The Clare Spark Blog

May 3, 2014

The Good Old Days

good-old-days-276x300[This is the second blog on Elie Kedourie: see https://clarespark.com/2014/04/09/disastrous-nationalisms-the-kedourie-version/, written before the second reading of his book.]
Usually I blog about subjects I understand well and can analyze with some clarity, but I admit to being at a loss to explain why arch-conservative intellectual historian and social theorist Elie Kedourie’s famous book Nationalism (1960) is considered to be a classic in the field of intellectual history. Nor can I explain why Blackwell Press (in the UK) brought out a fourth expanded edition (1993), for Blackwell is a publisher I associate with the Left: indeed they published Thomas Picketty’s Capital, which has lefties in a tizzy, calling Piketty the new Marx. “Everyone is talking about it.”

Kedourie’s book bears all the imprints of the reactionary: he blames the French Revolution for giving ordinary persons the notion that they could reject authority, even secede from or overturn despotic states; he loathes Romanticism as demonic; he prefers the catch as catch can “order” of the Middle Ages (and antiquity?) to modernity—even the “balance of power” is attributed to the sensible compromises that medieval dynasties/royal families were ostensibly prone to; he loathes John Locke’s empiricism, aligning himself with Kant’s radical subjectivism (anticipating postmodernist claims that “all knowledge is local”?); the invention of the printing press was a disaster for Order, as were the Industrial Revolution, machines in general, and the economic determinism they spawned; and the notion of the modern woman working outside of her traditional role is foreign to his mind-set. As for cities, they are home solely to anomie.

On the other hand, he attacks German philology and the notion of national character advanced by the Germans Herder and Fichte, leading, he says to Hitler’s deadly super-nationalism; he blames the settlement following the Great War for disturbing local communities and carving out artificial states that made no sense to either Central Europeans or to the Middle East. (I agree with this critique, and have traced cultural nationalism myself in numerous blogs on this website. But how odd is it that Kedourie uses the word “race” as if these races were real in the world, and not socially constructed: there goes his implicit critique of “multiculturalism”!)

For admirers of England and American constitutionalism, he blames neither the Reformation, the English Civil War, nor the American Revolution as contributing to the chaos he limns throughout his book.

It appears that democracy is his target, but not rule by a flexible hereditary elite. What leaves me bewildered is his affection for primitives on some pages (they comprise authentic communities and should not be disturbed by modernizers), while on other pages primitivism feeds into “nationalism” through the development of distinctive languages that embody popular “feeling”.

In the good old days that Kedourie admires, ordinary people went about their artisanal business and put up with whatever elites dished out: religion bound peasants to monarchs and the status quo (for more on the excellencies of this social bond, see https://clarespark.com/2010/02/10/a-brooding-meditation-on-intimacy-and-distance/). I give up and am open to comments that explain how an apparent anti-statist can appeal to a distinctively left-wing publishing house–unless the hidden agenda is a defense of Islamic principles. The target of Kedourie’s wrath may be “Jewish nationalism” as embodied in “the Zionist state.” See http://zioncon.blogspot.com/2007/07/yoav-gelber-disease-of-post-zionism.html.

Unless, as Ralph Nader rejoices in his latest book, Left and Right have not only converged, but their marriage is part of a historic political realignment where statist leftism gets thrown out the window.
goodolddaysleft

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November 23, 2012

Historians vs. pundits: the Eric Hobsbawm synthesis

Liberty Leading the People

For a more recent assessment of Hobsbawm, see https://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 https://clarespark.com/2013/05/06/the-new-left-activist-scholars/.)

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