Monday, July 11, 2005


Eric Hobsbawm relishes the images he sees when he looks at the world around him: U.S. economic decline and its soon-to-be-realized loss of predominance to Asia; the "reasonable certainty" of failure of the U.S. "project" in Iraq; and the comeuppance of those fiendish neo-cons. He even claims to be able to root all this inevitable failure and foulness in American history:

The third thread of continuity links the neo-conservatives of George Bush with the Puritan colonists' certainty of being God's instrument on earth and with the American Revolution.

Passing this sort of writing off as "history" is like calling the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at Jonestown "a soft drink." Oh, sure, after all there was Kool-Aid in it.

Anti-Americans will suck it up like polemical crystal meth, and the rest of us will dismiss it as the bitter drivvel of a Marxist lost causer. Fortunately for "the rest of us," Hobsbawm also recently published an autobiography, which has been thoroughly savaged, and which inadvertently sheds some eerie lights on this historian.

Even the most committed Marxist must surely know that he still, despite all his efforts, bears within himself the contradictions that mark the society he inhabits. And would not such an autobiographer have to explore and then convey how he has always had to struggle to extirpate from himself and his scholarship those bourgeois characteristics the dominant society shoveled into him via the family, the educational system, the job, etc. Given what Hobsbawm tells us about himself it is at least questionable whether he has ever subjected himself to such self-criticism; further, he seems to have been frozen in time, out of touch with and analytically unresponsive to the developments of and responses to capitalism after 1956.

What more ought its readers expect of the autobiography of a lifelong Marxist (p. xii)? Whatever else, surely it would be intended to affect the future of the world, if only by teaching us the ways of a left intellectual and warning us of the difficulties in trying to live such a life even while encouraging us to make the attempt. More ambitiously, it might constitute a political intervention in its own right, as did, for example, Trotsky’s autobiography. The closing sentences of Hobsbawm's book suggest that he, too, conceived of his autobiography as part of the struggle to make the world of tomorrow (p. 418). Unfortunately, he has just revealed that he only hopes his book will help him pass “the test of a historian's life” (p. 417).

Yes, responding this way is a sort of ad hominem, but then Hobsbawm's whole piece is an ad hominem on the United States of America. Besides, it's good stuff.

Ordinary people, working-class people fare even worse. Most of them are unnamed and undescribed. -- Did not Raymond Williams observe that “there are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses?” -- Those that do emerge from the mass are, for the most part, those whom Hobsbawm encountered during his wartime service. Of them Hobsbawm writes,

By and large in my days as a Sapper I lived among workers--overwhelmingly English workers -- and in doing so acquired a permanent, if often exasperated, admiration for their uprightess, their distrust of bullshit, their sense of class, comradeship and mutual help. They were good people. I know that communists are supposed to believe in the virtues of the proletariat, but I was relieved to find myself doing so in practice as well as in theory (p. 159).

“They were good people?” Who is Hobsbawm writing for? Who needs such reassurances? Why do I find myself remembering Robert Graves' anecdote in Goodbye To All That of a British military officer expressing his surprise that the skins of his working-class troops were so white? Hobsbawm does not depict himself as having learned anything from what he terms his “proletarian experience” (p. 158), though the lads did amaze him with their “instinctive sense or tradition of collective action” (p. 158) -- my god, there really was a working class! And then there was the named, described Bert Thirtle, with whom he had to share a room, who even “lacked the social reflexes which I found so striking in my otherwise politically disappointing mates, and which explains so much about British trade unionism” (p. 157). It is, it seems, not only the poor stockinger who needs to be rescued from condescension.

As for his understanding of America, it is, as his own confessions reveal, dismissive and sparse:

Admittedly, Hobsbawm writes from a European perspective. But he has been a regular visitor to the United States since 1960 (pp. 391, 402), and he has taught at a number of American universities. So surely he is aware of the efforts of a series of administrations to roll back the Sixties? And surely he has encountered the culture wars and the political correctness campaign designed to curb those of a progressive persuasion who did find refuge in the American academy? Again, oddly, although he acknowledges the once-Communist historians of slavery (p. 289), the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent reactions against it go unremarked, Hobsbawm’s great interest in jazz notwithstanding (e.g., pp. 389, 391, 394-402).

But let me leave it to Hobsbawm himself to illuminate the limits of his engagement with and understanding of the United States during one of the most conflicted eras in its history:

Looking back on forty years of visiting and living in the United States, I think I learned as much about the country in the first summer I spent there as in the course of the next decades. With one exception: to know New York, or even Manhattan, one has to live there (p. 403)

--perhaps New York chauvinists would agree with him; as a Briton who has resided in several different regions of the United States, I find Hobsbawm’s dismissiveness too familiar an expression of a certain sort of European superciliousness. Since the United States has constituted such a significant place in Hobsbawm’s life story, it is unfortunate that he has not chosen to engage with it in a more reflective, comprehensive fashion. Again he seems to have opted to remain frozen in his own particular past with its own limiting prejudices.

Just another gray day lived under the leaden sky of a failed ideology.

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