ERIC HOBSBAWM: Limited Great Men


When 032c first met with ERIC HOBSBAWM (1917—2012) he spoke about the limitations of regret and how dashed hopes and defeat could lead to a brighter future. Today, under radically different economic and political circumstances, Hobsbawm further reveals an august insight touched with an earned optimism and an eneluctable pessimism. For 032c’s second installment with one of the world’s most celebrated historians, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hobsbawm deliberate on everything from memory to limited great men and the end of free-market fundamentalism.


HANS ULRICH OBRIST: You recently spoke about the necessity of bringing history into wider media, calling it the “protest against forgetting.”

ERIC HOBSBAWM: Yes. Well, it’s quite true that modern society – the modern economy – essentially operates without a sense of the past; the standard method of solving problems doesn’t consider the past. Yet in terms of human beings and society, the past is not irrelevant. Everybody, in fact, is rooted in the past – in a personal past, in a social past – and knows it, and is interested in it. If you forget what happened in the past you simply have to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

And that’s why historians are essential.

It’s their business to remember what other people want to forget. A lot of people want to forget the real past and invent one for themselves, while historians are against, as it were, inventing a past for themselves; they want to remember what actually happened. That is, if you like, their basic function.

And a complex function as well.

It is quite clear that you are constantly rewriting some things; rewriting the history of your past with new problems, or whatever it is. To recover the substratum is difficult; it’s one of the things for which the technical rules of historical research are essential. You cannot rely on memory for a reliable chronology of what actually happened; you have to rely on something else. I found this myself in trying to write my autobiography, Interesting Times.

How is that book different from your others?

It’s a sort of B-side to my history of the 20th century. The history in Age of Extremes is the history of the 20th century with occasional illustrations from personal experience, whereas Interesting Times shows how the 20th century influenced the perspective of a historian who writes about it. While writing this autobiography, it became clear that my personal memory was often completely wrong – there were certain things I simply could not remember that I have written records of. Alternatively, even the dates of things that happened are only remembered in a context, and not by themselves.

You can’t only rely on memory to write an adequate history.

Exactly, and this is one of the great drawbacks to writing oral history. The secret of historical method in the past was that you had to discover what could go wrong in documents, which is a thing from the late 17th century. We need a similar discipline in what can go wrong with memory: how reliable is it and in what peculiar ways does it operate?

And this is where neuroscience and psychology come in?

Well, yes. Because there are ways in which memory goes wrong. And the other thing is, below all this, there is unquestionably a databank of things, which becomes part of your memory but of which you are not in full control.

And so from that definition you also speak about this idea of the DNA, saying that history could almost be genetic thing.

That is not so much a question of memory, but more the basic function of history. The basic question it must answer is how human beings got from whatever it is, the caveman, to the Internet. To this extent, history must continue evolutionary science, but not in the standard socio-biological way, because human history is too short for it to have changed through purely Darwinian means.

By geological or even archaeological standards, it’s very brief.

It has been about 10,000 years since agriculture was invented; that’s practically nothing. It’s been 500 years since you could say that the globe existed as a single unit. And for the past 250 years the changes have been such that there is no way they can be understood except in terms of human beings making decisions against a particular historical background. So there’s another advantage of tying up history with evolutionary natural sciences, evolutionary biology, which is this: for the first time it provides us with a genuine framework for global history, not simply the history of this country or that country because, thanks to recent research in DNA, we now actually know how human beings evolved, how they colonized most of the globe, and at what rate they colonized it.

So that is a reference to the DNA chronology?

Basically. But the DNA chronology is a global chronology. We have a matrix that enables us to understand history, both globally and comparatively. We can compare what happened with the different ways in which human beings went to different parts of the world.

What’s interesting about that is the notion of complexity. It is obviously impossible to make a synthetic image of say, a city, in the sense that a city is too complex to be photographed or painted or seized. You published The Age of Revolution in 1962, which has actually turned into a quartet covering 200 years. Could you talk about the possibility, or impossibility, of making a synthetic image of something as complex as an entire century?

As a historian it has always been my preoccupation to see how things hang together. Clearly you have to start with a basic structure. In the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, I see the development of this extraordinary economy as the basic structure – this techno-economic system, which has gradually accelerated its impact on the world, and also globalized it. But of course this is merely an initial guide. So how do you fit in the various aspects – the cultural, the social, the political, or whatever it may be? One is the obvious connection with the economic foundation.

How economics affect culture, and vice versa.

Yes. For instance, modern youth culture and particularly music, from rock onwards, is rooted in the fact that after WWII teenagers didn’t have to work for the first time; or, if they worked, they earned enough money to become consumers. I remember living through this in London myself, where suddenly people were able to buy records. But that doesn’t explain why they liked this particular music.

There are many other factors.

Yes. For example, you have the geographic connections. In England there’s a very marked horizontal connection – a transatlantic connection – partly because of language. American music was brought across the Atlantic before it arrived in other parts of the continent. It was later absorbed and then, at times, like in the 1960s, it went in the opposite direction. But that’s only a single aspect of this particular connection. What was important is not that, let us say, black American music came over, but more the question: what created this particular type of popular music in various regions? In all parts of the world it developed as a sort of by-product of the development of urbanization, which required mass entertainment, or even specialized entertainment, where modern youth culture and modern popular music arise. So here you have a series of complications that make it possible to present society, or a period, not just as a succession of specialist activities that have no connection with one another, but also as something that coheres. I think this form of complex cohesion is diffi cult to achieve, but it has been one of the things that I have found particularly fascinating about history, and about the job of writing history.


When did you realize that The Age of Revolution would turn into this very long-term project?

Well, my history has been inspired, to start off with, by Karl Marx. So right from the start, I’ve had a long-term project in a sense: how is it that the human race begins and ends up in the modern period, or what Marx called the bourgeois society and we now call capitalism? Except that unlike other historians I am not a great planner. And while this was at the back of my mind I thought it was too big a subject.

In The New Century, particularly in the chapter “The Global Village,” you say that globalization cannot solely be identified with the creation of a global economy, but that it is somehow based more on the elimination of technical obstacles. So how do you see globalization now, in the new century and the new millennium?

Well it’s quite clear that the degree of globalization we have today, that in many respects treats the world as a single unit, has been based on, first of all, the revolution in transportation, of goods and people; but, above all, the revolution in communication, which virtually abolishes time and space.

You mean what developed after Fordism?

Well, yes. The idea that a single firm should manufacture goods globally – part in China, part in Brazil – and that the whole thing is coordinated from some kind of center, would have been technically impossible before the 1960s. Another aspect of globalization is clearly (this also bears on communication) the rise of a single technology and a single language of communication. This, like so much in globalization, produces its own tensions and contradictions. Because globalization also means that individual cultures and languages have greater scope as countries like China or India become more literate. For instance, while India has maintained its unity with English through politics and so on, in actual fact, both press and books, and of course films, are increasingly written in vernacular languages. The contradictions are the clearest, it seems to me, in politics since it’s the one place where globalization does not operate; even the great economic forces of globalization can be stopped by politics.

That was discussed in The New Century. You said globalization is undoubtedly irreversible and, in some ways, independent of government action. But not so much the ideology based on globalization, the new liberal free-market ideology, and what has been called free-market fundamentalism.

I don’t think globalization is reversible. There is no question about it. It can’t be undone. But we are living in a moment when there is a certain amount of protectionism coming up again – the ideology of pure free trade, the supremacy of the market. But more than this, the supremacy of the market has had to stop; almost everything can be freely transferred from one country to another except labor. No country has allowed free immigration since WWII, or at least not for more than a brief period of time.

Because of political obstacles.

Exactly. Even today there is no power that can override the force of individual states and their controls. So the ideology of globalization, which has dominated and captivated governments over the past 30 years or so, is that of the uncontrolled, free market.

In Globalization, Democracy and Terrorism, you talk a lot about the 21st century.

Well, even though historians deal with the past, hardly anybody can resist speculating about what’s going to happen. But I try to avoid too much speculation, because, as a historian, I try to see how the past has created the predicament and the problems of the present. Everything I write in this book is about the present phase of globalization, which may actually be coming to an end with the world economic crisis that we are now living.

It has been the phase of globalization ruled by economic fundamentalists, so to speak.

Except that, instead of God, they believed in the free market. The system has produced enormous inequalities, which are now coming home to roost within countries as much as between them; and it produced an unusual instability in the world system. Until last year, hardly anybody in our happy Western countries, where we live like princes compared to what happens in places like India or Asia, was affected by it; at least to the majority of the population.

There were simply ups and downs. For example, in 1989, there was a big crisis, 88–89, and then a big collapse in the early 90s, and a boom in the early 2000s.

But we didn’t know what a real Depression was like. Whereas in Brazil, they knew in the 1980s; in Mexico they knew in the 1990s; in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Russia they knew in the late 1990s; they knew in Argentina almost consistently, especially in the early 2000s. Now we also know. My only prediction, I think, is that this crisis will slow down the process of globalization, though it won’t stop it. Historically, it hasn’t been stopped, but I hope it will at least change it.

In terms of historical waves, and of decades, you often quote the theory of the long wave. In his seminal book, Utopistics, the American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein said that it’s now going to a 50-year turmoil, and then maybe a new system. What would be your view?

I think we ought to get out of that 20th-century habit of thinking of systems as mutually exclusive: you’re either socialist or you’re capitalist, or whatever. There are plenty of people who still think so. I think very few attempts have been made to build a system on the total assumption of social ownership and social management. At its peak the Soviet system tried it. And in the past 20 or 30 years, the capitalist system has also tried it. In both cases, the results demonstrate that it won’t work. So it seems to me the problem isn’t whether this market system disappears, but exactly what the nature of the mixture between market economy and public economy is and, above all, in my view, what the social objectives of that economy are. One of the worst things about the politics of the past 30 years is that the rich have forgotten to be afraid of the poor – of most of the people in the world – which is why they have continued to behave in this extraordinary, public, luxurious fashion, throwing about their zillions. I think that perhaps now, although it may not come to an end, it will certainly be modified.

In The New Century, you say towards the end, “The problem is what the future will be like.” Could you answer this question today? What do you think the future will be like?

I belong to a generation that is both pessimistic and optimistic. I am optimistic because, if the human race has survived the 20th century, it can probably survive anything. On the other hand, I don’t anticipate an easy progress into the 21st century. Both politically and economically I think we shall have a very, very bumpy ride into the 21st century. It won’t be the same kind of catastrophic epoch as we had in, let’s say, the first half of the 20th century. But I also believe that we can look forward to very serious problems largely due to the inability of globalization to fit in with the political structure of the world. And if anything, it is nation-states or groupings like Europe that are the effective historic agents in politics. So there’s a conflict between globalization – economically, technologically, scientifically, even culturally to some extent – and the relatively limited number of large states, which stand in the way. Neither will disappear.


A forgotten pioneer who inspired you when you were starting off was J.D. Bernal, and particularly his radicalism. Who are some other inspirations for you?

Well, you know, I’ve lived a long time, and therefore have come across a fair number of people whom I’ve admired enormously. As a student I was very much inspired by Margot Heinemann, who had been a Cambridge student earlier on, and a communist. Eventually she married, or was the partner of J. D. Bernal. But she was one of the first people who taught me how to do historical research.

What about others from the Communist Pary?

There was a very heroic man who played a great part in the French Resistance, named Franz Marek – an Austrian, whom I got to know very well. He was actually arrested and sentenced to death. He wrote his last words on the prison wall, but then fortunately Paris was liberated the next day, so he survived. [laughs] He was a man of enormous personal integrity. I was not so much influenced by J. D. Bernal, who was a colleague of mine at London University, even though he clearly had quite an extraordinarily brilliant mind; and, everybody found him fascinating. If anything, I was more impressed or influenced by J. B. S. Haldane, the geneticist. He was also communist, and a person of enormous personality and gifts, including the gift of communicating the understanding of science to other people. He eventually spent the remainder of his life in India.

And among the more official dramatis personae of the 20th century?

Just as in the 19th century you cannot but admire, for instance, Bismarck. You may disagree sharply with him, as I probably did and would have done. But he was an impressive person. There are people in the 20th century whom one feels that way about. Lenin, obviously, with all his weaknesses; and Churchill for instance. There are men who are enormously limited, but it cannot be denied that they are in some ways great. But again, this is part of memory.

So that is another category: limited great men.

Yes. There are people who, in some respects, are limited and mistaken. But in other respects, you have to say that they had some admirable qualities. De Gaulle, Roosevelt … in fact most of the people one would respect on the 20th-century public scene were limited. I cannot say that my view of Stalin and Mao is more complex than this. You cannot deny their impact on their countries and on the world, which in many instances was positive. But to what extent would you say they were admirable? I don’t think you could say that. Otherwise I’m a great believer in, shall we say, appreciating other people’s gifts. But that doesn’t necessarily mean hero-worshipping, or anything like this.

You said in an interview with politician and journalist Antonio Polito, that if people don’t have any idea of a better world then they have lost something. So how do you feel about the notion of utopia in the 21st century?

[laughs] Yes, I did say that. I believe in utopia as an incentive, not as a possibility. But if you do not have an idea of something that is fundamentally different from the present, then it seems to me that human beings will lose. I think we shall be forced to confront the necessity for absolutely major changes, and I think we are going to be forced to do so by the sheer pressure of the environment.

  • Photography: MARCUS GAAB