Eric Hobsbawm and the tragedy of the left

Where Hobsbawm’s histories of the 19th century were enlivened by his Marxism, his histories of the 20th century were corrupted by his Stalinism.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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Following the death yesterday of the influential Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, James Heartfield assesses his life and beliefs.

Eric Hobsbawm’s great gift was to the written history of the nineteenth century.

Having come to Britain from Vienna, the young communist from a well-to-do Jewish family signed up for service in the British Army, echoing Stalin’s claim that Churchill was fighting for democracy. When the British Empire was restored, communists like Hobsbawm were stung to find that they were targeted as the red menace. While some worked at getting a foothold in the trade unions, a small band of university-educated communists got jobs as teachers, and lecturers if they could.

Among them, an historians’ group started to work, led by AL Morton and Dona Torr, champions of what they called ‘people’s history’, later called ‘history from below’. Morton and Torr were solid Communist Party propagandists who burrowed into the papers and journals of working-class activists to tell a story of the steady progress of the labour movement – from the Corresponding Societies to the Chartists, craft unions and then the new model unions of the industrial working class, with the Communist Party treated as the proper inheritor of that tradition.

Joining these party writers were the recruits that came from Oxford and Cambridge, notably Christopher Hill, who made the history of the English Revolution of 1649 come to life; EP Thompson, who transformed Morton’s ‘people’s history’ into the remarkable The Making of the English Working Class; and Eric Hobsbawm. Hobsbawm worked first at economic history, in particular the history of the nineteenth century. His allegiance to the Communist Party no doubt inspired him to take the investigation of the growth of capitalism much more seriously than other historians of the period, and it shone through in a series of striking books, Industry and Empire, and then in the volumes Age of Revolution, Age of Capital and Age of Empire.

Guided by Karl Marx’s broad framework of capitalist accumulation and the way that industrial growth changes social relations, Hobsbawm’s books are still excellent guides; but they were remarkable upon their publication, when historians only told the stories of the great men of diplomacy and politics. Many since have reflected that it fell to the Communist Hobsbawm to tell the story of industrial capitalism that establishment historians seemed to find a little too grubby to sort through.

Though it was not his main work, Hobsbawm did write some important essays on labour history, which are collected in Labouring Men, and number among them sharp accounts of machine-breaking (which he shows was desperate bargaining rather than a revolt against modernity, as Kirkpatrick Sale has claimed since) and the ‘labour aristocracy’, those skilled workers, who, by limiting access to their trades, negotiated a better deal, even rising to the status of labour agents. (Against those who tried to present the ‘labour aristocracy’ as a perennial problem, and an explanation for British working-class conservatism, Hobsbawm explained that these were momentary advantages, swept aside by industrial change.) The collection that Hobsbawm edited with Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, was an important opening up of national histories to a more sceptical interrogation, which caught a moment in the transition among the intelligentsia from a nationalist to a cosmopolitan outlook. Less successful was Hobsbawm’s own Nations and Nationalism, which made heavy weather sorting ‘good’ from ‘bad’ nationalism.

As good an historian of the nineteenth century as Hobsbawm was, his later efforts at writing the history of his own times were at best plodding, and often naked apologies for the destructive policies he followed – those of the official Communist Parties.

Communism as a movement grew alongside and out of the class struggle that raged across Europe in the early decades of the twentieth century, coming to a head with the communist-led revolution in Russia, which created the first workers’ government which struggled to survive in the years from 1917 to 1923. As the European revolution failed, the Russian communists were isolated and under attack from all sides. But the real assault came from within, as the party retreated from its original goals under a new leader, Joseph Stalin.

An exhausted European communist movement, desperate to believe in the socialist future, was too ready to believe that they had found it in Stalin’s bureaucratic dictatorship. And Stalin was all too willing to use those radicals and working-class militants gathered around the world in the official Communist Parties as bargaining chips in his diplomatic game to defend his regime against colonisation.

The tragic result was that the most forward-looking and militant people in the 1930s and 1940s were left championing the cause of the most reactionary and destructive regime. That was Stalinism, and it poisoned so much, including Eric Hobsbawm’s understanding, and writing, of the history of the twentieth century, where Marxism had enlivened his writing on the nineteenth century.

In 1940, when still a student at Cambridge, Hobsbawm wrote a pamphlet defending the Soviet invasion of Finland, when Stalin claimed his rights under the pact with Hitler (see Hobsbawm’s autobiography, Interesting Times, 2002). When in 1956, others, like EP Thompson and Peter Fryer, left the Communist Party in disgust at the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Hobsbawm, with that fear of isolation that he struggled with for much of his life, stayed. Right through to the depressing end, when even the Communist Party’s general secretary Martin Jacques was not-so-secretly plotting to wind the party up, there was Hobsbawm, gamely lecturing at conferences from which all life had already fled.

Unjustly praised, Hobsbawm’s fourth volume, The Age of Extremes, published in 1994, tells the story of the twentieth century in a hand crabbed by 60 years of Stalinist apologetics. All the clarity of his earlier writing went misty with a weirdly cautious, euphemistic telling of events, which disguised the appalling complicity of his communist comrades, and indeed his own complicity, with Stalinist reaction. So it is that we read that the Spanish Republicans, struggling against Franco’s fascist rebellion, were ‘politically divided… in spite of the communists’ contribution’. Yet since the Spanish Communist Party was at the time engaged in a vicious purge of its rivals, notably the Independent Marxist Workers Party (POUM) and the anarchists, to the extent that it ran its own prisons and torture chambers, where POUM leader Andreu Nin was only the most notable victim killed, it would be truer to say that the Republicans were divided because of the communists’ contribution.

So, too, it is hard to read in Hobsbawm’s account of the 1956 uprising in Hungary that the ‘leadership imposed by the Soviets after the defeat of the 1956 revolution’ was ‘genuinely reformist and effective’. Hobsbawm did begrudgingly own up to the depravity of the regime that Stalin put in place, though he told it in a strangely bloodless way, as if the ineluctable laws of history compelled each monstrous act. Even here, though, Hobsbawm insisted that the regime in the USSR should be excused because it saved the world from fascism, as if Stalin had not sacrificed the working-class movement of Germany, the people of Poland, and eventually the people of the USSR itself to the grotesque Hitler-Stalin pact.

Tellingly, Hobsbawm in his later years, and more so in his death, has been lauded by the establishment, his youthful radicalism excused and his aged fidelity to the official Communist movement indulged. The BBC and Channel 4 News both retold the lie that Hobsbawm opposed the Soviet invasion of Hungary, when in fact he only called for the withdrawal of Russian troops after they had finished off the uprising, prefacing his remarks in a letter to the Daily Worker, ‘[A]pproving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary…’ (9 November 1956) – for more on Hobsbawm’s attitude towards 1956 and Stalinism, see this piece by Norah Carlin and Ian Birchall. Historians of the left and right have lauded Hobsbawm in obituaries, with one arch-right winger, Niall Ferguson, claiming Hobsbawm as a friend and a great historian.

There is no mystery to the praise heaped on this supposedly Marxist historian. It is not a case of that praise that revolutionaries are accorded once they are no longer a threat. Hobsbawm was already a darling of the British establishment – a Companion of Honour, no less – while he was alive. As the Cold War vilification of the East fell away after 1989, it was Hobsbawm’s conservatism that shone through. In 1983, seeking to explain away how labour and Communist leaders had failed to rally the British trade union movement to defend itself against the Conservative government’s attacks, Hobsbawm argued that it was not the policy that was wrong, but rather that the working classes had let the policy down. ‘The forward march of labour’ was halted because blue-collar workers were being replaced by more individualistic clerical workers, he said. Not only was this not true (see Gavin Poynter, Change in Workplace Relations: The UK in the 1980s), but it also represented a shifting of the blame from the subjective strategy the labour movement followed on to a supposedly objective shift that was outside of their power to change. This was a theory that went on to become part of a self-fulfilling prophecy, namely the ‘new realism’ strategy of reducing working-class ambitions that the Labour Party followed under Neil Kinnock (and which laid the basis for his eventual successor Tony Blair’s apolitical Third Way). Kinnock described Hobsbawm as his ‘favourite Marxist’, while he was busy witch-hunting the Trotskyist Militant Tendency from Labour’s ranks.

When, after the collapse of the regime in Moscow, Hobsbawm finally owned up that Stalin’s rule was vicious, he turned the argument back on the very idea of revolutionary change, heaping the blame on to Lenin and the other Bolsheviks. So in the 1997 Deutscher lecture, he asked: ‘What made the Bolsheviks decide to take power with an obviously unrealistic programme of socialist revolution?’ Looking back on the fateful choice he made, influenced by Stalin’s realpolitik, to rally to the Union Jack in the 1940s, Hobsbawm said he felt affection for ‘the old British Empire, run by a country whose modest size protected it against megalomania’.

James Heartfield’s Unpatriotic History of the Second World War is published by Zero Books.

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Topics Politics


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