Monday, 1 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Eric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012
We're very sad that the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm has died at the age of 95. He was an honorary associate of the Rationalist Association and a great friend to New Humanist – he would always respond to our messages, and was extremely generous in providing us with content for the magazine.

In fact, we published a short line from him in our current issue. It's on the free "Back to University" poster that came with the issue, for which we asked our friends and contributors to tell us the best thing they learned at university. Here's what Eric Hobsbawm told us he learned at Cambridge between 1936 and 1939:
"I got more out of university, both as an undergraduate and graduate, by working and discussion in student groups than from formal lectures."
He also contributed a passage to our feature marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11 last year. We asked him to tell us what he believed was the greatest threat facing the world in the post-9/11 era. Here was his answer:
"The greatest threat facing the world is not religious extremism per se but the conditions which have generated it; life in unjust societies transformed at uncontrollable speed, as rules and conventions that had regulated social and personal relations for most of their history are discarded. There is no doubt that in many parts of the world extremist versions of traditional faiths, themselves in rebellion against older established religious practice, have been major  beneficiaries of this situation, particularly where they can be combined with xenophobia. These dangerous innovatory tendencies are usually confined to minorities, though these sometimes succeed in establishing strong political positions, as have Jewish extremism in Israel and ultra-evangelicalism in the USA, or even supremacy, as in Iran.

No traditional religion is immune to infection. The democratisation of non-European politics has brought more power to those open to the appeal of religious practice and weakened the relatively free-thinking political elites which (like the Founding Fathers of the USA and most of the post-1945 secular reforming rulers of Islamic countries) recognised these dangers. How far will this be counteracted by the explosive rise in the proportion of human beings with higher secular education? Or dangerously reinforced by the insecurities of our century? We do not know."
Of course, this is just a tiny sample of the writing of one of the most prolific historians of all time. Having studied history at university, my own experience of Hobsbawm has been as an ever-present figure on reading lists. While his Marxist perspective was controversial (he continued to call himself a Marxist historian long after the term had fallen from academic fashion), it would be almost impossible to study history without encountering the work of Eric Hobsbawm. He was perhaps best for his four "Age" books covering the history of the world from The Age of Revolution (1789-1848) to The Age of Extremes (1914-1991), but I would also recommend his fascinating autobiography Interesting Times (2002), his book on the philosophy of history, On History (1997), and Bandits (1969), in which he examined the figure of the outlaw as a recurring phenomenon across a diverse range of periods and societies.

We felt very privileged to be able to turn to Eric Hobsbawm for contributions to New Humanist, and will miss him greatly.
blog comments powered by Disqus