Obituary: Unrepentance of Eric Hobsbawm
Harley Filben casts an eye over Hobsbawm's legacy
The death of Eric Hobsbawm was greeted, for the most part, with highly respectful eulogies. Across the bourgeois political spectrum, many a good word was found for the man who, until October 1, was the officially designated ‘greatest living Marxist historian’.
It was perhaps not a surprise to find tributes on the pages of The Guardian and the lips of Ed Miliband - who, after all, is something of a ‘red diaper baby’ himself. Others were slightly more surprising - such as the fond farewell to a “good friend” that came from Niall Ferguson, the perpetual Tory boy charlatan. “He and I shared the belief that it was economic change, above all, that shaped the modern era,” Ferguson wrote. “The fact that he sided with the workers and peasants, while I side with the bourgeoisie, was no obstacle to friendship.”1
Others of Ferguson’s general stripe were less amiable. The irrepressible Michael Burleigh castigated Hobsbawm for being a “believer in the red utopia to the very end” in the Torygraph,2 while AN Wilson rather juicily suggested in the Daily Mail that Hobsbawm may have recruited agents for the Soviet Union at Cambridge University - a charge, alas, unsullied by anything resembling evidence.3
The bourgeois commentariat is united on one point - Hobsbawm was, to his death, an unrepentant Marxist. His commitment to the communist cause is a rather more complicated beast than that, but it is certainly true that his subjective commitment to the movement that, in Britain at least, predeceased him by over two decades, was tenacious.
This was in the main a consequence of the circumstances that brought him into that movement. Born to Jewish parents, he was a schoolboy in Berlin when Hitler came to power; his family immediately decamped to England. The young Hobsbawm witnessed Hitler’s rise first hand, and saw from a relatively safe distance the shadow of fascism spreading over Europe. At the head of those struggling against that barbarism, for better or worse, were the communist parties.
Hobsbawm returned from military service in World War II to the political freeze of the cold war; he was one of many communist intellectuals to promptly bury himself away in academia, ducking the intensifying anti-communist mood more or less successfully (although, unsurprisingly, the secret services kept a substantial file on him). It was in this capacity - as a lecturer and professor at Birkbeck College in London and a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge - that he made his most lasting mark on British intellectual life.
Hobsbawm rapidly came into the Communist Party Historians Group, whose influence both within and without the left is well known; the group launched his career, and those of comrades such as Christopher Hill, EP Thompson and John Saville. The watchword for the group was ‘history from below’; history was no longer to be thought of as the playground of Great Men or an abstract sequence of events that culminates in bourgeois society as the apogee, but rather as a field in which the toiling masses are key agents.
Hobsbawm’s central contribution to this project was the three-volume history of what he called the “long 19th century”, joining up two decisive events in modern European history - the French Revolution of 1789 and the great war of 1914 - through a complex intervening narrative. He hewed closer to economic-technological explanations for historical change than, say, Thompson - but always in the context of popular life and struggles.
All of Hobsbawm’s major writings postdate the major crisis-point in the Historians Group - the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. That year is well known as having plunged the ‘official’ communist movement internationally into a serious internal crisis, as activists and intellectuals struggled both with Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and with the crushing of the Hungarian uprising. Hobsbawm, almost uniquely among his colleagues, stuck with the CPGB, approving “with a heavy heart” and not without criticisms of the Soviet intervention.
He would later look back on the 1950s cold war atmosphere in academia as oppressive, but not intolerable: “You didn’t get promotion for 10 years, but nobody threw you out.” Something similar was on offer to intellectuals of a Stalinist persuasion in the communist parties. Hobsbawm’s interventions in the CPGB were characterised throughout by a certain academic distance from the cut and thrust of factional struggle. He was able to praise presumptively the French student revolts of 1968 - provided he kept from criticising the French party when it abdicated its responsibility.
But 1968 was not a turning point to the left, as it may first have appeared, in ‘official’ communism. Discontent with another Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia sped up the crystallisation of so-called Eurocommunism - in the western parties; by the late 1970s, the Euros were a well-established and influential faction in the CPGB.
Hobsbawm’s sympathy for this trend was plain for all to see. In 1977, he published a volume of interviews with Giorgio Napolitano (then leader of the Communist Party of Italy; now the country’s president), which had, the previous decade, been the crucible for Eurocommunism, the great “triumph” having been the “historic compromise”, which saw a coalition government between the PCI and the Christian Democrats (as comrade Toby Abse has put it, the Christian Democrats made the history, while the communists made the compromise).
The following year, he delivered the annual Marx Memorial lecture, the text of which became the infamous essay, ‘Forward march of labour halted?’ His argument was simple and somewhat statistics-heavy: the CPGB’s focus on developing its ranks through the trade unions and the traditional labour movement left it vulnerable to ongoing changes in the structure of the British labour force. The extension of women’s employment, the declining overall share of manual workers in the total workforce - all pointed to the unsustainability of the view that the labour movement was on a perpetual forward march to social dominance. Hobsbawm concludes by suggesting that we need a less economistic vision of the working class.4
The essay is in fact an object lesson in how the history of ideas works. There is very little in it that is, at face value, objectionable from the point of view of revolutionary Marxism - even its vague conclusions. The meaning it took on in the context of 1978 - the year of the ‘winter of discontent’, that rounded off a decade of militant labour struggles - was unmistakable. Soviet-loyal centrists in the CPGB, such as the Straight Left faction, were also the most enthusiastic advocates of work in the unions and labour movement as a whole; dismissing this period of industrial militancy as, in a sense, the last gasp of that movement, fired a shot across the bows of such elements, and emboldened the Euros.
It became the opening sally, if you will, of the ‘long 1980s’ in the CPGB, a period of decay and dissolution; seized on (as was intended) by the Eurocommunists to justify not a less economistic working class politics, but an ever more intense disavowal of class politics altogether, culminating in the formal liquidation of the CPGB in 1991.
Hobsbawm’s political activity in the 1980s was of this character. It was not only Martin Jacques, the Euro editor of Marxism Today, who seized on ‘Forward march ...’, but Neil Kinnock, who described Hobsbawm as his “favourite Marxist”. Hobsbawm provided the intellectual meat for the wholesale decimation of the Labour left by the Labour Party bureaucracy. The ultimate result was the Tony Blair government, which at different times included a number of former Euros.
The greatest irony of Eurocommunism is that it promised a ‘third way’ between social democracy and pro-Soviet communism, but ended up on the ‘third way’ as we now recognise it - that is, a political project radically to the right of the social democratic mainstream of the 1980s.
It is to Hobsbawm’s credit that his drift to the right stopped well short of certain former ‘comrades’ (“I used to be a Marxist,” sneered former Blair-era home secretary John Reid once - “I used to believe in Santa Claus”). In a rogue’s gallery that includes not only Jacques and Reid, but also Jack Straw and the prince of darkness himself, Peter Mandelson, Hobsbawm stands out as the most principled of a pretty unprincipled bunch.
He continued to avow a commitment to the Marxist method - as he understood it - to his death. He scandalised the good people of the BBC by affirming that, in his view, 20 million deaths would have been justified if they had genuinely ushered in a communist society. Despite having abandoned more or less every direct political commitment to communism, he refused to lower the flag.
In the end, this was an emotional problem for him, rather than a political one. His writings on the 20th century are slippery and evasive, in order to keep open the possibility that ‘official communism’ was a legitimate - indeed, the only correct - political choice for progressive individuals of his generation.
We may grant Hobsbawm his unrepentance - but that sentimental attachment to Stalinism did not, in the end, strengthen the cause to which he committed almost his whole adult life. Rather it led him to prepare the ground for Blair.
1. The Guardian October 1.
2. The Daily Telegraph October 1.
3. Daily Mail October 1.