Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, a good man has passed on

Hobsbawm was an amazing and sensitive historian. I remember the first time that I encountered his writings, in a comparative politics course where we were studying the resurgence of nationalism, among other trends. Hobsbawm was quoted in an article about the former Yugoslavia, with regards to the Kosovars and the Serbs, which had gone into great depth about all of the history of ethnic conflict between the two peoples...Hobsbawm, after all that, suggested that maybe some of the conflict had to do with the economic collapse of Yugoslavia after '89. It was a Gordian knot moment, where a simple material explanation cut through a lot of the posing that was going on at the time.

But Hobsbawm was anything but a simple materialist. In works like "Customs in Common" Hobsbawm talked about the interrelationship between culture and economics in a deep and sensitive way that attributed semi-autonomy to the cultural sphere. Jonathan Jones, in The Guardian, gives a great tribute to Hobsbawm's cultural work here "Eric Hobsbawm changed how we think about culture". On a personal level, his explanations of where the Tartan patterns actually came from ("Customs in Common")as well as reasons why shoemakers and tailors have conventionally been associated with radical politics ("Uncommon People")were pieces that melded a great sensitivity to his topic with incisive analysis that was far from treating the people involved as simple manifestations of economic forces.

Hobsbawm could definitely stand up for a rigorous economic analysis as well, though, for instance in his great book "Industry & Empire", where he charted the course of the English Industrial Revolution and how it effected both British culture and world culture as a whole, while looking at the inter-relationship between internal British economic development and what colonialism and trade brought to it.

All in all, while in some places he could come off as a little doctrinaire in his Marxism, this doctrinaire nature only stands out in relation to the more liberal titans of British Marxist history like E.P. Thompson, whose work was sublime.

His presence will be missed.

No comments: