A quick note on the legacy of Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian, has died aged 95. Tributes, obituaries and analyses of his legacy are already appearing and I’d like to add some quick thoughts on Hobsbawm’s legacy on British Marxism and modern historiography. Hobsbawm was the author of numerous books on labour history and a pioneer of the historical field known as ‘history from below’. He is probably best known (history-wise) for his Age of… series, as well as the books Nations and Nationalism since 1789, Industry and Empire and Labouring Men. But he is also known politically for his life-long membership to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Hobsbawm joined the Party in 1936 and remained a member until the Party dissolved itself in 1991. I am sure that the labels of ‘Stalinist’, ‘Eurocommunist’ and ‘Neil Kinnock’s favourite Marxist’ will be used in many discussions of Hobsbawm over the next few weeks, but I think he was a much more complex figure historically and politically, and he actually transcends these simple labels.

Hobsbawm, along with E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Christopher Hill, George Rudé, A.L. Morton, Rodney Hilton, Raphael Samuel, Maurice Dobb and Victor Kiernan amongst others, was a member of the CPGB’s Historians’ Group, which was instrumental in providing an informed Marxist-based analysis of British history from 1066 to the Victorian era, and key in the development of the concept of ‘history from below’. Alongside this major contribution to modern historiography, the importance of the Historians’ Group was its prime role in opposing the leadership of the CPGB during the events of 1956.

In 1956, Khrushchev’s Secret Speech on the crimes of the Stalin era and the ‘cult of personality’ caused massive ruptures in the international communist movement, including the CPGB. The Party leaders, taking their cues from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, argued that the crimes of the Stalinist regime were the result of the abandonment of the principles of democratic centralism. The leadership of the Party attempted to minimise any frank discussion of Khrushchev’s revelations and used its principles of strict internal discipline to damper any opposition to the analysis put forward by the CPSU, refusing to discuss the issue at length at the 24th Party Congress in April 1956. The Historians’ Group opposed this analysis, arguing that adherence to the principles of democratic centralism had actually allowed these crimes to occur, by letting the upper echelons of the Soviet regime to act without any constraint and suppress any opposition. The Group appealed for a greater analysis of the crimes of the Stalin era and the uncritical support given by the British party to the Soviet Union during the Stalin years.

Three of the main acts of opposition to the leadership during 1956-57 were led by Historians’ Group members, as individuals or as a group – the publication of the discussion journal The Reasoner by Saville and Thompson, the writing of a letter to the New Statesman and The Tribune criticising the lack of debate within the Party and the authorship of the Minority Repory on Inner-Party Democracy by Hill (along with Malcolm MacEwen and Peter Cadogan). Hobsbawm, as chair of the Group at the time, was a signatory of the New Statesman letter (and a contributor to the New Reasoner later on), but unlike Thompson, Saville, Hill, Samuel and Rudé, he chose to remain in the Party. 

His reasons to remain inside the Party after 1956 have been criticised as weak and unsatisfactory by many. Hobsbawm had, at various times, attempted to explain his reasons for staying. In an interview with The Observer in 2002, he stated that his decision to stay was ‘out of idealisation of the October Revolution’ (Sep. 22, 2002). In his book Politics for a Rational Left (Verso, 1989, p. 201), he argued that his decision to become a Communist stemmed from a ‘political awakening’ in the aftermath of Hitler’s rise to power in Berlin and as Dennis Dworkin has suggested, his deep personal attachment to the Communist movement’s anti-fascist legacy influenced his reluctance to resign (Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain, Duke Uni Press, 1997, p. 50). Also in Politics for a Rational Left (p. 200), Hobsbawm admitted that the CPGB had become so weak that despite his critical stance, the Party couldn’t throw him out and ‘didn’t want to anyway’. His lack of political activity inside the Party during the 1960s and 1970s, and his association with the activities of his former colleagues, such as the New ReasonerNew Left Review and the Socialist Register, allowed him to present himself primarily as a Marxist historian of the broader left, rather than as a Communist historian.

Between the late 1950s and the late 1970s, Hobsbawm produced many innovative historical works, such as those I mentioned earlier, and did not publicly engage in many political debates. However this was to change in 1978 when he gave the Marx Memorial Library titled ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’. Hobsbawm’s thesis was that the Labour Party and the trade unions, as the traditional political vehicles of the working class, had reached a point of fatigue and had only achieved limited reforms in the face of the crisis of capitalism during the 1970s. The organs of the British labour movement represented certain section of the working class – the older white heterosexual male skilled or semi-skilled worker – and that it’s march was halted as the working class fragmented.

Alongside Stuart Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ article, Hobsbawm’s lecture, reproduced in Marxism Today (link), generated much internal debate within the CPGB (already undergoing massive changes due to the rising influence of the Gramscians/Eurocommunists) and amongst the wider labour movement. Over the next decade, Hobsbawm remodelled himself as a politically engaged public intellectual, writing for Marxism Today and other left publications. As a member of the CP during the Popular Front and a great admirer of the Italian Communist Party, Hobsbawm often wrote on the lessons that Popular Frontism and Gramscism could have for those navigating the political landscape of the 1980s. It is interesting to note that he was one of the few historians that wrote for Marxism Today under the editorship of Martin Jacques. Although criticised for his association with the Eurocommunist wing of the CPGB and his ‘romantic’ depiction of the Popular Front, I believe that Hobsbawm generated some very thought provoking work in the 1980s and his ‘Forward March’ lecture launched an important debate that the British left needed to have.

Incidentally, Hobsbawm was instrumental in my own development as a historian. I was inspired to write my Honours thesis on the Historians’ Group after reading the debate between Hobsbawm and Martin Amis on remaining a Communist after 1956, and reading Hobsbawm’s autobiography Interesting Times, which in part detailed the role of the Group in the events of that tumultuous year. I wanted to explore why people, after the revelations of the crimes of the Stalin era, chose to remain in the Communist Party. So that explains my obscure field of research!

I think Hobsbawm produced some thoroughly readable history books and his sense of grand narrative was quite masterful (which is why The Age of… series worked so well). I would heartily recommend Bandits or Industry and Empire to anyone interested in modern history and undergraduates would do well to invest in a copy of The Age of Extremes, his pioneering history of the ‘short twentieth century’. So, in summary, Eric Hobsbawm – more than a ‘Stalinist’, ‘Euro’ or ‘Neil Kinnock’s guru’. Rather he was a very important historian and public intellectual. Now I should really re-read Captain Swing!

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4 comments

  1. Fantastic post, Evan, and an excellent tribute. Of all his work, I am most interested in Hobsbawn’s ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ and its impact on Left debate in the following decade. One way of classifying Left groups and Labour factions in the 1980s was on the basis of their response to ‘The Forward March.’ First, did they agree with the general thrust of Hobsbawn’s argument that labourism was not enough because its economic base was fragmenting? For those who agreed, the second question was did this mean Labour needed to move to the left or to the right? Of course, for the groups we study, the answer was a resounding “to the left!” They usually argued that Labour needed to rediscover its radical left roots and reach out to radical social movements. However, it’s interesting to see how New Labour commentators, like Martin Kettle, have appropriated Hobsbawn for their centre-right world view: For Kettle, Hobsbawn was making a proto-New Labour argument for Blairite-type responses to Labour’s predicament. He effectively contends that, Blair and Brown, unlike the Left, understood Hobsbawn’s real message. Whilst I would take issue with this, I think it suggests that Hobsbawn is emerging as one of those titanic Left intellectuals — like Orwell — who, because of his alleged revisionism, is claimed by both Left and Right. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/03/miliband-blair-hobsbawm-old-failed-labourism

  2. David, good questions. I don’t think many to the left of the CPGB (or even the industrial wing of the CP) thought that Labour’s economic base was fragmenting and this is partly where left critics of Hobsbawm (and the Eurocommunst strategy more widely) see the long march towards New Labourism. Some of the left also thought that it wasn’t a question of Labour moving to the left, because Labour was only a reformist party that accepted the fundamentals of monopoly capitalism. What is really interesting is the efforts by Militant at this time – on one hand they were very sectarian and far left, refusing to join wider social movements and radical campaigns, but on the other, they were deeply involved in maintaining Labour as THE choice for workers and socialists

    Andrew Pearmain’s The Politics of New Labour (Lawrence & Wishart, 2011) is a good exploration of how the relationship between the Eurocommunists in the CPGB and the New Labour project.

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