Eric Hobsbawm – historian and Marxist pessimist

In 1978, the historian Eric Hobsbawm delivered the Marx Memorial Lecture and it was a gloomy affair. Hobsbawm was a brilliant writer and for most of his life, a member of the Communist Party. Towards the end of the 1970s, he became incredibly pessimistic about the very notion of a revolutionised working class transforming society. Hobsbawm gave voice to this political depression in several articles under the umbrella heading: The Forward March of Labour Halted.

What’s fascinating when re-reading these outpourings now is how his words heralded a rightward move by many who still called themselves Marxists to a reformist position. Their justification was that capitalism and, more importantly, the working class itself – was changing out of all recognition.

Arguably under pressure from the then dominant neo-liberalism espoused by Thatcher and Reagan, they questioned many of the fundamentals of orthodox Marxism. There was also the grim experience of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, in its death agonies under Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s. Although Hobsbawm, as we shall see, found it hard to split from Moscow.

Eric Hobsbawm and the Eurocommunists

In the decade that followed, the Communist Party journal Marxism Today would lead a section of the party towards what was, in effect, a modus vivendi with capitalism and parliamentary democracy. This political trend was dubbed “Eurocommunist”. The end result would be their own extinction as they lost the very reason for their own existence.

At the start of the 1980s, when I got involved in Marxist politics, Hobsbawm was not flavour-of-the-month on the Trotskyist left. The Eurocommunists were derisively referred to as “communists with pine kitchens”. In the 1980s, having a pine kitchen was deemed to be the height of middle class domestic taste (I kept my parents’ pine kitchen a closely guarded secret at the time!).

So, Hobsbawm and his downbeat ilk were dismissed as establishment sell-outs. But at the same time, Hobsbawm’s body of work was still hugely respected. These included a book series titled “The Age of…” encompassing The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire. My personal favourite book is The Invention of Tradition where Eric Hobsbawm reveals how many ancient British ‘traditions’ from Scottish tartan to the State Opening of Parliament were invented over the last two centuries.

The Forward March of Labour Halted – Eric Hobsbawm in 1978

But back to The Forward March of Labour Halted. I have the 1978 copy of Marxism Today in my Bolshevik archive in which Hobsbawm’s lecture first appeared in print. So, why the long face Mr Hobsbawm? Well, this is a summary of his despondency in bullet points for you:

  • The self-identification of the working class has declined as the nature of work has changed and old industries have died. There is also growing sectionalism between, for example in 1978, coal miners and nuclear power workers – with opposing interests.
  • Despite people not seeing themselves as working class, the ‘proletarianisation’ of the population has continued with a growing percentage “selling their labour power for wages” over the last hundred years. But that has not resulted in the growth of a self-aware proletariat because the working class has shifted from being in manual labour to white-collar and from being overwhelmingly in the private sector to a large percentage in the public sector. Hobsbawm fretted that “class consciousness” was receding and that a new, conservative white-collar “labour aristocracy” was being created – even it had been unionised and in some instances, radicalised
  • If class consciousness could be measured in part by voting trends for socialist and communist parties, then Hobsbawm believed it had been dropping since the 1950s. Even the surge of support for the left in the 1960s was, he believed, coming more from students and professionals than “young manual workers”
  • There has also been a marked increase in female employment, which I get the impression is implicitly assumed to be a bad thing. Many on the left thought in the past that women tended to be more politically conservative. I remember talking to a shop steward in the early 1980s who droned on about the baleful influence of women members in his branch. That ignored some very prominent struggles led by women at that time – erm, the stormy 1970s Grunwick dispute for example?
  • Hobsbawm worried about racism and nationalism dividing workers – highlighting immigration as a divisive factor and the rise of nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. He noted that Irish workers had enthusiastically joined British trade unions – a positive development – but said nothing about the increasingly militant role of black and Asian workers at the time he was writing
  • Although trade union activity was at an all-time high in the 1970s, Hobsbawm felt it was guilty of “economism”. This is a phenomenon described by Lenin as a focus on bread-and-butter economic demands at the expense of a political programme. He was criticising some socialists who thought workers were only capable of “economism”. Hobsbawm was saying British trade unions had sunk almost unknowingly into that frame of mind and their strike action was alienating potential support in wider society

At the end of the lecture, Hobsbawm makes the rather vulgar-Marxist observation that: “We cannot rely on a simple form of historical determinism to restore the forward march of British labour which began to falter thirty years ago”. But he then notes there’s no need for “automatic pessimism” either.

The problem is that Marxists have failed to keep their thinking up to date as Karl Marx would have done faced by major structural changes in the nature of capitalism – Hobsbawm argues. “We should have done this even while we were waiting for British capitalism to enter its period of dramatic crisis”.

DISCOVER: The Portuguese revolution of 1974

The victory of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and her wooing of working-class votes only confirmed Hobsbawm in the above analysis. He noted that she deployed identity politics skilfully to set one section of the working class (the C1s) against those “scroungers” and trouble makers in the organised labour movement.

By the late 1980s, the collapse of the Soviet Union and replacement by unbridled capitalism became another source of despair. Even if Marxists had criticised the USSR – or even been hostile to the bureaucracy – the collapse of a state calling itself Marxist could only be a negative development for left.

I’d agree that anybody saying the end of the USSR didn’t impact the psyche of the entire global left is in reality denial. But it should also be noted that Hobsbawm displayed a particular inability to split from Stalinism even after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968. Although his private papers suggest he experienced deep levels of angst over his own unwavering loyalty to the Communist Party.

In the end, Hobsbawm was left disillusioned with the Soviet dream and unable to see how capitalism could be ended. Ironically, despite his Marxist credentials, his most important political legacy was to lend an intellectual justification for ditching the final vestiges of Marxism from the Labour Party.

Categories: Philosophy

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