Thursday, October 07, 2004


The Crooked Timber weblog has a piece of satire on the Cat Stevens deportation incident. It claims that the historian Eric Hobsbawm has been deported in a manner similar to the treatment of Cat Stevens. Hobsbawm is a Marxist who was on U.S. "no-entry" lists during the Cold War, but still was able to enter the U.S. occasionally before 1989 and was a frequent visitor, & part-time resident, subsequently. He held a teaching post at the New School in NYC for awhile, maybe still. He's now 87 years old.

The posting goes like this: 'After the historian’s name appeared on a no-fly list, his UA flight was diverted 600 miles to Maine, the elderly scholar was removed and, after questioning by FBI agents he was placed on the first available flight to the UK. Homeland Security officials said “we’ve been watching this guy for a while, we had new intelligence….”'

People who have commented on this post point out that Stevens is a very active supporter of radical Islam. Possibly the worst that can be said about Hobsbawm is that he has never disowned his belief in Communism despite all the horrors that have been perpetrated by Communist regimes.

The satire got me roiled -- and fooled me into believing it was accurate reporting -- because I've a strong affection for Hobsbawm and his work. The author of the satire tipped his hand by including this link. But, of course, I didn't open it at first.

During the two years I studied in London, he was my thesis advisor and I've fond memories of him. His books are all interesting, and some are special because he's not afraid to write World History, and has the skills to carry it off well. The world history series includes Age of revolution 1789-1848, Age of capital, 1848-1875; Age of empire, 1875-1914; and Age of extremes, 1914-1991.

I've been meaning to write about him in context of a book I recently finished, a book self-described as "big history" meaning not just what Hobsbawm did in his world history series, but the history of all time -- everything from the big bang to the moment the book was written. This book is Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (David Christian. xxii + 642 pp. University of California Press, 2004). It draws heavily on Hobsbawm's work for its treatment of human events of the twentieth-century.

Hobsbawm belongs to the tribe of Labour Historians in England, but is quite different from most of this breed. They confine themselves to England, or at best the United Kingdom, while he ranges world-wide. They seem to be mostly mono-lingual where he has numerous tongues. They're pretty much all British-born, whereas, though a British subject, he was born in Alexandria, Egypt. They're in the Anglo-Protestant tradition, where his roots are Jewish. They stick to history, whereas he has a passion for jazz, and has been a noted jazz critic. What he shares with them is a view of history from the bottom up and a Socialist/Communist inclination or commitment. Typical of this work is his early book Primitive rebels: studies in archaic forms of social movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, 1959. This was the work that drew me to him when I started work on my (unfinished) PhD thesis about imprisonment for debt in late Georgian and early Victorian England. I came later to enjoy his universal approach to history as the "Age of" books subsequently appeared.

My two favorite memories of him don't have to do with academic work. He and his wife came to dinner at our tiny flat one evening and insisted, against all protestation, that he would do the washing up; said he actually enjoyed it. Second, he lent us use of his cottage in Wales for a long-weekend ramble in the spring of 1970. It's an ancient field-stone structure in the wonderfully romantic sheep-grazed hills of North Wales. As he says, it's located "between the Hay-on-Wye literary festival and the Brecon jazz festival" [source]

This is not the actual cottage, but it looks like this.

Despite his age, he continues to frankly speak his mind in print. The current issue of Foreign Policy, has an article in which he writes: "We are at present engaged in what purports to be a planned reordering of the world by the powerful states. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are but one part of a supposedly universal effort to create world order by “spreading democracy.” This idea is not merely quixotic—it is dangerous. The rhetoric surrounding this crusade implies that the system is applicable in a standardized (Western) form, that it can succeed everywhere, that it can remedy today’s transnational."

Though the thought-connection with Maps of Time is strong, it's not the only one that I've been brooding about. It occurs to me that Hobsbawm's career would be interesting to compare with Isaiah Berlin's. Though Berlin is commonly labelled a philosopher, he considered himself to be a historian of ideas and though Hobsbawm has written histories of events, his approach is ideological in the broadest sense. They're both idea men in their way. In their historical research they both seek out the unheralded and overlooked sources. They're both supra-national in outlook, They are both pluralists. I think Hobsbawm would agree with what one commentator has said of Berlin's approach to pluralism: "ultimate human values are objective but irreducibly diverse, that they are conflicting and often uncombinable." Neither espouses "Whig History"; they both view "progress" as at best a misleading way of looking at the course of history. They are both Jewish by birth.

The contrasts are just as remarkable. Hobsbawm is a prolific author, and, while there's lots of Berlin in print, he actually wrote little and relied on a Boswell -- Henry Hardy -- to compile and edit his lectures. Hobsbawm is anti-establishment, Communist, and materialist in philosophic approach. Berlin was establishment, liberal, and not at all doctrinaire, thus more pragmatic in philosophic approach. Hobsbawm is anti-Zionist and believes it was a terrible mistake to set up a Jewish nation in Palestine. Berlin was a Zionist. It might be true to say Hobsbawm champions the common man, if there is such a creature, and that Berlin was fascinated by the larger-than-life characters of history, such as Tolstoy. Trivially, Berlin was an Oxonian while Hobsbawm a Cantabrian.

Interestingly, they both wrote books about Marxism (Berlin's and Hobsbawm's).

Hobsbawm is not conventionally handsome. His face is most dramatic and, as you can see, memorable.

Hobsbawm links:

Eric Hobsbawm: Observer special

Eric Hobsbawm: a life

New York Review of Books

Eric Hobsbawm,
Interviewed by Michael Monteleone

Essential facts

No comments: