Eric Hobsbawm on America’s New Imperialism

Its funny I never noticed this when I lived there, but today I noticed a car from New York and on its number plate at the back it said: The Empire State.Anyway, I was reminded of this only when I read an extract from Eric Hobsbawm’s preface to a forthcoming book by VG Kiernan: “America: The New Imperialism”. Kiernan has had a long association with India and recently a collection of his essays on India were published. VG Kiernan is most well known in India for his translations of Faiz Ahmed Faiz from Urdu to English and for his studies on Allama Iqbal.

Hobsbawm, the pitamah of Marxist historians mainly reiterates what he has been saying of late, including what he said when he was in India earlier this year- the United States today is in a position to win small scale wars as demonstrated by its occupation of Afganistan and Iraq but the question really is how to rule after the war.

I first read Hobsbawm’s three volume work on the 19th century in the early nineties, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those were my years of intellectual disarray- and the first piecing realization was that my history of humankind started from Marx, I knew little of even extant socialist traditions, not to mention the Enlightenment and Renaissance. The second was that I knew little about India as well- and it was not till I started a more systematic study on my own that I developed some confidence about my ideas and beliefs.

Much later, in 1997-98, when I first spent a few months in the US and got to procure books that introduced me to broader thought currents in the West, that I began to recoup mentally. My confidence in Marx and Marxist thought only increased, even as I read more and more about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath by left- wing and right- wing writers. That also started my own series of books reviews on globalization and the history of 20th century Soviet socialism even as I continued to write on communalism. All this was in the background of increasing Right wing rhetoric and dominance both in India and in the US- the two countries where I have spent most of my professional life in the last decade.

I have to admit that Hobsbawm’s writing formed the anchor around which I got introduced to 19th century history and also the history of socialism.

And then it was the late Mohit Sen too who stroked the fires. He had been a student of Eric Hobsbawm in the 1940s Cambridge and he recounted a number of anecdotes about him that made me feel closer to EH- his ability to rattle off statistics even when he was just about 30 or 32, his lectures that were attended by students from all over the university and his letters to Mohit Sen.

Both went to on recount those years in their respective biographies, though MS must have felt very crest fallen on discovering that EH had not even mentioned his name on his otherwise long recollection with Indian students, though Mohit himself spent considerable ink on his former teacher. That was part of Mohit’s general sense of being forlorn in his last years, of not having been given his due. He had been a brilliant thinker in his own right, and a prodigy of sorts. My own feeling is that Mohit had the mind of a theoretician and the disposition of an ideologue, and the times he lived in cast him in the mould of the latter, with all its pitfalls.

To return to my teacher’s teacher, Hobsbawm, his trilogy on the 19th century, I believe, forms the core his work. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union, that the Marxist in Hobsbawm began overshadowing the historian.

I also believe that today, along with Roy Medveydev, he is probably the most articulte and clear headed Marxist analysts of the contemporary world. There are others as well, no doubt. But what lends authenticity to both these thinkers is their rooted-ness in the Marxism of the Old Left, their lifelong faith and support for Soviet socialism, warts and all, and their ability to explain the aftermath in Marxist terms. Even if they are critical of the Left or the former Soviet Union, I find it easier to accept their views than to accept the same views from anyone who was either anti- communist or anti- Soviet Union when it existed.

Unlike those on the New Left, for example, Hobsbawm and Medveydev have have shown intellectual resilience and imparted an intellectual grace- if not a defence- to the nobility of the ideas that spawned the October Revolution, even as the Revolution crumbled under it own weight.

Coming back to the current Guardian extract, I would like to read all of the preface, but I found the following lines particularly pregnant with meaning:

Even those who do not share the views of the old generals and proconsuls of the US world empire (which were those of Democratic as well as Republican administrations) will agree that there can be no rational justification of current Washington policy in terms of the interests of America’s imperial ambitions or, for that matter, the global interests of US capitalism.

And then he goes to to say:

It may be that it makes sense only in terms of the calculations, electoral or otherwise, of American domestic policy. It may be a symptom of a more profound crisis within US society.

Its the last line that is particularly incisive and Hobsbawm stops short of elaborating on this. Because if this is so, then the policy may turn out to be far more resilient than if it is only the result of the megalnomania of a set of quasi- revolutionary Right wing demagogues.

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