On Eric Hobsbawm and other matters

I’m in The New Yorker this morning, writing about Richard Evans’s new biography of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, explaining how the failures of Evans the biographer reveal the greatness of Hobsbawm the historian:

Hobsbawm’s biographer, Richard Evans, is one of Britain’s foremost historians and the author of a commanding trilogy on Nazi Germany. He knew Hobsbawm for many years, though “not intimately,” and was given unparalleled access to his public and private papers. It has not served either man well. More data dump than biography, “Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History” is overwhelmed by trivia, such as the itineraries of Hobsbawm’s travels, extending back to his teen-age years, narrated to every last detail. The book is also undermined by errors: Barbara Ehrenreich is not a biographer of Rosa Luxemburg; Salvador Allende was not a Communist; one does not drive “up” from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles.* The biography is eight hundred pages because Hobsbawm “lived for a very long time,” Evans tells us, and he wanted “to let Eric tell his story as far as possible in his own words.” But, as we near the two hundredth page and Hobsbawm is barely out of university, it becomes clear that the problem is not Hobsbawm’s longevity or loquacity but the absence of discrimination on the part of his biographer.

Instead of incisive analyses of Hobsbawm’s books, read against the transformations of postwar politics and culture, Evans devotes pages to the haggling over contracts, royalties, translations, and sales. These choices are justified, in one instance, by a relevant nugget—after the Cold War, anti-Communist winds blowing out of Paris prevented Hobsbawm’s best-selling “The Age of Extremes” from entering the French market in translation—and rewarded, in another, by a gem: Hobsbawm wondering to his agent whether it’s “possible to publicize” “Age of Extremes,” which came out in 1994, “& publish extracts on INTERNET (international computer network).” Apart from these, Evans’s attentions to the publishing industry work mostly as homage to the Trollope adage “Take away from English authors their copyrights, and you would very soon also take away from England her authors.”

Hobsbawm was obsessed with boredom; his experience of it appears at least twenty-seven times in Evans’s biography. Were it not for Marx, Hobsbawm tells us, in a book of essays, he never would “have developed any special interest in history.” The subject was too dull. The British writer Adam Phillips describes boredom as “that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins.” More than a wish for excitement, boredom contains a longing for narrative, for engagement that warrants attention to the world.

A different biographer might have found in Hobsbawm’s boredom an opening onto an entire plane of the Communist experience. Marxism sought to render political desire as objective form, to make human intention a causal force in the world. Not since Machiavelli had political people thought so hard about the alignment of action and opportunity, about the disjuncture between public performance and private wish. Hobsbawm’s life and work are a case study in such questions. What we get from Evans, however, is boredom itself: a shapeless résumé of things starting and nothing beginning, the opposite of the storied life—in which “public events are part of the texture of our lives,” as Hobsbawm wrote, and “not merely markers”—that Hobsbawm sought to tell and wished to lead.


Down the corridor of every Marxist imagination lies a fear: that capitalism has conjured forces of such seeming sufficiency as to eclipse the need for capitalists to superintend it and the ability of revolutionaries to supersede it. “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality,” “The Communist Manifesto” claims, “while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.” Throughout his life, Marx struggled mightily to ward off that vision. Hobsbawm did, too.

But what the Communist could not do in life the historian can do on the page. Across two centuries of the modern world, Hobsbawm projected a dramatic span that no historian has since managed to achieve. “We do need history,” Nietzsche wrote, “but quite differently from the jaded idlers in the garden of knowledge.” Hobsbawm gave us that history. Nietzsche hoped it might serve the cause of “life and action,” but for Hobsbawm it was the opposite: a sublimation of the political impulses that had been thwarted in life and remained unfulfilled by action. His defeats allowed him to see how men and women had struggled to make a purposive life in—and from—history.

The triumph was not Hobsbawm’s alone. Moving from politics to paper, he was aided by the medium of Marxism itself, to whose foundational texts we owe some of the most extraordinary characters of modern literature, from the “specter haunting Europe” to the resurrected Romans of the “Eighteenth Brumaire” and “our friend, Moneybags” of “Capital.” That Marx could find human drama in the impersonal—that “the concept of capital,” as he wrote in the “Grundrisse,” always “contains the capitalist”—reminds us what Hobsbawm, in his despair, forgot. Even when structures seem to have eclipsed all, silhouettes of human shape can be seen, working their way across the stage, making and unmaking their fate.

You can read it all here.

Also, as many of you know, for the last two years, I’ve been making the case that Donald Trump’s presidency is what the political scientist Steve Skowronek calls a “disjunctive” presidency. Over at Balkinization, I use the opportunity of my deep, deep agreement with the great Jack Balkin—whose views on so many things I share, and who also has argued for Trump as a disjunctive presidency—to raise some questions about our shared position, and where our analysis may go awry. You can read that here.


* Several astute readers pointed out to me that this locution of traveling “up” somewhere is often used in Britain to signify going from a smaller to a larger place rather than traveling from south to north. I passed the information on to my editor at The New Yorker, and they’ve now cut the phrase from the text. I’m leaving it here because, well, the error was mine, and in a passage where I’m pointing out Evans’s errors, I should acknowledge my own.


  1. Benjamin David Steele May 9, 2019 at 9:51 am | #

    That is another great insight. Boredom does seem key. It is one of the things that stood out to me in your writings about the reactionary mind. Reactionaries dislike, even fear, boredom than almost anything else. The rhetoric of reactionaries is often to create the passionate excitement of melodrama, such as how Burke describes the treatment of the French queen. The political left too often forgets the power of storytelling, especially simplistic and unoriginal storytelling, as seen with Trump.

    The thing is that those on the political left seem to have a higher tolerance for boredom, maybe related to their higher tolerance for cognitive dissonance shown in social science research. It requires greater uncertainty and stress to shut down the liberal-minded person (liberal in the psychological sense). I noticed this in myself. I’m not prone to the reactionary maybe because I don’t get bored easily and so don’t need something coming from outside to motivate me.

    The political left doesn’t require or thrive with a dualistic vision and of opposition and battle, in the way does the political right. This is a central strength and weakness for the left. On the side of weakness, this is why it is so hard for the left to offer a genuinely threatening challenge to the right. Most often what happens is the reactionaries simply co-opt the left and the left too easily falls in line. See how many liberals will repeat reactionary rhetoric. Or notice how many on the political left turned full reactionary during times of conflict (e.g., world war era).

  2. From Corey’ n+1 essay: “Presidents like Carter—and, maybe, Trump—are politically weak, they are Presidents, with considerable resources and powers—some quite violent and coercive—at their disposal. Constrained politically, they are prone to rely on the tools of their office and the executive branch. They compensate for their political weaknesses with robust exercises of state power. If Trump manages to put into effect much of his agenda despite the disjunctive political moment, it may be through the raw force of the executive branch rather than the alliance with the Republican Congress being tested out now.”

    The weakness of a (likely) disjunctive presidency explains Trump’s resorting to “robust exercises of state power”. And its current (criminal) iteration in the present Administration is the reason that he must be impeached, the Senate notwithstanding. If he is truly “weak”, he must be made weaker so that any effort to get him out by means of an election stands a chance at success. This won’t radically impact the sweep of history that Corey lays out but the present planet-menacing disaster in the White House needs to be stopped.


    Impeach and get his f*cking tax returns!

    Then we will deal with the whole f*cking right-wing racket that we have had to endure for nearly half-century.

  3. jonnybutter May 10, 2019 at 3:23 pm | #

    Maybe what the Skowronek theory doesn’t anticipate is an opposition party which behaves so differently from a normal political party. I guess the biology metaphor would be a refracted immune system, one which doesn’t produce white blood cells.

    A normal political party, no matter how craven, still wants to win the power which comes from being in a majority. But the Democratic party seems to have figured out that there are advantages to being in the minority, provided the duopoly they and the GOP jealously maintain remains intact. Being on the short end of a perpetual almost-tie in a strict two part system affords much of the prestige and a good chunk of the power the majority has, without fundamental responsibility.

    Jake Bacharach (@jakebackpack) is a novelist whose day job is/has been in the non-profit industry (I think), but he’s often a fine socio-political commentator too. He put his finger on it: the Democratic party of today behaves less like a political party and more like a non-profit. Donor Service is everything – more important that actually achieving the ostensible goals of the org. So long as the donors are happy, everybody’s careers can go on and on.

    This explains the Democrats’ weird insistence lately on winning strictly on their own terms, as if the Party is some abstract, almost platonic entity. It isn’t just that the old guard doesn’t want to give up power – they also don’t want to accept power, unless the terms are acceptable to them (and their donors). I don’t think there’s even that much of an ideological commitment. It’s all about donors and careers.

    So, in a normal situation, what the opposition party is like might not make that much difference in these cycles. But if you have an opposition party which resists normal, basic political ambition, the majority regime, however decadent, holds onto power. There aren’t enough white blood cells and the virulence just keeps spreading.

    I think voters have figured out that the Dems are, in a sense, worse than the GOP. Imagine being worse, more despicable, in any sense, than the US Republican party! The Dems have pulled that off.

    • jonnybutter May 12, 2019 at 11:12 am | #

      Just a little more evidence – there is so much of it that it becomes invisible, like the water we swim in.

      Even if by some miracle, Sanders wins the presidency, what can he do with the Senate in GOP hands, and the SCOTUS as it is?

      Why are candidates – like Bobby, I mean Beto – running for pres. when they are needed elsewhere? If there were a real party structure, and a real ideological commitment, Beto, in this case, would be encouraged to run for Senate. He could conceivably beat that idiot Cornyn in TX, and he’s not the only one in that position. Several of the 12 dozen people who are running for, and will not win, the presidency are in a position to be useful electorally to the Dem party. And the Demz’ propensity to not even field candidates (or not field strong ones) in key legislative races it legendary.

      The answer is, neither the party nor the candidates give a shit. They are definitely ‘not ready’ institutionally.

  4. James Levy May 10, 2019 at 10:08 pm | #

    I had the honor of studying under Hobsbawm (Historiography) at the New School back in 1989. He was tremendous, and very approachable. I went on and earned a Ph.D., and have lived a life largely among academics. Of them, he was the smartest (who wasn’t a first rate physicist) and one of the least pretentious I have known. His “Industry and Empire” remains one of the best, most inspirational books I have read.

  5. Mike Fahey May 18, 2019 at 10:13 am | #

    Your New Yorker review of the Hobsbawm biography does justice to a great man. Thank you.

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