Eric Hobsbawm’s histories

Issue: 157

Christian Høgsbjerg

Marx remains the essential base of any adequate study of history, because—so far—he alone has attempted to formulate a methodological approach to history as a whole, and to envisage and explain the entire process of human social evolution. In this respect he is superior to Max Weber, his only real rival as a theoretical influence on historians, and in many respects an important supplement and corrective. A history based on Marx is conceivable without Weberian additions, but Weberian history is inconceivable except insofar as it takes Marx, or at least the Marxist Fragestellung [problematic], as its starting point. To investigate the process of human social evolution means asking Marx’s type of questions, if not accepting all his answers. The same is true if we wish to answer the second great question implicit in the first: that is, why this evolution has not been even and unilinear, but extraordinarily uneven and combined.1

This statement by Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) is from a 1983 lecture on “Marx and History” commemorating the centenary of Karl Marx’s death. On the bicentenary of his birth it reminds us of the importance of Marx, and of Hobsbawm himself, for the study of the past. The author of, among many other works, a classic quartet on modern world history, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm was widely respected as one of the greatest historians of the left and one of the greatest historians of the 20th century more generally.2 As Keith Thomas, author of the classic study Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), put it, “in an age of narrow specialists” Hobsbawm was “the supreme generalist” who had “no superior in the historical profession” when it came to “sheer intelligence”.3 For Roy Foster: “Hobsbawm’s breadth of reference, and his omnivorous appetite for investigating multiple levels of social experience with the tools of economics and sociology as well as historical research, enabled him to illuminate not only British labour history, but also the mores of Sicilian bandits, Chicago gangsters and South American peasants”.4 For Simon Schama, Hobsbawm was “the Thucydides of socialist historiography, stern in his standards, Olympian in his comparative vision, unapologetically urgent in his insistence that the present would stumble in the dark without the illumination of the past”.5

After Hobsbawm’s death in 2012 many historians and commentators on the right, such as Niall Ferguson, acknowledged his contribution, though the right’s common response was captured by the title of Oliver Kamm’s assessment in The Times, “Eric Hobsbawm: a talented historian who outshone his Marxist ideology”.6

This article will argue the opposite—Hobsbawm would have always stood out as a fine historian, but his Marxism gave him an advantage when framing and synthesising the human past. However, it will also suggest that weaknesses in Hobsbawm’s politics arising from his soft-Stalinist “Eurocommunism” circumscribed his contribution to Marxist theory, and meant that even his masterful historical writings forfeited some of the power they might otherwise have had.

The making of a Marxist historian in the age of catastrophe

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, on 9 June 1917, Hobsbawm was the grandson of a Jewish immigrant cabinet maker from Russian-Poland who moved to London in the 1870s. His English-born father Leopold Percy Hobsbaum met his Austrian mother Nelly Grün in 1913 while working in colonial Egypt, and when they registered Eric’s birth at the British Consulate his surname was misspelled “Hobsbawm”. After the war, amid the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they moved to Vienna where Eric attended elementary school. Hobsbawm recognised that he grew up in a milieu “now virtually extinct, the Jewish middle class culture of central Europe after the First World War”, and “under the triple impact of the collapse of the bourgeois world in 1914, the October Revolution and antisemitism”. Amid the catastrophe of the post-1914 world, October 1917 shone like a beacon and it was through the lens of October that Hobsbawm witnessed the Viennese workers’ riots and the burning of the Palace of Justice in 1927 and the German general election of 1930, when Hitler’s Nazis came second to the Social Democrats (SPD).7

In 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash, Hobsbawm’s father died suddenly of a heart attack and in 1931 his mother died of a lung disease. His uncle Sidney moved Eric and his sister Nancy to Berlin, where Hobsbawm was soon radicalised by economic collapse, mass unemployment and the rise of the Nazis. In the circumstances of a decaying liberalism, young Jewish intellectuals:

became either communists or some equivalent form of revolutionary Marxists, or if we chose our own version of blood-and-soil nationalism, Zionists. But even the great bulk of young intellectual Zionists saw themselves as some sort of revolutionary Marxist nationalists. There was virtually no other choice. We did not make a commitment against bourgeois society and capitalism, since it patently seemed to be on its last legs. We simply chose a future rather than no future, which meant revolution…a new world rather than no world. The great October Revolution and Soviet Russia proved to us that such a new world was possible, perhaps that it was already functioning… If it was to be the future it had to work, so we thought it did.8

In 1932 Hobsbawm joined the Sozialistischer Schülerbund (Socialist School Students’ Association, SSB), affiliated to the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), which was then avidly following the Communist International’s ­catastrophist “class against class” or “Third Period” line. Here social democracy represented “social fascism”, and revolution, not counter-revolution, was the order of the day. Hobsbawm would later accept that Leon Trotsky (who called for an anti-fascist united front between the SPD and KPD) “made some very sound criticisms of the Comintern’s disastrous sectarianism before 1934”.9 Yet for Hobsbawm, his secondary school years “in Berlin working for the world revolution” were the most critical of his life and made him “a lifelong communist”.10

Hobsbawm sold the SSB periodical Schulkampf (the struggle in the schools) and distributed leaflets during Weimar Germany’s “last, no longer quite free, elections”, but the personal risks involved meant that he preferred to “chuck the leaflets through the letterbox and whip down the stairs again” rather than engage in door-step ­conversations. It was also at this time that Hobsbawm’s uncle taught him “an important lesson: never do anything that might even suggest that you are ashamed of being Jewish. Quite a lot of people wanted to dodge it”.11

After Hitler’s seizure of power in March 1933, the greatest defeat in the history of the international working class movement, the KPD was banned and its members began to be sent to concentration camps. Hobsbawm and his sister were sent to England after Sidney lost his job with Universal Films when a new law required foreign companies to employ a minimum of 75 percent German citizens. In London, the teenage Hobsbawm’s adopted parents forbade him from joining even the reformist Labour Party let alone the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). But, having read The Communist Manifesto and other writings of Marx and experienced a turning point in world history in Berlin, Hobsbawm now developed a real interest in history. He “turned out to be good at it because I was a Marxist or tried to be, and therefore answered questions in examinations in an unexpected way”.12 In his notable 2002 autobiography, Interesting Times, he wrote that his Marxism was not then concerned with overall historical development and “the succession of ‘modes of production’”, but with “the place and nature of the artist and the arts (in fact, literature) in society or, in Marxist terms, ‘How is the superstructure connected to the base?’”. The questions Hobsbawm asked as a teenager “permanently shaped my work as a historian.13

In September 1936 Hobsbawm won an open scholarship to study history at King’s College, Cambridge, though not necessarily the prescribed syllabus. Told to start with Lord Acton’s 1906 Lectures on Modern History, Hobsbawm “said that is exactly the kind of history that is no good”.14 He was now free to join the CPGB and soon made an impression, according to the student journal Granta, as the “freshman in King’s who knows about everything”.15 His tutor agreed, and thought Hobsbawm the cleverest undergraduate he had ever taught, although “you couldn’t say I taught him—he was unteachable. Eric already knew everything”.16 By 1939 Hobsbawm was editing Granta and had been elected to the rather secretive and elitist Cambridge Apostles, “a small community, essentially of brilliant undergraduates and early postgraduates…whose purpose is to read and discuss papers written by its members”.17

The CPGB’s growth in the 1930s was because (aside from the Independent Labour Party) it was the only significant socialist organisation seriously organising against racism, fascism and austerity. Hobsbawm was in his element at “Red Cambridge”, engaging with intellectuals like Maurice Dobb and Michael Postan, and theoretically and practically with the Marxism of the CPGB, now in the new era of the new-fangled “Popular Front”. Formulated by the Comintern in 1935 after Hitler’s victory, the Popular Front turned the widespread commitment to working class unity in the face of fascism into an abandonment of “world revolution” in favour of “broad democratic alliances” between labour and capital to pressure Western imperial powers into a military alliance to defend the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. The failure of this strategy to stop fascism became brutally clear with the defeat of the republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. Nonetheless, Popular Frontism and the idea of distinct reformist national “roads to socialism” later formulated by Western Communist Parties profoundly and permanently shaped Hobsbawm’s politics and writing of history.

The Second World War interrupted Hobsbawm’s studies (including in extra-European history through his connections with South Asian colonial students and left wing imperial historians like Victor Kiernan).18 During the war Hobsbawm served with the Royal Engineers building defences on the East Anglian coast, where he made his first connections with British workers and acquired his “admiration for their uprightness, their distrust of bullshit, their sense of class, comradeship and mutual help”.19 After the war he completed his degree and in 1947 was appointed a lecturer in history at Birkbeck College in London, where he would remain for most of his career as a much loved, respected and dedicated lecturer and teacher.

Specialising in late 19th century British labour history as the necessary archive material was based in Britain, Hobsbawm’s 1950 doctoral thesis was on “Fabianism and the Fabians, 1884-1914”.20 His interest in the Fabians quickly waned, but working class history in Victorian Britain, including the “New Unionism” of 1889, proved more fascinating and was the subject of his first book, an edited collection of documents entitled Labour’s Turning Point, 1880-1900 (1948).21

The Communist Party Historians’ Group, 1946-56

Labour’s Turning Point was part of a series, “History in the Making”, inspired by Dona Torr, that brought together documents on class struggle back to the English Civil War of 1640-60. Torr was editor of Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Selected Correspondence, author of an uncompleted work on Tom Mann and His Times, and a leading figure in the newly formed Communist Party Historians’ Group (CPHG). As John Saville put it, Torr taught her young protégés that “history was the sweat, blood, tears and triumphs of the common people, our people”.22 The CPHG formed in 1946 to discuss how A L Morton’s pathbreaking A People’s History of England (1938) might be improved for a second edition, and soon comprised an outstanding constellation of Marxist intellectuals. It included not only Hobsbawm, Morton, Saville and Torr but also figures like Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Victor Kiernan, George Rudé, Dorothy and E P Thompson, Jack Lindsay, Brian Pearce, George Thomson and a second generation Communist schoolboy called Raphael Samuel.

The group was inevitably shaped by the CPGB’s “People’s Front” politics, which intensified the general Anglocentric focus resulting from their attempts to develop the kind of “People’s History of England” pioneered by Morton. As Hobsbawm later admitted, as a collective they were “weak on the history of the empire and colonial exploitation, Scottish, Welsh and Irish history, and ‘the role of women in economic life’”.23 Yet as Marxist historians they were shaped profoundly by Communist economist Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946). Dobb sought to combine theoretical clarity about the concept of “mode of production” with a focus on the economics of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.24 As Hill declared, “nine-tenths of the discussion on Morton can now be scrapped by simply telling him to read [Dobb’s work] and rewrite accordingly”.25

Hobsbawm recalled the CPHG accordingly as “a continuous Marxist seminar” where, perhaps, “we really became historians”.26 In the hostile intellectual atmosphere of the Cold War, allies in the wider historical profession were rare. Hobsbawm’s organising drive and skills in overcoming this were evident in his critical role in establishing, in 1952, the journal Past and Present, formed and edited by leading members of the CPHG and a few distinguished non-Marxist, yet sympathetic, historians. Today it is one of the most prestigious historical journals in the world. Like the Annales school in France, it helped revolutionise historical writing in Britain by combining traditional narrative history with the emerging analytical methodology of the social sciences. In its early years the role played by figures like Hill, Hobsbawm and Kiernan ensured it had a distinctly “radical” inflection, such that the Institute of Historical Research in London originally refused to stock it.27 Hobsbawm recalled that in the Cold War’s anti-Communist environment “we couldn’t get away with bullshit”, and had to fight for acceptance from those prejudiced “against anything describing itself as Marxist history… [A]s a matter of intellectual discipline this wasn’t all bad”.28

The CPHG’s rich research project and sophisticated application of Marxism to British history represented a clear theoretical advance, building on the earlier traditions of radical labour historiography represented by figures like G D H Cole and Raymond Postgate (co-authors of The Common People, 1946), and working class autodidacts like Mark Starr (author of A Worker Looks at History, 1917). Hobsbawm’s would-be first book, The Rise of the Wage Worker, was rejected as “too biased” by the commercial publisher Hutchinson.29 Nonetheless, Hobsbawm made notable contributions on British labour history in this period. His 1951 article “The Tramping Artisan”, according to Malcolm Chase, “helped demolish the perimeter fence labelled ‘Industrial Revolution’ that the Webbs especially had erected between labour history and anything before the late-18th century”.30 Other outstanding articles (many later collected in Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (1964), included “The Machine Breakers” (1952) and “The Labour Aristocracy in Nineteenth Century Britain” (1954).31 Hobsbawm soon demonstrated his flair for working across a far wider canvas of time, space and place than most of his contemporaries. This is evidenced in his fine two-part essay for Past and Present, “The Crisis of the European Economy in the Seventeenth Century” (1954), which contributed to the post-Dobb debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

As CPGB loyalists, the CPHG understood that certain areas were out of bounds. The history of the labour movement in Britain after the foundation of the party itself in 1920, as Hobsbawm himself recalled, “raised some notoriously tricky questions”, for it necessitated analysis of the not altogether glorious role of the CPGB during and after the 1926 General Strike.32 In 1949, when Brian Pearce circulated around the party an article marking the 20th anniversary of the appointment of Harry Pollitt as CPGB general secretary, he was quietly disciplined by an apparatchik. “It was not, he said, that there was anything incorrect in what I had written: on the contrary… But the story could be misunderstood and be used against the party. In fact, a copy of my little piece had gone astray and was being used by [Trotskyist] ‘enemies’ in Lambeth”, Pearce recalled.33 Soviet history was also off limits, though the CPGB had drafted Hobsbawm and Raymond Williams to write War on the USSR? (1940) to justify Stalin’s invasion of Finland.34 In 1954 Brian Pearce was writing a similar work of propaganda, A People Reborn, about Northern Ossetia, when, to his subsequent shame, he agreed to use the euphemism “given an opportunity to develop elsewhere” instead of “deported” with respect to the local Chechens and Ingushes.35 When Hill wrote a short book, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, to celebrate the revolution’s 30th anniversary in 1947, he was criticised in the CPGB’s Labour Monthly by John Gollan for not exalting Stalin enough and for daring to include Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution in the bibliography.36

Alex Callinicos has described how Trotsky’s political writings in the 1920s and 1930s and his masterful History of the Russian Revolution “inspired some of the ablest of his followers to write contemporary histories of other 20th-century revolutions that sought to trace the interplay of class interests and political forces that in each case led to defeat—Harold Isaacs on the Chinese Revolution of 1925-7, Pierre Broué on the German Revolution and on the Spanish Civil War, Adolfo Gilly on the Mexican Revolution”.37 That Hill and other CPHG members read Trotsky’s History (and, according to Hobsbawm, C L R James’s 1938 classic Marxist history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins “in spite of the author’s known Trotskyism”), demonstrated that the CPHG’s Marxism was more subtle and sophisticated than the “vulgar Marxism” that paraded as the USSR’s official ideology and was echoed in the loyal CPGB.38 This was apparent in 1954 when a CPHG delegation, including Hobsbawm, Morton, Hill and Robert Browning, visited Leningrad after Stalin’s death. They were underwhelmed by the experience and the evident lack of revolutionary spirit of their official guides: “Standing by the Finland Station in the marvellous winter light of that miraculous city I shall never get used to calling St Petersburg, what we thought about the October Revolution was not the same as what our guides from the Leningrad branch of the Academy of Sciences thought”.39

More generally, the CPHG never confronted the mechanical “productive force determinism” of Stalinism. There, as Chris Harman put it, “development of the forces of production inevitably led to corresponding changes in society, so the growth of industry in Russia would inevitably lead from a ‘workers’ state’ to ‘socialism’ and from ‘socialism’ to ‘communism’, regardless of the misery and hardship involved”.40 The group’s tendency to avoid explicit theorising around Marxist concepts such as “base and superstructure” and “modes of production” was illustrated in 1955 when a leading CPGB member, Emile Burns, requested the CPHG write a book on Marxist approaches to history. His (reasonable) suggestion was resisted by the group, who were keen to avoid having to tacitly defend “productive force determinism”, even if it came at the expense, in E P Thompson’s words, of being “quaintly empirical”. The former chair of the CPHG Rodney Hilton insisted in response to Burns on the need for “concrete historical writing as against theoretical polemics of the recent King Street [CPGB HQ] kind”.41 By concentrating on doing “actual history” rather than debating the philosophy of history, the CPHG avoided the risk of either writing “vulgar Marxism” or provoking factional disputes with CPGB loyalists. But this lack of theoretical clarification about historical materialism would have its own long-term costs. Events in the outside world meant a faction fight between the historians and the CPGB’s Muscovite-minded leadership would come sooner rather than later.

Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” of 1956, when he denounced the “cult of personality” around Stalin, raised many historical questions about Soviet ­history—not least what Khrushchev was doing while the cult of Stalin grew. The crushing of the Hungarian Revolution later that year then posed the question of whether Communists should take sides with Soviet tanks or the revolutionary workers’ councils.

The crisis of 1956 provoked a rebellion against the Kremlin’s authority in Communist Parties internationally, with the CPGB losing a quarter of its 30,000 members. The famous remark attributed to Khrushchev in 1956—“Historians are dangerous people…capable of upsetting everything”—certainly seemed proven for the CPGB. Many of those who left were former members of the CPHG and even Hobsbawm partially supported the rebellion, joining those demanding “a serious history of the CP”.42 Thompson and Saville led the rebellion by publishing the Reasoner and the New Reasoner—a forerunner of New Left Review—and raised the banner of “socialist humanism” to try and build a “New Left”, alongside younger figures like Raphael Samuel. Others like Hill, Hilton and Kiernan resigned, but produced more historical work rather than remaining actively committed to revolutionary politics. A minority—including Pearce, Peter Fryer and Peter Sedgwick—joined the tiny Trotskyist movement. In a parting shot, Pearce noted that one of his greatest regrets of his 23 years in the CPGB was “that I allowed myself to be miseducated into helping in the vilification of Trotsky and his ideas…only through what you call ‘Trotskyism’ can people who have rightly become disgusted with Stalinism be saved, so to speak, for Marxism”.43

Hobsbawm, however, stayed in the CPGB. He felt a loyalty to the wider “international Communist” movement, and believed (with some justification) that those leaving to build the New Left were throwing the baby of “Leninism” (as he saw it) out with the bathwater of Stalinism. To follow Pearce and systematically rethink one’s whole politics would have been very painful in the short term, especially when the Trotskyist movement was so tiny.44 Hobsbawm met the former Trotskyist (and biographer of Trotsky) Isaac Deutscher in 1956-7, who told him: “Whatever you do, don’t leave the Communist Party. I let myself be expelled in 1932 and have regretted it ever since”.45 Psychologically and personally too, Hobsbawm reflected that “losing the handicap of party membership would improve my career prospects” and “it would have been easy to slip out quietly”, but “I could prove myself to myself by succeeding as a known communist—whatever ‘success’ meant—in spite of that handicap, and in the middle of the Cold War”.46 Yet, though, like Dobb, he stayed in the CPGB and in public nominally followed the line, Hobsbawm took a step back from his (presumably fairly minimal) routines of party activity to concentrate on his historical work, and refused to end his connections with those CPHG members who had left the party.

While remaining solidly “old left” in his politics, Hobsbawm nonetheless successfully established a creative dialogue with the growing “New Left”, taking part in CND and other anti-nuclear protests, and even translating once for Che Guevara in 1962.47 As Ian Birchall and Norah Carlin noted in their 1983 analysis of Hobsbawm’s politics in International Socialism:

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 revolutionary left, among them Peter Binns and Tariq Ali.48

Unlike many Communists, Hobsbawm welcomed the revolutionary year of 1968, and contributed to new radical publications like Black Dwarf that grew out of the revolt in Britain. As he put it in Interesting Times, “party membership no longer meant to me what it had since 1933. In practice I recycled myself from militant to sympathiser or fellow-traveller or…from effective membership of the British Communist Party to something like spiritual membership of the Italian CP, which fitted my ideas of communism rather better”.49

Hobsbawm’s golden age

After 1956 Hobsbawm produced a rich body of historical work which would establish his international reputation by the time 1968 erupted, not least in the field of “labour history” which he helped to shape through a series of ­scintillating essays—collected in Labouring Men—and by playing a leading role in the Society for the Study of Labour History (SSLH), formed in Britain in 1960.50 His first full-length work, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (1959), built on his new-found interest and links with Italian Communism and established many of the pathbreaking themes—such as the phenomenon of “social banditry”—which would become his trademark. The work was shaped by social anthropology and Hobsbawm’s reading of Antonio Gramsci (a figure whose writings were only just beginning to be translated into English), and focused on rural millenarian peasant movements and early urban working class movements in Western and Southern Europe, what he called “the pre-history of the modern labour and peasant movements”.51 His 1969 book Bandits was based on additional research in Latin America, and Hobsbawm noted that social bandits:

are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported…social banditry of this kind is one of the most universal social phenomena known to history, and one of the most amazingly uniform.52

Notwithstanding his imaginative sympathy for “primitive rebels” and “social bandits”, Hobsbawm’s own predilections tended towards the “modern”. In the late 1950s he indulged his early love of jazz in The Jazz Scene (1959) and worked as a critic for the New Statesman “under the pseudonym Francis Newton, after Frankie Newton, one of the few jazz-players known to have been a communist, an excellent but not superstar trumpeter who played with Billie Holiday on the great Commodore Records session that produced ‘Strange Fruit’”.53 In his 1959 obituary of Holiday, Hobsbawm wrote movingly of being “transfixed by the most heart-rending voice of the past generation…suffering was her profession; but she did not accept it…while she destroyed herself, she sang, unmelodious, profound and heartbreaking. It is impossible not to weep for her, or not to hate the world which made her what she was”.54 In the aftermath of the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, Hobsbawm was also active in the Stars Campaign for Interracial Friendship (SCIF), a fascinating and neglected organisational forerunner to the likes of Rock Against Racism in the 1970s and Love Music Hate Racism today.55

Primitive Rebels provided an analytical framework for studies of workers and peasants, and for thinking about the kind of “history from below” that CPHG members like Thompson and Samuel would become renowned for. Indeed, Hobsbawm himself contributed to this trend, for example in Captain Swing (1969), co-written with George Rudé. This built on a discussion in Primitive Rebels of the southern English farm-labourers’ rising of 1830 against the introduction of threshing machines, and provided a classical Marxist account of “an entire epoch of the English farm-labourers’ history, that of the rise and fall of their improvised, archaic, spontaneous movements of resistance to the full triumph of rural capitalism, in the light of the greatest movement of this kind”.56 Hobsbawm also published two further well received collections of essays, Revolutionaries (1973) and Worlds of Labour: Further Studies in the History of Labour (1984), while also penning an introduction to British economic history, Industry and Empire (1968), and a contribution to the rightly famous collection he co-edited with Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (1983).57

In 1964 Hobsbawm also began to emerge as a leading “Marxologist”, writing a long introduction to Marx’s “Pre-capitalist Economic Formations”, part of the then generally neglected Grundrisse of 1857-8 being published in English for the first time. Hobsbawm described this work as “Marx at his most brilliant and profound” and “in many ways his most systematic attempt to grapple with the problem of historic evolution and the indispensable pendant to the superb Preface to the [A Contribution to the] Critique of Political Economy, which was written shortly after and presents historical materialism in its most pregnant form”.58 The publication of the work raised new debates about such matters as the “Asiatic mode of production”, discussion of which had officially been banned by Stalin in the 1930s. In 1982 Hobsbawm edited volume one of The History of Marxism: Marxism in Marx’s day (other volumes followed, but have not yet been translated from Italian into English), and he wrote scholarly introductions to other classic Marxist texts, including Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England (1969) and The Communist Manifesto (1998), while serving on the editorial commission of the 50-volume Marx/Engels Collected Works, a collaboration between the Moscow-based Progress Publishers and the CPGB’s Lawrence and Wishart from 1975-2005.

Hobsbawm is best remembered for his trilogy of works on “the long 19th century”—The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 (1962), The Age of Capital, 1848-75 (1975) and The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987). These are a masterful demonstration of what the great French historian Fernand Braudel called “total history”, integrating agency and structure, “history from below” with “history from above”, and analysing in an accessible manner what Hobsbawm called “the triumph and transformation of capitalism in the historically specific forms of bourgeois society in its liberal version”.59

In The Age of Revolution Hobsbawm discussed economic and ­political “developments” (including the “dual revolution”—political in France, industrial in Britain) and then explored “results” (including “the triumph of a bourgeois-liberal capitalism” and its consequences for “ideology”, “the arts” and “science”).60 Hobsbawm outlined the “big picture”, “macro-history”, but illuminated it with rich detail and fascinating examples of “micro-history”: from references to Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1791) and its link to “the ideology of 1789”, to the growth of “worlds of labour” in France and Britain, via reference to the leadership of Chartism in Leeds and its remarkable electoral success in Sheffield, and why Norwich became famous for canaries.61 Hobsbawm’s brilliance is also evident in, for example, his discussion of the revolutionary process under way in 1790s France: what he called the “dramatic dialectical dance” of all bourgeois revolutions during which one first sees “moderate middle class reformers mobilising the masses against die-hard resistance or counter-revolution”, then “the masses pushing beyond the moderates’ aims to their own social revolutions, and the moderates in turn splitting into a conservative group henceforth making common cause with the reactionaries, and a left wing group determined to pursue the rest of the as yet unachieved moderate aims with the help of the masses, even at the risk of losing control over them”.62 His discussion of how “the young French Republic discovered or invented total war: the total mobilisation of a nation’s resources through conscription, rationing and a rigidly controlled war economy, and virtual abolition, at home or abroad, of the distinction between soldiers and civilians” was brilliantly original and ahead of its time in terms of the scholarship on “total war”.63

The Age of Capital again demonstrated that the Marxist method provides a sense, unachievable in other perspectives, of the “totality” of a period of human history. “The age, judged Bismarck…was one of ‘material interests’. Economic interests were an ‘elementary force’…but what represented that elementary force at this period, if not capitalism and the world made by and for the bourgeoisie?”64 The Age of Capital also began with social, economic and political “developments” before turning to the “results” with respect to “science, religion, ideology” and “the arts”. For example, the book included a table—“Western Culture in 1847-1875: Opera”—highlighting the spread of bourgeois civilisation globally by tracking the productions of Verdi’s La Traviata and Ballo in Maschera, Gounod’s Faust, Offenbach’s Orphée and Belle Helène and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.65 Again the work was incredibly wide-ranging, discussing the films of Satyajit Ray, the cost of constructing grand buildings like Leeds Town Hall, and the initially negative impact of the growth of the Victorian middle class on cricket.66

In The Age of Empire, Hobsbawm again began with economics, noting the crisis of “profitability” underpinning the “Long Depression” in Victorian Britain from the 1870s to the 1890s. He also explored what he called the “globalisation of the economy” in the 19th century (not as something emerging in the 1990s as recent theory often argues). The 19th century, he argued, saw “the creation of a single global economy, progressively reaching into the most remote corners of the world, an increasingly dense web of economic transactions, communications and movements of goods, money and people linking the developed countries with each other and with the undeveloped world”.67 Hobsbawm also elucidated the classical Marxist theory of imperialism developed by Lenin and Bukharin—building on liberal theorists such as J A Hobson and the Marxist Rudolf Hilferding’s work on “finance capital”—to locate the total war from 1914 in the concentration and centralisation of capital and its new fusions with the nation-state. What was called in the 1890s “the new imperialism” was, Hobsbawm declared, “the child of an era of competition between rival industrial-capitalist national economies”, which “was intensified by the pressure to secure and safeguard markets in a period of business uncertainty”. The central theme of The Age of Empire was “to show how the era of peace, of confident bourgeois civilization, growing wealth and western empires inevitably carried within itself the embryo of the era of war, revolution and crisis which put an end to it”.68 This theme, alongside many tributaries and minor themes, was developed with Hobsbawm’s characteristic erudition and insight. Thus he discussed matters ranging from the creation of the mythology around the cowboy in the US to the development of the avant-garde in art and architecture and the dramatic “unintended triumph” of the cinema: “an utterly untraditional artistic modernism”.69

Base and superstructure

In 1982, Raphael Samuel’s and Gareth Stedman Jones’s preface to Culture, Ideology and Politics, a collection of essays celebrating Hobsbawm’s work, noted that perhaps the most distinctively Marxist aspect of his work:

is a brilliantly illuminating but ultimately quite orthodox Marxist approach to the old problem of the relationship between “base” and “superstructure”. Hobsbawm’s work, because of the freshness and unexpectedness of the components it includes in notions of “culture”, “ideology” and “politics” is perhaps the best testimony to the strengths of a classical Marxist solution to the relationship between “social being” and “social consciousness”.70

As we have seen, Hobsbawm began reflecting on the base-superstructure relation in the 1930s, and was the CPHG member who most steadfastly defended Marx’s theory of history and his concepts of base and superstructure and modes of production. His writings on historical materialism are not extensive. But, as noted above, Hobsbawm praised Marx’s 1859 Preface, with its distinction between “the material transformation of the economic conditions of production…and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic—in short, ideological—forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out”. In “Karl Marx’s Contribution to Historiography” (1968), Hobsbawm discussed base and superstructure, differentiating Marx’s mature thought from “vulgar Marxism” and rightly defending Marx from the textbook caricature of “economic determinism”.71 His New Left Review essay on “Marx and History” (1982) stressed production as the key concept in human history—and therefore modes of production as constituting “the structure which determines what form the growth of productive forces and the distribution of the surplus will take, how society can or cannot change its structures, and how, at suitable moments, the transition to another mode of production can or will take place” and establishing “the range of superstructural possibilities”.72 Though Hobsbawm did not cite Trotsky’s writings on uneven and combined development, he insisted on something missed by mechanical “stagist” models of historical materialism: the development of all societies has a “mixed and combined nature” and “the mechanisms leading to the transformation of one mode into another may not be exclusively internal to that mode, but may arise from the conjunction and interaction of differently structured societies…all development is mixed development”.73

Yet for all its strengths, Hobsbawm’s emphasis on structure in discussing the materialist conception of history was combined with a relative neglect of the question of agency, and how it intertwines with structure.74 Hobsbawm harboured a traditional “Communist” suspicion towards working class self-activity, displayed for example even in Primitive Rebels, in part motivated by his rethinking of “the bases of revolutionary activity” after the crisis of 1956. As Hobsbawm recalled, “you can read Primitive Rebels as an attempt to see whether we were right in believing in a strongly organised party”, he essentially argues that the CP had been and were indeed still right about this against the New Left.75 As Hobsbawm’s former student Logie Barrow notes, the distinction between “primitive” and “modern” rebels was itself problematic: “‘primitive’ suggests an evolutionary tree with large, disciplined Communist parties at its summit”, while reminding us “of his contempt for ‘from below’ movements in, for example, interwar Spain”.76 As Paul Blackledge has noted, Hobsbawm dismissed “classical anarchism” as a predominantly peasant movement virtually unable to adapt to modern society, rather than seeing it also as a healthy response to the betrayals of “modern” social democracy and Stalinism.77

While The Age of Revolution detailed the emerging “worlds of labour”, there is limited analysis of the working class’s shift from a “class in itself”, an objective fact of life, to a “class for itself”, consciously active in the class struggle. Thus, while Chartism as the first national workers’ movement is briefly discussed there is little sense of its world-historic importance or, at times, insurrectionary character.78 Nor, in Hobsbawm’s account, do Marx and Engels appear to have learnt much from the emergent working class, from real flesh and blood socialist workers in France and elsewhere. Yet Marx’s contacts with French and German communist societies in Paris in 1843-4 were critical to his evolution: the workers’ nobility was such that “it is among these ‘barbarians’ of our civilised society that history is preparing the practical element for the emancipation of mankind”.79

Hobsbawm’s focus on “the bourgeois world” in The Age of Capital also understates the forces, passions and self-activity of “the working class”. He rightly stresses the “world revolution” of 1848, but wrote little about the Parisian workers’ uprising in June, aside from asserting that “the workers, manoeuvred into isolated insurrection, were defeated and massacred”.80 Yet for Marx, French workers’ independent organisation pointed towards the strategy and tactics of “permanent revolution”.

Hobsbawm also says little about Britain, with the strongest working class movement of its day, and the threat that Chartism posed to state power (later explored by Saville). Nor does he reflect on the impact of subsequent struggles for the eight-hour day on Marx’s Capital. Hobsbawm’s narrative also understates the world-historic importance of the Paris Commune in 1871: the world’s first workers’ government, which demonstrated the potential for a new form of revolutionary democracy (what Lenin’s The State and Revolution called the Commune-State).81

In “Labour History and Ideology” (1974) Hobsbawm criticised “a loose and highly speculative version of ‘counter-factual’ history”, which may lead to “endless and fruitless retrospective argument”, and argued that “history is what happened, not what might have happened…the railroads were built, the German revolution of 1918 failed”.82 Although perhaps technically correct, at least for professional historians, Hobsbawm overlooked his own argument, noted above, that a mode of production “establishes the range of superstructural possibilities”—with the emphasis on possibilities. As C L R James noted in The Black Jacobins, people can only make the history “it is possible for them to make. Their freedom of achievement is limited by the necessities of their environment. To portray the limits of those necessities and the realisation, complete or partial, of all possibilities, that is the true business of the historian”.83 Hobsbawm’s retreat from such a classically Marxist position involved moving close to modes of historiography he had previously criticised. For example, in 1968 Hobsbawm had opposed “a mechanical materialism which sometimes came close to suggesting that there were no alternatives in history”, reminiscent of 19th century empiricist bourgeois historians like Leopold von Ranke: “who claimed to be nothing but impartial searchers after truth, and prided themselves on establishing simply wie es eigentlich gewesen [how it actually happened]”.84 As Logie Barrow noted, Hobsbawm’s British labour history “seldom focused on potential ‘from-below’ moments such as 1842, 1911, 1926 or 1972-4”, while he ignored (possibly out of “embarrassed silence”) “the sometimes seething labour history of the Soviet bloc” (East Germany 1953, Hungary 1956, Poland 1956-1981, etc).85

The landslide: Hobsbawm’s great moving right show

If Barrow is right about Hobsbawm’s limited interest in “from below” potentialities during Britain’s huge class struggles of 1972-4, the subsequent defeats saw Hobsbawm draw deeply pessimistic conclusions and shift politically to the right. He embraced “Eurocommunism” and the politics of the Italian Communist Party as it made its “historic compromise” with capital and the Christian Democrats in the 1970s. As Barrow notes, Hobsbawm “inflated the failure of the CPGB’s strategy since the 1950s into arguably somewhat self-fulfilling pessimism about much of the left till today…more inhibitingly, if you presume anything to the left of ‘Popular Front’ to be ‘Third Period’, then little alternative remains to groping one’s way rightwards”.86

In a 1978 interview with Radical History Review, a journal born out of the wider turn to “history from below”, Hobsbawm rightly declared his own prejudice “against institutional labour history”, with its exclusive focus on “parties, leaders and others…it tends to replace the actual history of the movement by the history of the people who said they spoke for the movement. It tends to replace the class by the organised sector of the class, and the organised sector of the class by the leaders of the organised sector of the class”.87 Yet, in the same year, his famous “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” lecture at London’s Marx Memorial Library suggested precisely this sort of substitution. Hobsbawm saw Labourism’s electoral decline as reflective of a wider decline of the British labour movement and even the British working class “in itself”.88 In justification, he now embraced a fixed, sociological definition of the “manual” working class that owed more to Weber than Marx’s more fluid definition of class, which focused on whether one sells one’s labour power—one’s relationship to the means of production. Furthermore, as Carlin and Birchall note, Hobsbawm’s analysis “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”.89 Certainly, Hobsbawm did attempt to adjust to the rise of women’s history in this period. But, Carlin and Birchall argue, his 1978 History Workshop Journal article “Man and Woman in Socialist Iconography” 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 woman by Félicien Rops”.90

Retaining his “Popular Front” sympathies (now against Thatcherism rather than fascism), in the 1980s Hobsbawm became a more “public intellectual” and a member of the editorial board of the British Eurocommunist journal Marxism Today. This CPGB publication gave “left” cover for Neil Kinnock’s attack on the movement around Tony Benn, contributing to the rightward shift of the Labour Party and the subsequent rise of “New Labour”, all in the name of what Hobsbawm called creating a “politics for a rational left”. In Interesting Times (2002) Hobsbawm was still defending his political intervention against the “hard left” in the 1980s, though he now distanced himself from Blairism and Tony Blair, insisting “we wanted a reformed Labour, not Thatcher in trousers”.91

Contradictions increasingly abound

Hobsbawm’s pessimism about class struggle meant his histories from the 1980s onwards are marked by ever greater contradictions. His new sense of independence was seen in his recommendation of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution in The Age of Empire—“a participant’s communist view full of intelligence and brio”—and a mention of Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution” in his discussion of Russia’s 1905 Revolution.92 Yet Hobsbawm does not dwell on the historic importance of the St Petersburg Soviet during 1905, or on other high points of class struggle in this period (Britain’s New Unionism or the Great Unrest of 1910-14, for instance).93 More generally, in his chapter on “workers of the world”, as Alex Callinicos noted:

What is striking here is Hobsbawm’s emphasis on the labour movement rather than the working class. He sees the proletariat as essentially fragmented, the working classes, divided by occupation, skill, language, nationality, religion, gender…it’s difficult not to feel that Hobsbawm has a subjective conception of class, where lifestyle and culture enter into the formation of social divisions. There’s no sense of the working class as defined by a common relation to the means of production which provides the objective basis of unity in struggle. Hence the emphasis on the role of the labour movement: “It was through the movement that the plural ‘working classes’ were fused into the singular ‘working class’”.94

As Hobsbawm now put it, socialist and trade unionist organisation was “the structured collective action without which the working class could not exist as a class”.95 Thus, his contemporary pessimism about the potential power of the “workers of the world” was justified by viewing it through the lens of the electoral decline of the reformist left almost a century after the formation of the Second International in 1889.

Hobsbawm’s longstanding belief in the strategy of the Popular Front is also evident in The Age of Empire, including in his handling of the question of nationalism, which came to the fore in the age of nation and empire-building in the late 19th century. As Callinicos notes, the West in this period witnessed what “Hobsbawm calls ‘the invention of tradition’—the creation of public rituals, cultural symbols, and mythological histories designed to encourage increasingly urban and proletarian populations to see themselves as members of ‘imagined communities’, of nations uniting different classes together in opposition to the citizens of other nations”.96 But Hobsbawm’s Popular Front politics meant that he also argued that, during the late 19th century:

The banners of patriotism became so much a property of the political right that the left found trouble in grasping them, even where patriotism was as firmly identified with revolution and the cause of the people as was the French tricolour. To brandish the national name and flag, they felt, risked contamination from the ultra-right. Not until the days of Hitler did the French left recover the full use of Jacobin patriotism.97

Yet the tradition of “Jacobin patriotism” is an odd tradition for any socialist or Marxist to uncritically embrace. While the Jacobins did abolish slavery throughout the French Empire, they also continued to preside over the empire. The tricolour was indeed born out of a revolutionary struggle against absolutism, but in the pre-Jacobin moderate stage of the French Revolution, with the white symbolising the royal colours in the new short-lived period of constitutional monarchy. After counter-revolution and the downfall of the Jacobins, the tricolour itself remained the flag of the French imperial nation state. In 1803, during the war of independence in French colonial Saint-Domingue, the revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines tore the white out of the tricolour to create a new flag of red and blue which became the national flag of a soon independent Haiti. The French left—and the left internationally—should arguably follow Dessalines’s example and rather than “recover” imperialist flags should raise their own banner—the red flag of socialism and the working class movement which was first raised in the 1830s.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the East European revolutions of 1989 obviously hit Hobsbawm hard, though the CPGB’s demise also brought liberation from any residual party discipline. The negative aspect of this meant there was even less organic connection to anything that might act as a barrier to his partial incorporation with the establishment. By now Hobsbawm’s international status as a “public intellectual,” cemented with new and well received books such as Echoes of the Marseillaise (1990), Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1991) and his collection On History (1997), meant he had become, in his own words, “an accepted member of the official British cultural establishment”, and even accepted a Companion of Honour from the Queen on the suggestion of Blair (himself acting on the suggestion of Kinnock) in 1998.98

More importantly, Hobsbawm was finally free intellectually to take on the question of the 20th century, without having to pull any punches out of organisational fidelity to “international Communism”. The result was Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (1994),99 which Hobsbawm recalled as “my most successful book, both in sales and critical reception…well received across the entire ideological spectrum of the globe—with the single exception of France”, and published in 37 languages.100 In many ways the work was a superb follow up to his previous volumes and, as Neil Davidson notes, “one of the pleasures of reading the Age quartet in sequence is the way in which the reader can follow the expanding geographical boundaries of capitalism as the project unfolds, from the essentially European setting of The Age of Revolution through to the truly global reach of Age of Extremes”.101 Reviewing the work in International Socialism in 1999, Harman hailed it as “probably the most accessible account of the century, providing a total vision which combined economics, politics, science and art… It is seductive in its ambition and riveting in its drive…[Hobsbawm] conveys something missing from much academic Marxism, a sense of the system’s repeated lurches towards barbarism—1914, 1929, 1933, 1939 and, it is implied at the end, the early 21st century”.102

Age of Extremes was inevitably a much more personal history in a sense, precisely because Hobsbawm had lived experience of the “short twentieth century”, and it was inevitable that others looking for discussion of their particular specialist interests will often be disappointed to find little there. As Perry Anderson noted: unlike previous titles in the Ages…tetralogy, Age of Extremes, despite its grandeur was shaped more than the other works by Hobsbawm’s “angle of vision of its origins in Vienna, Berlin and London”, meaning that China and Japan figure less than they should.103 Hobsbawm himself personally felt he did not pay enough attention to the United States in general in the first three volumes, and even in the fourth of the quartet there is a strange silence with respect to the struggle for civil rights and black liberation in the US. It is striking, for example, that a keen critic of jazz like Hobsbawm can write a history of the 20th century without even a passing reference to, say, W E B Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali.104 However, as Anderson noted, Hobsbawm’s central framing device for the work—the confrontation between Western “capitalism” and Soviet “socialism” between 1917 and 1991—meant not only that ideology is not discussed with the attention to detail it received in earlier volumes, but it also led to “the most striking single discontinuity of the fourth volume…the complete disappearance from sight of the bourgeoisie”.105 Indeed, it is not just the bourgeoisie that is missing in Age of Extremes—as Harman noted, “the working class is the great missing link throughout Hobsbawm’s book. It hardly appears in the first half of the book, and finally makes its appearance towards the end to be discussed solely in terms of lifestyle”. In terms of the Russian Revolution of 1917, “the factory workers and the soviets (workers’ councils) which were key to it get only a couple of passing mentions”.106 Indeed, even if it was rarely centred in previous volumes, class struggle and some of the massive class conflicts of the 20th century are no longer even critical ingredients in Hobsbawm’s narrative. As Harman noted:

Hobsbawm’s whole approach is to look at big politics and big economics simply in terms of bitter rows within ruling classes and between states. But the politics of such rows are incomprehensible without looking all the time at how successful rulers are in wresting resources from the rest of society—that is, at their struggles to extract a surplus from the exploited classes…the other side of this is recognising as a central, not marginal, fact of the 20th century the way in which upsurges of working class revolt throw their politics into disarray…the whole system is marked, as never before, by the flows of alienated wage labour. Unless you map these flows, you cannot see the logic of the system—and the logic of conflict between classes within the system.107

“Base” and “superstructure”, which shaped much of Hobsbawm’s previous work in sophisticated and subtle ways, are thus now thrown almost completely out of joint by the time of Age of Extremes, despite illuminating discussions of, for example, technological development across the 20th century.


Hobsbawm’s work in the last decade or so of his life mainly consisted of the republication in different forms of past essays, for example How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism (2011) and his autobiography Interesting Times—which provided another more personal take on “the short 20th century”.108 Hobsbawm maintained his defence of the Marxist theory of history in the face of prevailing intellectual fashions for post-modernism, which declared that all historians should do is concentrate on what Michel Foucault called the “fragments” of the past, rather than try and piece all the fragments together.109 As he put it in Interesting Times, “young historians need to have their attention drawn to the materialist interpretation of history as much, perhaps even more, today, when even left wing academic fashions dismiss it as in the days when it was being damned as totalitarian propaganda”.110 As he wrote in 2008, in a superb essay on “Marxist Historiography Today”, the aim remains to work towards “total history”, since the past is “an indivisible web in which all human activities are interconnected” in “the transformation of homo sapiens from Neolithic to nuclear humanity”.111 More broadly, Hobsbawm continued his championing of the importance of the discipline of history in the face of rising nationalist and xenophobic mythology from the 1990s onwards, particularly in the parts of the former Eastern bloc, but also increasingly a more general phenomenon. As he put it: “Political pressures on history, by old and new states and regimes…are greater than ever before in my lifetime, and modern media society has given the past unprecedented prominence and marketing potential…today is the great age of historical mythology…the defence of history by its professionals is today more urgent in politics than ever”.112

Indeed, as a “public intellectual”, Hobsbawm maintained his often acerbic and astute political commentary, for example in The New Century (2000) and Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism (2007). Notable here were his steadfast commitment to anti-Zionism and opposition to barbaric acts of Israeli state terrorism, his identification with the anti-capitalist movement at the turn of the millennium and, perhaps most importantly, his anti-imperialism at a time when many one-time left wing intellectuals in the West were increasingly acting as propagandists for warmongers like George W Bush, Bill Clinton and Blair. As Anderson noted in 2002, Hobsbawm:

rejected the Gulf War, bluntly told a bien pensant Italian interviewer that the Balkan War was not a humanitarian intervention [but an old-style imperial war], has compared the Afghanistan operation to earlier bombardments of the region by British imperialism, and excoriated the war on terrorism and upcoming attack on Iraq. It is difficult to think of any British intellectual of comparable stature with as staunch a record.113

Hobsbawm lived long enough to see the system once again go into crisis in 2007-8, noting in 2010 that “capitalism has been reminded that its own future is put into question not by the threat of social revolution but by the very nature of its untrammelled global operations, to which Karl Marx has proved so much more perceptive a guide than the believers in the rational choices and self-correcting mechanisms of the free market”.114

Central to understanding how Hobsbawm retained not only his anger at the capitalist world system and its imperialist barbarity but also his ever-present hope that things might be changed for the better—“man is, in the words of the philosopher Ernst Bloch, a hoping animal…we dream forward”—is understanding how Hobsbawm’s Marxism was forged in the last dying embers of that initial period when the dream of “world revolution” was a reality in the afterglow of the Russian Revolution of 1917.115 In Interesting Times Hobsbawm centred his early Communist political activity in the last days of the Weimar Republic as fundamental to the shaping of his life, noting that “the months in Berlin made me a lifelong communist… The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me… I belong to the generation for whom the October Revolution represented the hope of the world”.116

The young Marx once noted that the “task” of the revolutionary intellectual was “to drag the old world into the full light of day and to give positive shape to the new one”.117 Hobsbawm made a profound contribution during his life “to dragging the old world into the full light of day” and deepening understanding of the modern world system and where it came from. Tragically, his attempts “to give positive shape to the new” in the struggle for socialism were fatally flawed by his inability to distinguish the classical Marxist tradition from its Stalinist perversion. Without seeing the centrality of Marx’s insistence that “the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself”, Hobsbawm’s theoretical worldview never began by starting from the high points of modern history when the creative and revolutionary power of the working class was in full flow, and so moved ever further away from the politics of the October Revolution in 1917 and the revolutionary dreams it once inspired.

Hobsbawm might be usefully compared—as Callinicos has done—to “another brilliant Jewish Marxist intellectual born in 1917 who made Britain his home”, Tony Cliff, who “renewed the revolutionary Marxist tradition politically” both theoretically and practically, above all perhaps, by helping develop the theory of bureaucratic state capitalism in the late 1940s to understand the Soviet Union. As Callinicos notes, this meant that “if the Stalinist despotism was state capitalist, then Marx’s conception of self-emancipation of the working class was still a living reality”.118 Nonetheless, much of Hobsbawm’s historical writings remain resources of hope for the future, while for all Hobsbawm’s political weaknesses and contradictions, it should be remembered how, in his own convoluted way he never lost sight of the most essential of Marx’s points—the need to unite theory and practice, understanding that interpreting the world in however brilliant a fashion is never enough—the point is to change it. As Hobsbawm concluded in his 2002 autobiography, “let us not disarm, even in unsatisfactory times. Social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought. The world will not get better on its own”.119

Christian Høgsbjerg works for Leeds University Centre for African Studies and is the author of CLR James in Imperial Britain (Duke University Press, 2014) and co-author (with Charles Forsdick) of Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions (Pluto Press, 2017).


1 Hobsbawm, 1997, pp167-168. I am grateful for assistance from Logie Barrow, Ian Birchall, Paul Blackledge, Adrian Budd, Alex Callinicos, David Goodway, David Howell and Matt Perry, but am responsible for the argument and any remaining errors here.

2 For pioneering overviews of Hobsbawm’s contribution to Marxist historiography, see Cronin, 1979; Carlin and Birchall, 1983; Kaye, 1984; and Genovese, 1984. Those interested in Hobsbawm’s political evolution should begin with Elliott, 2010. See also Jacques, 2016; and Evans, 2017.

3 See the dustjacket of Hobsbawm, 2000.

4 Foster, 2013, p7.

5 Schama, 2012.

6 Kamm, 2012. The respect for Hobsbawm among contemporary historians is captured in Arnold, Hilton and Rüger, 2017.

7 Hobsbawm, 2007, p326.

8 Hobsbawm, 2007, p328.

9 Hobsbawm, 1989a, p114.

10 Hobsbawm, 2002, p55.

11 Marshall, 1998.

12 Thane and Lunbeck, 1978, p111.

13 Hobsbawm, 2002, pp97-98. Hobsbawm was also “captured for ever” by jazz after seeing Duke Ellington’s “greatest of all” jazz bands of the time in London in 1933.

14 Howell, 2003, p3.

15 Keunemann, 1982, p367. On a personal note: the one time I met Hobsbawm, as a 23 year old in 2003 at an event on “Marxism and History” to launch John Saville’s Memoirs of the Left, I was somewhat overawed, and was thrilled when he signed my copy of Bandits.

16 Judt, 2008, p116.

17 Hobsbawm, 2002, p187.

18 Hobsbawm 2002, p292; Thane and Lunbeck, 1978, pp112-113.

19 Hobsbawm, 2002, p159.

20 Kaye, 1984, p135.

21 Hobsbawm later declared that the Fabians were neither particularly “interesting” nor “important”, and he only published two fragments from his thesis. In reality, the influence of Fabianism on the thinking of the right wing Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy was probably more important than Hobsbawm gave it credit for (Thane and Lunbeck, 1978, p113). Hobsbawm published an Our History pamphlet on “The Lesser Fabians” (republished in a 1971 collection, The Luddites and Other Essays, edited by Lionel Munby), and an essay on “The Fabians Reconsidered” in Labouring Men. R H Tawney—possibly for selfish reasons—advised against the publication of Hobsbawm’s thesis—See Evans, 2015, p217.

22 Blackledge, 2006, p85.

23 Hobsbawm, 1978b, p37. On the question of nationalism and the CP Historians’ Group, see Ashman, 1998, and Schwarz, 1982. It should be noted that Kiernan made a notable contribution to imperial history.

24 See Johnson, 1978, p81.

25 Parker, 2008, p10.

26 Hobsbawm, 2002, p191.

27 Hobsbawm, 2002, p231. On the kind of history in Britain Hobsbawm was challenging, see Hobsbawm, 1955.

28 Thane and Lunbeck, 1978, p112.

29 Hobsbawm, 2002, p184. See also Evans, 2015, p218.

30 Chase, 2015, p10.

31 Hobsbawm, 1964.

32 Hobsbawm, 1978b, p29. See Hobsbawm’s essay “Problems of Communist History” (1969) in Hobsbawm, 2007, pp3-11. This was a devastating review of CPGB official James Klugmann’s 1966 History of the Communist Party of Great Britain: Formation and Early Years.

33 McIlroy, 2006, p89.

34 Hobsbawm, 2002, p154, and Elliott, 2010, p19.

35 Brotherstone, 1996, p316.

36 Gollan, 1948.

37 Callinicos, 2008, pp160-61. Other works such as C L R James’s World Revolution, 1917-36: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (1937) are also located within this tradition.

38 Hobsbawm, 1978b, p23.

39 Hobsbawm, 2002, pp197 and 200.

40 Harman, 1998, p11.

41 Parker, 2008, p13.

42 Hobsbawm, 2002, pp206-207. For more on Hobsbawm and 1956, see Carlin and Birchall, 1983, pp92-95.

43 From Pearce’s December 1957 letter to the Appeals Commission of the CPGB, reproduced in Pearce, 2006, p143.

44 Its main current (what became the Socialist Labour League and later the Workers’ Revolutionary Party led by Gerry Healy), while initially attractive to some former CPGB members including Pearce and Fryer, in practice in the long term turned out to be not much of a break from the politics of Stalinism.

45 Hobsbawm, 2002, p202.

46 Hobsbawm, 2002, p218.

47 Hobsbawm, 2002, p256.

48 Carlin and Birchall, 1983, p96.

49 Hobsbawm, 2002, p216.

50 John Saville envisioned the SSLH as something of a continuation of the old CPHG. Personal information from David Goodway, 22 June 2017.

51 Hobsbawm, 1974, pp2-3, 9-10.

52 Hobsbawm, 2000, pp20-21.

53 Hobsbawm, 2002, p225.

54 Francis Newton, “Lady Sang the Blues”, New Statesman, 15 August 1959, republished in Hobsbawm, 1998b, pp293-294.

55 Hobsbawm, 2002, p229. On SCIF, see Blackman, 2017.

56 Hobsbawm and Rudé, 2001, pp18-19. See also Hobsbawm, 1974, p27.

57 For a critical review of Industry and Empire, see Harris, 1969.

58 Hobsbawm, 1978a, p10.

59 Hobsbawm, 1989b, pp8-9.

60 Hobsbawm, 1988, p14.

61 Hobsbawm, 1988, pp79, 258-259 and 331.

62 Hobsbawm, 1988, p83.

63 Hobsbawm, 1988, p88.

64 Hobsbawm, 1991, p293.

65 Hobsbawm, 1991, p371.

66 Hobsbawm, 1991, pp72, 329 and 352.

67 Hobsbawm, 1989b, p62.

68 Hobsbawm, 1989b, pp73 and 327.

69 Hobsbawm, 1989b, pp153, 234, 238. For more on such themes, see Hobsbawm’s posthumously published 2013 work, Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century.

70 Samuel and Jones, 1982, px.

71 Hobsbawm, 1997, p145.

72 Hobsbawm, 1997, p165.

73 Hobsbawm, 1997, pp167-68.

74 Even in Captain Swing, it was George Rudé who was “mainly responsible” for writing the chapters on the farmworkers’ struggle itself, while Hobsbawm focused on the wider political and economic context—Hobsbawm and Rudé, 2001, p9.

75 Thane and Lunbeck, 1978, pp115-116

76 Barrow, 2013, p358.

77 Blackledge, 2012, quoting Hobsbawm, 1974, p92.

78 For more on Hobsbawm’s silences on Chartism, see Chase, 2015, p12.

79 Quoted in Callinicos, 1996, p25.

80 Hobsbawm, 1991, p30.

81 Hobsbawm, 1991, pp200-202.

82 Hobsbawm, 1984, pp7-8.

83 James, 2001, pxix.

84 Hobsbawm, 1997, p146.

85 Barrow, 2013, pp357-358.

86 Barrow, 2013, p355.

87 Thane and Lunbeck, 1978, pp113-114.

88 Hobsbawm, 1989c. For more historical discussion of Hobsbawm’s thesis, see Howell, 1990.

89 Carlin and Birchall, 1983, p112. For more discussion of these points see Callinicos and Harman, 1987, and Foster, 2014.

90 Carlin and Birchall, 1983, p98. See also the reactions to Hobsbawm’s piece in History Workshop Journal, not least Richardson, 1982.

91 Hobsbawm, 2002, p276. On Marxism Today, see Callinicos, 1985.

92 Hobsbawm, 1989b, pp298 and 388.

93 Hobsbawm, 1989b, p297.

94 Callinicos, 1987, quoting Hobsbawm, 1989b, p131.

95 Hobsbawm, 1989b, p125.

96 Callinicos, 1987.

97 Hobsbawm, 1989b, p159.

98 Hobsbawm, 2002, p40.

99 Hobsbawm, 1998a.

100 Hobsbawm, 2002, p306, and Thompson, 2015, p17.

101 Davidson, 2012.

102 Harman, 1999, p90.

103 Anderson, 2005, p303.

104 Howell, 2003. See also Young, 2001.

105 Anderson, 2005, p299. In an interview from 1994, Hobsbawm noted that “in actual fact there was no war between capitalism and communism…what there was was a war of theologians backed by military-industrial complexes which found theology very useful”—Hobsbawm, 1995, p56.

106 Harman, 1999, p91. Hobsbawm’s interesting 1996 Deutscher Memorial Prize lecture “Can we Write the History of the Russian Revolution?” is discussed in Murphy, 2007.

107 Harman, 1999, pp92 and 94.

108 A collection of Hobsbawm’s writings on Latin America, Viva la Revolución, was posthumously published in 2016.

109 For one mildly humorous example of where postmodern approaches to recovering simply the “fragments” of the past can lead, see perhaps Ruth Evans’s endorsement for a 2007 book by Valerie Allen, On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages (Palgrave Macmillan). “Allen takes the fart seriously… The book is witty and learned: a tour de force of scholarship and cultural history… Allen argues for the fart as a threshold between nature and culture, audible and smellable, and therefore material and bodily, but also roguishly invisible: a challenge to the primarily visual emphasis of contemporary culture”.

110 Hobsbawm, 2002, p303.

111 Hobsbawm, 2008, pp186-187.

112 Hobsbawm, 2002, p296.

113 Anderson, 2005, p319.

114 Hobsbawm, 2011, p398.

115 Hobsbawm, 1997, p54. See also his 1961 review of Bloch’s The Principle of Hope, in Hobsbawm, 2007, pp190-197.

116 Hobsbawm, 2002, pp55-56.

117 Marx, 1843.

118 Callinicos, 2017. For my brief appreciation of Cliff, see my review of Ian Birchall’s biography, Høgsbjerg, 2011.

119 Hobsbawm, 2002, p418.


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