SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 230 July-August 2019

From Stalinism to New Labour

Eric Hobsbawm: a life in history

By Richard J Evans

Published by Little Brown, 2019, £35

Reviewed by Pete Mason

“Marxist or not, however in the longer term Eric’s arguments won the day”, concludes Richard Evans in this recently-published biography of Eric Hobsbawm. “The hard left, organised in the Trotskyite ‘militant tendency’, was defeated, and [Labour leader Neil] Kinnock persuaded the party to drop policies… such as leaving NATO and Europe… and abandoning nuclear weapons”.

At the time of his death in 2012, Eric Hobsbawm was the “best-known and most widely read historian in the world”, Evans asserts. A life-long Communist Party (CPGB) member, Hobsbawm was best known among a wider audience for his series of accessible and nominally Marxist histories. To those of us attempting to build a Marxist force in the Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s, Hobsbawm, on the contrary, gave voice (or at least added a certain air of authority) to the forces of reaction that opposed us. He represented the theorising of the international transformation – and in many cases disintegration – of the former workers’ parties in the second half of the last century into bourgeois parties, both of the social-democratic and the communist/Stalinist traditions.

As the above quote shows, defeating the Militant tendency, now the Socialist Party, was the primary target for that transformation in Britain. Evans’s biography, bordering on a hagiography especially in the closing chapters, asserts that Hobsbawm “exercised an enormous and long-lasting influence on historical thinking”, was an “influential spokesman for the left”, and “played a key role in the political debates behind the rise of New Labour”. These are inflated claims.

In his old age, Hobsbawm “came to regret” the role he believed he played in the rise of a pro-NATO, pro-nuclear weapons Tony Blair government, and the subsequent jingoistic lies which led to a bloody laceration across the surface of the earth, from Afghanistan to Libya. But Evans and Hobsbawm tend to confuse two quite different things: the political debates Hobsbawm figured in merely rationalised, they did not create, what was in reality a bourgeois counter-offensive against the working class and its organisations during the late 1970s and 1980s. This offensive was headed by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and appeared to be sealed with the collapse of Stalinism in 1991, stripping the working class of political representation and setting new tasks for the labour movement that are still being worked through today.

Understanding nothing of the fundamental process of history – defined by class struggle, as the opening words of the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels make clear – inevitably, Hobsbawm failed to understand working-class consciousness and the defining features of the 20th century. These were the 1917 Russian revolution, its degeneration into Stalinist totalitarianism, and its collapse in 1990. Essentially, this 785-page biopic cedes the motive force of history to individuals like Hobsbawm and Kinnock, and attempts to write out of history all contrary facts.

Incredibly, for example, the militancy of the working class in the 1970s, which forced Ted Heath’s Tory government out in 1974 with Britain reduced to a three-day week, gets no direct mention. At a mean average of 13 million strike days lost per year, this decade almost matched the 15 million of 1911-1920, a rising militancy that led to the general strike of 1926. Yet the biography breaks off in 1972 and opens the central chapter, Intellectual Guru, in 1975, as if nothing of importance had happened in the interim. It was in 1975 that Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution was published, covering the French revolution of 1789 and the industrial revolution in the UK, but the lessons of that period for contemporary developments were a closed book to Hobsbawm.

The answer of the ruling class to the 1970s rise in working-class militancy was the mailed fist of Tory leader Margaret Thatcher in 1979, who took on the miners again in 1984-85. Evans makes public the real views of the eternally diplomatic historian: “Eric was, in private, sharply critical of the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, whose intransigence and self-aggrandisement had caused the defeat of the strikers”. “His contempt for Scargill”, recalls one of his students, “resounded through a half-hour row with [John] Saville” at a party he had thrown.

Saville was a member of the Communist Party Historians’ Group, which had included well-known historians EP Thompson and Christopher Hill, and was chaired by Hobsbawm. Unlike Hobsbawm, however, Hill, Thompson and others had left the CPGB after Russia’s Stalinist bureaucracy sent the tanks in to crush the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Hobsbawm, in contrast, writing in the Daily Worker on 9 November 1956, called the invasion “a tragic necessity”, approving it “with a heavy heart”.

The miners’ strike was betrayed, not by Scargill but by the Trades Union Congress leaders’ failure to call wider strike action. This was symbolised by the hangman’s noose miners managed to swing over the head of TUC leader Norman Willis at a meeting in South Wales. The brutal experience of the 1974-79 Labour government, which attempted to manage capitalism through wage restraint and vicious cuts, angered and dispirited the working class, who refused to turn out to vote, letting Thatcher in for successive terms.

The battle within the Labour Party was for a leadership that would resist capitalist austerity and represent the real interests of the working class. “My name and writings were useful to Kinnock”, Hobsbawm boasted to Ralph Miliband, father of David and Ed: “I have been called ‘Kinnock’s favourite Marxist’.” Miliband warned: “Your attack on the left is mistaken and plays into the hands of people with whom you cannot have anything in common”. The end product was Tony Blair.

In one of his few perspicacious moments, Hobsbawm foresaw the dark shadow that the collapse of Stalinism in 1991 would cast over the following decades. Evans hints that the shock of this event brought him to read Leon Trotsky’s analysis of the degeneration of the Russian revolution into a bureaucratic dictatorship. But what is striking is the complete absence of an ability to see beyond Stalinism – towards workers’ democracy and a democratic socialist system – before its collapse.

The Stalinist show trials of ‘Trotskyists’ began in earnest in 1937 with the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 being sentenced to death. The trial was “a legal and understandable affair”, Hobsbawm concluded at the time. Trotskyists were wreckers, he believed, “there is nothing very improbable about the procedure of it”. Evans’s poor excuse for his idol’s blindness is that the western capitalist press did not, at least initially, express any great degree of scepticism at the trials.

Even when Nikita Khrushchev gave his ‘secret speech’ to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 – “soon made available to the world by the CIA” – exposing Stalin’s crimes and distributing to delegates Lenin’s last testament, which warned his successors “not to trust Stalin”, Hobsbawm was still thoroughly inoculated against the ideas of Trotsky.

In 1978, his article, The Forward March of Labour Halted? was published. This brought him “a role in British political debate” and “unleashed a storm of controversy”. Hobsbawm stated: “My views were taken up, with relief, by leading members of the ‘soft left’… and notably by Kinnock”. It introduced what became his constant theme that “the forward march of… the labour movement, which Marx predicted, appears to have come to a halt in this country about 25 to 30 years ago”.

Hobsbawm’s confusion was drawn from a thwarted expectation of a gradual, peaceful evolution of capitalism towards socialism through economic growth, and of a consequent gradual rise in the Labour vote, and of trade union membership. It was a bowdlerised view of Marxism devoid of class struggle. In reality, the working class, gathered at the centre of production, are indeed the ‘gravediggers’ of the capitalist class, but Marx and Engels understood the need for struggle, for a revolutionary party, to achieve this. There is no gradual road to socialism.

Hugely flawed throughout, Hobsbawm’s central argument was that manual workers in 1911 “included about 75% of the population, in 1931 about 70%, in 1961 64%, and in 1976 a little over half”. By implication, so long as it remained oriented to this declining class, Labour Party votes were bound to decline as well.

Yet curiously, Hobsbawm admitted that Marx and Engels predicted that, “people who earn their living by selling their labour-power for wages” would increase as, for instance, the old propertied middle classes became salaried workers and that, by this broader definition, “proletarianisation has, as Marx predicted, continued to increase”. Marx and Engels, however, also explained that conditions determine consciousness in the long run, and these new layers of workers would turn to socialist ideas.

Hobsbawm, on the contrary, tacitly assuming a steady growth of wealth under capitalism, concluded the opposite. Evans exposes his unstated thought bluntly: “His essay made no suggestions for action”. That’s bad enough! But, “it was clear by implication that he was saying the labour movement and the [declining] working class now needed to make tactical alliances with other groups in society and politics if it was ever to achieve power again”. Here was the ‘intellectual’ basis for the rightward shift of Labour – and the witch-hunt against the Militant tendency gathered steam the very same year (1978) with a vicious attack in New Society magazine.

Yet material conditions do determine consciousness. Capitalism is a system of crisis and we have seen the radicalisation of new layers – teachers, civil servants and even junior doctors, among many others – periodically moving to the front row of the class struggle and joining their manual worker brothers and sisters. The students and ‘intellectuals’, who Hobsbawm supposed would take the place of the working class, have also been radicalised, but cannot replace the central role of the working class – as defined, not by Hobsbawm but by Marx and Engels.

Hobsbawm’s ideas influenced and indeed demoralised sections of the labour and trade union bureaucracy, who were given an extra push by the fall of the Berlin wall. True, the mining industry has disappeared – destroyed by Thatcher as Scargill warned – but equally, that mythical Thatcherite ‘home-owning democracy’ was destroyed by the banking collapse of 2007-08. That has created the conditions for greater struggles in which the working class will play the leading role.

Of course, it is true that the composition of the working class is changing, and will continue to change as capitalism continues to ‘revolutionise’ production. Pessimists have been writing off the Communist Manifesto ever since it appeared in 1848. On his 80th birthday in 1998, Hobsbawm wrote the introduction to Verso’s 150th anniversary publication of the Communist Manifesto. “What is wrong with the Manifesto”, he stated, is the claim that the working class should be considered the only “really revolutionary class”. Evans raves over the kitsch, stylish appearance of the book. Twelve years later, Hobsbawm’s agent noticed that Verso had not paid his £20,678.19 fee. If Hobsbawm could overlook such a sum, how could he understand the struggles of the working class?

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