The age of Hobsbawm

Issue: 137

Siobhan Brown

Gregory Elliott, Hobsbawm: History and Politics (Pluto, 2010), £12.99

For many, Eric Hobsbawm represented the archetypal Marxist historian. His many works on empire, class, nations and states are for many new to Marxism the first way in to understanding a history that he described as “the sweat, blood, tears and triumphs of the common people, our people”. In particular, his vast series The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and then Age of Extremes are some of the most comprehensive contributions to Marxist historiography.

Hobsbawm received admiration from beyond the left. An obituary printed in New Left Review following his death in October 2012 said: “Even the mainstream media agreed that Hobsbawm was a great historian—some even said ‘the greatest living historian’.”1 As well as achieving a vast scale of work, Hobsbawm was key in fighting for a space for the working class in the study of history, while not limiting himself to academia.

Published before Hobsbawm’s last publication How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism, Gregory Elliott draws on Hobsbawm’s own work yet also situates his life within a wider perspective of debates on the British and international left, with much success.

In the first section Elliott details Hobsbawm’s early life, in order to explain the basis of his politics throughout the rest of it. Hobsbawm joined the Communist Party in 1936, becoming active while a student at Cambridge. Hobsbawm’s political life was framed, therefore, by the central political questions for the CPGB at the time: anti-fascism and the civil war in Spain in particular.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that Hobsbawm’s commitment to popular frontism is the most striking theme of the work. Hobsbawm describes the strategy as “concentric circles of unity—united front between communists and socialists, popular front between labour movements and bourgeois liberals, national front of all anti-fascist forces, international front of all anti-fascist powers”. Elliott is not without criticism here, and addresses squarely the failure of the policy: arguing that “concentric circles either failed to materialise…or predictably struggled to survive their internal stresses”. This seems like an underestimation: the example of the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), which Hobsbawm was so shaped by, means that it can be asserted more concretely that the policy was inherently flawed.

It is here too where Hobsbawm’s position on nationalism crosses over: although the author omits much analysis of Hobsbawm’s work on nations and nationalism, it is fairly clear that his interest would have come from this early point of political importance.

Hobsbawm became a founding member of the Communist Party Historians Group following the Second World War. For him and his contemporaries, among them Christopher Hill and E P Thompson, the popular front idea was essential to its outlook: they cultivated relationships with others within academia, but also recognised the inseparability of theory and practice, continuing as party activists.

The events of 1956 illustrate firstly Hobsbawm’s shift to the right, but also the state of the CPGB at the time. The party’s crisis rested largely on debates around the Hungarian Revolution. Hobsbawm, along with numerous others, expressed concern. They wrote in a letter to the Daily Worker “that the uncritical support given by the Executive Committee (to the suppression of the Hungarian revolution)… is the undesirable culmination of years of distortion of fact”. The CPGB lost a quarter of its membership and the Historians Group was shaken, with many leading and talented members leaving. Although the group continued to exist—and work with those who had left the party—their productivity and clarity dipped noticeably.

Hobsbawm remained a party member. He later wrote that the reason he retained his membership was largely due to his formative years, with the Russian Revolution in mind and the centrality of the CPGB to the anti-fascism of the day. Elliott correctly asserts that this could not be reason enough, recognising a noticeable rightward shift in Hobsbawm’s perspective. Despite the strength of the memory of the 1930s, Hobsbawm now argued that a non-revolutionary “Eurocommunist” approach to socialism was the way to overthrow capitalism. He described himself as a spiritual member of the PCI, the Italian Communist Party, and Elliott asserts Hobsbawm’s new direction as “a reorientation towards the position of Western Marxism”. In the second half of the 70s the PCI supported in government the Christian Democrat Tory party, an illustration of the failure of such positions in maintaining any revolutionary credentials.

Due prominence is placed on Hobsbawm’s attachment to Western Marxism, as well as his appropriation of Antonio Gramsci in particular. It is noted that “Gramsci formed a striking contrast to the other main communist theorists in the Western Marxist tradition, Lukács and Althusser, both of them marginal figures in the parties”, the latter of whom Elliott also profiled in a major study first published in the 1980s.

Hobsbawm’s rightward drift continued into the 1980s and 90s and towards the end of his life. He played an important role in shifting Labour to the right during the 80s. His Marx Memorial Lecture in 1978, “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” provoked much debate among the left and within the Labour Party. Lauded as “Kinnock’s favourite Marxist” Hobsbawm’s perspective that the working class was in decline fitted with a Labour Party continuing to move away from its base. Although Elliott locates accurately how Hobsbawm contributed to Labour’s rightward shift, he fails to assess the impact on the future of the Labour Party, and the parallels with Hobsbawm’s relationship with the European left.

Following 1989, he argued that the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and what he considered the only alternative to
capitalism—Stalinism—meant there was a crisis in the working class itself. His entanglement in the embracing of social democracy from a Eurocommunist position as well as his unwavering support for Stalinism and the CPGB meant that he was left with no confidence in the working class to change the world.

Elliott provides on the one hand a detailed account of this important historian’s life and influences. On the other, by placing Hobsbawm’s work within the context of the events of his “very much 20th century life”, he gives an honest and nuanced analysis of his judgement, or lack thereof. Aside from Elliott’s tendency to litter the work with unnecessary French phrases, the writing holds clarity, successfully and authoritatively placing Hobsbawm, especially in reference to Eurocommunist and Gramscian trends, within more general tendencies of the British and international left.


1Donald Sassoon, 2012, “Eric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012”, New Left Review II/77.