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Eric Hobsbawm: 1917 – 2012

Categories: Features

The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has died, aged 95. David Jamieson writes an obituary.

Anyone even partially acquainted with European history will know the name Eric Hobsbawm. This is the crowning paradox to a life of contradiction. Hobsbawm was an unrepentant Marxist and this should have been enough to consign his works to obscurity. Yet his sprawling, ornate master work Age of Revolution, Age of Empire, Age of Capital – chronicling the rise of the capitalist system are considered textbook material in any university in Britain and far beyond.

He was radicalised early in life by the rise of fascism in Europe. He was later to affirm that perhaps no young Jew in the world could observe the threat from the vulgar new mood of authoritarianism and racism without questioning capitalism. He was indeed part of a generation of young Jews (Noam Chomsky being a notable other) who where threatened by this “spreading black cloud”.

There was no going back for Eric Hobsbawm and he remained a committed socialist until the end of his life. This backdrop might explain why his views became increasingly contradictory towards the end of his life – he was very much a thinker of his time. And his time was one of immense victory and terrible cruelty. Of enormous creation and earth shaking destruction. His time was the twentieth century.

He has been eulogised as one of the greatest historians in history – noted for his ability for synthesis which leaves detail unharmed, for his handsome writing style and for his almost intimidating command of source material. Perhaps unsurprisingly one of his greatest achievements as an historian has been entirely omitted from the record on the day of his death.

Communist Party Historians Group

Hobsbawm was a leading figure in the CPGB historians group – which set itself the conscious target of generating a radical historiography that relied for its analysis upon a reading of developments in the economic and social world as opposed to establishment history which, ascribes historical change to the actions of ‘Great Men’.

Its membership was a roll-call of pre-eminent British historian’s including Christopher Hill, E.P Thomson and Brian Pearce. The group had some significant limitations – most of which were connected to the limitations of the CPGB; it suffered the party’s predilection for a general economic determinism which posited an evolutionary historical change, it obscured the tyrannical nature of the U.S.S.R, and its record of British Labour history was stunted by the need to maintain silence over the party’s failure’s and U-turns since its creation in 1920.

But the group did elaborate a science of history which not only pushed back reactionary interpretations of historical change – but also formed a significant bulwark against faddy, obscure claptrap in the form of post-modernism which, in its ugliest forms, rejected the enlightenment and sought to break scientific methodology from the world of human affairs. The group, and Hobsbawm in particular, also struggled to maintain a holistic approach to an understanding of society against (if often in alliance with) social ‘history from below’ – which neglected to analyse seriously both ruled and rulers.

So great was the impact of the group and the body of work that it produced that the Tories are struggling against it even today. This is much of the meaning of Gove’s assault on the syllabus – an attempt to re-impose the ‘Great Men’ thesis – and to bore children everywhere with ceaseless lists of Kings and Prime Ministers.

After the Group

In 1956 an Uprising in Hungary for democratic rights was brutally crushed by soviet troops and western supporters of the U.S.S.R were thrown into turmoil. The CPGB experienced an exodus of members – not least of its intellectuals. The group was hit hard and was wound up in 1957. Many leading members of the group left the party and changed there theoretical orientation – including E.P Thomson for whom the break provided something of a second wind. Indeed many members took the chance to re-appraise their perspectives – addressing for instance the group’s lack of attention to the role of women in history.

But Hobsbawm was disorientated by the ordeal. Although much of his best history was still ahead of him, he increasingly lost a handle on the present. He had always been staunchly loyal to his party – defending it right or wrong. Even when Harry Pollitt, the CPGB’s long serving General Secretary and Johnny Campbell, the editor of the party’s paper protested over the policy of non-aggression between the U.S.S.R and Nazi Germany, Hobsbawm performed intellectual gymnastics to defend the official line.

But now he was alienated from his party following his criticism of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and it was clear he understood little about the new left that would come to replace the CPGB dominance on the British far left. He was often dismissive of the events of 68 – complaining that it was motivated by ideological immaturity. By 1978 Hobsbawm looked at the working class movement in Britain and regarded a pale horse. His conclusions led to him providing some fuel for the rightward swing by many in the Communist movement – so called Euro-Communism. His arguments bore all the marks of his Stalinist training – a mechanical economism which misunderstands class, a tendency to trail social democracy and a ‘stageist’ evolutionary view of political strategy.

Although increasingly distanced from the world of active left-wing politics he continued to be a popular and prolific writer and polemicist. He defended the tradition of the group – its science and its essential humanism – against much lesser minds. He remained an erudite, passionate and intellectually powerful critic of the capitalist system until his final days.

He was undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest historians – and he left behind a written legacy that no person who wants to understand and change the world today can afford to ignore.

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