Historian: Eric Hobsbawm

eric hobsbawmName: Eric Hobsbawm

Lived: 1917-2012

Nationality: British

Profession(s): Historian, academic

Books: Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth and Reality (1991), The Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (1994), On History (1997), Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism (2007).

Perspective: Marxist

Eric Hobsbawm was a British historian of the 20th century, known for his left-wing views and his ‘big picture’ approach to understanding the past. By the time of his death in 2012, Hobsbawm was arguably Britain’s most respected historian and certainly its best-known Marxist historian. Eric Hobsbawm was born in Egypt to British parents of European Jewish heritage. He was raised in Austria and Germany, where Hobsbawm saw first-hand the rise of Adolf Hitler. The family returned to London shortly after. After completing secondary school Hobsbawm attended Cambridge University, completing a history degree and a doctorate (his thesis was on the politics of the Fabian Society, Britain’s first significant socialist party). Hobsbawm became politically active while at Cambridge, joining the British Communist Party. He enlisted in the British military during World War II but did not serve abroad. After the war, Hobsbawm took up a lectureship at Birbeck, a college of the University of London. He also became a founding member of the Communist Party Historians Group, alongside several other prominent academics.

Hobsbawm was a prolific writer who penned more than 30 different texts. Like other Marxists, he viewed human history as passing through stages or periods of transition, each determined by capital and economic factors. This approach is evident in the organisation and titling of Hobsbawm’s history of the world since 1789, which he divided into four volumes: Age of Revolution (1789-1848), Age of Capital (1848-1875), Age of Empire (1875-1914) and Age of Extremes (1914-1991). In Hobsbawm’s view, the policies of the Cold War were driven by realpolitik rather than ideology. The Soviet Union was economically devastated by World War II, Hobsbawm argues, and had no capacity for expansion or war with the West. Washington’s early Cold War policies aimed to maintain and extend American world power, rather than destroy communism. Hobsbawm has a cynical view of Cold War rhetoric and propaganda, which was produced by American politicians to secure public support for their foreign policies. Both superpowers existed in a state of mutual acceptance until severe economic disruptions in the 1970s.


eric hobsbawm

“The Second World War had barely ended when humanity plunged into what can reasonably be regarded as a Third World War, though it was a very peculiar one. For as the great philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed, ‘War consisteth not in battle only, or in the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known’.”

“In Europe, the demarcation lines had been drawn in 1943-45, both by agreement at various summit meetings between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, and by virtue of the fact that only the Red Amy could actually defeat Germany.”

“The Cold War was based on a Western belief, absurd in retrospect but natural enough in the aftermath of the Second World War, that the Age of Catastrophe was by no means at an end; that the future of world capitalism and liberal society was far from assured… The belligerent countries, with the exception of the USA, were a field of ruins inhabited by what seemed to Americans hungry, desperate and probably radicalised peoples, only too ready to listen to the appeal of social revolution…”

“This is clearly not enough to explain why US policy… should have been based, at least in its public statements, on a nightmare scenario of the Muscovite superpower poised for the immediate conquest of the globe, and directing a godless ‘communist world conspiracy’ ever ready to overthrow the realms of freedom.”

“It is now evident, and was reasonably probable even in 1945-47 that the USSR was neither expansionist – still less aggressive – nor counting on any further extension of the communist advance, beyond what is assumed had been agreed at the summits of 1943-45.”

“On any rational assessment, the USSR presented no immediate danger to anyone outside the reach of the Red Army’s occupation forces. It emerged from the war in ruins, drained and exhausted, its peacetime economy in shreds, its government distrustful of a population much of which, outside Great Russia, had shown a distinct and understandable lack of commitment to the regime… It was ruled by a dictator who had demonstrated that he was as risk-averse outside the territory he controlled directly as he was ruthless within it.”

“Soviet planners did not see capitalism as such in crisis at the end of the Second World War. They had no doubt that it would continue for a long time under the hegemony of the USA, whose enormously increased wealth and power was only too obvious.”

“An apocalyptic anti-communism was useful, and therefore tempting, even for [American] politicians who were not sincerely convinced of their own rhetoric… An external enemy who threatened the USA was convenient for American governments which had concluded, correctly, that the USA was now a world power – in fact, the greatest world power by far – and which saw isolationism or a defensive protectionism as its major domestic obstacle… More concretely, public hysteria made it easier for presidents to raise the vast sums required for American policy from a citizenry notorious for its disinclination to pay taxes.”

“It is tempting to join the historical mediators who put [the Cold War] down to mutual fear escalating from confrontation… That is plainly true, but it is not the whole truth… It does not explain the apocalyptic tone of the Cold War. That came from America.”

“The issue was not the academic threat of communist world domination, but the maintenance of a real US supremacy… In short, containment was everyone’s policy, the destruction of communism was not.”

“In effect, the world situation became reasonably stable soon after the war and remained so until the middle 1970s, when the international system and its component units entered another period of lengthy political and economic crisis. Until then, both the superpowers accepted the uneven division of the world, made every effort to settle demarcation disputes without an open clash… and, contrary to ideology and Cold War rhetoric, worked on the assumption that long-term peaceful coexistence between them was possible.”

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