Monday, 1 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawm RIP

Marx remains the essential base of any adequate study of history, because—so far—he alone has attempted to formulate a methodological approach to history as a whole, and to envisage and explain the entire process of human social evolution. In this respect he is superior to Max Weber, his only real rival as a theoretical influence on historians, and in many respects an important supplement and corrective. A history based on Marx is conceivable without Weberian additions, but Weberian history is inconceivable except insofar as it takes Marx, or at least the Marxist Fragestellung, as its starting-point. If we wish to answer the great question of all history—namely, how, why and through what processes humanity evolved from cave-man to cosmic travellers, wielders of nuclear force and genetic engineers—we can only do so by asking Marx’s type of questions if not accepting all his answers. The same is true if we wish to answer the second great question implicit in the first: that is, why this evolution has not been even and unilinear, but extraordinarily uneven and combined. The only alternative answers which have been suggested are in terms of biological evolution (e.g., sociobiology), but these are plainly inadequate. Marx did not say the last word—far from it—but he did say the first word, and we are still obliged to continue the discourse he inaugurated...I would like to look forward to a time when nobody asks whether authors are Marxist or not, because Marxists could then be satisfied with the transformation of history achieved through Marx’s ideas. But we are far from such a utopian condition: the ideological and political, class and liberation struggles of the twentieth century are such that it is even unthinkable. For the foreseeable future, we shall have to defend Marx and Marxism in and out of history, against those who attack them on political and ideological grounds. In doing so, we shall also defend history, and man’s capacity to understand how the world has come to be what it is today, and how mankind can advance to a better future.
 Eric Hobsbawm, 'Marx and History', New Left Review I/143 (Jan-Feb 1984)

The LSHG is very sorry to learn of the passing of Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) - one of the greatest Marxist historians of the 'short twentieth century' - no doubt we will carry a proper obituary and appreciation in the future but for now our sincere condolences to his family, friends and comrades.   Hobsbawm made an immense intellectual contribution, and whatever one's precise differences with some of his political positions, all historians - socialist or not - stand in his debt.

Keith Flett, LSHG Convenor adds:

Eric Hobsbawm 1917-2012
Eric Hobsbawm who has died aged 95 was along with Edward and Dorothy Thompson, John Saville and Christopher Hill one of the great post 1945 socialist historians.
He did not however, unlike them, leave the Communist Party in 1956.
I heard Hobsbawm speak on many occasions down the decades, always a fascinating moment. While we came from two very different wings of the left- he from the Communist Party, or Stalinist, tradition and myself from the [unorthodox] Trotskyist one- he was kind enough to provide some encouraging comments for my first volume of socialist history some years ago.
The art of Hobsbawm’s history was of course the sweep of grand narrative but particularly the attention to detail. If you wanted anecdotes which perfectly illustrated historical points on flat caps, football or fish and chips Hobsbawm had them at his finger tips.
Labour history, Hobsbawm’s core subject can sometimes seem rather dull, but never in his work.
Hobsbawm’s politics were more controversial than his history on the left and it might be argued that the two were not quite as closely connected as one might have expected them to be and generally that was just as well.
In particular his Forward March of Labour Halted which laid some of the intellectual ground work for the New Labour was a less than happy intervention.
Hobsbawm wrote and published widely over many decades and towered in recent times over socialist history. It is to be hoped that his work will continue to inspire new work in socialist history and that there are some unpublished pieces still to see the light of day.

Edited to add: Obituary by Ian Birchall and the collection of obituaries / tributes here

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