Eric Hobsbawm, 1917 – 2012: In Memoriam

hobsbawm14It’s a privilege at Eric Hobsbawm’s death this morning to share again the lively sound of his wondrously learned, penetrating mind. Five years ago, in his book-stuffed living-room in London, the 90-year-old author of historical classics like The Age of Empire: 1875 – 1914 was the rare public-intellectual on either side of the Atlantic who spoke plainly of the George Bush / Tony Blair war on Iraq as dementia: “Frankly, I can’t make sense of what has happened in the United States since 9/11 that enabled a group of political crazies to realize long-held plans for an unaccompanied solo performance of world supremacy.” As he’d written in a last little jewel of a book, On Empire: America, War and Global Supremacy, “The age of empires is dead. We shall have to find another way of organizing the globalized world of the twenty-first century.”

Eric Hobsbawm’s immersion in American jazz and his lifetime of ecstatic leftist interpretations of it were for me his crowning endearment. Jazz, as he wrote in The New York Review of Books in the 1980s, “was, as sport is for the athlete, a continuous means of asserting oneself as a human being, as an agent in the world and not the subject of others’ actions, as a discipline of the soul, a daily testing, an expression of the value and sense of life, a way to perfection.” It was the great modern art, he wrote, that owed nothing to middle-class culture. As a token of my thanks, I mailed Eric Hobsbawm a copy of the only great jazz book he didn’t have: Arthur Taylor’s incomparably candid conversations with jazz giants of the late 60s — Miles Davis, Hampton Hawes, Erroll Garner, Thelonius Monk most memorably — called Notes and Tones. Eric Hobsbawm thanked me wonderfully by email:

Dear Chris,

Just received your wonderful book of interviews which I am reading with passionate interest. I never knew Erroll Garner talked so much, unlike Dexter Gordon.

All the best,



An historian of ever widening scope, Eric Hobsbawm had been taking the long view for a very long time. His definition of the historian’s trade was: “how and why Homo sapiens got from the paleolithic to the nuclear age.” Born in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, Hobsbawm is 90 now, but in his pungent writing and talk, the species is young, and the future is everything.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Eric Hobsbawm here (34 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

We left Africa 100,000 years ago. The whole of what is usually described as ‘history’ since the invention of agriculture and cities consists of hardly more than 400 human generations or 10,000 years, a blink of the eye in geological time. Given the dramatic acceleration of the pace of humanity’s control over nature in this brief period, especially in the last ten or twenty generations, the whole of history so far can be seen to be something like an explosion of our species, a sort of bio-social supernova, into an unknown future. Let us hope it is not a catastrophic one. In the meanwhile, and for the first time, we have an adequate framework for a genuinely global history, and one restored to its proper central place, neither within the humanities nor the natural and mathematical sciences, nor separated from them, but essential to both. I wish I were young enough to take part in writing it.

Eric Hobsbawm, in his autobiography, Interesting Times, Pantheon, 2002.

In an hour’s conversation in Hobsbawm’s house in Hampstead Heath, we didn’t have time to revisit the famously exotic dimensions of his life: his quasi-religious attachment to Communism and his fascination with jazz, or the polar views of the man and his work. Link here to the loving, the venomous and the measured. Hobsbawm’s bookshelves groan with a lot of my favorite jazz tomes, like Stanley Dance’s The World of Count Basie, and Robert Gottlieb’s collection, Reading Jazz. I am sending him Arthur Taylor’s marvelous interviews with the post-Parker jazz stars through the Civil Rights revolution, Notes and Tones. But in the time we had, it seemed best to hear the crunchy numbers and sweeping authority that are acknowledged from all points of the history profession — not least from his young opposite number, the neo-imperialist Niall Ferguson .

I asked him to speak of the themes in his pithy new book: On Empire: America, War and Global Supremacy. I said it’s still mysterious to me that Tony Blair and long post-imperial Britain followed President Bush and the United States into Iraq.

CL: What does that war mean for the UK, the US, for the future of hegemony?

EH: The interesting thing about the Iraq war is that unlike the first gulf war, unlike even the first American intervention after 911 in Afghanistan, it has no common support, at all. Overwhelmingly most countries were against it, and the others were skeptical. With the single exception of Great Britain. Great Britain I think has been tied to the United States ever since, I think, its own status as a nuclear power became dependent effectively on the American supplies, and ever since its status as an international power became dependent effectively on access to American technical intelligence. And I think that’s one major reason why they felt they couldn’t possibly break. That doesn’t explain why we had to rush into it, devote an enormous amount of our energies and military force, and reputation. After all … when L. B. Johnson asked our Prime Minister Wilson to send the Black Watch to Vietnam, he refused to do it. Very quietly. He kept on repeating how totally in favor he was of the Americans, but he didn’t do anything. Unlke Blair. Blair rushed in, because I think he loved the idea of being as it were a deputy imperial power. And let’s make no mistake about it: he also thought somehow or other, there needed to be Western force which somehow controlled the disorder in the world — which is no longer controllable by anybody in the old 19th Century imperial way. That’s the thing to remember.

CL: And why not?

EH: The Iraq war has shown it but not only the Iraq war. Things like Darfur — where nowadays you say you need at least 26,000 troops simply to watch over the whole thing. The basic fact is that the populations of the world are no longer prepared to accept power as something that is authentic and authoritative. Imperialism in the old days was based on the assumption that quite small groups of people armed with high tech could establish themselves and be accepted, like it or not by millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions. Partly because power is there, and poor people have lived under power all the time. One or two exceptions — places like Afghanistan or Kurdistan, where nobody liked power, states or any kind of thing, never did and don’t now. But there was that, and at the same time also there was the possiblity of making alliances with locals who wanted modernization, which in those days meant Westernization. It doesn’t mean Westernization any more, and the power has gone and the willingness to accept the power has gone.

CL: We’re reminded that the British ran India with a civil service smaller than the welfare department of New York City.

EH: Once the Indians stopped accepting the fact that British Raj, the British domination, was as legitimate as any other conquerer that had ever been there and established their power, that was the end of the British Empire.

CL: Has the Iraq war moved the center in the world and has it changed the agenda of the new century?

EH: Well, it has in the sense that it makes the enormous military force and the enormous military technological superiority of the United States (unprecedented and really unlikely to be equalled by anybody within the reasonable future) it makes it irrelevent, because it doesn’t really help. What could you do? You could easily capture lots of Baghdads. What would happen then? We know what happened when we captured Baghdad. We know what happened after we captured Kabul. Several years after that, thirty percent of Afghanistan is under the vague control of somebody who came in then, by us. And the rest is not under control. So what’s the use of having this particular superiority? You cannot do it without a political base.

CL: Does the rise of China and does the rising wealth and numbers of an expanding Europe fill the gap?

EH: Europe doesn’t fill the gap. Europe in the broad sense belongs to the part of the world which no longer actually reproduces itself demographically, and therefore relies very largely on immigration. But basically speaking Europe is no longer — I mean, it has enormous assets and it is an economy which is as big as the United States; actually at this very moment the average British income, share of the GDP per person, is higher than the United States, which was last the case, I think, in 1890 — but the fact is: Europe is itself, apart from being a large cultural and above all economic unit, is not a major international political and military unit. The United States relies, I think, on the one thing which is unique for the United States, namely its military power. But that’s the one which is limited and there’s not very much you can do with it, short of bombing the world to bits. And there’s no sense in that. And in fact once a sensible American government comes back, they will get back to the position of, say, J. F. Kennedy who knew right from the beginning that bombing the world to bits was no solution for anything.

Eric Hobsbawm, in conversation with Chris Lydon, at his home in London, February 28, 2008.

When my recorder and I suddenly needed a pair of double-A batteries, Eric Hobsbawm jumped up and found them in his hardware drawer. And when he spoke briefly about the Internet’s penetration of culture and consciousness in little more than a decade, I realized the man is as modern as tomorrow. Thank you, Eric Hobsbawm.

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  • Zak

    What an amazing mind EH had; after almost a century he was as lucid and learned as anyone out there of any age. Thank you for allowing him to share that brilliance posthumously with us. I’m also grateful that you didn’t get bogged down in his Marxist label the way his NYT obit did. Fantastic interview.

  • Potter

    Ha’aretz has an interesting article about Eric Hobsbawm ( from Hobsbaum). he was Jewish by birth though had very strong feelings about Zionism and his Jewishness, which he did not exactly run away from. The article: In Constant Struggle with his Jewish Identity.( I don’t know if you can get there without registering.) Anyway Haaretz is claiming him.. and rightfully.

    Thank you Chris- for the first, an introduction, your interview in 2008, and now calling attention to his passing. I had not known anything about him until ’08. And now I am catching up including on the obituaries. Visionaries, historians, public intellectuals tend to get lost to us. Thank you for your part in not letting that happen.

  • Robert Zucchi

    Well, here’s another reason to be grateful for Mr. Lydon’s colossal intellectual restlessness. Eric Hobsbawm was (mostly) respected professionally by his fellow historians, who otherwise deplored his fidelity to a socioeconomic system that had spawned monstrous tyrannies in Russia and its satrapies, and in China, North Korea, Cuba, and elsewhere. His peers admired the breadth of his scholarship, his command of the historical record, and the brilliant contributions to historiography that his mastery of the sources and gift for explication and synthesis made possible. But his Marxism marginalized him, even as the honors and praise accumulated. And though he disapproved of the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the ’50s and ’60s, I think he remained a party member until the Soviet collapse.

    No doubt it troubled him as a humanist that the phenomenal world seems to require paradox in order to arise at all. The child of Jewish heritage in Nazifying early ’30s Berlin // the young man in democratic Britain in the dog years of the Depression, when the often sordid English class system was more than usually punishing of working people.

    For an American, the anomalies press in even more furiously: America as the world’s most dynamic capitalist economy in 1929 // the American Crash that was the devil’s own gift to the Brownshirts of Europe (and at home). A fringe party in 1928, after 1929 the Nazis’ course was ever upward, as the distant country whose “business is business,” the anointed home of “free enterprise,” in its economic recklessness handed Germany’s far right its proximate cause for repudiating international finance capitalism and the liberal democracy that supported it. In their anguish and immiseration, millions of citizens of an advanced and cultured country allowed their rage to be channeled into the far right’s ethnocentric supremacy, scapegoating, hatemongering, and militarist hysteria. (Mournfully enough, the American Crash of 2008 seems to have infected our own country with some of the same diseases that afflicted Europe in the ’30s.)

    The cascade of anomalies accelerates when I consider the postwar doings of “The World’s Foremost Champion and Defender of Democracy” (let that stand for the other shibboleths of the Great Exculpation). The barbarous visitation of American savagery on Vietnam … a million (likely many more) Vietnamese killed, thousands of young Americans dead, and thousands more brought home broken in body and spirit; families left to grieve and suffer alone all over this country; thousands of Vietnam veterans and their families still coping with trauma today.

    The decade-long Russian aggression against Afghanistan // The American decade-long aggression against Afghanistan. The Nazis’ trumped-up invasion of Poland // America’s trumped-up, latest invasion of Iraq. The Soviet gulag // American democracy’s version of the gulag (there are more of our citizens in prison than in Communist China).

    I think Mr. Lydon was drawn to Eric Hobsbawm for his brilliance, for the illustrious corpus of scholarly work he leaves us, and for the mystery of his stubborn support of an ideology that had long before come to be reviled in the West.

    Possibly that obstinacy shines a searchlight on our own dogmatic rigidities … inter alia, free trade (aka jobs export); a glorious, nonparliamentary system of government that was designed not to work; and the effete trope of the “American Dream” that evokes for me an image of somnambulism more than an incentive to self- and societal improvement.

    Hobsbawm refused to abandon his utopian vision for humanity, and he believed that even if “imperfectly” executed or “temporarily” vitiated, the Marxist model was in the end the most humane and equitable system for the just ordering of society. I strongly disagree with him, but I can understand why, given the events of his time, his personal history, and his scholarly pursuit of the currents that shaped that history, he could have obdurately insisted that humanity must renounce its primordial brutishness and employ its energies differently, even if that should require a totalizing political system. He paid the price for being right for the wrong reasons, but his challenge to us has lost nothing of its urgency.