Norah Carlin & Ian Birchall

Kinnock’s favourite Marxist
Eric Hobsbawm and the working class


From International Socialism Journal 2:21, Autumn 1983, pp.88-116.
Transcribed and marked up by Jørn Andersen for Marxisme Online, 21 June 2000.
Downloaded with thanks from Marxisme Online.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.


At the Tribune Rally at last year’s Labour Party Conference Neil Kinnock came under sharp attack from the Labour left. In defending himself he referred to the recent writings of along-standing member of the British Communist Party, Professor Eric Hobsbawm [1], a man who he lauded as “the most sagacious living Marxist”.

Hobsbawm’s views have in the last few years aroused widespread discussion on the left. His Marx Memorial Lecture for 1978, provocatively entitled The Forward March of Labour Halted? produced numerous critical comments, both within the Communist Party and from other sections of the left. [2] And over the last year two further articles in Marxism Today, The State of the Left in Western Europe and Falklands Fallout have reached a wider audience by appearing, in shortened form, on the Guardian’s Agenda page. [3]

The voluntarist euphoria that gripped the Labour left in 1981 has now given way to a post-Falklands pessimism; and Hobsbawm’s recent writings on working-class nationalism and the decline of the traditional working class fit the mood well. His views on the working class in many ways parallel those of Andre Gorz, though they are markedly more coherent and literate. [4] And his opinions on working-class nationalism were greeted with approval by the Guardian pro-SDP columnist Peter Jenkins, a fact which will doubtless warm the hearts of those CP members currently seeking alliance with the SDP and progressive Tories. [5]

Hobsbawm’s eminence as a historian is unquestionable. He is the author of a number of works of broad historical synthesis (Industry and Empire, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital) as well as many more detailed articles on a range of subjects, notably the nineteenth century working class. As well as a British professorship Hobsbawm has broken through Cold War barriers by becoming both a Professor-at-large of Cornell University and an Honorary Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Among British Marxist historians only Edward Thompson and Christopher Hill can claim comparable achievements.

Nor has Hobsbawm confined himself to academic history. He has commented regularly and profusely on contemporary issues, both in Communist Party publications and in journals of the left and centre (New Statesman, New Society, etc). He has written about historical figures from Robin Hood to Ramsay MacDonald, about countries from Peru to Austria. Under the name Francis Newton he became a respected jazz critic. A recent bibliography of his work lists several hundred items.

Hobsbawm’s current status as guru to a section of the left would in itself justify a critical assessment of his work. But beyond that Hobsbawm is a representative figure; one of the most talented members of the generation that came to Communism in the era of fascism and the Popular Front, and stayed to face a very different set of issues. The following account will outline Hobsbawm’s political evolution and try to assess the foundations of his current position.


(i) The Thirties

Hobsbawm himself has described the social circumstances which brought him to the Communist movement:

I belong ... to a milieu which is now virtually extinct, the Jewish middle class culture of central Europe after the first world war. This milieu lived under the triple impact of the collapse of the bourgeois world in 1914, the October revolution and anti-semitism.

For this milieu liberalism and social democracy were dead ends; the only possibilities were Communism or Zionism. And those who, like Hobsbawm, chose the former, had ‘the sense that the old system was breaking down ... and the belief that the Soviet revolution was the positive alternative.’ [6]

Hobsbawm became a Communist as a fifteen-year-old schoolboy in Berlin in 1932; when his family left Germany to escape Hitler he came to Britain, and appears to have joined the British Communist Party in 1936. [7] To become a Communist under such circumstances clearly laid the foundations of a life-long commitment. But it is important to recognise the particular quality of that commitment. The Thirties was the era of the Popular Front; an era of defensive struggle and defeat. The dominant themes were the threat of fascism and the sense that Russia was the only viable bulwark against it. It was this, and not a belief in the self-activity of the working-class, that drew Hobsbawm to Marxism. In this respect he is typical of a whole generation. Popular Frontism, in one form or another, was to characterise his politics over five decades.

At Cambridge in the late thirties Hobsbawm combined academic success (the party slogan laid down that ‘the first task of the communist student was to be a good student’ [8]) with prominence as a socialite – he edited the University paper Granta and contributed many-articles on films, jazz and books.

Yet behind the glitter Hobsbawm had clearly become a dependable party member. The Nazi-Soviet Pact seems to have caused him little anxiety. Soon after the outbreak of World War II Hobsbawm and a fellow Cambridge student, Raymond Williams, were assigned to write a pamphlet on the Russo-Finnish War ‘which argued that it was really a resumption of the Finnish Civil War of 1918 which had been won by Mannerheim and the Whites.’ [9] At a time when Harry Pollitt himself was temporarily removed from the Party secretaryship for disagreement with the Comintern line of the war, such a task would surely be entrusted only to one whose loyalty was unquestioned.

(ii) The Post-War decade

After completing wartime military service, Hobsbawm continued his academic career in parallel to work as a Party activist. The Communist Party Historians’ Group provided a vital link between the two.

‘Our work as historians,’ Hobsbawm has written of this Group in the period 1946-56, ‘was embedded in our work as Marxists, which we believed to imply membership of the Communist Party. It was inseparable from our political commitment and activity.’ [10] The Group was engaged in Communist Party education and propaganda through conferences, meetings, pamphlets and bulletins, and in collective theoretical development through its four ‘period sections’ which thrashed out a party line on subjects as diverse as sixteenth century absolute monarchy and the standard of living of the working class under industrial capitalism.

But the Communist Party Historians’ Group was far from inward-looking, and deliberately cultivated relations with non-Marxists within the academic history establishment who were opposed to the prevailing right-wing tendency of historians such as T.S. Ashton and Hugh Trevor-Roper (now Lord Dacre). In 1952 they set up the journal Past and Present as a forum for ‘scientific history’ in the midst of the Cold War. This began with a CP majority on the editorial board but allowed the non-Marxist members a veto on articles. The journal has been extremely successful, especially since the explicit aim of a non-Marxist majority on the editorial board was achieved in 1958.

The Popular Front idea was essential to the outlook of the Historians’ Group. Looking back on the experience of the Group Hobsbawm wrote in 1978: ‘Both we and the Party saw ourselves ... ideally as leaders of a broad progressive movement such as we had experienced in the 1930s ... In a sense we saw ourselves as continuing the major national tradition of history, and many non-Marxists as prepared to join us in this task.’ [11]

In an article written in 1949, reviewing the history of the British working class over the last century, Hobsbawm was optimistic about the prospects for socialism. Again, the Popular Front was central to his perspective:

Throughout the ups and downs of actual Labour policy, the alternative of class-conscious fighting socialism has made headway ... The inter-war years saw the birth of a Communist Party and, in the later thirties, a significant increase in its influence. The war and post-war years have seen, for the first time in labour history, communist leadership strike firm roots in the trade unions. That this process has not been a smooth one is natural; but the reality of the general trend cannot be in doubt ... The change in quantity may, in our time, turn into one of quality. The time for it is rapidly growing ripe. Much will depend on the initiative and leadership of British Marxists. [12]

Hobsbawm has recently claimed that Party membership in this period did not impose any strong intellectual restraints, except in the particularly sensitive area of Party history. To say the least, this scarcely coincides with what we know of Party life from other sources. [13]

Be that as it may, Hobsbawm seems to have learnt to live with the Party’s requirements. One would search his work in vain for eulogies of Stalin or denunciations of the fascist Tito; although he appears to have co-existed quite happily with those who indulged in such things. [14]

Between 1948 and 1951 Hobsbawm contributed some twenty articles to a fortnightly journal called the New Central European Observer, a Communist Party controlled journal devoted to reporting events in the ‘People’s Democracies’. All his articles are marked by an impeccable orthodoxy; defence of Russian foreign policy, criticism of Tito and repeated warnings about the dangers of West Germany being mobilised against the Russian bloc.

What characterises all Hobsbawm’s writings on current events during this period is the firm belief that Russia and the East European states embody a new and higher level of social organisation, and that the prime duty of anyone claiming to be on the side of the working class is to defend them. Thus in a otherwise unexceptional piece in World News showing how piece-work has always been a weapon of employers against workers, he feels obliged to add: ‘Under Socialism, of course, where there is no exploitation, payment by results appears in a different light.’ [15] And on occasion he is led into true gems of strained logic, as when he compares the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 to the events of the 1940s:

Led as it was by a new class, the workers, and with foreign intervention ruled out by the presence of the Soviet Army, the national movement of the 1940s avoided the errors of the 1840s. [16]

In 1954 Hobsbawm published an article in the Political Quarterly in which he described to the outside world the workings of the Communist Party. In particular he was at pains to defend the Party’s internal democracy:

Discussions of party policy, based on a stream of reports, proposals and other material issued at all levels of leadership, is almost continuous ... There has been very little disagreement on the fundamentals of party policy in the past ten years, and almost certainly there is now widespread feeling that the machinery for criticism and suggestion is inadequate ... Hence there has been little difficulty in maintaining party discipline, especially the rule that holders of minority views carry out majority policy and that party policy must be carried out until a decision to change it has been reached. [17]

Two years later this amazing complacency was to explode in his face.

(iii) 1956

The 1956 crisis in the British Communist Party was a tangled and complex one. As one might imagine of a membership jolted out of a quarter century of routinism, a variety of intermediate and contradictory positions emerged. [18] Three separate issues were intertwined in the complex debates of the year: the Khrushchev ‘secret speech’ and the Hungarian Revolution; inner-party democracy; and the strategy of the Communist Party in relation to the Labour Party.

Hobsbawm intervened in all three discusions. On the Russian invasion of Hungary his position was set out in a letter to the Daily Worker: [19]

All Socialists ought to be able to understand that a Mindszenty Hungary [Mindszenty was the Catholic cardinal in Budapest], which would probably have become a base for counter-revolution and intervention, would be a grave and acute danger for the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Rumania which border upon it.

If we had been in the position of the Soviet Government, we should have intervened; if we had been in the position of the Yugoslav Government, we should have approved of the intervention.

But Hobsbawm went on to make various reservations – there was a popular movement in Hungary, the Hungarian CP had made mistakes, and to crush a popular movement is at best a ‘tragic necessity’. From this he concluded:

While approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible.

This should be said by the British Communist Party publicly if the British people is to have any confidence in our sincerity and judgement; and if they have not, how can we expect them to follow our lead?

And if they don’t follow our lead, how can we hope to help the cause of the existing Socialist states on which we know that Socialism in the world, and in Britain, largely depends?

This equivocal position – support the Russians, as long as you look miserable about it [20] – was of a piece with the comments Hobsbawm made a little later in reply to G. Matthews, the Assistant Secretary of the Communist Party:

We have presented the facts wrongly, or failed to face them, and unfortunately, though we have kidded few other people, we have kidded ourselves. I don’t mean primarily the facts revealed at the Twentieth Congress and others of the kind. Many of us had strong suspicions about them, amounting to moral certainty, for years before Khrushchev spoke, and I am amazed Comrade Matthews had none. There were overwhelming reasons at the time for keeping quiet, and we were right in doing so. No, the facts we really failed to face are those about Britain, our tasks and our mistakes. [21]

However, Hobsbawm also made some incisive comments on the internal life of the Communist Party. Many of those who in 1956 rebelled aginst the bureaucratic monolothism of the CP were happy to abandon democratic centralism altogether. Hobsbawm, in a number of contributions to the Party’s discussion journal World News insisted that ‘our Party ought to stick to democratic centralism’, but argued that the particular practices of the Party should be modified to make them more susceptible to pressure from below; thus panel voting should be abandoned; debates should be initiated by discussion statements rather than agreed EC drafts; there should be more discussion in the press; a defeated minority should have the right to continue arguing while implementing the majority position; and the leadership should show willingness to admit that it might be wrong. [22]

Much of this was good practical common-sense, and contrasted well with both the authoritarian Stalinism and the rampant liberalism which characterised much of the heated debate on inner party democracy. Yet to centre the criticism of the Party leadership on inner-party democracy had two great weaknesses. Firstly, it was clear that the conduct of many CP members in late 1956 – attacking the Party in the bourgeois press, establishing factional journals was clearly in breach of anything that could normally be described as ‘democratic centralism’; it could be justified only by the wholly extraordinary circumstances of a so called ‘socialist’ army crushing a workers’ rising. Secondly, Hobsbawm’s defence of a more liberal regime was argued in openly opportunist terms. In an article headed Lenin on Party Congress he pointed out – correctly but doubtless to the surprise of many Party members – that Lenin had favoured the right to form blocs in a pre-congress situation. Yet his main argument in favour was simply that this could prevent loss of membership:

... the Party is split ... it will be hard to avoid the impression that the Executive Committee ... is rigging the Congress. This is no doubt untrue. But we must face the fact that if the impression does get round, even more comrades will resign than have already left the Party. [23]

Hobsbawm also raised some telling points in his criticism of CP strategy. Here the brunt of his argument was that the Party was not following the logic of what was required by a policy of broad left unity. Thus he argued that since the Party considered left advances in the Labour Party important, it should not seek to recruit members out of the Labour Party:

Let us ask ourselves frankly: if we were active Labour men whose work lay in shaping the local Party, selecting candidates, perhaps standing for council, would we be anxious to join the Communist Party? [24]

Secondly he pointed to the failures of the Party in the peace movement and blamed them on sectarianism:

... we failed to recognise until too late that we could mobilise masses on the basis of opposition to war and American war-mongering, but not also on the basis of agreeing with us on a lot of other points, e.g. our interpretation of Tito and Soviet policy. [25]

But Hobsbawm’s reforming ardour was now cooling. He contributed one further piece – an article on The British Party System. Here he argued that the British two-party system stifled democracy, but that it could be changed by mass pressure if there was a solid core of electoral support for a third party. In other words the CP’s electoral strategy was justified. [26]

The CP Historians’ Group was badly shaken by the 1956 crisis. Hobsbawm says that historians were ‘forced to confront the situation not only as private persons and Communist militants but, as it were, in our professional capacity, since the crucial issue of Stalin was literally one of history: what had happened and why it had been concealed.’ [27]

But the Group was split, and many of its leading members – including Christopher Hill and the Thompsons – left the Party. The Group continued to exist, but its activity within the party was much reduced for many years. The long-term effect was that the Group had a new set of ‘allies’ to relate to: Marxist historians outside the Communist Party, such as Edward Thompson and Christopher Hill, with whom friendly relations and professional solidarity continued to exist despite a political bitterness which has survived into the present.

(iv) The Rise of the New Left

In the aftermath of the 1956 crisis two new journals were established – The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review. Hobsbawm contributed to the first issue of each of them; to the former an anodyne account of attitudes to Marx in the Victoran academic establishment, to the later a piece arguing that ‘Marxism is not a single detailed doctrine, but a family of interpretations, based on a common method.’ [28] Such consorting with renegades can hardly have pleased CP headquarters, but Hobsbawm’s position had a plain logic. He had not wanted a split, but since it had taken place, he would try and maintain such unity as was possible. For Hobsbawm continued to be a Popular Fronter, but a Popular Fronter with a difference. The classical Popular Front was always open to ever new layers of allies on the right, but it could tolerate no rivals to its left. Hobsbawm, however, shrewdly recognised that, in the period after 1956, a new and as yet non-Party left – in many cases to the left of the CP itself – was emerging, and that it would have some part to play in the left’s eventual re-alignment.

During the 1960s Hobsbawm showed a striking sensitivity to the new influences that were to shape the next generation of the left. He hailed the Cuban Revolution, analysed the US black movement and wrote a trenchant prediction of US defeat in Vietnam. He spoke at the first Vietnam teach-in at Oxford, organised by elements from the emerging reolutionary left, among them Peter Binns and Tariq Ali. [29] He even appreciated Bob Dylan: ‘... a thin, child-faced chansonnier from the US, a cross between a curlier James Dean (minus death wish) and a politically conscious Holden Caulfield.’ [30]

Hobsbawm perceived the student movement of the sixties as a ‘primitive rebellion’. [31] From the mid-1950s he had been working on the history of a variety of social movements in pre-capitalist and early capitalist society, ranging from Robin Hood-type bandits through peasant revolts, millenarianism and pre-industrial city mobs to the revolutionary secret societies of Marx’s youth. He saw such movements as a fascinating and valuable part of the revolutionary tradition, but considered that there was a crucial dividing line between ‘pre-political’ movements and those led by a modern political party, such as the Communist Party in Southern Italy and Sicily, which took over a long tradition of peasant resistance. [32]

Looking back on these studies in 1979, Hobsbawm claimed that what they proved was the necessity for a ‘strongly organised party’, while showing that ‘there were all sorts of other things happening that we should have taken note of.’ [33] The student upsurge, therefore, was to be neither supported nor denounced, but co-opted and transcended by the guiding hand of the Party.

As early as 1960 Hobsbawm was writing of the new student movement in the US:

Where are these kids going? Since they have only just begun to move, it is perhaps too early to say, just as, at the present stage, it would be unfair to lay too much stress on their obvious intellectual and political immaturities, confusions and deficiencies. [34]

By the mid-sixties Hobsbawm’s own growing prestige and the declining credibility of the Party enabled him to be more openly critical. He wrote for New Left Review a devastating criticism of James Klugmann’s History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which he saw as neither ‘serious’ nor ‘scholarly’. [35] And in 1965 he launched a full-scale attack on the dogmatists within the Party with a lecture to a Discussion Conference organised by the Marx Memorial Library, later published as The Dialogue on Marxism. In this plea for greater openness of discussion he stresses that since 1956 it has been impossible to insist that there are no Marxists outside the Communist Party. Some of his older listeners must have felt a shudder when he enquired: ‘How could we discuss say, the history of the Soviet Union, if we left Trotsky out of it, or thought of him as a foreign agent?’ And he insisted: ‘In fact today it is impossible to make the simple statement on which many of us were brought up: there is one and only one “correct” marxism and it is to be found in Communist Parties.’ [36]

All of this was still basically Popular Frontism. The storms of 1968, however, blew him momentarily off course. On 1 June 1968 an article by Hobsbawm appeared in Black Dwarf, journal of the 1968 ultra-lefts and student vanguardists, commenting on the events in France:

What has happened in France is marvellous and enchanting ... Does it show the way to the rest of the world? It would not be the first time that Paris had done so. I think it may do so now.

The French Communist Party was mentioned only to be accused of ‘feet-dragging’.

But the euphoria soon went sour. By the next year he was telling New Statesman readers about ‘the young ultras of 1969, whose idea of revolution is, if not actually to stand on a barricade, then at least to make the same sort of noise as though standing on one.’ [37]

Increasingly in the late sixties and early seventies Hobsbawm became impatient with the “ultra-left”. More and more he saw his task as being to correct the various heresies that proliferate on the left, and to defend the ‘Communist’ (ie Stalinist) tradition as the true orthodoxy. Thus he protested vigorously against the attempts by hippies and the New Left to claim Che Guevara as a hero:

Bolshevism was a hard style, and Guevara made himself into a hard man. Rebellion was useless without discipline, organisation and leadership. [38]

Yet at the same time Hobsbawm was insisting that Guevarism was not a viable alternative to the orthodox Communist Parties of Latin America. [39]

One phenomenon of the late sixties and seventies that Hobsbawm found it harder to handle was the rise of the women’s movement. Until the sixties he happily littered his work with macho comments such as:

Jazz, for the fan, is therefore not simply a music to be enjoyed as one enjoys apples, or drinks, or girls. [40]

Just as there are some women who are only fully themselves in bed, so there are men who only realize themselves in action. [41]

By 1978, Hobsbawm was admitting that the neglect of women by male historians was justly criticised, and to make amends he wrote an article on images of men and women in nineteenth century socialist iconography. Unfortunately this venture into new territory was less than successful, since what Hobsbawm described as a ‘powerful image’ of woman turned out to be a rather nasty drawing of a naked women by Félicien Rops, a Belgian pornographer. [42]

(v) Eurocommunism

In the mid-seventies two factors confirmed and accelerated Hobsbawm’s drift to the right. The first was the right-wing coup in Chile in 1973. For Hobsbawm the lesson was not that Allende had failed to smash the state apparatus in time, but rather that Allende had provoked the coup by moving too fast. ‘... the choice of “revolution”, rather than “legality” was not on.’ Allende had turned the armed forces against him by requiring them to intervene in social struggles on the government side. He endorsed the analysis of the Italian CP that:

... Allende failed not simply because his Popular Unity was unable technically to defeat the military, but because it alienated large sectors of the population which it ought to have carried with it. [43]

The second was the rise of Eurocommunism. Hobsbawm was particularly impressed by the evolution of the Italian CP, and as early as May 1974 he was advocating:

... what the Italian Communists now call an “historic compromise” – i.e. governing down the pace of social change to what is acceptable to the potential allies or the potential neutrals among the middle strata. [44]

In 1975 and 1977 Hobsbawm conducted a series of interviews with Giorgio Napolitano, a leading member of the Italian CP. In these the latter argued that ‘the only path that is realistically open to a socialist transformation in Italy and Western Europe – under peacetime conditions – lies through a struggle within the democratic process’ involving broad alliances and the gradual modification of society. [45] Hobsbawm seems to have regarded himself as being largely an impressario promoting Napolitano. In the British Party, Hobsbawm seems to have allied himself with the Eurocommunist faction. In October 1979 he joined the Editorial Board of Marxism Today, along with Bob Rowthorn, when the journal adopted a revamped format and became more openly the voice of British Eurocommunism.

Eurocommunism was doubly welcome to Hobsbawm for, not only might it deliver the goods in the present, but it also reestablished a link with orthodoxy. For it was easy to see Eurocommunism as a continuation and development of Popular Frontism; and the Popular Front, as Hobsbawm repeatedly insisted in the seventies, was

... more than a temporary defensive tactic, or even a strategy for turning retreat into offensive. It was also a carefully considered strategy for advancing to socialism. [46]

(vi) The downturn

But the brief dream of a new Communism, renovated yet founded on tradition, intellectually open yet broadly united, did not survive the seventies. By the end of the decade Eurocommunism was in disarray. The Italian CP had abandoned the ‘historic compromise’; the French and Spanish Parties were suffering serious electoral decline while the British CP was firmly set in its protracted terminal illness. And on top of all this the movement was clearly in a serious downturn. Hobsbawm, to his credit, knew a downturn when he saw one, unlike those overly impressed by Labour Party resolutions. But the conclusions he drew were, to say the least, alarming.

The Forward March of Labour Halted? originally delivered as a lecture in 1978, can be seen as a polemic on the side of the British Eurocommunists against ‘economism’ and the ‘turn to industry’ being advocated by the likes of Mick Costello. Not suprisingly Hobsbawm was sharply criticised by such Neo-Stalinists as Ken Gill and Kevin Halpin, but supported by Pete Carter (who earlier this year called for the People’s March to ‘unite the bishop and the brickie’). [47]

But, from a critique of the alleged ‘left advances’ to be won from the CP’s industrial strategy, Hobsbawm rapidly developed to an overall pessimism. His 1982 article on The State of the Left in Western Europe [48] sets out bleakly the picture of decline and retreat that characterises almost all the Communist and Socialist parties of Western Europe. The Left, he argues, is not profiting from the crisis because,

... unlike the 1930s, the Left today can neither point to an alternative society immune to the crisis (as the USSR seemed to be) nor to any concrete policies which hold much promise for overcoming it in the short term (as Keynesian or similar policies seemed to promise then).

Reformism and Mother Russia have both failed to deliver; and since working-class self-activity was never in the picture to begin with, there is not much left. As the traditional parties crumble, so, for Hobsbawm, does the working class itself:

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.

And if the left is in disarray, the right is triumphant. In Falklands Fallout [49] Hobsbawm laments the resurgence of nationalism, describes the Falklands war as ‘a very brilliant operation’ and says of Thatcherite nationalism ‘I hesitate, but only just to say a semifascist direction.’ (Hobsbawm is clearly too intelligent to fall for the current illiteracy that Thatcher is a fascist, yet knows that there is nothing like a hint of fascism to revive the Popular Front).

For in the end Popular Frontism is what it is all about. And the only answer to defeat and decline is to broaden the front yet wider. Hobsbawm hails the ‘very able politican’ Mitterrand because he won power by ‘mobilising all possible support against a reactionary and anti-democratic regime which was unpopular as such.’ [50] (Hobsbawm was writing barely a month before Mitterrand emulated Ramsay MacDonald by cutting unemployment benefit). Hobsbawm insists that most British Social Democrats ‘belong to the Left’, and that the secession of the SDP is to be regretted as ‘the loss of a significant section of the left-of-centre middle class, which long looked to Labour.’ [51] Clearly the SDP lure billed as part of the new ever-so-Popular Front (though it is not clear whether Hobsbawm, like his fellow Eurocommunist Bob Rowthorn, would also welcome progressive Tories like Edward Heath). After many years telling us that revolution is impracticable, Hobsbawm ends up tailing a political party which is already in electoral decline and which at all events would not touch the Communist Party with a barge-pole. There is nothing in his analysis that could be legitimately described as Marxist; indeed Hobsbawm’s position is well to the right of classic reformism. Such are the bitter fruits of political realism.


(i) Stalinism

Hobsbawm was formed by Stalinism. To say this is not to indulge in random abuse, but to observe, quite simply, that his first twenty years as a Communist were spent in a movement in which the dogmas of Stalinism were scarcely questioned.

What did it mean to be a Stalinist? First and foremost it was the sense of belonging to an international movement, a movement which could mobilise millions of workers in the continents of the world, a movement led by first one, then several ‘socialist countries’.

Hobsbawm himself frequently evokes the power of this sense of belonging to a mass international movement, not without a certain romanticism, as when he recalls ‘that sense of total devotion which made the party in Auschwitz make its members pay their dues in cigarettes (inconceivably precious and almost impossible to obtain in an extermination camp)’. [52] As a historian he is especially sensitive to the historical legitimacy he ascribes to this movement; thus Stalinism becomes modern-day Jacobinism; when he writes of Robespierre we feel the figure of Stalin looming behind him:

The process which, during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9, strengthened Communists at the expense of anarchists, strengthened Jacobins of Saint Just’s stamp at the expense of Sansculottes of Hébert’s. [53]

As we have seen, the events of 1956 led Hobsbawm to no systematic critique of Stalinism, but at best to a few pragmatic reservations. Any attempt at a class analysis of the ‘socialist’ countries was dismissed as ‘a game with words’. [54]

Yet slowly Hobsbawm’s faith in the Eastern bloc evaporated. It might be possible to swallow the political monstrosities of Stalinism if they were none the less founded on a superior economic system. But by 1975 he was conceding that this was not the case:

We thought that declining capitalism would be unable to compete success fully with the rising rival socialist economy, especially one so much larger than before. But the opposite happened. Capitalism outproduced socialism and even began to re-infiltrate and re-integrate socialist economy from outside by virtue of its technological superiority and greater wealth. [55]

Likewise the sense of a world movement has faded. In discussions with an Italian Communist Hobsbawm said he was ‘not sure whether one can even speak of a world Communist movement at this point.’ [56]

Yet the Marxism Hobsbawm acquired in the Stalinist period was a fatalistic and mechanical Marxism, which above all left no place for working-class self-activity. And so, when the certainties of Stalinism faded, nothing remained but a vacuum – a vacuum which today is at the heart of Hobsbawm’s pessimism.

(ii) Hobsbawm and the British working class

This process of disillusion is closely interwoven with Hobsbawm’s writing as an academic historian. The range of his work has been almost incredibly wide, taking in subjects as diverse as seventeenth century feudal society, Peruvian land occupations and secret societies in early nineteenth-century Europe. But his work on British working-class history must be regarded as the central core. In this field his reputation has been greatest, his achievements have been most notable, and his political perspectives have acquired shape and confirmation. And at the heart of this work lies the same development from the optimism of the post-war decade to the pessimism of the eighties.

Hobsbawm was in the forefront of the movement to win a place for the serious study of labour history in British universities. While insisting that such study should become academically sound and respectable – by contrast with what he regarded as the mythology of the ‘heroic moral epic’ which has been ‘especially ... passed on by word-of-mouth tradition in lodges, branches and classes’ – he believed that commitment was also necessary. Researching and writing for the labour movement should be combined with sound scholarship: the task of academic historians should be ‘to consolidate the new territories won by the committed.’ [57]

By 1974 he could claim that the new labour historians had successfully established themselves in Britain and America. They were ‘increasingly preoccupied with the rank-and-file as well as with the leaders, with the unorganised as well as the organised, with the “conservative working man” as well as with the radical or revolutionary: in short with the class rather than with the movement or party.’ [58]

Some of Hobsbawm’s own writings are outstanding examples of this kind of labour history, particularly those collected in the volume Labouring Men (1964). His studies of early nineteenth-century machine-breaking, Primitive Methodism, and general unions in Britain, for example, broke new ground and inspired a generation of Marxist labour historians.

There is, however, a central problem for Marxist historians of the working class which Hobsbawm has never been able to confront or explain satisfactorily. This is the question of why the revolutionary potential of the working class – the lynchpin of Marxist analysis – has been realised at some times and in some places, and not at other times or in other places. Explaining the defeats which socialism has suffered and the persistence of reformism is vital to understanding both the past and the present, and to formulating strategies for the future.

Hobsbawm’s starting-point for examining British working-class reformism seems to have been the various remarks of Marx, Engels and Lenin on the British ‘aristocracy of labour’. But he never believed that the existence of a stratum of better-paid, better-organised and usually skilled workers provided a satisfactory explanation, except perhaps for the period 1850-1889, and in 1970 he provided an interesting re-examination of Lenin’s remarks on the subject. [59]

As we have seen (section I ii above), in his 1949 article on Trends in the British Labour Movement since 1850, Hobsbawm did not believe that reformism precluded the possibility of a qualitative leap from the Popular Front to socialism. By 1963, when he rewrote the article, his optimism had evaporated and he was looking much more seriously for explanations for the persistence of reformism. He came up with three: the ‘spontaneity’ or ‘economism’ of trade union struggles and trade union consciousness as described by Lenin in What is to be Done? [60]; the partial incorporation of the trade union structure into the state (‘In Britain, where the working class has been for almost a century too strong to be wished away by the ruling classes, its movement has been enmeshed in the web of conciliation and collaboration more deeply, and far longer, than anywhere else’); and the non-revolutionary traditions of the British working class. [61]

This 1963 passage on the importance of tradition is worth quoting, especially for the extraordinary metaphor of individual psychological formation which Hobsbawm uses:

A higher degree of political consciousness, a special effort, is needed to prevent the movement from drifting into mere reformism ... a conscious socialist movement, and notably a communist party, provide such a special factor. If the working class attached itself to such a movement at the crucial phase of its development when it forms such attachments, it will have some built-in guarantee against the drift into reformism ... But if, as in the British case, it attaches itself to a movement largely formed in the pre-Marxist mould, it will not. The loyalty and theoretical inertia which it derives from its spontaneous experience will maintain its traditional attachments, and – unless quite extraordinary catastrophes occur, and even then by no means lightly or rapidly – it will stay with them. [62]

Hobsbawm was to return many times to this argument of the self-justifying ‘traditions’ of the British working class, for example in an article on the absence of an insurrectionary tradition in England comparable to Jacobinism in France. [63] The full implications, which would deprive Marxist history of any critical value other than the most trite and superficial, were brought out in an attack on ‘counterfactual’ labour history:

History is what happened, not what might have happened ... Now sometimes probabilities are so high that we can speculate with some realism, normally about what couldn’t have happened rather than what could. For instance, in assessing the development of the British labour movement since the 1880s we can exclude the possibility that a mass Marxist party could have developed instead of something like the Labour Party, before or after 1920, and we can therefore criticise the SDF or the CP not for what what they could not seriously hope to have achieved, but within the limits of what it was not so impracticable for them to achieve – e.g. greater success in local government election. [64]

Why did Hobsbawm become so convinced that the dead weight of tradition on the British labour movement was irremovable? Partly because his perspective on British working-class history is, for all his erudition, one-sided. In rejecting the ‘heroic moral epic’ style of labour history and deciding to concentrate on the long-term social and economic background of the movement, Hobsbawm ruled all revolutionary and near-revolutionary situations out of consideration. Thus he has very little to say about the high points of working-class struggle such as Chartism, the peak of the new unions in 1889-93, the waves of militancy of 1910-14 and 1919, or the General Strike of 1926.

While it is quite true that Marxists need to understand periods of downturn and slow development, the high points are also part of the story. To justify his one-sided perspective, Hobsbawm explicitly plays down the insurrectionary element in Chartism, for example, and defines the General Strike as belonging to the class of ‘sympathy and solidarity strikes’ rather than that of ‘political strikes’, such as the Marxist-led strikes in support of electoral reform in some European countries. [65] (He seems unaware of Rosa Luxemburg’s arguments against this false distinction in The Mass Strike.)

But Hobsbawm’s denial of any revolutionary potential to the British working class is also due to the complete absence from his writings of any concept of the self-activity of the working class as a revolutionary force. Working-class self-activity being purely ‘spontaneous’, ‘selfish’ and ‘economistic’, waves of struggle and militancy can be due only to left leadership. Thus he defines periods of radicalisation, not by working-class action, but by the appearance of ‘socialist leadership’ at the head of major trade unions. The consequence of this is that he can put the ‘rise of a left leadership’ in the unions in 1957-62, or even the ‘somewhat unexpected succession to the throne of F. Cousins’ in the Transport and General Workers Union on a level with the great waves of militant action of 1889-93 and 1910-14. [66]

The contribution of Marxism to the British labour movement has been to provide ‘groups of cadres or potential cadres, of leaders and brains rather than of followers.’ [67] The tradition of a ‘working-class elite and vanguard, rather than of a mass movement: of the thinking, reading, militant workers who put in a great deal of time on the cause, rather than of the average man’, is recognised as the main heritage passed on by the Social Democratic Federation to the Communist Party. [68] And given the non-revolutionary nature of the British working-class movement, this left vanguard ‘has always had a real if non-revolutionary function within the movement, namely that of making reformism effectively reformist.’ [69]

So Hobsbawm contrives to make a virtue out of what he sees as historical ‘necessity’ and replace the Marxist perspective of revolutionary working-class struggle by a permanent Popular Frontism, in which the Marxist cadre becomes a ginger group to the left of the Labour Party and in the trade unions.

(iii) Party and class

As a historian Hobsbawm has stressed the importance of studying the rank-and-file rather than the leaders. None the less, as a lifelong Communist militant he is well aware of the necessity for party organisation, and he frequently reminds us that no revolutions can be achieved without discipline. Yet the concept of party he uses seems irreparably distorted by Stalinism. In the Leninist tradition the party organises the active minority of the class, and fights for the leadership of the class within the mass organisations – trade unions or soviets. It does not substitute itself for the class or seek to take power on its behalf. Stalinism thoroughly buried this tradition. In Eastern Europe parties captured state machines without any active involvement of the working class, while in Western Europe mass CPs have described themselves as ‘the party of the working class’, thus blurring the distinction between party and class.

In many of Hobsbawm’s writings the blur remains. Thus:

In fact, as we know, where socialism has been victorious it has led to and been achieved by the transformation of parties into states ... [70]

It is not the working class itself which takes power and and exercises hegemony, but the working-class movement or party, and (short of taking an anarchist view) it is difficult to see how it could be otherwise. [71]

On this view soviets (of which Hobsbawm has remarkably little to say at any time) must have been an anarchist adventure. Of course, Lenin’s State and Revolution, which drew substantially on the experience of the Paris Commune, was also dismissed by many contemporary social democrats as ‘anarchist’. Hobsbawm would apparently have agreed with them. [72]

Admittedly Hobsbawm has shown some awareness of the dangers of the party substituting itself for the class:

In the extreme case of what left-wing discussion has baptised “substitutionism”, the movement replaces the class, the party the movement, the apparatus of functionaries the party the (formally elected) leadership the apparatus, and, in well-known historical examples the inspired general secretary or other leader the central committee. [73]

This in fact is virtually a paraphrase of a passage from Trotsky’s Our Political Tasks, though Hobsbawm does not deign to draw this to his readers’ attention. More fundamentally, without any notion of workers’ self-organisation and workers’ democracy, he has no solution for the problems it poses.

As we saw in the previous section, the corollary of Hobsbawm’s substitutionist view of the party is a fatalistic view of history. In The Age of Capital, the Paris Commune, which one might expect to be the high-point of the age for any Marxist historian, is dealt within a few sad little paragraphs. We are told that Marx’s

... attitude to the only attempt to make a proletarian revolution, the Paris Commune, was notably cautious. He did not believe it had the slightest chance of success. The best it might have achieved was to make a bargain with the Versailles government. After its inevitable end, he wrote its obituary in the most moving terms, but the object of this magnificent pamphlet (The Civil War in France) was to instruct the revolutionaries of the future, and in this he succeeded. However, the International, i.e. Marx, remained silent while the Commune was actually in being. [74]

This, in fact, is a travesty. Marx can scarcely be equated with the International when at least twenty-nine members International were elected to the Commune; while most accounts suggest that Marx made every effort to keep in close touch with events in Paris during the Commune. [75]

(iv) Economism

As we have seen above, a persistent theme in Hobsbawm’s discussions of the working class past and present is the insistence on the strict limits of ‘spontaneous’ working-class struggle, of what he often calls ‘economism’:

... a movement is not necessarily less economist and narrow-minded because it is militant, or even led by the left. The periods of maximum strike activity since 1960 – 1970-72 and 1974 – have been the ones when the percentage of pure wage strikes have been much the highest – over 90 per cent in 1971-2. And, as I have tried to suggest earlier, straightforward, economist trade union consciousness may at times actually set workers against each other rather than establish wider patterns of solidarity. [76]

Now of course this position has impeccable credentials. Lenin’s analysis of ‘trade union consciousness’ is an obvious source, and Gramsci – that peculiar milk-and-water Gramsci beloved of Eurocommunists – can be invoked to defend the view that ‘even the most militant trade unionism remains a subaltern part of capitalist society.’ [77]

And of course any Marxist must agree that economic militancy alone will never smash capitalism, that a party fighting for socialist ideas is necessary. But nonetheless Hobsbawm’s critique risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater. What is missing from the equation is, once again, working-class self-activity. For if the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself, then any form of working-class self-activity, no matter how limited, is a part of that process. And it is an inescapable reality that most workers initially go into action around questions connected with their own exploitation – i.e. wages, working conditions, etc. Now it is of course the job of revolutionaries, not simply to applaud but to try to generalise them, by seeking solidarity through collections, blacking, respect for pickets, etc. It is equally true that many trade union functionaries have a vested interest in preventing struggles from being generalised, in keeping ‘outside elements’ away from picket lines, etc. All this raises many tactical questions. But if such struggles are dismissed as ‘economistic’ in the first place, the questions cannot even be raised.

As a result, Hobsbawm’s work often seems to lack a sense of struggle, past or present, to be unaware of the potential within even small and sectional disputes. Thus in a broadcast on ‘shop-stewards’ in 1972, Hobsbawm commented on the dock strike then in progress:

In the docks dispute, the fact can’t be blinked that here are two lots of workers trying to do each other out of a job. The ones who win in such a situation are not necessarily those who represent what is best for the working class or the nation: they are simply the strongest. [78]

One would hardly guess from this melancholy account that the self-same dispute involved five dockers being jailed for illegal picketing; and that the resultant display of solidarity forced the TUC to call a general strike and obliged the Tory Government to invent a legal pretext to free the men.

The logic of a rejection of economism in Hobsbawm’s terms is wholly reformist. On the one hand it leads to situations where workers are asked to remain passive while their elected representatives act on their behalf (for example the economic sacrifices demanded of workers by the Italian CP). On the other hand it means writing the whole concept of ‘workers’ control’ out of the labour movement. Thus reviewing B. Pribicevic’s book on The Shop Stewards’ Movement and Workers’ Control 1910-1922 Hobsbawm states:

He shows clearly that, for both the militant activists and the rank-and-file, “workers’ control” was unreal. The militants did not know what they meant by it, except that capitalism must be overthrown for the benefit of the workers. Most of them turned to Communism in the end, which was logical, for their real concern was with class power. The rank-and-file did not care what it meant, so long as it gave their representatives a greater say in the determination of conditions in the workshop. The slogan died with the militant movement of those years and has remained dead ever since. About “workers’ control” itself Mr Pribicevic is also sensible, holding (a) that it cannot possibly seek to replace hierarchical management and decision-making and (b) that it ought probably not to be conducted through the trade unions. [79]

(v) Nationalism

In the foregoing we may find some clues to Hobsbawm’s strange ambivalence towards nationalism. In his own personal experience, as a Central European exile, speaking several languages fluently, there is little that could incline Hobsbawm towards, say, the kind of maudlin nationalism to which Edward Thompson is on occasion prone. As he wrote in 1969:

I, who belong to a people of refugees whose experience has been such as to make me 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, can understand the situation of the Kenyan Asians and feel 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. [80]

But within the Communist movement internationalism became divorced from the reality of the objectively international nature of capitalism and the equally objective interest of the working class in internationalism. Rather it became a tactical question. Internationalism meant loyalty to a Moscow-centred organisation; indeed, since the invasion of Czechoslovakia, ‘internationalism’ has within most Communist Parties become a code-word for pro-Russian policies. Nationalism, on the other hand, has become a means for Communists to relate to a broader audience: the ‘national traditions’ hailed by the British CP during the Second World War, or the ‘national culture’ to which the CP Historians’ Group devoted so much attention.

Against this background we can see the development of the contradictions within Hobsbawm’s work. On the one hand he has done valuable work showing the origins of nationalism. He has reminded us that in the nineteenth century the nation was ‘not a spontaneous growth but an artefact’ which had to be constructed. [81] And in 1977, reviewing Tom Nairn’s The Break-up of Britain, Hobsbawm warned that ‘the real danger for Marxists is the temptation to welcome nationalism as ideology and programme rather than realistically to accept it as a fact’, and he concluded with Lenin’s words: ‘Do not paint nationalism red.’ [82]

Back in 1952, Hobsbawm wrote an article called The Fight Against War in Britain’s History. Written at a time when British troops were fighting in Korea, it surveyed anti-war movements since Victorian days, and concluded:

This survey has deliberately stressed the strong, rather than the weak points of the anti-war movements of the past 150 years or so of British history. That is because it is today important to strengthen confidence in our own power. As James Connolly said in 1914: “Our curse is our belief in our weakness. We are not weak, we are strong.” [83]

How do we explain the fact that someone capable of such triumphalism at the height of the Cold War could flip so completely over a little war like the Falklands? The only reason seems to be that then Hobsbawm believed in the solid existence of a ‘socialist’ bloc: now he has no alternative point of reference. In any case there can be no doubt that he has flipped. So far from believing that the working class is objectively internationalist, Hobsbawm now puts what little faith he has left in the enlightened middle classes:

I hesitate to say that it was a split of the educated against the uneducated; although it is a fact that the major hold-outs against Thatcherism were to be found in the quality press, plus of course the Morning Star. [84]

Little evidence is adduced for this claim; certainly our eminent historian had made no attempt to examine the problem comparable, for example, to Sue Cockerill’s excellent article The War and the Workplace, [85] which actually sets out to analyse the level of consciousness in various workplaces and to assess the problems of fighting for an internationalist line. But then, such an article could be produced only in the framework of a party committed to organising in the workplace.

Instead, Hobsbawm hastens to make a virtue out of a necessity which he has not demonstrated to be such:

As the anti-fascist war showed quite dramatically, the combination of patriotism in a genuine people’s war proved to be politically radicalising to an unprecedented degree ... Michael Foot may be blamed for thinking too much in terms of “Churchillian” memories-1940, Britain standing alone, antifascist war and all the rest of it, and obviously these echoes were there in Labour’s reaction to the Falklands. But let us not forget that our “Churchillian” memories are not just of patriotic glory – but of victory against reaction both abroad and at home: of labour triumph and the defeat of Churchill. It’s difficult to conceive this in 1982 but as an historian I must remind you of it. It is dangerous to leave patriotism exclusively to the Right. [86]

It is hard to see the precise logic of this tirade. Perhaps if the Morning Star had headlined GOTCHA! in bigger letters than The Sun, the broad democratic alliance might have won the election. At all events it looks suspiciously like ‘painting nationalism red’.

(vi) The limits of historical objectivity

Hobsbawm frequently seeks to mobilise his immense academic prestige in support of his political judgements. He repeatedly backs up assertions by reminding us that he is speaking ‘as an historian’. In his writings on the past Hobsbawm’s scholarship is solid – though not, as we have seen, infallible – and his claims are reinforced by well-documented evidence. But when he ventures into the present, Hobsbawm’s pretended objectivity can often be seen to be no more than impressionism.

Indeed Hobsbawm often admits to being impressionistic in his judgements. Thus:

There is no equally simple way of measuring the highest degree of class consciousness, namely socialist consciousness, but if we are to take the active membership of all socialist organizations as a very rough criterion as distinct from trade union activism – then I also suspect that from some time after the early 1950s there is a decline, perhaps broken in the late 1960s. [87]

For a man who knows how many miles of telegraph lines there were on the European continent in 1869, [88] suspicion is a weak source of evidence. But the Falklands Fallout article is worse; here he tells us that the Argentinian invasion produced ‘an almost universal sense of outrage.’

How do we know?

This I think was a public sentiment which could actually be felt. Anybody who had any kind of sensitivity to the vibes knew that this was going on, and anyone on the Left who was not aware of this grass roots feeling, and that it was not a creation of the media, at least, not at this stage, but genuinely a sense of outrage and humiliation, ought seriously to reconsider their capacity to assess politics. [89]

How does it happen that one of our most distinguished Marxist intellectuals is having to rely on ‘vibes’? The answer can only lie in the argument developed above, that the Communist movement of which Hobsbawm was so long a member has now disintegrated beyond recovery. One of the tasks of the revolutionary party is precisely to enable us to grasp changing moods and patterns of consciousness; as Brecht might have written:

The individual has only two vibes
The Party has a thousand vibes

Now that the British Communist Party has become a small federation of disparate groups, it can no longer play this role.

As a result, Hobsbawm’s attempts to grasp contemporary reality often become pathetic. Thus he solemnly admonishes us:

The future of Labour and the advance to socialism depends on mobilizing people who remember the date of the Beatles’ break-up and not the date of the Saltley pickets. [90]

This was written in 1981, the year that the Specials’ Ghost Town reached number one during the month that riots spread through the country. But Hobsbawm is still back in the sixties with the lovable mop-tops. Hobsbawm’s thesis of the shrinking working class has been dealt with elsewhere. [91] It is easy to show that he neglects the growing role of blacks and women in the labour movement; fails to analyse the role of white collar workers in the working class; does not consider the working class on a global rather than a national scale.

But behind this lies an even more fundamental point. The working class that Hobsbawm now sees vanishing never really existed; it was a myth of the Stalinist era. For Hobsbawm is not so much a prophet as a casualty, the product of an age which distorted Marxism until it became unrecognisable. From Hobsbawm the historian we can still learn much, though his work needs a more critical assessment than it has yet received. But we should be extremely unwise to take him as a guide in the present struggle.


We should like to thank several SWP comrades for invaluable advice and comments. The Bibliography of the Writings of Eric Hobsbawm, prepared by Keith McLelland (in R. Samuel & G. Stedman Jones (eds.), Culture, Ideology and Politics (1983)) is an indispensable guide to anyone trying to study Hobsbawm’s evolution. We are also grateful to the staff of the Marx Memorial Library for assistance in tracing some of the more obscure items.


1. Labour Weekly, 8 October 1982.

2. Collected in M. Jacques & F. Mulhern (eds.), The Forward March of Labour Halted?, 1981.

3. Marxism Today, October 1982 and January 1983; Guardian, 27 September 1982 and 20 December 1982.

4. Cf A. Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class, 1982, and review by I. Birchall in Socialist Review 50, (1983).

5. Guardian, 29 December 1982.

6. E. Hobsbawm, Revolutionaries, 1977, pp.250-2.

7. An Interview with Eric Hobsbawm, Radical History Review 19, 1978-79; World News, 13 October 1956.

8. Marxism Today, July 1979.

9. R. Williams, Politics and Letters, 1981, pp.42-3. Unfortunately we have not been able to trace this pamphlet. Neither the British Museum nor the Marx Memorial Library has any pamphlet answering this description, and Keith McLelland, whose comprehensive bibliography was compiled with Hobsbawm’s assistance, has also been unable to locate a copy. Professor Williams has not replied to a request for further information.

10. E. Hobsbawm, The Historians’ Group of the Communist Party, in M. Cornforth (ed.), Rebels and Their Causes, 1978, p.26; see also B. Schwarz, “The People” in History: the Communist Party Historians’ Group, in R. Johnson et al. (eds.), Making Histories, 1982; R. Samuel, British Marxist Historians, 1880-1980: Part One, New Left Review 120, 1980; An Interview with Eric Hobsbawm, op. cit.

11. C. Hill, R.H. Hilton & E.J. Hobsbawm, Origins and Early Years, Past and Present 100, 1983, pp.3-14; The Historians’ Group, pp.32-3.

12. Trends in the British Labour Movement since 1850, Science and Society 13(4),1949.

13. Cf. The Historians’ Group and An Interview with Eric Hobsbawm. For a different view see E.P. Thompson, Cauldwell, in R. Miliband & J. Saville (eds.), The Socialist Register 1977, or EP Thompson, Edgell Rickword, Poetry Nation Review 9, 1979. Or, to take one example among many, see Vol.6 No.1 (Winter 1950-51) of The Modern Quarterly (a journal to which Hobsbawm contributed several articles). This contains a letter from La Pensée (a French CP journal) criticising The Modern Quarterly for neglecting the work of Zhdanov and enquiring: ‘Does it understand sufficiently the real role, the leading role of the USSR?’ The same issue contains a note from the Editor, John Lewis, apologising for the defects criticised by La Pensée, saying ‘We are aware, however, that much remains to be done, and we invite the assistance of our readers in the task of improving this journal.’

14. He did make some bows in the direction of orthodoxy. In reviewing Paul Sweezy’s Socialism he comments on Sweezy’s account of dialectics that ‘neither Lenin nor Stalin would agree’ (Science and Society, XIV 1, 1949-50). And in reporting the debate on Lukacs’ work in Hungary in 1949, he tells us that ‘the habit of overstressing the more purely Hegelian works of the Marx of the 1840s (which he himself did not publish) has its pitfalls, as Zhdanov pointed out’ (New Central European Observer, 26 November 1949). In 1950 Hobsbawm wrote a preface to the English translation of an attack on Lukacs by Joszef Revai, a member of the Political Bureau of the Hungarian Workers Party. Justifying such a political intervention in a literary debate, he writes ‘the Marxist differs from earlier champions of the writer as “architect of human souls” (Stalin) in seeing the re-creation of literature as a consciously and collectively planned piece of work under the leadership of the Communist Party.’ (Introduction to J. Revai, Lukacs and Socialist Realism, 1950).

In addition the pressures of loyalty led to some strange evasions and distortions. In an extensive book review of a history of the German Social Democratic Party between 1914 and 1921, Hobsbawm contrives never to mention the name of Rosa Luxemburg (New Central European Observer, 16 September 1950). In a perceptive study of Bernard Shaw’s Socialism, he shows how, when Shaw abandoned the working class, he filled the gap with two other things – a faith in bureaucracy and a fascination with ‘supermen’. Yet when he comes to deal with Shaw’s turn to Russian Communism in the thirties, he is obviously unable to show this as a continuation of the earlier trends and trails off into embarrassed confusion (Science and Society, XI 4, 1947). Finally, he reports with approval the attacks of the Hungarian CP on Lukacs for developing the ‘dangerous’ theory that ‘it is not necessary that a society, standing on a higher level from an economic point of view, should necessarily have a higher literature, art (or) philosophy’. As Hobsbawm doubtless well knew, the theory in question was not Lukacs’ at all, but was developed by Marx in the General Introduction to the Grundrisse (New Central European Observer, 26 November 1949).

15. World News, 16 January 1954.

16. New Central European Observer, 18 March 1950.

17. The British Communist Party, Political Quarterly, 25(1), 1954.

18. Cf. D. Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956-1968, 1976; R. Miliband & J. Saville (eds), The Socialist Register 1976; I. Birchall, The British Communist Party 1945-64, International Socialism (1st series) 50, 1972.

19. Daily Worker, 9 November 1956.

20. We hold no particular brief for Edward Thompson, but Hobsbawm’s ‘heavyhearted’ defence of the Russians stands in sharp contrast to such writing as: ‘The Polish and Hungarian people have written their critique of Stalinism upon their streets and squares. In doing so, they have brought back honour to the international Communist movement. These revolutions have been made by Communists; not it is true by those who arrogated to themselves all wisdom and authority, but by Communists just the same. Wherever this wind of Stalinism has been sown, Communists have also sown good socialist seeds. The crop of human brotherhood will prevail, when the winds have passed away.’ (Edward Thompson, Through the Smoke of Budapest, The Reasoner, November 1956).

21. World News, 26 January 1957.

22. World News, 13 October 1956.

23. World News, 1 December 1956. Hobsbawm’s presumption in quoting Lenin against his own Party naturally evoked the wrath of the orthodox. One horny-handed daughter of toil, Joan Simon, declared that ‘most intellectuals don’t really know what class solidarity means, and so expressing their anger with the Party if it does not meet their individual demands becomes almost an occupational disease at times of crisis.’ Hobsbawm was accused of being ‘most jesuitical’ and of ‘taking tags out of books and mechanically accepting them as directive doctrines.’ (World News, 15 December 1956).

24. World News, 16 June 1956.

25. World News, 26 January 1957.

26. World News, 9 February 1957.

27. The Historians’ Group, pp 39-42.

28. Dr Marx and the Victorian Critics. New Reasoner I 1957, reprinted in Labouring Men, 1964; The Future of Marxism in the Social Services, Universities and Left Review, 11, 1957.

29. Cuban Prospects, New Statesman, 22 October 1960; Crisis in the Ghetto, Labour Monthly, September 1967; Vietnam and the Dynamics of Guerrilla War, New Left Review 33, 1965.

30. New Statesman, 22 May 1964 (under name Francis Newton). Rock and roll, however, proved too much for him; he attributed its appeal to ‘infantilism’ and commented that ‘the habitual rock-and-roll fan, unless mentally rather retarded, tended to be between ten and fifteen years of age.’ (F. Newton, The Jazz Scene, 1961, pp 62).

31. Revolutionaries, pp.241, 243. We have a colleague at Middlesex Polytechnic who remembers Hobsbawm addressing a student meeting and ‘telling us we were all primitive rebels’, which caused much laughter.

32. Primitive Rebels, 1959.

33. An Interview with Eric Hobsbawm, p.116.

34. New Statesman, 17 September 1960.

35. New Left Review 54, 1969.

36. Revolutionaries, pp.109-120.

37. Ibid., p.13.

38. New Society, 4 April 1968.

39. Guerrillas in Latin America, in R. Miliband & J. Saville (eds.), The Socialist Register 1970.

40. The Jazz Scene, p.224.

41. Bandits (1972 edition), p.115.

42. E. Hobsbawm, Man and Woman in Socialist Iconography, History Workshop 6, 1978, pp.130-31 and R. Richardson, In the Posture of a Whore? a reply to Eric Hobsbawm, History Workshop 144, 1982.

43. New Society, 20 September 1973; Marxism Today October 1974 and July 1976.

44. Lecture to Birkbeck College Socialist Society, printed in Marxism Today, October 1974.

45. E. Hobsbawm with G. Napolitano, The Italian Road to Socialism, 1977.

46. Marxism Today, July 1976.

47. The Forward March of Labour Halted?, pp.20-37.

48. Marxism Today, October 1982.

49. Marxism Today, January 1983.

50. Marxism Today, October 1982.

51. Marxism Today, October 1982; The Forward March of Labour Halted?, p.180.

52. Revolutionaries, p 6.

53. The Age of Revolution, p 94.

54. Cf. review of M. Djilas, The New Class in The Cambridge Review, 7 June 1958.

55. Marxism Today, October 1975.

56. The Italian Road to Socialism, pp 96-7.

57. Commitment and Working Class History, Universities and Left Review.

58. Labor History and Ideology, Journal of Social History, 7, 1974.

59. Trends in the British Labour Movement since 1850; see also Revolutionaries, pp.121-29. Cf. T. Cliff, The Economic Roots of Reformism, Neither Washington nor Moscow, 1982, pp.108-117.

The fact that Hobsbawm had in the meantime been largely responsible for establishing a ‘labour aristocracy industry’ among historians, concerned with defining and describing the material conditions and political inclinations of this elusive upper stratum of the nineteenth century working class, did not alter the fact that he considers it an inadequate explanation of reformism, as he has recently been at pains to point out. (Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin, 40, 1980, pp.6-8).

60. See also Revolutionaries, pp.121-129.

61. Labouring Men, pp.316-343. The final sections of the 1949 article, Trends in the British Labour Movement since 1850, were rewritten for this volume.

62. Labouring Men, p.335.

63. Ibid., pp.371-385.

64. Labor History and Ideology, pp.376-7.

65. Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin 45, 1982, p.6; Labouring Men, p.381; May Day 1926: Nine Days that Shook Britain, Comment, 2 May 1964.

66. Labouring Men, pp.327-8, 332; the unexpected element in the succession of Frank Cousins was the sudden death of his predecessor.

67. Revolutionaries, p.105.

68. Labouring Men, p.236.

69. Ibid., pp.332-3.

70. Marxism Today, July 1977.

71. Class Consciousness in History, in I. Meszaros (ed.), Aspects of History and Class Consciousness, 1971, p.17.

72. Cf. A. Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow, 1971, p.46.

73. Meszaros, op. cit., p.16.

74. The Age of Capital, 1977, p.140.

75. Cf. M. Winock & J.-P. Azéma, Les Communards, 1964, pp.182-3, and, inter alia, Y. Kapp, Eleanor Marx, Vol.I, 1979, pp.125-8.

76. The Forward March of Labour Halted?, p.18.

77. Marxism Today, July 1977.

78. The Listener, 27 July 1972. On a smaller scale we may note that in 1973, at the time of the strike by shopworkers at Dillons University Bookshop in London, Hobsbawm approached the picket line asking to be allowed to cross as he needed a book for an important seminar. It took twenty minutes to persuade him not to cross, and he left, not offering to pass round collection sheets in London University, but telling the pickets that shopworkers were very ‘difficult to organise’ (something they doubtless knew already). (Eyewitness report).

79. New Statesman, 20 June 1959.

80. New Society, 2 October 1969.

81. The Age of Capital, p.117.

82. New Left Review, 105, 1977. Yet in a sense nationalism has distorted even some of Hobsbawm’s best work at a historian. Thus in Industry and Empire (1968) the absence of an international perspective makes him unable to give an adequate explanation of the ‘decline of Britain’ since the 1870s. Nigel Harris has characterised the result as a combination of ‘naive nationalism and its inevitable complement, folksy moralising economics’ (International Socialism (1st series), No.36, 1969). That it remains the best modern economic history of Britain shows the poverty of the competition.

83. Communist Review, October 1952.

84. Marxism Today, January 1983.

85. Socialist Review 7, 1982. Another smaller indication that Hobsbawm’s assessment is false is the fact that in February this year the Oxford Union voted that it would fight for Queen and Country. A Radio One phone-in the previous day showed a clear majority who would not fight.

86. Marxism Today, January 1983.

87. The Forward March of Labour Halted?, p.16, emphasis ours – NC/IB.

88. The Age of Capital, p.76.

89. Marxism Today, January 1983.

90. The Forward March of Labour Halted?, p.181.

91. Cf. Steve Jefferys in The Forward March of Labour Halted?, pp.103-13; D. Hallas, Is the Class Contracting? Socialist Review 10, 1982; C Harman, Farewell to the Working Class?, Socialist Worker, 16 April 1983.

Last updated 28.2.2005