Hobsbawm

Philip Ferguson plf13 at student.canterbury.ac.nz
Thu Sep 19 15:24:32 MDT 2002


Hobsbawn wrote (as quoted by Jim F):

"Historians are professionally obliged
not to get it wrong, or at least to make an effort not to. To be Irish
and proudly attached to Ireland - even to be
proudly Catholic-Irish or Ulster Protestant Irish - is not
in itself incompatible with the serious study of Irish history.
To be a Fenian or an Orangeman, I would judge, is not so
compatible, any more than being a Zionist is compatible
with writing a genuinely serious history of the Jews;
unless the historian leaves his or her convictions behind
when entering the library or the study. Some nationalist
historians have been unable to do so. Fortunately, in
setting out to write the present book I have not needed
to leave my non-historical convictions behind."


Hobsbawm, it seems to me, is politically (and probably temperamentally)
a social democrat, although one who genuinely admires *aspects* of Marxism.

He also has an unwarranted respect for professional historians and the
conceits - and deceits! - that are tied up with the discipline.

Louis quite frequently posts fairly withering comments on left academics
and my experience makes me agree with him very much.  Unfortunately,
Hobsbawm is one of these left academics.

Also, above Hobsbawm rather typically links Fenianism and Orangeism, as
if they are two sides of the same coin.  To say that being a Fenian
makes someone  as capable of writing a genuinely serious history of
ireland as a Zionist would be of writing a genuinely serious history of
Israel is truly extraordinary - especially coming from a 'Marxist'.

Moreover, there are no shortage of works to disprove this.  John
Mitchel, the mid-18th century Irish Fenian wrote an excellent history of
Ireland.  Connolly, the communist-fenian, wrote a serious history of the
Irish working class in the context of the overall development of
Ireland.  A string of very fine histories of Ireland were written by
Fenians and Fenian sympathisers in the nineteenth century.

Moreover, the 'professional' 'detached' historians of the late 20th
century have predominantly been 'revisionists' who have rewritten Irish
history - all in the name of writing genuinely serious history - to
portray Irish rebels as sociopaths and smooth out all the creases of
colonial injustice.


Jim writes:
His skepticism towards nationalism in general seems
somewhat reminiscent of Rosa Luxemburg.



I see why you say this, but I think it is quite wrong.  Rosa L was wrong
on the national question, but her impulses were *totally revolutionary*
(albeit ultraleft).  Hobsbawm's hostility to Irish anti-imperialism is
an essentially reactionary one.  He opposes it because it fights in a
revolutionary way against the British state, the same state from which
he accepted his Companion of Honour award.  He is a supporter of the
British Labour party and the Liberal Democrats - he argued staunchly for
a grand coalition of these back-up parties of British imperialism as an
'alternative' to Thatcher.

His view on the national question, then, is thus not at all like Rosa's;
it is like Bernstein and all the rest of the social democrats who
supported the colonial policy of their respective bourgeoisies.





> While
on the one hand this has enabled him to avoid the
temptations of Zionism, this has also precluded
him from understanding situations where nationalism
has the potential for revolutionary consequences.
For example his noteworthy failures to appreciate
Irish nationalism and republicanism.  In this, as
in some other matters his outlook is quite different
from Lenin's and even from Marx & Engels'.


This is understating it.  His entire world outlook is different from
theirs, because he recoils from the *actual* struggle against
capitalism.  Instead he writes history.

The CP Historians Group did some very valuable work in recovering
working class history in Britain and bringing the working class centre
stage.  Although I think it is E.P. Thompson who did this best ('The
making of the English Working Class' remains an outstanding work').
However there was never anything revolutionary about their writing -
'history from below', whether it's working class, women's, black, gay,
etc etc etc, can all be made pretty innocuous and incorporated into
history as a discipline, into sociology, cultural studies etc.  In the
long run, it actually tends to strengthen rather than undermine
bourgeois academia.

Hobsbawm, I think, was a social democrat politically and a radical
bourgeois academic by vocation.  Much of his stuff is well worth reading
for a kind of broad view of certain historical periods, esp 19th century
Britain itself, but he was an opponent rather than a partisan of revolution.

Philip Ferguson

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