Sunday, 6 February 2011

Supplementary Notes on Eric Hobsbawm and the Communist Party Historians Group

From an international standpoint the CPHG were probably the most important collection of historians ever to write and study on a variety of subjects. For the subject of the English revolution it produced one of its foremost historians Christopher Hill. But for these notes it is not Hill I would like to concentrate on. It was the de facto leader of the group Eric Hobsbawm who perhaps more than most of them exhibited the contradictions or pros and cons of the group to put it more simply. It would also be correct to say that his long life “has mirrored the great events of the twentieth century”.

It would be fair to say that for good or bad Hobsbawm’s writings have shaped the world historical view of a generation of students, academics and lay people. Eric Hobsbawm was born in 1917 in Alexandria, under the British protectorate of Egypt, just twenty years after the death of Marx. In much of the media especially the right wing media he is labelled The "Marxist professor" by the Daily Mail. Since the capitalist crisis he has become very much in demand.

Recently Hobsbawm released his most important essays on Marx into a single volume, the new book also has new material on Marxism which examine the latest stock market crash. The publication of the book gave the Historian and Labour MP Tristram Hunt the excuse to carry out a second interview with the academic historian.

For Hunt (who has written on Frederick Engels) Marx has an intellectual fascination for him but he empty’s Marx of his revolutionary content and despite admitting that Marx has written eloquently on previous crisis is of capitalism he says that his solutions might be no longer be relevant.

Hobsbawm was part of an extraordinary group of historians. The Communist Party Historians Group took on many of the characteristics of a political party. It had membership subscriptions, a secretary and a chairman. It was not a homogenous group but the majority of the historians were radicalised in the 1930s by the rise of Fascism and the oncoming Second World War. The group’s intellectual origins stem from the rise of Social history as practice by R H Tawney et all. Politically its off spring ‘history from below’ school of study came out of the popular front politics practiced by the Communist Party of Great Britain. In many ways A L Morton’s book A Peoples History of England was the groups founding document.

While many of the historians were members, some were fellow travellers they shared a Faustian pact with the CP. It is beholden me to say that despite membership of the party these historians produced outstanding work in their particular field. But that should not blind anyone to the fact that paid a heavy price for their membership.

Hobsbawm has gone off the record to say that he “wasn't a Stalinist. I criticised Stalin and I cannot conceive how what I've written can be regarded as a defence of Stalin. But as someone who was a loyal Party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about a number of things about which it's reasonable not to be silent - things I knew or suspected in the USSR. Why I stayed [in the Communist Party] is not a political question about communism, it's a one-off biographical question. It wasn't out of idealisation of the October Revolution. I'm not an idealiser. One should not delude oneself about the people or things one cares most about in one's life. Communism is one of these things and I've done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and to its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the passion it aroused is specific to the twentieth century. It was a combination of the great hopes which were brought with progress and the belief in human improvement during the nineteenth century along with the discovery that the bourgeois society in which we live (however great and successful) did not work and at certain stages looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. And it did collapse and generated awful nightmares “.

According the David North Hobsbawm’ s writing on the Russian Revolution largely portrays the revolution was “doomed to failure” and a “fatal enterprise”. This leads to the assumption that the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the “Shipwreck of Socialism”. Hobsbawm largely exhibits these sentiments.

North reviews Hobsawms book On History written over a fifteen period mainly centred on the October revolution. North admits Hobsbawm has produced some excellent work but ,” the subject of the Russian Revolution is dangerous territory for Professor Hobsbawm, for in this field his scholarship is compromised by his politics. Hobsbawm once confessed that as a member of the CPGB he had avoided writing about the Russian Revolution and the 20th century, because the political line of his party would have prevented him from being entirely truthful. Why he chose to remain a member of a party that would have compelled him to tell lies is a question to which he has never given a convincing answer. At any rate, it would have been best for him and no loss to the writing of history, had he continued to limit himself to events before 1900”?

According to another Marxist Ann Talbot “They could not pursue their intellectual work in isolation from the influence of the Stalinist bureaucracy, however. Despite the fact that the Cambridge biologists were all leading geneticists they accepted the fraudulent work of Lysenko because Lysenko had Stalin’s support. The influence of Stalinism on the historians was if anything even greater. The Cambridge biologists never adopted Lysenko’s theories in their own work, but historians associated with the Communist Party developed an approach to history that was directly influenced by the politics of the bureaucracy.

It is also quite stunning that a study of the journal (which was the house journal of the CPHG) Our History between 1956-1992 not a single article or essay was included on the Soviet Union.

She continues “It is notable that of the Marxist Historians Group Hill wrote on the seventeenth century, Thompson on the eighteenth century, Hobsbawm mostly on the nineteenth century and Hilton on the Middle Ages. But none of them specialised in the twentieth century. In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too great to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena. It is notable that E.H. Carr, who was never a member of the Communist Party but wrote on the history of the Russian Revolution and expressed a high regard for Trotsky, was for long periods unemployed and unemployable because his views clashed with those on both the left and right of British academic life.

Another subject that Hunt largely glosses over is Hobsbawm relationship with the origins of New Labour in an article by Chris Marsden which reveals Stalinism role in spawning new Labour. Marsden said the The Communist Party of Great Britain “Euro-Communist” tendency acted as the midwife of New Labour”.

Marsden continues with the observation that Marxism Today laid the “ideological framework for what was to become New Labour was first laid down in the editorial offices of Marxism Today. And it was largely made possible to implement the project so defined due above all to the liquidation of the Soviet Union”.Hobsbawm was a leading member of the Euro Stalinist wing of the CP. The historian was also a leading contributor to the journal.

Like all Stalinists Hobsbawm had no faith in the revolutionary capacity of the working class this can be seen in his Marx Memorial Lecture in 1978.

“Hobsbawm too began by asserting that the crisis of the labour movement could be attributed to the decline of the working class itself. His evidence for this essentially consisted of a presentation of the fall in the number of workers employed in heavy industry and the supposedly concomitant fall in support for the Labour and Communist parties. He then argued that industrial militancy had failed to provide an answer to the failures of the Labour government of the time.Hobsbawm’s lecture was not simply unconvincing. It was an attempt to provide an apologia for the betrayal of the working class by Labour and the TUC. He was writing after the election of a Labour government in 1974 as a result of a mass militant movement that culminated in the downfall of the previous Conservative government of Edward Heath. After making certain minimal concessions to the miners, who had led that movement, Labour had proceeded to implement austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund and, when this produced a major decline in its support amongst workers, had formed a coalition with the Liberal Party in order to continue with its attacks.Hobsbawm responded to this by blaming the working class—and identifying a supposed decline in its numerical strength—for Labour’s loss of support”.

During both Hunt’s interviews with Hobsbawm he rarely mentions this period of Hobsbawm life. To do so would puncture Hunt’s rose tinted view that Hobsbawm is an orthodox Marxist. Politically speaking Hobsbawm was closer to social democracy and the right wing side of the Labour Party than to Marxism. So much so that according to Marsden “Hobsbawm became an adviser to Kinnock and spoke alongside him at the 1983 Labour conference. Kinnock’s top adviser Brian Gould called for “Facing up to the Future” to be adopted by Labour and for the Euros to be welcomed into the party en masse”.


Tristram Hunt The Observer, Sunday 22 September 2002

Hobsbawm, Eric J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Martin Jacques: embittered British Stalinist pronounces on death of the “left”Part OneBy Chris Marsden15 December 2004

Martin Jacques: embittered British Stalinist pronounces on death of the “left”Part TwoBy Chris Marsden16 December 2004

Essays on Historical Materialism edited by John Rees Booksmarks.1998

Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the 20th Century A Reply to Professor Eric Hobsbawm By David North 3 January 1998.

"These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill By Ann Talbot 25 March 2003

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