ashthomas//blog: September 2006


Monday, September 04, 2006

Hobsbawm discussed on NPR

The first week of tutorials in the subject that I am teaching this semester is spent discussing Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes. It was interesting, therefore, to see Michael Kazin, an historian at Georgetown University, discussing it with NPR.

Hobsbawm, a former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, attracted a lot of criticism over this book and the way that he treated the Soviet Union in it. It is a useful pedagogical exercise for first-year historians to look at the controversy as it teaches them to approach secondary sources with skepticism as well as consider the role of ideology and personal experience in history writing.

Kazin mentions some of the controversy in his interview:

Certainly, Hobsbawm is too sympathetic to what used to be called "the Soviet experiment" -- the decidedly unscientific order that had a mostly deleterious impact on the history of the 20th century, particularly the history of those nations ruled by a party which modeled itself on the Leninist model. The tone as well as the brevity of his description of the millions of people whom the Soviet government exterminated suggests his psychological distance from their suffering: "the number of direct and indirect victims must be measured in eight rather than seven digits."

Yet at the same time, he does a masterful job of explaining why the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. This was, after all, a time when no other political faction was able or even willing to take power and seek a solution to the chaos left by the collapse of the Czarist regime amid the slaughter on the Eastern Front. And Hobsbawm also evokes and explains what about Soviet Communism appealed so strongly to so many people for so long. Towards the end of the book, he provides a sober analysis of why the whole edifice of the USSR and its satellites crumbled so rapidly and thoroughly. These are vital questions for an historian to answer, and Hobsbawm's long but usually critical affiliation with the British Communist Party allows him to answer them quite brilliantly.

Hobsbawm's ideological bias does detract from this work for me, yet I have found that I have returned to this and the other volumes in the series often over the years. Kazin describes the importance of Hobsbawm in such a way that I realise now why I continue to read someone whom I often disagree with and whose omissions and interpretations annoyed me:

we need to understand the larger history of our planet and to do so with a certain coolness that views the barricades -- cultural, intellectual, as well as political -- from some distance apart and above. No historian writing in English does this with the lucidity and wit and eye for the telling detail and summarizing judgment that Hobsbawm has brought to the task since writing the first volume of this tetralogy almost five decades ago.

One example will suffice. In his chapter on the quarter-century after the end of World War II -- "the golden age" -- he writes not just about the diffusion of such technological marvels as TV, refrigerators, and automobiles to nearly every corner of the globe or the astounding rise in incomes that brought a cosmopolitan flavor to such poor nations as Jamaica and Algeria as well as to rich ones like Japan and Finland. He makes clear that behind this change of life lay a "sudden and seismic" shift in consciousness: "For 80 percent of humanity the Middle Ages ended suddenly in the 1950s; or, better still, they were felt to end in the 1960s."

Some scholars would object that "the Middle Ages" is not a meaningful concept to apply to the history of any country outside West and Central Europe. But that would miss the beauty of Hobsbawm's formulation. In fewer than 25 words, Hobsbawm manages to illuminate the revolutionary character of the unparalleled growth of industry and a global consumer economy -- with politicians and social movements of different stripes trying to understand and exploit this development, of course. And his habit of amending himself, within the same sentence, demonstrates the balance between material reality and consciousness that is perhaps the most beneficial aspect of the Marxist approach to history.

I expect that historians and, I hope, ordinary readers of history will continue to learn from Hobsbawm at the end of the 21st century as they do at its beginning. He is not my model, but he is my teacher.

Well said.