Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Barry Commoner & Eric J. Hobsbawm

In the last few days we've lost two giants of the people's movements: Barry Commoner on Sunday and Eric J. Hobsbawm on Monday.

Commoner (1917-2012) was probably the better known partially because he was American and because he was
Influential in several important moments in our history. "His work", according to the NYT, "on the global effects of radioactive fallout...contributed materially to the adoption of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963." He also was a key mover in establishing the first Earth Day in 1970. Although with little success (234,000 votes), he also ran for president on the Citizens' Party ticket in 1980. He also founded the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems first in St. Louis & then brought it with him to Queens College in 1981. What differentiated his thinking from many others on the Left was his understanding that Capitalism was at the core of our problems (racism, inequality, male domination and our destruction of the earth on which we live). His view that all things are tied together and can't be dealt with separately - although the Times attributes it to an understanding of Marxism - also mirrors the world view of indigenous people that all things form a circle. Stephen Jay Gould is quoted saying of him: "Although he has been branded by many as a maverick, I regard him as right and compassionate on nearly every major issue." That sounds to me like a perfect epitaph.

Hobsbawm (1917-2012), being British and a Communist academic, is less known in wider popular U.S. circles. But just as Commoner transformed the study of ecology, Hobsbawm and his cohorts in the historians group in the British Communist Party brought the study of history into the 20th century. As did Howard Zinn in the U.S., they focused on people's movements to explain historical change. This group included Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson, and Raymond Williams. Hobsbawm's major contribution is contained in his 4-volume history of the development of capitalism: (1) "The age of Revolution, 1789-1848"; (2) "The Age of Capital, 1848-1875"; (3) "The Age of Empire: 1875-1914"; (4) "The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991." His most recent book is "How to Change the World/ Reflections on Marx and Marxism." There is one more still to be published, "Interesting Times". Many of us who were in college and graduate school in the 60s and 70s learned history from the work of these scholars.

There is at least one point on which Hobsbawm and Commoner would agree. Hobsbawm writes in his latest book: "As the spectacular expansion of the global economy has undermined the environment, the need to control unlimited economic growth has become increasingly urgent. There is a patent conflict between the need to reverse or at least to control the impact of our economy on the biosphere and the imperatives of a capitalist market: maximum continuing growth in the search for profit. This is the Achilles heel of capitalism. We cannot at present know whose arrow will be fatal to it."

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