¡Viva Hobsbawm!

Edited by Leslie Bethell
Little, Brown  480pp  £25

In his autobiography Interesting Times (2002) Hobsbawm wrote that, although he never tried to become or saw himself as a Latin Americanist, he was drawn to the region in the early 1960s because it appeared to offer ‘a laboratory of historical change’. Although the history of Latin America received relatively little attention in his magnum opus, the tetralogy The Age of…, Hobsbawm claimed that the region changed his perspective on the history of the rest of the globe. He wrote extensively on Latin America and this volume is a welcome compilation of several of his essays. 

Hobsbawm visited Cuba in 1960 and travelled to mainland South America in 1962. He returned several times to the region. Indeed, Latin America was where Hobsbawm spent the most time outside of the United Kingdom. In addition to being a widely read and highly respected historian, whose works continue to be studied across the region, Hobsbawm was something of a celebrity in Latin America. Leslie Bethell recalls that, at a literary festival near Rio de Janeiro, Hobsbawm was ‘greeted like a visiting rock star with girls in the street shouting out: “Eric, Eric, give me a kiss!”.’

Hobsbawm hobnobbed with the great and good of Latin America, including the Nobel laureate poet Pablo Neruda, the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, the Mexican poet and novelist Octavio Paz and the Chilean president Salvador Allende. However, Hobsbawm’s primary academic interests were not with the region’s progressive elites, but its masses, particularly the peasantry, and the conditions that led peasants to rebel. Indeed, it was a desire to develop the themes that he had started to explore in his book Primitive Rebels (1959) that first attracted Hobsbawm to Latin America.

Hobsbawm’s focus on the peasantry is evident in Viva La Revolución, which devotes two sections and ten out of 31 chapters to ‘Agrarian Structures’ and ‘Peasants’. Some writings are academic pieces, originally written as journal articles or contributions to edited collections. Others are essays that first appeared in New Statesman, New Society and the New York Review of Books. Still others appear here for the first time. Although organised thematically, the different sections also follow a chronological and biographical order, beginning with Hobsbawm’s ‘First Impressions’ of the region and ending with his ‘Late Reflections’. 

This order works well and gives the reader a sense of Hobsbawm’s developing and expanding interest in Latin America. In addition to the sections on agrarian and peasant issues, the volume contains a section on ‘Revolutions and Revolutionaries’, which includes short pieces on the Mexican and Cuban revolutions and on the rural and urban guerrilla movements of the 1960s and 1970s. This is followed by two shorter sections devoted to the Peruvian military government of 1968-80 and to Allende’s Chile.

Bethell’s introductory chapter provides a useful discussion of Hobsbawm’s personal experience of Latin America and his writings on the region, and generally the organisation of the volume is excellent. However, the book has some problems. It contains several irritating errors, which have either crept in or have not been corrected. José Carlos Mariátegui, the great Peruvian Marxist intellectual, for example, becomes José Maria Mariategui. The tendency to refer to Latin Americans as ‘Latins’, particularly in the New York Review of Books pieces, should have been corrected. 

Most irritating is the title. The title is an exclamation and so, should be written with Spanish exclamation marks: ¡Viva la Revolución! Moreover, as several chapters in the book show, Hobsbawm was highly critical of revolutionary processes in Latin America. He viewed the Cuban revolution as an exception and attempts to emulate it elsewhere in the region as ill thought out and irresponsible. The title conveys an idea that is largely absent in the book. 

Hobsbawm was a Marxist and a member of the Communist Party, but he was not a partisan historian. His sympathies and his friendships in the region may well have been influenced by his politics, but his rigorous scholarship on Latin America was not, at least not in the simplistic manner suggested by the title. Hobsbawm’s writings on Latin America, most of which date from the 1960s and 1970s, are compelling and can still be read profitably today for the robustness of the research and the quality of the writing that they reflect, not because they present left-wing interpretations of the region. A better title would have been ¡Viva Hobsbawm! 

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