≡ Menu

Historian of Hope | The Indian Express

If the army feels it requires continuation of the AFSPA to discharge its responsibilities, no other agency is qualified to credibly challenge that view. Hobsbawm resisted the idea that utopian visions contained the seed of their own destruction. Eric Hobsbawm,the most eloquent and distinguished chronicler of the tragic paradoxes of history,was himself something of a paradoxical genius. Both the histories he wrote and his own judgements that shaped them remain unmatched as a guide to humanity oscillating between emancipation and despair. No serious student of history can escape engaging with them. He was a historian,but often his histories were marked by a keen sense of worlds that might have been. He was a Marxist,but one of the few historians whose appeal transcended all ideological labels. His grasp of detail from statistics to visual imagery was unparalleled,yet his eye was always on the big story. His political narratives contained brilliantly sharp political judgements; yet you always got the sense that he would also suspend his political judgements at crucial moments in the story. He was a Marxist,but in many ways,less concerned with the theoretical occultism that inflicted many of his colleagues; he stood for the common people,but had an elevated tone on ordinary politics that could border on the condescending. As so often,his skill and persona held together contradictions that would have doomed lesser mortals. His universal significance lies precisely in the fact that his contradictions were the contradictions of the centuries he described. By common consensus,his trilogy on the 19th century The Age of Revolution,The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire is regarded as his great achievement,one of the summits of postwar historical writing, as Edward Said described them. It is hard to measure their impact because they have become,to use Audens phrase about Freud,a whole climate of opinion. They are astonishing works in every measure: the literary craft,the handling of detail and a sense of being able to grasp the essence of an age beyond the vagaries of chronology. And they have the hallmark of all great books: agreement with the central thesis of the book is irrelevant to how much you can learn from it. Opinion is more divided on his reflections on the 20th century,including The Age of Extremes and his autobiographical writings. I used to assign his books as background for a course on modern political ideologies,co-taught with one of his other liberal admirers,Stanley Hoffmann. The students loved the books,in tone,content and finesse. The Age of Extremes would leave students more troubled,partly because of its uninterrogated anti-Americanism. But it was also partly because Hobsbawms sensibility,for all its contemporariness,seemed so 19th century. The 19th century had two things that were perfect for a historian of his sensibility. For all its sordidness,violence and exploitation,it had a boundless sense of culture and it had a sense of human possibility. The idea that human emancipation,in the deepest sense of the term,is possible,that somehow humanity would be diminished if it could not imagine a point that transcended the current contradictions of human existence,was very much a 19th century idea. It had not yet been chastened by the horrors and brutalities of the 20th century,which made holding on to shards of civilisation itself seem utopian. Hobsbawm powerfully chronicled these horrors. But what set him apart from his liberal counterparts was the refusal to countenance the belief that the emancipatory and utopian visions contained within themselves the seed of their own destruction. The 20th century was morally unnerving,not just because the grand emancipatory projects failed; history is littered with all kinds of failures. It was unnerving because the cause of failure was the aspiration itself: the attempt to get rid of exploitation completely,the attempt to overcome all the contradictions and hypocrisies of social life,would produce its very opposite. You have to lower your sights if you want to keep humanity safe. Hobsbawm never bought this presumption; the thought that radical emancipation and radical evil were shadows chasing each other never bothered him. He remained a romantic to the last. But what gives his histories such unrivalled power is that he was a Marxist in the sense few Marxists are. For most Marxists,Marxism becomes a form of reductionism,a search for a key,usually in political economy,that will unlock everything. If anything,he was quite sceptical of reductionism,including in his wry abandonment of class analysis. For him,Marxism was almost the opposite: an attempt to synthesise different facets of human existence into a single totality. His masterly weaving of the flows of capital with shifts in culture,of political contingency with the irresistible momentum of deeper forces,made his histories unmatched in their reach and scope. The relationship between his life,political beliefs and his historical craft will continue to be a matter of great debate. He embodied the imprint of history. He was born in a Jewish family,lost his parents at an early age and was multiply displaced by the pressures of early 20th century history. Like so many emigre intellectuals,he enriched British intellectual life in that most British way: becoming its central pillar and yet retaining the perspective of an outsider. His political allegiances,as recounted in his reminiscences,remained steadfastly communist; the tragedy of the 20th century was that communism did not succeed. He hung out with,and glossed over,a range of unsavoury leftist revolutionaries,because even hope needs an embodiment. Part of his wide appeal,I suspect,was his own gentility. He himself was seldom a threat; if anything,his incapacity to be unfazed by what was happening within the communist movement in the face of events like the Prague Spring almost made him politically safe. Hobsbawm is often poignant and powerful when writing about his own life. The early pages of his autobiography measure up to a form of literary greatness. He could turn memorable phrases on every page. He poignantly described the slow dissolution of German democracy as,we were on the Titanic ,and everyone knew it was hitting the iceberg. His political judgements are often astute and have a great sense of irony: the ways in which socialism often ended up invigorating capitalism,the ways in which,in certain contexts,fascism empowered labour. His sense of national differences in political contexts was unmatched. His political beliefs seldom came in the way of explaining the endurance of capitalism with great subtlety and nuance. But he is a less reliable guide on the follies of the Comintern and the dynamics of the Cold War. He chronicled marvellously how communism hit the iceberg. But he could not resist the thought to the effect that it must have been the icebergs fault. The writer,president of the Centre for Policy Research,is contributing editor,The Indian Express
Source : Click Here

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment