2012: Eric Hobsbawm: “A pain in the arse for national myths”
Published in Socialist Worker, 2 October 2012 (with a more tasteful title).
Eric Hobsbawm, who died on 1 October aged 95, was one of the most remarkable historians of the twentieth century. After a childhood in Vienna, he moved with his family to Berlin; recently he wrote a vivid account of his recollections of life in Germany before Hitler took over; he was already a Communist, with a duplicator hidden under his bed. [http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n02/eric-hobsbawm/diary]
The family moved to Britain (his father was British), and he studied at Cambridge University. But though he remained in Britain for the rest of his life, he remained marked by his early experiences. He wrote many years later: “I, who belong to a people of refugees whose experience has been such as to make me still vaguely uneasy if I don’t possess a valid passport and enough cash to transport me to the nearest suitable country at short notice, can understand the situation of the Kenyan Asians and feel horrified by British immigration officials in a more profound and visceral way than those for whom the question is primarily one of equal rights and civil liberty in general.”
From 1947 Hobsbawm held a post at Birkbeck College in London. In academic terms he was a great success, author of many books and articles with an international reputation.
But Hobsbawm was quite different from typical academic historians, who bury themselves in their specialist “period”, and are quite happy to be ignorant of the rest of human history (and even more ignorant of the world they live in). The range of Hobsbawm’s work was extraordinary – from seventeenth century feudal society to Peruvian land occupations and secret societies in early nineteenth-century Europe. His four books Age of Revolution, Age of Capital, Age of Empire and Age of Extremes cover the history of the world from the storming of the Bastille to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and any reader will be rewarded with a wealth of information.
But Hobsbawm never believed that history belonged to historians. As well as scholarly books and articles, he wrote innumerable articles for the Guardian, New Statesman, London Review of Booksetc.
This was nothing comparable to David Starkey, exploiting his academic status in order to shout his mouth off about things he knows nothing of. Hobsbawm believed history helped us to understand the present and shape the future; hence arguments based on history were relevant to an audience far wider than professional students of history.
In addition Hobsbawm had a second identity, as jazz critic Francis Newton, writing for the New Statesman at a time when American culture was suspect in Communist circles. However, as for many of his generation, rock and roll was a bit too much; he wrote that “the habitual rock-and-roll fan, unless mentally rather retarded, tended to be between ten and fifteen years of age.”
Hobsbawm was also a lifelong Communist, who joined the British Communist Party in 1936 and remained a member until the time of the party’s collapse in 1991. In recent years this has been used systematically by right-wing critics to discredit his historical work. At the 2008 Tory Conference Michael Gove stated that “only when Hobsbawm weeps hot tears for a life spent serving an ideology of wickedness will he ever be worth listening to.” [We shall wait a long time before Gove says anything worth listening to.]
Childish smears of this sort may be disregarded, but a real problem remains. Hobsbawm’s Communist commitment, and his admiration for Marx provided much that was positive in his historical work – an understanding of the economic base of society and a grasp of class relations. But his loyalty to the Stalinist current of Communism also had negative effects.
His early encounter with fascism left Hobsbawm convinced that the only strategy to fight fascism was the Popular Front – an alliance between the workers’ movement and pro‑capitalist parties. In France and Spain in the 1930s the Popular Front blocked revolutionary possibilities and opened the way for the victory of fascism. But Hobsbawm remained wedded to the Popular Front strategy for the rest of his life.
Sometimes this affected his historical work. He had a tendency to underestimate the high points of working-class self-activity. Thus his Age of Capital dismisses the Paris Commune – for Marx one of the greatest achievements of the working class – in a few short paragraphs.
In 1956 Hobsbawm approved – “with a heavy heart” – the Russian suppression of the Hungarian revolution. While many of the Party’s best-known historians – Edward Thompson, Christopher Hill - left the Party, Hobsbawm stayed. As late as 2006 he was still insisting, in an exchange with Chris Harman and myself in the London Review of Books, that – contrary to the reports of many participants and observers – the Hungarian workers’ councils were not a “major factor”.
Briefly in the 1960s he seemed impressed by a new wave of radicalism. He spoke at the first Vietnam teach-in at Oxford, organised by the new revolutionary left, including Peter Binns and Tariq Ali. In 1968, in the new revolutionary paper Black Dwarf, he described the French general strike as “marvellous and enchanting” and accused the French Communist Party of “feet-dragging”.
Soon he swung back to the right. His most important intervention was his 1978 lecture “The Forward March of Labour Halted”. He argued that industrial militancy was not particularly relevant to the struggle for socialism: “straightforward, economist trade union consciousness may at times actually set workers against each other rather than establish wider patterns of solidarity.” Four years later he openly challenged the Marxist view of the historical role of the working class: “The manual working class, core of traditional socialist labour parties, is today contracting and not expanding. It has been transformed, and to some extent divided, by the decades when its standard of living reached levels undreamed of even by the well-paid in 1939. It can no longer be assumed that all workers are on the way to recognising that their class situation must align them behind a socialist workers party, though there are still many millions who believe this.”
Hobsbawm’s arguments seemed to limit the term “working class” to one specific phase of history, and not to recognise the development of a new type of working class. His argument helped to foment the dispute between “Eurocommunists” [open reformists] and “tankies” [unrepentant Stalinists] which finally destroyed the Communist party.
But its impact went far beyond the Communist party. At the 1982 Labour Party conference Neil Kinnock praised Hobsbawm as “the most sagacious living Marxist”. Hobsbawm’sargument against industrial militancy suited Kinnock’s desire to shift the Labour Party to the right.
In later years Hobsbawm became more and more critical of Russian-style “socialism”. In Age of Extremes he described Russia as having has “a dead-end economy and a political system for which there was nothing to be said”. But while he still saw the evils of capitalism, he seemed to have little idea of what might replace it. In Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism  he said quite bluntly that we were entering a new phase of world history but that “We do not know where we are going”.
Yet Hobsbawm never quite lost the spirit that made him a Communist in the first place. In a 2008 interview, now far too old to bother about the proprieties of academic language, Hobsbawm prophesied that there would be more “nationalist stuff” in English history, and added that “the whole function of history is precisely to be a pain in the arse for national myths”. [http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/interviews/Hobsbawm_Eric.html]
There is much to criticise in Hobsbawm’s work, but also a great deal that will continue to be a “pain in the arse” for the likes of Michael Gove.
For more detail on Hobsbawm’s political positions see http://www.marxists.de/workmvmt/birchcarl/hobsbawm.htm#note78