Hobsbawm’s Empire

Eric Hobsbawm, On Empire: America, War and Global Supremacy (Pantheon, March 2008)

I first read the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s work in an undergraduate seminar. Few of my classmates embraced the book as passionately as I did—it was exceptionally nerdy to do so—but in Nations and Nationalism Since 1780, I found a whole new world of learning. (“Hegemony” was its password.) Suddenly, the difference between nations, states, and nation-states became abundantly clear—and relevant to my academic life.

Now, years later, I’ve picked up another volume by Hobsbawm. On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy continues the renowned scholar’s efforts to analyze our colonial and post-colonial era. The historian’s “main function,” Hobsbawn writes, “is to stand back, so far as possible, from the contemporary record and to see it in a broader context and in a longer perspective.” With this as his mandate, Hobsbawm tackles the contemporary definition of war, the impracticable role the United States plays as the world’s lone superpower, and the future of empire. The four essays, adapted from lectures Hobsbawm gave between 2001 and 2005, are not exactly the mind-cracking investigation I had anticipated. But they do provide a useful introduction to the writer’s detailed thinking and careful style.

Hobsbawm is revered equally for his precise prose and ability to complicate tidy categories. In On Empire’s second essay, “War and Peace in the Twentieth Century,” he illustrates the way that nebulous conflicts, such as “the war against drug cartels,” have muddied what war means today. “War was supposed to be sharply distinguished from peace,” he writes, “by a declaration of war at one end and a treaty of peace at the other.” Today, neither of these concepts is clearly defined, and we are left with perpetual combat.

The writer also questions globalization’s reach, arguing that its presence in world politics is small, but its cultural impact disproportionately large. Thus, in the West, immigration is an issue, although only three percent of the world’s inhabitants live outside their countries of birth. Yet Hobsbawm repeats the birth-country statistic three times in four chapters and this revelation becomes less revelatory each time. Part of the third essay is a summary of his book about the “short twentieth century,” The Age of Extremes. And the pieces themselves are repackaged lectures. “There are no shortcuts in history,” Hobsbawm writes. Evidently, in publishing, this maxim does not apply.

At the same time, I’d like to give the 90-year-old Hobsbawm the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps these redundancies point to an evolution in his thinking, suggesting that he’s reworked his ideas over four years of internal debate. The more recent essays are longer, meatier, more complex. The last, “Why America’s Hegemony Differs from Britain’s Empire,” which Hobsbawm delivered at Harvard in 2005, is incisive. A comparison of two imperial powers, the piece says as much about America’s future as it does about its past. “The real question,” he writes,

is whether the historically unprecedented project of global domination by a single state is possible, and whether the admittedly overwhelming military superiority of the United States is adequate to establish it, and beyond this to maintain it. The answer to both questions is no.”

Hobsbawm understands America as only a foreigner can, and the passages on the nation’s history are the book’s strongest. “America, whose existence has never been threatened by any war other than the Civil War,” he writes, “has only ideologically defined enemies: those who reject the American way of life, wherever they are.” A captivating observation, surely. But is it enough to sustain a whole essay collection, let alone a whole new world of learning? Perhaps not.