Eric Hobsbawm: 9 June 1917–1 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawm’s death brings to an end an era of Marxist history. Having lived to 95 years of age, Hobsbawm outlived his contemporaries – Christopher Hill, Dorothy and EP Thompson, Raphael Samuel, George Rudé, GEM de St Croix – many of whom formed part of Great Britain’s influential Communist Party Historians Group. If Hobsbawm’s achievements were not necessarily greater than some of the others, his influence, like his longevity, outstripped them all. His famous history quartet (The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, The Age of Extremes) has for many years been essential reading for undergraduate students of history. Is there another account of the modern world with comparable scope and explanatory power? Hobsbawm was also a regular commentator on events – a kind of public intellectual whose wide-ranging interests made him a favourite of media outlets.

As an example, Hobsbawm’s most recent book (his final is said to be at proof stage) How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism shows him at his best. Where one might expect a rehash of accepted notions about Marxism, Hobsbawm’s sharp intelligence turns that history on an angle, showing us its previously unseen faces. Featuring significant essays on the fortunes of Marx’s own work, two pieces on Gramsci (one, a brilliant introduction to the Sardinian’s political thought, claims him as the ‘most original’ thinker produced in the West since 1917), and discrete essays on the different historical phases of Marxism itself. The essays feature Hobsbawm’s usual qualities: command of his materials, magisterial scope, analytical power and argumentative charge, restless energy, and stylistic fluency. How to Change the World is a tremendous introduction to the field and to Hobsbawm himself. It is a work equally accessible to the new student of Marxism and thought-provoking for those long familiar with it.

In his vast erudition and his command of style, one can discern Hobsbawm’s classical education. Like many other leftists – Terry Eagleton springs to mind – Hobsbawm attended Cambridge University, where he eventually taught. Indeed, places like Cambridge or, in the US, Princeton, are remaining bastions of the former elite education system, before the advent of ‘mass education’ in the 1960s. Hobsbawm predated this change, but in any case, those elite universities continue to operate under the old elite logic. Thus it is no surprise that Hobsbawm seemed like an intellectual of an earlier kind, one whose erudition was somehow deeper than the facile flexibility of many modern thinkers.

For all his achievements, Hobsbawm’s oeuvre is profoundly attenuated by a deep and lasting contradiction between his vocation as a historian and his inveterate Stalinism (he remained a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain until it wound itself up in the early 1990s). How, one might legitimately ask, could someone with such an intellect – and a historian, no less – fail to make a thoroughgoing critique of those regimes that formed the Eastern Bloc, most crucially the Soviet Union under Stalin? Hobsbawm’s own explanation, in his autobiography Interesting Times, is that his political formation, in the teeth of an emerging fascism and a horizon of world revolution, was of a different kind to the limited conditions which formed his contemporaries.

Whatever the case, like a crack that disfigures a glass bowl, Hobsbawm’s Stalinism critically weakens his corpus. For example, in How to Change the World, the entire Trotskyist movement – always politically marginal, yet theoretically rich – is dismissed in a few asides. When one of the essays is titled ‘The Era of Anti-Fascism: 1929–1945’, this is a grievous omission.

If as a historian, he is first rate, the closer Hobsbawm moved to direct political comment, the more questionable his pronouncements were. His record on international questions is to be applauded. He opposed the Iraq War, the bombing of Afghanistan, the intervention into Bosnia and the war on terror – an inventory of opposition to be celebrated. But his record on domestic politics is less salutary. Formed in the era of the Popular Front of the 1930s, whose chief strategic characteristic was an alliance between labour and progressive capital, Hobsbawm’s outlook never strayed. Hence he shifted from the reformist Eurocommunism to a later rotten support for the crushing of the left-wing of the British Labour Party, a process essential to the rise of Tony Blair. By contrast, he was unremittingly negative about those movements that broke with Stalinism after the Second World War, including the widespread radicalisation of the 1960s.

Still, with the fall of the Eastern Bloc countries, Stalinism has ceased to have the same significance to those on the Left. For one, Stalinism itself – that collection of former communist parties – is no longer what it was before the 1990s. With the fall of the Eastern Bloc, it could no longer anchor itself in ‘actually existing socialism.’ While the result was the destruction of most of that tradition in places like Australia, others began to rethink and reconstruct themselves. Equally, the Trotskyist tradition – which has dominated the tiny far left in Australia for over twenty years – no longer has a basis for its maintenance as a distinct current.

In this relatively new context, perhaps the strengths of Hobsbawm’s work – his historical erudition, his restless intelligence – will come to the fore and his less-salutary positions will recede into the background. And even if Hobsbawm’s work can never transcend those flaws, it still offers us more than enough in return.

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Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. Hobsbawn’s political analyses ‘at the coalface’ should certainly recede after his passing. But as an analyst of the growth and development of capitalism he’s peerless. I read the Guardian obituary last night and pulled his Echoes of the Marseillaise off the shelf. Still a brilliant overview of the historiography of the French Revolution nearly a quarter of a century after it was written.

  2. Echoes of the Marseillaise is an excellent book, isn’t it John? Hobsbawm’s death has made me want to go back and reread his history again. As well as Rude and the others – you might be especially interested in G.E.M de St Croix’s Class Struggles in the Ancient Greek World (which is a lot about Rome).

  3. I wonder why Niall Ferguson — the quintessential slick colonialist historian — has been praising Hobsbawm so much lately.

    I’m not talking about Hobsbawm here (haven’t read him) but the caveat with a lot of Oxbridge “Marxists” (e.g. Hitchens, Monbiot, Graham Greene) is that their left-wing politics often seems like a cover for an older, Tory mentality. I read a Guardian article by Eagleton once where he seemed confused by Graham Greene’s politics, but Greene actually makes perfect sense when you see him as a British-colonial Tory apologist. When he sided with communist groups, they all tended to be *anti-American* communist groups — it makes sense as a kind of bitterness at the loss of the British Empire. (He also conveniently set “The Quiet American” in a former French colony, so the British narrator didn’t look like he was objecting to Yanks encroaching on former British turf — as they were doing in northern Burma at the same time. And his books are full of nasty Americans wherever you look — Harry Lime in “The Third Man,” the Puritan CIA agent in “Quiet American”, etc.
    British colonial officers in his books, by comparison, are mostly innocent souls — “The Heart of the Matter” with Scobie falling victim to Arabs because he doesn’t have the heart to be firm with them! Even Orwell, who snuck some really savage anti-Irish and anti-Burmese prejudices into novels that were supposedly left-wing, thought Greene’s policeman character was too innocent…)
    Monbiot’s a Hitchens in the making: gets a lot of things right, but also makes venomous tweets against Assange, repeating Pentagon propaganda. (I wonder if his “arrest Blair” campaign was serious, or just a PR stunt to look left-wing.)
    Eagleton’s basically honest/right on a lot of things, but he’s gullible when it comes to Graham Greene (and probably other crypto-Tory “comrades”). He trusts Zizek far more than I would, too.

  4. At last! Thanks Rjurik,this is a great overview of Hobsbawm, an old favourite I haven’t read for years. Will now read ‘How to change the world’.

    I’m interested in your comment about the elite universities with their ‘classical’ education and ‘old elite logic’ – I wonder what exactly you’re saying with ‘classical’ and ‘elite’? Latin and Greek? – and your suggestion that this education produces deeper erudition than the ‘facile flexibility’ of many modern thinkers. I think there’s a lot of truth in this, which is problematic I reckon.

    • Jane,

      Yes. The shift from an ‘elite’ education system (for an educated elite) to a ‘mass’ one in the post-war years, has a number of effects. I’ve never read anyone about this, so it’s really just my own cobbled together ideas. But it seems clear that – at the risk of sounding like a conservative crank – the kind of ‘intellectual’ produced has changed. It’s not so much a question of better or worse but of shifting emphases in eduction. Many of the old left intellectuals like Hobsbawm or Perry Anderson are multi-lingual, are schooled in classics, know all sorts of history (ancient, etc), the ‘great’ literature, and so on – precisely the areas which have been shut down in most modern universities, who, if they focus on the arts at all, tend more towards cultural theory, media, film studies, etc. While the classic education gives one depth, the modern gives one the ability to rove a wider contemporary field. The classic is designed to produce old-school erudition for the few, the modern one a cohort of productive workers for white-collar jobs. There’s a lot more to it than this, and a lot more that goes along with it, but anyway, that seems to me to be the heart of it.

  5. Yes, I think you’re right in your characterisation of the difference, was just wondering if that’s what you were referring to. I think we’ve lost a lot by tossing out the classics of all sorts, from ancient history to Greek and Latin and literary classics. And yes, the modern education gives one the ability to rove a wider contemporary field, but it seems to me the most brilliant minds today still have some residue of that earlier education … I’m thinking of Jameson, although I guess he’s not young and probably had a more traditional education anyway.

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