing); Primitive Rebels of 1959 and Bandits of 1969 offered readers a rogues’ gallery of heroic Robin Hoods, Rob Roys, and Pancho Villas; the subversive premise — that as a general rule things that appear timeless custom are really modern “invented traditions” meant to prop up the powerful — behind the 1983 book he co-edited with African historian Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, has permeated contemporary culture and made it a bit more healthily cynical about the pomp and pageantry of authority.
Beginning in 1956, Hobsbawm also moonlighted as an acerbic jazz critic for the New Statesman and Nation, writing under a pen name (Francis Newton) taken from the communist trumpeter who had played on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” But it was his tetralogy of “Age” books that endowed Hobsbawm with his oracular glow. Influenced by the French Annales historians’ epic ambitions of total, all-encompassing history, these four books were world history from below, the middle, and above. With rare imagination, intelligence, and erudition, Hobsbawm not only synthesized the history of the modern world, he intensely conveyed a concentrated world-in-words capable of changing how the reader would thereafter see the larger world, having read Hobsbawm.
The project began as a trilogy of what Hobsbawm influentially labeled “the long nineteenth century.” Then, shortly after the Cold War ended, Hobsbawm added a massive history of “the short twentieth century,” extending his analysis through the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Taken as a whole, the four books charted out the dialectical acts of creation and destruction that made up the modern world. More than that, they spun a mythology of modernity, filled with godlike abstract forces — liberalism, socialism, democracy, nationalism, imperialism, capitalism — wrestling over the fate of humanity.read more: