Eric Hobsbawm and the Idols of History


Eric Hobsbawm was that rarest of things: a Marxist historian whose genius was so transparent that liberal and conservative commentators (sometimes begrudgingly) acknowledged it. In his book Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton acknowledged that,

…no reader of Hobsbawm’s historical works can fail to be engaged by them. Their breadth of knowledge is matched by the elegance of their prose, and it is a testimony to Hobsbawm’s talents, as a scholar and a man of letters, that he was elected to Fellowship by both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature. His four-volume history of the emergence of the modern world…is a remarkable work of synthesis.

Coming from a man who described the work of Althusser and Lacan as “nonsense” and depicted Slavoj Žižek’s writing as a “machine gun rattle of topics and concepts” which makes it easy to “slip in his little pellets of poison” this is unexpectedly high praise.

Richard Evans, a world expert on Nazism and a moderate social democrat, wrote a glowing biography of Hobsbawm which praised his intellect and admirable lack of dogmatism on issues of Marxist orthodoxy. And indeed, one of the recurring features of Hobsbawm’s work was how little impressed he was by fetishism of any sort. Most of his ire was rightly directed at the various sublimated idols erected by the political right in the aftermath of the French Revolution, ranging from the Church and organized religion, to nation and race. But Hobsbawm was also wisely sensitive to how the most rigid forms of vulgar Marxism could themselves become tropes in oppressive projects.

Understanding the “Long” Nineteenth Century

Hobsbawm’s masterpiece is a tetralogy of books that covers the period between the French Revolution and the end of the Cold War — Age of Revolution, Age of Capital, Age of Empire, and Age of Extremes. These books are astonishing for their combination of sweep, attention to detail, and literary power. It is honestly difficult to think of any other work of history, or indeed non-scientific analysis generally, which can compare. One of the virtues of the first three volumes is the nuanced approach to the culture, politics, and economics of the nineteenth century, which in effect comes across as the laboratory in which most of the great forces which still govern our world grew into maturity.

These range from the development of industrial capitalism and the hegemony of the global North over the exploited South, to the formulation of liberalism, socialism, and the political right as the dominant ideological templates through which billions were mobilized. As a Marxist, Hobsbawm’s reading of this century is eminently dialectical. He does not shy away from its titanic accomplishments or brutal violence but recognizes both poles as emerging from the same material processes which gradually spread themselves across the globe through a combination of genuine appeal and spectacular violence.

Nowhere is this more clear than in his treatment of the great political doctrines of the nineteenth century: liberalism, socialism, conservatism, nationalism, and so on. These are conceived in far more plastic and historical ways than is typical in disciplines like philosophy and theory, which tends to reify political doctrines in a conceptual architecture which does a disservice to their lived complexity. For instance, Hobsbawm points out how the French Revolutionaries initially enacted a remarkable fusion between liberalism, egalitarianism, and nationalism.

The fusion set revolutionary France up as the premier site of emancipation, a nation that would achieve glory for herself and liberation for the world through a continuous struggle against the reactionary regimes of Europe. While this eventually calcified into Napoleonic imperialism and then humiliating defeat, the power of this fusion was such that each of its dimensions eventually took on a life of its own.The nationalism of the French Revolution was initially adopted as a rallying cry for independence and self-determination, with many progressive nationalist movements consciously plagiarizing a tricolor pattern for their flags. This is a pattern that continued into the great anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century.

But from the beginning, Hobsbawm makes it clear that nationalism is a double-edged sword. Despite its insistent individualism and global aspirations, it became very clear that liberal capitalism could also take on nationalist forms to prop up projects of imperialist expansion and manifest destiny. In these instances, the particularism of nationalism could merge with imperial universalism, as powerful countries defended vast schemes of colonization under the auspices of spreading progress and modernity. The political right-then as now proved especially adept at coupling sharply chauvinistic and exclusionary forms of nationalism with even more brutal forms of oppression. These could range from internal efforts to liquidate minorities to external efforts to attain global hegemony for the glory of the Reich, Tsar, or even a particular race.

As a Marxist Hobsbawm is often scathing in his assessment of the human consequences of these tragedies. But as a historian, he recognizes the chief goal is to understand them. What comes through in his assessment of political doctrines, and what makes Hobsbawm an expert materialist, is his recognition of the contingency and artificiality of these doctrines. Far from existing in some sublime idealist heaven, ideals like the nation and “tradition” have to be “invented.” Now, in and of itself, the invention of tradition or ideal is not bad. Some, like an agreement between friends to regularly go to a hockey game or a commitment to remember atrocities like the Holocaust, may be edifying and even profoundly good.

But others are very much the creations of power and may be deployed to discipline and even dominate. A transparent recent example of this would be in the Dobbs decision where Samuel Alito appeals to the lack of a long-standing right to abortion in American history as a reason to eliminate it. This, of course, disregards the fact that the absence of a tradition may owe something to the fact that women were until very recently not even considered full persons.

Whatever the case, by displaying and insisting upon the invented quality of ideals and traditions Hobsbawm accomplishes the eminently progressive task of desublimation. This is a vital accomplishment since highlighting the contingency of ideals and traditions opens them to critical scrutiny and perhaps even reinvention along more democratic lines.

Enduring the “Short” 20th Century

The final book in Hobsbawm’s tetralogy, The Age of Extremes, analyzes what he calls the “short” twentieth century (1914-1991). It is also a far more controversial volume than the earlier three. Part of this is that, simply by virtue of chronicling events closer to us in time, readers are less removed from events, and consequently there are more entrenched and partisan sets of opinions to wrestle with. However, the main issues raised by liberal and conservative critics were whether Hobsbawm proved too soft on the authoritarian Communist regimes and whether he was adequately repentant and prepared to uncritically bow towards the proven goodness of global capitalism. Now many of the accusations made against him were amusingly shrill and one-dimensionally lopsided. Nevertheless, the question of how leftists should deal with the legacy of Communist authoritarianism is a complex and painful one, and it is worth looking into how Hobsbawm responded to it.

In contrast to the privileged bourgeois optimism that defined the “long” nineteenth century, the age of extremes saw the emergence of great rivals to liberal capitalism — firstly, in the form of Marxist-Leninist communism on the political left, and, secondly, in Nazism and fascism on the political right. Hobsbawm’s analysis of Nazism and fascism are fascinating and testify to his undimmed analytical powers. He rightly highlights that the major difference, still poorly understood, between the “fascist and the non-fascist right was that fascism existed by mobilizing masses from below.” It was this willingness to not rest content with even plebiscitary authoritarianism, but to try and find a way to actively and permanently engage the energy of the masses that distinguished Nazism and fascism fromearlier forms of reaction.

At the same time, Hobsbawm anticipates Robert Paxton and others in stressing that the rise and early success of the far right would have been unlikely or even unthinkable without the support of traditional conservative movements who shared a “common hatred for eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the French Revolution and all that…derived from it: democracy, liberalism, and of course, most urgently, ‘godless communism.’”

But the main focus of the book is undoubtedly the longer and more historically ambiguous confrontation between global capitalism and communism that constituted the core ideological contestation of the century. Contra the often shrill commentators who insist Hobsbawm remained an apologist for the gulags until the very end, he harbored few illusions about the atrocities committed in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China. He insisted that it will,

. . . probably never be possible to calculate the human cost of Russia’s iron decades adequately, since even such official statistics of execution and Gulag populations as exist. . . cannot cover all victims. . . Still, whatever the assumptions made, the number of direct and indirect victims must be measured in eight rather than seven digits. In these circumstances it does not much matter whether we opt for a conservative estimate nearer to ten than to twenty millions or a larger figure: non can be anything but shameful and beyond palliation, let alone justification.

Hobsbawm described the famines brought about by the Great Leap Forward as “probably the greatest” of the century, and records Mao’s sinister willingness to contemplate the nuclear eradication of most of the human race. Given these “cataclysmic” events, there can be no redeeming the legacy of either.

These are far from the words of a “tankie” apologist. The general tone through The Age of Extremes is one of disappointed anger coupled with coy amusement towards centrist commentators who arrogantly think that, through some teleological contrivance, history had ended and neoliberal capitalism was our ordained destiny now and forever. In hindsight he turned out to be right: the empyrean bliss of neoliberal eternity lasted a grand total of twenty years before postmodern conservatism and renewed socialist movements rose to pose fundamental challenges; whether this will be for better or worse is yet to be seen. After all, history is ever in motion.

A Lesson from History

Hobsbawm’s example offers a useful lesson on how to ignore bad faith accusations from conservatives like Scruton without ignoring the shameful legacy of twentieth-century communist authoritarianism. Throughout the Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm does point out that the Soviet and Maoist regimes did achieve some notable successes through rapid modernization, but nothing that could possibly justify the horror of what occurred. The ends only justify the means if the cost isn’t exorbitantly high, and “progress” measured in the lives of tens of millions does not deserve to be called progress. Beyond just the moral and historical requirement to acknowledge the fact of atrocities with solemn integrity, there is a strategic point I’d like to make.

To the extent politics is the art of mobilizing discontent and hope, the framing of discourse is crucial. The political right understands this and likes nothing better than to foreground accusations against leftist authoritarianism, and watch progressives waste their time trying to defend the indefensible. Beyond just being a waste of time, it also helps conservatives frame the discourse in their favor by making the topic of public conversation whether Stalin killed five or twenty million people, rather than the thousands of people who die every month due to lack of health insurance or the dozens of children mowed down in gun-related violence. We shouldn’t do them that favor, and leftists would be far better off acknowledging the horrors of Stalinism and Maoism and then asking what that has to do with the most pressing issues of the day for which we have actual solutions.