Uncommon People

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These 26 essays reveal the intellectual girders the British Marxist historian used in four decades of publishing social and political analyses in support of common, working people. He shows a sometimes puckish appetite for shattering facile definitions with deadly buckshot, as in his 1952 “The Machine-Breakers,” in which he takes aim at the image of the Luddites as visionless machine haters, instead calling their actions “collective bargaining by riot.” In “Birth of a Holiday,” he cites May Day as an “entirely unofficial movement of poor men and women” celebrated in 107 countries; in an interesting aside he notes that the first May Day in Germany was commemorated by a plaque with Karl Marx on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the other, thereby uniting the socialist labor movement with democracy. With the same combination of insight and trenchant factual digression, Hobsbawm (Age of Extremes 1914-1991) faces the cosmic questions (“Revolution and Sex,” “Peasants and Politics”) as well as powerful individuals such as the mafioso Salvatore Giuliano and Roy Cohn, who he says was “a crook because he liked to be one.” Hobsbawm concludes with seven deft and delicious chapters on jazz, linking the symbol of “New Orleans” to an anti-commercial, anti-racist phenomenon “located on the borders between the New Deal and the Communist Party.” Jazz lovers will savor his essays on Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and other greats. But whatever the subject matter, Hobsbawm offers energetic, convincing intellectual adventures.

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