Review of: Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion, Jazz by Eric Hobsbawm

Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz
By Eric Hobsbawm
Weinfeld and Nicolson, London
£20, 1998

Majority of the human race consists of the common people. People about whom, if one were to go by Lord Acton’s dictum (“History is nothing but the biography of great men”), there would be no place in history. Writing such individuals out of the story would leave no significant trace on the broad historical narrative.

Eric Hobsbawm differs with this line of thought. He does not accept the opposite version either- that each one of us is “as big as you and I”. He feels that little people may not be “as big as you and I” as individuals but collectively, such men and women are major historical actors. For this reason, he calls this book about them as Uncommon People. Hobsbawm should know. He has spent an entire lifetime studying and writing about the common peoples’ history, starting from Primitive Rebels in 1959. He is considered to be the greatest living historian, even by sceptics who otherwise feel that he is a brilliant man unfortunately caught in the time warp of Marxism. It is about him it can be said that it to be as learned as he is, and to write as well, would be enough for most historians, to be as gifted with flashes of brilliance is a rarity even among the greatest writers.

The present work is a collection of the writer’s essays and reviews written between the 1950s and mid 1990s’ The essays are collected under four sections: The Radical Tradition, Country People, Contemporary History and Jazz.

The first section is related to the evolution of working class and its movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An essay on Tom Paine, the American “moderate” revolutionary is illuminating. Paine belonged to an era of self- made men at a time when it was difficult to divide people as employers and the employed, the exploiter and the exploited. Despite his moderation even by the standards of his time, his Age of Reason was the first book to say in common man’s language that the Bible was not the word of God- a classic statement of working class rationalism.

The Luddite movement has for long been considered to be a frenzied, pointless and ultimately historically doomed movement. Hobsbawm opines that it was a mode of collective bargaining devised by the working people in the initial years of mechanisation. Also, the use of machines was more of a defensive weapon in the early years of capitalism rather than an offensive means of increasing profits.

Another essay probes into the different labour traditions in France and Britain. Though the latter was the country, in Marx’s words, of “classic capitalism”, it was the working class of France that was much more revolutionary in nature while the British working class remained more susceptible to religion. The reason, Hobsbawm avers was, because that religion in England displayed streaks of radicalism but in France, Roman Catholicism was demonstratively conservative and hence the working class movement developed fully independently of it.

The Labour Party in England emerged as a distinct party of working people only after 1918. An essay on Harold Laski marks him out as a person who, despite being “neither an original thinker nor a natural writer” (none of his 25 works have survived), was the left’s “megaphone” for a long time, leading to the most radical labour government ever in Britain in 1945 under Attlee. Incidentally, Laski, like so many leaders of the Left in Europe and Russia, was a Jew (Hobsbawm is of Jewish parentage too).

In “May 1968”, a study of the leadership of the student movement in that memorable year of student radicalism, rightly traces the origin of the movement in the alienation of the young people in the developed world. It expressed only the social and cultural discontents and did not have political aims itself, though it used political phraseology.

He also points to the persistent affinity between revolution and puritanism, though the founders of Marxism were quite unpuritanical, and in the case of Engels, quite anti- puritanical. Among the rebellious young, those who are, or were, closest to the traditional left wing politics tended to be most hostile to any forms of personal dissidence.

The seven essays related to jazz reflect the passion the writer has for the strand of music owing its roots to Black music as an early form of Black protest in this century.

The concluding essay on the contribution of America to the Old World, is perhaps one of the finest one. This contribution Hobsbawm locates not in the contribution of the elite urban culture of which the United States is the centre of the world, but in the contribution of the common and especially native people on the rest of the world. It was the discovery of America that precipitated the idea of Utopia in the minds of the radical Europeans. Its discovery stimulated the researches of Darwin and Wallace culminating in the formulation of the evolution theory. It was also the first European transatlantic country that made a more complete break with the institutions of the Old World. Four of the seven most important agricultural crops in the world today are of American origin: potatoes, maize, manioc and sweet potatoes (the other three being wheat, barley and rice).

For these and many other insights one feels pleased to have read this book. Even though most of the essays have themselves passed into historical classics, the flashes of brilliance are as fresh as ever. Sample the following:

Latin America is the last bastion of the left in the world. For this reason its literature has so far escaped the worst consequences of the privatization of the imagination. But for how long?

Indeed, it is a cynical world today. No longer the world that produced such outstanding social historians as Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams. For that reason alone, one wishes that Hobsbawm’s writings never end.

10 September 1998, Sydney
Published: The Tribune October ?? 1998

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