The End of History and the Last Obituary

Eric Hobsbawm passed away yesterday at the age of ninety-five. He had enough time to cement his status as his generation’s most important historian. Enough time to write obituaries for critics many years his junior. And enough time to see the communist political project to which he devoted his life collapse.

Thankfully, he fell just short of being able to read Dissent today, which features a dazzling and dizzying example of how to critique something you don’t understand.

Timothy Shenk is right that hagiography does a disservice to Hobsbawm, a man with no shortage of intellectual rigor. The remembrance for In These Times that I should be writing right now is in this vein — about the apolitical way these memorials have been handled.

While some obituaries from the Right harped on Hobsbawm’s membership in the Communist Party of Britain, even after Soviet crimes were apparent, the Left has largely elided these politics out of a combination of ignorance and unwillingness to deal with political complexity. Jacobin‘s contribution was a strong exception.

It’s like the sadly growing collection of obituaries for the sixties most alluring radicals, which all seem to follow a boilerplate formula. Inevitably the words “fighter” or “good fight” come up  — blind exaltation and gentle reassurance.

That’s why the piece that I desperately need to finish delves into items like Hobsbawm’s, often whitewashed, defense of Soviet intervention in Hungary and his contributions to Marxism Today, like “The Forward March of Labour Halted,” which helped provide intellectual justification for New Labour. This trajectory was not unique — the path from Stalinism to Eurocommunism was well-traveled and The Age of Extremes, especially, bears the scars of this political tradition.

But Shenk’s post is about something else. He settles for a silly and simplistic dismissal of the sweeping type of Marxist historiography that Hobsbawm specialized in. At more length and in a different venue, I’m sure he could make a stronger case, so I won’t harp on it, except to note that Michael Kazin has perhaps the best takedown of “fanzine” history yet written in Dissent itself.

The only reason why I’m responding at all, despite the growing stack of emails in my inbox from my editors at In These Times, is because of a flippant reference to Jacobin in the last paragraph of Shenk’s piece.

Today, protracted economic crisis, aging baby boomers eager to recapture the thrills of lost radical youth, and a rising generation of intellectuals hungry to distinguish themselves from slightly older rivals have made Marxism more fashionable — both in the academy and outside it — than it has been in decades. This new cohort has many able proponents, and more than a few brilliant ones, yet the excitement they have generated comes less from the creativity of their contributions than because Marxism has been so out of favor for so long that even the catechistical recitation of old formulae has the shock of the new. If we want to change the world, though, or just understand it, we will need to do better than just repeating the conclusions Marxism’s luminaries have already arrived at — even when those luminaries shined with the remarkable light of Eric Hobsbawm.

What Shenk doesn’t know, but could know if he spent a few minutes reading before he started writing, is that there is very little in Hobsbawm’s politics that anyone in Jacobin subscribes to. His conception of a democratic society and what the road to it will look like is far different than ours.

Jacobin does stand in the tradition of Second International radicals. That involves not just cute reframing, but reinvention and questioning. Our goal is to help forge a new and relevant socialist politics — not a task familiar to Shenk.