The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm died on 1 October at the age of 95.
I will personally remember how, when I was a new undergraduate history student, Hobsbawm kindly replied to my precocious letter about the world financial crisis in 2008. That said, Hobsbawm was a political figure and deserves to be appraised politically.
As an historian, Hobsbawm was part of a generation which revolutionised historical writing. He was much influenced by the pioneering journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, co-founded in 1929 by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, which opened up hitherto unexplored areas of human experience to historical enquiry.
Along with E P Thompson and Christopher Hill, also part of the Communist Party Historians’ Group, Hobsbawm produced a series of works which exemplified “history from below”. This approach to history is embodied in the journal Past and Present; set up in 1952, it has established itself as one of most lively vehicles for social history.
Arguably lacking Thompson’s empathy, Hobsbawm’s accounts of “primitive” (pre-capitalist) rebellion were unflinchingly unsentimental. One study, Primitive Rebels, launched a whole new line of historical research into “social bandits” — figures on the margins of rural societies, deemed to be outlaws by authority yet held up as figures of liberation by peasant communities. This interest in popular protest and resistance is also seen in his collaboration with George Rudé on the 1830s English “Swing Riots” (Captain Swing), and his short masterpiece on political shoemakers in Uncommon History.
Hobsbawm also distinguished himself tackling the grand sweep of historical development over the course of centuries. His Age of... tetralogy is a dazzling historical materialist survey of the world from 1789 to 1991. It is far less likely that such an ambitious feat of historical explanation would emerge from today’s highly specialised discipline, suspicious as it is of “grand narratives” and materialist explanations.
Yet it is in Hobsbawm’s sweeping surveys that fundamental problems with his political perspectives are revealed. Many of these problems can be encapsulated in his formula of the “short twentieth century”, which provides the analytical framework for The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991.
Few would quibble with Hobsbawm’s view that the collapse of the USSR in 1991 meant that “an era in world history ended and a new one began”.
The problem is with Hobsbawm’s understanding of what this passing era represented; and with his failure to understand that the hopeful era inaugurated by the Russian workers in 1917 was terminated in the 1930s and later 1920s, by Stalin, not in 1991.
During an interview on Radio 4 in 1995, Hobsbawm explained: “I still believe in the old values of the 18th Century Enlightenment; in Reason, in education, in the improvement, if not the perfectibility, of human beings, and in the attempts, at any rate, to establish ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’, or ‘life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness’ or any of these other marvellous slogans which we owe to the late 18th Century.”
Hobsbawm’s beliefs are understandable. Born to a middle-class Jewish family in British-occupied Alexandria 1917, the year of the October Revolution, Hobsbawm grew up first in post-Habsburg Vienna, and then in Berlin. The young Eric’s Europe was one in which bourgeois liberalism had crumbled during an imperialist epoch, amidst the catastrophic wreckage of the First World War. Locked in antagonism were the forces of extreme nationalism and fascism on the one hand, and world Stalinism on the other.
In his 1993 Creighton Lecture, Hobsbawm explained the impact of his formative years: “Every historian has his or her lifetime, a private perch from which to survey the world. My own perch is constructed, among other materials, of a childhood in the Vienna of the 1920s, the years of Hitler’s rise in Berlin, which determined my politics and my interest in history, and the England, and especially the Cambridge, of the 1930s, which confirmed both.”
When the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 put paid to any lingering hopes of resuscitating the pre-1914 belle époque, many bourgeois intellectuals turned towards the now Stalinised Soviet Union as a model for the future. As Trotsky wrote in 1938: “A whole generation of the ‘left’ intelligentsia has... turned its eyes eastward and has tied... its fate not so much to the revolutionary working-class as to a victorious revolution, which is not the same.”
Hobsbawm saw the Soviet Union as a gatekeeper of Enlightenment values; its demise had “enormous and still not fully calculable, but mainly negative, consequences”. In short, although nominally a Marxist, Hobsbawm was less committed to the class struggle, or even the working class, than to the existence of the so-called “socialist sixth of the world”.
For Hobsbawm, growing up in Berlin in the early 1930s, it was by no means irrational to see the Stalinised German communists as a key force for the possibility of defeating fascism. To his credit, Hobsbawm wrote later of the “lunacies of Comintern policy during the notorious so-called ‘Third Period’”, which encouraged “wilful blindness not only to the rise but also to the triumph of Hitler”. But rather than drawing the conclusion that the “Third Period” was one of a series of shifts motivated by the needs of the Soviet bureaucracy rather than the requirements of the revolutionary movement, Hobsbawm embraced the next opportunistic zig-zag — the Popular Front.
Under the Popular Front Communist Parties embraced bourgeois forces opposed to fascism in the interests of maintaining an alliance between the Soviet Union and the “democratic powers” of France and Britain for reasons of self-preservation.
In The Age of Extremes Hobsbawm says, “this period of capitalist-communist alliance against fascism — essentially the 1930s and 1940s — forms the hinge of twentieth-century history and its decisive moment.” Here the Soviet Union played the role of the saviour of democracy and the bulwark of anti-fascism. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 is summarily dealt with in a few sentences as a justified tactical manoeuvre by Stalin, “since 1934 the unswerving champion of an alliance with the west against [Hitler].”
In practice the Popular Front meant the suppression of the real, living struggles of the working-class, most notably during the Spanish Civil War. This is the historical reality behind Hobsbawm’s claim that the “communists ...turned themselves into the most systematic and, as usual, the most efficient, champions of anti-fascist unity.” The Stalinist suppression of the anarchists and Trotskyists in Spain was nothing if not systematic and efficient, although Hobsbawm, as recently as 2007, was dismissing these debates as arguments “among the losers”.
It would be a travesty to dismiss him as merely a Stalinist propagandist. He was certainly not an “in-house” CPGB historian, and was harshly critical of those who were, such as James Klugmann, who wrote the History of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
In 1966 he bemoaned the atrophying of debate within Marxism after 1930, noting that the “more unconvincing our own beliefs were, the less we could afford dialogue... How could we discuss, say, the history of the Soviet Union, if we left Trotsky out of it, or thought of him as a foreign agent?” Moreover, he denied that “correct Marxism” could be “institutionally defined”, especially given that some of the most prominent Marxist historians in Britain, such as Thompson, found themselves outside the CPGB.
There is a noticeable tension between Hobsbawm the historian and Hobsbawm the Stalinist. This is most evident in the omissions and emphases in Hobsbawm’s narratives. As Ian Burchill has noted, Hobsbawm does not dwell on the Paris Commune in The Age of Capital, even though it marked the high-point of nineteenth-century working-class revolution.
Hobsbawm dismissed movements outside the Stalinist parties, such as Trotskyism. “It became clear”, we are told, “that separation from the communist party, whether by expulsion or secession, meant an end to effective revolutionary activity.”
Central to Hobsbawm was identification with the Soviet state and its satellite parties rather than with the revolutionary potential of the working-class. This view was put to the test when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956. Unlike Thompson, Hobsbawm failed the test, choosing to remain inside the CPGB.
The sum total of Hobsbawm’s protest against the murderous crushing of the working-class revolution in Hungary was a letter of protest. He even recalled the letter with an almost embarrassing sense of pride as “a flagrant breach of Party discipline”. It allowed him a few years later “on an emotional evening in an Austrian pub, to checkmate a very drunken and ill-tempered Arthur Koestler who wanted to know whether people like me had ever opposed the Russians over the Hungarian Revolution.”
But Hobsbawm admits to having “little direct political activity ... in my life after 1956.” He did not even actively support the Eurocommunist current within the CPGB.
Nevertheless, Hobsbawm’s lectures and articles did have a political impact. Intellectually he did contribute to Eurocommunism, not least by over-stating the extent of dissent against Stalinism in Palmiro Togliatti’s Italian Communist Party.
He also wrote for the CPGB’s Marxism Today journal. His 1978 article The Forward March of Labour Halted? argued that the decline of the industrial working class and the growth of a technical and white-collar “labour aristocracy” meant that the working-class was no longer was predisposed towards socialism; he dismissed the the wave of strikes in Britain in the 1970s as “economistic”, with no necessary socialist corollary.
The argument was a symptom of Hobsbawm’s increasing political pessimism and a drift rightwards. It was seized upon by Neil Kinnock in his struggle against the Bennite left and was used to move the Labour Party away from anything which could be described as class politics.
In his autobiography, Hobsbawm wrote: “Whatever his limitations, Neil Kinnock, whose candidature I strongly supported, was the leader who saved the Labour Party from the sectarians. After 1985, when he secured the expulsion of the Trotskyite Militant Tendency from the party, its future was safe.”
Whatever the problems with the Militant Tendency (and there were many), the expulsion move was part of a general attack on the Labour left which paved the way for Blairism. Hobsbawm’s pre-occupation with party over class, which led him to back Kinnock over the left, contributed to the triumph of New Labour.
Hobsbawm was, despite everything, an excellent historian who made a lasting contribution to human knowledge. His historical writings were often artful, creative and intellectually stimulating. But Hobsbawm’s Stalinist politics often intruded into his historical work, almost always to the detriment of his judgements and analyses.
His political contribution, both in the form of committed Stalinism, and later, pessimistic reformism, was uniformly negative. The paradox defines his legacy.