Eric Hobsbawm: Lots of political opinions, still

Historians in the News

'Our greatest living historian - not only Britain's but the world's', exclaims a puff on the jacket of this book, quoting, of all sources, The Spectator. 'For sheer intelligence, Hobsbawm has no superior in the historical profession', comments The Guardian, a little more cautiously.

Well, Eric Hobsbawm is certainly an eminent historian, and a clever man; and as he passes his 90th birthday, still with his pen in his hand, he deserves our admiration. This collection of his recent essays and lectures celebrates that anniversary, and

it gives a good sense of the vigour and passion with which this famous intellectual surveys the contemporary world. But the qualities of a great historian are conspicuous here, mostly, by their absence.

Good historical writing involves paying close attention to evidence, and the careful structuring of coherent arguments. Above all, it requires what might be called 'practical subtlety' - awareness that human motives and actions are complex things which interact with other factors in all kinds of different ways. Most of this book, however, consists not of historical interpretation but of political opinion. And what it offers is not practical subtlety but theoretical simplicity, rendered complex only by occasional self-contradiction.

Just one of these essays sets out a properly historical argument, analysing the basic differences between American 'imperial' power and that of the former British Empire. But this essay, too, is driven by polemical concerns, aimed against those who say that the US should now provide something equivalent to the old 'Pax Britannica'. And since Hobsbawm thinks both that the Pax Britannica was illusory, and that the US should not impose its own version even if it could, it's not clear whether the historical part of his argument has much real work to do....

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