Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Historian Eric Hobsbawm dies!

ERIC HOBSBAWM, who according to one account became 'regarded as influential in the birth of New Labour', was a distinguished Marxist historian.  Tony Blair in 1998, made him a Companion of Honour.  His fellow historian, Niall Ferguson described his four volume historical coverage from 'The Age of Revolution' to 1994's 'The Age of Extremes', as 'the best starting point I know for anyone who wishes to begin studying modern history'.

He was certainly good at glossing, damage limitation and slipping off the hook of responsibility for the crimes committed in the name of Marx and Marxism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.  Hobsbawm remained in the British Communist Party all his life, even after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

In a relatively recent essay 'Marx Today' (see his book 'How to change the World'), written after a Jewish Book Week in 2007, Hobsbawm writes:  'One cannot say Marx died a failure in 1883, because his writings had begun to make an impact in Germany and especially among intellectuals in Russia, and a movement led by his disciples was already on the way to capturing the German labour movement.'  Then Eric Hobsbawm invites us:  'Walk into Highgate cemetery, where a nineteenth-century Marx and Spencer - Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer - are buried, curiously enough within sight of each other's grave' and he continues triumphantly to add, 'When both were alive, Herbert was the acknowledged Aristotle of the age, Karl a guy who lived on the lower slopes of Hampstead on his friend's money' and yet, 'Today nobody even knows Spencer is there, while elderly pilgrims from Japan and India visit Karl Marx's grave and exiled Iranian and Iraqi communists insist on being buried in his shade.' 

Without wishing to promote Herbert Spencer as a thinker of substance in the modern world, it is curious how Hobsbawm wants to portray Marx's grave almost as a shrine with tribes of pilgrims from far and wide worshiping at it.  Perhaps Hobsbawm was fixated on graves and the immortality of Karl Marx, because he himself was an old man when he wrote this late essay, and he wanted to reassure himself that his own life had not been in vain, and that 'the idea' would survive his own passing.  This anxiety is clearly profound where he writes that if you type Marx's name into Google 'he remains the largest of great intellectual presences, exceeded only by Darwin and Einstein, but well ahead of Adam Smith and Freud.'

It is this is an hierarchical view that the biggest is the best that did much to permeate and poison thinking in the 20th Century.  I suppose it had something to do with the influence of positivism on western thought:  positivism was based on the idea of Auguste Comte, the French philosopher, who called for a new social doctrine based on the natural sciences.  Crudely put, according to Comte's 'Religion of Humanity', mankind was developing out of darkness with the belief in magic being replaced by religion and thence onwards to the rationalist realm of secularism and science.  For Hobsbawm, the historian, the progress was social out of 'Primitive Rebels', through millenarian cults and anarchism, beyond the machine-breakers and Luddites of the early 19th Century to the Chartists, reaching parliamentary socialism, only to culminate, as we now know, with New Labour, and the preacher Ed Milliband going on this week at the Labour Party Conference about a 'One Nation' Britain.  This 'irresistable escalator' of progress is, in fact, not so different from the model proposed by Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx's neighbour lying in Highgate cemetery, who also had a view of Evolution as a principle of science that predicted the continued upward development of the human species.

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm, historian, born 9th, June 1917;  died 1st, October 2012.

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