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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