⚡ Eric Hobsbawm

Sunday, October 10, 2021 7:45:29 AM

Eric Hobsbawm



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Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), in the Oxford DNB

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3. In my post attacking immigration control I mentioned that I was going to study nationalism. Hobsbawm usefully summarizes some of these achievements in his introduction, and in doing so shows how surprisingly little attention was paid to the subject by scholars before this new spate of books. However, I should note that I am not too concerned right now with matters of historiography the study of the methodology of the discipline of history, or the history of history if you like , partly because I am not remotely qualified. I am convinced that an understanding of nationalism is vital to any progressive or radical democratic politics. It is the basis of increasingly unaccountable state power and the intensified restriction of migration even while national control over capitalism is being eroded by globalization.

Although Hobsbawm does not cover these things in the book, they are the phenomena that I am trying to understand, and despite my doubts about his conclusions I found his analysis to be an invaluable education. He also supplements this definition, which is so minimal as to seem inadequate, with the notion of an overriding commitment to this principle. He begins the first chapter by arguing for the basic foundational premise upon which he builds everything else: that the nation is a relatively recent phenomenon.

This is in stark contrast to the way we are often taught to think about it, and the way that commentators, politicians, statesmen — and historians — routinely talk about it. Indeed, appeals to nationhood and national feeling, that is, the basic ideology of nationalism which to a greater or lesser degree seems to frame our thinking about anything political and historical, most often depend on a conception of the nation as ancient and primordial. I have always been accustomed to think of a nation just as a sovereign state, the basic global political unit bounded by definite borders, administered by a single government, and having its own flag, capital city, and so on.

I have come to realize that this is at the very least a narrow, idiosyncratic and new use of the word; it has more usually meant a people rather than a state , more specifically a culturally homogeneous group with shared history and language, or what we now call an ethnicity. In any case, it seems that today it still means a people, but one that controls a defined territory under one government — rather than the state as such. A community of people of mainly common descent, history, language. Hobsbawm addresses the question of how this came to be important, with a view to examining the social and political developments out of which nationalism would become a force to be reckoned with.

In doing so he shows how the balance of the ethnic and the political elements of the concept of nation has shifted. The relationships we have to other members of the nation are imaginary or constructed: they are based on ideas. To return to the basic premise, nations in the modern sense are not the primary, essential and eternal units of humanity; the modern sense coincides with a modern phenomenon. The basic characteristic of the modern nation and everything connected with it is its modernity.

However, the point is that prior to the studies of Hobsbawm, Gellner, Anderson and others, the mainstream view among historians was that the nation as we came to understand it in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, i. Hence it is more important than it first appears to emphasize the modernity of the modern nation. Prior to this, kingdoms, multicultural empires and polyglot city-states prevailed, and it is wrong to describe these as nations. It was taken for granted in medieval Europe, for example, that a king did not share the culture, history, genetic descent or even language of his subjects, and their loyalty or antipathy to him had little to do with these things. In fact, their loyalties and antipathies were most often aimed at their local feudal lords, those who exercised direct power over them.

To see the contrast, recall that it was only when the modern nation had become a powerful force, in the twentieth century, that George V felt compelled by the nationalism of the British people in the First World War to change the name of his family from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the House of Windsor, demonstrating that royal families were an anachronism in the world of nation-states and that national feeling was something they struggled to come to terms with.

And if we look at the terms in which the stories of the age-old nation are told, namely appeals to geography, language, culture and history, we see that the claims for national continuity and ancient provenance are false. That is, nationalism is for the most part founded on lies the big question might be, are we fed these lies by our rulers, or do we tell them to ourselves? Physical geography might be the first defence of nationalism that occurs to a person who takes nations for granted. But it was always present, and perhaps in the end it was dominant.

Communists could be great historians fascists could not , because communism provides history with a plot. But because communism in the 20th century was not just an idea but a political reality, its story slowly transformed from one of prophecy to one of retrospective editing. The Soviet Union, to borrow Brezhnev's term, "really existed," and its policies of mass killing were widely known: the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians in , the mass shootings of peasants and ethnic minorities in and , the alliance with Nazi Germany in , the executions of Polish prisoners of war in , the postwar domination of eastern Europe, the crushing of reform movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and all the rest.

In Hobsbawm's extraordinary history of the modern world, the last part is the weakest, in part because he must face this problem of a Soviet Union that itself poses a problem for a communist scheme of history. It did not bring what communism promised, and then it came to an end. But the idea that history is a grand story with a wonderful conclusion did not. Over the course of the Cold War, we in the West, and especially in America, came to think of history as having a plot, just one which happened to be the reverse of the communist one. Private property must stay, not be abolished. The state must shrink, not grow. The rich are not villains, but heroes. Capitalism does not bring its own collapse, but expanding stability.

If we followed these simple prescriptions, then a utopia would await us as well. In the following extract from his memoir, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life , he reflects on his rejection of Zionist tribalism in favour of internationalism and universal values: "What exactly could 'being Jewish' mean in the s to an intelligent Anglo-Viennese boy who suffered no anti-Semitism and was so remote from the practices and beliefs of traditional Judaism that, until after puberty, he was unaware of even being circumcised?

Perhaps only this: that sometime around the age of 10 I acquired a simple principle from my mother on a now forgotten occasion when I must have reported, or perhaps even repeated, some negative observation of an uncle's behaviour as 'typically Jewish'. She told me very firmly: 'You must never do anything, or seem to do anything that might suggest that you are ashamed of being a Jew. My mother's principle was sufficient for me to abstain, with regret, from declaring myself konfessionlos without religion as one was entitled to do in Austria at the age of It has been enough to define my Judaism ever since, and left me free to live as what my friend the late Isaac Deutscher called a 'non-Jewish Jew', but not what the miscellaneous regiment of religious or nationalist publicists call a 'self-hating Jew'.

I have no emotional obligation to the practices of an ancestral religion and even less to the small, militarist, culturally disappointing and politically aggressive nation-state which asks for my solidarity on racial grounds. I do not even have to fit in with the most fashionable posture of the turn of the new century, that of 'the victim', the Jew who, on the strength of the Shoah and in the era of unique and unprecedented Jewish world achievement, success and public acceptance , asserts unique claims on the world's conscience as a victim of persecution.

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