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Hobsbawm’s 20th Century: Closing Comments

Plus remembrances of former New School students of Eric Hobsbawm

I am honored to have been asked to offer closing words for this memorial event celebrating the life and work of Eric Hobsbawm. This is a New School event, and not by coincidence. As Dean of The New School for Social Research, I want first to thank Ira Katznelson, for bringing Eric Hobsbawm to us when Ira was Dean here years ago. Eric’s legacy will always be part of ours. He was our own too.

I want now to speak about the legacy of Eric Hobsbawm at the NSSR, both about how his presence in these halls strengthened us at the time, and how today it challenges us as our unique graduate faculty of social sciences moves ahead in this strange 21st century.

I was lucky to sit on a few dissertation committees with Eric, so I had a chance to watch his great mind at work and to observe up close his supervisory style. Perhaps not surprisingly, he liked supervising students in economics, my own discipline. My recollection is of someone who showed great joy in helping young scholars and mentoring in the best sense of the word — that is, not dictating answers and methods, but by taking the students’ work very seriously, posing detailed questions, and listening carefully to the answers. Students felt respected and challenged at the same time – just the right combination needed to nurture serious and engaged scholarship from an advanced graduate student preparing to enter the world of ideas as a professional.

I realize that Eric would greatly resist ideal-type theorization, that his work represents a strong testament against the use of ideal types as the basis for shaping knowledge in the social sciences. So Eric would likely not be pleased to know that his career at The New School, in its own way, generated a problem of “the ideal type.” Today a “Hobsbawm-type appointment” is the name we use at the New School for a long-term but part-time appointment, wherein a world-class scholar teaches every other semester or so and yet plays a major role in the intellectual life of the university, through teaching, faculty seminars, and supervising students.

We are constantly searching for candidates for a “Hobsbawm-type appointment.”

A key to the “Hobsbawm-type appointment” as a model for success for the university is that the scholar fit the ethos of The New School. The New School faculty is full of smart and interesting, even radical, critics of capitalism, for sure, but this is not the only or most important way that Eric’s scholarship connects to our ethos. And while he wrote — like many of our scholars do — about the political and class implications of the international movement of people, money and things, this also was not what put him so seamlessly into the intellectual life of the New School.

The key from my perspective was the way he engaged with history. He saw it, at the same time, as social and as grounded, operating “from below” in the culture, concerns, and rebellion of the working classes, and also as the work of states, systems, and leaders, coursing through civil wars and imperial geo-politics. This integration of micro and the macro forces, always with a focus on human freedom and, as Barbara Fields noted, human dignity; this insistence on a deep connection of the fine-grained, sometimes first-hand, knowledge, with the overriding macrodynamic of society — this is how we at The New School connect to Hobsbawm the historian.

And what about the New School of the future? What lessons did we learn from having Eric Hobsbawm as a colleague that might help us as we move forward? Hobsbawm wrote extensively about the legacies of colonialism and imperialism and the failings of capitalism in the 20th century. Toward the end of the last century, his warnings and predictions came to sound unrealistic. Capitalism had triumphed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe. This, combined with the apparently overwhelming forces of international interdependence, as people and culture, goods and capital moved across international borders at a greater rate than ever before. More recently, and against great adversity, democracy has been in clear ascendance, with democratic transformations in Latin America and then across the Arab world. All this was greased by the wheels of technological change, and in particular the digital revolution, which radically changed the way we communicate, do commerce, and even the way we see and read.

These triumphs filled the imagination of many with great, sometimes utopian, hopes. Capitalism’s triumph over socialism would solve problems of efficiency and individual motivation. Globalization would lead to an equality of opportunities to work and unprecedented consumption possibilities. Democracy would satisfy the innate desire for individual freedom. And the digital revolution would greatly expand access to information.

Today, not long past the apparent triumph of capitalism, globalization, democracy and IT, these social changes leave us far from the utopian hopes, and with a strong residue of economic stagnation, income inequality, political mayhem, refugee crises, terrorism and counter-terrorism. Capitalism’s triumph has pushed us into a series of economics crises. Globalization has brought many out of poverty, but has also left and often created enormous pockets of destitution and despair. Democratic revolts have left, deep unresolved conflicts and a new list of failed states. And IT has brought nearly-boundless access to information but also a perilous specter of government and corporate surveillance.

This residue left in the 21st century by the ascent of capitalism, globalization, democratization and digital culture often goes unreported and is certainly undertheorized. We find ourselves again in a moment where the ethos of questioning, critique, and radical alternative narratives is essential. This is the challenge that Eric leaves us with at The New School: How to resist the utopian narratives, continue to build alternative theory and narratives that connect the micro and the macro dynamics of social change and that appreciate that the residue is often the main event.

I want to thank you all for holding this conference here at the New School: the Hobsbawm family (Marlene, Julia and Andy), Anya Shiffrin, Jessica Hejtamanik and the organizers of the conference, the amazing lineup of speakers and jazz performers who we have heard from today, and this audience of friends and admirers. I can’t tell me how many people have reached out to me in the last few weeks as the conference approached to tell me precisely this: How Eric Hobsbawm’s books transformed them at important, formative times in their lives, and opened their eyes to a new way of thinking about history. The New School benefitted when Eric was here and we continue to benefit today from having had Eric in a “Hobsbawm-type appointment.”

Thank you.

Presented on October 25, 2013. To watch the video of this event with comments by Jeremy Varon, click here.

Mailed remembrances of former New School students of Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm as a teacher and a person was not that much different from Hobsbawm as a historian and scholar. He was eloquent, full of energy, yet generous with his knowledge and time and humble in his daily interactions. His writing likewise had this energy, passion, generosity, and intimacy.

Perhaps the reason was that Hobsbawm was deeply embedded in the history he was researching and teaching. For, him, history was not only an academic discipline. He was — through his curiosity, empathy, and imagination — a part of history: a primitive rebel in England, a part of the crowd, if not a sans-culottes in the French Revolution, a communard of the 1871 rebellion, a worker on strike in Saint Petersburg, a persecuted Jew struggling against fascism, a third-world revolutionary.

Hobsbawm was a part of a tradition that read, popularized, updated and articulated Marx via the thinkers of the Second International, the historiography of the Annales School, and his vast knowledge of world history. He was a rebel at heart who expressed his desire for change through writing and teaching.

I had known the work of Eric Hobsbawm long before joining the New School as a graduate student. New Left intellectuals and activists, including people of my generation in Iran, were reading him high despite his official membership in the Communist Party of Great Britain. We found him to be accessible, creative and thought provoking. Our respect for him was legendary.

I still vividly remember reading and discussing Marx’s Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations and Hobsbawm’s excellent introduction to it in the early 1970’s. I would not be exaggerating to say that his non-determinist and Hegelian reading of Marx changed my view about history long time before I met him. Due to Hobsbawm’s original reading of Marx, I, and many people of my generation, rejected the notion that modes of production inexorably succeeded one another; rather, his made by people seizing new destinies, in concert with economic forces..

Eric’s teaching was not limited to the classroom or his office hours and lectures. I and fellow graduate students also had informal Tuesday luncheons at the Center for Studies of Social Change, and sometimes we were chatting with him about the world events at the center’s kitchen. His office doors were always open to us. Throughout, we never had the feeling we were talking to one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, but with a comrade who was genuinely interested in us. Eric Hobsbawm’s greatest virtue, as I experienced the man, was his humility.

Behrooz Moazami, Associate Professor of History and Director of Middle East Peace Studies at Loyal University, New Orleans

* * *

I was a student of Sociology and Historical Studies at the Graduate Faculty from 1989 to 1998 when I had the good fortune to take courses with Eric Hobsbawm and to interact with him informally. Eric was an extraordinary lecturer, routinely displaying his encyclopedic knowledge of global history in diverse settings. I recall being awestruck alongside my dissertation advisor, the late anthropologist William Roseberry, with Eric’s extraordinary knowledge of Latin America, as we perceived him as primarily a historian of Europe. In this context, Eric routinely read and commented perceptively and sympathetically on my work on labor in Chile.

For someone of such great intellectual stature, Eric was a mild mannered and jovial person. He often threw in jokes and chuckled in the middle of his lectures, grinning and waiting for the audience to laugh along with him. Because we knew he had been a jazz critic earlier in life, a fellow graduate student and I asked if he wanted to go to a jazz show with us. This lead to regular visits to the local jazz spots when Eric returned each fall. Eric was a towering intellectual figure as well as a lot of fun to be around. I feel very privileged to have had the chance to study with him and to get to know him.

Joel Stillerman, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Grand Valley State University

* * *

I had many wonderful teachers at the Graduate Faculty and among them was Eric Hobsbawm. When I arrived to the program in Historical Studies in 1995, the offices were still on University Place, a very casual lounge-like environment, and I recall students referring to Professor Hobsbawm as Eric, which struck me as a bit informal for a scholar whose reputation in the Midwestern provinces, from where I hailed, placed him at just about pantheon level. I was never chummy with Prof. Hobsbawm but held him in the “old school” regard as esteemed teacher. I had the last-chance privilege to be a member of his final course at the New School, based on his book that had just come out, “The Age of Extremes.” The lectures were held in Swayduk Auditorium in the old 65 Fifth Avenue building, now gone and, I suppose because of its absence, missed with some measure of nostalgia.

In any event, he would sit at the table onstage waiting for class to begin, with a bottle of Snapple not far from his fingertips, an unseemly pedestrian tableau. The lectures were as you would expect them to be: engaging and unforgettable, lilting and rich. The stage was stormed by all of us at the end of the last lecture — it was a remarkable moment. He returned in subsequent years to deliver lectures to the New School community, and there was a small black market trade in cassette tapes of those lectures. I have them all.

What struck me most about Professor Hobsbawm was a certain modesty about his status as teacher. I recall one faculty member raising a question about the state, or immigration, or the state and immigrants, and Professor Hobsbawm stood there onstage, quiet for what seemed like a very long time, pensive, and said, “I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.” That was a big lesson for me. If he didn’t know, he didn’t have to pretend to know, or find some filler around the question. It was okay to defer until more thought could be given to a matter, and it was okay to say “I don’t know.”

These many years down the road I teach his work, ever relevant, his 1973 article on peasants from the charter issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies, and his work on nationalism, and on and on. The New School Ladies’ Auxiliary, of which I am a member, has had “How To Change The World” on its discussion list for about a year now, if only we could all find ourselves in the same place at the same time. This memorial might just be the place.

Barbara Syrrakos, Department of History, The City College of New York

* * *

I had read Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution in the late 1960s — and learned from it a lot that was never taught in the public schools, nor in my two years of college. Through the many twists and turns of my active revolutionary life from my high school years through the late 1980s, I ended up at the New School, first as a temporary office worker in the sociology department, later as an administrative assistant at the Center for Studies of Social Change, with which Eric and Historical Studies were affiliated. I entered grad school, studied Spanish to learn more about Cuba, and took every class that Eric taught in those years, including a methods class with Louise Tilly.

My first meeting with Professor Hobsbawn, however, had been during a visit to his office to ask him to sign a petition for an acquaintance who had been framed for rape and beaten to a pulp by the police in an Iowa meatpacking town. He looked at the photo of my young friend and immediately said that the fact that he was a bilingual meatpacker helping immigrant workers to know their rights, made him realize what had happened. He signed the petition right away.

A few years and some classes later, when I asked Eric for a recommendation, he would write that I was a true organic intellectual. I figured that most academic institutions of those days, the 1990s, would immediately feel I was not THEIR kind of academic, so I used the recommendation as an introduction when I went to Cuba on my first research trip, but put it away in some safe place, and never used it to obtain academic employment. Now, as a new retiree looking forward to writing
the history for which I have accumulated file cabinets full of research, I appreciate so much more Eric’s encouragement, his immense output of historical writing, as well as his life-long commitment to building a new, humanitarian world based on the principles of justice.

Eloise Linger, Ph.D, 1999, Sociology and Historical Studies; 1992 M.A. in Political Science, The Graduate Faculty at the New School, just retired from the Department of Politics, Economics, and Law, SUNY College at Old Westbury

* * *

When, after a twenty year career in law and banking, I returned to school for a graduate degree in history at the Graduate Faculty at the New School, it was my good fortune to enroll in classes taught by Eric Hobsbawm, as well as with Louise Tilly and Margaret Jacob. One early assignment was to explore the work of a particular historian & when I mentioned to Professor Hobsbawm that I was intrigued by the writing of British historian Frances Yates, he said to me, “Then you’ll have to go to the Warburg Institute in London.” I responded, “What’s the Warburg Institute?”

The following summer, when I found myself at the Warburg Institute — with which Yates was affiliated for 40 years — I discovered that her personal papers had never been examined. This discovery let to my M. A. thesis on Yates’ unpublished writings, which, in turn, led to my book, the first biography of Yates, Frances Yates and the Hermetic Tradition (Ibis Press, 2008).

It is not an overstatement to say that my encounter with Eric Hobsbawm & the Graduate Faculty changed my life.

Marjorie G. Jones, J.D., M.A.

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William Milberg

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