The death of Eric Hobsbawm at aged 95 marks the end of an era when a group of Communist historians dominated their respective fields of study. While Hobsbawm was a historian in his own right, the purpose of this obituary is to place the historian in the context of his politics and his role as a dominant force in the Communist Party Historians Group.
The influence of this group of ‘Marxist historians’ has since waned mainly due to the ‘Marxism is Dead’ campaign which found support amongst an aggressive collection group of revisionist historians who sought to counter Marxist historiography and to replace it with a hodge-podge of theories that in one way or another denied that class or economic issues had anything to do with the revolutionary upheavals of the last four hundred years.
Hobsbawm who was born in Egypt 1917 just a few months before one of the most important of those changes the Bolshevik revolution. His father worked as a colonial officer and his mother was Austrian. Hobsbawm spent his childhood mainly in Berlin. He saw the early dangers of the rise of Fascism especially it’s hatred of Jews. Hobsbawm said later on in his life "Anybody who saw Hitler's rise happen first hand could not have helped but be shaped by it, politically. That boy is still somewhere inside, always will be."
Hobsbawm left Berlin in 1933, and came to London. His life spanned all the significant events of the 20th Century. It is safe to say his politics, personality and history writing were shaped by these developments. He had become a communist in 1931. It was unfortunate that the party he joined had broken decisively with orthodox Marxism and the German Communist party would later commit the vast betrayal in allowing Hitler to come to power without a shot being fired. The refusal of CPSU to acknowledge any fault for this calamitous defeat of the German working class led later on to the Russian Marxist and opponent of Stalin, Leon Trotsky forming a new Fourth International.
In many ways Hobsbawm perception of the events in Germany would be important in shaping his future political and historical career. Even at an early period in his political career Hobsbawm was on the right of his newly adopted party, how else do you explain the following extraordinary statement about the developments in Germany, “Liberalism was failing. If I’d been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they’d become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you didn’t believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed".
He went “In Germany, there wasn’t any alternative left,” he said in an interview with Maya Jaggi published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002. This was untrue. There was a Left Opposition to the rise of Fascism which sought to oppose both the increase of the fascists and the betrayal of the party that Hobsbawm had just joined. From an early part of his life it is clear that Hobsbawm rejected the Trotskyist view of events in Germany.
Hobsbawm’s acquiescence of the Stalinist programme and perspective would clearly be a problem for him in later life and for that matter other members of the CPHG. Hobsbawm wrote more than 30 books; his most famous works were the trilogy, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire. He characterised the period he wrote about as the “the long 19th century” from the start of the French revolution in 1789 to the outbreak of war in 1914, but he wrote very little in the 20th century and most of this when it was relatively safe to do so. One striking aspect of the group was that none of them specialised in twentieth century history. More specifically the experiences of the Russian revolution were never to be explored by the group apart from one book by Christopher Hill which in reality was an apology for Stalinism.
According to A Talbot “In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too high to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena”. As Matt Perry correctly points out the group had a particular academic freedom on the subject of English history pre 20th century because the CP had no official line on that period of history.
Hobsbawm was acutely aware that broaching the subject was largely taboo according to him “it raised some notoriously tricky problems”. According to one essay on the CPHG a study of the journal Our History between 1956 and 1992 showed there was not a single article dealing with any part of Soviet history. Having visited the Marx Memorial Library to check this statement out I can say there was one article by Monty Johnson on Leon Trotsky in 1992. It is still a poor record nonetheless. Eric Hobsbawm was the de facto leader of the groups. It would be fair to say that for good or wrong Hobsbawm writings have shaped the world historical view of a generation of students, academics and lay people. Hobsbawm was part of an extraordinary group of historians that took on many of the characteristics of a political party. It had membership subscriptions, a secretary and a chairman. He was the only one of the CP historians to actually write in the 20th century and the taboo subject of the Russian revolution. But this was done mainly after the group had in fact collapsed.
For my own particular field of the study Hobsbawm essay "The General Crisis of the European Economy in the Seventeenth Century" and "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, II") was particularly important and I generally agreed with his premise. It should not be treated as the last word on the subject. It is a useful as a guide to deepen our understanding to the 17th century, which contained a large number of revolutions. It is important to bear in mind one piece of advice on this subject “the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things”. While the revolutions in Europe had many differences, they also had some significant similarities.
Hobsbawm’s The “general crisis” thesis like many ground-breaking essays provoked significant controversy from some historians who opposed the emphasis on the social and economic origins of the revolutions that were carried out throughout Europe. Also, a number of historians refused to believe that there was any “general crisis” at all such as the Dutch historian Ivo Schöffer, the Danish historian Niels Steengsgaard.
Eric J. Hobsbawm's essay, which was printed in two parts in 1954, as "The General Crisis of the European Economy in the Seventeenth Century" and "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, II") sought to present a Marxist analysis of the transformation from a feudal society to a capitalist one in the 17th century. This change was held responsible for the revolutions, wars and social unrest that took place. Hobsbawm put forward that most of the social and economic structures associated with capitalism had grown and developed during "long sixteenth century." He believed that feudal “elements fatally obstructed growth” of capitalism He apparently believed that a revolution was needed to clear away the feudal rubbish for a new capitalist system to develop.
The most pronounced expression of this process of was to be found in England. Hobsbawm writes, “It will be generally agreed that the I7th century was one of social revolt both in Western and Eastern Europe. This clustering of revolutions, has led some historians to see something like a general social-revolutionary crisis in the middle of the century. France had its Frondes, which were significant social movements; Catalan, Neapolitan and Portuguese revolutions marked the crisis of the Spanish Empire in the I64os; the Swiss peasant war of I653 expressed both the post-war crisis and the increasing exploitation of peasant by town, while in England revolution triumphed with portentous results. Though peasant unrest did not cease in the West - the “stamped paper " rising which combined middle class, maritime and peasant unrest in Bordeaux and Brittany occurred in 1675, the Camisard wars even later- those of Eastern Europe were more significant. In the i6th century there had been few revolts against the growing enserfment of peasants. The Ukrainian revolution of I648-54 may be regarded as a major servile upheaval. So must the various " Kurucz " movements in Hungary, their very name harking back to Dozsa's peasant rebels of I5I4, their memory enshrined in folksongs about Rakoczy as that of the Russian revolt of I672 is in the song about Stenka Razin. A major Bohemian peasant rising in i68o opened a period of endemic serf unrest there. It would be easy to lengthen this catalogue of the large social upheavals - for instance by including the revolts of the Irish in 164I and 1689”.
Hobsbawm has gone on 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 particular to the twentieth century. It was a combination of the high 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 fruitful) 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 to the Marxist writer and expert on Leon Trotsky David North Hobsbawm’s writing on the Russian Revolution mostly portrays the revolution as being “doomed to failure” and a “fatal enterprise.” This leads to the assumption that the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the “Shipwreck of Socialism.”
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”?
As North points out Hobsbawm did not in later life limit himself to write on events pre 1900. Hobsbawm was very active writing about politics. It is in this regard I would like to examine his political career. While I believe that the plaudits Hobsbawm got recently for his history writing are thoroughly deserved. Given the level of press coverage and favourable obituaries from establishment figures highlight the importance Hobsbawm was for the ruling elite in Britain and internationally.
He was after all made– a Companion of Honour. A rarity for a historian especially of his political persuasion. Hobsbawm was lauded from both sides of bourgeois democracy in Britain. Labour leader Ed Miliband said Prof Hobsbawm was "an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of his family”. His historical works brought hundreds of years of British history to hundreds of thousands of people. He brought history out of the ivory tower and into people's lives. But he was not simply an academic; he cared deeply about the political direction of the country. Indeed, he was one of the first people to recognise the challenges to Labour in the late 1970s and 1980s from the changing nature of our society."
In this respect Milliband says more than he intended. Hobsbawm was a major theoretical architect of the right wing shift of New Labour. During his membership of the "Eurocommunist" wing of the CPGB and his time with the Marxism Today theoretical journal, he wrote many articles urging labour to adopt a more right wing trajectory. In 1978 he wrote the essay “The Forward March of Labour Halted”. Which in many ways laid the basis for Labours future development? "If anything, I was an extremely right-wing Communist and generally attacked by the leftists, including the leftists in the Labour Party".
Hobsbawm relationship with the origins of New Labour is explored in an article by Chris Marsden which reveals Stalinism’s role in spawning new Labour. Marsden said 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 established in the editorial offices of Marxism Today. And it was mostly made possible to implement the project so defined due above all to the liquidation of the Soviet Union”.
Hobsbawm had no real faith in the revolutionary capacity of the working class as can be seen in his Marx Memorial Lecture in 1978 and as Marsden concluded “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 mainly 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 just 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 sure minimal concessions to the miners, who had led that campaign, 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”.
Hobsbawm was not an orthodox Marxist. Politically speaking Hobsbawm was closer to social democracy and the right wing side of the Labour Party than to Marxism. The harsh tone of this obituary should not take anything away from Hobsbawm’s historical writing especially pre the 20th century, but you cannot separate his historical writing with his politics. This should be borne in mind when reading him.
Notes and Further Reading
1. Hobsbawm, Eric J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
2. Martin Jacques: embittered British Stalinist pronounces on death of the “left “Part One By Chris Marsden15 December 2004
3. Martin Jacques: embittered British Stalinist pronounces on death of the “left”Part Two By Chris Marsden16 December 2004
4. Essays on Historical Materialism edited by John Rees Booksmarks.1998
5. Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the 20th Century A Reply to Professor Eric Hobsbawm By David North 3 January 1998.
6. "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill By Ann Talbot 25 March 2003
7. A Life With No Apology By Sarah Lyall
8. Professor Eric Hobsbawm Interview Transcript London, 17 June 2008 Interview was conducted for the project ‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’.
9. Interview with Maya Jaggi published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002.
10. For an alternative view of life in Germany in the 1030s see And Red is the Colour of Our Flag: Memories of Sixty Years in the Workers' Movement [Pape