Ian Birchall looks back on the life of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who has died aged 95
Eric Hobsbawm, who died on Monday of this week was one of the most remarkable historians of the 20th 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 by that point, with a duplicating machine hidden under his bed.
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 was marked by his early experiences.
Hobsbawm wrote many years later of his experience as a refugee. He said this made him “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.”
He added that he could “understand the situation” of Kenyan Asian refugees in the 1970s. He felt “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. He authored many books and articles with an international reputation.
But Hobsbawm was quite different from typical academic historians. They bury themselves in their specialist “period” and remain ignorant of the rest of human history (and even more ignorant of the world they live in).
The range of Hobsbawm’s work is extraordinary—from 17th century feudal society to Peruvian land occupations and secret societies in early 19th 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. Any reader will be rewarded with a wealth of information.
Yet 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 Books and other publications.
In contrast to many celebrity historians, Hobsbawm didn’t exploit his academic status to shout his mouth off over things he knew nothing.
He believed history could help us to understand the present and shape the future. So arguments based on history were relevant to an audience far wider than professional students of the subject.
Hobsbawm also had a second identity. As jazz critic Francis Newton he wrote for the New Statesman at a time when US culture was suspect in Communist circles. However—as with many of his generation—rock and roll was a bit too much for his tastes.
Eric Hobsbawm was a lifelong Communist who joined Britain’s Communist Party in 1936. He remained a member until 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 party conference Michael Gove—now education secretary—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 of course wait far longer than that 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. It gave him 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 this strategy 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 work. He had a tendency to underestimate the high points of working class activity. Thus his book Age of Capital dismisses the 1871 Paris Commune—which for Karl Marx was 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 Communist Party’s best known historians—EP 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 the Hungarian workers’ councils were not a “major factor” in the revolution. That contradicted the reports of many participants and observers.
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 he wrote for 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”. But soon he swung back to his roots.
His most important political 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,” he wrote.
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 seemed to limit the term “working class” to one specific phase of history, without recognising the development of a new type of working class.
His argument helped to foment the dispute between open reformists (known as “Eurocommunists”) and unrepentant Stalinists that finally destroyed the Communist Party.
But the impact of his views went far beyond Communist ranks. At the 1982 Labour Party conference then leader Neil Kinnock praised Hobsbawm as “the most sagacious living Marxist”. Hobsbawm’s argument 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 had “a dead end economy and a political system for which there was nothing to be said”.
But while seeing the evils of capitalism, he seemed to have little idea of what might replace it. In 2007’s Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism he said we were entering a new phase of 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 2008, now far too old to bother about academic language, Hobsbawm prophesied that there would be more “nationalist stuff” in English history.
He added that “the whole function of history is precisely to be a pain in the arse for national myths”.
There is much to criticise in Hobsbawm’s work. But there’s also a great deal that will continue to be a “pain in the arse” for the likes of Michael Gove.
For more detail on Eric Hobsbawm’s political positions read Norah Carlin and Ian Birchall’s 1983 article Kinnock’s favourite Marxist: Eric Hobsbawm and the working class
Hobsbawm’s works are available from Bookmarks—phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk