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books Viva La Revolución

This new survey of a 50-year arc of Latin America's recent history comes from the pen of one of our most esteemed Marxist historians. Reviewer Tony Wood offers this informative review.

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Viva La Revolución
Eric Hobsbawm
Little, Brown
ISBN 9781408707074

In his 2002 autobiography Interesting Times, published 10 years before his death in 2012, Eric Hobsbawm described himself as having been “permanently converted to Latin America” after repeated trips to the region in the 1960s. He was drawn not only by its “sheer drama and colour”, but by its quickening political pulse: it was a time of radical ferment, much of it inspired by the Cuban revolution of 1959. Yet Hobsbawm was also acutely aware of the longer term social and economic transformations that were unfolding across the continent, including vast waves of migration from the countryside to the cities. For him, Latin America was “a region where historical evolution occurred at express speed”, making it invaluable as a “laboratory of historical change”. Viva La Revolución is the product of Hobsbawm’s abiding interest in the region, bringing together his writings on it from a period spanning more than 40 years. The 31 items collected here range widely in scale and subject matter, from a brief report on post-revolutionary Cuba to a mid-1990s essay on national identity, from sober analysis of Salvador Allende’s first year in power in Chile to playful reflections on bossa nova. Throughout, Hobsbawm writes with unrivalled clarity, making his historical arguments and political commentary compelling and urgent even at a distance of decades.

Hobsbawm’s first experience of Latin America came with a 1960 visit to Cuba, where he recorded the broad popular support for the new government. On a subsequent trip he ended up translating for Che Guevara (he had picked up the language in Spain in the 1950s). Yet thereafter he wrote surprisingly little about Cuba, which often had a central place in the sympathies of leftists from across Latin America and beyond; indeed, he was sharply critical of those who tried to follow the Cuban example by taking up arms, arguing that the guerrilla methods that had succeeded on the island could not be used as a recipe for revolution elsewhere. For Hobsbawm, mainland Latin America loomed much larger. His second encounter with the region, in 1962-63, involved a three month journey through Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, in search of modern-day equivalents of the late 19th- and early 20th-century European “social bandits” he had described in his first book, Primitive Rebels (1959). In Peru and Colombia he found something else: a countryside in the throes of rapid socioeconomic change, and radical peasant movements that seemed poised to challenge the national governments of the day. This partly explains why these two countries between them account for almost half of Viva La Revolución’s contents, whether in essays specifically devoted to them or as case studies offered in support of broader arguments.

Hobsbawm’s visit to Peru coincided with a surge of mobilisation in the southern highlands, as peasant unions carried out land occupations on scores of haciendas in the valley of La Convención, northwest of Cuzco. A few years later he wrote a striking scholarly essay on the deeper historical processes that were at work. What was happening, in his view, was the dissolution of a vastly unequal social order he described as “neo-feudal”, in which powerful landlords not only extracted labour services from tenant farmers, but forbade them to learn Spanish or even to wear shoes. The neo-feudal system was by no means old: paradoxically, it had been created in the late 19th century by booming international demand for locally produced coffee. The land occupations of the early 1960s had sounded this system’s death knell – though it would not be until 1969, under the idiosyncratic military regime of Juan Velasco Alvarado, that Peru would enact a nationwide agrarian reform that finally did away with the old land-owning class. Hobsbawm wrote three essays on Peru’s unusual “Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces”, which lasted from 1968 to 1980; far less repressive than even many civilian regimes of the time, let alone the bloody dictatorships that would soon dominate the region, in his view it represented the best hope for meaningful change for Peru’s impoverished peasants. “If ever a country needed, and needs, a revolution, it was this,” he wrote in 1970.

In Colombia, meanwhile, what most drew Hobsbawm’s attention was the violence that had racked the country since 1948, when leading populist politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated in Bogotá. What was known in Colombia simply as “La Violencia” could more accurately be described, as Hobsbawm put it, as “a combination of civil war, guerrilla action, banditry and plain massacre”. It took place mainly in the countryside, where it had a marked class aspect – pitting not only poor peasants against rich ones, but a rising middle layer against its rivals. But its roots, he argued, lay in the absence of a genuine social revolution at the national level. One had been in the making since the 1930s, when the Wall Street crash threw governments across Latin America into crisis, and many found themselves forced to address, at least in part, the demands being made by the mass of the population, who “began to be the subjects rather than the mere objects of their countries’ history”. With the country splintering into anarchy after Gaitán’s assassination, hopes for an egalitarian breakthrough in Colombia were dashed; as Hobsbawm wrote in 1963, “the armies of the dead, the expelled, the physically and mentally maimed are the price which Colombia pays for this failure”.

In another 1963 essay, he observed that “the old Latin America is collapsing. Something radically new must take its place.” Yet it is striking how much of Viva La Revolución is taken up by revolutions that did not occur. Apart from the piece on Cuba and an extract from Age of Extremes (1994) dealing with the Mexican revolution, revolutions are more potential than actual here: blocked in Colombia, unrealised in Peru, thwarted elsewhere. There are two essays, from 1971 and 1973, charting the fate of Allende’s attempt at a peaceful transition to socialism – described as a “thrilling prospect” in the first, while in the second Hobsbawm condemns the coup that removed Allende from power as “The Murder of Chile”. (In Interesting Times he wrote that, while many remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, he remembered where he was when he received the news of Allende’s death.) Pinochet’s seizure of power was only one in a sequence of military coups that swept the region, installing authoritarian regimes that were strongly backed by Washington; by the mid-1970s Latin America had entered what Hobsbawm describes as “the darkest period of its 20th-century history”.

This points to a second noteworthy feature of Viva La Revolución. The bulk of the items included here were written between 1960 and 1974. This certainly makes sense: as a Marxist and as a historian, Hobsbawm might have been especially drawn to the region by a feeling that a range of political possibilities were in play and crucial historical questions still open, all of which the military regimes of the 1970s strove to close down. But it also means that there is much that falls outside the book’s purview: the Central American wars and genocides of the 1980s, as well as the “pink tide” that swept the region in the 2000s, from Venezuela to Argentina, Brazil to Nicaragua, and which Hobsbawm elsewhere spoke of as a sign that progressive politics were still alive.

That historical cycle may now have run its course, as centre right governments have won or usurped power in Argentina, Brazil, Honduras and elsewhere. But in this new phase, Hobsbawm’s writings on Latin America still hold many vital lessons for understanding what he described as “a continent made to undermine conventional truths”, where concepts derived from the experience of Europe or North America have little purchase. Perhaps the wisest counsel comes in his insistence, in 1963, that “to make sense of the countries between the Rio Grande and Cape Horn, we have to look at them not in our light but in theirs.”

Tony Wood is assistant editor at New Left Review.