Eric Hobsbawm and the Idols of History

Matt McManus

August 29, 2022

Eric Hobsbawm was that rarest of things: a Marxist historian whose genius was so transparent that liberal and conservative commentators (sometimes begrudgingly) acknowledged it. In his book Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton acknowledged that, reader of Hobsbawm’s historical works can fail to be engaged by them. Their breadth of knowledge is matched by the elegance of their prose, and it is a testimony to Hobsbawm’s talents, as a scholar and a man of letters, that he was elected to Fellowship by both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature. His four-volume history of the emergence of the modern world…is a remarkable work of synthesis.

Coming from a man who described the work of Althusser and Lacan as “nonsense” and depicted Slavoj Žižek’s writing as a “machine gun rattle of topics and concepts” which makes it easy to “slip in his little pellets of poison” this is unexpectedly high praise.

Richard Evans, a world expert on Nazism and a moderate social democrat, wrote a glowing biography of Hobsbawm which praised his intellect and admirable lack of dogmatism on issues of Marxist orthodoxy. And indeed, one of the recurring features of Hobsbawm’s work was how little impressed he was by fetishism of any sort. Most of his ire was rightly directed at the various sublimated idols erected by the political right in the aftermath of the French Revolution, ranging from the Church and organized religion, to nation and race. But Hobsbawm was also wisely sensitive to how the most rigid forms of vulgar Marxism could themselves become tropes in oppressive projects.

Understanding the “Long” Nineteenth Century

Hobsbawm’s masterpiece is a tetralogy of books that covers the period between the French Revolution and the end of the Cold War — Age of Revolution, Age of Capital, Age of Empire, and Age of Extremes. These books are astonishing for their combination of sweep, attention to detail, and literary power. It is honestly difficult to think of any other work of history, or indeed non-scientific analysis generally, which can compare. One of the virtues of the first three volumes is the nuanced approach to the culture, politics, and economics of the nineteenth century, which in effect comes across as the laboratory in which most of the great forces which still govern our world grew into maturity.

These range from the development of industrial capitalism and the hegemony of the global North over the exploited South, to the formulation of liberalism, socialism, and the political right as the dominant ideological templates through which billions were mobilized. As a Marxist, Hobsbawm’s reading of this century is eminently dialectical. He does not shy away from its titanic accomplishments or brutal violence but recognizes both poles as emerging from the same material processes which gradually spread themselves across the globe through a combination of genuine appeal and spectacular violence.