I was having dinner recently with the assistant to the Macondo state historian, a man of the people, who was the first in his family to have attended college. I brought up the name of Marx, about whom I’ve been thinking for a couple of years as part of my sense that the epochal occurences of the 19th century, and its thinkers, have yet to be dealt with. The 20th century cataclysms, perhaps a result of the 19th century ones, interrupted our taking in of the 19th century.
This feisty self-made PhD. snorted, and said, “Marx is passe.”
Perhaps. Perhaps in the office of the state historian here in Macondo.
But nowhere else, as even I know, I who don’t really believe in history except the way Marxists write it, about women, minorities, children, jazz, material culture, subalterns, Mafiosi, slaves, lives of the obscure, post-colonials, criminals, food, peasant and popular culture, back channel economies, mental illness, Muslims, Cambodians, peasant resistance, labor, prostitutes, modernity, survivors of genocide — people who lived outside of “history”, the tale of 300 white boys in Paris.
Eric Hobsbawm, perhaps the premier Marxist historian, has died, aged 95, having lived through most of the 20th century, from his birth in the year of the Russian revolution through the 2008 implosion of capitalism.
Some people think he even invented the idea of popular culture.
More than 50 years ago, a bunch of dissident Oxbridge-educated academic historians changed the way the British saw culture. They understood, long before anyone else, that culture is what shapes the world. They also saw that culture is totally democratic and comes from the people. While the official guardians of the arts, such as Kenneth Clark, were praising the “civilisation” of the elite on television and in print, Hobsbawm and co were resurrecting the lost cultures of Luddites, the masked poachers and anyonymous letter writers, of William Blake and John Milton. They discovered and popularised the value of popular culture – something so integral to our lives today it seems bizarre it was ever denigrated.
He taught all his life at a working mens’ college in London, of which he became president, and defended Marxism through its darkest hours. He joined the Communist party in 1936 at Cambridge, along with the intellectual arbiters society, the Apostles. He let his CP membership lapse in the 21st century, and said it had been his life.
“I didn’t want to break with the tradition that was my life and with what I thought when I first got into it,” he told The New York Times in 2003. “I still think it was a great cause, the emancipation of humanity. Maybe we got into it the wrong way, maybe we backed the wrong horse, but you have to be in that race, or else human life isn’t worth living.”
It cost him, though how much only the old atheist could know. During World War II he volunteered to be a spy, as all his Cambridge contemporaries did, but his party affiliation excluded him. He spent the years 1939-1945 building worthless fortifications in East Anglia, making common cause with his working class colleagues. “I did nothing of significance in it,” he wrote of the war, “and was not asked to.” Of his colleagues in the 560 Field Company, he said, “There was something sublime about them and about Britain at that time. That wartime experience converted me to the British working class. They were not very clever, except for the Scots and Welsh, but they were very, very good people.”
If Communism kept him from fighting the war against fascism, it also kept him from writing about the tumultuous 20th century through whose greater part he lived. Only after he was well into his 80s, finally writing his history of the 20th century in The Age of Extremes, did Hobsbawm feel he could write about his own times, “given the strong official Party and Soviet views about the 20th century, one could not write about anything later than 1917 without the strong likelihood of being denounced as a political heretic.”
He wrote, lectured, entertained the chattering classes at tea in Hampstead, and starred as a public intellectual almost until the end. Tony Blair, acknowledging Hobsbawm’s intellectual contributions to Britain’s Labour Party, got him a medal from the Queen in 1998. He always did think of himself as a “Tory communist,” not much admiring the free love communalism of the 1960s.
At the end of his life, he stunned people who think of old men as heroes by defending Stalin’s mass killings.
“Historical understanding is what I’m after, not agreement, approval, or sympathy,” he wrote in his memoir.
In 1994, he shocked viewers when, in an interview with Michael Ignatieff on the BBC, he said that the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin would have been worth it if a genuine Communist society had been the result.
Not to fight fascism, not to write about the 20th century, to defend Stalin’s genocides, seems a high price to pay for loyalty. But Hobsbawm paid it. His work on the rise of capitalism made him Britain’s most respected historian, and he died active, thoughtful, well-loved. And writing.