Marxism, '68, and all that jazz

Uncommon People
April 16, 1999

Setting out on a project which led to The British Marxist Historians (1984) and The Education of Desire: Marxists and the Writing of History (1993), I assumed that among the historians who made up that extraordinary cohort - Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, George Rud, Victor Kiernan, and E. P. Thompson - the one I would most readily "connect" with would be Hobsbawm.

Yet, when I sought interviews with them, Hobsbawm alone seemed to resist. He replied: "It is hard enough to get used to the idea that one is a research topic. I think maybe the best thing is for topics to stay still and let the authors who write about them develop their ideas without being kibitzed. I mean, if you wrote about [Frederick Jackson] Turner's frontier thesis, wouldn't you be glad he's not going to come in on the act himself any longer?" Although Hobsbawm initially kept his distance, he did everything but "stay still". Retiring from Birkbeck College in 1982, aged 65, he continued to live in London. But, in addition to lecturing around the globe, he took up a professorial appointment at the New School for Social Research in New York, where he has spent at least part of every autumn term since. Moreover, he continued to produce a remarkable series of books, including The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, Age of Extremes: 1914-1991, Politics for a Rational Left, Echoes of the Marseillaise, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, and On History .

Hobsbawm's contributions have been officially, and almost universally, recognised. In 1995 the American Historical Association awarded him the coveted status of Foreign Honorary Member, and in 1998 he was made a Companion of Honour. Reviews of Age of Extremes revealed that even conservative American writers now acknowledge Hobsbawm's status as perhaps the world's premier historian. Communism may be dead, but historical Marxism remains vigorous.

Organised into four sections - "The radical tradition", "Country people", "Contemporary history", and "Jazz" - the contents of Uncommon People are too diverse to constitute a thematic anthology. And though the 26 chapters include several of Hobsbawm's best essays, and do reflect the variety of his labours, the book neither represents his "greatest hits", nor fully captures the diversity of his intellectual accomplishments. Still, if you want to introduce Hobsbawm's work to students, it would not be a bad place to start (after which, you should hand them The Age of Revolution and Age of Extremes ).

"The radical tradition" leads off with a well-crafted appreciation of Thomas Paine. There follow chapters that attest to Hobsbawm's skills and influence as a labour historian: his seminal article, "The machine breakers", which appeared in the very first issue of Past and Present (the journal which Hobsbawm co-founded in 1952); his co-authored "Political shoemakers", which remains required reading in labour history seminars; and his 1981 Ford lecture, "The making of the working class, 1870-1914". Here, we also find "Man and woman: images on the left", which antagonised many a feminist historian when it appeared in History Workshop in 1978.

"Country people" includes two of Hobsbawm's finest agrarian studies, "Peasants and politics" and "Peasant land occupations". The third section, "Contemporary history", is a mixed bag but, after 30 years, "May 1968" still makes for good reading (especially if you also read Hobsbawm's introduction to the photographic collection, 1968: Magnum Throughout the World ). And, though I shall leave it to jazz aficionados to judge the worth of the selected pieces on Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and others, they certainly can be readily enjoyed even by the less attuned.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, United States.

Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz

Author - Eric Hobsbawm
ISBN - 0 297 81916 X
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 360

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