Saturday, October 6, 2012

Remembering Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm, the great Marxist historian of the twentieth century, passed away this week. I felt a great personal loss in his death, for he was my most favorite historian. And I feel very sad that he would no longer be there to provide wealth of meaningful details and great insights into historical and contemporary happenings and phenomena. While marshaling facts and arguments he used to be ruthlessly objective and yet there was a larger humane framework in which he conducted his profession of historiography. And this is perhaps a reason why, although he was a Marxist historian he conducted his discourse almost in the grand tradition of Liberalism.

Hobsbawm was a central European Jew and was born in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution.  His father was British, his mother Austrian and he was born in Egypt: a pedigree that perhaps qualified him to become a true international historian with a global vision and a global reach. He lost both his parents in his childhood and was brought up by his uncle in Berlin, Vienna and London and ultimately he settled in UK. In those days, especially in the inter-war years, the Jews in Central Europe had mainly two options: they became communists or became Zionists. Hobsbawm joined communist movement during his student days and remained a devout communist to the end. And yet he was a communist and a Marxist thinker with a difference. He never compromised on basic human values of freedom and liberalism. Whether it was his observation that the Soviet communism was rooted in its ossified bureaucracy or whether it was his direct criticism of the communist party when Soviet Union occupied Hungary in 1956, he always displayed a rare sense of independence and respect for basic human values. Hobsbawm was a great scholar, a Cambridge Don and a member of Red Brigade. He was not merely a great scholar; he was a great lover of music and wrote extensively on music.

His greatest contribution was of course his four- volume World History, (from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Collapse of Soviet Communism in 1989) with titles, “The Age of Revolution”, “The Age of Capital”, “The Age of Imperialism” and “The Age of Extremes”. He not only brought great scholarship to his writing of history;  he also had a great gift of telling the story, almost as if readers are a witness to what is happening.  

  In 1994, Hobsbawm  had finished writing his last volume of world history, “The Age of Extremes”. Towards the end of the book he argued that, if the Soviet Communism has collapsed, that should be no reason for the West to celebrate. He further argued that the internal contradictions of capitalism had sufficiently advanced to a point where   there seemed to be  something seriously wrong with the Western Capitalism, which itself needed reforms. Subsequent events, especially the crisis of the capitalism through which we are passing, only show that Hobsbawm was essentially right. We are now debating how we may restructure the global financial system.

Hobsbawm also wrote prolifically on Nationalism, Globalization and Economic History.  A remarkable book that he wrote (a collection of his essays) in 2011 was “How to Change the World: The Tales of Marx and Marxism”. He argues in the book that although world over Marxism has ceased to be a political ideology, Marx’s writing is still, in its sociological and economic insights, very relevant to our times where lot of correction is needed to the  style and functioning  of capitalism. He further says that Marx and Marxism need to be presented somewhat differently and more comprehensively, for essentially at the heart of Marxism is great concern for man. Although, I have never been a Marxist I always found Hobsbawm most stimulating and original.

Hobsbawm  was respected both on the left and right and his passing away has truly   created a great void in the otherwise weakening tradition of historiography. 

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