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: suggesting that EH had adopted the “moderate,” i.e., social democratic, line)

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 https://clarespark.com/2012/12/22/my-oppositional-defiant-disorder-and-eric-hobsbawm/,  https://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/. For a drastically different reading of Melville’s Moby-Dick see https://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?

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March 24, 2011

“Queer” Disraeli, Glitz, and the Royals

Endymion and Selene, Sebastiono Ricci, 1713

Reposting this because of the Royal Wedding this week. The blog is relevant because the old deference was supposed to give way to self-reliance and excellent public education in the U.S. I am wondering whether the celebrity culture is not reactionary and an obstacle to a functioning democracy based on neither hero-worship nor state worship. Or should I be drawing distinctions between British royals and Hollywood movie stars, who come from the People?

I spent much of this week reading Benjamin Disraeli’s last published novel, Endymion (1880), which I found generally engrossing and possibly a displaced memoir of his own rise to power. Several recent events prompt this particular blog: 1. a Pajamas Media essay today (March 24, 2011) by Rick Moran complaining about the massive attention paid to the glitzy and vulgar upcoming royal wedding in the U.K., and 2. My surprise that Disraeli’s novels are not in the British literary canon, though his large body of fiction, all dealing with thinly veiled political prime movers and tangential personalities in the world he knew so intimately, is a comprehensive social history of the British aristocracy as it dealt with its gradual displacement by the new “middle class” created by the Industrial Revolution. But more, Disraeli’s novels, devoted as they are to the masculinized intelligence of the British female aristocracy– the powers behind every nobleman and every move up the social ladder for parvenus such as himself– are feasts for fashionistas, gourmands, the horsy set, and admirers of statuesque pre-Raphaelite women with their cascades of hair and enormous long-lashed colored eyes.  Disraeli’s women, so au courant in international and national politics, languages, and the arts, and so astute in the management of their noble spouses, are almost surely men to whom Disraeli was attracted.

Take Endymion. A fantastically beautiful set of twins, Endymion and Myra Ferrars, experience sudden and drastic fall in status owing to the politics surrounding the Reform Bill of 1832. The rest of the book is devoted to their triumphant rise to power beyond the dreams of their fallen genteel parents: they become orphans, but do not complain; rather through ferocious acts of will, self-discipline, and patience they will prevail over the fates. By the end of the story, Myra has become the queen of a new Latin monarchy,  and the beauteous and suave Endymion, coached throughout by his sister and another gorgeous and determined woman, Lady Montfort, becomes Prime Minister and Lady Montfort, newly widowed and
fabulously rich will wed him.  Leaving aside the sub-textual themes of incest and probable gayness, many political lessons are apparent to the American reader, especially to me, for some of the themes developed on this website are vindicated:

1. The landed class of Victorian England maintained its cohesiveness. Aristocratic Whigs and Tories socialized together through all the turmoil: the Reform Bill, the Corn Laws agitation, the Chartists, the revolutions in Europe (1848), the development of a national railroad system. It was clear that they had a common enemy: the new industrial working class and the rising industrialists, all of whom looked back to the puritans of the English Civil War and the poet John Milton. The answer to this challenge from below was moderation, continued paternalism, and an alliance with bankers. The “Neuchatel” family (modeled perhaps on the Rothschilds, though they are definitely not Jewish) are hand in glove with the aristocracy and quickly learn to share their finely wrought tastes and manners.

2. It is almost overwhelming to contrast the paradisaical world inhabited by Endymion and Myra with the description of the working classes of Manchester in 1844 as rendered famously by Friedrich Engels.  The English aristocracy, however apparently engrossed in luxury and frivolity, was faithful to its tradition of paternalism and the providing of spectacle to the lower orders (their tenant farmers, but also small traders and artisans). But among themselves, their young were educated from early childhood on in languages, and learned that the path to glory and the maintenance of class position lay in the mixing with powerful visitors and each other. No frivolity in their table talk; rather it was crucial to read “character” early on, for in Disraeli’s view, it was the will to power by exceptional individuals that caused history (also “race”), and the psychological reading of (highly placed and informed) men and women was their most valuable tool in the race of life.

3. Shockingly, Disraeli allows one of his Continental noble characters to articulate the conspiratorial fantasies alleging Jewish aspirations for world domination that rocked 19th century Europe after the emancipation of the Jews. This is a minor theme, but he does not distance himself from “Baron Sergius.”

4. I was going to say that American feminists should read Disraeli, for his heroines are ever alert to the details of politics and management of foreign relations, but they are probably not typical, and may be masks for men. It is true that there have been European women of learning, distinction, and power, but I can’t take these Ladies too seriously as they are drawn by Disraeli. (On the other hand, Georg Brandes, in his biography of Voltaire describes aristocratic French women of great artistic accomplishment and intellectual power, so Disraeli may not have been exaggerating or masking.  Still, give me Margaret Thatcher and Ayn Rand any day.)

5. I think that the exclusion of Disraeli from the literary canon  is deliberate. He may have been an insider, but he was enough of the outsider to expose the foolishness of the English aristocracy and all other reactionary medievalists. When he isn’t fantasizing about matches made in heaven, he has a sharp tongue and a sense of the absurd that is unsurpassed in more famously comic authors.

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