Emile Chabal, writing in the Aeon E-zine, points to his dramatic impact on the Indian Left.
Hobsbawm’s engagement with South Asia went back to his undergraduate student days at Cambridge in the late 1930s. It was here that he met some of the sons and daughters of India’s powerful dynastic families, many of whom were drawn to Marxism as a potential cure for their country’s economic and social ‘backwardness’.These members of the Indian 'national bourgeoisie' believed that Gandhianism would give way to Soviet style economic planning and rapid industrialization with the Public Sector taking a vanguard role and Private Enterprise shrinking and finally disappearing altogether.
At this time, the Indian Left placed faith in mathematical economics and the technocratic vision of engineers and scientists. It looked to the future and was unconcerned with the past. That is what made it attractive to young people of all walks of life.
Galvanised by the political changes taking place during and after the Second World War, these students returned to India in the 1940s and joined their local communist party. Thanks in large part to their family connections – and the relatively benign way in which communists were treated in India in the 1950s and ’60s, compared with many other parts of the developing world – this generation of talented personalities quickly rose to positions of prominence in local and national government. As a result, when Hobsbawm first travelled to India in late 1968, he came with a bulging address book of important names, including the communist politicians and thinkers Mohan Kumaramangalam, Parvati Krishnan, Renu Chakravarty and Indrajit Gupta.Kumaramangalam, an Old Etonian, had left the Communist party and joined Indira's Congress in '67. When he nationalized the Coal industry, most people thought this would mean increased efficiency. Indeed, the nationalization of the Banks too was considered desirable because many private Banks had crashed. It seemed reasonable, at that time, to prefer Nationalization so that educated professional were put in charge of Enterprises, rather than allow them to be run into the ground by superstitious Marwari speculators.
Parvathi Krishnan, unlike her brother mentioned above, never turned her coat. She was a great Trade Unionist but her party made the mistake of supporting Indira's Emergency and declined thereafter. She herself lost her seat to the DMK, though she was personally very popular. However, her party was no longer offering voters a better life. It was merely an anachronism. She and Renu Chakravarty are remembered as courageous activists but, it should be remembered, other such female activists could be found from all walks of life. It was not privilege which distinguished these women but their record of self-sacrifice. Needless to say, their kids are all in America, unless they are wealthy and have joined the BJP in India.
Indrajit Gupta was a great parliamentarian who served as Home Minister under Gowda & Gujral. Suppose the CPM had permitted Jyoti Basu to become P.M, then Gupta might, as Home Minister, have taken some forward looking steps. However, the ideological purism of the Left meant that he was just a useful tool in an alliance whose sole raison d'etre was to keep the BJP out of power. Thus, once the BJP could show a better track-record of Governance, the decline of the Left became inevitable. It was no longer offering anything positive. It was merely battling an imaginary evil in service to a corrupt and incompetent dynasty.
Hobsbawm's Indian friends did have a big impact on Indian politics, not because they were 'privileged' but because, in the Fifties and Sixties, they engaged in grass-roots work at some risk to themselves. However, their willingness to play second fiddle to the dynasty meant that they inherited oblivion.
If these friendships gave him (Hobsbawm) a welcome taste for the ways of the Indian elite, they did not offer him the kind of scholarly reach he craved as a young academic.It is because the Left did not bother with 'scholarly reach' that it was a dynamic force in the Fifties and Sixties.
For that, we need to look at how his ideas reached a younger generation of Marxists in the 1950s and ’60s through the so-called ‘transition debate’. This debate hinged on a classic problem in Marxist theory, namely when and how the transition from feudalism to capitalism took place.One may as well speculate and how and when Adam was expelled from Eden. The thing is wholly pointless. No doubt, a wealthy country like England can afford to pay a few Professors to pore over the Archives and debate such issues. India had no such luxury. Most people had little access to free markets and such Capital as they could borrow came with 'feudal strings' involving bonded labor.
The debate began with the publication of the British Marxist economist Maurice Dobb’s seminal Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946), and was followed by a vigorous exchange between Dobb and other Marxists such as Paul Sweezy, H K Takahashi and Georges Lefebvre in the early 1950s.These guys were unhonoured and unsung in their own countries. 'Butskellism' prevailed in England. Marxist jargon was a fit subject for comedy- like the shop-steward in 'I'm all right Jack', or 'Citizen Smith' or various Monty Python sketches.
Hobsbawm himself contributed to the debate with two long articles on the ‘crisis of the 17th century’, which he argued was the final phase of feudalism before the advent of capitalism.Hugh Trevor-Roper & Hobsbawm coined this notion of a 'General Crisis'. Perhaps it had something to do with sun-spots or climactic changes. Perhaps not. What we can be certain of is that this debate had zero political consequences in England. It didn't even feature in an episode of Blackadder.
Initially, this debate was focused on English history, since England was the paradigmatic case study of ‘transition’ in Europe. But it soon attracted attention in other parts of the world. For Indian Marxists, the transition debate showed that Marxist theory was not fixed in stone.Marxism was supposed to be about changing the world, not talking nonsense about imaginary 'transitions'.
Indian Marxists wanted to escape from India to the West by pretending to be erudite and to represent some supposed revolutionary force present in India. It was careerism pure and simple. The 'long march through the Institutions' was about gaining tenure and publishing worthless text-books and getting invited to international Conferences. But that 'long march' ended in utter irrelevance.
It offered the possibility of meaningful intellectual disagreement and divergence among Marxists, without compromising the unity of the cause or incurring the wrath of local communist parties. As a result, Indian Marxists such as Irfan Habib used the transition debate to ask new questions that were either absent or neglected in the initial flurry of articles from the early 1950s. Had India ever been feudal and, if it had, was it still feudal? How did colonialism challenge Dobb and Sweezy’s Eurocentric assumptions? Was it even necessary for a non-European country such as India to follow the same model of transition? Could historians ‘change’ the order in which transition might have taken place? Making India fit into the transition debate was a way of showing that Indian society could achieve socialism, despite its distinct historical trajectory.One could as easily say- 'Indians are pure Aryans and thus Europeans and thus can become technologically advanced.' It is a silly thing to do. People can see for themselves that Indians don't look like Germans. Achieving Socialism means having a National Health Service and free Public Schools and affordable Public Housing and plenty of well paid jobs in Public Sector Enterprises. Just do the thing already- if Socialism really is what you want. On the other hand, if your purpose is merely to gain tenure, then write opaque, impenetrable, nonsense.
It was through the transition debate that Hobsbawm first made an entry into the Indian intellectual scene. In the early 1960s, he was asked by the British communist publisher Lawrence & Wishart to write an introduction to the first English translation of the part of Marx’s Grundrisse that became known as Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations. Published in 1964, this cheap volume brought to an English-speaking audience for the first time some of Marx’s early reflections about pre-capitalist social and economic systems, and macro-level historical social change. The subject matter made it of interest to Indian historians since this was one of the few places where Marx discussed the ‘Asiatic’ or ‘Oriental’ mode of production, which was supposedly characterised by a ‘despotic government’ extracting surplus from an overwhelmingly rural village economy.The Indian Left would have discovered the tribals in any case. However, the experience of the late A.K Roy in the Jharkand Mukti Morcha showed that the tribals, unless terrorized by Naxal gunmen, would kick the caste Hindus to the curb as soon as it was convenient to do so. Thus Roy paved the way for Shibu Soren whom not even Manmohan Singh could keep in his Cabinet- not because of his corruption, but his penchant for murder.
The fact that Hobsbawm had written the introduction to the text made him into Marx’s privileged interlocutor on these issues – and his interpretations were soon under scrutiny. It was an indicator of how important the text was for Indian Marxists that the influential Delhi-based journal Enquiry, set up by the historian Bipan Chandra in 1959, devoted almost an entire issue in 1969 to a reprint of Hobsbawm’s introduction and a lengthy reply by Habib, who accused Hobsbawm of interpreting Marx in such a way as to minimise the importance of class struggle in pre-capitalist economies. This sort of engagement did much to enhance Hobsbawm’s profile. Given the prohibitive cost of books published in Europe, non-Indian Marxist debates could only circulate through locally produced journals, cheap Indian editions, illegal photocopies, word of mouth, and the handful of Marxist bookshops in Delhi and Calcutta.
Throughout the 1970s, Hobsbawm’s star rose in India. This was not because of anything special he did to draw attention to himself, although his two visits there in the late 1960s and again in the late 1970s did not do his reputation any harm. Instead, it was because his writings began to appeal to a wider range of scholars. By the mid-1970s, a new generation of Indian Marxists was coming of age. They were tired of discussing ‘transitions’ and ‘modes of production’. What they wanted was a guide to revolutionary action. As the world erupted into guerrilla rebellions inspired by Mao and Che Guevara – and as India struggled through its only period of non-democratic rule, the ‘Emergency’ of 1975-77 – the orthodox communist obsession with uncovering and emancipating an industrial proletariat seemed too narrow, especially in an overwhelmingly rural society such as India.
It was this search for agents of revolution that brought to prominence another strand of Hobsbawm’s work – his studies of rebels and bandits – about which he had been writing since the late 1950s. In the 1970s, young Indian Marxists enthusiastically read Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels (1959) and its sequel Bandits (1969), alongside other texts such as E P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). These serious historical analyses of neglected figures such as mafia men and bandits gave Indian Marxists the tools to search for different kinds of revolutionary subjects closer to home. It was, for instance, with Hobsbawm and Thompson in mind that young journalists in the mid-1970s went out into the dusty flatlands of Uttar Pradesh to write about India’s version of the bandit, the dacoit.
While many appreciated the attempt to enlarge the revolutionary canvas, not everyone agreed with the way it had been done. In particular, Hobsbawm’s orthodox communist insistence that peasant and bandit movements were ‘prepolitical’ – in other words, not politically conscious in a revolutionary sense – provoked a hostile reaction from many Indian Marxists. This critique was most clearly articulated by the historian Ranajit Guha in his Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India(1983), which became the foundational text of the so-called ‘subaltern studies’ school of historiography.Guha emigrated to England in 1959. It seems the 'subaltern' was better studied at a distance. I believe there are only two Subalternists left in India- and one is not an Indian citizen.
One of the central premises of Guha’s book was that Hobsbawm had been wrong about peasant movements. In his view, peasant revolt represented an entire universe of political activity in colonial India that had been systematically neglected by ‘elitist’ historians of both Right and Left.So the real class-struggle must be by subaltern historians, at the University of Sussex, against elite historians at Oxford or Cambridge. This class struggle must be carried out by telling stupid lies. Thus if some arrogant Whitey says 'There was no English literature in India prior to the arrival of the British,' you must say 'Billions of years before England came into existence, India could boast countless poets producing superb English verse.'
The job of subaltern studies was to correct this bias – and this meant shedding the Hobsbawmian view of the peasant as ‘prepolitical’.Cutting edge? Guha or Gayatri's retarded shite was 'cutting edge'? The Left was slitting its own throat by indulging in this nonsense. If your idiot son could not get into IIT and gain a Green Card that way, you sent him to JNU so he could get a teaching gig in some cow college by pretending to engage with Foucault or Deleuze.
In some ways, the success of the subaltern studies school marked the end of Hobsbawm’s direct impact on the cutting edge of Indian intellectual life.
The postcolonial critique developed by Guha and his followers pushed younger scholars away from Hobsbawm’s arguments in the 1980s and ’90s. He was still admired as one of the ‘founding fathers’ of Marxist history, but his Eurocentrism made him appear less and less useful.In other words, the man was White. Brown people wanted to secure tenure on the basis of their own imbecility, not as the result of some White dude's imprimatur.
Still, there was one area where Hobsbawm continued to exert influence: the university curriculum. The Marxist wave that swept across Indian academia in the 1970s left its mark on the teaching of the humanities and the social sciences at some of the country’s most prestigious institutions.Nonsense! The only prestigious institutions in India are those that teach STEM subjects.
At the University of Delhi – a vast, college-based university established in 1922 – the history curriculum underwent a major overhaul in the mid-1970s, under pressure from new staff who were either Marxists or sympathetic to Marxism. One of the legacies of this reform was a core course entitled ‘The Rise of the Modern West’ that aimed to teach students about the development of European society and economy from around 1500 to 1800. The course – which still exists today – was a veritable rundown of the intra-Marxist historiographical controversies of the 1950s and ’60s, including the transition debate, the crisis of the 17th century, mercantilism and trade, and the origins of the industrial revolution, as well as other less obviously Marxist topics such as the Renaissance and the early modern European state system. Predictably, the syllabus was stacked with classic Marxist texts, including Hobsbawm’s textbooks on the Industrial Revolution, Industry and Empire (1968), and the European 19th century, Age of Revolution (1962), alongside books by Dobb, Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, Perry Anderson and Immanuel Wallerstein.This is why a History degree is considered a badge of imbecility. It is noteworthy that Ramachandra Guha and Sanjay Subhramaniyam did Econ, not History. No doubt, they are equally stupid but at least they can write decent English.
Hobsbawm’s influence was also felt at one of India’s premier research universities, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. Founded in 1969 and subsequently known for nurturing generation after generation of Marxist-inspired academic talent, it was exactly the sort of place where Hobsbawm’s work would be discussed in detail. Over the past half-century, hundreds of research students on MA, MPhil and PhD programmes in history and the social sciences have taken courses that have included Hobsbawm’s writings on labour history, historiography and nationalism.What has been the outcome? JNU is now considered a shit-hole. Kanhaiya Kumar- who was the blue-eyed boy of the Libtards- was trounced in the last election on his own home turf.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that this legacy has persisted, despite the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s and the success of the Hindu nationalist Right in the 2000s. In recent years, both Delhi University and JNU have found themselves under severe pressure from a hostile government that wants to root out supposedly ‘Left-wing’, ‘seditious’ and ‘anti-national’ thought in Indian universities. For the first time since the 1970s, suspect academics have been targets of mob violence and administrative censure – and the future of these institutions as places of outstanding research is in doubt.This is because they did not 'outstanding research' whatsoever. Take Kanhaiya's PhD. Will the South African government invite him to advise them on socio-economic issues? No, because they can easily see that his thesis is illiterate nonsense.
The BJP is delighted that these nutters at JNU are bringing disgrace upon the Nehru dynasty.
Nevertheless, it is hard to overstate the influence of almost half a century of university teaching.What influence has it had? Over the last fifty years the Communist parties have made themselves more and more irrelevant. Their 'circular firing squad' has now run out off canon fodder. Previously, there may have been one or two intellectuals- like Chabal- or diplomats who kept track of their illiterate squabbling. Nobody does so anymore because they have been wiped out as a political force.
The mere fact that thousands of Delhi University history students have struggled through classes on the transition debate – including almost every single professional historian in India today, and a large swathe of its upper civil service – demonstrates the extraordinary power of particular Marxist debates to transcend their original context.It demonstrates that the thing was just a Credentialist Ponzi scheme which has collapsed because its victims can no longer get tenure or clerical jobs. Even IAS officers are being denied plum postings in favor of technocrats from other cadres. Indeed, outsiders are being brought in and promoted on the basis of merit.
Hobsbawm was a direct beneficiary of this institutional configuration.Okay, maybe the senile old fool- whom nobody listened to in England- managed to sell a few of his books in India. Big whoop.
The longevity of his written work owes much to the fact that, still today, young Indian Marxist student activists know his name – and will turn to his essays or his textbooks as part of their general political education.But will then find themselves unemployable. Meanwhile people who take on real-world issues can win elections and form Governments. A 'general political education' based on Hobsbawm or Habib leaves one unfit for any type of political action. That was why the Indian establishment permitted this type of nuisance to burgeon.