Naill Ferguson’s eulogy for Eric Hobsbawm is particularly conciliatory. Here we have a proud member of the bourgeois praising the marxist historian for never being “a slave to Marxist-Leninist doctrine” while contending that “Hobsbawm should serve as an example of how civilised people can differ about big questions while agreeing about much else”.
This is just bourgeois drivel and while Hobsbawm might be criticised for being very much a “salonfähiger Marxist,. the fact remains that just over three years ago he was still maintaining that “a major shift away from the free market and towards public action, a bigger shift than the British government has yet envisaged,” was required. It is difficult to believe that had such a shift taken place during the historian’s lifetime, he would have had much time for tittle-tattle with Naill Ferguson.
Of course,the man who wrote a number of excellent works, including ‘The Age of Revolution’ (1962), ‘The Age of Industry’ (1975), ‘The Age of Empire’ (1987) and ‘The Age of Extremes’ (1994), is being given the benefit of the doubt here and there is at least some evidence to suggest that it was his being in society that determined his consciousness rather than any shallow opportunism. Nevertheless, it is also worth stating that there was no real shift in his “Weltanschauung” even if some commentators have contended that he moved away from a more rigid ideological position in the 30s. Any reading of Hobsbawm’s autobiographical work ‘Interesting Times’ would tell us this.
Furthermore, that reading would also tell us that Hobsbawm was always one of those thinkers who interpreted the world in various ways; without really changing it. If his marxism, was “marxism as action”, it was an action which was not only limited in its scope, but one which was never going to see the marxist sacrifice himself for his ideals. Nevertheless, it is not for us to throw stones and there are two things worth consideration.
Firstly, Hobsbawm might have disavowed revolutionary action, he might even have seen some sort of salvation for mankind in a mixed economy where capitalism and socialism could co-exist. However, as stated above, the shift away from the free market to public action, which he recently advocated, is prerequisite to us making any progress away from a disaster capitalism that is in the process of destroying the planet. Secondly, as Mark Mazower states:
“….. his (Hobsbawm) histories are about trends, social forces, large-scale change over vast distances. Telling that kind of history in a way that is as compelling as a detective story is a real challenge of style and composition: in the tetralogy, Hobsbawm shows how to do it.”
He does and for that we should be grateful. It is with those two considerations in mind that the conclusion would have to be that despite his faults, he deserved better friends than Naill Ferguson or, indeed Tony Blair, who said that he was:
“a giant of progressive politics history, someone who influenced a whole generation of political and academic leaders.academic leaders. and that “he wrote history that was intellectually of the highest order but combined with a profound sense of compassion and justice. And he was a tireless agitator for a better world.”
Hobsbawn was no revolutionary, but he was also not a bourgeois idiot who doesn’t understand that in a world of finite resources, capitalism as it exists just cannot work and, even more importantly, he was not an unadulterated hypocrite who writes about compassion and a better world but belongs in front of the ICC in the Hague for crimes against humanity. That is why my own eulogy for Eric Hobsbawm will be, thanks for the books and thanks for your lucid description of the trends that matter and there is even some sorrow at the gallery of rogues who are using your death as a platform for more of their meaningless platitudes.