ERIC HOBSBAWM 1917 – 2012: An Appreciation

In a 2003 review of his autobiography, Interesting Times, in the New York Review of Books, Tony Judt described Eric Hobsbawm, who died on October 1 aged 95, as “the best-known historian in the world”. It was not an exaggeration. If his reputation rested solely on his four-volumes, the Ages of Revolution; Capital; Empire and Extremes, that would be enough to satisfy anyone aspiring to a place in the pantheon. G.M Trevelyan’s reputation was built largely on his three volume history of Garibaldi and Italian Unification, and four volumes of English Social History. A.J.P.Taylor’s fame rested mainly on his Struggle for Mastery in Europe; a deliberately mischievous, revisionist Origins of the Second World War, and a series of un-scripted television lectures.

Hobsbawm’s output was prodigious, not just in quantity but in the range of his knowledge and the diversity of his interests. He started in the 1950s, ploughing furrows hitherto untouched by academic historians. His first book, Primitive Rebels (1959) was a study of archaic forms of social movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. The theme of minority rebellion in peasant societies was revisited in Bandits (1969). Between the early 1960s and 2011 he produced at least a dozen notable works, among them Industry and Empire; Worlds of Labour; On History; Uncommon People; Revolutionaries and Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. His autobiography Interesting Times: a Twentieth Century Life, was published in 2003. Following that came Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism (2007) and How to Change the World (2011) A new book awaits publication. In addition to this there was from the late 1940s, a constant stream of articles, and reviews in journals such as Modern Quarterly, Marxism Today, New Left Review, New Statesman and The Guardian. Under the pseudonym Francis Newton he was the New  Statesman’s Jazz critic and author of The Jazz Scene.  

Hobsbawm’s death made the front pages of the “quality” newspapers and the television news channels. The tributes poured in from all quarters. Ed Miliband praised him as “an extraordinary historian and a great friend of my family”. David Miliband described him as “a piercing intellect and a restless radical “ whose  “humanity trumped his ideology”. The right-wing historian and un-ashamed champion of imperialism, Niall Ferguson, claimed him as a friend whose “politics did not prevent Hobsbawm from being a truly great historian”. Tony Blair called him “a giant of progressive politics (and) history, someone who influenced a whole generation of political and academic leaders….he was a tireless agitator for a better world.”

The import of most of these tributes from the mainstream of British politics is that Hobsbawm was a great historian, despite the fact that he was a Marxist.  But he was always referred to as Eric Hobsbawm – the Marxist historian. There are other Marxist historians working in British universities, but he was the last of his generation. He subtitled his autobiography A Twentieth Century Life. The concluding volume of his “Ages” quartet, Age of Extremes, covered the years 1914 to 1991, a period described by him as The Short Twentieth Century. The nineteenth century ended with the outbreak of the Great War and the short twentieth century ended with the collapse of Communism. Hobsbawm had lived through it all. The extraordinary group of Marxist historians of his generation - E.P.Thompson, Christopher Hill, John Saville, Rodney Hilton, all predeceased him.  They had belonged to the Historian’s Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The others left the CPGB following Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s tyranny in 1956. Hobsbawm alone refused to leave. In later years, as his reputation as a historian of the first rank became established,  his continued membership of the Party became an issue that would never go away and about which he was constantly challenged, and judged unfavorably by critics on the left and the right. Although his refusal to break with the Communist Party is far from the crucial issue it is claimed to be by his critics, it is nevertheless worthy of consideration. A strong element of personal psychology is involved.

Eric Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria, to Jewish parents (a British father and a Viennese mother) in 1917.  The family moved to Vienna where his parents both died within two years of each other, in 1929 and 1931, leaving him and his sister in the care of an uncle. When Eric was 14 the family moved to Berlin where he was enrolled in the Prinz-Heinrichs-Gymnasium. The two years he spent in Berlin were crucial to the course of his life thereafter. These were the last years of the Weimar Republic. He witnessed the impact of the world economic crisis on Germany. It was in Berlin that he first started to read Marx and joined the Communist youth organization. In Interesting Times he recounts how, as a sixteen year old, he saw the news headlines announcing Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. He was never to forget the impact it made on him. In 1933 the family moved to London where Eric was to be based for most of the rest of his life.

There is no doubt that this early experience of being at the centre of world-shattering events, part of a heroic proletarian movement staging its last ditch-resistance to the rising tide of fascism, made an indelible impression on him and instilled in him the conviction that he had sealed an unbreakable bond with the communist movement. Years later, he felt that even though his better judgment might tell him that the perversions and horrors of Stalinism, about which he was fully aware, required that he should break with the party to which he had pledged his life, to do so would be a betrayal of that youthful pledge. There is nothing to suggest, as many have, that Hobsbawm remained a Stalinist, or that he refused to face up to the truth about the fate of the October Revolution, or that he didn’t recognize  the nature of the Soviet and similar regimes of “actually existing socialism”. In his political trajectory after 1956 he differed little from other Marxist intellectuals who left the CPGB and sought in various ways to adjust to their political independence without betraying their principles. His articles were published in non-communist journals such as New Left Review, New Staesman and London Review of Books. He played no active part in the Communist Party and paid no attention to the “party line” in anything he wrote or said. Some, such as his friend Tony Judt, judged him very harshly for refusing to leave the Party, accusing him of devoting his life to a “barbaric, dictatorial deviation”. This is a mean-spirited, wrong-headed and groundless accusation which is no credit to the memory of the very fine historian who made it.

Curiously, Hobsbawm wrote very little about the Soviet Union or the world communist movement. It was not until the publication of Age of Extremes in 1994 that he came to deal with the “short twentieth century”, and there he has little to say on the subject. (Also – and this is surprising, given the title he chose – he says nothing at all about the Nazi genocide of European Jewry, which one might have thought a defining event in an age of extremes). In a lecture he gave several years ago about the Communist Party Historians’ Group, he pointedly remarked that they considered the history of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union “out of bounds”. No-one, he said, dealt with it. He was asked his opinion of the work of Isaac Deutscher (regarded in the 1950s by the CPGB as a beyond-bounds Trotskyite) who was writing about the Soviet Union. By 1954 Deutscher had already published his biography of Stalin and the first volume of his Trotsky trilogy. Hobsbawm answered that Deutscher, who had been a close friend, had a romantic emotional attachment to the Bolshevik revolution which sustained his illusions about the Soviet Union. These are almost exactly the criticisms that have been leveled at Hobsbawm himself. But he went on to say that it would have been better if the Bolshevik Revolution had never happened. This accords with his comment elsewhere that “it must now be obvious that failure was built into the enterprise from the start”. However late in his life he may have come to this conclusion, it would seem to put him in the same camp as the revisionists Bernstein and Kautsky (against whom Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin inveighed), who said much the same thing in 1917 This also lends some credibility to those of his critics on the Marxist left who point to his “revisionism” and self-proclaimed identification as a “popular front Marxist”, forever rooted in the 1930s struggle against fascism. This they see as sufficient explanation for his role in the late 1970s and 1980s as the scourge of “old Labour” and mentor to Neil Kinnock and the precursors of “New Labour”.

It is not difficult to regard his 1978 Marx Memorial lecture The Forward March of Labour Halted?, and the series of articles in Marxism Today and elsewhere that followed it, as a  retreat from anything hitherto regarded as socialism. But essentially he was saying that with the inexorable decline of Britain as an industrial power, the British working class was changing. [This decline had been charted in his books Industry and Empire (1968) and Age of Empire (1987) ] Between the two world wars ”the Victorian economy of Britain crashed in ruins” he had written in Industry and Empire in 1968. It was simply a matter of fact that by the late 1970s and early 80s the infrastructure of heavy industry that had produced the British proletariat was in terminal decline. The Thatcherite onslaught finished it off and broke the back of the old trade union movement. Hobsbawm was surely right to recognize that the labour movement could not continue on the assumption that the world, and the working class, had not changed. Whatever he intended, his critique was seized upon by those who had abandoned any idea of socialism and wanted to turn the Labour Party into a British version of the US Democrats.

It must be said that in the debates following The Onward March of Labour Halted? Hobsbawm was himself far from consistent, sometimes appearing to endorse a rightward trend in the Labour Party (of which, incidentally, he was never a member). But later, he expressed himself decisively against New Labour and all its works. In his last years he seemed to enter a more radical phase, excoriating the neo-liberal enterprise, opposing the Iraq war and welcoming the leftward trend in Latin America.

Although Eric Hobsbawm never left the British Communist Party, his heart was really in the Italian Communist Party, with which he had such close relations. He would probably have been happy to describe himself as the last of the Euro-Communists. It is tempting to describe him as one, who in Gramsci’s much quoted phrase, was a “pessimist of the intellect, but an optimist of the will”. This is not entirely fitting though, because one has to look hard to find the optimism. But he will be remembered by the countless thousands who read his books as a master of English prose, a polymath of Marxist scholarship, the breadth of whose learning and the crystal-clarity of whose expression, put much of the rest of his profession to shame. (Those who may doubt the quality of his Marxist scholarship – and some do – should re-read his long introduction to Marx’s Pre-capitalist Economic Formations. Reading what he has had to say to us over close to seven decades, we are left much wiser and, in spite of everything, firmer in the conviction that a better world is possible.