Saturday, 11 November 2017

Eric Hobsbawm: Socialist Historian (Socialist History Occasional Publications) Pamphlet – 2 Nov 2015- Malcolm Chase, Willie Thompson, and David Parker

This pamphlet is the product of the Socialist History Society special event held in 2013 to assess the work of Eric Hobsbawm. The title was Historian, Teacher and Critic. This review is made up of four parts. Part one looks at Eric Hobsbawm and Labour History; part two examines Hobsbawm’s Tetralogy and Other Works, the third part Hobsbawm, History and Politics and finally Hobsbawm's relationship with the Pseudo Left.

The pamphlet Eric Hobsbawm: Socialist Historian aims to celebrate and assess the life's work of the Historian. It does indeed celebrate his life, but the assessment it makes whitewashes his politics.

The pamphlet correctly portrays Hobsbawm as an exceptionally gifted historian. He had an excellent aptitude for writing in an accessible manner while retaining a robust academic rigour. However, If he had concentrated on writing before the 19th century, then I would not have much problem in recommending his work. However his work on the 20th century especially the Russian Revolution was severely hampered by his near Jesuit defence of both the Stalinist British Communist Party and the Soviet Communist Party.

Eric Hobsbawm and Labour History

Malcolm Chase’s article sets the tone for the rest of the pamphlet.He begins the whitewash of Hobsbawm's politics especially his defence of the Communist Party. His amnesia regarding the many betrayals of the party is breathtaking and offers only limited criticism at the end of his essay.

From Chase’s essay, you would not have guessed that Hobsbawm adopted a genre (Labour History) which was a combination of both his party’s support for the Popular Front and more importantly the Annales school of history. This  Annales school combined Front Popular front politics profoundly influenced Hobsbawm and most of the historians that formed the Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG).

When Hobsbawm started to tackle Labour history he had already drawn very pessimistic conclusions from the post-war defeats suffered by the working class which his party along with the trade union and Labour Party leadership had organised.

It was not wrong for Hobsbawm to examine Labour history but his refusal to expose the betrayals of the working class by the leadership of that class was.

A perfect expression of Hobsbawm’s pessimism was his article The Forward March of Labour Halted. Hobsbawm had no real faith in the revolutionary capacity of the working class as can be seen in this Marx Memorial Lecture of1978. According to the Marxist writer, Chris Marsden “Hobsbawm 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 has failed to provide an answer to the failures of the Labour government of the time.Hobsbawm’s The 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”.

It is pretty clear that Hobsbawm played lip service for the need for a revolutionary Marxist Party that would combat the reformist leadership of the working class. Hobsbawm in this quote below believes that all a party should aim for is to stop the working from drifting into reformism.

“A higher degree of political consciousness, a special effort, is needed to prevent the movement from drifting into mere reformism ... a conscious socialist movement, and notably a communist party, provide such a special factor. If the working class attached itself to such a movement at the crucial phase of its development when it forms such attachments, it would have some built-in guarantee against the drift into reformism. However, if, as in the British case, it attaches itself to a movement largely formed in the pre-Marxist mould, it will not. The loyalty and theoretical inertia which it derives from its spontaneous experience will maintain its traditional attachments, and – unless quite extraordinary catastrophes occur, and even then by no means lightly or rapidly – it will stay with them”[1].

While examining the history of the British Labour movement, Hobsbawm discounted the possibility of a Marxist Party being established in the working class. As Norah Carlin suggests “Hobsbawm became so convinced that the dead weight of tradition on the British labour movement was irremovable? .In rejecting the ‘heroic moral epic’ style of labour history and deciding to concentrate on the long-term social and economic background of the movement, Hobsbawm ruled all revolutionary and near-revolutionary situations out of consideration. Thus he has very little to say about the high points of working-class struggle such as Chartism, the peak of the new unions in 1889-93, the waves of militancy of 1910-14 and 1919, or the General Strike of 1926”.

As was said previous Hobsbawm had a near Jesuit ability to avoid upsetting both the labour and Stalinist bureaucracy when writing about the working class.Despite this handicap, it would be wrong to say that all Hobsbawm writing on the Labour movement was worthless. To his credit, Hobsbawm wrote about Labour History with the same academic rigour as any of his other subjects. He believed historians should “consolidate the new territories won by the committed.’

In many ways, his new writing was as groundbreaking as was the former Communist party historian E P Thompson. As Norah Carlin put it “his studies of early nineteenth-century machine-breaking, Primitive Methodism, and general unions in Britain, for example, broke new ground and inspired a generation of Marxist labour historians”.

Hobsbawm’s Tetralogy and Other Works

Willie Thompson’s essay concentrates on Hobsbawm’s four core writings The Age of Capital, 1848–1875 (1975), The Age of Empire, 1875–1914 (1987), and finally The Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (1994). He also examines Hobsbawm as both historian and activist.

Hobsbawm understood in embarking on such a wide-ranging study that he was, in fact, writing three separate books but was, in essence, writing a history of the 19th century. Hobsbawm’s first book of the Tetralogy The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 while maintaining a very high academic standard was written for a broad audience.

Like in the first essay Thompson largely absolves Hobsbawm from any blame regarding Stalinism’s betrayals. When commenting on the Khrushchev revelations of Stalin’s murderous regime, he manages to lump together right-wing commentators with those he calls the “anti-communist left”.

In another point he glosses over the crimes of Stalin by saying that their exposure proved that the Communist Party could reform itself from its worst excesses. Which was Hobsbawm’s position also.

Hobsbawm subsequent later life as a historian and activist was shaped by his early political experiences. This worldview was dominated by the rejection of the working class as a revolutionary force and his anti-Trotskyism.

Especially crucial in shaping his outlook were the political events in Germany that he witnessed as a child. Joining the Communist Party as a direct result of the threat of Fascism, Hobsbawm stood on the right of his party and drew extremely pessimistic conclusions from the rise of fascism.

“Liberalism was failing. If I had been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they would become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you did not believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed".

This is quite a statement. Instead of the nationalism of the Nazis, Hobsbawm adopted the nationalism of the Stalinists. Hobsbawm joined the CP in 1931. It was unfortunate that the party he joined had broken decisively with orthodox Marxism and the German Communist party would later commit a vast betrayal by 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.

Hobsbawm parrotted the party line on the victory of Hitler by saying “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.

Age of Extremes

The Age of Extremes was dangerous territory for Hobsbawm. His previous three volumes were to a much lesser extent coloured by his politics. In the fourth volume, they were very much to the fore.

While Hobsbawm did not write extensively on the Russian revolution in this book he did in a later book called On History.The Russian revolution was the dangerous territory of for Hobsbawm. It is well-known that Communist Party historians avoided like the plague writing on the Russian revolution. For the simple reason that his party leadership would have frowned upon it. With the threat of expulsion a real possibility. Hobsbawm knew that when he finally wrote on the subject, he would have to lie about it.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”.

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.

Hobsbawm has gone on the record to say that he “wasn't a Stalinist. I criticised Stalin and I cannot conceive how what I have written can be regarded as a defence of Stalin. However, as someone who was a loyal Party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about some things about which it is 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 is a one-off biographical question. It was not out of idealisation of the October Revolution. I am 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 have done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and 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. Moreover, it did collapse and generated awful nightmares “[2].

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”[3].

Hobsbawm and the Labour Party.

It does not come as a surprise that Hobsbawm’s writing on Labour history brought him closer to the Labour Party. He was 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. However, 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 of which Hobsbawm was a frequent writer for laid the “ideological framework for what was to become New Labour was first established in the editorial offices of Marxism Today. Moreover, it was mostly made possible to implement the project so defined due above all to the liquidation of the Soviet Union”[4].


Historian and activist

To begin this part of Thompson’s essay he uses a quote from Isaac Deutscher in which he regrets being expelled from the Polish Communist Party and advises Hobsbawm not to leave the party.

The fact that Deutscher was expelled from the party for "exaggerating the danger of Nazism and ... spreading panic in the Communist ranks."  Moreover, that Deutscher opposed the Stalinist line that Nazism and Social Democracy were "not antipodes but twins."  largely passes Thompson by. Hobsbawm never undertook any systematic work opposing the party line. This sleight of hand by Thompson is a hallmark of his political writing.

When Hobsbawm made issue mild criticism of the party’s line on Hungry he immediately backed down and accepted his punishment. Never to combine his history writing with opposition to the party’s line.

This went for all the historians who were part of the Communist Party Historians Group. As Ann Talbot points out “There is something Jesuitical about the relationship of these historians to Marxism. They seem to have been capable of partitioning their minds and pursuing a scientific Marxist approach to history up to the point where the Stalinist bureaucracy drew the line, like the Jesuit scientists who would pursue their investigations as far as the Church authorities permitted, but no further. It was an approach that was further encouraged by the extreme specialisation of academic life that enabled them to concentrate on very narrow areas of history that never brought them into direct collision with the bureaucracy on political questions”[5].

Hobsbawm, History and Politics

David Parker has written extensively on the Communist movement. His essay Hobsbawm, History and Politics is an expansion of his concluding remarks from the Socialist History Society special event held in 2013 to assess the work of Eric Hobsbawm. 

Parker is correct to say that this pamphlet is only a small start to what must be a massive project. Recently Oxford University Press[6] released a collection of essays in an attempt to evaluate Hobsbawm’s place in history.

Parker justifies Hobsbawm’s decision to stay inside the Communist Party. The fact that all writers closely associated with SHS have primarily whitewashed Hobsbawm’s Stalinism is staggering.
Another comment equally startling is Parker’s opinion that Hobsbawm was instrumental in developing New Labour. A comment that seemed genuine as it was stupid. As if this was some great achievement. It is true that Hobsbawm was motivated by the struggle for humanity to better itself, but Parker continues the SHS’s attempt to whitewash history will not bring that about.

Hobsbawm's relationship with the Pseudo Left.

Although not a subject tackled in the SHS pamphlet, Hobsbawm relationship with the Pseudo left is critical in understanding, his history and his politics. It should be the starting point for any understanding of Hobsbawm’s place in history.

Firstly a point of clarification. The term Pseudo Left comes from the Marxist David North who characterises these groups in this way “the pseudo-left denotes political parties, organisations and theoretical/ideological tendencies which utilise populist slogans and democratic phrases to promote the socioeconomic interests of privileged and affluent strata of the middle class”.
He continues. The pseudo-left is anti-Marxist. It rejects historical materialism, embracing instead various forms of subjective idealism and philosophical irrationalism associated with existentialism, the Frankfurt School and contemporary postmodernism.[7]

The second paragraph is crucial to understanding their relationship with Eric Hobsbawm. None of the writings of these groups came from the standpoint of classical Marxism when examining Hobsbawm place in history.

A cursory look at a number of the titles of articles on Hobsbawm by these radicals shows this. Neil Davidson who is a member of the State Capitalist Socialist Workers Party wrote an article: Hobsbawm As A Marxist Historian: An Appreciation.  He states “Now that his life is over and his body of work complete, it is only fair to Hobsbawm that his critical admirers take time to assess his output as a whole, free from the demands of instant assessment required by obituaries. I am confident, however, that relatively little of his serious historical output is irredeemably tainted by the political tradition to which he belonged; most of is a lasting contribution, not only to the culture of the left, but far beyond it. Moreover, can those critics of the right who endlessly demanded that he recant the views which informed his entire life and work point to any historians with their beliefs who entered the public consciousness to anything like the same degree?”[8].

Davidson follows a well-worn path where Hobsbawm’s history is largely divorced from his Politics.This amounts to a political amnesty from an organisation that professes itself to be Trotskyist.

Hobsbawm himself did not hide his political orientation which became more pronounced towards the end of his life. In his Guardian article in 2005[9] I have a lasting admiration for Mikhail Gorbachev. It is an admiration shared by all who know that, however, for his initiatives, the world might still be living under the shadow of the catastrophe of a nuclear war - and that the transition from the communist to the post-communist era in eastern Europe, and in most non-Caucasian parts of the former USSR, has proceeded without significant bloodshed”[10]. His place in history is secure. How does an admiration for a man that helped restore capitalism back into the former Soviet Union not colour one's history writing.

As the Marxist writer David North said “Hobsbawm is not merely blind to all this. His writing suggests that he has failed to subject to any critical review the political conceptions that allowed him to remain a member of the British Communist Party for many decades: "The terrible paradox of the Soviet era," Hobsbawm tells us with a straight face, "is that the Stalin experienced by the Soviet peoples and the Stalin seen as a liberating force outside were the same. Moreover, he was the liberator for the ones at least in part because he was the tyrant for the others."

What Hobsbawm really should have written is that "the Stalin experienced by the Soviet people and the Stalin as he was deceitfully portrayed by the British Communist Party were not quite the same thing". Instead, unfortunately, Hobsbawm compromises himself as a historian by engaging in shabby pro-Stalinist apologetics, and thereby exposing what has been the tragic paradox of his own intellectual life”[11].

There is no denying that Hobsbawm was a hugely significant historian. His work is read all around the world and for anyone wanting to understand the world we live in they are very useful. However, a proper assessment of his politics and history is overdue. The starting point of this assessment must be an examination of the extent his politics clouded his judgement, especially on such a crucial subject as the Russian Revolution. 


Further Reading
Hobsbawm, Eric J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Professor Eric Hobsbawm Interview Transcript London, 17 June 2008 Interview was conducted for the project ‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’.
Interview with Maya Jaggi published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002.
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 [Paperback] Oskar Hipp
Martin Jacques: embittered British Stalinist pronounces on death of the “left “Part One By Chris Marsden15 December 2004
Martin Jacques: embittered British Stalinist pronounces on death of the “left” Part Two By Chris Marsden16 December 2004




[1] Kinnock’s favourite Marxist-Eric Hobsbawm and the working class-Norah Carlin & Ian Birchall-(1983)- http://www.marxists.de/workmvmt/birchcarl/hobsbawm.htm

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/sep/22/history.politicalbooks
[3] Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the 20th Century A Reply to Professor Eric Hobsbawm By David North 3 January 1998.
[4] Martin Jacques: embittered British Stalinist pronounces on death of the “left “Part One By Chris Marsden15 December 2004
[5] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill By Ann Talbot 25 March 2003
[6] History after Hobsbawm-Writing the Past for the Twenty-First Century-Edited by John H. Arnold, Matthew Hilton, and Jan Ruger
[7] What is the pseudo-left?-30 July 2015- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/30/pers-j30.html
[8] Hobsbawm As A Marxist Historian: An Appreciation -www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/hobsbawm_as_a_marxist_historian_an_appreciation
[9]  The last of the utopian projects-  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/mar/09/russia.comment
[10] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/mar/09/russia.comment
[11] Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the 20th Century -A Reply to Professor Eric Hobsbawm
By David North -3 January 1998