Hobsbawm

Ed George edgeorge at usuarios.retecal.es
Thu Sep 19 09:15:15 MDT 2002


I haven't liked Hobsbawm for quite a long time, my reasons being
principally political. I think in good part what summarises his failings
as a Marxist (and thus as a historian is summed up in his own words in
Louis' post when he says: 'Politically, having joined a Communist Party
in 1936, I belong to the era of anti-fascist unity and the Popular
Front.' This explains why he is unable to explain adequately the
emergence of the modern bourgeois world, both in terms of the rise of
the bourgeoisie itself as a class and the development of imperialism,
failings which greatly mar the Age of Revolution/Capital/Empire project.
In addition, I have never understood his reputation as a historian of
nations and nationalism: the spectacularly over-rated Nations and
Nationalism since 1780 - although ostensibly written from an
anti-nationalist standpoint - merely mirrors the mystifications spun by
the worst nationalist historians. A reader innocently taking Hobsbawm's
word for it will find him or herself no wiser, and probably less wiser,
at the end of the book than at the beginning.

But these are political criticisms (to which I would like at some point
to return). What I really objected to in the piece - and this is
personal now - was this:

'The late Isaac Deutscher, the biographer of Trotsky, but in his heart a
frustrated political leader, said to me, when I first met him at the
peak of the communist crisis of 1956-57: 'Whatever you do, don't leave
the Communist Party. I let myself be expelled in 1932 and have regretted
it ever since.' Unlike me, he never reconciled himself to the truth that
his political significance rested entirely on his being a writer. After
all, it was the business of communists to change the world, not merely
to interpret.'

Poor Isaac Deutscher! This kind of garbage coming from a man who has
happily carved himself out a nice little niche in Anglo-European academe
as the respectable face of communism (and who has done very nicely out
of it thank you very much indeed); who was insufficiently troubled by
his conscience to leave the party he quite clearly despised after 1956
(unlike - credit where it's due - people like Christopher Hill, who left
the party in 1957 and who remained - whatever criticisms I have made of
him on this list - far truer to his stated political ideals than
Hobsbawm, and E P Thompson, who not only left the party but sought to
build anew); who speaks of the 'sacrifice' of remaining in the CP, since
it cut him off from the lucrative US academic scene (a sacrifice since
rectified, I note) ... to denigrate Deutscher, who, firm to his
principles as a revolutionary socialist was shunned as a political exile
and a revolutionary by British academia and wrote as a living, but who
never wept over his sacrifices: well, this just turned my stomach.

So as Hobsbawm and family 'reproduce the urban intelligentsia in a Welsh
wilderness' (a nice irony this from the doyen of studies of
nationalism!) I think that we can safely say that this particular
'almost unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution' was
in fact broken a long, long time ago.

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