Sunday 17 November 2019

Hobsbawm's legacy revisited

Madam -- John-Paul McCarthy's assessment of the late Eric Hobsbawm (October 7) is both narrow-minded and mean-spirited. More qualified commentators must have been in short supply last weekend if your newspaper had to settle for an historian who, by his own admission, "tried and failed half a dozen times to get through Hobsbawm's big books". This distinguishes him from the multitudinous readers of Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes, a volume which has been translated into more than 20 languages and is quite possibly the most widely read historical account of the 20th century.

McCarthy's attempt to associate Hobsbawm's Marxist approach with any variety of "advanced nationalist analysis" is, frankly, preposterous.

Hobsbawm's critique of nationalism in Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (a volume which, significantly, originated in the Wiles Lectures delivered at Queen's University, Belfast in 1985) and his work on The Invention of Tradition in the edited collection of the same name, confirm his status as one of the foremost exponents of the modernist approach to the debunking of nationalist myths and myth-making. As for Primitive Rebels, McCarthy is content to adopt the condescending judgement of the obituarist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, ignoring the fact that this slim volume pioneered the development of a sub-discipline concerned with furthering our understanding of 'social movements'.

It is for these reasons, amongst others, that historians as diverse as Niall Ferguson and Roy Foster have offered a more considered and generous assessment of Hobsbawm's legacy as an historian, however odious and incomprehensible his Stalinist politics. It should not be overlooked, however, that by the late Seventies, Hobsbawm was espousing a version of Eurocommunism and that through his association with the journal Marxism Today and his support for the leadership of Neil Kinnock, he was a progenitor of the movement which eventually culminated in New Labour.

Kenneth Madden,

Pembroke College, Cambridge, UK

Sunday Independent

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