Obituary: Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012)

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When he died last month, Eric Hobsbawm left behind a superb body of work explaining and criticising the development of capitalism - but his Stalinist-influenced politics nonetheless affected his history. Paul Blackledge looks back at the complex life of this important Marxist historian

Eric Hobsbawm, who died last month, was the last, and arguably the greatest, of an incredibly influential generation of British Marxist historians who cut their teeth in the Communist Party Historians' Group (CPHG) after the Second World War. This group, which included Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Victor Kiernan, George Rudé, Raphael Samuel, John Saville, and Dorothy and EP Thompson, was an intellectual powerhouse whose members went on to make a frankly stunning collective contribution to the study of history. Yet even in this impressive company it was perhaps only Kiernan who equalled Hobsbawm's range of knowledge.

Hobsbawm described his research focus as "the rise of modern capitalism and the transformation of the world since the end of the European Middle Ages". But this already wide canvas doesn't begin to capture the full scope of his work. In addition to seminal works in this area, he also made important contributions to the study of areas as diverse as jazz, Robin Hood myths, labour history, and American imperialism.

Hobsbawm's mastery of these areas meant that his death prompted obituaries around the world and across the political spectrum. And though those in the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Mail amounted to little more than idiotic right wing rants, it is a measure of Hobsbawm's significance that they felt unable to ignore his passing. What they hated was the fact that he never renounced his (entirely admirable) decision to join the Communist youth movement as a young Jewish anti-Nazi in Berlin in the months running up to Hitler's seizure of power. As we shall see, Hobsbawm's relationship to Stalinism was problematic, but not in the way his right wing critics would have their readers believe.

Hobsbawm's choice
Hobsbawm clearly acknowledged Stalin's crimes in his history of the 20th century. What he didn't do was follow the logic of this assessment to make a root and branch criticism of Stalinist politics. Unlike most leading members of the CPHG he didn't leave the Communist Party (CP) after the Russian suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. And though for the next couple of decades he was somewhat detached from the CP's day to day activities, in the late 1970s and early 1980s he came to the fore as one of the most important voices justifying what he called its support of the Labour leadership's "common sense" assault on the left within the Labour Party.

Hobsbawm was lucky enough to secure a university post in 1947, a year before the Cold War made it difficult for British Marxists to get a job in the academy. The subsequent anti-Marxist climate meant, as he told an interviewer for Radical History Review, that he "couldn't get away with bullshit". Nonetheless, he stood against the grain of academic history: whereas traditional empiricist historians like to think that simply by repeating the facts they tell history as it was, Hobsbawm followed Marx's rejection of this "mere root-grubbing history" that attributed great events to "mean and petty causes", to integrate his command of the facts into a bigger picture of historical development.

World historian
Indeed, it was his ability to interpret facts that made Hobsbawm a great historian. His four-volume history of the modern world - The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, and Age of Extremes - is, notwithstanding the criticisms I make below, arguably the best introduction to modern world history.

This is because Hobsbawm was both the master of his materials with a keen eye for a telling anecdote and a great synthesiser, who wove together a wonderful panorama from his broad and deep reading around each period in a way that linked the local and episodic into the total and universal without reducing the former to the latter. His approach to the study of history was much more than the dry accumulation of facts characteristic of so much academic history, or the eclecticism of interdisciplinary approaches that typically amounts to an agglomeration of disparate methods. Rather, as he wrote in How to Change the World, he aimed to "integrate all disciplines" into a total history.

It is easy to dismiss attempts to write total history as the unrealisable goal of writing a history of everything. But as Hobsbawm observed in his essay Marxist Historiography Today, total history is best understood as an approach which sees "history as an indivisible web in which all human activities are interconnected". Understood in this way, total history should be the goal of any historian who seeks not only to understand the past, but also, as the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács put it, to grasp the present as a historical problem.

One example of how Hobsbawm related seemingly arcane issues to modern day concerns is his fascinating study of Robin Hood myths, Bandits. In this book he showed how these stories, which seem to be universal in peasant societies, reflect a general desire for justice. Simultaneously, he pointed out how their continued resonance illuminates the injustices at the heart of our own society.

The power of the links Hobsbawm drew between history and politics was reinforced by his wonderful style: he was an excellent writer and this was partly because he wrote for an audience that included those outside universities. I still remember my excitement on first reading The Age of Revolution. Hobsbawm integrated the seemingly disparate events of this period into a greater whole, explaining how they could be understood not merely as one damn thing after another, but rather in terms of the reshaping of the modern world by the "dual revolution": England's industrial revolution alongside France's social revolution.

Creative Marxism
More generally, Hobsbawm made a creative application of Marxism in a way that realised Marx's goal of showing how men and women make history, but "under given and inherited circumstances". In a backhanded compliment, historian David Priestland praised Hobsbawm's work because, "unlike some Marxists, he became increasingly aware of the importance of ideas and subjective experience." This argument perversely assumes that Stalin's caricature of Marxism as the story of the "development of the forces of production" with little or no room for human agency is the standard Marxist position. Hobsbawm's work sits alongside the best of 20th century Marxist historiography in showing that this assumption is unfounded and that it is possible to write about ideas and subjective experience without losing sight of the broader patterns of history. This is exactly what he did, for instance, in The Age of Empire where he traced the logic that sent the world crashing to war in 1914, even as those who made the decisions couldn't quite believe that they were starting a total war.

Nevertheless, there are some very real problems with Hobsbawm's approach to the study of the past, and these stem from the way the Stalinist influence on his politics acted as a brake on his Marxism. Hobsbawm became a Communist in 1932 at the height of the absurdly ultra-left "third period" line through which Stalin neutralised the Communist movement by having it dismiss social democracy as "social fascism". In the wake of the desire for anti-fascist unity that followed Hitler's subsequent rise to power, there was pressure to change this line. Tragically, Stalin quickly subverted this positive movement into an attempt to build alliances with Britain and France.

It was this new "popular front" position that was the overwhelming influence on Hobsbawm's subsequent political evolution. Among the consequences of this new policy CPs did their bit to foster alliances between Moscow, Paris and London by flip-flopping from their previous ultra-leftism to a renewed form of class collaboration. For all its superficial appeal this approach smacked of the politics that undermined the European left in the run up to 1914, and against which the CPs had originally been forged. In defending this general approach in the decades that followed, Hobsbawm argued not only that the split between the Communist and social democratic parties was mistaken but also that "like it or not the future of socialism is through the Labour Party".

He justified this perspective through a tacit rejection of Marx's vision of socialism. Whereas Marx argued that socialism could only come through working class self-emancipation, in The Age of Capital Hobsbawm was very disparaging about the key example Marx gave of a socialist revolution: the Paris Commune. By contrast, he tended to agree with the Stalinists and social democrats that state planning was the only systematic alternative to free markets. This perspective involved a complete misunderstanding of the relationship between states and markets, especially as this relationship developed in the 20th century. Markets need states, and as states and capital became increasingly intertwined in the 20th century, market competition increasingly morphed into military competition between state capitalisms.

In the London Review of Books Perry Anderson suggested that Hobsbawm was aware of this, but that this reading of 20th century history tended to be repressed within Age of Extremes. Superficially, this book tells the story of the confrontation between capitalism and Soviet Communism, which the latter lost to disastrous effect in 1991. However, there is also another story in which this conflict is reduced to mere illusion as both sides are revealed to be essentially similar beneath the heat of ideological posturing. Unfortunately, Hobsbawm's conflation of socialism with state capitalist planning meant that the former, more pessimistic interpretation dominated his conclusion. But this interpretation is contradicted by the evidence of the crimes of the Stalinist regimes that he marshalled within the book; and this contradiction suggests that Hobsbawm's pessimistic conclusion to Age of Extremes is much more controversial than he admitted.

Beyond the Cold War
The sense that Hobsbawm's assessment of the situation at the end of the "short 20th century" is highly questionable also informed Chris Harman's review of Age of Extremes for International Socialism. He argued that the key problem with this book was that it allowed no space for alternatives. This can be understood as the flipside of Hobsbawm's belief that state planning was the only systematic alternative to capitalism, for this claim depends upon dismissing those workers' movements that pointed to an alternative beyond the two sides of the Cold War.

Hobsbawm justified his dismissive approach to these movements on the basis that "history is what happened, not what might have happened". This statement contains an important truth, but it also lends itself to an apologetic rationalisation of what happened as the only possible outcome of history. Indeed, the problem with Age of Extremes is not that Hobsbawm skirts over Stalin's crimes, as his sillier right wing critics suggest, but that he skirts over moments when genuinely revolutionary movements pointed beyond the American and Russian poles of the Cold War.

This problem was illuminated, as Ian Birchall pointed out in his obituary of Hobsbawm in Socialist Worker, in an exchange in the London Review of Books about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 between Hobsbawm on the one hand and Birchall and Harman on the other. Not only did Hobsbawm fail to mention the workers' councils in his original article, but in his reply to Birchall's criticisms he explicitly dismissed their significance. By doing so, as Harman pointed out, he did damage to the facts. Unfortunately, this kind of distortion by omission is typical of Hobsbawm's dismissive attitude to the revolutionary potential of just about every upsurge in working class militancy in the West after 1917.

This perspective also informed his attitude to anarchism and other forms of direct action (at least in the period since the formation of social democratic parties). Rather than recognise the positive side of these movements as reactions against not only oppression and exploitation but also the failure of social democracy to combat these evils, Hobsbawm tended to trivialise them as variations on the theme of "primitive rebellion".

If this approach helped rationalise his decision to stay in the CP (which had essentially become a reformist party since the popular front period) in 1956 while many of the leading members of the CPHG played a role in the formation of the New Left, the corollary of Hobsbawm's advocacy of a state capitalist alternative to free markets was his belief that the Labour Party was the potential agent of socialist change.

The key weakness with this perspective was that the Labour Party had been losing members and voters since 1951. Hobsbawm's 1978 essay The Forward March of Labour Halted was both his attempt to answer this question and his most significant contribution to contemporary political debate. He argued that since the 1950s the weight of manual workers within the broader labour force had dramatically declined. Furthermore, British capitalism had changed through a combination of a technological revolution, increased standards of living for the majority, and an expansion of the public sector. These processes led to an increased sectionalism within the working class which undermined those traditional (that is post-1870) forms of solidarity out of which the mass parties of the working class had been born.

Whatever its strengths, this argument bypassed an assessment of the negative impact on its social base of the Labour Party's actions in both local and national government. Consequently, Hobsbawm's prescription for overcoming Labour's decline amounted to more of what ails you: he provided a left veneer to those pushing the Labour Party and the unions to the right in the 1980s.

A great critic of capitalism
Hobsbawm's dismissive attitude to movements from below is the most important reason why he contributed little of substance to a positive strategy for socialism. Nonetheless, through his broader historical writings he made an important contribution to the negative critique of capitalism. His explanation of the horrors of the modern world as a consequence not of human nature but of capitalist social relations is an invaluable counter to those who claim there is no alternative to the present system. For this reason, and despite the weaknesses stemming from his popular front politics, we remain enormously in his debt: his books should be required reading.