Eric Hobsbawm

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Eric Hobsbawm

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm, CH, FRSL, FBA (9 June 19171 October 2012) was a British Marxist historian and author, once the leading theorist of the defunct Communist Party of Great Britain, and former president of Birkbeck College, University of London.


  • (Carmine Crocco) A farm-labourer and cowherd, had joined the Bourbon army, killed a comrade in a brawl, deserted and lived as an outlaw for ten years. He joined the liberal insurgents in 1860 in the hope of an amnesty for his past offences, and subsequently became the most formidable guerilla chief and leader of men on the Bourbon side.
    • Bandits (Penguin, 1985), p. 25.
  • Liberalism was failing. If I'd been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they'd become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you didn't believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed.
    • As quoted by Eric Hobsbawn, in “A Question of Faith,” Maya Jaggi, The Guardian (Sept. 14, 2002)
  • Look at London. Of course it matters to all of us that London's economy flourishes. But the test of the enormous wealth generated in patches of the capital is not that it contributed 20%-30% to Britain's GDP but how it affects the lives of the millions who live and work there. What kind of lives are available to them? Can they afford to live there? If they can't, it is not compensation that London is also a paradise for the ultra-rich. Can they get decently paid jobs or jobs at all? If they can't, don't brag about all those Michelin-starred restaurants and their self-dramatising chefs. Or schooling for children? Inadequate schools are not offset by the fact that London universities could field a football team of Nobel prize winners.

The Age of Revolution (1962)[edit]

  • Though the web of history cannot be unraveled into separate threads without destroying it, a certain amount of subdivion of the subject is, for practical purposes, essential.
    • Preface
  • Words are witnesses which often speak louder than documents. Let us consider a few English words, which were invented or gained their modern meanings, substantially in the period of sixty years with which this volume deals. They are such words as 'industry', 'industrialist', 'factory,' middle class,' 'working class,' and 'socialism.' They include 'aristocracy,' as well as 'railway,' 'liberal' and 'conservative' as political terms, 'nationality,'scientist,' and 'engineer,' 'proletariat,' and (economic) 'crisis'.
    • Introduction
  • In theory its[The Enlightenment] object was to set all human beings free. All progressive, rationalist and humanist ideologies are implicit in it and indeed come out of it.
    • Chapter 1, The World in the 1780s
  • In terms of political geography, The French Revolution ended the European Middle Ages.
    • Chapter 4, War
  • The really frightening risk of war was neglect, filth, poor organization, defective medical services, and hygenic ignorance, which conditions (as in the troops) practically everybody.
    • Chapter 4, War
  • Rarely has the incapacity of governments to hold up the course of history been more conclusively demonstrated than in the generation after 1815. To prevent a second French Revolution, or the even worse catastrophe of a general European revolution on the French model, was the supreme object of all the powers which had just spent more than twenty years in defeating the first; even of the British, who were not in sympathy with the reactionary absolutism which re-established themselves all over Europe and knew quite well that reforms neither could nor ought to be avoided, but who feared a new Franco-Jacobin expansion more than any other international contingency. And yet, never in European history and rarely anywhere else has revolutionarism been so endemic, so general, so likely to spread by spontaneous contagion as well as by deliberate propaganda.
    • Chapter 6, Revolutions
  • no groups of populations welcomed the opening of the career of talent to whatever kind more passionately than those minorities who had hitherto been disbarred not merely because they were not well-born, but because they suffered official and collective discrimination.
    • Chapter 10, A Career Open to Talent
  • Bourgeois triumph thus imbued the French Revolution with the agnostic or secular-moral ideology of the eighteenth century enlightenment, and since the idiom of that revolution became the general language of all subsequent social revolutionary movements, it transmitted this secularism...
    • Chapter 12, Ideology: Religion
  • Happiness ( a term which caused its definers almost as much trouble as its pursuers) was each individual's supreme object; the greatest happiness of the greatest number was plainly the aim of society
    • Chapter 13, Ideology: Secular
  • The progress of science is not a simple linear advance, each stage marking the solution of posing of problems previously implicit or explicit in it, and in turn posing new problems.
    • Chapter 15, Science
  • In 1831 Victor Hugo had written that he already heard 'the full sound of revolution, still deep down in the earth, pushing out under the kingdom in Europe to its subterranean galleries from the central shaft of the mine which is Paris. 1847 the sound was loud and close. In 1848 the explosion burst.
    • Chapter 16, Conclusion: Towards 1848

Bandits (1969)[edit]

  • People may not like to meet bandits, especially on a dark night, but a taste for reading about them seems to be universal.
    • Preface to Pantheon Edition
  • The point about social bandits is that they are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported.
    • Chapter One, What is Social Banditry
  • Banditry is freedom, but in a peasant society few can be free. most are shackled by double chains of lordship and labour, one reinforcing the other. For what makes peasants the victim of authority is not as much their economic vulnerability - indeed they are as often as not virtually self sufficient - as their mobility.
    • Chapter Two

Nations and nationalism since 1780 programme, myth, reality (1992)[edit]

Eric Hobsbawm (1992). Nations and nationalism since 1780 programme, myth, reality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 76–77. ISBN 0-521-43961-2. 

  • Nevertheless it is evident — if only from the Greek example just cited — that proto-nationalism, where it existed, made the task of nationalism easier, however great the differences between the two, insofar as existing symbols and sentiments of proto-national community could he mobilized behind a modern cause or a modern state. But this is far from saying that the two were the same, or even that one must logically or inevitably lead into the other. For it is evident that proto-nationalism alone is clearly not enough to form nationalities, nations, let alone states.
    • pp. 76–77.
  • However, mass expulsion and even genocide began to make their appearance on the southern margins of Europe during and after World War I, as the Turks set about the mass extirpation of the Armenians in 1915 and, after the Greco Turkish war of 1911, expelled between 1.3 and 1.5 millions of Greeks from Asia Minor, where they had lived since the days of Homer.1 Subsequently Adolph Hitler, who was in this respect a logical Wilsonian nationalist, arranged to transfer Germans not living on the territory of the fatherland, such as those of Italian South Tyrol, to Germany itself, as he also arranged for the permanent elimination of the Jews.
    • p. 133.

The Age of Extremes (1992)[edit]

  • My object is to understand ad explain why things turned out the way they did, and how they hang together. For anyone of my age-group who has lived through all or most of the Short Twentieth Century this is inevitably also a autobiographical endeavor. We are talking about, amplifying (and correcting) our own memories. And we are talking as men and women of a particular time and place, involved, in various ways,in its history as actors in its dramas - however insignificant our parts - as observers of our times and, not least, as people whose views of the century have been formed by what we have come to see as its crucial events.
    • Introduction
  • The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one's contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late twentieth century.
    • Introduction, The Century: A Bird's Eye View
  • The world that went to pieces at the end of the 1980's was the world shaped by the impact of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
  • In the simplest terms the question who or what caused the Second World War can be answered in two words: Adolf Hitler.
  • Human beings are not efficiently designed for a capitalist system of production.
    • p. 414.
  • The paradox of communism in power was that it was conservative.
    • p. 422.
  • Why brilliant fashion-designers, a notoriously non-analytic breed,sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors, is one of the most obscure questions in history; and, for the historian of culture, one of the most central.
    • Chapter Six, The Arts 1914-1945
  • The best approach to this cultural revolution is therefore through family and household, i.e. through the structure of relations between the secondhand generations. In most societies this had been impressively resistant to sudden change, though this does not mean that such structures were static.
    • Chapter Eleven, Cultural Revolution, p.320
  • The cultural revolution of the later twentieth century can thus best be understood as the triumph of the individual over society, or rather, the breaking of the threads which in the past had woven human beings into social textures. For such textures had consisted not only of the actual relations between human beings and their forms of organization but also of the general models of such relations and the texted patterns of people's behaviour towards each other; their roles were prescribed, though not always written. Hence the often traumatic insecurity when older conventions of behaviour were either overturned or lost their rationale, or the incomprehension between those who felt this loss and those too young to have known anything but anomic society.
    • Chapter Eleven, Cultural Revolution, p. 335
  • The old moral vocabulary of rights and duties, mutual obligations, sin and virtue, sacrifice, conscience, rewards, and penalties, could no longer be translated into the new language of desired gratification. Once such practices and institutions were no longer accepted as part of a way of ordering society that linked people to each other and ensured social cooperation and reproduction, most of their capacity to structure human social life vanished. They were reduced simply expressions of individuals' preferences, and claims that the law should recognize the supremacy of these preferences. Uncertainty and unpredictability impended. Compass needles no longer had a North, maps became useless.
    • Chapter Eleven, Cultural Revolution, p.338-339
  • The tragedy of the October revolution was precisely that it could only produce its kind of ruthless, brutal, command socialism.
    • Chapter Sixteen, End of Socialism
  • As I think back, I ask myself, again and again: was there an alternative to the indiscriminate , brutal, basically unplanned rush forward of the Five-Year Plan? I wish I could say there was, but I cannot. I cannot find a answer.
    • Chapter Sixteen, End of Socialism
  • Communism as an ideology had been passionately committed to women's equality and liberation, in every sense including the erotic, in spite of Lenin's own dislike of casual sexual promiscuity. (However, both Krupskaya and Lenin were among the rare revolutionaries who specifically favored the sharing of housework between the sexes)...Yet, with rather rare exceptions...they were not prominent in the first political ranks of their parties, or indeed at all, and in the new communist-governed states they became even less visible. Indeed, women in leading political functions virtually disappeared...When women streamed into a profession opened to them, as in the U.S.S.R., where the medical profession became largely feminized in consequence, it lost status and income. As against Western feminists, most married Soviet women, long used to a lifetime of paid work, dreamed of the luxury of staying at home and doing only one job...whatever the achievements and failures of the socialist world, it did not generate specifically feminist movements,and could indeed hardly have done so, given the virtual impossibility of any political initiatives not sponsored by state and party before the mid-1980s
  • The greatest cruelties of our century have been the impersonal cruelties of remote decision, of system and routine, especially when they could be justified as regrettable operational necessity.
  • Surrealism was a genuine addition to the repertoire of avant-garde arts, its novelty attested by the ability to produce shock, incomprehension, or what amounted to the same thing, a sometimes, embarrassed laughter, even among the older avant-garde.
    • The Arts 1914-1945
  • The art most significantly affected by radio was music, since it was abolished the acoustic or mechanical limitations on the range of sounds. Music, the last of the arts to break out of the bodily prison that confines oral communication, had already entered the era of mechanical production before 1914 with the gramophone, although this was hardly yet within reach of the masses
    • The Arts 1914-1945
  • It was the tragedy of modernist artists, Left or Right, that the much more effective political commitment of their own mass movements and politicians - not to mention their adversaries - rejected them. With the partial exception of Futurist-influenced Italian fascism, the new authoritarian regimes of both Right and Left preferred old-fashioned and gigantic monumental buildings and vistas in architecture, inspirational representations in both painting and sculpture, elaborate performances of the classics on stage, and ideological acceptability in literature.
    • The Arts 1914-1945

How To Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism (2011)[edit]

  • Nothing is easier than to see the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount as 'the first socialist' or communist, and though the majority of early socialist theorists were not Christians, many later members of socialists movements have found this reflection useful.
  • Unlike the word 'communist', which always signified a programme, the word 'socialist' was primarily analytical and critical.
  • Marx's ideas became the doctrines inspiring the labour and socialist movements of most of Europe. Mainly via Lenin and the Russian Revolution they became the quintessential international doctrine of twentieth-century social revolution, equally welcomes as such from China to Peru. Through the triumph of parties identified with these doctrines, versions of these ideas became the official ideology of the states in which, at their peak, something like a third of the human race lived, not to mention political movements of varying size an importance in the rest of the world. The only individually identifiable thinkers who have achieved comparable status are the founders of the great religions in the past, and with the possible exception of Muhammad none have triumphed on a comparable scale with such rapidity. No secular thinker can be named beside him in this respect.
    • Chapter 14, Influence of Marxism 1945-83

Quotes about Hobsbawm[edit]

  • Presented as a pendant to Age of Extremes, a personal portrait hung opposite the historical landscape, what light does Interesting Times throw on Hobsbawm’s vision of the twentieth century, and overall narrative of modernity? In overarching conception, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and Age of Extremes can be regarded as single enterprise – a tetralogy which has no equal as a systematic account of how the contemporary world was made. All display the same astonishing fusion of gifts: economy of synthesis; vividness of detail; global scope, yet acute sense of regional difference; polymathic fluency, at ease with crops and stock markets, nations and classes, statesmen and peasants, sciences and arts; breadth of sympathies for disparate social agents; power of analytic narrative; and not least a style of remarkable clarity and energy, whose signature is the sudden bolt of metaphoric electricity across the even surface of cool, pungent argument.
    • Perry Anderson, "The Vanquished Left: Eric Hobsbawm", published in Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2005)
  • Eric Hobsbawm might complain that I have been unfair: that my real gripe is that I wish that he had written another, different book. He might say that I want a Book Written for the Ages, that reflects what historians in future centuries will find of greatest interest. And he is right, I do. By contrast, he might say, his book is "written by a twentieth-century writer for late-twentieth-century readers," to whom "the history of the confrontation between capitalism' andsocialism'...[s]ocial revolutions, the Cold War, the nature, limits, and fatal flaws of `really existing socialism' and its breakdown" are worth discussing at length. He is writing for readers who take the central theme of twentieth century history to be the tragical-heroic course of World Communism.
    But the tragical-heroic course of World Communism is simply not the central theme of twentieth century history. For what audience is Hobsbawm writing his book? To what "late twentieth century readers" can we recommend The Age of Extremes as covering the pieces of twentieth century history they want and need to learn?
  • In 1968 I was a member of an attentive and admiring student audience whom Eric Hobsbawm was addressing on the theme, as I recall, of the limits of student radicalism. I remember very well his conclusion, since it ran so counter to the mood of the hour. Sometimes, he reminded us, the point is not to change the world but to interpret it. But in order to interpret the world one has also to have a certain empathy with the ways in which it has changed. His latest book is a challenging, often brilliant, and always cool and intelligent account of the world we have now inherited. If it is not up to his very best work it should be recalled just how demanding a standard he has set.
    But there are one or two crucial changes that have taken place in the world—the death of Communism, for instance, or the related loss of faith in history and the therapeutic functions of the state about which the author is not always well pleased. That is a pity, since it shapes and sometimes misshapes his account in ways that may lessen its impact upon those who most need to read and learn from it. And I missed, in his version of the twentieth century, the ruthlessly questioning eye which has made him so indispensable a guide to the nineteenth. In a striking apologia pro vita sua, Eric Hobsbawm reminds us that historians are “the professional remembrancers of what their fellow-citizens wish to forget.” It is a demanding and unforgiving injunction.
    • Tony Judt, "Downhill All the Way", The New York Review of Books (May 25, 1995)
  • Hobsbawm closes his memoirs with a rousing coda: “Let us not disarm, even in unsatisfactory times. Social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought. The world will not get better on its own.” He is right, on every count. But to do any good in the new century we must start by telling the truth about the old. Hobsbawm refuses to stare evil in the face and call it by its name; he never engages the moral as well as the political heritage of Stalin and his works. If he seriously wishes to pass a radical baton to future generations, this is no way to proceed.
    • Tony Judt, "The Last Romantic", The New York Review of Books (November 20, 2003), republished as "Eric Hobsbawm and the Romance of Communism" in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008)
  • Hobsbawm was, as he said in The Age of Empire, writing out ‘the unfolding of an argument’, and that argument takes as given that, when it comes to historical significance, economics matters more than culture, men more than women, the West more than the Rest. His omissions were constitutive, not lapses. Redoing Hobsbawm, in other words, would involve taking on those core assumptions.
  • The chief problem for all of Hobsbawm’s history was that his primary aim was to verify the theories of Karl Marx. Despite claims by his obituary writers that he was never a slave to Marxist doctrine, or that his work was “always nuanced” and “elegant”, the opposite was true.

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