Friday, 8 February 2019

Eric Hobsbawm-A Life in History-Richard J. Evans in conversation with Martin Jacques and Donald Sassoon

To mark the publication of Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History (Little, Brown) by Richard J. Evans, the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck and the Institute of Historical Research held a meeting on 7th February 2019.

The publication of A Life in History is a significant event, and the book deserves a wide readership. The meeting itself contained no surprises and minimal controversy. The most exciting part of the evening happened before the event.

People entering the meeting were met by workers protesting at the deplorable conditions faced by outsourced workers at Britains leading universities, Birkbeck included. The protestors had called for a boycott of the meeting. Evans was accused of ignoring the boycott by holding the meeting.

According to his Twitter account, Evans has sent out contradictory statements regarding the boycott, In one of his latest tweets he said  “At the launch of my 'Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History' yesterday at London's Senate House last night, I took a bundle of the protesters' leaflets into the meeting so people could read them. I am sure we all support the end of outsourcing labour there. I certainly do. I think it is right that outsourced labour should be brought under the aegis of the University of London and given the same working terms and conditions as those employed by the university directly. I understand that the university is making efforts to do this.” 

However, in an earlier tweet, he states “Misleading press reports on last night's launch of my "Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History -undermining-workers-protest …. Hobsbawm would not have approved of the protest, which was mounted by a small sectarian group unaffiliated with the TUC. It was not a picket line mounted by workers”.

Maritza Castillo Calle, University of London branch chairwoman of the IWGB union,  said “It is disappointing that these respected academics chose to ignore the boycott in order to talk about a Marxist historian that we are sure would be on our side in this struggle, Castillo Calle said the boycott was “a last resort following countless strikes”. She added: “We hope the stand taken by our supporters will make university management finally see sense.”

Calle’s point is valid. The meeting could have spent some time discussing the issue. Evans said he would “bring it to the attention of the meeting. However, Evan’s, regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University, did not open such discussion at the meeting. A statement from Birkbeck University said the institution was “strongly supportive of the University of London’s decision to bring currently outsourced staff into direct employment of the university – a process which is currently underway”.

A comment disputed by an  IWGB spokesman who said “The bulk of outsourced workers – including maintenance, cleaners and catering – will remain outsourced at least until their contracts are up for tender in 2019, 2020 and 2021. At that point, an in-house bid will be presented alongside other commercial bids, leaving the door open for the workers to remain outsourced indefinitely.”

The meeting itself was a disappointment. The discussion held between Richard J. Evans author of The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, Martin Jacques Editor of Marxism Today from 1977 to 1991 and Donald Sassoon author of One Hundred Years of Socialism was polite, jovial. Given that Hobsbawm was an extraordinarily complex and controversial figure most of the issues that made him so were not discussed. One of these issues was Hobsbawm’s attitude towards the 1917 Russian revolution.

To what extent this was deliberately avoided is open to debate but given that Eric Hobsbawm (1917–2012) was one of the most influential historians of the twentieth century his views on one of the most important events of the Long Twentieth Century are essential.

A member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, he wrote extensively on the modern history of Europe and the world, notably on the rise of industrial capitalism, nationalism, and the socialist movement. He taught at Birkbeck College in London from 1947 to 1982 and held the post of visiting professor in the political science department at the New School for Social Research in New York City from 1984 to 1997.

According to the Marxist writer and expert on Leon Trotsky David North believes that Hobsbawm’s writing on the Russian Revolution mostly portrays the revolution as being “doomed to failure” and a “fatal enterprise.” Hobsbawm believed that the demise 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”.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Against the Grain: the British Far Left from 1956 Edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley. Manchester University Press, 2014. .

 The advertising literature for this book says Against the grain is the first general history of the British far left to be published in the twenty-first century, it also describes the extent to which the far Left has weaved its influence into the political fabric of Britain. While both these claims are true what the advertisement leaves out how these left groups have betrayed the struggles of the working class over countless decades.

Even a cursory read of the book will show this to be the case. If proof were needed, then it can be found in the opening of the book which carries a quote from the political scoundrel Tariq Ali who says "the only real alternative to capitalist policies is provided by the revolutionary left groups as a whole. Despite their smallness and their many failings, they represent the only way forward".[1] 

Not only do the authors agree with Ali's political opportunism, but they also excuse his betrayal and other left groups as well. Ali is an expert in political opportunism as demonstrated by his decades-long political record. The editors have produced a book that is nothing more than an apology for the political perspectives of the various pseudo-left organisations in Britain. A book by radicals for radicals. Alternatively, as Mark Perryman describes as "one for the activists, the old hands for the nostalgia trip of reading of old battles, the new wave to read of past mistakes and dream of not repeating them."

If there is a theme running through this book, it is to boost the credentials of Tariq Ali and all the Pseudo Left, Stalinist and Anarchist groups. It is also a thinly veiled polemic against orthodox Trotskyism whether represented by Socialist Labour League under Gerry Healy or the Socialist Equality Party(SEP).

Firstly a correction is needed. Evans and Worley state "The genesis of post-war British Trotskyism can be traced back to the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which contained all of the subsequent leading figures of the Trotskyist movement and held the position of the official British representative of the Fourth International between 1944 and 1949. The RCP made some headway in the rank and file of the trade unions, particularly by supporting strikes when the CPGB was still promoting co-operation with the government, as well as in the anti-fascist activism against Mosley's newly-formed Union Movement. However, the RCP soon split over questions concerning entrism within the Labour Party and how the Fourth International should view the 'People's Democracies' of Eastern Europe". [2] 

This quote is misleading because it leaves out the main reason for disagreement being whether national sections would subordinate their program to that of the Fourth International or as Trotsky put it "The construction of a revolutionary tendency is possible only on the basis of an internationalist perspective. As Leon Trotsky insisted in 1928: "In our epoch, which is the epoch of imperialism, i.e., of the world economy and world politics under the hegemony of finance capital, not a single communist party can establish its programme by proceeding solely or mainly from conditions and tendencies of developments in its own country. In the present epoch, to a much larger extent than in the past, the national orientation of the proletariat must and can flow only from a world orientation and not vice versa. Herein lies the basic and primary difference between communist internationalism and all varieties of national socialism".[3]

This intellectual sloppiness sets the tone for the rest of the book in that all the authors are either hostile or indifferent to orthodox Marxism. The fact that the Fourth International in its modern form the (ICFI) International Committee of the Fourth International and the parties belonging to it rarely get much of a mention is indicative of the political persuasion of the editors. Why, for instance, does Red Action get a whole chapter and the history of the International Committee of the Fourth International in Britain does not get a single mention.

Chapter I Movements- Engaging with Trotsky: The influence of Trotskyism in Britain (pp. 25-44)John Callaghan.John Callaghan's chapter discusses the attitude of some leading British intellectuals towards Leon Trotsky. One such intellectual Bertrand Russell while noting Trotsky's  'lightning intelligence', said he was "vane although had charisma". He did not regard Trotsky as Lenin's equal.

It comes as no surprise that Trotsky was attacked by the already Stalinist dominated Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) who depicted Trotsky's work "as disruptive factionalism".Callaghan produces some interesting analysis of George Orwell's response to the Russian Revolution and its co-leader Leon Trotsky. 

However, I do not agree with his assertion that Orwell did not think Trotsky's analysis of the Stalinism was accurate. While Orwell it is true did not agree with everything Leon Trotsky wrote he was influenced enough to write Animal Farm and 1984. Without Trotsky, these books would not have been written or would have taken very different forms. 

As Andy Reiss writes "Orwell's book is a skilful metaphor about the degeneration of the Soviet Union which accords in many respects to Trotsky's analysis. Thus when Snowball (that is, Trotsky) after the great battle demands that pigeons are sent to neighbouring farmsto bring about revolutions there as wellNapoleon (Stalin) disagrees. This refers to Trotsky's insistence on world revolution, to which Stalin opposed his concept of "Socialism in one country".[4]

Chapter 2 The New Left: Beyond Stalinism and social democracy? (pp. 45-61) Paul Blackledge

According to Blackledge "The British New Left emerged in 1956 as a response to a global ideological crisis that opened with Khrushchev's secret speech, but which came to fruition when the revolutionary workers' movement in Hungary was suppressed by Russian tanks on the same weekend that Anglo-French troops invaded Egypt. Together these events created a space for a critique of the world system as a totality".

An alternative scenario is that the collapse of Stalinism and Khrushchev's secret speech condemning Stalin caught the majority of the pseudo-left groups by surprise and unprepared. The majority of these groups had adapted their politics on the basis that the Stalinist regimes would last forever and that Stalinism would dominate world politics for a long time to come.

The most open expression of this accommodation was the development of Pabloism. "Pabloism replaced the Trotskyist movement's characterisation of Stalinism as counter-revolutionary with a theory that attributed to the Kremlin bureaucracy and its agencies a historically progressive and revolutionary role. Rather than working for the overthrow of the Stalinist regimes in a series of political revolutions, the Pabloites foresaw a process of bureaucratic self-reform, with Trotskyists acting as advisers to the Stalinist leaders, urging them toward a more left-wing course. The "deformed workers states" of Eastern Europe, ruled by the local Stalinist agents of the Kremlin regime, were destined, according to Pablo and Mandel, to last for centuries.[5].

It is no surprise that Blackledge in this chapter at no point discusses the analysis put forward by the orthodox Trotskyist group The Socialist Labour League (SLL). Blackledge spends much time Discussing Edward P Thompson's response to the crisis of Stalinism. Thompson spent most of his academic career distancing himself from his life in the British Communist Party. His criticism of Stalinism was not from an orthodox Marxist position. Instead, he advocated a "socialist humanism" approach. Thompson at an early age rejected classical Marxism represented by Leon Trotsky despite later breaking with Stalinism it is clear that Thompsons' subsequent historical and political writings to a lesser extent were still imbued with Stalinist influences.

While the Communist Party of Britain did attract a large number of distinguished historians, this was still an appalling training school and E P Thompson never entirely abandoned all that he learned there. For the orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International which was led in Britain by Gerry Healy of the Socialist Labour League (SLL), the crisis within the British Communist party was an opportunity to insist on the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism. Many of the best figures from the CP Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp and Peter Fryer were won to orthodox or classical Marxism.

Thompson was not one of them despite being portrayed as being at the centre of a "Marxist revival." Marxists inside the SLL were hostile to the New Reasoner's politics but were open to debate. In an article from Labour Review October November 1959 Healy was mindful of the sharp polemics that Thompson had been involved in sought in his article called - The New left Must Look to the Working Class to open a debate with Thompson and his supporters.

Healy did not mince his words when he said "What strikes one immediately on reading E P Thompson's article is that he entirely omits the working class; consequently there is no attempt to analyse the relationship between the Left of today and the working class. One would imagine that the New Left had just arrived and existed in a world of its own. The opposite, of course, is the case. The New Left is not just a grouping of people around some new ideas that they have developed independently. 

This new development on the Left reflects a particular phase in the elaboration of the crisis of capitalism, which for socialists is the crisis of the working-class movement. Like movements among intellectuals and students in the past, the recent emergence of the new Left is the advance warning of a resurgence of the working class as an active political force in Britain. The crisis, which is the basis of such action finds its first reflection in the battle of ideas."

From the early years of Thompson's magazine New Reasoner, it was clear that he did not intend to have a debate with the Trotskyists. Despite Healy trying to have cordial relations with Thompson and his supporters it became increasingly clear that Thompson did not see the Trotskyist's around Healy as being a part of the working class. Healy's response was to say that "Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage, he was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism." Thompson's response to the SLL was to accuse it of factionalism. An epithet I might add that has been levelled at the Trotskyist movement throughout its history.

Chapter 4 Marching separately, seldom together: The political history of two principal trends in British Trotskyism, 19452009-Phil Burton-Cartledge.Burton-Cartledge writes "Their opponents in the International Marxist Group and the Socialist Labour League/Workers' Revolutionary Party (SLL/WRP) each met limited success and influence in the labour movement and The broader social movements, but by the end of the 1980s both had splintered into very small competing groups".

Like many other academics who write on the Trotskyist movement, Burton-Cartledge believes that a group's worth is measured not in defence of principles or what program or history they represent and defend but in numbers. At no point does he offer a serious examination of the political relationship between both the SWP and SP and their respective relationship to the Communist Party and the Labour Party. As Chris Marsden points out "The SWP has for many years calculated that the rightward course of the Labour government would lead to a split-off by a section of the Labour Party and the trade unions, for which it could serve as "left" adviser. 

However, the attempt to constitute a new party on such a perspective has ended in abject failure because, to date, no significant section of the bureaucracy has broken with Labour". One example, which is not in the book of the duplicity of these organisations is their support for the demand that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange be extradited to Sweden.

Both the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party go along with the propaganda of the media that Assange should face rape charges. The purpose of frame-up is in order for the United States, Britain, Sweden and other governments to silence him and destroy WikiLeaks.

Opposition in slow motion: The CPGB's 'anti-revisionists' in the 1960s and 1970s (pp. 98-114) Lawrence Parker.One of the remits given by the editors of this book seems to find the most obscure political development and write about it. Why else would Parker be given a chapter in the book on this group of hard-line Stalinists?

Chapter 7 British anarchism in the era of Thatcherism (pp. 133-152)-Rich Cross
As Cross brings out in this chapter, the rise of Thatcher also corresponded with the growth anarchism. It would be a mistake which to his credit Cross does not make to say that it represented a movement of the working class. While there was a significant movement of the working class whose high and low point was the miner's struggle in 1984-85 it should be noted that all the anarchist groups at the time and now reject an orientation to the working as this is rooted in their petty-bourgeois scepticism towards the revolutionary capacity of the working class.

Stuart Hall

As is mentioned in the book this period from a theoretical standpoint was dominated by two essays, Stuart Hall's 'The Great Moving Right Show' and Eric Hobsbawm's 'The Forward March of Labour Halted?' (published in Marxism Today in late 1978)

Hall should be remembered as being credited with inventing the term Thatcherism". A large amount of Hall's work appeared in Marxism Today, the journal associated with the Euro-communist wing of the CPGB. In that journal, Hall had a fondness for attacking orthodox Trotskyism and usually used Antonio Gramsci to make his point. His essay 'The Great Moving Right Show' is no exception he writes "One also encounters in this discussion variants of "revolutionary optimism" and "revolutionary pessimism". The pessimists argue that we must not rock the boat, or demoralise the already dispersed forces of the Left. To them, one can only reply with Gramsci's injunction: to address ourselves "violently" towards the present as it is if we are serious about transforming it. The optimists cast doubt on the doubters: look for the points of resistancethe class struggle continues. Of course, in one sense, they are right. We must look behind the surface phenomena; we must find the points of intervention; we must not underestimate the capacity for resistance and struggle. However, if we are correct about the depth of the rightward turn, then our interventions need to be pertinent, decisive and effective. Whistling in the dark is an occupational hazard not altogether unknown to the British Left".[6]

Gramsci was attractive to Hall not only because of his cultural writings but as Paul Bond writes in his essay on Hall "for his attacks on economic determinism, his explicit rejection of the theory of Permanent Revolution and his justification of the nationalist orientation of Stalinism: As Gramsci declared, "To be sure, the line of development is toward internationalism, but the point of departure is 'national'and it is from this point of departure that one must begin".


While Hall was not a Stalinist Hobsbawm was. It would not be an overstatement to say that Marxism Today was fanatically hostile to orthodox Marxism. The journal played a huge role in bringing New Labour to power. The historian Eric Hobsbawm played no small part in that development.

It did 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 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 primary 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".

Something new under the sun: The revolutionary Left and gay politics (pp. 173-189) Graham Willett- Anti-racism and the socialist Left, 196879 (pp. 209-228)Satnam Virdee and 'Vicarious pleasure'? The British far left and the third world, 195679 (pp. 
190-208)-Ian Birchall- Anti-racism and the socialist Left, 196879. Narratives of radical lives: The roots of 1960s activism and the making of the British Left (pp. 62-79) Celia Hughes- Anti-fascism in Britain, 19972012 (pp. 247-263)-David Renton

From an editorial viewpoint, these chapters of the book should have been dealt with separately, but from a theoretical sense, they should be discussed together because they all come under the field of Cultural studies. One of the leading proponents of this revisionist field was Stuart Hall. Many of the genres above are a branch of the Cultural studies tree. From the start, Cultural Studies was opposed to revolutionary Marxism primarily in the form of its contemporary expression, Trotskyism. As Paul Bond writes "The academic field sought to shift the focus of social criticism away from class and onto other social formations, thus promoting the development of identity politics. Its establishment, in the final analysis, was a hostile response to the gains made by the Trotskyist movement in Britain from the 1950s onwards".


It is hard to know where to begin with these concluding remarks. While this book and the sequel have undoubtedly been attacked from the right, this review is an attack from the Left. My question to the authors is how far did you go to get an orthodox Marxist to write a chapter in allowing the record to be set straight. It would appear from both books not very far.

[1] The Coming British Revolution: Tariq Ali
[2] Against the Grain: the British Far Left from 1956. Edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley. Manchester University Press, 2014. 272 pp. ISBN 978-0-7190-9590-0 
[3] Leon Trotsky (1972) The Third International After Lenin, Pathfinder Press
[4]Animal Farm: a new version on US television by Andy Reiss 12 November 1999  -
[5] Preface to the thirtieth-anniversary edition of The Heritage We Defend
By David North -21 June 2018
[6] 'The Great Moving Right Show'