Eric Hobsbawm and Latin America

Outside of Europe, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm only truly felt at home in Latin America, as his posthumously-published collection of essays shows.

Shortly before his death in 2012, at the age of 95, Eric Hobsbawm expressed the desire to publish a volume with his articles and essays on Latin America. He did not have time to do it, but the British historian Leslie Bethell collected the task and organised a volume, which was given the title of Viva the Revolution, published last year in London.

In his autobiography Interesting Times, published in 2002, Hobsbawm claimed that the only region outside Europe that he thought he had known well and felt fully at home was Latin America.

However, Latin America’s presence in his classical works is marginal. In The Age of Revolution there are only references of passage to our continent. In The Age of Capital, there are only half a dozen pages on Latin America, in the chapter entitled ‘Losers’. In The Age of Empire, there are few references and four pages dedicated to the Mexican Revolution. In The Age of Extremes, Latin America became a prominent place in the emergence of the Third World, with references to several important historical events, from the Mexican Revolution to Allende’s Chile.

This book begins with his first impressions of the continent, which significantly, arise from his first trip to Cuba in October 1960, opening with the statement: ‘Unless there is an armed intervention of the United States, Cuba will very soon be the first socialist country of the western hemisphere’.

Hobsbawm will return several times to Cuba, which will be a permanent reference for the continent. But he will be a systematic critic of Cuban life, expressed in guerrilla movements.

His interest in Latin America will be more focused on the peasant movement, which is why he focuses his travels and analysis on Colombia, introduced to him by the great Colombian intellectual Orlando Fals Borda, and Peru. The issue of social banditry leads him to turn even on Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). Hobsbawm focused his analysis much more on the peasant movements than on Latin American urban workers movements.

In any case, Hobsbawm did not consider himself to be a Latin American historian. In fact, he never managed to free himself from the European imprint, which strongly marks his work, to understand the Latin American particularities. On social relations in the countryside, he always has feudalism as a reference, failing to incorporate the broad debate during the 1960s, represented first of all by Rodolfo Stavenhagen, and later incorporated by much of the social thought of the continent.

Hobsbawm always understood nationalism on the continent in terms of the phenomenon in Europe, referring to Perón and Vargas, as well as other populist leaders of the continent as fascists. His book on nationalisms does not incorporate an analysis of the peculiarities of the phenomenon, with the anti-imperialist slant that is characteristic in our continent. The anti-neoliberal features of Latin American nationalism appear to him always analogous to fascism and Nazism.

However, Latin America was for Hobsbawm a great laboratory of political experiences. As for the biologist Darwin, for me, as a historian, the revelation of Latin America was not regional, but general. It was a laboratory of change, for the most part distinct from what might be expected, a continent made to undermine conventional truths. It was a region where historical evolution occurred at the speed of an express train and could actually be observed during the middle of the life of a single person.

In his last general text on the continent, written in 2002, 40 years after his first visit, Hobsbawm notes that the expected revolution had not taken place. But he already lived with the new progressive governments, and expressed sympathy for Hugo Chávez, but it was for Lula and the Brazil´s Workers’ Party (PT) that he maintained his greatest sympathies. (I wear his badge on my keychain to remember old and contemporary sympathies and memories of my moments with the PT and Lula).

As a whole, the book of more than 500 pages, from first impressions, passing analyses of the agrarian structures and the peasant movement, as well as of the revolutionary attempts – Mexico, Cuba, Chile – until its final reflections, is a great mosaic of interpretations of the greatest historian of the twentieth century, on a continent in constant turmoil, of revolutions and counterrevolutions.

Translated by Alborada

This article was originally published in La Jornada. To read the original Spanish-language version of this article, click here.

Outside of Europe, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm only truly felt at home in Latin America, as his posthumously-published collection of essays shows.

Shortly before his death in 2012, at the age of 95, Eric Hobsbawm expressed the desire to publish a volume with his articles and essays on Latin America. He did not have time to do it, but the British historian Leslie Bethell collected the task and organised a volume, which was given the title of Viva the Revolution, published last year in London.

In his autobiography Interesting Times, published in 2002, Hobsbawm claimed that the only region outside Europe that he thought he had known well and felt fully at home was Latin America.

However, Latin America’s presence in his classical works is marginal. In The Age of Revolution there are only references of passage to our continent. In The Age of Capital, there are only half a dozen pages on Latin America, in the chapter entitled ‘Losers’. In The Age of Empire, there are few references and four pages dedicated to the Mexican Revolution. In The Age of Extremes, Latin America became a prominent place in the emergence of the Third World, with references to several important historical events, from the Mexican Revolution to Allende’s Chile.

This book begins with his first impressions of the continent, which significantly, arise from his first trip to Cuba in October 1960, opening with the statement: ‘Unless there is an armed intervention of the United States, Cuba will very soon be the first socialist country of the western hemisphere’.

Hobsbawm will return several times to Cuba, which will be a permanent reference for the continent. But he will be a systematic critic of Cuban life, expressed in guerrilla movements.

His interest in Latin America will be more focused on the peasant movement, which is why he focuses his travels and analysis on Colombia, introduced to him by the great Colombian intellectual Orlando Fals Borda, and Peru. The issue of social banditry leads him to turn even on Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). Hobsbawm focused his analysis much more on the peasant movements than on Latin American urban workers movements.

In any case, Hobsbawm did not consider himself to be a Latin American historian. In fact, he never managed to free himself from the European imprint, which strongly marks his work, to understand the Latin American particularities. On social relations in the countryside, he always has feudalism as a reference, failing to incorporate the broad debate during the 1960s, represented first of all by Rodolfo Stavenhagen, and later incorporated by much of the social thought of the continent.

Hobsbawm always understood nationalism on the continent in terms of the phenomenon in Europe, referring to Perón and Vargas, as well as other populist leaders of the continent as fascists. His book on nationalisms does not incorporate an analysis of the peculiarities of the phenomenon, with the anti-imperialist slant that is characteristic in our continent. The anti-neoliberal features of Latin American nationalism appear to him always analogous to fascism and Nazism.

However, Latin America was for Hobsbawm a great laboratory of political experiences. As for the biologist Darwin, for me, as a historian, the revelation of Latin America was not regional, but general. It was a laboratory of change, for the most part distinct from what might be expected, a continent made to undermine conventional truths. It was a region where historical evolution occurred at the speed of an express train and could actually be observed during the middle of the life of a single person.

In his last general text on the continent, written in 2002, 40 years after his first visit, Hobsbawm notes that the expected revolution had not taken place. But he already lived with the new progressive governments, and expressed sympathy for Hugo Chávez, but it was for Lula and the Brazil´s Workers’ Party (PT) that he maintained his greatest sympathies. (I wear his badge on my keychain to remember old and contemporary sympathies and memories of my moments with the PT and Lula).

As a whole, the book of more than 500 pages, from first impressions, passing analyses of the agrarian structures and the peasant movement, as well as of the revolutionary attempts – Mexico, Cuba, Chile – until its final reflections, is a great mosaic of interpretations of the greatest historian of the twentieth century, on a continent in constant turmoil, of revolutions and counterrevolutions.

Translated by Alborada

This article was originally published in La Jornada. To read the original Spanish-language version of this article, click here.

2017-11-16T17:49:12+00:00 7/November/2017|Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Books|Tags: , , |
Emir Sadir is a Brazilian sociologist and political scientist. Twitter: @emirsader ‏

One Comment

  1. Vic 21/11/2017 at 4:36 pm

    It’s a great point about Latin American nationalism – or patriotism as Latin American Marxists would call it. The anti-imperialist content of patriotism in former colonies across the world differs fundamentally from the western European nationalism of the colonial powers. very interesting piece!

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