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Theunrepentant Eric Hobsbawm, an obituary

October 7 2012




A fellow historian celebrates the life one of the greatest British exponents of one strand of the tradition of European Marxism: a pessimism of the intelligence barely tempered by an optimism of the will.

Eric Hobsbawm outlived his short twentieth century (1917-1991) by more than twenty years. And right to the end he was still the object of scandal for having been far too long a communist. ‘You see’, he might have said, (‘you see’ was one of his habitual linguistic tics) ‘there have been many communists among major historians, but they left. Some stayed on the left (E.P. Thompson), some moved right (Annie Kriegel, François Furet). I stayed until the end, the bitter end.’

Since even the popular media agree that Hobsbawm was a remarkable historian, a great historian, and some even say that he was the greatest living historian (something which he found rather unconvincing and a little embarrassing), it begs the question: how can an impenitent communist be a great historian? Indeed, whenever Hobsbawm was interviewed, especially in Britain or the United States, sooner or later, the utterly predictable questions would pop up. And why did you support the USSR? And why did you stay so long in the communist party? (the sub-text here being ‘the producer insisted I should ask you this because it would look odd if I didn’t’). The interviewer would offer a challenge: Here is the opportunity to denounce your past, to repent, to say sorry. Take the chance. Admit it: you were wrong!

Peter De Francia, *Eric Hobsbawm* (c.1955) James Hyman Fine Art, currently on public display in Room One of the stunning curation of art and archives connected to John Berger,‘Art and property now’ at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing, King’s College London, the Strand, WC2R till November 10, 2012. Monday-Saturday 13:00 – !9:00

Although he has consistently refused to abjure, he freely admitted mistakes, erroneous interpretations, his belated realization of the gravity of Stalin’s crimes (Khrushchev’s speech was to him a revelation). However, on the substance: ‘are you sorry to have been a communist?’ he always remained unrepentant.

What kind of communist was he? He belonged, he explained in his autobiography, Interesting Times, to the generation for whom the hope of a world revolution was so strong that to abandon the communist party was like giving in to despair. But he must have been tempted. After the Soviet invasion of Hungary a letter was sent to the Daily Worker, then the party daily. It was signed by Hobsbawm as well as other party intellectuals such as Christopher Hill, E.P Thompson, Ronald Meek, Rodney Hilton, Doris Lessing, and theremarkable Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid (who, in a somewhat eccentric way, is supposed to have rejoined the party over Hungary on the grounds that one does not desert friends in need). The letter declared that, ‘We feel that the uncritical support given by the Executive Committee of the Communist Party to the Soviet action in Hungary is the undesirable culmination of years of distortion of fact, and failure of the British communists to think our political problems for themselves…The exposure of grave crimes and abuses in the USSR and the recent revolt of workers and intellectuals against the pseudo-Communist bureaucracies and police systems of Poland and Hungary, have shown that for the past twelve years we have based our political analyses on the false presentation of the facts….’. Of course the party refused to publish it, so it appeared instead in the New Statesman. Other statements made at the time suggests that Hobsbawm, unlike perhaps the majority of his co-signatories, thought the intervention was a regrettable necessity, a kind of humanitarian intervention ante litteram (we know the formula: if the USSR had not intervened, fascism would have prevailed).

By then Hobsbawm had already lost any admiration he might have had for Russian society. In Interesting Times he explains that his first trip to the ‘socialist camp’ in 1954-55 had proved disappointing. He found the USSR and the system depressing and though he continued to defend the party line his scepticism grew as supporters were increasingly asked to believe the unbelievable. Communists of his generation regarded themselves, as he says, ‘as combatant in an omnipresent war’. Like their counter-parts on the anti-communist side they were prepared to disregard human rights in order to stop what they regarded as a greater evil. But then, how else can one tolerate evil if not by believing that something worse would have happened? This does not justify anything, but it explains much. And it explains Hobsbawm’s fondness for Brecht’s famous poem written in the 1930s An die Nachgeborenen (To Those Born After Us):

Ach, wir/ Die wir den Boden bereiten wollten für Freundlichkeit/ Konnten selber nicht freundlich sein./    Ihr aber, wenn es soweit sein wird/ Dass der Mensch dem Menschen ein Helfer ist/ Gedenkt unsrer/ Mit Nachsicht.

Alas, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when the time comes
Where man can help his fellow man
Remember us
With forbearance.

Be that as it may, the question of why he decided to remain in the CP is, ultimately, a question of personal psychology. It was perhaps a desire not to give in, an affirmation that he preferred to remain loyal to the choice of his younger days when the international fight against fascism was the main motivation. After all he could have easily joined the establishment. In a way he did: he was made Companion of Honour in 1997 joining national treasures such as David Attenborough, Alec Guinness, and David Hockney and less treasurable treasures such as Tebbitt and Heseltine.

In the autobiography he alludes to the ‘pride’ of having gone so far without conceding an inch almost as if to say ‘If I can “make it” as an old commie, imagine what I could have achieved as an ex-commie?’ There was, after all, not the slightest personal advantage in remaining in the CPGB, a tiny party irrelevant in almost all areas of British life, unlike France or Italy where a large communist party offered some form of collective protection to a besieged community.

Though not really involved in the everyday politics of the CPGB (except as a student at Cambridge) he was always more than willing to give talks, write in the party press (such as Marxism Today) and be generally available provided no-one told him what to say.

Britain in the 1950s was overwhelmingly anti-communist. Even being a Marxist constituted a problem. To give the younger readers an idea of what was at stake I should perhaps mention that when I was at University College London in the 1960s, I took a course in British economic history. The lecturer in charge (whose name I have forgotten, so undistinguished he has remained) distributed a lengthy bibliography at the beginning of the academic year. He invited us to turn to a particular page and warned us: ‘Note on p. xxx: E.J. Hobsbawm,Industry and Empire. Now Hobsbawm is a perfectly good historian, but be careful: he is a Marxist. Turn now to page yyy: E.P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson too is a good historian, but be on your guards: he too is a Marxist.’ He mentioned no-one else. At school I had not heard of either of them. Of course, when the lecture was finished many of us trooped to the bookshop Dillons across the road to acquire Hobsbawm and Thompson with the excitement of teen-agers buying dirty books.

From the 1970s onward Hobsbawm’s closest allegiance was with the Italian communist party, probably the only party in which he could have been entirely comfortable, a party of which, as he explained, he had become a ‘spiritual member’. He could have joined the Labour Party in the 1980s, during the heydays of Thatcherism and when Neil Kinnock had made it clear that he would have liked to use a prestigious personal guru like Hobsbawm (everybody on the left, and not just on the left, had been reading his 1978 Marx Memorial Lecture ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’). But Eric kept his independence.

Hobsbawm did not really join the CPGB except in the technical sense. The CPGB was the local branch of an international movement which, when Eric joined, in the 1930s, was at its most centralized, but it was also the time when the threat of fascism was at its most vivid and when communists had gone beyond their more sectarian phase and espoused the policy of the Popular Front. Once he told me, that’s the kind of communist I am: a popular front communist.

As events unfolded after 1945 the movement began to disintegrate with increasing speed as soon as it extended itself. First there was Tito’s great refusal (1948), then the uprisings in East Germany (1953), in Poland (1956), and in Hungary (1956), then the break with Albania and the Great Schism with China (1960), then the Prague Spring (1968), then Romania’s nationalist declaration of independence from the USSR (1968), and finally eurocommunism (1976). Far from being a monolithic movement, world communism was less and less international once Moscow ceased to be ‘home’. Someone like Hobsbawm could stay in the movement, and take any position he liked without having to leave.

Past and Present and haute vulgarization

His works, which I started reading at university, were certainly not ‘communist’ whatever that may mean. Industry and Empire was not the call to arms I had hoped. Hobsbawm’s contribution to the then raging debate on whether the standard of living of the working classes declined or improved during the industrial revolution – conducted in the 1950s and 1960s in journals such as the Economic History Review – was unimpeachably academic. The only slightly ironic tone Hobsbawm used was in his persistence in calling those who held the view that the conditions of life of the working class improved throughout the period of industrialization, ‘the cheerful ones’. This was a highly specialist querelle. It was somewhat outside what was then the dominant trend in British historiography whose chief concern was with political and diplomatic history rather than social and economic, with the short-term rather than the long-term, with the conjuncture rather than with structures.

This is why communist and Marxist historians made a common front with others who were close to the French Annales school. The outcome was the creation of the journal Past and PresentLike Annales the group around Past and Present were committed to a study of structures, analysis and synthesis. They liked comparisons. They liked the long term, the longue durée. Originally non-Marxist historians were reluctant to join the journal or to publish in it, but eventually they did. Distinguished scholars such as Moses Finley, Lawrence Stone, and John Elliott joined Marxists such as Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, E.P. Thompson and others. Hobsbawm supported the journalindefatigably even managing to attend a meeting of the board in Oxford at a time when his mobility was seriously impaired.

Hobsbawm, at least in his scholarly production, remained was quite distant from the preoccupation of so many ‘organic’ communist intellectuals. In his historical work he wrote nothing about the USSR (until the Age of Extremes)and little about communist history. When he did he was fiercely independent. I remember a scathing review he wrote in New Left Review (March-April 1969) of the first volume of the ‘official’ history of the CPGB by James Klugmann (History of the Communist Party of Great Britain: Formation and early years.1919-24) accusing him of being ‘paralysed by the impossibility of being both a good historian and a loyal functionary’ and contrasting it unfavourably with Paolo Spriano’s history of the PCI ‘a debatable, but serious and scholarly work’.

Unwilling to defend communism – at least, not when the integrity of historical research was at stake – he did defend Marx and Marxism. Such defence, however, was seldom intransigent and he acquired his earliest renown and a distinctive voice as a historian on a subject with which traditional Marxist historiography (or, indeed, any historiography) had not dealt. I am thinking of his works of the late 1950s and 1960s on social banditry and pre-capitalist rebellions: Primitive Rebels (1959) and Bandits (1969) as well as Captain Swing(with George Rudé) in 1968. Since then the scholarship on these themes has increased enormously yet it is difficult to encounter a book or an article on pre-capitalist social unrest or social banditry or millenarian movements without some reference to Hobsbawm. These references were initially deferential, then, with the passing of time, less so – yet his work could not be ignored, something he recollected with some satisfaction in the interview, one of the last, he gave to Simon Schama for the Archive on 4 on the BBC.

Given the success obtained with bandits, primitive rebels, anarchists and other adorable creatures, other, lesser historians would have continued to plough that particular furrow, producing further articles and books on a theme of such wide interest. Hobsbawm was more intent in scattering ideas on a far broader canvas. And he did. His four volumes on the history of capitalism from 1789 to 1991 will remain a monument of haute vulgarization (a term occasionally used as a pejorative, but Eric gloried in it: it meant that he was not writing just for the academy). His Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (1990) echoed his profound dislike of nationalism and of identity politics. His Echoes of the Marseillaise (1990) was levelled against Alfred Cobban whose revisionist The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (1964) had preceded the better known work of François Furet (Penser la Révolution Française 1978) which had become all the rage as France prepared to celebrate the Revolution.

Blessed with an uncommon facility of expression, a lively style and an ability to synthesize complex events, these works made him known in wide circles of non-specialists.

Alongside these works he produced a myriad articles ranging on a variety of topics in journals ranging from Marxism Today to New Left Review, the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, theLondon Review of Books (to mention only the English-language journals). In all of these we see one of the strands of the tradition of European Marxism: a pessimism of the intelligence barely tempered by an optimism of the will. As he said, as the hopes of a socialist future waned, and as he got older, all one had left was pessimism of the intelligence.

The last book published while he was still alive (he was preparing a volume of his writings on cultural matters), How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, collects many articles and essays published elsewhere and many that had been published in Italian but not in English. Some were new. All were centred on Marx (and Engels) except for two on Gramsci.

Hobsbawm’s last Marx is not the theoretician of the world revolution and of the leading role of the proletariat. This Marx is the theorist of globalization and of crises, a Marx finally emancipated from the USSR. It is a Marx for a world in which few parties of significance are anti-capitalist, in which the hopes generated by the events of 1968 (events which had left Hobsbawm fairly sceptical) have not materialized, a world in which many advocate a retreat from the Enlightenment, a world in which the last great social revolution was led by an Islamic fundamentalist, the Ayatollah Khomeini. The triumph of neo-liberal economic policies, particularly in the west, had also constituted a defeat for traditional social democracy since this required, for the accomplishment of its ‘minimum’ programme a strong state. As Hobsbawm puts it: neo-liberalism attempted to destroy not communism (whose stagnation had become clear) but the kind of gradualist reformism advocated by Eduard Bernstein and the Fabians.

Cultural crisis

Hobsbawm located the crisis of Marxism in the crucial decades after 1980. The crisis was not purely political and economic but cultural as well. Increasingly, the possibility of understanding the structures of human society was being challenged by post-modern attitudes; there was a return to mere narrative history, a disdain for generalizations and for the study of reality, a new relativism. He saw the retreat from Marxism as part of a wider change in the social sciences where intellectuals were giving up rationalist attempts to produce a global picture of our times. Here Hobsbawm attributes great importance to the revolt of the intellectuals of the 1960s of which he was quite critical. He disliked their anti-centralism, their love of spontaneity and localism, their third worldism.

This could be seen as the complaints of an old Marxist generationally separated from the generation of the 1968. But this generation is now old and perhaps it should begin to come to terms with itself. During one of our last conversations he noted that it was rather strange that that generation (mine) with such a commitment towards intellectual pursuit and culture should have produced so little historical analysis of its own itinerary. While he probably over-estimated the importance of post-modern irrationality in the cultural crisis of the last thirty years, I think it is true that totalizing explanations have been put in the attic, along with Marx, but mainly among the intelligentsia. If we look elsewhere, totalizing explanations rule OK. The enemies of the west are seen either in terms of irrationality (Islamic fundamentalism, fanaticism, terrorists dreaming of restoring the Caliphate) or in terms of a defence of vested interests (states and institutions) against the individualism of the market. Market fundamentalism is just as over-comprehensive as the statism of the old left. It declares, along with Hayek, that the decisions of millions of consumers are more ‘rational’ than those taken by planners and elites.

Where Hobsbawm is right is when he points out that what has disappeared (for now) was a belief, shared by all the protagonists of the great revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth century (the French, the American and the industrial) that it was possible to change the existing social order and to substitute for it one which is better.

We may have lost, he wrote, but the supporters of ‘let the market rip’, so hegemonic in the years 1973-2008 have lost too. Was there an element of consolation in his belief that the stage is set for a return to Marx, the theoretician of capitalism? Possibly. But one should take seriously Eric Hobsbawm’s injunction to take Marx seriously and, let me add, take history seriously, and rescue it from those who simply use history as if it were a supermarket where one gathers some useful facts, piles them on the trolley and uses them to justify whatever policies one likes.

Originally published by Open Democracy

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