Eric Hobsbawm and Capitalism Studies
By Eli Zaretsky
Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), one of the greatest historians of the modern world, taught at the New School for Social Research from 1984 to 1996. Today we consider him a founding spirit of the Capitalist Studies program at the Robert L. Heilbroner Center. Hobsbawm thought of modern history as the history of capitalism, in other words, as the history of the bourgeois and working classes who made the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who created the modern structures of nationalism, imperialism and colonialism and whose world exploded in the general crisis of the twentieth century, the two world wars. Just as liberal capitalism gave way to consumer capitalism, so liberal politics gave way to a new mass politics reflected both in the rise of fascism and communism, as well as in the mass democracies in which we live today.
For Hobsbawm, capitalism was not an economic system; he did not equate the history of capitalism with the history of industry, business, and finance. Rather he saw capitalism in broad social terms, closely connected to culture, politics, and intellectual life. All of these realms had their own independent trajectories, but they were also part and parcel of capitalist society. For Hobsbawm, too, capitalism was a global system. His famous tetralogy, The Age of Revolution, de-provincialized European and American history long before this became fashionable. Nor was there anything narrow or reductionist about Hobsbawm’s work. Writing at a time when many American and European academics had concluded that the Marxist focus on capitalism was obsolete and had turned instead to problems of race, gender and sexuality, Hobsbawm wrote the history of the brutal exclusions of bourgeois society, such as slavery and colonialism. His great originality and independence of mind was also evident in the range of his other historical work — on jazz and the blues, on bandits as a form of “pre-political” rebellion, on “the invention of traditions,” such as nationalism, on the youth culture of the 1960s, and on the avant-gardes.
Hobsbawm was also an inspiring figure in that he combined a critical, leftist perspective with the highest standards of scholarship and historical objectivity. Born in Egypt of Polish-Jewish descent, he joined the Communist Party when he was sixteen years old and living in Nazi Germany, to which he was moved when his parents died. A few years later Hobsbawm moved to London. Amazingly, he did not leave the Party until the 1990s. Yet, he never wrote anything dogmatic or “party-linish,” just as he never pretended to write anything that was simply “apolitical” or objective, without advancing a point of view. Because he understood and respected the historian’s craft regardless of political orientation, Hobsbawm won the highest respect among professional historians. In 2008 the American Historical Review devoted a special section to a reexamination of his first major publication, “The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century.” Other works by Hobsbawm considered classics of historical scholarship include Primitive Rebels, Captain Swing, Echoes of the Marseillaise and Industry and Empire.
Hobsbawm also continues to inspire us because he was a public intellectual. He founded several important journals including Past and Present, was President of Birbeck College and was active in the important political movements of his time, from the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era to the anti-Iraq War movement in his last years. His autobiography is entitled Interesting Times. Everything he did was leavened not merely with enormous learning, but also with humor and humanity. His death in 2012 was widely covered in the British media and he remains a living presence for us at the New School for Social Research today.
(Image titled, “Eric Hobsbawm in the 1960s” and found online here)