Eric Hobsbawm Speaks on His New Memoir

Eric Hobsbawm Speaks on His New Memoir

Noted historian discusses "Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life" with UCLA audience.

The world famous historian Eric J. Hobsbawm was an honored guest of UCLA's Center for European and Eurasian Studies January 29 for a talk and discussion of his best-selling memoir, Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life (Knopf, August 2003). Almost 200 people gathered in a room of the Law School, where the noted author was introduced by Ivan Berend, professor of History and director of the European and Eurasian Center. After short remarks by Hobsbawm, Berend posed a number of questions to him, followed by questions from the audience. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the meeting.

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Introduction by Ivan Berend:

This is not Eric Hobsbawm's first time in Los Angeles. He visited Los Angeles ten years ago. This is an occasion to discuss his recently published memoirs, which as you have seen in different kinds of dailies everywhere, became a world sensation, reviewed all over the world.

Let me introduce him, although it is absolutely superficial. Everybody knows him, if not personally then by words, which is the most important way to know a scholar. But let me introduce him very briefly. The first word to say is that Eric is an absolutely exceptional, extraordinary man. Even his birth was extraordinary. Because his Austrian mother and English father met just before the First World War, and since they belonged to hostile empires, they had to go to neutral Switzerland to marry during the war, and Eric was born in Egypt. As a British citizen, of course, but in Egypt.

His youth was extraordinary. Because he was shifted from one country to another. He became an orphan at the age of fourteen. And of course all these political upheavals which accompanied his youth made it very extraordinary. His education was extraordinary, because he studied in Austria, in Germany, in London, and Cambridge. Quite an interesting combination. His wife is extraordinary, Marlene. His professional career was even more extraordinary. His interest in history emerged, as he confessed once, after having read the Communist Manifesto. The German high schools did not generally promote an interest in history. He participated in the class of Michael Postan at Cambridge, a fantastic historian, who had a tremendous impact on Eric. And he had a very special workshop, very few historians had such a workshop, the Communist Party's historians' group, in England during the 1950s. He was a very important member of this quite exceptional group.

He became a professor of London University's Birkbeck College in the second half of the forties. He was also affiliated with King's College, his alma mater at Cambridge. And after retiring from London University he started to teach at the New School in New York, was a visiting professor at Stanford, Cornell, MIT, and actually meanwhile he authored more than twenty books, all of which are very famous and very important. He became a member of the British Academy, of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He was given many honorary degrees, and was awarded the very prestigious Balzan Prize last year.

Now the most important thing, that he emerged as the best living historian, an intellectual giant. Tony Judt, who is not a friend, I have to say, wrote in the New York Review of Books, and I quote one sentence: "Hobsbawm is a cultural folk hero. His fame is well deserved. Hobsbawm doesn't just know more than other historians, he writes better, too." I want to risk a personal remark, that Eric made the greatest impact on my work. You could not realize that from my work, but that is true that he made it. Nearly forty years ago he invited me to a panel at the Munich International Current History Congress, where I presented my first comparative study, and I turned to comparative history.

His trilogy, which is absolutely well known -- Bourgeois Revolutions (1789-1848), The Triumph of the Bourgeoisie (1848-1875), and The Age of Empire (1875-1914) -- are exceptional comparative analyses of modern European history. And not only comparative but complex, including cultural, political, social, and economic history into that discourse. He of course published many other books. I will just mention his very famous basic book on nationalism. Moreover he wrote a book on chess, for which he used a pseudonym, I don't know why: Francis Newton. Later he published the revised version under his own name.

His memoirs we are discussing today are a real world sensation. It has already been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, and is coming up in French, Japanese, Turkish, and Korean. All the leading journals reviewed it. It is thus a very special occasion that we are able to discuss this extremely important book with his participation.

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Eric Hobsbawm's Initial Presentation

I'm very happy to be back here in UCLA. The last time I was here, except for a very brief trip was at the end of the eighties, when I was over at the Getty when it was over in Santa Monica. And in those days, Santa Monica, the Getty had the enormous advantage (a) of getting all the books you wanted, but (b) of having a regular parking lot in UCLA so I could drive over from Santa Monica to UCLA and work in the library here. So I'm not a total stranger to this particular campus.

Those of you who have looked at my history of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes, may remember that I begin it with a quotation from Isaiah Berlin. "I've lived through the twentieth century without, I must add, suffering personal hardship," says Isaiah. "I remember it only as the most terrible century in Western history." That is more or less my case. Moreover, I have spent most of my life reading, writing, and teaching, and why should I ask people to read the autobiography of such a person? And writing is by definition an invitation to read.

Well, I have one qualification: old age. I am coming up to eighty-seven, which means I have lived a longer time than at least 99 percent of the human beings alive today. So my life has a certain scarcity value inversely proportionate to the age of my readers. When I used to teach in New York, and told my students I saw the news that Hitler had come to power as I was walking home from school in Berlin, I got the impression that these young men and women thought of me as somebody who might have been present at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. That afternoon belonged to a past so remote that it was no longer a chronological succession of events which have some connection to our lives. For them it was just part of a long ago, where time differences hardly matter. Who would want to know whether the once upon a time of Cinderella came before the once upon a time of Snow White?

To tell you the truth, I sometimes feel the same sense of unreality as I look back on the events in my own life which are now known to have been important in history, such as the dramas of Germany in 1923, but which at that time when I was a small boy could mean nothing to me. It is only in retrospect that I understand that they were important.

I can't help thinking that my own reaction to those events is no different to what I happen to feel about events that happened before my time, about which I only know from books and manuscripts and archives, and family hearsay, such as the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. Still, if you are too young to know more than a fraction of the terrible century which humanity has just survived -- I don't quite know how -- it may be helpful to see what it was like from a record of someone to whom its events were not just dates but etched into personal life. A walk back from school in Berlin as Hitler comes to power. Taking a night train full of English chorus girls returning from the Casino de Paris and the Follies Bergere on the night before the Second World War broke out. Getting married in the middle of the Cuba missile crisis. That's one reason.

A Sense of Impermanence

Sheer age, however, gives people like me another advantage. A sense of impermanence. Unlike some politicians, we don't live in dreamland. We have lived through nothing but fundamental changes. In the course of my life I have seen the old colonial empires of Europe disappear. What is left of the British empire, which never covered a vaster area of the globe than when I was a baby? I have seen the rise and fall of the last European power with world conquering ambitions, Hitler's thousand year Reich. Communism, the world revolution, began with the October Revolution, captured a third of the world's population within little more than thirty years after Lenin got off the train at the Finland Station in what is now St. Petersburg. Where is it now? I've lived through it from start to finish. There are people in President Bush's Washington who believe nothing stands in the way of a permanent world hegemony or supremacy of the United States. People of my age and historical experience know that empires do not last.

What kind of autobiography have I tried to write? It isn't, it could just be, a linear chronological succession of events and experiences. Of course, much of my book is a story of successive events, but every historian knows that you can't tell history only as a narrative except at the cost of sacrificing what really counts, namely the interconnection of the whole. I found this is so in autobiography also.

Beyond a certain point, one thing after another will no longer do. My life has been what the world today has become, a place where men and women have their being simultaneously, or almost simultaneously, in different places, cultures, and civilizations. This doesn't lend itself to chronological narrative. For instance, my book has separate chapters about my relationship with certain countries, regions, and cultures: France, Spain, Italy, the USA, parts of the Third World, especially Latin America. But these are not just the peripatetic professor's travelogues. As far as I'm concerned, these places weren't and aren't abroad. They are an integral part of our world of globalization, as well as of the life of someone who, like myself, could at one time simultaneously hold jobs in London, Paris, and Ithaca, New York.

We need to understand this sort of situation. Of course, I had also hoped to get rid of the provincialism of those who can't see beyond the borders of their own country, and practically all of us are subject to this particular danger. And that is why I have tried to avoid insularity in all my work.

Now, that is more or less everything that I wanted to say in introduction. Perhaps just one other thing. This book, the autobiography, is what you might call the B side, the flip side, of the main record, which is my history of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes. Age of Extremes was an attempt to show the history, what's been happening in the past century, from time to time illustrated by personal experience or somebody who has lived through some of it, directly, or mostly indirectly. Well this time, it's in a sense how does this history help to shape the thinking, the personality, and so on, of the historian? So in a sense, the two things belong together. But this is supplementary, it's not the main act.

Questions by Ivan Berend

Ivan Berend: My first question is, you had, as we can read, a very dramatic personal life and historical experience in your young age. How in your view did it influence your life, which is so respectable and so impressive? You did not say. I think that this first one and a half decades of your life had a tremendous impact on your loyalty to an idea as well.

Eric Hobsbawm: The first thing to understand is that I grew up living under a volcano which was in the middle of erupting. In a world which had gone to bits, which had been a field of ruins in World War I. Which was expected to be another field of ruins in World War II. Where an old society has gone to pieces, the society of my parents before 1914. When my older relatives said "in peacetime," they meant before 1914, because nothing after 1918 counted for them as peacetime. In a society which had not been reconstructed, at least in central Europe. It was more stable in England, much more stable at least until the great Depression in the USA, but not in central Europe. There's this.

And is a way it is difficult, if I may quote from the book, it is difficult for those who have not experienced the age of catastrophe of the twentieth century in central Europe to see what it meant to live in a world that was simply not expected to last. In something that could not really even be described as a world, but merely a provisional way station between a dead past and a future not yet born, unless perhaps in the depths of revolutionary Russia. And nowhere was this more palpable than in Austria, which was a small fragment of something that had once been a big empire, and it didn't believe in itself. It didn't believe it was going to last. And in Germany, which was in the Weimar Republic and the death of the Weimar Republic. It is this experience which of course made me turn to the left, Communist, and so on. That's fine.

Hopes in the Russian Revolution

The second thing of course is that there did seem to be some hope, and that hope was in the Russian Revolution. We didn't expect it to be a paradise. We expected it to be a hope of a new world. We didn't know where it was going, and in the end it turned out to be not such a good world as we had expected. But that hope was there. And that hope was enormously powerful in the first generation of people who just grew up after World War I, after the collapse, zusammenbruch, as they said, everything is broken down.

And as I tried to describe, this explains to some extent the curious feeling that those of us who turned to the left in those days still have, can't get rid of, about Russia -- which I never had, for instance about China. China was in some ways a greater thing, but China never for anybody was the potential of world transformation.

If I want to say briefly what personal effect it had on me I would say the first effect, of not merely living under these circumstances but also of having a kind of difficult childhood, which you can read about in my book, [was that I learned that you] handle your problems yourself. Don't talk about them. If you can't solve them, nobody else will. That's one. Second, try and not have any illusions about the world you live in. That sounds funny for somebody that has a lot of illusions, but the fact is that you had hopes. But try, living in this situation, not to have uncritical hopes. And the third, not to be a quitter. To stick to what you want. The only thing that would keep you going is a firm hold on yourself and your loyalties and what you wanted to do and what you felt you had to do.

I don't defend any of these attitudes except possibly the skepticism, which is quite a good thing for an academic to have. But I think they need to be put forward because that's one of the things that did help make me what I was.

Ivan Berend: The leitmotif of your memoirs is your commitment to a social, political idea and the British Communist Party. Of course I fully understand and you explain why you joined the left. But the question is, and many reviews and critiques mention that, why did you remain loyal for so long? And for example, again quoting Tony Judt, who wrote in my taste the ugliest sentence upon your memoir, he maintains that "Hobsbawm refuses to stare evil in the face and call it by its name." He added, "Eric Hobsbawm is the most naturally gifted historian of our time but rested and untroubled he somehow slept through the terror and shame of the age." What is your answer to this question? But let me add, it's a very long question, how could you follow 1956, 1968? You became a Eurocommunist, you became the right wing of the party, as you mentioned in your memoir. But you still remained in it, and what is the explanation? I have an explanation, I'm not sure whether it is true or not, based on my own experience. You probably believed that the Catholic Church was very inhuman and ugly in its first period. Capitalism was very cruel in its first period. But it changed. So, will communism change?

Hobsbawm: Well, the first thing to say is that in my life I wasn't committed to the British Communist Party. I was in it. I supported it. But in fact my life was committed to the world revolution when I was a young kid, and to the cause of the emancipation of the human race, one way or another, the world rather than the British. Nobody actually expected the revolution to happen in England. Not even in our most extraordinary periods did we do so, though I believe that some of the kids in 1968 actually thought it might happen. We never did. We saw England as something which was part, perhaps because it was the imperial power of really an enormous country, that had a role to play, but it was the world that counted.

Response to Khrushchev's 1956 Revelations about Stalin

And I think that takes me back to the question of 1956. Nineteen fifty-six being the period when Khrushchev publicly denounced Stalin, and therefore officially, as it were, at least part of the outrageous events in the Soviet Union became undeniable, even by those who would have preferred to deny them. Not all of us were quite as simple minded, but still. Before 1945 there was no problem. The idea that we were somehow or other denying the evil in the world didn't arise. The main danger was Nazi Germany. For, to fight Nazi Germany, and this went not only for Communists but for others, in order to do this the Soviet Union was essential. Communists thought that it was more important than that, but even noncommunists thought that without the Communist Party, without the Soviet Union, Hitler could not be defeated. And this was true. Consequently, whatever Stalin did, even if you didn't like it, even if you hated it, this was a price which had to be paid.

Perhaps you may remember, there was an interesting novel written by a man called Robert Harris, an English journalist, a very good novelist, called Enigma, the decrypting center in Great Britain, which turns on the fact that the British government knows in the middle of the war that the Soviet Union had massacred thousands of Polish officers in Katyn, a thing the Russians denied. And that there is in the decrypting center a Pole who cannot bear this and says, "This is intolerable. The British government must not keep quiet about this in the interests of the joint fight, World War II and everything." That is the key of the whole story. But the British government did keep quiet. They knew about it. Because it was more important to win the war against Hitler than to condemn at that time Stalin.

Stalin's Crimes Were Irrelevant to the Third World

So before 1945 that was the situation. The arguments that were used by liberals later on did not arise. Nineteen fifty-six was a traumatic experience, particularly for the left in the West, but not everywhere. If I think of my friends in India, what did 1956 mean to them? Not very much. The important thing for them was not what happened in the Soviet Union, as far as I remember talking to my Indian friends, who were saying in those days that they were trying to compare their own countries with, say, Tajikistan or Soviet Central Asia, and saying, well, terrible in some respects, but they are actually getting further ahead than countries like us are doing.

Nineteen fifty-six and years afterward in countries like India meant essentially the split between the Russians and the Chinese. And the Indian left split between those who remained loyal -- a minority -- to the Soviet Union, and the majority who claimed to be loyal both to Stalin, the memory of Stalin, and to Mao Tse-tung, the so-called Communist Party Marxist. Would you have expected, if you were an Indian Communist, to condemn everything you had believed in? They didn't. It wasn't relevant to them, at least as relevant as here.

Look at Latin America, where I was traveling in the early sixties. Same thing. Nineteen fifty-six for them meant a political decision within the Latin American left. For them, the Soviet Union represented, not Stalin, however awful -- that was far away -- but an orthodox Moscow Communist Party which they thought was too moderate. They wanted to break away from it towards whoever it was, Castro, some to the Maoists. That was the big issue after 1956 in Latin America, in a place like Brazil or Argentina.

Look at it in South Africa. In South Africa, the matter was irrelevant. The Soviet Union, whatever happened inside there, was the one country which was supporting their struggle, indeed, arming them, paying them, in the struggle against apartheid. And it remained so. I used to know Joe Slovo, who was a leading man in the armed struggle against it, who to the end of his life remained, officially speaking as it were, a hard-line Stalinist. Not because he didn't condemn mutual massacre and all the rest, but because he was thinking of what the movement meant in South Africa.

Look again at 1956 in countries like Spain. Nineteen fifty-six, what did it mean? It meant the beginning of actual effective anti-Franco organization, which in the 1960s developed very rapidly, largely organized by the Communist Party, a lot of which remained officially pro-Moscow. Everybody joined it. All the students joined it. Why? Because they were much less concerned with what Stalin had done in the Ukraine, awful though that was, than they were concerned with the fight in Spain.

The Shift to Eurocommunism

The issue which is raised by people like Tony Judt is one which applies to certain parts of the world at certain times. And here I think it is perfectly true, and it applies only to a particular small moment. Because after a year or two even the Western Communist parties, most of them in fact tended to move towards, effectively, a much more moderate social democratic line, what eventually was called Eurocommunism. People who were not in favor of the Soviet Union, who were anti-Stalinist, official Communist parties which condemned, for instance, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, bitterly, officially, the parties did, and consequently there was no particular reason why if you hadn't left after the immediate trauma of fifty-six you should necessarily leave afterward.

So, I was part of that movement. I was part of the so to speak Eurocommunist movement. Should I have left in fifty-six? A lot of people did. Not everybody. I think it's a real problem. Because, frankly, the English Communist Party was not very important. And it wouldn't have hurt very much simply to say, I break my links with this, even though I did not want to break my links with the rest of the Communist movement in the world, which represented something else, a different situation.

I tried to explain in my autobiography that it was certainly not. . . . Partly I think Ivan is right. We all hoped that there was a potential for improvement. Isaac Deutscher hoped it, the great Trotskyite. He said, well, now, maybe it has stabilized, maybe we will eventually get a more civilized kind of communism. People inside the Soviet Communist Party, some of them must have believed it. More people I think inside the so-called People's Democracies believed it. I think they turned out to be mistaken. But it was not necessarily a disreputable belief. There are personal factors. There is the factor that those of us who belonged to a particular generation found it very very hard to break with this idea. It was part of our lives. And there are two other elements which I mention in my autobiography. One is, you might say, the simple fact that I hated the idea. I didn't want to become an ex-Communist because so many ex-Communists became, I mean, they think that the only way that the god that failed could be managed is by turning him into Satan. And this was not the cause of Satan.

And the other, which I mention in passing, without defending it, it was just plain pride. I said to myself, fuck them. If I left the Communist Party it would be good for my career. Fuck them.

A Distinction between Left and Right Activism

Ivan Berend: One of the very important lessons of your book was a fine distinction between left and right activism. Of course it became an intellectual commonplace since Hannah Arendt's book on the origins of totalitarianism that totalitarianism left or right has basically the same roots, etc., etc. You have a totally different view on that, which was for me extremely convincing. Why is it wrong, this generalization of totalitarianism?

Hobsbawm: The central fact, I think, of twentieth century history is that at a crucial stage in the early forties liberal capitalism and communism made common cause against Hitler Germany and its allies, against fascism. Now on paper that is the most extraordinary thing to have happened, considering that capitalism and communism were exactly as it were mobilized against each other. But when it came to the point, they made common cause. Why? First of all, obviously, even though both sides tried to come to terms with fascism, they found that they couldn't. It threatened them both. But more than this, it was in some sense incompatible with both. Both liberal capitalism and the socialist tradition -- social democracy, communism, anarchism -- had the same roots, in the universalism of the Enlightenment, in rationalism, in the belief in the improvability of the world, in the tradition of the great revolutions. If you like, you can start with the English, the Americans, but you might say typified by the French Revolution.

It is particularly interesting that when Mussolini claimed to write an article on what was the nature of fascism for the Italian encyclopedia -- I think almost certainly it was written for him by Gentile, his house philosopher, clever man -- he said it was the opposition to the French Revolution. Now it was the universalism of this. These are one way or another programs for everybody, unlike fascism, unlike nationalism, unlike, for that matter, religious fundamentalism, which are for particular groups of humanity. Unless of course in the case of fundamentalism you say everybody should become whatever it might be, either an evangelical Christian or Islam or something, but actually most fundamentalist religious people don't even say that. So that's it.

The Enlightenment Origins of Communism and Liberalism

Now I believe that this is the basic, so to speak, common ground on which we all stand, and what with the decline and the collapse of the traditional left and its programs, it is the only common ground that remains, the common ground of the hopes of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Which I find even people on the left are against, but I believe mistakenly so. Although I will say one thing for the Enlightenment, it was bad on women. That is one of the major weaknesses that they had. They were okay on slaves, but they did not actually accept, at least in practice, the equality of women, who are after all half or more than half of the human race.

Now the cold war did its best to make us forget this common ground. And therefore they tried to establish a fundamental distinction between "freedom," i.e., liberalism, which itself was identified without good reason with a pure free market economy, and also with a particular set of electoral systems, and on the other with totalitarianism. It is perfectly true that parts of the left became dictatorial, authoritarian, tyrannical, and all the rest of it. Nevertheless there remained a fundamental difference. And this is particularly clear in the attitude of these movements to intellectuals and of intellectuals to these movements. Let me just quote something which I actually wrote in my book, and that is, "because the prevailing conventions of rational thinking about society are rooted in the eighteenth century European Enlightenment, as the political right has never ceased complaining, this has made intellectuals inclined to sympathize with such causes as liberty, equality, and fraternity. Even my old friend Isaiah Berlin, who had a visceral commitment to a nonnegotiable Jewish identity, which made him defend or at least try to understand the critics of the Enlightenment, found it impossible not to behave like an Enlightenment liberal because he was an intellectual.

On this question the last word has been said with admirable brevity by a man calling himself Simon Leys, the pseudonym of an eminent Belgian Chinese expert with an unparalleled record as a deconstructor of the myths of Maoism, "All of us in the intellectual world know people who'd been communists who've changed their minds. How many of us have ever come across ex-fascists?" The truth is, whether they changed their minds or not after the war, there were never that many of them.

In Sympathy with the Third World

Ivan Berend: You are par excellence European: British, German, Austrian, mixed. However, you are much more cosmopolitan than that. Not only European, you have a tremendous understanding of the so-called Third World, Latin America especially. Your books are extremely popular in Brazil, in many Asian countries. So what are the origins of your strong intellectual and even personal connections with the Third World?

Hobsbawm: Well, if you like, I have the heritage of central European Jews. We are diaspora people. I think it is a good thing we should be a diaspora people, always have been. I have, if you like, a natural sympathy for other diaspora peoples, Armenians or various other small groups. But also in a sense the heritage of coming from multinational, multicultural, historically mixed and unequal areas like, in fact, the Hapsburg empire. Things which stretched from the most sophisticated Western intellectuals to what the Hapsburg people themselves called the borders of Asia. There is that. There is another heritage which I don't know where I got it from, but it is very strong. I have certainly had it since my student days when I made friends particularly with Indian students. And that is the heritage of anti-imperialism. Or if you like, of the Third World.

These two between them have given me, I suppose, two principles: one is that we are talking about one world and not simply particular bits of it, either North America or Western Europe or Western civilization. That the history of the world belongs together. We are all part of the same human race. It's a curious thing that while in a sense methodologically I try very hard not to be Eurocentric, and I think this may help to explain why in some of the Third World countries they read these things and find they are less Eurocentric, these books, than some of the others.

A Grounding in Western Civilization

At the same time I am bound to say that I can't break away, nobody from my background in central Europe can break away from a particular kind of generational Western Civ. In my case it is a combination of what remains of nineteenth century civilization. We are the ones, my generation, who don't really have to have it explained, if we go into art museums, who Actheon and Diana are. We were brought up in some ways on Latin and Greek myth. So when you receive people like Titian and the other painting things we don't have to have right away a guide book to explain to us what it is.

The same thing coming from England, I don't have to have it explained to me what's in the Bible. Because the Bible, and the Saint James' version, is something that we read, we know. And consequently we know a lot of references. So in a sense, a good deal of the references of what you call culture and so on, come naturally to people of my age, but this is now a very old generation. Younger generations don't have it in quite the same way. That's one thing. In this sense I think a lot of younger people may find some of the stuff that I write or people of my generation write, like if they read Lenin, reflects the kind of education that people no longer have. Of course those of us in the old days who got higher education were a relatively limited number of people. Even when I was a young man there were in the entire Great Britain 50,000 people who were university students. So we were much more limited than you are today. And it is sometimes hard for people like me to understand that we are not talking or writing for people who aren't like that, who can't be like that, because they have lived through this huge educational revolution which makes it difficult to accumulate that particular background. However that is by the by.

History Is about Ordinary People

The second principle that this thing gave me is the principle of what history is about. The world, politics, history, is about ordinary people. Not special people. Not people who have any special situation, who expect to be special. It is about the kind of people, and I have tried to write a lot about this from the start, who nobody knows other than their neighbors in the old days. People are nothing very special, unless you fall in love with them. The point is this. In the sense you might say it is anti-elitist history. What I've been trying a lot in my history writings, not necessarily only in the big books but also in the other stuff, is to write about people, their role in history.

I remember once upon a time reading in the New Yorker -- there was a guy named Joseph Mitchell who used to write in the New Yorker, who was very good but in the end he stopped writing completely. I remember in one of his profiles in which he said, there is no such thing as little people, they are as big as you and me. And in a way, you see, I have tried to write history bearing in mind that the world is composed and the world is for, not people like me who are special, freaks, you know, for good, for bad, but for the kind of people who don't expect very much from life except a little bit, the common people.

Now this has produced both political commitment, to the left -- in the past only the left was committed to the common people -- but also problems. The twentieth century world is a world in which society has been increasingly dominated by the common or garden man or woman. But how the world is to be run in the past, it was never run by the common or garden man or woman. It was run by various kinds of elites or alternatively was run in terms of hierarchy, and how it is to be run when we actually live in the age of the common man or woman, that is a problem which hasn't yet been adequately solved. But that would take us too far to discuss.

Questions from the Audience

How Long Will the American Empire Last?

Question: You said that empires are short lived and I hope you are right. Some people say that this one in the United States is a permanent empire. I wonder what you would say to that.

Hobsbawm: Fortunately historians are not supposed to be prophets. We are not making forecasts. All I'm saying is there are inevitably limitations. In the case of the United States there are a number of fairly obvious limitations. The United States has in my view three assets at the present, from an imperial point of view. Possibly four. One is, it has enormous techno-military superiority. Way beyond what anybody else can possibly reach. Second, it is, thanks to the fact of having virtually uncontrolled immigration, of the developed countries of the world, the old Western developed countries, the only one that is still growing. It's a very big country which keeps growing, unlike Europe, for instance, which demographically speaking is not growing. Third, it has an enormous accumulation of wealth and economic influence. But especially, over the last fifty years, the enormous accumulation of what you might call the rules of economic transactions have been very largely since 1945 rewritten in North American terms. In much the same way that international world credit agencies, Standard and Poors and others, are actually U.S. agencies which determine what other states can borrow or not. And finally I suppose you could add, although I'm not quite so clear about it, the cultural influence of American popular culture and the English language.

As against this, the United States, even big as it is, is a small and a relatively diminishing part of the global population. The United States is a distinctly diminishing part of the world economy. A lot of people keep asking, is the growth of the world economy going to resume? The growth of the world economy has resumed, but not so much in the West. It has resumed in China and in Asia. We see the relative decline of the American economy; not so much as a holding company of people who own things, but as an economy it is declining.

Military Superiority Is Not Enough

These I think make the fundamentals of a long-lasting American supremacy doubtful. You cannot do it simply by having a large enough military superiority. Because more is needed, as you can see in Iraq and other places, than simply the ability to beat anybody into the ground quickly. That has been the situation ever since the Gulf War. There is no question about it. I wrote about this curiously enough in the nineties in The Age of Revolution. I said there is no problem about the advanced countries defeating, winning any amount of battle against the Third World. The real problem is how to maintain control on the ground. Particularly how to maintain control on the ground in the situation to which I referred just at the end of our discussion with Ivan, when ordinary and common people are no longer prepared to accept foreign rule simply because it is effective rule or it is stronger.

In the olden days you had large empires because the people who inhabited these empires were prepared to recognized who was on top and who you had to obey. This is why Great Britain managed to keep India going with only a matter of a few tens of thousands of Britons, including Irish. They did it because the great bulk of the Indians were prepared to say, okay, this is the government, it's in action, we obey. Once this stops, it ain't so easy. And that is the situation we are in now. I heard people saying before the Iraq war, "When we beat them they will recognize who is in charge and they will come round." But they didn't. And that is a situation that makes it much harder to be an empire today than ever before. I'm not saying it's impossible, only harder.

The War on Terrorism

Question: I'd be interested in your views historically on terrorism at the end of the twentieth century and the war on terrorism.

Hobsbawm: In itself, there is nothing new about terrorism. Politically speaking, terrorism has existed since the end of the nineteenth century, partly Narodnik in Russia, anarchist in Western Europe. And if you actually look back, considering how hysterical people are getting about it now, the days in which emperors, empresses, kings, and presidents, were laid low by people with bombs in large quantities, were between 1880 and 1910. If you actually figure out the number of people, including President McKinley, the emperor of Russia, prime ministers of Spain, empress of Austria, Italians  -- the number of effective terrorists out there in those days was important.

Even in those days, there was a big discussion about it, as you will remember, on the left. The Marxists said it was no good. You can kill a lot of presidents but this doesn't actually change things. So the Marxists were passionately against individual terrorism, which was an anarchist or Narodnik thing. Eventually terrorism, between the wars, became primarily, except for the anarchists, who gradually faded away, a right wing nationalist phenomenon. In the Balkans particularly. And I think on the whole since the Second World War -- except during the 1970s when there was a new form of left-wing terrorism by the ex-revolutionaries from 1968 who developed some terrorist movements, small ones -- in none of these cases did it work except in combination with a struggle for national independence. And even then it didn't work adequately. The two major effective terrorist movements which we have had in the last thirty years were the Irish movement and the Basque movement, which have both been going and both been very effective, but none of them have quite managed to do it, because both Spain and the United Kingdom have been good, stable operational states. In other situations this might not be so.

The New Terrorism

Terrorism is a movement of the weak. Which is why in effect it cannot expect to gain major results. What about the new terrorism we are talking about? The new terrorism differs from the old terrorism primarily I suppose by being indiscriminate. The old terrorism on the whole was discriminate, not necessarily that it didn't mind killing civilians, but on the whole as in the case of the Basque and the Irish they knew that they could not antagonize. They didn't have 100 percent support. The side they were against were not totally outsiders. This is new. Nevertheless my view is that the terrorist activities which have been active in the past two years, including 9/11, are neither effective nor tactically significant. They haven't changed anything whatever by itself. Except insofar as countries wish to become hysterical about it. The chance of terrorism actually weakening the United States is zero. It's terrible to have 3,000 people killed, though we are used to catastrophes. But 3,000 people killed even in New York doesn't make any difference at all to the power of the United States compared to whoever it is who is against it. The idea that somehow or other these movements which go about terrorism are serious threats, the argument that they are serious threats, depends on the assumption that these people will one day manage to get serious armaments. By serious armaments I think we mean nuclear. Because so far as I can see neither chemical nor biological armaments are effectively war weapons. They didn't prove to be war weapons any time they were used, not decisive war weapons. For one thing because it is very difficult to control their battlefield use.

Now this curiously enough doesn't have anything to do with the existing terrorist movements. The danger to the world is not simply that of small groups with access to arms and access to money. This exists. There is no question about it; there is a lot of it. Thanks to the cold war the world is drowning in small extremely mortal and dangerous weaponry, which has been around for an awfully long time, which isn't any more decisive than anything else but its very nasty.

The danger for the world in the twenty-first century is not in terrorist groups -- in actual fact even individuals. It is possible for small ad hoc groups of individuals to do things which previously were not possible except by states. And while it will be a long time before this is a real danger, it is frightening. And what we are finding ourselves in now is a situation of being frightened. And I cannot understand why the policy of the United States government is to go on frightening people. We in England, people in Spain, for instance, have lived for thirty years with really very effective terrorist movements. But the whole point about how to deal with it was not to give them publicity. When we had the IRA in England, the official line was, don't report. Every day you might find something in the subway somewhere, a danger, a terrorist incident. People might be stopped and such. No publicity. Publicity is the secret weapon of terrorists.

It's the publicity of 9/11 much more than the fact of the 3,000 people killed. And this is why I simply do not understand why the present policy of the United States government and of the British government is to give publicity to even the slightest hint of any terrorist activity. Why do you want to scare yourself? Except it does help to pass laws which otherwise wouldn't get passed. And the laws are mostly attacks on civil liberties, on the rule of law, and other things. That is the danger. Otherwise terrorism is not a political term at all and the war against terrorism is a meaningless phrase because a war against terrorism doesn't operate like a war against another country. It can't.

The Strengthening of Capitalism since the 1970s

Question: Back in the 1960s and 1970s would you have expected capitalism to get back and become such a strong force and dominant system as it is today? And not just that but a variant of capitalism tries continually to reduce the size of the welfare state and to get back to a much more market based system. How do you see the evolution of capitalism from here?

Hobsbawm: No, I wouldn't have expected the enormous rise in what you might call market fundamentalism. I could see why there was a reaction against Keynesianism and so on. But particularly in the eighties and nineties I wouldn't have expected this. I think it was possible to expect a decline in the position of the welfare state because the growth of a global economy made it harder for the state to control that large section of its economic life on which its distribution depends. In a way, popular movements for welfare depended essentially on putting pressure on or controlling nation states. And insofar as nation states, with very few exceptions, were no longer able to control more than a small part of the economy which concerned them, the capacity of the governments of these nation states to control the situation diminished.

The extreme case is the present situation, where at the moment it is quite clear that masses of jobs are being exported from developed countries. No longer are they simply unskilled jobs, and you can say to yourself, well, that's fine, let these things be done in Bangladesh, but our guys can do something more interesting such as work computer screens in our cities. But the highly skilled jobs are also being exported. And it is very difficult for the government to do very much about it, although the United States government, which curiously enough is less committed to global free trade than it pretends, is trying to do its best because politically it's a very dangerous situation.

I'm bound to say that I'm at a loss, because I cannot believe that this system, which still has been dominating international policy for a very long time, the pure globalization, international free trade, can last. But it has lasted for twenty years. I wouldn't expect it to last. I think there are signs that it won't last. But the point is, I have predicted that it isn't going to last for long enough, lots of us have, because we don't want it to. There are some signs that it isn't going to last, but it's difficult to know. The present situation of capitalism is a very strange situation. We have three big blocs. We have the United States, we have Europe, and we have the Far East. The United States and Europe are, as economies go, more or less equivalent. The United States has the advantage at the moment because in a sense it fits in with the Far East. Essentially the United States deficit is covered by the Japanese and the Chinese. To this extent the Far East and the United States economies supplement each other, leaving Europe out on its own.

I don't know what the hell is going to happen. Because there is a third situation that is now arising and that is a third group, which the Brazilians are trying to organize together with the Chinese, the Indians, and the others, and that is to say an attempt to control, to undermine, the global market for pure free trade in the interest of the developed northern states.

Values and Equality

Question: What role do values play in your world view and in your work?

Hobsbawm: Values play a big part in my work. Particularly issues about equality. I have slight difficulties, only slight but nevertheless, about the thing. Since everyone doesn't start equal maybe you ought to give those that start further back a bit of hand up initially. There are risks in this but probably up to a point you need to do it. But basically what I have been brought up in is the idea of equality or equal rights and equal positions. And that goes for color or gender or sex or whatever you like.

What Periods Produce the Most Historians?

Question: History doesn't have the same purchase it had in the sixties. Do you think there are certain time periods that produce more historians than others?

Hobsbawm: Difficult to say. It's partly a matter of market, isn't it? What is it that makes students want to read something? Partly it's fashion. There was a time in the sixties when the way to understand the world was sociology. So everybody went into sociology. To some extent it's market. Nowadays everybody wants to get a good job. So a lot of people go to business schools or go into economics. Where does history fit in? I don't know. All I can say is that there are times, for instance in my own particular generation in England, I'm not talking anything else, it just so happens that a lot of the young radicals went in for history. This is partly because there wasn't such a thing as sociology around, at least in Great Britain. There was in the USA, but not in Great Britain. There wasn't much of social anthropology, which might otherwise have reached another group, it is somewhere on the borders between sociology, history, and the understanding of humanity.

So a lot of them went into history, and also, as I tried to show in my autobiography, unlike on the continent of Europe where virtually every bright kid who went into high school, sooner or later if they went to the top would get into the philosophy class, there wasn't any philosophy either. Unless you studied classical antiquity, Greek and Latin, there was no place for the philosophy class that was essential in German, French, Italian, in gymnasiums, lycees, and so on. And so in my generation a lot of the left wingers started off as I did, with an interest in literature, or the arts, and then worked their way over via politics into history. This is one reason why I tried to explain the very strange case that Great Britain was one of the rare places where they actually had a national school of Marxist historians. There were Marxists in a lot of other places, but a school of Marxist historians, we were the only ones which developed it. And quite good historians joined it, Edward Thompson, Rodney Hilton. There are a number of fairly high class people who found themselves, got into history that way.

I don't know that you can have a general rule. There are times, no doubt, when you feel that history, you can't get away from it. Are we living in such a time. I leave it to you to answer.

Is a World Revolution Still Possible?

Question: This is a question for someone who is thinking about becoming a historian. First of all I want to ask if you think that world revolution is something that is still possible and something to still fight for? And if you think so, what role can historians play in trying to bring that about?

Hobsbawm: Well, no, it isn't possible. That's the point. I tried to figure this out sometime in the early fifties, when I was still very much a hundred percent Communist. And at one time some guys in India a few years after independence -- there was this magazine that wrote and asked, Can't you write us something about the prospects for world revolution? I said, well, things have gone okay. There has been the Soviet Union and now, since that time, there has been a huge second wave: Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Vietnam, and all that kind of stuff. But then figuring it out I said I couldn't see where it was going next. And it's fairly clear that in the major Western European and North American states, revolution was no longer on, even in places like Italy or France, where there had been strong Communist parties. It is possible that there were odd countries in which it was still on, and even desirable, but as a world revolution, not.

So I tried to figure out some kind of theory at the time for these Indians, and my line was to say, Okay, the world revolution has already happened. And what's happened by now is that we have enough countries on the socialist side that eventually the center of gravity of the world has already shifted. That was the way in which I was rationalizing it to myself. I knew I was to some extent rationalizing it. But it didn't sound too bad, yet.

From about 1960 it became difficult to believe. There were still many parts of the world in which you said to yourself, you needed it. You needed radical change. Not necessarily world revolution because you couldn't see it happening any more. The whole point for Eurocommunists like myself was to say, here we are and what the hell do we do in countries in which revolution, even regional, local revolution, is just no longer on the agenda? Or alternatively never has been on the agenda, as in the USA? But in other places, in large parts of Latin America for instance, it is on the agenda. It should happen, in various parts. But even there, and here I go very largely by my experience in Latin America, it is not on the agenda any more.

I don't mean that the left is not on the agenda any more. On the contrary, at this very moment you can see one of the rare examples of a classical left-wing working class government in Brazil. But that's not the same thing as the hope of revolutions, the sort of thing that Fidel and other people were dreaming of. So I think that is not on. What I think at the moment is on is to try, and if humanly possible, to hold back the major dangers, which are those of the contradictions of ultrarapid and uncontrolled economic development. And I think in the West also, there are the political problems, the problems of political systems that no longer are in gear with the structure of society or indeed with the way in which the world is run.


Published: Thursday, February 05, 2004