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.

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