Eric J. Hobsbawm's Blog

March 26, 2014

Historian with a global vision of empires, Marxism, politics and poetry

Victor Kiernan, who has died aged 95, was a man of unselfconscious charm and staggeringly wide range of learning. He was also one of the last survivors of the generation of British Marxist historians of the 1930s and 1940s. If this generation has been seen by the leading German scholar HU Wehler as the main factor behind "the global impact of English historiography since the 1960s", it was largely due to Victor's influence. He brought to the debates of the Communist party historians' group between 1946 and 1956 a persistent, if always courteous, determination to think out problems of class culture and tradition for himself, whatever the orthodox position. He continued to remain loyal to the flexible, open-minded Marxism of the group to which he had contributed so much.

Most influential through his works on the imperialist era, he was also, almost certainly, the only historian who also translated 20th-century Urdu poets and wrote a book on the Latin poet Horace. The latter's works he, like the distinguished Polish Marxist historian Witold Kula, carried with him on his travels.

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Published on March 26, 2014 06:58 • 20 views
Whatever ideological logo we adopt, the shift from free market to public action needs to be bigger than politicians grasp

The 20th century is well behind us, but we have not yet learned to live in the 21st, or at least to think in a way that fits it. That should not be as difficult as it seems, because the basic idea that dominated economics and politics in the last century has patently disappeared down the plughole of history. This was the way of thinking about modern industrial economies, or for that matter any economies, in terms of two mutually exclusive opposites: capitalism or socialism.

We have lived through two practical attempts to realise these in their pure form: the centrally state-planned economies of the Soviet type and the totally unrestricted and uncontrolled free-market capitalist economy. The first broke down in the 1980s, and the European communist political systems with it. The second is breaking down before our eyes in the greatest crisis of global capitalism since the 1930s. In some ways it is a greater crisis than in the 1930s, because the globalisation of the economy was not then as far advanced as it is today, and the crisis did not affect the planned economy of the Soviet Union. We don't yet know how grave and lasting the consequences of the present world crisis will be, but they certainly mark the end of the sort of free-market capitalism that captured the world and its governments in the years since Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan.

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Published on March 26, 2014 06:58 • 26 views
Marxist historian renowned for his great work, the Dictionary of Labour Biography

John Saville, the socialist economic and social historian who has died aged 93, was an academic at Hull University for nearly 40 years, but will be remembered above all for the great, open-ended Dictionary of Labour Biography (partly co-edited with Joyce Bellamy), of which he was able to complete the first 10 volumes (1972-2000), and the three volumes of Essays in Labour History (1960, 1971, 1977) co-edited with Asa Briggs (Lord Briggs).

He was born John Stamatopoulos, in a Lincolnshire village near Gainsborough, to Edith Vessey, from a local working-class family, and Orestes Stamatopoulos, a Greek engineer who disappeared from the lives of both soon after. His mother's remarriage in London some years after the first world war to a widowed tailor, freemason and reader of the Daily Mail, to whom she had acted as housekeeper, gave her son a comfortable lower-middle-class childhood and the name he later adopted.

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Published on March 26, 2014 06:58 • 17 views

Among other things, Franz Marek, Austrian communist (1913-79), born Ephraim Feuerlicht to Galician refugees, survived conventional heroism in the French wartime resistance. He headed the resistance organisation for foreigners, doing work among the occupying German forces which a survivor described as "more terrifying than straightforward armed action". He was captured, sentenced to death but saved by the liberation of Paris. His "last words" survive, as recorded on the wall of Fresnes prison on 18 August 1944. But that is not the reason I choose him as my hero.

When I came to know this short, quizzical, laconic, formidably intelligent man who radiated a sort of self-effacing charisma even when hiking in the Vienna woods, he was still a leading member of the party he joined in 1934, though he already belonged to that lost generation of reforming "Eurocommunist" leaders whose last survivors are Gorbachev and the current president of Italy. After the Prague spring of 1968 he was forced out of the party and lost the only paid job he had ever had since the age of 20, that of "professional revolutionary", for which he had given up academic ambition. The Comintern had given him his first new jacket and trousers, for the childhood of education-hungry Galician Jews without money did not run to such luxuries. For the next 12 years he lived on false papers.

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Published on March 26, 2014 06:58 • 20 views
A range of voices give their verdict on Ed Miliband's speech at the Labour conference in Manchester
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Published on March 26, 2014 06:58 • 17 views
Sociologist who studied how technology affects work

Dorothy Wedderburn, who has died aged 87, was a social scientist with interests that came to centre on industrial sociology. She was also a socialist, university principal, enemy of all self-advertisement and an untypical member of the community of "the great and the good".

Born in Walthamstow, north-east London, she was the youngest child of Frederick Barnard, a class-conscious trade unionist carpenter and joiner, and his wife, Ethel, who had left school at 13 to earn her living in service. Both were the children of blacksmiths. Even in relatively meritocratic Britain, few 20th-century academics and administrators of distinction started life in such a working-class family. For both Dorothy and her brother George, an eventual president of the Royal Statistical Society, to graduate from Cambridge University before 1945 was yet more uncommon, though helped by school scholarships.

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Published on March 26, 2014 06:58 • 32 views

March 15, 2014

Tony Benn, who died last week, was in his political prime when he was interviewed by Eric Hobsbawm on the state of the nation under Thatcher… and sounded a heartfelt rallying cry to rescue his beloved Labour party

Martin Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today. writes: In October 1980 Marxism Today carried what was to become a famous interview with Tony Benn by leading historian Eric Hobsbawm. Benn was at the peak of his power in the Labour party and Hobsbawm had written an influential article on the state of the left entitled "The Forward March of Labour Halted?". The interview, published on the eve of the Labour conference, attracted enormous interest and was widely cited. Here is an edited extract.

Eric Hobsbawm Well, first, it's a great pleasure, of course, to have you here. I would just like to say that I don't see this meeting of ours either as a confrontation or as an equal dialogue. I see my function rather as that of drawing you out, possibly pinning you down, chiefly because your reactions to the questions we are about to discuss are of considerable public interest, in view of your position in politics.

I would like to begin by saying that those of us who have been around a long time tend to have a sense of deja vu. We are back again in a period of a major crisis of world capitalism, combined with a very dangerous international situation, and this is, of course, the general setting within which the specific and very grave problems of Great Britain, the British economy and British politics are being played out. The first thing I'd like to ask you is how do you see this present world capitalist crisis and the present international situation? How would you compare it with the last time round?

Tony Benn By way of introduction, may I explain that I am not a Marxist, academic or historian, but a practising politician trying to understand what is happening. I too am struck by the similarities between the situation now and the situation in the 1930s, in that, as far as this country is concerned, we are locked into a virtual collapse of our industry which has proceeded more rapidly than people expected and which has been coming for some time. It is a decline beginning at a lower level of activity than we had in the 1930s.

It looks at the moment as if the government, far from trying to revive the British economy, is using this crisis in order to secure certain very clear political objectives. Namely, if possible the destruction of trade union power in the land by three processes: by stimulating unemployment to frighten working people away from trade unionism; by legislation through the Employment bill to make effective trade unionism very difficult, if not impossible; and by the utilisation of the media in a very sustained campaign to persuade the British public that the trade union movement is responsible for our problems and has got to be weakened if we are to recover from them. It would also be true to say that in this slump we have a government that no longer has a patriotic element in its capitalism and actually sees a future for the people they represent in the success of international capitalism, even at the expense of the United Kingdom becoming the sort of Northern Ireland of the Common Market.

On the other hand, the trade union movement is much stronger than it was in the 1930s in terms of numbers. Also, a lot of people are clearer in their own mind about what is happening. The option of war as a solution to the problem of the slump has been rendered absurd, though not impossible, because of the development of nuclear weapons, and I think these factors make the situation slightly different.

I must just add one other point. If you look at the defeat of the Labour government in May 1979, the more I think about it, the more I think it was a surrender rather than a defeat. For 20 years non-political trade unionism had been preached and it's turned out to be a cul-de-sac, and non-socialist Labourism had been preached, and it's also turned out to be a cul-de-sac. One could argue that Mrs Thatcher and the Conservative party won last year with very little opposition to the ideas that she preached. Much of the ground had been conceded before the election. But the crisis bears very strong resemblances to what happened in the 1930s. Indeed, what we are witnessing is an attempt to use this crisis to put the clock back to a much earlier period.

EH You said that the trade union movement today is stronger than it was, say, in the 1930s. That may be so. But would you say that on the whole the socialist movement, the democratic movement, the people's movement, have shown themselves to be strong enough to mount an effective challenge, both to the crisis itself, and to the forces such as Thatcherism, which it has brought out?

TB If you mean "have we yet succeeded in building a winning coalition of people who understand what is happening and recognise the role of trade unionism and socialism in preventing the disaster from overwhelming us?", no, clearly we have not. If you mean "is there a residual strength and a potential strength in the instruments of democracy, the instruments of trade unionism and the ideas of socialism, capable of being mobilised and developed to prevent this from reaching its ultimate form of repression?", I think the answer must be yes. Otherwise I would be wholly pessimistic about the prospects.

EH To what extent have the weaknesses and failures of the labour movement aided erosion of support, this gradual decline of support, and indeed the failure, even after a year of the present government, for the movement, and I would say for the people as a whole, to recover the confidence in Labour that it should have? To what extent would you make the record of the various Labour governments between 1964 and 1979 responsible for this?

TB You know that I served in every Labour government from 1964 to 1979, and take my full share of responsibility for that. But it would be very foolish to deny that what occurred did so as a result of the upper direction of the Labour party over this whole period. That's why I mentioned the concept of surrender. Ideologically and tactically there have been over the last 30 years three waves of revisionism in the Labour party.

The first was the Gaitskellite wave where he argued, in broad agreement with Macmillan, that you could rely upon full employment and it could sustain the welfare state without socialism. Every worker could have a Mini in the garage, a television set in his living room and a package holiday in Majorca. Political trade unionism was no longer needed, and socialism was old hat. This revisionism was presented as Labour's response to Macmillan's 1959 victory.

The second wave of revisionism occurred during the 1960s when Harold Wilson came to the conclusion that the trade unions were an embarrassment to the Labour government because the Labour government was hoping to rise above its past as a product of trade unionism and present itself to the country as the natural party of government, strong enough to govern the country even when opposed by the trade unions.

The third wave of revisionism, which is the one that is now being vigorously resisted, is a revisionism based upon a coalition at the very top of some of the parliamentary and trade union leadership to control the rank and file of the movement as reflected at Conference. This third wave of revisionism is the most comprehensive of all because it is a revisionism designed to consolidate, within the structures of the labour movement, an acceptance of the ideas of incorporation that were really defeated in May 1979. If that revisionism is accepted then we are finished. But it cannot, and will not, be accepted.

EH Mass support and mass dynamism is at the moment lacking in the Labour party. How can we get it back again?

TB We must be very clear that we are not interested in a narrow, sectarian, purist party all taking one view. You may have noticed that now the left is beginning to get a majority on the national executive, we are deliberately limiting the grounds for expulsion. I think that what the left is now saying is that we want a very broad church. The condition for the broad church, however, is groups within the party don't put up candidates against Labour candidates.

EH When you say broad church, do you mean a broad church of different tendencies within the Labour party?

TB Yes. I think we must be a broad church. We have got a lot of different groups in the Labour party. For example, on the right we have got the "exitists", who have gone, we've got the "departurists", who are packing to go, we've got the "ultimatumists", who will go if certain things happen, we have got the "confrontationists", who have stayed to fight it out. But all these are in a minority. The solid core of the party is socialist. I think it's important to remain broad because all the groups have got something to contribute to our work. But more than that, I want to broaden the party out much further. I want to extend affiliations. Why, if we are trying to get the NUT to affiliate, shouldn't you try to get the Indian Workers' Association to affiliate? Why, if you are trying to get Nalgo to affiliate, shouldn't you seek to persuade the women's movement to affiliate? I would like to see affiliations now open on a very broad basis, including the peace movement, the ecological movement and so on. In that way we will broaden the party.

We must however be careful to see that the Labour party, at this stage in development, doesn't so excite middle-class radicals that they come in and swamp our basic working-class support. That is why it is so important to build up factory branches, to expand basic political education. The Labour Party Commission of Enquiry has done a very good job on organisation, finance and political education.

We must also win the battle of party democracy. If the trade union movement is to be induced to take a new and deeper interest in socialism, which is a precondition for mass support and social change, trade union members must be able to be sure that the policies that go through party conference will actually be in the manifesto and will be implemented by accountable parliamentary leaders.

If we get all those elements right: a broad party; an effective organisation to allow the trade unions to play a more active part in the party; and a capacity to translate policy into action by using a parliamentary leadership that remains accountable, then I think we have a chance of success. I can't put it higher than that. But at least the party is now beginning to understand where it went wrong and what it must do to put it right. If we succeed we shall be able to answer the credibility question that we get when we go canvassing. You knock at the door and they say, "Well we agree with you about all this, but how do we know that you are going to do it next time?"

Until we can answer that question confidently we won't get the third dimension of mass support from people, especially from the working class, who are neither active trade unionists nor active Labour party people but who really want to know whether it's going to be exactly the same next time as it was last time. We must be able to answer that question credibly to get the electoral majority necessary to breath life into the policies that we have been talking about.

Tony BennLabourHarold WilsonMargaret ThatcherTrade unionsEric Hobsbawm
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March 20, 2013

How did the lone cowboy hero become such a potent figure in American culture? In an extract from his final book Fractured Times, the late Eric Hobsbawm follows a trail from cheap novels and B-westerns to Ronald Reagan

Today, populations of wild horse-riders and herdsmen exist in a large number of regions all round the world. Some of them are strictly analogous to cowboys, such as gauchos on the plains of the southern cone of Latin America; the llaneros on the plains of Colombia and Venezuela; possibly the vaqueiros of the Brazilian north-east; certainly the Mexican vaqueros from whom indeed, as everyone knows, both the costume of the modern cowboy myth and most of the vocabulary of the cowboy's trade are directly derived: mustang, lasso, lariat, sombrero, chaps (chaparro), a cinch, bronco. There are similar populations in Europe, such as the csikos on the Hungarian plain, or puszta, the Andalusian horsemen in the cattle-raising zone whose flamboyant behaviour probably gave the earliest meaning of the word "flamenco", and the various Cossack communities of the south Russian and Ukrainian plains.

In the 16th century there were the exact equivalents of the Chisholm trail leading from the Hungarian plains to the market cities of Augsburg, Nuremberg or Venice. And I do not have to tell you about the great Australian outback, which is essentially ranching country, though for sheep more than cattle.

There is thus no shortage of potential cowboy myths in the western world. And, in fact, practically all the groups I have mentioned have generated macho and heroic semi-barbarian myths of one kind or another in their own countries and sometimes even beyond. But none of them has generated a myth with serious international popularity, let alone one that can compare, even faintly, with the fortunes of the North American cowboy. Why?

Our starting point is the fact that, in and outside Europe, the "western" in its modern sense – that is, the myth of the cowboy – is a late variant of a very early and deep-rooted image: that of the wild west in general. Fenimore Cooper, whose popularity in Europe followed immediately upon his first publication – Victor Hugo thought he was "the American Walter Scott" – is the most familiar version of this. Nor is he dead. Without the memory of Leatherstocking, would English punks have invented Mohican hairstyles?

The original image of the wild west, I suggest, contains two elements: the confrontation of nature and civilisation, and of freedom with social constraint. Civilisation is what threatens nature; and their move from bondage or constraint into independence, which constitutes the essence of America as a radical European ideal in the 18th and early 19th centuries, is actually what brings civilisation into the wild west and so destroys it. The plough that broke the plains is the end of the buffalo and the Indian.

It is clear that many white protagonists of the original wild west epic are in some sense misfits in, or refugees from, "civilisation", but that is not, I think, the main essence of their situation. Basically they are of two types: explorers or visitors seeking something that cannot be found elsewhere – and money is the very last thing they seek; and men who have established a symbiosis with nature, as it exists in its human and non-human shape, in these wilds.

In terms of literary pedigree, the invented cowboy was a late romantic creation. But in terms of social content, he had a double function: he represented the ideal of individualist freedom pushed into a sort of inescapable jail by the closing of the frontier and the coming of the big corporations. As a reviewer said of Frederic Remington's articles, illustrated by himself in 1895, the cowboy roamed "where the American may still revel in the great red-shirted freedom which has been pushed so far to the mountain wall that it threatens soon to expire somewhere near the top". In hindsight, the west could seem thus, as it seemed to that sentimentalist and first great star of movie westerns William S Hart, for whom the cattle and mining frontier "to this country … means the very essence of national life … It is but a generation or so since virtually all this country was frontier. Consequently its spirit is bound up in American citizenship." As a quantitative statement this is absurd, but its significance is symbolic. And the invented tradition of the west is entirely symbolic, inasmuch as it generalises the experience of a comparative handful of marginal people. Who, after all, cares that the total number of deaths by gunshot in all the major cattle towns put together between 1870 and 1885 – in Wichita plus Abilene plus Dodge City plus Ellsworth – was 45, or an average of 1.5 per cattle-trading season, or that local western newspapers were not filled with stories about bar-room fights, but about property values and business opportunities?

But the cowboy also represented a more dangerous ideal: the defence of the native Waspish American ways against the millions of encroaching immigrants from lower races. Hence the quiet dropping of the Mexican, Indian and black elements, which still appear in the original non-ideological westerns – for instance, Buffalo Bill's show. It is at this stage and in this manner that the cowboy becomes the lanky, tall Aryan. In other words, the invented cowboy tradition is part of the rise of both segregation and anti-immigrant racism; this is a dangerous heritage. The Aryan cowboy is not, of course, entirely mythical. Probably the percentage of Mexicans, Indians and black people did diminish as the wild west ceased to be essentially a south-western, even a Texan, phenomenon, and at the peak of the boom it extended into areas like Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. In the later periods of the cattle boom the cowboys were also joined by a fair number of European dudes, mainly Englishmen, with eastern-bred college-men following them.

The new cowboy tradition made its way into the wider world by two routes: the western movie and the much underrated western novel or sub-novel, which was to many foreigners what the private eye thriller was to become in our own times. As for the movies, we know that the genre of the western was firmly established by about 1909. Show business for a mass public being what it is, it will surprise nobody that the celluloid cowboy tended to develop two subspecies: the romantic, strong, shy, silent man of action of exemplified by WS Hart, Gary Cooper and John Wayne, and the cowboy entertainer of the Buffalo Bill type – heroic, no doubt, but essentially showing off his tricks and, as such, usually associated with a particular horse. Tom Mix was no doubt the prototype and much the most successful of these.

The cowboy tradition was reinvented in our times as the established myth of Reagan's America. This is really very recent. For instance, cowboys did not become a serious medium for selling things until the 1960s, surprising though this seems: Marlboro country really revealed the enormous potential in American male identification with cow-punchers, who, of course, are increasingly seen not as riding herd but as gunslingers. Who said: "I've always acted alone like the cowboy … the cowboy entering the village or city alone on his horse … He acts, that's all"? Henry Kissinger to Oriana Fallaci in 1972, that's who. Let me quote you the reductio ad absurdum of this myth, which dates back to 1979: "The West. It's not just stage-coaches and sagebrush. It's an image of men who are real and proud. Of the freedom and independence we all would like to feel. Now Ralph Lauren has expressed all this in Chaps, his new men's cologne. Chaps is a cologne a man can put on as naturally as a worn leather jacket or a pair of jeans. Chaps. It's the West. The West you would like to feel inside yourself."


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The real invented tradition of the west, as a mass phenomenon that dominates American policy, is the product of the eras of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan. And of course, Reagan, the first president since Teddy Roosevelt whose image is deliberately western and on horseback, knew what he was doing.

Is this Reaganite myth of the west an international tradition? I think not. In the first place because the major American medium by which the invented west was propagated has died out. The western novel, as I have suggested, is no longer an international phenomenon. The private eye has killed the Virginian. Larry McMurtry and his like, whatever their place in American literature, are virtually unknown outside their native country. As for the western movie, it was killed by TV; and the western TV series, which was probably the last genuinely international mass triumph of the invented west, became a mere adjunct to children's hour, and in turn it has faded away. Where are Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Laramie, Gunsmoke and the rest on which the kids of the 1950s thrived? The real western movie became deliberately highbrow, a carrier of social, moral and political significance in the 1950s, until it in turn collapsed under their weight as well as the advancing age of the makers and stars – of Ford and Wayne and Cooper. I'm not criticising them. On the contrary, practically all the westerns that any of us would wish to see again date from after Stagecoach (which was released in 1939). But what carried the west into the hearts and homes of five continents was not movies that aimed at winning Oscars or critical applause. What is more, once the late western movie had itself become infected by Reaganism – or by John Wayne as an ideologist – it became so American that most of the rest of the world didn't get the point, or, if it did, didn't like it.

In Britain, at least, the word "cowboy" today has a secondary meaning, which is much more familiar than the primary meaning of a fellow in the Marlboro ads: a fellow who comes in from nowhere offering a service, such as to repair your roof, but who doesn't know what he's doing or doesn't care except about ripping you off: a "cowboy plumber" or a "cowboy bricklayer". I leave you to speculate (a) how this secondary meaning derives from the Shane or John Wayne stereotype and (b) how much it reflects the reality of the Reaganite wearers of dude Stetsons in the sunbelt. I don't know when the term first appears in British usage, but certainly it was not before the mid-1960s. In this version, what a man's got to do is to fleece us and disappear into the sunset.

There is, in fact, a European backlash against the John Wayne image of the west, and that is the revived genre of the western movie. Whatever the spaghetti westerns mean, they certainly were deeply critical of the US western myth, and in being so, paradoxically, they showed how much demand there still was among adults in both Europe and the US for the old gunslingers. The western was revived via Sergio Leone, or for that matter via Kurosawa – that is, via non-American intellectuals steeped in the lore and the films of the west, but sceptical of the American invented tradition.

In the second place, foreigners simply do not recognise the associations of the western myth for the American right or indeed for ordinary Americans. Everyone wears jeans, but without that spontaneous, if faint urge that so many young Americans feel, to slouch against an imagined hitching post, narrowing their eyes against the sun. Even their aspiring rich don't ever feel tempted to wear Texan-type hats. They can watch John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy without a sense of desecration. In short, only Americans live in Marlboro country. Gary Cooper was never a joke, but JR and the other platinum-plated inhabitants of the great dude ranch in Dallas are. In this sense the west is no longer an international tradition.

What was so special about cowboys? First, clearly, that they occurred in a country that was universally visible and central to the 19th-century world, of which it constituted, as it were, the utopian dimension: the living dream. Anything that happened in America seemed bigger, more extreme, more dramatic and unlimited, even when it wasn't – and of course often it was, though not in the case of the cowboys. Second, because the purely local vogue for western myth was magnified and internationalised by means of the global influence of American popular culture, the most original and creative in the industrial and urban world, and the mass media that carried it and which the US dominated. And let me observe in passing that it made its way in the world not only directly, but also indirectly, via the European intellectuals it attracted to the US, or at a distance.

This would certainly explain why cowboys are better known than vaqueros or gauchos, but not, I think, the full range of the international vibrations they set up, or used to set up. This, I suggest, is due to the in-built anarchism of American capitalism. I mean not only the anarchism of the market, but the ideal of an individual uncontrolled by any constraints of state authority. In many ways the 19th-century US was a stateless society. Compare the myths of the American and the Canadian west: the one is a myth of a Hobbesian state of nature mitigated only by individual and collective self-help: licensed or unlicensed gunmen, posses of vigilantes and occasional cavalry charges. The other is the myth of the imposition of government and public order as symbolised by the uniforms of the Canadian version of the horseman-hero, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.


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Individualist anarchism had two faces. For the rich and powerful it represents the superiority of profit over law and state. Not just because law and the state can be bought, but because even when they can't, they have no moral legitimacy compared to selfishness and profit. For those who have neither wealth nor power, it represents independence, and the little man's right to make himself respected and show what he can do. I don't think it was an accident that the ideal-typical cowboy hero of the classic invented west was a loner, not beholden to anyone; nor, I think, that money was not important for him. As Tom Mix put it: "I ride into a place owning my own horse, saddle and bridle. It isn't my quarrel, but I get into trouble doing the right thing for somebody else. When it's all ironed out, I never get any money reward."

In a way the loner lent himself to imaginary self-identification just because he was a loner. To be Gary Cooper at high noon or Sam Spade, you just have to imagine you are one man, whereas to be Don Corleone or Rico, let alone Hitler, you have to imagine a collective of people who follow and obey you, which is less plausible. I suggest that the cowboy, just because he was a myth of an ultra-individualist society, the only society of the bourgeois era without real pre-bourgeois roots, was an unusually effective vehicle for dreaming – which is all that most of us get in the way of unlimited opportunities. To ride alone is less implausible than to wait until that marshal's baton in your knapsack becomes reality.

US televisionWesternsUS politicsJohn WayneUnited StatesEric Hobsbawm
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Published on March 20, 2013 11:00 • 182 views

How did the lone cowboy hero become such a potent figure in American culture? In an extract from his final book Fractured Times, the late Eric Hobsbawm follows a trail from cheap novels and B-westerns to Ronald Reagan

Today, populations of wild horse-riders and herdsmen exist in a large number of regions all round the world. Some of them are strictly analogous to cowboys, such as gauchos on the plains of the southern cone of Latin America; the llaneros on the plains of Colombia and Venezuela; possibly the vaqueiros of the Brazilian north-east; certainly the Mexican vaqueros from whom indeed, as everyone knows, both the costume of the modern cowboy myth and most of the vocabulary of the cowboy's trade are directly derived: mustang, lasso, lariat, sombrero, chaps (chaparro), a cinch, bronco. There are similar populations in Europe, such as the csikos on the Hungarian plain, or puszta, the Andalusian horsemen in the cattle-raising zone whose flamboyant behaviour probably gave the earliest meaning of the word "flamenco", and the various Cossack communities of the south Russian and Ukrainian plains.

In the 16th century there were the exact equivalents of the Chisholm trail leading from the Hungarian plains to the market cities of Augsburg, Nuremberg or Venice. And I do not have to tell you about the great Australian outback, which is essentially ranching country, though for sheep more than cattle.

There is thus no shortage of potential cowboy myths in the western world. And, in fact, practically all the groups I have mentioned have generated macho and heroic semi-barbarian myths of one kind or another in their own countries and sometimes even beyond. But none of them has generated a myth with serious international popularity, let alone one that can compare, even faintly, with the fortunes of the North American cowboy. Why?

Our starting point is the fact that, in and outside Europe, the "western" in its modern sense – that is, the myth of the cowboy – is a late variant of a very early and deep-rooted image: that of the wild west in general. Fenimore Cooper, whose popularity in Europe followed immediately upon his first publication – Victor Hugo thought he was "the American Walter Scott" – is the most familiar version of this. Nor is he dead. Without the memory of Leatherstocking, would English punks have invented Mohican hairstyles?

The original image of the wild west, I suggest, contains two elements: the confrontation of nature and civilisation, and of freedom with social constraint. Civilisation is what threatens nature; and their move from bondage or constraint into independence, which constitutes the essence of America as a radical European ideal in the 18th and early 19th centuries, is actually what brings civilisation into the wild west and so destroys it. The plough that broke the plains is the end of the buffalo and the Indian.

It is clear that many white protagonists of the original wild west epic are in some sense misfits in, or refugees from, "civilisation", but that is not, I think, the main essence of their situation. Basically they are of two types: explorers or visitors seeking something that cannot be found elsewhere – and money is the very last thing they seek; and men who have established a symbiosis with nature, as it exists in its human and non-human shape, in these wilds.

In terms of literary pedigree, the invented cowboy was a late romantic creation. But in terms of social content, he had a double function: he represented the ideal of individualist freedom pushed into a sort of inescapable jail by the closing of the frontier and the coming of the big corporations. As a reviewer said of Frederic Remington's articles, illustrated by himself in 1895, the cowboy roamed "where the American may still revel in the great red-shirted freedom which has been pushed so far to the mountain wall that it threatens soon to expire somewhere near the top". In hindsight, the west could seem thus, as it seemed to that sentimentalist and first great star of movie westerns William S Hart, for whom the cattle and mining frontier "to this country … means the very essence of national life … It is but a generation or so since virtually all this country was frontier. Consequently its spirit is bound up in American citizenship." As a quantitative statement this is absurd, but its significance is symbolic. And the invented tradition of the west is entirely symbolic, inasmuch as it generalises the experience of a comparative handful of marginal people. Who, after all, cares that the total number of deaths by gunshot in all the major cattle towns put together between 1870 and 1885 – in Wichita plus Abilene plus Dodge City plus Ellsworth – was 45, or an average of 1.5 per cattle-trading season, or that local western newspapers were not filled with stories about bar-room fights, but about property values and business opportunities?

But the cowboy also represented a more dangerous ideal: the defence of the native Waspish American ways against the millions of encroaching immigrants from lower races. Hence the quiet dropping of the Mexican, Indian and black elements, which still appear in the original non-ideological westerns – for instance, Buffalo Bill's show. It is at this stage and in this manner that the cowboy becomes the lanky, tall Aryan. In other words, the invented cowboy tradition is part of the rise of both segregation and anti-immigrant racism; this is a dangerous heritage. The Aryan cowboy is not, of course, entirely mythical. Probably the percentage of Mexicans, Indians and black people did diminish as the wild west ceased to be essentially a south-western, even a Texan, phenomenon, and at the peak of the boom it extended into areas like Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. In the later periods of the cattle boom the cowboys were also joined by a fair number of European dudes, mainly Englishmen, with eastern-bred college-men following them.

The new cowboy tradition made its way into the wider world by two routes: the western movie and the much underrated western novel or sub-novel, which was to many foreigners what the private eye thriller was to become in our own times. As for the movies, we know that the genre of the western was firmly established by about 1909. Show business for a mass public being what it is, it will surprise nobody that the celluloid cowboy tended to develop two subspecies: the romantic, strong, shy, silent man of action of exemplified by WS Hart, Gary Cooper and John Wayne, and the cowboy entertainer of the Buffalo Bill type – heroic, no doubt, but essentially showing off his tricks and, as such, usually associated with a particular horse. Tom Mix was no doubt the prototype and much the most successful of these.

The cowboy tradition was reinvented in our times as the established myth of Reagan's America. This is really very recent. For instance, cowboys did not become a serious medium for selling things until the 1960s, surprising though this seems: Marlboro country really revealed the enormous potential in American male identification with cow-punchers, who, of course, are increasingly seen not as riding herd but as gunslingers. Who said: "I've always acted alone like the cowboy … the cowboy entering the village or city alone on his horse … He acts, that's all"? Henry Kissinger to Oriana Fallaci in 1972, that's who. Let me quote you the reductio ad absurdum of this myth, which dates back to 1979: "The West. It's not just stage-coaches and sagebrush. It's an image of men who are real and proud. Of the freedom and independence we all would like to feel. Now Ralph Lauren has expressed all this in Chaps, his new men's cologne. Chaps is a cologne a man can put on as naturally as a worn leather jacket or a pair of jeans. Chaps. It's the West. The West you would like to feel inside yourself."


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The real invented tradition of the west, as a mass phenomenon that dominates American policy, is the product of the eras of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan. And of course, Reagan, the first president since Teddy Roosevelt whose image is deliberately western and on horseback, knew what he was doing.

Is this Reaganite myth of the west an international tradition? I think not. In the first place because the major American medium by which the invented west was propagated has died out. The western novel, as I have suggested, is no longer an international phenomenon. The private eye has killed the Virginian. Larry McMurtry and his like, whatever their place in American literature, are virtually unknown outside their native country. As for the western movie, it was killed by TV; and the western TV series, which was probably the last genuinely international mass triumph of the invented west, became a mere adjunct to children's hour, and in turn it has faded away. Where are Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Laramie, Gunsmoke and the rest on which the kids of the 1950s thrived? The real western movie became deliberately highbrow, a carrier of social, moral and political significance in the 1950s, until it in turn collapsed under their weight as well as the advancing age of the makers and stars – of Ford and Wayne and Cooper. I'm not criticising them. On the contrary, practically all the westerns that any of us would wish to see again date from after Stagecoach (which was released in 1939). But what carried the west into the hearts and homes of five continents was not movies that aimed at winning Oscars or critical applause. What is more, once the late western movie had itself become infected by Reaganism – or by John Wayne as an ideologist – it became so American that most of the rest of the world didn't get the point, or, if it did, didn't like it.

In Britain, at least, the word "cowboy" today has a secondary meaning, which is much more familiar than the primary meaning of a fellow in the Marlboro ads: a fellow who comes in from nowhere offering a service, such as to repair your roof, but who doesn't know what he's doing or doesn't care except about ripping you off: a "cowboy plumber" or a "cowboy bricklayer". I leave you to speculate (a) how this secondary meaning derives from the Shane or John Wayne stereotype and (b) how much it reflects the reality of the Reaganite wearers of dude Stetsons in the sunbelt. I don't know when the term first appears in British usage, but certainly it was not before the mid-1960s. In this version, what a man's got to do is to fleece us and disappear into the sunset.

There is, in fact, a European backlash against the John Wayne image of the west, and that is the revived genre of the western movie. Whatever the spaghetti westerns mean, they certainly were deeply critical of the US western myth, and in being so, paradoxically, they showed how much demand there still was among adults in both Europe and the US for the old gunslingers. The western was revived via Sergio Leone, or for that matter via Kurosawa – that is, via non-American intellectuals steeped in the lore and the films of the west, but sceptical of the American invented tradition.

In the second place, foreigners simply do not recognise the associations of the western myth for the American right or indeed for ordinary Americans. Everyone wears jeans, but without that spontaneous, if faint urge that so many young Americans feel, to slouch against an imagined hitching post, narrowing their eyes against the sun. Even their aspiring rich don't ever feel tempted to wear Texan-type hats. They can watch John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy without a sense of desecration. In short, only Americans live in Marlboro country. Gary Cooper was never a joke, but JR and the other platinum-plated inhabitants of the great dude ranch in Dallas are. In this sense the west is no longer an international tradition.

What was so special about cowboys? First, clearly, that they occurred in a country that was universally visible and central to the 19th-century world, of which it constituted, as it were, the utopian dimension: the living dream. Anything that happened in America seemed bigger, more extreme, more dramatic and unlimited, even when it wasn't – and of course often it was, though not in the case of the cowboys. Second, because the purely local vogue for western myth was magnified and internationalised by means of the global influence of American popular culture, the most original and creative in the industrial and urban world, and the mass media that carried it and which the US dominated. And let me observe in passing that it made its way in the world not only directly, but also indirectly, via the European intellectuals it attracted to the US, or at a distance.

This would certainly explain why cowboys are better known than vaqueros or gauchos, but not, I think, the full range of the international vibrations they set up, or used to set up. This, I suggest, is due to the in-built anarchism of American capitalism. I mean not only the anarchism of the market, but the ideal of an individual uncontrolled by any constraints of state authority. In many ways the 19th-century US was a stateless society. Compare the myths of the American and the Canadian west: the one is a myth of a Hobbesian state of nature mitigated only by individual and collective self-help: licensed or unlicensed gunmen, posses of vigilantes and occasional cavalry charges. The other is the myth of the imposition of government and public order as symbolised by the uniforms of the Canadian version of the horseman-hero, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.


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Individualist anarchism had two faces. For the rich and powerful it represents the superiority of profit over law and state. Not just because law and the state can be bought, but because even when they can't, they have no moral legitimacy compared to selfishness and profit. For those who have neither wealth nor power, it represents independence, and the little man's right to make himself respected and show what he can do. I don't think it was an accident that the ideal-typical cowboy hero of the classic invented west was a loner, not beholden to anyone; nor, I think, that money was not important for him. As Tom Mix put it: "I ride into a place owning my own horse, saddle and bridle. It isn't my quarrel, but I get into trouble doing the right thing for somebody else. When it's all ironed out, I never get any money reward."

In a way the loner lent himself to imaginary self-identification just because he was a loner. To be Gary Cooper at high noon or Sam Spade, you just have to imagine you are one man, whereas to be Don Corleone or Rico, let alone Hitler, you have to imagine a collective of people who follow and obey you, which is less plausible. I suggest that the cowboy, just because he was a myth of an ultra-individualist society, the only society of the bourgeois era without real pre-bourgeois roots, was an unusually effective vehicle for dreaming – which is all that most of us get in the way of unlimited opportunities. To ride alone is less implausible than to wait until that marshal's baton in your knapsack becomes reality.

US televisionWesternsUS politicsJohn WayneUnited StatesEric Hobsbawm
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October 1, 2012

The work of the renowned Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm ranged across revolutions and the centuries. Here are extracts from his major works on communism, war and jazz

On history

On 28 June 1992 President Mitterrand of France made a sudden, unannounced and unexpected appearance in Sarajevo, already the centre of a Balkan war that was to cost many thousands of lives during the remainder of the year. His object was to remind world opinion of the seriousness of the Bosnian crisis. Indeed, the presence of a distinguished, elderly and visibly frail statesman under small-arms and artillery fire was much remarked on and admired. However, one aspect of M Mitterrand's visit passed virtually without comment, even though it was plainly central to it: the date. Why has the president of France chosen to go to Sarajevo on that particular day? Because 28 June was the anniversary of the assassination, in Sarajevo, in 1914, of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, which led, within a matter of weeks, to the outbreak of the first world war. For any educated European of Mitterrand's age, the connection between date, place and the reminder of a historic catastrophe precipitated by political error and miscalculation leaped to the eye. How better to dramatise the potential implications of the Bosnian crisis than by choosing so symbolic a date? But hardly anyone caught the allusion, except a few professional historians and very senior citizens. The historical memory was no longer alive.

The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one's comtemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and women at the century's end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in. This makes historians, whose business it is to remember what others forget, more essential at the end of the second millennium than ever before. But for that very reason they must be more than simply chroniclers, remembrancers and compilers, though this is also the historians' necessary function. In 1989 all governments and especially all foreign ministers in the world would have benefited from a seminar on the peace settlements after the two world wars, which most of them had apparently forgotten.

The Age of Extremes , Little Brown, 1994

On communism

The months in Berlin made me a lifelong communist, or at least a man whose life would lose its nature and its significance without the political project to which he committed himself as a schoolboy, even though that project has demonstrably failed, and, as I now know, was bound to fail. The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me, as deleted texts are still waiting to be recovered by experts, somewhere on the hard disks of computers. I have abandoned, nay, rejected it, but it has not been obliterated. To this day I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and a tenderness which I do not feel towards communist China, because I belong to the generation for whom the October Revolution represented the hope of the world, as China never did. The Soviet Union's hammer and sickle symbolised it.

Interesting Times , Little Brown, 2002

On barbarism and progress

Before 1914, virtually the only quantities measured in millions, outside astronomy, were populations of countries and the data of production, commerce and finance. Since 1914 we have become used to measuring the numbers of victims in such magnitudes: the casualties of even localised wars (Spain, Korea, Vietnam) – larger ones are measured in tens of millions – the numbers of those driven into forced migration or exile (Greeks, Germans, refugees in the Indian subcontinent, kulaks), even the number massacred in genocide (Armenians, Jews), not to mention those killed by famine or epidemics. Since such human magnitudes escape precise recording or elude the grasp of the human mind, they are hotly debated. But the debates are about millions more or less. Nor are these astronomic figures to be entirely explained, and still less justified, by the rapid growth of the world population in our century. Most of them occurred in areas which were not growing all that fast.

Hecatombs on this scale were beyond the range of imagination in the 19th century, and those which actually occurred took place in the world of backwardness or barbarism outside the range of progress and "modern civilisation", and were surely destined to retreat in the face of universal, if uneven, advance. The atrocities of Congo and Amazon, modest in scale by modern standards, so shocked the Age of Empire – witness Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness – just because they appeared as regressions of civilised men into savagery. The state of affairs to which we have become accustomed, in which torture has once again become part of police methods in countries priding themselves on their record of civility, would not merely have profoundly repelled political opinion, but would have been, justifiably, regarded as a relapse into barbarism, which went against every observable historical trend of development since the mid-18th century.

After 1914 mass catastrophe, and increasingly the methods of barbarism, became an integral and expected part of the civilised world, so much so that it masked the continued and striking advances of technology and the human capacity to produce, and even the undeniable improvements in human social organisation in many parts of the world, until these became quite impossible to overlook during the huge forward leap of the world economy in the third quarter of the 20th century. In terms of the material improvement of the lot of humanity, not to mention of the human understanding and control over nature, the case for seeing the history of the 20th century as progress is actually more compelling than it was in the 19th. For even as Europeans died and fled in their millions, the survivors were becoming more numerous, taller, healthier, longer-lived. And most of them lived better. But the reasons why we have got out of the habit of thinking of our history as progress are obvious. For even when 20th-century progress is most undeniable, prediction suggests not a continued ascent, but the possibility, perhaps even the imminence, of some catastrophe: another and more lethal world war, an ecological disaster, a technology whose triumphs may make the world uninhabitable by the human species, or whatever current shape the nightmare may take. We have been taught by the experience of our century to live in the expectation of apocalypse.

The Age of Empire , Little Brown, 1987

On the cold war

The end of the cold war suddenly removed the props which had held up the international structure and, to an extent not yet appreciated, the structures of the world's domestic political systems. And what was left was a world in disarray and partial collapse, because there was nothing to replace them. The idea, briefly entertained by American spokesmen, that the old bipolar order could be replaced by a "new world order" based on the single superpower which remained in being, and therefore looked stronger than ever, rapidly proved unrealistic. There could be no return to the world before the cold war, because too much had changed, too much had disappeared. All landmarks were fallen, all maps had to be altered. Politicians and economists used to one kind of world even found it difficult or impossible to appreciate the nature of the problems of another kind. In 1947 the USA had recognised the need for an immediate and gigantic project to restore the west European economies, because the supposed danger to these economies – communism and the USSR – was easily defined. The economic and political consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe were even more dramatic than the troubles of western Europe, and would prove even more far-reaching. They were predictable enough in the late 1980s and even visible - but none of the wealthy economies of capitalism treated this impending crisis as a global emergency requiring urgent and massive action because its political consequences were not so easily specified. With the possible exception of West Germany, they reacted sluggishly – and even the Germans totally misunderstood and underestimated the nature of the problem, as their troubles wih the annexation of the former Geman Democratic Republic were to demonstrate.

The consequences of the end of the cold war would probably have been enormous in any case, even had it not coincided with a major crisis in the world economy of capitalism and with the financial crisis of the Soviet Union and its system. Since the historian's world is what happened and not what might have happened if things had been different, we need not consider the possiblity of other scenarios. The end of the cold war proved to be not the end of an international conflict, but the end of an era: not only for the east, but for the entire world. There are historic moments which may be recognised, even by contemporaries, as marking the end of an age. The years around 1990 clearly were such a secular turning point. But, while everyone could see that the old had ended, there was utter uncertainty about the nature and prospects of the new.

Interesting Times, Little Brown, 2002

On jazz

The sort of teenagers who were most likely to to be captured by jazz in 1933 were rarely in a position to buy more than a few records, let alone build a collection. Still, enough was already being issued in Britain for the local market: Armstrong, Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and John Hammond's last recording of Bessie Smith. What is more, shortly before the trade dispute stopped American jazz-players from coming to Britain for some 20 years, the greatest of all the bands – I can still recite its then line-up from memory – came to London: Duke Ellington's. It was the season when Ivy Anderson sang Stormy Weather. Denis [Preston, a cousin] and I, presumably financed by the family, went to the all-night session ("breakfast dance") they played at a Palais de Danse in the wilds of Streatham, nursing single beers in the gallery as we despised the slowly heaving mass of south London dancers below, who were concentrating on their partners and not on the wonderful noises. Our last coins spent, we walked home in dark and daybreak, mentally floating above the hard pavement, captured for ever.

Like the Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, who has written better about it than most, I experienced this musical revelation at the age of first love, 16 or 17. But in my case it virtually replaced first love, for, ashamed of my looks and therefore convinced of being physically unattractive, I deliberately repressed my physical sensuality and sexual impulses. Jazz brought the dimension of wordless, unquestioning physical emotion into a life otherwise almost monopolised by words and the exercises of the intellect.

Interesting Times, Little Brown, 2002

Eric HobsbawmHistoryJazzEric Hobsbawm
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