YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

November 23, 2012

Historians vs. pundits: the Eric Hobsbawm synthesis

Liberty Leading the People

For a more recent assessment of Hobsbawm, see http://clarespark.com/2012/12/08/hobsbawm-obama-israel/.

I was going to write a straightforward few paragraphs on the irresponsibility of today’s journalists/pundits compared to archive-scouring historians. But in the meantime, I was reading Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (1962), and my focus changed to the achievement of EH’s major work, and its precise transmission of Marxist-Leninist dogma, dialectical materialism and all, as he strives to fuse the Hegelian opposites of Romanticism and neoclassicism, letting vitalism and mysticism into his ostensibly rationalist synthesis explaining the rise of mass politics after the French Revolution.

For those who have missed the furious debate since the death of EH and his legacy on October 1, 2012, here is a sampling of what I have read. Ron Radosh’s essay was my favorite, for it was a fine survey of opinion, and also recounted some horrifying details missed by others, for instance, EH’s ferocious rejection of Israel, which he wished would be nuked, according to one unpublished account.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Hobsbawm

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/01/eric-hobsbawm-historian

http://frontpagemag.com/2012/bruce-bawer/intellectuals-rally-to-eulogize-stalinist-eric-hobsbawm/

http://pjmedia.com/ronradosh/2012/10/13/can-stalinist-be-good-historian/

Though I thought that EH was clueless regarding the contributions of the Romantic composers and authors (e.g. their exploration of human emotions as worthy subjects for art, often leaving more rigid forms for fantasy. Cf. EH condemning the Romantics as Satanists, or as flunkeys for the bourgeoisie and its heroic individualism/economic liberalism),  I came away with one valuable insight: EH explains that the creation of the new industrial working class kept both aristocracy and bourgeoisie on edge up to the present day. For it was the (middle-class) French Revolution and Napoleon that elevated the self-esteem of “the People” in what EH calls the double revolution: 1. The French Revolution, and 2. The Industrial Revolution. (He implied a third factor: the development of “national cultures” that would lead, in his later life, to the lauding of “liberal nationalism” as a spur to further progress, with capitalism yielding to communism and the defeat of the bourgeois oppressor.)

In whatever period I have studied since the Enlightenment, I have seen the red specter operating in the imaginations of every artist and writer. Certainly it is foregrounded in the work of Herman Melville, whose interpreters cannot make up their minds whether he is a Romantic individualist (of the type that EH excoriates) or a proper moderate conservative like themselves, hence the Ishmaelite repudiator of that arch-individualist and revolutionary Captain Ahab (or his successor, Pierre Glendinning).

EH mentions Herman Melville twice, though he does not go into any detail whatsoever. I presume that he viewed Moby-Dick as an allegory for the French Revolution and those that followed in 1848, perhaps dwelling upon the multi-colored crew of harpooners, as did C. L. R. James, a favorite of the New Left anti-imperialists. But this would make EH no better than the bourgeois primitivists EH attacks as perpetuators of the noble savage image. [Added, Nov. 23: In his second book, EH makes it clear that he believes that Moby-Dick is an indictment of American capitalist-imperialism; he has a superficial reading about whaling ships and the denouement near Japan. EH believes that Melville is the greatest artist of the American 19th century, for that reason, obviously.]

Alarmingly, EH’s book on the “Age of Revolution” laid out the synthesis that guided my graduate work in history at UCLA, and that now dominates textbook writing throughout the liberal school system in America. Prende garde, mes amis. Eric Hobsbawm, in death lauded by many communists, liberals, and conservatives alike, fused the roles of pundit and historian, leaving us with activists in both fields, while drowning in their wakes those historians whose regard for the truth is, well, undialectical. (For my assessment of “activist” scholars see http://clarespark.com/2013/05/06/the-new-left-activist-scholars/.)

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7 Comments »

  1. [...] the bourgeois revolution that the French mounted in 1789, but certainly not Fascism or Nazism. (See http://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/) [...]

    Pingback by “Totalitarianism,” polarization, and single-issue politics « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 2, 2013 @ 1:10 am | Reply

  2. [...] http://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/ (Hobsbawm’s reading of Moby-Dick as great indictment of capitalism/imperialism.) [...]

    Pingback by Updated index to Melville blogs « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 25, 2012 @ 7:31 pm | Reply

  3. [...] to be either sketchy, derivative, or ideological and hence distorted and present-minded.  (See http://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/. For a drastically different reading of Melville’s Moby-Dick see [...]

    Pingback by Hobsbawm, Obama, Israel « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 8, 2012 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

  4. Again, many thanks. I especially enjoyed your phrase, “wild and undisciplined.” But I don’t hold Coulter as an historian, nor a political scientist and never did. To my view, her popular writing is much more akin to a Swift, though with a differently directed agenda. I appreciate the warning not to take her claims as history. But would you agree that historians that make the classroom in textbooks tend to view the FR with rose colored glasses? I’ve also read and enjoyed Jonah Goldberg and Ron Radosh who you’ve cited, but where on the right is someone as able to serve the saucy dish to which conservatives have been treated for decades? “Pornographic?” I’ve long defined pornography as treating a person as an inanimate object of sexual gratification. Not sure how that label applies.

    All said, I very much enjoy your blog and find it both insightful and challenging in depth. You intimidate me! You make a claim and then I have to re-examine EVERYTHING, dammit!

    Comment by Terbreugghen — November 24, 2012 @ 12:39 am | Reply

    • On the French Revolution today: the postmodernists and other trendy academics are trashing the French Revolution as part of the protofascist Enlightenment. Thank the Frankfurt School for this chic synthesis. I am thinking of Simon Schama, Talmon, and all the hip academics at UCLA during the 1989 bicentennial who participated. My biggest complaint about Coulter and those like her, is that they do not view history through the same lens I do, but within a religious world view, which is anathema to history as a bourgeois science, which is how I work. Think of me as a classical liberal and child of the mechanical materialist Enlightenment that Hobsbawm, like, say, Carl Becker, abhorred. I was a science major as a girl, and remain loyal to empiricism, that EH deems “vulgar.”

      Comment by clarespark — November 24, 2012 @ 3:22 am | Reply

  5. Thanks for the intro to Hobsbawn, I’m always learning here. Not to betray something unforgiveable, but I wonder how Ann Coulter’s reification of the French Revolution as mobocracy at its finest in “Demonic” would parse with your take on Hobsbawn’s view of it as contributing to the self-esteem of the middle classes of the day.

    Comment by Terbreugghen — November 23, 2012 @ 11:44 pm | Reply


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