The Post-Imperial Historian: Eric Hobsbawm

An historian of ever widening scope, Eric Hobsbawm has been taking the long view for a very long time. His definition of the historian’s trade is: “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)

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Eric Hobsbawm: on the Age After Empire

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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