Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Remembering Eric Hobsbawn

Two fine obituaries for Eric Hobsbawn here from Dissent and The Nation. Couple of quotes that captured my eye.

First from the article in The Nation:
Eric Hobsbawm, who died on October 1 at the age of 95, was perhaps the twentieth century’s preeminent historian and a life-long advocate of social justice. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1917 to a British father and Austrian mother, he was educated in Vienna and Berlin. His family sent him to London in 1933 when Hitler came to power and he lived for the rest of his life in England, where he taught for many years at London’s Birkbeck College.

As a teenager, Hobsbawm not only witnessed the rise of Nazism but was present in 1936 at the massive popular demonstration in Paris that celebrated the electoral victory of the Popular Front. The events of that turbulent time led him to join the Communist party and he remained a member until its disappearance in the 1990s, mostly, he wrote, out of respect for the memory of comrades who had suffered persecution or death for their political beliefs.

Hobsbawm’s historical writings brought to bear a sophisticated Marxist analysis that saw class conflict as a driving force of historical change but rejected narrow economic determinism and teleological frameworks. Like Marx himself, Hobsbawm saw capitalism as a total social system, which had to be analyzed in its entirety, and rejected notions of historical inevitability. He insisted that people must strive to envision a more humane social order, but that history had no predetermined trajectory. His 1978 essay “The Forward March of Labor Halted?” offered a prescient and disturbing warning that the postwar expansion of social democracy and the power of organized labor, considered irreversible by many leftists, had reached a crisis point. His writings on the history of British labor helped to launch the “new social history” that dominated historical scholarship in Britain and the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet in an influential 1971 essay, “From Social History to the History of Society,” he warned that studies of the agency of ordinary people, so important in expanding the cast of historical characters, must be placed in the broader context of how social and political power is exercised.
But Hobsbawm is best known for his magisterial four-volume series The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Capital (1975), The Age of Empire (1987) and The Age of Extremes (1994), which together chronicles world history from the beginning of the French Revolution to the end of the Soviet Union. Long before the current vogue for “internationalizing” the study of history, Hobsbawm insisted that capitalism is a global system, which must be studied in a global context. The books drew on events in every region of the world, and on sources and scholarship in multiple languages. Hobsbawm was comfortable discussing subjects as far afield from Great Britain as the Latin American wars of independence, the Meiji Restoration in Japan and the rise to global power of the United States, yet he was able to merge local details into a coherent account of global political, economic and social change. The account also delves into art, culture, science, technology and other realms of human creativity and experience. These books remain the starting point for anyone who seeks a comprehensive history of the modern world.
From Dissent 
Even in this crowd, Hobsbawm was notable for his commitment to a vision of history as the working out of grand processes and tectonic forces over centuries, or millennia. The rise of capitalism provided the master narrative, a unifying system that gave structure and logic to history. The British Marxists inspired some of the best of a generation of historians that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, a cohort that dedicated countless dissertations to filling out small pieces of the story Hobsbawm and his allies had sketched with the hope that a synthesis would emerge.

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