Eric Hobsbawm’s Century


Eric Hobsbawm during a lecture at the Central European University, 1993. Photo from Twitter.

Were the British Marxist historians a coherent lot, congealed in the sameness of their affiliation to historical materialism? How like-minded were Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, Dorothy Thompson, Rodney Hilton, Maurice Dobb, George Rudé, John Saville, Christopher Hill, Victor Kiernan, Dona Torr, and Margot Heinemann? Conventional wisdom tends to lump these figures together; recent discussion gestures lightly toward differentiation.

There was, of course, mutual regard among these dissident historians. All shared a certain outlaw status during the Cold War years in which their research and writing largely first appeared. Commonality registered in their project of injecting a strong dose of class inequality into the weak tea of High Table histories preoccupied with the bland fare of one-class societies and their longue durée continuities. But to assume that the British Marxist historians produced histories out of some common template obscures important distinctions relating to research methods, stylistic sensibilities, and analytic orientations. The Marxisms of these distinguished practitioners of historical materialism parted ways intellectually and, over time, politically. Many left the Communist Party in 1956; some did not. Contentions simmered below the surface of an apparent, always uneasy, consensus.

First among equals in this extraordinary Marxist contingent was Eric J. Hobsbawm. Widely recognized as the world’s premier Marxist historian, Hobsbawm’s intellectual range was unrivaled. Never one to pander to prevailing considerations, he was often a brave voice of dissent challenging convention. Well received throughout the Global South, where his writings were eagerly translated and sold exceedingly well, Hobsbawm’s influence and regard was resolutely international. There were few Marxists accorded the respect Hobsbawm garnered in distinct layers of the literary marketplace; his histories were embraced by disparate publics, among whom were many not especially committed to a radical reconstruction of the status quo.

Hobsbawm was early anointed a “chosen one.” The Cambridge student weekly, Granta, with Hobsbawm as editor, profiled him in 1939, declaring, “There’s a freshman at King’s who knows about everything.” Eric was elected to the Cambridge Conversazione Society, a secretive body known as the Apostles, whose supper meetings he enjoyed attending. Eventually, Hobsbawm would rub shoulders in these Apostolic gatherings with the likes of John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, and the later-to-be notorious Russian agents Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess.

Decades later, Hobsbawm’s unparalleled capacity to synthesize capitalism’s development earned him accolades from his counterparts. They appreciated his project of producing a totalizing “history of society,” where recognition of economic determination did not end up slighting “art, science, religion, ideology, and even social psychology.” Hobsbawm’s insistence on approaching history as a holistic narrative came at a time, moreover, when many soi-disant leftists were succumbing to the faddish particularism of postmodernism. As Raphael Samuel and Gareth Stedman Jones conclude, “[P]erhaps one of Hobsbawm’s outstanding and least commented upon achievements has been his ability to bring together the propositions of classical Marxism and the empirical preoccupations of social and economic historians into a virtually seamless web.” This meant that the transition from feudalism to capitalism, class formation and industrial capitalist development, protest and rebellion, unionization, urbanization, left-wing parties, and insurgent mobilizations became, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, “almost part of the ‘common sense’ of academic inquiry and research.”

Like the jazz he so loved, Hobsbawm’s historical improvisation encompassed hot and cool, notes of swing and blues, a call-and-response engagement with conventional understandings that served as a stage for dissonant arguments. In the polyphonic orchestration of his presentation of the past, Hobsbawm delivered a sweeping periodization of capitalism’s economic, political, and social rhythms, harnessing development’s discords in ways that never forgot the price of “progress.” Modern historical experience, Hobsbawm insisted, necessitated “the expectation of apocalypse.” Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes (1994), an account of “the short twentieth century, 1914–1991,” ends with an admonition:

If humanity is to have a recognizable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present. If we try to build the third millennium on that basis, we shall fail. And the price of failure, that is to say, the alternative to a changed society, is darkness.

A recent biography of Hobsbawm by a politically conventional European historian and one-time colleague of “Eric the Red,” Richard J. Evans, provides an opportunity to take the measure of this preeminent Marxist historian. Something of an “official” account of Hobsbawm’s life, Evans obviously had the support of the Hobsbawm family. His generous rendition of a twentieth-century man of left letters relies on an extensive personal archive, including a diary Eric kept for much of his youth and sporadically thereafter. A previously published autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (2002), concentrated on the public man of ideas and politics, offering Hobsbawm’s self-presentation. It was as unrepentant as it was often unreflective, at least for the period of his adulthood. In delving deeply into the private person, Evans elaborates on what Hobsbawm appeared reticent to reveal. Yet in confronting the politics and publications of his fascinating subject, it is difficult not to see Evans as Hobsbawm’s handler. A Life in History is an orchestrated attempt to mainstream a Marxist, revealing how distant Evans is from the left-wing milieu in which Hobsbawm was immersed and where he often created oppositional waves.

Evans also produced this biography quickly. Unforced errors inevitably creep into the text. Was a seventeen-year-old Eric really reading “an early work by the American Communist Farrell Dobbs”? Unlikely, for by the year cited, Dobbs had published little, if anything, that Hobsbawm could have come across, was never a member of the Communist Party, and was involved in a 1934 Teamster insurgency that would lead to him becoming a Trotskyist. Evans must have misread Hobsbawm’s diary, which likely referred to writing by the British Communist Maurice Dobb. He also errs in dating Eric’s gift of Stalin’s History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course to a cousin in 1935, the book not being published until later in the 1930s. Labor history, Hobsbawm’s original field of study, is not something Evans is particularly attuned to (he mistakenly refers to the West Coast leader of the American International Longshore and Warehouse Union as Harry Bridge). Yet he is altogether too quick to offer pronouncements—on the basis of little appreciation for the nuances of historiographic judgment—that the study of the working class had “entered a period of crisis—terminal crisis” in the 1980s. Sheila Rowbotham, identified as a coauthor of a feminist critique of a 1978 Hobsbawm essay on socialist iconography and images of women, was not involved in the publication of the rejoinder Evans references. Slipups aside, and notwithstanding the accent Evans places on the intimate sphere, it is the political that is paramount in conveying the meanings of Hobsbawm’s life and critically engaging with the study of that history.

(Over)Determinations: A Life in History

Born in the year of the Russian Revolution, Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm would live in the shadow of Soviet Communism’s experiment for his lengthy adulthood. A Central European by upbringing, Hobsbawm’s Austrian mother was an aspiring novelist, his father a piteous English man’s-man type who enjoyed Rudyard Kipling, music hall songs, and sports, and valued masculine physicality. Both parents were Jews, but neither was “observant.” His far more influential mother conveyed to Eric the necessity of never doing anything that suggested shame in being Jewish. Hobsbawm later associated Jewishness with a domestic “network stretching across countries and oceans [and] that shifting between countries was a normal part of life.” Orphaned at fourteen, his father succumbing to what was vaguely described as “heart trauma” and his mother falling prey two years later to pulmonary tuberculosis, Hobsbawm lived for the rest of his youth with relatives and his sister, Nancy, in Berlin and London. A decade later, his Marxism a substitute for sexual love, his affiliation to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) a replacement for the nuclear family he had lost, Hobsbawm was, in spite of his political certainties, “alone, drifting, with an uncertain future.”

“I grew up at the most sectarian point of the socialist-communist split,” Hobsbawm recalled in the mid-1980s. He added, “It’s now clear to everyone that that was a disaster. It was my most formative political experience.” At the time, however, Hobsbawm’s diary echoed the Comintern’s tragically defeatist view that Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany would pave the way for revolutionary breakthroughs: “Perhaps fascism will bring some good — it will be the school through which the proletariat passes, then to emerge victorious under the leadership of the c.p.” A few years later, Hobsbawm participated in the 1936 Paris Bastille Day parade. He rode on the lorry filming the day’s inspiring events, his privileged, exhilarating placement secured through an uncle’s status in the official camera unit of the Socialist Party. Hobsbawm later wrote that he “belonged to the era of anti-fascist unity and the Popular Front. It continues to determine my strategic thinking in politics to this day.”

It might be possible to square this circle of political origins and influences, explaining two quite different formative moments in affiliation to Communism: the sectarianism of the Third Period and the subsequent ecumenical Popular Front. This demands a certain accounting. Hobsbawm never delivered it. To claim that one’s politics were forged, for specific reasons and with quite particular consequences, in both Berlin in 1932–33 and the Paris of the Popular Front in 1936 is difficult. This juxtaposition is all the more problematic if you allude to each formative moment as an explanation of why you have remained affiliated with the Communist Party through the thick and the increasing thin of Stalinist degeneration and depressing denouement. Yet this is what Hobsbawm does, and what Evans accepts at face value. In failing to interrogate rigorously, let alone challenge, Hobsbawm’s allusions to how his seemingly contradictory, if telescoped, history determined an ongoing allegiance to the Soviet Union and a politics of Stalinism, Evans never seriously scrutinizes the life inside history that he is presenting. As Perry Anderson has commented trenchantly, there are dichotomies evident in Hobsbawm that are layered in all aspects of his work, intellectual and political. They cry out for serious analytic and political cross-examination. The assertions of the subject of study are, in the end, no substitute for a more detached dissection of what too often seems to be a convenient, even self-serving, sense of inevitability. Evans is either ill-equipped or unwilling to take up this kind of surgical incision into Hobsbawm’s body politic. He wields nothing like an analytic scalpel, instead serving up his treatment of the making of a Marxist with a cake lifter.

A Life in History does, at times, give us detailed, and sometimes insightful, commentary on Eric’s private thoughts and intimate life, drawing especially on the Hobsbawm diary. Evans provides accounts of youthful sexual encounters, among them an escapade in a brothel that Hobsbawm first recounted in his 2002 autobiography. More important is the slow death of Hobsbawm’s 1943 marriage to his first wife, Muriel Seaman, a fellow Communist about whom Interesting Times is surprisingly silent. Something of a union of political convenience, Muriel and Eric’s match weakened, the two growing apart; by 1950, their differences, at least in Muriel’s assessment of the situation, were irreconcilable. Sexually unfulfilled for some time, she told Eric, for whom she still had considerable affection, that she needed to be “fucked all night long.”

Tough love, indeed. Hobsbawm found the news difficult to take; engulfed in depression, he considered suicide. He managed to find his way out of this personal malaise, and companionship was not lacking. His sister, Nancy, understated Eric’s attractions, which included being a riveting conversationalist and an iconoclastic wit, blessed with physical vigor if not conventionally good looks. “He’s such an ugly man,” Nancy proclaimed in wonderment, “I just can’t understand why all these women are attracted to him!” In Paris, Eric sustained an intense affair with a married woman who traveled in circles of unorthodox Marxists, Hélène Berghauer; her husband (with whom Eric was also very friendly) was a student of Henri Lefebvre. Evans labels this a ménage à trois, with Hobsbawm acknowledging that his time with the couple in the aftermath of the dissolution of his first marriage provided him with “the closest thing to a family I had.” Later, as the CPGB fractured in 1956–57, he took up with a mature student studying psychology at Birkbeck, Marion Bennathan. This liaison lasted a few years, with Marion giving birth to a son fathered by Eric. She would not leave her somewhat psychologically fragile husband, however, and the relationship inevitably petered out, Eric venturing on to new terrain in Soho’s jazz clubs.

As Evans necessarily grapples with the politics of the far left that Hobsbawm’s political development drew him into, he finds himself treading on unfamiliar terrain, where each interpretive step demands careful consideration. Most serious is the balancing act evident in Evans’s approach to Hobsbawm’s relationship to Stalinism. Evans acknowledges, on the one hand, the regard with which Hobsbawm and his circle held the Soviet líder máximo while, on the other, ultimately downplaying the extent to which Joseph Stalin and/or Stalinism were influential in Eric’s emerging wordview and the later politics of the Marxist historian. A 1934 diary entry, for instance, records Hobsbawm’s admiration for Stalin, whom he regarded as one of “the great statesmen of this century,” ostensibly a man of principle who was flexible enough to utilize a variety of means to achieve his important ends. Yet Evans follows this with the assertion that “Eric’s intellectual formation owed little to Stalin.” Hobsbawm’s faith in the Soviet Union “had all the uncompromising absolutism of an adolescent crush.”

Perhaps. Yet as Hobsbawm made unambiguously and routinely clear, this youthful infatuation lasted a lifetime. Hobsbawm defended the absurd Moscow Trials allegations that the leading Bolshevik cadre aligned with Leon Trotsky to subvert the Revolution, going so far as to work in concert with Hitler’s Germany to deliver the Soviet Union to fascist aggression. During the Popular Front class struggles that rocked Paris in 1936 and 1937, Hobsbawm reduced the role of Trotskyists to that of “provoking risings & riots among strikers.” He insisted, to the end of his days, that in the Spanish Civil War, there was no alternative to standing with the USSR, whitewashing the role played by the Comintern in suppressing revolutionary initiatives and caricaturing Catalonian anarchist and other non-Communist militants as little more than saboteur. When the Soviet Union finally imploded as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, the Marxist historian found it one of the most devastating blows suffered in the slide into the political abyss of the late twentieth century.

Never drawn to the activist component of Party membership, Hobsbawm developed, from his time at Cambridge, a disdain for the “humdrum, everyday tasks” that Evans suggests it was the tedious “lot of ordinary rank-and-file Communist Party members to carry out.” “I had no natural taste or suitable temperament” for orthodox Party activities, Hobsbawm later confessed, noting that after 1950, he “operated entirely in academic or intellectual groups.” Hobsbawm’s place within the CPGB was increasingly that of a convenient hybrid, the insider-outsider. Evans does not so much interrogate this dualism, asking how and why Hobsbawm was able to straddle certain awkward fences of belief and identification, as he tailors it in his ongoing effort to fit his subject into what he considers the best possible political presentation.

We are told, through citation of a 1990s recollection, that Hobsbawm came to the conclusion early in his World War II soldier’s training that “the Party line was absolutely useless.” A few pages later, however, Eric is writing to his cousin Ron that “Stalin’s speech means a people’s war in every sense — technical and political,” and he organized the sending of a football, signed by his entire unit, to fraternal counterparts in the Red Army. “Every day that they hold out, every victory they win, every plane they bring down,” thought Hobsbawm, “brings the English and Soviet people closer.” His boredom with his war training palpable, Hobsbawm promoted the Communist view that a Second Front should be opened up, echoing the official position of the CPGB, in pieces written for the wall newspaper he edited in his camp. This brought him to the attention of the secret service, Section 5 of British Military Intelligence. MI5 considered Hobsbawm’s postings and their espousal of the Soviet line, however logical, as subversive.

Described by security state spooks as “a keen and very active member of the Party and well thought of at Party Headquarters,” Hobsbawm was now a man marked for close watching by the authorities, who deemed him sufficiently dangerous to warrant keeping him on English soil and restricting deployment overseas. Tired of the charade, Hobsbawm applied to be a research student at Cambridge, and he was released from the Army early in 1946. Privately, Hobsbawm was supposedly questioning the Party leadership’s capacities, suggesting that the membership needed the revitalization of democratic discussion, prompting Evans to claim that “Eric’s independence of mind was rubbing up against the Stalinist rigidity of the Party leadership.” Hobsbawm recalls in Interesting Times that he, like many fellow Communist intellectuals in Britain, was growing increasingly skeptical about the immediate postwar Soviet assault on Josip Broz Tito and his Yugoslavian revisionism. Also apparently troubling was the onslaught of Stalinist show trials in Eastern and Central Europe between 1949 and 1952, many of which targeted Jews and put on display a repugnant antisemitism. Yet at the time, Hobsbawm was contributing articles to the Communist-controlled journal New Central European Observer, defending the Soviet orientation to the “people’s democracies,” something that Evans skirts. Along with Christopher Hill and others, Hobsbawm was in sufficiently good standing with Party officialdoms in both Britain and the USSR to be invited to Moscow by the Soviet Academy of Sciences, although the trip, his first to the cherished socialist fatherland, left him dispirited and in no hurry to return. It is but a short step for Evans to claim that Eric Hobsbawm was one of the leaders, if not the principal inspiration, behind a 1956 mobilization of dissent in which the Communist Party Historians’ Group he chaired figured prominently. This began as criticism of the CPGB leadership’s failure to respond adequately to the revelations of Stalin’s crimes, aired publicly in Nikita Khrushchev’s February 1956 speech before the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It ended with Hobsbawm’s ambivalent, at best, relationship to the subsequent New Left, which emerged in part out of the Party crisis of 1956. In his presentation of Hobsbawm’s role in these late-1950s and early-1960s developments, Evans largely misconstrues where Eric was situated and why.

Soviet repression of a liberalization initiative in its satellite Hungary brought things to a head. As student protests erupted amid workers’ strikes and anti-Soviet protests in Poland, Red Army tanks rolled into Budapest. Hungary’s reform-minded prime minister, Imre Nagy, was sacked on Moscow’s orders and later executed; more than 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops died in ensuing street battles, and 200,000 Hungarians fled their country. This was the final straw for many CPGB members. When the smoke cleared inside the British party, in 1957, one-quarter of the ranks had resigned; one-third of the staff of the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker, walked away from their desks; and virtually the entire corps of intellectuals won over to the ostensible party of the revolutionary left in the 1930s and 1940s refused to be affiliated with the cause of their youth. The Historians’ Group was divided, but the bulk of its leading figures could no longer work under Party auspices. Hobsbawm could and did, albeit with reservations and regret. He resigned as chair of the Historians’ Group, which, in any case, was now fractured beyond repair.

Evans’s contribution to an extensive historiography on these events of 1956 is to situate Hobsbawm within the intra-Party conflict. He does this by drawing extensively on MI5 transcripts of bugged conversations inside the CPGB’s King Street offices. His account illuminates how the Marxist insider-outsider pushed the envelope of dissent in 1956, with Hobsbawm clashing with the Party hierarchy. Yet Evans exaggerates significantly Hobsbawm’s leadership role among the dissident communist anti-Stalinist critics and obfuscates the limits of Hobsbawm’s political opposition in the 1956 crisis of British communism. Many regarded Eric’s stance as lacking resolve. He was seen as waffling, tending to justify Soviet actions, especially with respect to the intervention in Hungary. There is also an important downside to Evans relying so heavily on state evidence that accents testy, if cloistered, conversations taking place within British communism’s inner sanctum, where private exchanges clandestinely recorded by MI5 were never meant to be part of public discussion. Privileging this behind-the-scenes dispute between Hobsbawm and Party leadership, Evans looks only superficially at the groundswell of CPGB members’ public opposition that was decrying Stalinism outside the Party. In this more open and rancorous discussion, historians such as E. P. Thompson and John Saville played a role very different than what Christopher Hill dubbed “Ericism.”

Evans, as Hobsbawm’s handler, presents Eric as a go-between linking the rebels and the Moscow loyalists, elevating this into a primacy within the opposition. Hobsbawm genuinely embraced de-Stalinization, but to depict him, as Evans does, as a “dangerous” opponent of the bureaucratic CPGB regime, largely because this was the view inside the increasingly hunkered-down King Street party officialdom, misses much of what was going on. It fails to address how Hobsbawm was negotiating a political crisis that others saw as irreconcilable. Hobsbawm managed, in the aftermath of 1956, to present himself as a critic of Party bureaucracy and the worst excesses of Stalinist retrenchment, while remaining associated with the official Soviet-aligned Communist movement, both in Britain and in other countries around the world. Hobsbawm thus had his cake, and he was able to eat some of it as well. This could be regarded as an achievement of sorts, but it might also be seen as a mark of Eric’s appetite for political accommodation that would ensure self-preservation, even self-advancement. For the rest of his life, Thompson considered the struggle of 1956 as a badge of anti-Stalinist honor to be worn proudly by all those who fought dissident communism’s difficult battles. Hobsbawm’s understandings were entirely different. He regarded the CPGB crisis as an occurrence that left thirty thousand British Communists troubled, a regrettable event best relegated to the category of “bad memories.”

Evans grapples with little of this. In the aftermath of 1956, he situates Hobsbawm in the New Left that emerged out of the dissolution of that year similarly. This new movement consolidated in clubs and publications, which evolved from the Thompson-Saville edited Reasoner and New Reasoner, broadening in the parallel formation of Universities and Left Review and the eventual fusion of these currents in the New Left Review. Eric, according to Evans:

remained personally and politically close to his friends in the New Left, including Edward Thompson, John Saville, Rodney Hilton and many others. They had no real political differences beyond the merely symbolic one of membership in the Party, and they were engaged in a common enterprise to build a new kind of radical social and political history “from below.”

This is simply not true. Historiographic sympathies and congruencies aside (and these are easily exaggerated), to suggest that Thompson and others would have regarded ongoing membership in the Communist Party in the late 1950s as “merely symbolic” exposes how removed Evans is from any understanding of the heated politics of the time.

In the aftermath of 1956’s convulsions, Hobsbawm’s relationship to the emerging New Left was one of distanced involvement, to be sure, but it contained too much fence-sitting, not a little condescension, and even some questionable sleuthing for the Party that he continued to support. Hobsbawm thus contributed to the odd New Left publication, but he also offered up “intelligence” to the CPGB leaders about meetings and mobilizations of his former comrades now engaged in struggling to build an alternative politics. In his reports to King Street, Hobsbawm presented the New Left as being in an organizational shambles, a kind of political chaos that nonetheless attracted progressive and rebellious people in ways the CPGB no longer could. Hobsbawm, however, was never a major builder of any of these initiatives. His insider-outsider status within the CPGB was in some ways replicated in the New Left, allowing him to mount political fences without the feet of activist involvement touching ground. If Evans attempts to situate Hobsbawm at the crossroads of the New Left’s formation, Interesting Times is a more reliable account of its author’s jaundiced assessment of this political experiment.

The first British New Left, Hobsbawm concluded in 2012, reformed neither the Labour Party nor the Communist Party; it failed to establish new organizations, lasting institutions of significance, or even national leaders of prominence. Evans acknowledges that Hobsbawm was indeed skeptical of the otherworldliness within which the New Left incarcerated itself, but he implies that Eric was influential and involved, citing the case of the movement’s Partisan Coffee House, in which he notes Hobsbawm was a “company director.” But the Coffee House endeavor, the brainchild of one of Eric’s PhD students and future founder of the History Workshop movement, Raphael Samuel, was not really something that Hobsbawm had anything to do with. The Partisan needed some “suitable left-wing personalities” to preside over it, and Hobsbawm let himself be “talked into one of these directorships, against my better judgement.” So did some well-heeled ex-Communists. Like Hobsbawm, they were to find that “Raph took not the slightest notion of any of us.” The scheme was “designed for disaster,” condemned by Samuel’s allergic reaction to anything smacking of commonsense practicality. “Only nostalgia and the need to maintain contact between the pre- and post-1956 generations of the left can explain why I found myself in this lunatic enterprise,” concluded Hobsbawm illuminatingly, if uncharitably. Politically, Hobsbawm ultimately wrote off the New Left that emerged out of 1956 as a “half-remembered footnote.”

If Hobsbawm was an outsider within British Communism, his marginalization within mainstream academic life at mid-century was arresting. Evans provides an understated if devastating indictment of the petty and nasty anti-communist intolerance that infused an ostensibly value-free scholarly environment in the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s. It was at this time that Hobsbawm, always drawn, like so many of the British Marxists, to literature, opted to study history, concentrating his first researches on Fabian reformers and the condition of the working class. Hobsbawm’s quickly produced doctoral thesis, highly critical of the Fabians, sailed through examination, even as some of its readers thought the study “too severe on the Society’s leaders.” R. H. Tawney scotched its publication, damning it as “slick, superficial, and pretentious.” Eric was turned down for a junior research fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge, on his first application because a don there declared that his “memory of the Fabians bore no relation to Hobsbawm’s analysis.” Enough said! Undaunted, Hobsbawm rewrote the fellowship dissertation demanded of all applicants, using his knowledge of the printed material Sidney and Beatrice Webb amassed for their late-nineteenth-century study The History of Trade Unionism (1894) and its subsequent revised editions, the last appearing in 1920. In what would be a defining methodological decision, Hobsbawm focused on a body of published sources to produce a “structural, problem-oriented history” that broke decisively with the conventional wisdom in the field. Entitling his “preliminary sketch” “Studies in the ‘New’ Trade Unionism, 1889–1914,” Hobsbawm tackled the question of why a new form of labor organization surfaced in Britain after 1870 and how it registered successes among previously largely unorganized workers in the ways that it did. Tawney (again!) was asked to assess the project and offered it some backhanded compliments, recognizing that it had been written under pressures of time. A second reader, the conservative economic historian T. S. Ashton, dismissed it more categorically. Eric nonetheless managed to secure the junior fellowship, which, while poorly paid, provided meals and rent-free accommodation at King’s College. It was a beginning.

Hobsbawm’s labor history found its way into the pages of the Economic History Review. He landed a teaching appointment at Birkbeck, where all instruction was in the evenings. Eric managed to structure his teaching into three, eventually two, nights. In 1954 the Hutchinson Library commissioned him to produce a study called “The Rise of the Wage Worker,” part of a series edited by the eminent libertarian socialist and prolific political-theorist-economist-historian G. D. H. Cole. Submitted in 1955, the book was rejected. It supposedly contained “objectionable” material. Acceptable scholarship had to “be written without any point of view,” an assertion Hobsbawm rightly thought absurd, easily disproven by examination of Hutchinson’s list. Hobsbawm was becoming a controversial figure, clashing with conservative historians in public disputes. One of these was Hugh Trevor-Roper. They argued over Karl Marx’s significance in academic circles, although Trevor-Roper was sufficiently liberal in his Cold War postures to recommend that his co-combatant in the culture wars of the 1950s be admitted to the United States to deliver a series of lectures at Stanford University. MI5 was aghast that Hobsbawm slipped through the cracks of the international anti-Red brigade: his visa application had not been vetted by the British security apparatus, and the Americans were caught off guard, unaware of Eric’s Communist record.

Small successes aside, Hobsbawm’s 1950s were years of ennui. The personal (Muriel’s departure) and the political (the crisis of 1956, the increasing precariousness of his insider-outsider status in both the CPGB and the New Left, and the Cold War’s constraint on his academic career) dovetailed in discontent. As an antidote to unhappiness, Hobsbawm turned to the work of ideas and the pleasures of the sensual realm. One of the best parts of Evans’s account of Hobsbawm’s private life explores how these spheres came together in the jazz scene, where Eric’s outsider political self could range free. Most people with a passing knowledge of Hobsbawm are aware that he published The Jazz Scene in 1959 under the pseudonym Francis Newton, borrowing the nom de plume from a Communist trumpeter featured on the Billie Holiday recording “Strange Fruit.” Newton/Hobsbawm authored well over one hundred articles on jazz for the New Statesman from 1956 to 1966, bending his pen as well around the business essence of the Soho strip club. A jazz lover from his teenage years, when he discovered Duke Ellington, Hobsbawm had no time for the Soviet disdain of jazz evident throughout the Stalin years (saxophones were banned by the USSR in 1949, thousands of the instruments confiscated, and some musicians marched off to the gulag). With Stalin dead, however, the official Communist attitude toward jazz softened in the mid-1950s, emboldening Hobsbawm to record a program for the BBC on “The Art of Louis Armstrong” in December 1955. Dutiful detectives at MI5 let the broadcasters know that Eric was an active Communist, promoting cultural relations with the Soviet Union. The show went on. Still, Hobsbawm kept his jazz writing and night crawls through the London clubs somewhat to himself, in both Communist and academic circles.

Eric’s conviction was that jazz, especially its more orthodox variants, offered a radical aesthetic as an antidote to the crisis of an artistic modernity overtaken by mass consumption. This was congruent with his Communist beliefs. He also found the Soho clubs liberating, and he enjoyed frequenting “places where the day people got rid of their inhibitions after dark.” The booze, the drugs, the music, the dropping of racial guards, the “chicks”—in short, the scene—obviously captivated Eric. He was an observer, but he was also a participant, willingly and happily so. Hobsbawm, now in his forties, consummated an ongoing relationship with a twenty-two-year-old part-time sex worker and jazz aficionado he met in a Wardour Street club in 1958. Jo, as Evans names her, worked the streets to support herself and her young daughter, as well as to feed her drug habit. Hobsbawm, whose relationship with Jo commenced as a friendship, eventually suggested, “I’d like to make it with you,” eliciting the resigned reply: “Well, sooner or later it had to come.” The affair, never quite a blaze of sexual passion, was destined to run its course, but while it lasted, Jo and Eric played off of each other’s needs and provided each other companionship, sealed less with a kiss than with a mutual attraction to jazz and the ways it could transcend differences in age, background, politics, and character. For Hobsbawm, it certainly was not love, but it was never boring. They parted company when Jo and her daughter relocated to Brighton, and the two lost contact. When they reestablished a connection, Hobsbawm supported Jo with occasional funds and introduced her to his second wife, Marlene, who was welcoming and friendly to her husband’s old girlfriend.

Hobsbawm’s writings on jazz were conservative and uneven, subject to criticism from those who found his intolerance of innovations such as bebop tiresomely stodgy. Jazz for Eric was a traditional genre, drawing on African rhythms, a folk idiom that expressed the trauma experienced by the black poor. He had little time for anything that diluted and displaced this essentially political history, regarding the rising stars of the jazz firmament of the 1940s and 1950s—figures like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk—as disappointingly narrow. His obituary of Billie Holiday, a tragic but towering talent, conveyed what was best about Hobsbawm. Nothing that he wrote captured so succinctly Hobsbawm’s passionate feeling for the oppressed. In confronting the vicious and violent unfairness that burdened and disfigured the great singer, Hobsbawm looked to the root causes of what destroyed human potential. This elicited a hatred of the system, capitalist at its core, stacking the deck so brutally against masses of people: “To be born with both beauty and self-respect in the Negro ghetto of Baltimore in 1915 was too much of a handicap, even without rape at the age of ten and drug-addiction in her teens. But, 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.”

Hobsbawm remained an insider-outsider within the British Communist Party for decades after these late 1950s Cold War academic put-downs, King Street clashes, and Soho excursions and encounters. If the latter provided solace, the former clarified his relationship to socialism. Isaac Deutscher apparently told Hobsbawm in 1957 that he had erred in allowing himself to be expelled from the Polish Communist Party. Regretting that he had not stayed inside the Comintern, the better to struggle for a politics of revolutionary rejuvenation, Deutscher supposedly convinced Eric not to leave the Party. Yet Hobsbawm was not animated by the same political intent as Deutscher. His relationship to the Party, in the decades following 1956, involved little, if any, disciplined involvement.

Hobsbawm’s affiliation with the CPGB registered largely in intellectual contacts, about which more will be said below, as well as in MI5’s interest in his travels abroad, which included, throughout the 1960s, trips to the United States, Cuba, continental Europe, and elsewhere. When the anti–Vietnam War protests surged to the forefront in 1967 and 1968, Hobsbawm cast his lot, predictably, with the anti-imperialist forces, and he marched with his wife, Marlene, and their small children. Conscripted into teach-in duty, Hobsbawm struggled to convey to student radicals that the examples and lessons of nineteenth-century protests might have some relevance to their cause, now known as another, second New Left. Hobsbawm’s anti-war positions, almost instinctual, seemed to involve little direct connection with the CPGB—he apparently went to demos as an individual, not so much as part of Party contingents. His marriage to Marlene and the births of a son, Andy, and a daughter, Julia, in 1963 and 1964, along with his increasing prominence as a particular kind of historian, situated Hobsbawm in a more settled relationship to his place in British society than he had ever before experienced. This, as well as his age, placed him outside of the youth revolt of the mid-to-late 1960s, an effervescence of rebellion that, if he later came to appreciate it, left Hobsbawm puzzled and politically discombobulated at the time. Bluntly put, “Whatever the appearances, my generation would remain strangers in the 1960s.” Hobsbawm later confessed, “I am surprised how little direct political activity there was in my life after 1956.” He took no part in a bitter conflict inside the CPGB in 1968, his Marxism largely confined to “writing books and articles.” These would establish his reputation as the world’s most accomplished Marxist historian of synthetic transnational histories, characterized by their grandiose, metropolitan vision.

Hobsbawm’s status on the Left in Italy, where Eurocommunism was sinking significant roots, was given a bump by his publishers’ promotions of his writings and the Italian Communist Party’s (PCI’s) receptiveness to his commentaries on British politics. They appeared regularly in the Italian party’s monthly journal. Hobsbawm was also routinely cited in L’Unità, a Communist daily, and he regarded Italy and its anti-fascist traditions as something of a political home, more congenial than Britain. Cultivating a friendship with leading PCI intellectual Giorgio Napolitano, who would later serve two presidential terms, Hobsbawm saw the road to socialism paved with intermediate solutions rather than decisive anti-capitalist ruptures. The political imperative demanded the creation of broad progressive alliances reaching beyond class to create the possibility of parliamentary majorities. Italian Communism seemed to be working to this end, and Hobsbawm cast his lot with the reform impulse, albeit with some trepidation, worrying that the PCI was turning itself into “just another reformist, gradualist party, into a new type of Fabianism.”

Hobsbawm’s trial run with Eurocommunism coincided with what would be his last, and perhaps most ill-fated, political intervention. On March 17, 1978, Hobsbawm delivered the Marx Memorial Lecture. Titled “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” and later published in Marxism Today and by Verso, the lecture elicited strong opposition and critical commentary. Its argument was analytically uncomplicated. The advance of the British working class, evident in the rise of a respectable trade union movement, had wound down by the mid-twentieth century. Because of a changing economy, the classical industrial proletariat, which had led the labor movement for decades, was now diminished and divided. It could not “realize the historic destiny once predicted for it.” Political parties, most emphatically the Labour Party, that staked their all on the traditional working class, now faced the necessity of reconsidering long-standing policies and expectations. Soon after Hobsbawm’s warning, preceded by what he referred to as the “strike-happy 1970s,” Labour suffered a massive defeat in the 1979 election. This ushered in a new era of class war from above, Thatcherism being the ruling ideology of the 1980s. The Labour Party was now in a mess, split by secessions and struggling to survive.

Something of an external brain trust for the Labour Party, Hobsbawm took his stand against “the Left,” composed of Tony Benn, “entryist” Trotskyists, and industrial militants whose experience bridged the Communist and Labour parties, such as Arthur Scargill. Dubbed “Neil Kinnock’s favourite Marxist,” Hobsbawm proved useful in vanquishing the Labour left in the 1980s, his arguments posed against what he regarded as an extremism that threatened to concede the terrain of actually existing politics to Thatcherite reaction. Central to this supposedly rational choice was denial of the primacy of class, and, of course, class struggle. The need was to orient the Labour Party to wider constituencies (that had never really been all that marginalized), in which intellectuals and “new classes” would have prominence. Martin Jacques, editor of the revamped Marxism Today, which often showcased Hobsbawm in these years, christened him “an intellectual guru in the Labour Party … From being a Communist intellectual he became the intellectual of the Left.” The question, of course, was which Left Hobsbawm served. In pushing the Labour Party to revive and reconstitute itself as a “broad people’s party” dedicated to “a fair, free, socially just society,” Hobsbawm certainly helped to thwart any advance within Labour of the Bennite left.

After the 1992 electoral collapse of front-running Labour under the leadership of the hapless Kinnock, a radical reordering of Labour Party politics was on the agenda. With the arrival of Tony Blair’s New Labour, socialism’s obliteration within the Labour Party was assured. Hobsbawm’s Interesting Times is far more cogent in its abject assessment of what happened than is Evans, who sidesteps the extent to which Eric bore some responsibility for Blairism’s ascent, which Hobsbawm bemoaned. Looking back on what happened, Hobsbawm counted the failure of Kinnock and Labour to win the 1992 election as “the saddest and most desperate” political experience of his life, a rather astounding confession for someone who had lived through 1933, 1937, 1956, 1989–1990, and other milestones of disappointment. Anderson rightly comments that “Such absurd inflation is a measure of the loss of contact with reality that his ‘crusade to save the Labour Party’—Gaitskell’s old slogan dusted off again—seems temporarily to have induced in the historian.”

The politics of the Left had undoubtedly stalled at the end of the twentieth century. But the idea that class had been stopped in its tracks at mid-century, as Hobsbawm suggested and as the most significant political intervention of his twilight years highlighted, was unconvincing analytically and a conservative retreat politically. A young Eric first aligned with workers in the early 1930s, and in Hobsbawm’s subsequent development into the world’s best-known Marxist historian, the working class had been his initial subject of study, a pivotal social force as well as a vitally important analytic category. To indicate that its forward march had been halted was not necessarily wrong as a description of the political situation, however simplified and historically premature the argument may have been. But to imply that this disappointing reality was now etched irreversibly in the stone of a hard politics of reversal, necessitating an entirely new orientation displacing the politics of class struggle, was to stop the related project of conceptualization and politics at precisely the point where a deeper scrutiny was demanded.

Assimilating Hobsbawm to his own moderate social-democratic politics, Evans insists that Hobsbawm was always “closer to the British Labour Party” than he was to anything resembling a communist organization. This claim, asserted rather than demonstrated convincingly, rests on the untenable proposition that Hobsbawm broke definitively from communism in 1956, even though Evans acknowledges that Eric transferred his political loyalties from the British to the Italian Communist Party. A look at the histories Hobsbawm wrote suggests another way of understanding his relationship to international Communism, the forces that controlled it, and the politics that factored so forcefully into his life within history.

Agency and Determination: Politics and the Making of a Metropolitan Marxist

If Evans falters in situating Hobsbawm and his politics within history, his commentary on his subject’s written histories is also lacking. A bourgeois sensibility pervades A Life in History, with Evans even providing a graph plotting Hobsbawm’s salary and pension, freelance income, and declared expenses over the course of the years between 1962 and 1987. Since Hobsbawm kept fairly meticulous records of his book contracts, earning his living in the last three decades of life from royalties, lecture fees, and teaching stints in the United States, Evans has a treasure trove of detail on sales, advances, and earnings, supplemented by access to a literary agent’s archived records. He revels in retailing this accounting data. It conveys well how one British Marxist went from being an author with disappointing sales in the late 1950s and early 1960s to a publisher’s star, commanding advances in excess of £100,000. Yet it also establishes that even Eric, with his record-keeping and his eye on the prize of payment, might slip up. When Hobsbawm contributed to Verso’s best-selling list by writing a lengthy introduction to a slick reissue of the Communist Manifesto, the left-wing press failed to pay Eric his contractually stipulated royalties. After twelve years, as Hobsbawm’s agent ascertained, Verso owed him a whopping £20,678.19.

Such information, and there is a great deal of it on offer, tends to overwhelm actual discussion of the substance of Hobsbawm’s writings, which get rather short shrift. Most of what Evans has to say about Hobsbawm’s books takes the form of summaries and quotes of reviews, rather than any insightful, engaged reading. It is the volume and monetary value of Hobsbawm’s pages that captivate Evans, not their analytic contribution or methodological approach. This is unfortunate, because Hobsbawm’s contribution and distinctiveness as a historian can be related to his political life within history and to his capacity to address historical interpretation in particular, often unique, ways.

Hobsbawm’s written histories, from the beginning of his writing in the 1940s and 1950s, grappled with the bifurcation of agency and determination that animated much writing within the Communist Party Historians’ Group. In his original forays as a labor historian, he explained agency through recourse to determination. Articles gathered together in what was his most influential contribution to working-class history, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (1964), often situated particular class practices and labor mobilizations within trade cycles and other economic determinants. In an original and impressive labor history essay, “Custom, Wages, and Work-Load in Nineteenth-Century Industry,” Hobsbawm explored the changing rhythms of the labor process. As capitalist rationalization established itself, imprinting on the consciousness of both employers and employees that work was a commodity, both its product and its remuneration came to be determined through struggles increasingly codified in industrial relations as “rules of the game.” This wide-ranging essay, touching down in continental Europe, the United States, and (mainly) Britain, rested almost entirely on printed primary sources and a wide canvassing of secondary literature; it contained virtually no archival research. Hobsbawm’s method was to survey class experience from the vantage point of what printed material could be assembled out of a metropolitan library system, focusing not so much on new and fresh discoveries of obscure peoples and happenings as building a broad overview that targeted a problem, addressing it in ways culminating in historical reinterpretation.

Hobsbawm, of course, was never simply a labor historian narrowly conceived, and one of his most impressive and painstakingly argued essays of the 1950s was an excavation of the crisis of the seventeenth century, the resolution of which cleared the way for capitalism’s subsequent triumph. In this analytically sweeping article, once again orchestrated by an interpretive problem to be resolved and drawing on published sources in English, French, Portuguese, and German, Hobsbawm outlined how an older European feudal economy collapsed in upon itself, a victim of its internal contradictions. Progressive new economies emerged, strengthening absolutism and its continental metropolitan centers, expanding home markets, especially in socially transformed England, and spawning a new colonialism, whose twin pillars were the plantation productions of the New World and the slave trade that both sustained its harvests and stimulated the eventual rise of mainstays of the Industrial Revolution, such as the cotton manufactory.

Hobsbawm’s wrestling with agency and determination understandably took its most voluntaristic turn in the late 1950s. His discontents with King Street Marxism’s bureaucratic ossifications were peaking, and his personal life was saturated with the sounds of rebellious jazz, reverberating in a willingness to challenge conventional behaviors. His labor histories ran into something of a brick wall of Cold War animosity. This was reinforced by publication rejections that probably had something to do with Hobsbawm’s metropolitan method, distanced as it was from immersion in original archival research. All of this, perhaps, prompted Eric to look for and justify a new approach, one in which agency, at first granted an upper hand, would gradually be confined within the boundaries of determination.

Italian connections pushed Hobsbawm toward a study of peasant cultures, especially as they intersected with stands of rebellion, however “pre-political.” An early engagement with the voluminous, if opaque, prison writings of Antonio Gramsci (decades before it was fashionable to cite the Italian revolutionary) piqued his interest in the subaltern. As much as any advice from Deutscher, retrospectively alluded to by Hobsbawm as decisive in his resolve to remain affiliated with the CPGB, this new research interest may well have impressed upon Eric a pragmatic reality. His Communist connections provided access to people, even places, that he would be restricted from and shut out of if he broke all connections with Moscow and its affiliated parties.

Primitive Rebels, written and published at the same time as many of his *New Statesmen Francis Newton pieces and The Jazz Scene, followed Hobsbawm’s metropolitan method, relying mainly on printed sources. It complimented this body of published texts with many discussions and talks (if not formal interviews) with people knowledgeable about and, in some cases, directly involved with the bandits, mafias, millenarians, anarchists, fasci, mobs, and labor sects he addressed, not a few of them being Communists. The book also allowed Hobsbawm’s historical framework to be enriched by his attractions to anthropological sensibilities. Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels took pains to have readers “think and feel themselves into the skins” of the archaic agitators he found so appealing. Christopher Hill, reviewing the book in History Today, thought Primitive Rebels inspired “by a humanity and a deep sympathy for humble people.” In this, it resonated with Hobsbawm’s obituary for Billie Holiday and, as such, explored agency through a tribute to the resilience of the oppressed. This analytic accent was also evident in Bandits, published in 1969, an accessible if wide-ranging text that extended Hobsbawm’s reach into Mexico, Brazil, Peru, China, and other non-European countries — writing that had taken Hobsbawm to Latin America and impressed upon him the revolutionary possibilities of the region. From this point on, Hobsbawm’s attraction to countries like Brazil, Peru, and Colombia was pronounced, and he traveled there over the course of the 1960s and into the 1970s. As much as any of his writings, Primitive Rebels and Bandits helped establish a field of study, “social banditry,” of great consequence in the Global South, solidifying Hobsbawm’s international reputation and ensuring future sales of his books in populous marketplaces where the dispossessed predominated. MI5 was its usual worried self, especially when Hobsbawm was featured on BBC broadcasts, while the CPGB, although apprised of the peripatetic partisan’s views on Latin America, paid Hobsbawm no heed. When a Popular Front government under Salvador Allende promised a peaceful transition to socialism in Chile, Eric thought this a “thrilling prospect.” The subsequent bloodbath no doubt left him demoralized.

Eminent labour historian Bryan D. Palmer is currently co-editor of Labour/Le Travail. He has authored many books including Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era and is co-author of Toronto’s Poor: A Rebellious History (2017). He is a frequent CD contributor.

This article is reprinted from Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy, a Jacobin publication.


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