hobsbawn the great


Eric Hobsbawm was one of the greatest historians produced by the twentieth century. Easily. You could slice off any five of the books from his C.V. and he would still be in the running. A thinker of dazzling scope and dizzying erudition, Hobsbawm had few peers and many emulators. He specialized in the nineteenth century but remains a giant in scholarly debates ranging from the seventeenth century to the twentieth. Historians at their most ambitious, he believed, could aspire to explaining “how and why Homo sapiens got from the paleolithic to the nuclear era.” Nobody can claim with even a tattered shred of intellectual honesty the competence to fulfill this project, but Hobsbawm came as close to meeting the challenge as any of us Homo sapiens is likely to. No surprise, then, that his death has precipitated a torrent of deserved tributes, from admirers on the cartoonish Right to comrades on the left, with stops at seemingly every position in between. Celebrations of his intellectual achievements vie with accounts of personal kindness for the admiration of readers. But the rush to memorialize, though understandable, is a poor commemoration for someone whose work at its best was defined by skepticism of dogma and repudiation of sentimentality.

more from Timothy Shenk at Dissent here.