Hobsbawm Today

Ross McKibbin

  • Politics for a Rational Left: Political Writings, 1977-88 by Eric Hobsbawm
    Verso, 250 pp, £29.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 86091 246 9

Eric Hobsbawm is one of Britain’s most creative Marxist historians. Anyone who teaches at a school or university is aware of the effect of his writing, even on those who do not know from which stable he comes. He has this effect because he can discover in history a dynamic yet comprehensible movement. Furthermore, he can write two kinds of history with equal facility: there are books with great sweep like Industry and Empire and there are others, like Primitive Rebels or Labouring Men, which are more intimate and local in their focus. One of the reasons why he can do this is that he is primarily a Central European Marxist. His cultural lineage is the Continental Marxist tradition and it is this which shapes his writing in a particular way. He is thus more familiar with both the substance of Continental Marxism and its mode of argument than is (or was) usual in British Marxism. This is immediately obvious in (say) Revolutionaries – in my view, one of his most remarkable books – as it is in Politics for a Rational Left. This tradition has also shaped the literally global range of his interests: European cities, Italian Communism, Australian general unions, Latin American revolutions, English football, all beat together in a great historical engine which might lurch and shudder but whose parts cannot operate independently. Marxism has moreover placed him in time. He believes that there was before 1914 both a ‘classical’ Marxism and a ‘classical’ high capitalism, a capitalism which produced a ‘classical’ proletariat and a ‘classical’ bourgeoisie. In approaching this latest volume of his essays the reader should remember, therefore, that Hobsbawm’s writing is grounded in this classical Marxism and his politics in the mass working-class parties which high capitalism created.

The reader should know one other thing: that he has been all his political life (and still is) a member of the Communist Party, and this, too, is unusual among British Marxist historians of his generation. In the 15th essay of this volume he tells the German social democrat, Peter Glotz, that his ‘political activities today, such as they are, do not depend on whether I am in the Communist Party or not’. But the manner in which he has to defend these activities, at least as it appears in this book, is directly influenced by his membership of the Communist Party.

There are 19 essays in this collection, the first written in 1978, the last in 1988. There is a postscript written at the beginning of this year. Most of the essays were originally published in Marxism Today and are part of a tactical-theoretical argument within the CP and among those who still acknowledge the Party. In his introduction, Hobsbawm says they contribute to three debates: about the nature of Thatcherism, about ways of mobilising the ‘non-Thatcherite majority of the country’ and about the problem of leadership and policy within the Labour Party. The first two of these debates are now ‘settled’; the third remains ‘open’. Throughout the book there is a more concealed debate and that is about the very utility of Marxism itself, as a political goal and as a method of historical explanation.

The essays are of two kinds. Most of them speak to immediate political issues, like general election results or the Falklands War; others, like ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ (1978), from which, as he says, the book has grown, are more historical, or even, as with ‘Labour in the Great City’ (1987), elegiac. He has not retouched any of them and they have their own historical interest: as a measure of the changing mood of a distinguished and increasingly anguished participant-observer of the British Left in what had been one of its most dreadful decades.

The book, as he says in the introduction, has several ‘arguments’, though they all hang together. The first is that Thatcherism is without precedent in modern British history. Mrs Thatcher’s government is as unlike Macmillan’s or Heath’s as it is unlike Wilson’s or Callaghan’s. It is a government of the radical Right whose prime objectives are the destruction of the Labour Movement and the country’s sense of collective purpose. Although he is very prudent in using the word ‘fascism’, and at one point specifically says that Thatcherism is not fascist, he clearly thinks that, in so far as Britain can have an approximation to the real thing, Thatcherism is it. It is, he believes, a dangerous and increasingly dangerous government: those on the left who see it as just another capitalist Tory affair are as wrong as they can be.

The second argument is that the full-blooded Thatcherites are only a minority of the nation and are, indeed, probably only a minority among Conservative voters. Since this is so, and since Thatcherism is an unprecedented threat to the Labour Movement, it follows that the first task of the Left is to mobilise the non-Thatcherite majority into a broad and effective electoral coalition. If this means an electoral pact or electoral reform – with all that implies – then so be it.

The third argument was no doubt unpalatable to the more triumphalist wing of the Marxist Left, and still is to many in the Labour Movement. It is easy to see why. Hobsbawm contends that the organised Labour Movement by itself can no longer hope to mobilise this non-Thatcher majority. And this is because the ‘classic labour movement’, the selfconscious working class which emerged in reaction to high capitalism, has partly disintegrated. In an essay originally published in 1979, and republished in Worlds of Labour (1984), Hobsbawm identified the period 1880-1950 as the time when Britain had a more or less mature industrial working-class culture. Since then, however, that culture, which was a genuinely proletarian one, has fragmented. The working class itself has not disappeared, but its sense of sameness has. It has become sectarian and ‘economist’, warring within itself, careless of the effect of its actions either on fellow workers or on society, and increasingly asocial in its culture as in its politics. In turn, this created a vacuum in the Labour Party which was filled by people who were isolated both from the old working class and the old intelligentsia. The destruction of the working-class community and the success of the extreme Left in the Labour Party had one other consequence: it alienated disastrously the ‘educated classes’. The educated classes become increasingly significant in Hobsbawm’s argument. He has no particular affection for David Owen or the old SDP, nor does he think that the educated classes are likely to be much attracted by socialism, but he clearly believes that the educated classes are an essential element in an anti-Thatcher majority. He makes the point that the substantial majority of those with university degrees no longer vote Conservative, and that, to some extent, one’s reaction to the Government, and particularly to Mrs Thatcher herself, is a function of education. Reviewers should perhaps not read between lines, but it is hard not to conclude that the educated classes in Hobsbawm’s thinking now play the role once played by the old working class.

The tone of the essays is uneven; it becomes increasingly impatient, not to say rude. A. Rothstein and R. Page Arnot appear as ‘two distinguished and rather ancient members of the Communist Party’, and Hobsbawm wonders (with some justification) whether his critics live ‘on the same planet’ as the rest of us. The book also becomes increasingly conscious of the difficulty of political action within the Labour Movement. It becomes more generous to those for whom he previously could not have found a good word. Whereas the 1964-70 Wilson Government was once as disastrous as the 1929 MacDonald Government (an opinion almost completely wrong whichever way you look at it), and the 1974-79 Governments were to be passed over in silence (a judgment which overlooks their extraordinary difficulties as well as achievements), Hobsbawm concedes, in the conversation with Peter Glotz, that ‘within social-democratic parties it is very easy for people to criticise even their own leadership, if they do manage to get into government. They simply do not think what the responsibilities are when one takes over government or society.’

Above all, the book becomes increasingly ‘minimalist’ and tactical. Not that Hobsbawm is prepared to ditch everything: he is critical of Tom Nairn’s argument that nationalism can successfully be accommodated within Marxism, and in this he remains very much within his tradition. Nor is he prepared to go as far as many on the right of the Labour Party. He agrees that any socialist government will preside over a mixed economy and rightly doubts whether that was ever at issue. But he insists that the Left must maintain policies which are primarily social, based upon ‘public action, planning and policy’. In the essay ‘No Sense of Mission’ he thus finds David Marquand’s critique of Thatcherism (The Unprincipled Society, 1988), though it comes from the centre, more acceptable than the Labour Party’s precisely because it is a critique. The Labour Party, he correctly suggests, is in danger of embracing Thatcherism just as its spuriousness as an economic doctrine is becoming wholly apparent.

It cannot be concealed that he regards Thatcherism as so alarming, and the Labour Movement on its own as now so electorally weak, that a successful anti-Conservative coalition can be constructed only on terms that divide it least. He regards the defeat of Thatcherism as ‘the primary and essential task in British politics’, and ‘not only for the British Left’; its overthrow necessary to preserve ‘the traditions and conventions of law and civility, of freedom and parliamentary government, of social responsibilities and values, which are now being gradually strangled’. In 1987, therefore, he advocated tactical voting: ‘anyone who tells us anything else ... is betraying the British people, not to mention democracy and the Labour Movement.’

Where and for whom these essays were written is important. What appeared contentious, even shocking, to members of the CP or to an older generation of Marxists, is less surprising to those who stand outside the walls. There is much sociological evidence about class dealignment, the political attitudes of the British working class, or the ideology of British politics, which long pre-dates the first of these essays – evidence which Hobsbawm undoubtedly knows but which does not appear here. There is, furthermore, an intellectual price to be paid for trying to coax ancient Communists into the light. Calling up Dimitrov and Palme Dutt might convince them, but it is as likely to perplex as convince the general reader. And it is demeaning for someone of Hobsbawm’s intellectual stature to quote in support those two, even if he does so partly tongue in cheek. Equally, he feels compelled to give his present politics an acceptable genealogy. He thus places the mobilisation of the non-Thatcher majority within the tradition of the Popular Front and the ‘Anti-Fascist Unity’ of the Thirties and Forties. But it is doubtful if they really are analogous. Communist policy was then so subordinated – as Hobsbawm admits – to the requirements of Soviet security, and its defence of those things he very properly wishes to defend today so conditional, that his argument is not significantly advanced by invoking this tradition. Perhaps the reverse.

The context of these essays is important in another sense. It is easy to see why some were offended by what he wrote. People do not normally like being told home truths and Hobsbawm is not the man to shrink from telling them. As offensive perhaps to this particular audience is that there is little in these essays which is specifically Marxist. Although what he says about Thatcherism, for example, is always acute, there is not much, other than the strictly historical, which could not have been said by any intelligent observer of the present government. This book has a different ‘feel’ from his earlier collections of essays: while there is the same broadness of view, there is a certain disorientation. It is as though the collapse of those classic labour movements, in which he has invested much of his political and intellectual life, has left his Marxism momentarily rudderless.

This is a pity because a sustained Marxist analysis of Thatcherism is something he would do very well, partly because of his historical range, partly because (I think) he has never believed that the ‘correctness’ of Marxism depends on whether Marx’s original view of the proletariat is or is not ‘correct’. In fact, the idea that the proletariat, Hobsbawm’s classic labour movement, necessarily had the role Marx allocated it is both logically and historically false, but Marxism is still, at least, the most plausible way of analysing ideology, power and contradiction. Thatcherism, furthermore, is unusual in British history in being so overtly ideological – that is, primarily concerned with presenting social reality other than as it is – and thus so internally contradictory and unstable. It lends itself to Marxist explanation: the author of The Eighteenth Brumaire would have found Mrs Thatcher child’s play.

If Hobsbawm did this, he would need to modify the historical argument of this book. First, it is doubtful whether the old working class was quite as homogeneous as he suggests. He notes in dismay, for example, that to the extent we can now speak of a working class at all half of it votes Conservative: but half of it voted Conservative between the wars, and in 1931 the majority of it. There is historically no relationship between the cultural homogeneity of the British working class and its political behaviour. As Hobsbawm himself admits, the historically interesting question is why, in a country with such a large working class comparatively undivided by religion or ethnicity, the Labour Party has never been able to recruit even half the electorate. Hobsbawm has always underrated the degree of discontinuity that has marked the forward march of labour – at least within Britain. The Labour vote got stuck in the Thirties, and there is almost nothing to suggest in 1939 that it would become unstuck. It was not just the forward march of Labour but the decision of the Chamberlain Government to fight a war which would almost inevitably undermine its ideological foundations which made possible the Labour victory of 1945. Furthermore, the classic social-democratic parties, insofar as they were alliances of the proletariat and the ‘educated classes’, were always fragile, and it was only contingent circumstances which permitted this rather paradoxical relationship to survive. These are not problems of the last twenty years, but Hobsbawm is in danger of overlooking that.

Second, we would need to know how unprecedented Thatcherism actually is. That it is the first genuinely reactionary government Britain has had this century and the most ideologically-determined is hardly in doubt. But it came from somewhere. Hobsbawm’s explanation is here implied rather than formally stated: it emerged because of the particular crisis of British and the general crisis of world capitalism in the Seventies and Eighties (together with bad luck). These are, however, Marxist gestures rather than explanations. But Thatcherism is not as novel as he suggests. Mrs Thatcher, it is said, told Chirac that she was the first ‘really’ Conservative prime minister since the war. If she meant by that to say that Neville Chamberlain was an ideological predecessor, she is certainly right. The establishment of the Conservative Party’s electoral hegemony in the Twenties and Thirties was crucially dependent upon the mobilisation of a rather authoritarian, commercial-suburban bourgeoisie – deeply hostile to the organised working class – whose political hero was Chamberlain. Furthermore, the historical environment in which the inter-war Conservative Party created this hegemony was not unlike the Seventies. Now the Chamberlainite party was not Thatcherite: yet in the configuration of its support, rhetoric and historical character it was clearly Mrs Thatcher’s lineal ancestor. The Second World War in this, as in other things, diverted history from its course – but not for long.

These essays show how wide is now the gap between Marxism as goal and Marxism as explanation. It is evident that Hobsbawm today sees ‘socialism’ in practice as a mixed economy with the state having a general supervisory and regulatory function – differing little from the kind of social organisation Keynes seems to have envisaged in the General Theory. This function, in Keynes’s work, had potentially very radical implications, and indeed, if Hobsbawm differs at all from Keynes it is only that he is more cautious. But Marxism as explanation is another matter. The most interesting questions we can ask about Thatcherism and its relation to the British social system are the ones Marxists are best-placed to pose even if we might not necessarily agree with the answers. The things they think it important we examine – ideology, vested interest, social power, political parties and the ‘fractions’ of capital, techniques of popular mobilisation – are, in fact, the most fruitful ways of examining the present Conservative Party. This, in turn, precisely because his Marxism is so wide in its scope and his historical sense so strong, is something Hobsbawm is unusually well-placed to do. Throughout these essays there are fragments of this kind of examination – in the essay on the Falklands War, for example, and in scattered comments on Thatcherism – but these tantalise rather than satisfy the reader. Until he is able fully to satisfy the reader, this book, always trenchant, never less than interesting, and historical evidence in its own right, can, nonetheless, certainly stand as substitute.