ERIC HOBSBAWM: “It Wasn’t Main Street.”



An interview with British Marxist historian ERIC HOBSBAWM.

Eric Hobsbawm was born 1917 in Alexandria, Egypt, son of a Jewish Austrian-English family. Raised in Vienna and Berlin, he went to London with his family in 1933, after Hitler came to power. Hobsbawm served in the British army and studied at Cambridge, after which he spent the greater part of his career as a professor for economic and social history at the Birkbeck College of the University of London. A Fellow of the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is the author of more than 20 books of history including The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, and The Age of Extremes.

CHRISTIAN ESCH: Mr. Hobsbawm, you’re probably the most well-known living historian, though at the same time, as a self-professed Marxist, you’re an outsider in your trade. As a student in Berlin in 1932, you committed yourself to communism. You then had to live through its downfall. But you’ve also written, “Nothing sharpens a historian’s mind like defeat.” How has this defeat changed your view?

ERIC HOBSBAWM: It only sharpens one’s view if one thinks it over. Defeat itself doesn’t sharpen the mind. As a result of defeat, one might even see oneself as a victim – I think, for example, of Germany after the First World War. The idea only came to me for the first time from the historian Reinhart Koselleck, whom I also knew as a student, by the way.

That was in 1947, in a reeducation course: As a British officer, you were a representative of the victors, while Koselleck returned from Russian captivity as one of the defeated. Later, he would write about the historical treatment of winners and losers.

Koselleck wrote: What can sharpen the mind is that everything happens differently from what one expected or could have expected. So everything has to be thought through again: What was wrong? Where were there false expectations? For example, as a Marxist, I would say: It’s quite obvious that Marx was an absolutely magnificent analyst of capitalism. One reads The Communist Manifesto today and realizes: Yes, that’s the way it happened. But the prediction that all this would lead to communism did not turn out to be true. Why? I think that two analyses come together: A genuine analysis of the dynamic of history and in particular of this society and, on the other hand, hope – a hope that was transferred back into something which could be seen as analysis but simply was not.

Marx himself experienced defeats; in 1848, for example. He tried – as Koselleck formulated it – to derive explanations from this defeat that would guarantee long-term success.

He analysed the defeat of 1848 particularly well in the case of France. But I don’t believe that Marx saw himself as a loser. On the contrary, he believed he was able to foresee a future movement and, to a certain extent, he did: The large class-conscious parties that changed the politics of Europe were formed more or less according to the patterns he foretold. But as for the great chiliastic hope for a complete transformation, that had less to do with analysis, in my view, than Marx believed.

Do you also find dashed hopes disguised as scientific analyses in your own life?

For my generation, one became a communist – or a revolutionary Marxist – because one didn’t believe in the future of capitalism. Capitalism itself didn’t believe much in its own future. It seemed as if the old world had fallen apart. This was made particularly clear by the global crisis into which the United States was swept as well. Let’s say, around 1931 to ’33, simply no one believed in the future. One knew: At the very least, another world war was on the way. Add to that – and this deeply impressed people – the fact that the Soviet Union was not swept up in the global crisis. This led to an enormous overestimation of the possibilities of the Soviet economy. For a communist, there were two things: first, we believed it would lead to world revolution. After the Second World War, that seemed to hold at least to 1949, to China. The second thing – the belief that the Soviet planned economy could perform better than capitalism – that lasted until the late 50s or early 60s, and not just among communists and socialists. One spoke of the Soviet Union as one speaks of China today. Over time, it became pretty clear that capitalism had recovered in the 50s. That was something we hadn’t expected. It could have been expected, but we weren’t the only ones to have been taken by surprise.

As a historian, you’ve addressed the situations of the “losers”, people who have had no voice in the writing of history: social rebels, squatters, Sicilian bandits. Does that have something to do with your experience as a western Marxist, being part of a minority that had itself experienced defeat?

That has nothing to do with it. First, I haven’t dealt with minorities: Farmers were the great majority of humanity at the time. I dealt with movements that bore no results. Interest in the poor, in the common people, that comes from the Left and doesn’t in itself have anything to do with Marxism. What interested me about it is: Under what circumstances are the masses of the poor, who otherwise live under conditions prescribed by the big decisions, able to truly take on a role in history?

What’s left of Marxism when you take away the direction of the movement – the confidence that we’re moving towards a better society?

Marxism is a way of analyzing the world and history – which, as one hoped, would necessarily lead to certain political consequences but, in the end, didn’t. The method of analyzing the world doesn’t create the outbreak.

But part of Marxist analysis is that the contradictions in capitalism are to come to a head.

They do. Whether that will result in the downfall of capitalism, though, is a question Marxists have been debating since the 1890s. Marxism still exists, but not in its political form: It went out with communism. I don’t believe in a future for this movement – including the specific organisational form of the leading Leninist party, which was an unbelievably successful social invention: This alliance of a highly disciplined elite and a mass movement. What will also continue, even if it doesn’t have anything particularly to do with Marxism, though it does with the Left, is the hope for a better society and a more just world. People like me who examine their lives are saying to themselves: We believed we were going down Main Street but we’ve since discovered that it was a dead end. Even though it was one that had a tremendous influence on the course of history in the 20th century. In my view, indirectly for the better because, after the war, it made it possible for capitalism to take on a more socially just, and for a while, also economically sound development. But in hindsight, one does have to say it didn’t work; even so, I don’t regret it.

You call these three decades after the Second World War the “Golden Age,” and in your history of the short 20th century, you built around this in an oddly symmetrical way: Before the Golden Age are the dark war years and the years between the wars, 1914 through 1945, while afterwards – as of 1973 – there’s another period painted just as darkly, a period of decline: Economic crises, the loss of social relationships, etc. But at the same time, a great portion of humanity – in China, for example – are better off than they ever were! What puzzled me as well, as a young German, was to see 1989 cast in such a negative light. Did the end of the Soviet Union darken the entire last third of the century for the communist historian Hobsbawm?

It’s certainly a matter of generations. If I’d been writing as a young Chinese man, the end of the century would definitely not seem dark. But do you really think that the end of communism is a relief for the people in the Balkans? And what’s been happening in the former Soviet Union since its collapse is a catastrophe which is perfectly comparable with the catastrophe that occurred under the Soviets. What I tried to highlight in my history of the 20th century is that, despite the catastrophes, which are the main events for people of my age, a majority of humanity was a lot better off. Nonetheless, I ask myself: Can one look at the world with great optimism? If one is Chinese, probably. If one is Indian, probably. If one lives in the west, including the United States, that is certainly not the case.

The US is now viewed at the great winner in the 20th century, which has also been called the American Century. Recently in the critique of American hegemony, the wisdom of the losers has been brought up again: Habermas closed his essay calling for an avant-garde core of European states with the argument that, after the loss of their empires, European nations could benefit from the superior “perspective of the defeated.” Do you find this a convincing argument?

I simply do not understand American policies. No one understands them. Megalomania is the occupational disease of great powers, particularly victorious powers – and this is pure megalomania. For over fifty years, the Americans had an efficient and effective foreign policy: They were the leaders of three quarters of the world but behaved like old-fashioned great powers who were aware that they weren’t alone in the world. To me, it seems typical that the old imperialists – such as Kissinger, Brzezinski – are against Bush’s current policies. They’re saying: This is nuts. Which has been proven true. Whether the Europeans are any better is of relatively little interest to me. What interests me is that a counter-balance to a superpower is needed, even when we’re no longer living in an age of superpower politics. Economically, Europe stands on an equal footing with the US. With their short-term policies, their autocratic and murderous politics, the Americans are trying to liquidate the two things Europe has achieved: First, to transform itself from a historical war zone to a zone of peace, and second, into a zone of welfare politics for the general population. American policies are aimed at doing away with these two enormous and historic accomplishments of Europe in the 20th century. And I think one has to stand up against it.

  • Interview: CHRISTIAN ESCH