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New Left Review I/217, May-June 1996

Eric Hobsbawm

Identity Politics and the Left

My lecture is about a surprisingly new subject. [*] This is the text of the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust Lecture given at the Institute of Education, London on 2 May 1996. We have become so used to terms like ‘collective identity’, ‘identity groups, ‘identity politics’, or, for that matter ‘ethnicity’, that it is hard to remember how recently they have surfaced as part of the current vocabulary, or jargon, of political discourse. For instance, if you look at the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, which was published in 1968—that is to say written in the middle 1960s—you will find no entry under identity except one about psychosocial identity, by Erik Erikson, who was concerned chiefly with such things as the so-called ‘identity crisis’ of adolescents who are trying to discover what they are, and a general piece on voters’ identification. And as for ethnicity, in the Oxford English Dictionary of the early 1970s it still occurs only as a rare word indicating ‘heathendom and heathen superstition’ and documented by quotations from the eighteenth century.

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