By Amitabh Pal on October 01, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, one of our greatest historians, passed away Monday at the grand old age of ninety-five. He was an unabashed man of the left, and his work is an absolute must for understanding our times.

Hobsbawm’s crowning achievement was his four-volume series on the modern world, spanning from the French Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He dedicated many years of his life to this project, with the last volume in this grand sweep appearing more than three decades after the first one. And Hobsbawm had diverse interests, writing on subjects ranging from jazz to banditry. Underlining his work was a hope that there was a better way.

“The test of a progressive policy is not private but public, not just rising income and consumption for individuals, but widening the opportunities and what Amartya Sen calls the ‘capabilities’ of all through collective action,” Hobsbawm wrote for The Guardian in 2009. “But that means, it must mean, public nonprofit initiative, even if only in redistributing private accumulation. Public decisions aimed at collective social improvement from which all human lives should gain.”

His books were globally consumed, with translations in forty-some languages. On his ninety-fifth birthday in June, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Lula, the former head of Brazil, sent their greetings. Hobsbawm was much beloved in Britain, with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband paying him fulsome tribute on his passing. (There was little love lost between him and Tony Blair, though, with Hobsbawm once saying about Blair: “Labour prime ministers who glory in trying to be warlords—subordinate warlords particularly—certainly stick in my gullet.”) Even an imperial apologist such as British historian Niall Ferguson grudgingly acknowledged Hobsbawm’s importance, saying that his quartet was “the best starting point I know for anyone who wishes to begin studying modern history.”

Hobsbawm grew up in Vienna and Berlin before being forced to move to England due to Hitler. Hobsbawm spent his teaching career at Birkbeck University in London, where he retired as the institution’s president.

The most controversial part of Hobsbawm’s biography was his long commitment to Soviet communism. He did make a late break with the Soviet Union, but his association with it put him on the defensive.

I “never tried to diminish the appalling things that happened in Russia,” even if I believed in the early days that “a new world was being born amid blood and tears and horror: revolution, civil war, famine,” The Guardian quotes him as saying. “Thanks to the breakdown of the West, we had the illusion that even this brutal, experimental, system was going to work better than the West. It was that or nothing.”

His hope for communism does not overshadow his work. I’ve read several of his books, including two volumes of the quartet, and the only place where the Soviet Union makes a prominent appearance is in “The Age of Extremes,” where Hobsbawm does condemn Stalin’s atrocities while stopping short of a full-throated denunciation. Otherwise, when you’re reading his work, you’re in the company of an extremely lucid guide who wears his erudition lightly on his sleeve.

Hobsbawm lived long enough to see a wave of uprisings convulse the world again.

"It was an enormous joy to discover once again that it's possible for people to get down in the streets, to demonstrate, to overthrow governments," Hobsbawm told the BBC last December, exulting in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. “It reminds me of 1848—another self-propelled revolution which started in one country then spread all over the continent in a short time.”

As an unrepentant Marxist, Hobsbawm kept his faith in the progress of humanity -- and in collective action -- till the end.

“Whatever ideological logo we choose for” the new system, “it will mean a major shift away from the free market and towards public action,” he wrote in The Guardian two years ago. “And, given the acuteness of the economic crisis, probably a fairly rapid shift. Time is not on our side.”
By explaining what had happened in our past, Hobsbawm tried to show the way to the future. He will be missed.

If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Nonviolence Strategist Gets Deserved Recognition."

Follow Amitabh Pal @amitpal on Twitter

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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