Bringing history to life

October 11, 2012

Paul Heideman pays tribute to a leading figure in 20th century Marxism.

THE INTERNATIONAL left lost one of its most distinguished intellectual lights when Eric Hobsbawm died on October 1.

Hobsbawm was, without a doubt, one of the 20th century's greatest historians and perhaps the most accomplished Marxist historian ever. He contributed an immense amount to our understanding of capitalism's rise and functioning--as well as the resistance of those who fought against exploitation, oppression and injustice.

He was not without problems, particularly owing to his defense of so-called socialism in the former USSR and the political strategies pursued under the rule of Joseph Stalin. But his stature and importance as a historian and Marxist can't be denied.

Hobsbawm wrote on an incredible range of subjects--from guerrilla warfare to jazz to the politics of nationalism--but his greatest achievement was a trilogy of "the long 19th century": The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire.

In these works, he explored how the "dual revolutions"--the French Revolution of 1789 and the Industrial Revolution that began several decades before--gave birth to the modern world. Essentially, the trilogy tells the story of the rise of the bourgeoisie and the way the development of capitalism completely reshaped the world.

Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm

One of Hobsbawm's greatest gifts was his ability to synthesize entire libraries worth of information, finding the perfect facts or examples to dramatize his points. In these books, Marx's description of how, under capitalism, "[a]ll fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify" comes to life.

THE BRILLIANCE with which Hobsbawm described the rise of the bourgeoisie doesn't prevent him from also telling the story of the working class.

Hobsbawm's Marxism is at its best in these passages, where his solidarity with the struggles of workers against capitalism animates his writing. In Age of Revolution, for example, he describes the mood of the working class on the eve of the great revolutions of 1848 that swept from one end of Europe to the other in a period of weeks:

Their hatred of the rich and the great of that bitter world in which they lived, and their dream of a new and better world, gave their desperation eyes and a purpose, even though only some of them, mainly in Britain and France, were conscious of that purpose. Their organization or facility for collective action gave them power. The great awakening of the French Revolution had taught them that common men need not suffer injustices meekly...

This was the "spectre of communism" which haunted Europe, the fear of "the proletariat" which affected not merely factory owners in Lancashire or Northern France, but civil servants in rural Germany, priests in Rome and professors everywhere.

And with justice. For the revolution which broke out in the first months of 1848 was not a social revolution merely in the sense that it involved and mobilized all social classes. It was in the literal sense the rising of the laboring poor in the cities--especially the capital cities--of Western and Central Europe. Theirs, and theirs almost alone, was the force which toppled the old regimes from Palermo to the borders of Russia. When the dust settled on their ruins, workers--in France, actually socialist workers--were seen to be standing on them, demanding not merely bread and employment, but a new state and society.

Passages like this show why if you want to understand Marx's recognition of the proletariat as the revolutionary class, Hobsbawm's trilogy isn't a bad place to start.

Though Hobsbawm is most famous for these sweeping portraits of global history, he was equally adept at producing evocative essays focused on much narrower subjects.

In these works, which frequently took as their subject aspects of the history of the left or oppressed groups, Hobsbawm would take a small detail and use it to illuminate whole regions of working class history that remained hidden from official histories. In his hands, the hats worn by British workers in the early 20th century became a means of exploring the cohesive working-class identity built in those years, and the effect it had on British politics.

As Hobsbawm's interest in what would come to be called "history from below" suggests, his historical work was always informed by his political commitment to Marxism. One of the areas in which this commitment showed itself most was his work on nationalism.

Hobsbawm was a brilliant scholar of nationalism and of "invented traditions" generally. As such, he was an unsparing critic of the myths of nationalism. He held that "no serious historian of nations and nationalism can be a committed political nationalist...Nationalism requires too much belief in what is patently not so." He challenged not only proponents of the status quo who used such myths to bolster support, but segments of the left that tried to "reclaim" versions of nationalism.

UNFORTUNATELY, HOBSBAWN'S interventions into political debates were not so insightful where the politics of Stalinism was concerned.

Hobsbawm joined a youth group of the Communist Party (CP) in Germany in the early 1930s and the CP itself in 1936. He remained a member after the crimes committed by Stalin and the new bureaucratic rulers of the USSR were clear. Thus, while many left the CP following the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary to crush a workers' revolution against the Stalinist regime, Hobsbawm stayed a member.

Hobsbawn was devoted to the Popular Front strategy developed by Stalin's regime during the mid-1930s. Communist Parties in other countries were required to unite with "progressive" capitalist forces to combat the threat of fascism.

Hobsbawm was no doubt won to this strategy after his firsthand experience as a Jewish teenager in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. But the Popular Front required members of the CP to put their alliances with bourgeois parties ahead of workers' struggle--up to and including support for the suppression of strikes and repression of independent working-class movements.

Hobsbawm continued to apply this political logic in the years after the Second World War. To take one example, in Britain, where he lived from the mid-1930s onward, he supported the conservative turn of the Labour Party in the 1980s and '90s on the grounds that Labour needed to become as broad a church as possible in order to defeat the vicious Conservative Party of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The theoretical underpinning of this view--articulated explicitly by Hobsbawm, famously in a 1978 article titled "The Forward March of Labour Halted?"--was that the working class was losing its central role in the struggle to change society and that a broad, multi-class political alliance was necessary. Concretely, this meant that during Britain's Great Miners' Strike of 1984-85, Hobsbawm and his cothinkers at the CP journal Marxism Today opposed left-wing leadership of the strike and militant tactics.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party continued to move further and further to the right, culminating in the New Labour of Prime Minister Tony Blair, which openly championed the neoliberal agenda of war and austerity.

As disappointing as this is, it shouldn't overshadow the importance of Hobsbawm's contribution as a historian--and the two crucial lessons to be found in his books by those seeking to change the world today.

The first lesson is about the power of the capitalist class and the way it remade the world in its image. Hobsbawm's histories reveal as well as any polemic the futility of any strategy for changing society that does not ultimately seek to remove the bourgeoisie from power.

The second and more hopeful lesson is about the vitality of working class resistance--and the hope in the possibility that it can give us a world different from the one of empire and capital that Hobsbawm spent his life chronicling.

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