The voice of Hobsbawm: How his Marxist ideas ended up on the bookshelves of Indian civil servants and Brazilian housewives?

Brilliant piece by Prof. Emile Chabal of University of Edinburgh.  It tracks how Eric Hobsbawm’s ideas transcended beyond Britain, both to east and west of the island nation.

Of the many 20th-century Marxist figures whose ideas travelled the world, Eric Hobsbawm is perhaps an unexpected choice. While many know of his writings, he is not usually considered to be a Marxist ‘thinker’. He did not, at first glance, contribute much to Marxist theory during his seven productive decades from the early 1940s to the late 2000s. As a life-long communist, few would dispute his Marxist credentials, but there is precious little in the way of explicit invocation of Marxist concepts in most of his texts from the early 1960s onwards. Indeed, young people who first encountered him through his history of the 20th century, Age of Extremes (1994), could be forgiven for not knowing that he was a Marxist at all.

However, when it came to global influence, there were few Marxists who could match him. By the time Hobsbawm died in 2012, he was probably the best-known English-language historian, and quite possibly one of the most famous historians in any language. His books were read in a remarkable range of countries by an equally remarkable range of people. Crucially, this included all kinds of non-Marxists – from students to curious members of the literate public – who would never have dreamed of voting for a communist or socialist party, much less engage with the writings of other Marxists, such as Louis Althusser or Antonio Gramsci. All of which makes Hobsbawm the ideal case study of how Marxist ideas travelled across the world at specific historical moments.

My focus here is on two countries with rich and highly developed Marxist cultures: India and Brazil. The story of how Hobsbawm’s work arrived in these countries and interacted with emerging political trends, debates and arguments is only a minor footnote to the broader history of Marxist thought in these places. But it offers a fascinating insight into how the writings of a bright, slightly nerdy, British academic could end up gracing the shelves of Indian civil servants and Brazilian housewives.

At the end:

Even if the influence of Hobsbawm’s writing has begun to wane in India and Brazil, there can be no regrets. By all accounts, he has had the kind of impact of which most nonfiction authors can only dream. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that he was able to reach such a wide audience only in a very specific context. In the period from the early 1960s to the late ’80s, Marxists in noncommunist countries were increasingly able to participate in a transnational discussion over the past and future of capitalism, and the most promising agents of revolutionary change. Hobsbawm played a starring role in these discussions – and, occasionally, set the agenda.

This success was not all about ideas. The cards were also stacked in Hobsbawm’s favour. His ability to contribute to global debates was a direct result of the disproportionate influence of a small group of postwar British and French Marxists, and the prestige accorded to European thought in Latin America and postcolonial South Asia. This ideological configuration – which began to come apart from the 1980s as non-Western intellectuals struggled to decentre Marxist thought – greatly facilitated his infiltration into local debates.

It helped, too, that Hobsbawm knew how to take advantage of the politics of the publishing industry. It was the availability of affordable Penguin editions of Hobsbawm’s texts in India, and the proliferation of decent translations in Brazil, that guaranteed his outsize success. Yes, the content of those books mattered, and Hobsbawm rode several waves of interest in Marxist ideas in the 1960s and ’70s in India, and the ’80s and ’90s in Brazil. But there were many others writing about the same subjects and intervening in the same debates. The difference was that their work was not so easily accessible. It was, in the end, the dog-eared paperbacks and the discoloured illegal photocopies that made Hobsbawm’s name. Paradoxically, his most vital contributions to the global Marxist imagination were a result of his astute mastery of the capitalist book market.

🙂 Such are the ironies of life…

Must read..

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