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Believe in the Movement

Marc Mulholland

Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, by Richard J Evans, Little, Brown, 785 pp, £35, ISBN: 978-140877418

Richard J Evans, the author of this hugely readable and highly impressive biography, has written a brilliant trilogy on the rise and fall of the Third Reich, a heavyweight study of German crime and retribution, an excellent general history of nineteenth century Europe, a devastating rebuttal of Holocaust “revisionism”, an important book on historical method and – early in his lustrous career – innovative work on international feminism.

While Evans knew Eric Hobsbawm, he never felt close to him. Described by one admirer as a man who “knew something about everything, and … a lot about many things”, Hobsbawm was an intellectual whose capacious and insightful mind could intimidate even the very best of historians. Nonetheless, he was unfailingly kind even to us lesser lights. I encountered him only once, in 2004, when he spoke at a meeting in the Marx Memorial Library in London to mark the completion of the Marx-Engels Collected Works. He proudly told us that the editors, himself included, had stoutly resisted Soviet pressures to exclude Marx’s Secret Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century, an extremely minor work most notable for a Russophobia bordering on the irrational. Hobsbawm would not be party to doctoring the historical record. I went up at the end to stutter a hello before scuttling off in tongue-tied awe. It is a pleasure now to make a deeper acquaintance through the comfortable distance of historical biography.

Hobsbawm’s advice to hopeful contributors to Past & Present, the historical journal he helped found and edit for decades, was to cut out 80 per cent of the quotations from their articles. Very wisely, Evans here ignores this advice and accordingly his account is richly endowed with fascinating and always pellucid quotation, first and foremost from Hobsbawm himself but also from many people who knew him and from the reviewers of his publications. The result is a book which is not just a study of one Marxist historian, but a biography, from a particular perspective, of two or three generations of scholarship.

Evans delivers a convincingly rounded picture of Hobsbawm the man. He was distinctly English, with an old-fashioned Bloomsbury drawl and often ended his expressions of opinion with the archaic Victorian locution “What, what?” ‑ followed by a sudden grin. He never understood cricket. He had an exaggerated consciousness of his own ugliness and saw his high intelligence (not, in his own estimation, genius) as some kind of compensation. When jacket and tie was standard academic dress, he preferred the open-necked shirt. He loved women. Friends found him excellent company and humorous. He was an enthusiastic socialiser and generally of a cheerful disposition, though he had fits of depression in his younger adulthood. He had thoughts of killing himself when his first marriage failed, though they do not seem to have been serious. Of more lasting importance was his ability to put unpleasant thoughts and reflections out of mind. Permanently curious, Hobsbawm read voraciously even when idling (he could “really veg out”), loved travelling, and would write down any new dialect words he came across. Walking for an hour and a half was no problem for him even in his seventies. While he never learned to appreciate rock ’n’ roll he was a devotee of jazz and the demimonde, befriending for life a prostitute. He enjoyed being “intellectually a little outrageous”, a “guerrilla historian”, and didn’t like being caught out on facts. He was aware that his intelligence could intimidate people, but he had a unique rapport with ordinary people. Good journalism and the lucid example of George Bernard Shaw taught him how to write. When teaching, he would sit cross-legged on the top of his desk, striking a match off his shoe to light his pipe. Teaching was a true love, though he seemed to be easily bored by marking and correcting work, and by academic administration. Money was always a worry and he always kept a close eye on his book royalties. He enjoyed his access to the establishment –the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall and the British Academy – but enjoyed even more his status as an outsider. He took pleasure in gossiping about other people’s bad reviews and kept detailed notes on his own. He was, perhaps, the first major British historian to earn a PhD. His mother asked her young son never to forget or deny that he was a Jew. When he died in 2012, aged ninety-five, the Jewish prayer for the dead was intoned at his funeral. There is much more to be found in Evans’s biography of this kind of delightful humanising detail.

Born in Alexandria of English parents in the signal year of 1917, Eric spent his earliest years in Austria, and was orphaned at fourteen. Adopted by relatives, he was brought to Germany but still, evidently, was in search of a new family. Temporarily he found it in the boy scouts, but it was in the communist movement that he finally settled. Looking back, Hobsbawm thought it likely that he would have joined the Marxist but non-communist socialists of Austria had he stayed in that country. Their politics, indeed, probably had more in common with his mature thought. But in Germany the labour movement was deeply split and the socialists, timid in the face of capitalism and fascism, were ruthless only against their communist rivals. Socialist accommodation to the looming catastrophe of failing capitalism seemed like no kind of option for Hobsbawm, and he definitively sided with the communists.

The last left-wing workers’ march against Hitler in Berlin, shortly after he became chancellor, and the triumphant Bastille Day celebrations in Paris three years later, marking the election of the left-wing Popular Front government, allowed Hobsbawm to feel part of an organic mass movement, sweeping along with history or casting defiance in its teeth. These were terrible times, but for the young observer of the world they were invigorating also. “Frankly, for a historian these times are absolutely unique,” he wrote to his cousin Ron in July 1940, “since the fall of the Roman Empire or the French Revolution there has been nothing half as fascinating. It is unpleasant to have been born in this age, but by God, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.” This, admittedly, was easier to say from the vantage point of England, where Hobsbawm had moved in 1933.

Hobsbawm began a diary shortly after arrival to “pour out” his heart. Evans uses this often moving material to paint a picture of a communist intellectual in precocious development. Marxism appealed to him not because he was a class warrior by nature but because it offered a systematic and interlocking high-level view of society, history and politics. He admired the stern discipline of the revolutionary organisation and the self-abnegating dogma it required. “Ground yourself in Leninism,” he told himself. “Let it become your second nature.” He admired Lenin and Stalin precisely because of their prioritisation of power over theoretical niceties. One had to be “totally unscrupulous and outrageously flexible”. “What justified cruelty?” he asked – a necessary question when Stalinist brutality, though hidden behind a fog of uncertainty about specifics, was nonetheless unquestioningly accepted by Hobsbawm and his comrades. “Trust. Belief in the proletariat and the future of the movement.” As a brilliant student at Cambridge University from 1936, where there were about two hundred signed-up communists, Hobsbawm would certainly have agreed with his comrade and fellow student, Victor Kiernan:

That capitalism was in its final stage appeared self-evident; the question was whether it would drag civilisation down with it in its collapse, and the only way to avert this end was to build up rapidly a force and an ideology, based on the masses, which would be capable of replacing it. The party was a twentieth-century ark, designed not to rescue a handful in a perishing world, but all humanity.

Of course, the point about the ark was that those who refused to get on board could be regarded as so many dispensable unbelievers.

For Hobsbawm in the 1930s, dissidence was an unserious if intellectual pose and he likened the Trotskyist condemners of Stalinist betrayal to facile literary men. Even his first marriage, during the war, was a political union with a party comrade. When she left the marriage he was most concerned at her betrayal of the communist cause. “If she really abandoned us, then it’s over … For us there is no life that is fit for a human being without taking part in a movement like ours.” When she gave him a copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopian image of world-triumphant communism, it was a declaration of war.

Hobsbawm long accepted the communist organising principle of “democratic centralism”, explaining as late as 1952 that one must always accept the party line in public. The McCarthyite purge of communists from American universities, only dimly reflected in Britain, was justified by its apologists by the argument that Communist Party members were forbidden to speak truth as they saw it. This ruled them out as authentic and open-minded teachers of youth. It is an irony that Guy Burgess, covert communist, spy and a member of the elite Cambridge “Apostles” group, of which Hobsbawm was a proud member, tried to stop Catholics being admitted to it on the grounds that they were forbidden to question their own doctrine.

Like those other British communist historians Christopher Hill and EP Thompson, Hobsbawm did not expect to survive the war. As it turned out, his rather low-level agitation in the ranks of the army attracted MI5 attention and military intelligence ensured that he was never posted abroad. He was certainly pleased to join in an anti-fascist war, though he had no compunction about defending the Hitler-Stalin pact, willingly part-composed a propaganda pamphlet defending the Soviet invasion of Finland and delightedly celebrated when the Red Army annexed the Baltic states and parts of Romania. Nonetheless, like many British communists, he experienced a definite relief when Germany attacked Russia and the Soviet Union joined the grand alliance against Hitler. It was in the army that Hobsbawm, for the first time, really came in touch with the British working class. Despite their casual anti-Semitism, he found them, all in all, impressive in their doughty class-consciousness and pragmatic common sense.

Until after the war, Hobsbawm primarily anticipated a career as either an imaginative writer or a militant organiser. In the end, however, he saw his role as part of the chorus – as Evans nicely puts it – commentating on the class struggle rather than participating in it. Time spent in 1950s France was an important formative period for him. Here he hung out with dissident communists and Marxists rather than the super-orthodox intellectuals of the party, many of whom would become venomously born-again Cold Warriors of the right in the 1990s, when they conspired to suppress Hobsbawm’s publications. The postwar Communist Party Historians Group in Britain, in which Hobsbawm was involved, was in mild tension with the party leadership from 1946. In 1956 their dissidence exploded in opposition to Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising. Hobsbawm was one of the few intellectuals to stay with the party, though in the view of MI5, who were bugging communist headquarters at King Street in London, he was beyond its control. Having said that, he was careful not to stray too far. While Hungary was a “lacerating experience”, he nonetheless approved of the Soviet invasion “with a heavy heart”, calling only for withdrawal as soon as possible. He was now, however, prepared to (occasionally) criticise the party line in public.

Unlike the other Communist Party historians, Hobsbawm was little impressed by the matriarchal presence of Donna Torr. Much more influential was Margot Heinemann, whose work in the Labour Research Department must have more closely fitted with his own interest in social history rather than the history of socialism as such. He was never terribly keen on celebratory reclamation of heroes and heroines: “The problem about this kind of history … is that it sacrifices analysis and explanation to celebration and identification.”

Hobsbawm benefited from his international communist connections, no doubt one reason why he stayed in the party. Italian party members, who had a real peasantry to deal with, got him on to the subject of peasant radicalism. Primitive Rebels (1959), discussing the behaviour and attitudes of those bandits and freebooters unamenable to the discipline of the orderly labour movement, remained his favourite book. Nonetheless, he could never quite see them as agents of their own emancipation. They were, in his view, “pre-political”. “The peasantry never provides a political alternative to anyone, merely, as occasion dictates, an almost irresistible force or an almost immovable object.” Peasant movements, Hobsbawm thought, required a communist vanguard to do anything constructive at all. Had he taken more interest in the Irish land question (as had JL Hammond, a labour historian of the previous generation) he might have had a more expansive conception of the political peasant.

A rather unfortunate tendency amongst the Communist Party Historians Group was its generally dismissive attitude to Britain’s already well-established radical and socialist historiographical tradition. Hobsbawm and the others airily dismissed the Webbs, the Hammonds and the Cole/Postgate nexus (labour historiography seemed to group in families). Their characterisation as milk-and-water moderates is rather too readily accepted by Evans. GDH Cole and Raymond Postgate’s The Common People, a highly impressive work of synthesis and original research, was far more radical than the “advanced humanitarian, social-reforming liberal history” label Hobsbawm attached to it. Its authors were rather closer to the Austrian tradition of pre-Communist radical socialism with a dash of syndicalism than they were to atheoretical Labourism. Nor were they particularly lacking in cosmopolitanism compared to their successors. The Hammonds constructed their great “labourer trilogy”, which examined the making of the modern working class in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as an implicit comparison with concurrent French social development. Postgate was perhaps the only British historian equipped to draw as easily on the American Trotskyist intellectual Max Eastman as on debates within interwar Greek Marxism. Cole wrote a substantial seven-volume history of international socialist thought.

Perhaps Hobsbawm had professional reasons to disparage his predecessors. His lost book – The Rise of the Wage-Worker (1955) – was to have been published in a series edited by GDH Cole, though there is no evidence that it was Cole himself, rather than more conservative evaluators of the manuscript, who put the kibosh on it for its alleged bias. It’s hard to see Cole disapproving of Hobsbawm’s style, though the veteran Christian socialist historian RH. Tawney was perhaps a more predictable voice in preventing his PhD thesis on Fabianism from been published. In general, Hobsbawm simply tolerated the relatively mild academic persecution inflicted by anti-Marxist rivals. It seems that Hugh Trevor Roper blocked his appointment as Chichele Professor of Economic History at Oxford, though this did not prevent Hobsbawm co-operating with him in producing the famous Invention of Tradition volume of essays (1983). At any rate, each generation of historians can easily enough find reason to dismiss and smother views that chip at their preconceptions. One can only hope that Evans’s biography will make the case for the belated publication of Hobsbawm’s suppressed book on the wage-worker.

As a young revolutionary in the 1930s, Hobsbawm had looked to Sinn Féin as a model for the successful uprising. He had an appreciation, moreover, for the extraordinary power of nationalist sentiment. “What made Czech servant-girls sing patriotic songs and the Irish labourers give nickels to the Clann na Gael?” he asked rhetorically. “An emotion which can mobilise the politically undeveloped and give comfort to the stateless, by proxy, cannot be overlooked.” Nonetheless, it was not until the 1980s that he seriously delved into the topic. Nationalism was, in his view, hardly ever a force for good. His interpretation of the problem, first delivered as the Wiles lectures at Queens University Belfast in 1985, was certainly influential, but perhaps amounted to a skilful elaboration of the thesis that nationalism was an imposition from above in an attempt to distract workers from class consciousness. He was never sympathetic to nationalism and one could argue that he never quite understood it.

Hobsbawm was not an archive historian. Even his Cambridge PhD on Fabianism – a moderate requirement of sixty thousand words in those days – was based primarily on printed records and his subsequent delving into social history substantially relied upon the mass of printed trade union materials accumulated in the late nineteenth century by Beatrice Webb. His 1968 study of the Swing Riots (Captain Swing) – England’s last revolt of the agricultural labourers – certainly used primary sources, but this was entirely the work of his collaborator, George Rudé. Hobsbawm provided the overview and analytical chapters. Hobsbawm’s real métier was the broad synthetic work. His 1954 article on the “general crisis of the 17th century” was a first foray and already showed his astonishing range and power when it came to consideration of great movements and stages in history. This was the analytical sweep of Marxism that appealed to him most. He was unimpressed by the retreat from “grand narrative” and was generally derisive of postmodernism in history, despite the fact that he made significant contributions to the understanding of the rhetorical construction of reality in his works on the “invention of tradition” and on nationalism more generally. Nor did he have a great deal of time for “identity politics”. 1968-style radicalism, he thought, was the “opposite of Marxist”, being “mindless, libertarian and often basically individualist (i.e. antisocial)”. Despite a growing caution about saying as much in so many words, he wanted to write a class-based history.

This optic culminated in Hobsbawm’s magnificent trilogy on nineteenth century Europe (1962, 1975, 1987), an exercise in haute vulgarisation that scaled the heights of genius. Its organising theme was that of a bold and audacious bourgeoisie pivoting into increasing conservatism after the shock of proletarian assertion in the 1848 liberal revolutions and almost completely losing its emancipatory élan in the face of the rising socialist working class movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This interpretation has been criticised but, as Evans rightly makes clear, it stands up very well indeed.

Perhaps less successful, except in commercial terms, was Hobsbawm’s 1994 pendant on the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes. As Perry Anderson has pointed out, while no one would cavil at his description of the first half of the century as an age of catastrophe, the division of the second half into a “golden age” of capitalism followed, from the early 1970s by a “landslide” of stagnation and retrogression depends upon narrowly “Western Marxist” standards of calibration. Hobsbawm’s identification of the anti-communist revolutions (or counter-revolutions) of 1989 as the “worst breakdown” of the century must surely count as an acute myopia born of bitter disillusion. The “landslide” was really no such thing and is better understood as a completion of the parabola started in 1789: an upswing of liberty on exclusively bourgeois terms, while proletarian democracy disintegrated, culminating in a noisy neoconservative hubris. As ultimately revealed by Hobsbawm’s self-defeating political interventions as a communist public intellectual in the 1980s, any class-based socialist perspective that tried to reconcile itself with the all-pervasive bourgeois triumphalism of the age, rather than simply defying it, could only result in something along the lines of the political managerialism that was the Blairite “Third Way”. Certainly Hobsbawm’s autobiographical reflections on the century (1998), which made a virtue of his lonely voice, are likely to last longer in the canon. He lived long enough, however, to witness, and ironically appreciate, the renewed crisis of capitalism that set in from 2008.

There were some reviewers who were rather doubtful about the positive content of Hobsbawm’s Marxism, particularly after the 1960s. His version of social history, or the history of society, was perhaps Marxist in its confident bird’s eye view, but otherwise it was hard to see its specific differentiation from other schools of thought. Opinions will no doubt differ on what defines Marxist historiography, but it seems to me that it must involve a theory and demonstration of class consciousness – not, to be sure, a royal road to the “correct” political position for any class, but the rootedness of politics and culture in human cognition mediated through the fundamentals of how one makes a living in a society of class inequality. Hobsbawm showed a certain interest in human psychology throughout his life – perhaps this is inevitable in any attuned historian – but he dismissed psychobabble and the periodically fashionable enthusiasms for Freud. While he admired Niall Ferguson’s unquestionable acuity – which, after all, is in many respects a Marxism of the right – he was disappointed to see him coquetting with sociobiology and its variants. This is natural, given its tendency to rely upon a kind of intellectual “reverse engineering” to justify the current status quo by evolutionary determinism. Historians, particularly those coming of age in the postmodern generation, have fallen to the temptation of more or less denying any determinate human nature at all, espousing an excessive social constructionism that fetishises cultural plasticity. This psychological Lamarckianism held little attraction for Hobsbawm, but like all Marxist historians of his generation he never found anything adequate to replace the unarticulated crudities of “economic base determining political and cultural superstructure”. Perhaps the slow maturation of social psychology will in the future provide the want.

Hobsbawm never repudiated his communism. “I don’t like being in the company of the sort of people I’ve seen leaving the Communist Party and becoming anti-Communist … I don’t wish to be untrue to my past or to friends and comrades of mine.” Oddly enough, the end of the Cold War served only to exaggerate anti-communist vitriol as heroes of liberal thought abased themselves before the neoliberal God which, it seemed, had not failed. Intellectual politician manqué Michael Ignatieff, and soft-soap broadcaster Sue Lawley took pleasure in publicly trapping Hobsbawm. This was an easy time to recast history as a mirror that reflected only one’s moral superiority. Christopher Hitchens, on his flight from the anti-capitalistic tradition, once defined virtue as the espousal with equal fervour of anti-fascism, anti-communism and anti-imperialism. In the 1930s, this would have been a kind of literary dilettantism. Were Britain and France really to let loose their colonies for fascist predators to pick up? Was communism really to be equated with a fascism that was on principle opposed to the right to life for any other than the Herrenvolk? But that Hobsbawm even equivocally tried to justify gargantuan mass murder by the noble ends it contemplated was certainly a mark against him. Perhaps there was something of the Fabian in him after all, willing to forgive the destroying angel of history if it seemed to contribute to a New Civilisation.

But we should not ascribe too much to the self-incriminating compressions wrought by hostile interrogators. Hobsbawm should be understood on the grand scale in which he wrote. And perhaps it is not the epigone, in the end, who has the last word. After his death hundreds of messages of sympathy were posted to Hobsbawm’s beloved widow. Evans records the addition scribbled by a postal worker tasked with delivering them: “I liked his work and just wanted to send my condolences.”


Marc Mulholland is Professor of Modern History at St Catherine's college, Oxford. His latest book is The Murderer of Warren Street: The True Story of a Nineteenth-Century Revolutionary.