YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

December 8, 2012

Hobsbawm, Obama, Israel

Hobsbawm in worker's cap

Hobsbawm in worker’s cap

I. Eric Hobsbawm, perhaps the most famous and influential of all the communist historians, died Ocober 1, 2012. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Hobsbawm. He was eulogized by leading liberal newspapers as one of the most “eminent historians” of the world, but was denounced by David Horowitz and Ron Radosh, who asked their readers to avoid his history-falsifying works. I thought that I should see for myself, so read his famed “tetralogy” published from 1962 on, ending with his (then) final word on modernity in 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These were The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, and The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991. I found the same line put forth by the UCLA Department of History where I earned my doctorate, and throughout the textbooks now used by countless students interested in American, European, and world history. (In his autobiography (2002), Hobsbawm credits George Soros with partly funding the last book in the series, Age of Extremes.)

Notable about the four books is the target audience of educated lay readers. Hence his [big] claims are not footnoted, but he does provide bibliographies and indices. What is most striking about the tetralogy is his range: he fused economic history, political history, social history, the arts, mathematics, and sciences. In those cases where my own scholarship is competent (the arts and intellectual history), I found his opinions to be either sketchy, derivative, or ideological and hence distorted and present-minded.  (See http://clarespark.com/2012/12/22/my-oppositional-defiant-disorder-and-eric-hobsbawm/,  http://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/. For a drastically different reading of Melville’s Moby-Dick see http://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.)

For most of the four books, I thought that EH was conforming to the “antifascist” Popular Front strategy initiated by the Soviet Union after 1935; that would explain his praise of the post-1945 synthesis of Left and Right as embodied in social democracy, but that “Golden Age” of capitalism would end in a new crisis of the 1970s and 80s, almost as bad as “the Great Slump” of the 1930s, now worsened by Reagan and Thatcher.

The ending pages of such an ambitious project are worth summarizing. Hobsbawm is deeply worried about the future, which is up for grabs, and yet “dark.” Overpopulation is not only straining the food supply, but the industrialized world, everywhere, is likely destroying the planet. The nation-state is obsolete (globalization having been created by the 19th century industrial bourgeoisie), and yet there is no international agency that could impose the necessary regulations that would ensure the survival of our species.

The competition inherent in neoliberalism, Adam Smith’s elevation of the market, and Darwinism are his targets. EH distances himself from Stalin’s terror, but holds fast to Lenin. This is crucial, for Barack Obama is very close to Hobsbawm in his own political project, i.e., redistributionist (in the interest of social justice), Green-friendly and internationalist in its preferred outcome.

"The Lord's Prayer," Hans Haacke, ca. 1984

“The Lord’s Prayer,” Hans Haacke, ca. 1984

II. Consider now Hobsbawm’s continual ribbing of “the Jews”, nowhere more evident than in the short paragraph he devotes to Israel, which transmits the strangest summary of the Jewish state’s founding and subsequent history that I have ever seen, not to be exceeded in nastiness by the most jihadist of Israel’s enemies. Indeed, this ratattatat is indistinguishable from jihadism, and speaks poorly of the Left, to which Hobsbawm has ever remained attached.

From Hobsbawm, AGE OF EXTREMES, (Penguin, 1994) p. 359. (EH”s “extremes” refer to “laissez-faire capitalism/neoliberalism” on the one hand, and Soviet communism as its rational, enlightened antithesis.) Throughout the four books (but especially in the last two), Hobsbawm identifies himself with the oppressed and exploited “undeveloped world” that has been polluted and otherwise abused by the imperialistic “developed world”. Vehement as is his critique of neoliberalism, Reaganism and Thatcherism, his dislike of Israel is even more pronounced, as in the following, bizarre description of Israel, its founding, and its relations with neighbors.

“…the USSR had been among the first to recognize the new state of Israel, which later established itself as the main ally of the USA, and the Arab or other Islamic states, Right or Left, were united in repressing communism within their frontiers. The main force of disruption was Israel, where the Jewish settlers built a larger Jewish state than had been envisaged under the British partition (driving out seven hundred thousand non-Jewish Palestinians, perhaps a larger number than the Jewish population in 1948), fighting one war per decade for the purpose (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982). …Israel also turned itself into the most formidable military force in the region and acquired nuclear arms, but failed to establish a stable basis of relations with its neighbor states, let alone with the permanently embittered Palestinians within its extended frontiers or in the Diaspora of the Middle East. The collapse of the USSR removed the Middle East from the front line of the Cold War, but left it as explosive as before.”

Here EH, of Jewish parentage, creates a brief narrative that is not only false, but jumbles together discrete conflicts that no professional historian would fail to analyze in context. EH goes out as not only an ideologue, but arguably a prime example of Selbsthass. Could anything be more transparent than the image of the Jewish state as pushy, grabby, destabilizing, ungrateful, and world-destroying?

September 1, 2009

Blogging with a difference

Hayden White, 2005

Walter Benjamin once remarked that fascism allows the masses to express themselves (see his famous essay, The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction). This rings in my ears as I contemplate the new universe of blogging, for I see this revolution as both a great innovation and a dangerous outlet for irresponsible opinion. So a few words are in order to separate out YDS blogging from those of political partisans and other activists with designs upon the reader.

     1. On “activist” scholars. The late Budd Schulberg left the Communist Party because party functionaries were demanding that he change his writing, for instance, What Makes Sammy Run (1941), because he was not foregrounding “the progressive forces” in Hollywood. And when the second wave of feminism got started, there were women artists who, knowing the history of the authoritarian Left, worried that they would be expected to follow some party line. As for the postmodernists who ruled while I was in graduate school at UCLA, there was a widespread view that “the archive” itself was a social construct and inevitably biased toward the ruling class. The same cohort averred that “science was a swindle” and I, the defender of empiricism and archival research, was derided as “the last positivist.” And yet all these activists loved “the people” and believed themselves to be their emancipators.

     During the final stages of expanding my doctoral dissertation for publication, I discovered that the furious Tory response to the American and French Revolutions was directed at “autodidacts” who were now reading books for themselves and drawing conclusions about the social order not dependent upon the opinions of their  betters.  These same autodidacts were held to be assassins and demagogues, stealthy, bloody, tyrannical, and inept in the fine art of reading, so naturally, the mandarin class was poised to set them straight, that is, to be as deferential and docile as they supposedly had been before the seventeenth-century and the Scientific Revolution or the Radical Reformation (those precursors to the Enlightenment). 

    And during this same period of research, I learned that it was considered bad form to include long quotations from primary source materials. This struck me as very odd: can you imagine a scientific discovery being published without fully informing the reader as to all the materials and procedures that led to the experimenter’s conclusion, along with an accurate description of those prior conceptions that were now revised in the light of new knowledge? Yet the humanities frowned upon long quotations from the sources, and writers still apologize for them. Readers of the blogs on the YDS website will note that I do quote liberally from my sources, so that the reader can check upon the accuracy of what I draw from them, and then correct my readings if they distort the source or otherwise misinterpret them. (Postmodernists will find my practice hilariously retrograde, so I say to them, “you don’t think much of the rule of law, do you? And of course they don’t for the state is nothing more than the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. See my blog “Margoth v. Robert E. Lee: rival visions of national unity” for the Charles Sumner understanding of liberal nationalism.) 

     Back to the activist bloggers or activist scholars. I once met an important art historian, who told me of a lecture he had given at Yale on British landscape painting of the eighteenth century. “I start,” he said, “with bourgeois society.” Huh? I thought. What about starting with the object and looking at it carefully, not missing any details, surrendering to its power, and then moving on to personal biography and all the institutions that might impinge on the making of a book or a painting or a musical composition or any other cultural artifact? After all that, going back to the painting, etc. and looking some more, perhaps seeing it even more deeply and understanding its appeal (or threat) to others. In other words, for my friend, “bourgeois society” was self-evidently evil, and anything that was made under its awful spell was bound to be tainted. It is true that patronage is important to artistic production, but if ever there was a comparative free-for-all in art-making it was a by-product of market economies and the marketplace of ideas. (Many readers will wince at this. Oh for the days of the Popular Front when–briefly– the bourgeoisie was viewed as a progressive class.)

   Now switch to how we encounter persons who may disagree with us on the heavy issues of the day. Too often my activist friends (and I have some) are too quick to dismiss anyone who does not share their judgments on this or that policy issue, let alone the larger questions that are currently roiling the world. Such impatient partisans may lack curiosity about the life experience and upbringing that might have led to the current polarization or “culture wars,” just as they may lack insight into their own preferences or need to belong to something big and heroic. One of the most damaging consequences of the fashionable existentialism after the second world war has been the notion that we cannot think ourselves into the heads of any other person, let alone understand our own motivation, or, get this: write history. Yet how can there be a civil discourse without some degree of mutual- and self-understanding, let alone a relatively accurate picture of the past and how we got here? In a “culture of despair” (to recall a title by Fritz Stern) desperation leads to catastrophe.

    To conclude this first point about YDS blogging, nearly all my posts strive toward objective scholarship, and invite the reader to test my work, by checking my readings of the sources, and then determining whether I have drawn reasonable conclusions from the evidence I provided. I understand that this stance is not fashionable, and I do not care. I am not working to please any establishment, and write for citizen-autodidacts and fellow-professional scholars.

   2. Language matters. Many postmodernists believed that I was doing work similar to theirs. This is true: language affects emotions and political will, and it is a constant struggle to resist the power of words and images that purport to represent “reality.” Therefore, I get very testy when persons I otherwise respect as sincere advocates for their policy du jour, refer to their opponents as loons, fanatics, crazies, wingnuts, moonbats, etc. Leaving aside the insensitivity to the suffering of real psychotics and their support systems when these epithets are tossed around, when I was at Pacifica radio and had the program director job, I tried to explain that the First Amendment was not intended to enable libel and slander (see the correspondence of Jefferson, John Adams, and Abigail Adams on this point), but to advance the search for truth so that citizens could make informed choices in their representatives and support policies that advanced the public interest (not that the public interest is easily determined). In other words, free speech was not an excuse for venting, but a rational means toward a rational end. And I never said that would be easy. Where I diverge from the postmodernists and other irrationalists is my view that we can get better as readers and to a degree, overcome our subjectivity* and get to closer and closer approximations of  reality. If we can’t do that, how can we save the planet?

*Hayden White describes himself and his postmodern colleagues as “radical subjectivists,” that all history writing conforms to literary genres, while he, with other postmodernists, believes that there is nothing “outside the text.” Cf. Immanuel Kant who insisted that we can never encounter “the thing in itself.” In my own work, I agree that particular historical narratives are deployed for purposes of persuasion, and of course believe that these must be identified as misleading and either deliberately twisted, or as simply ideological. [Added August 1, 2010: Benjamin Shepard disputes my reading of Kant and cites this passage from the Prologomena as evidence: " The dictum of all genuine idealists from the Eleatic school to Bishop Berkeley, is contained in this formula: 'All cognition through the senses and experience is nothing but sheer illusion, and only, in the ideas of the pure understanding and reason there is truth.' The principle that throughout dominates and determines my Idealism, is on the contrary: 'All cognition of things merely from pure understanding or pure reason is nothing but sheer illusion, and only in experience is there truth.' " More on this later as the question now arises: why has Kant been so frequently misdescribed by subsequent philosophers (at least the ones I have read)? And what does he mean by "experience." The same as Locke?]

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