some stories about Eric Hobsbawm

James Heartfield Jim at
Tue Oct 31 13:26:47 PST 2000

In message <000101c042e5$952be600$09a737cf at elmzh>, John K. Taber <jktaber at> writes
>Since Hobsbawm has been mentioned respectfully several times
>on the mailing list, I undertook reading The Age of Extremes.
>I would like to know more about Hobsbawm. Can somebody on
>the list sketch his bio for me?
>I read Brad DeLong's criticism on his web page. Any other

The Communist Party Historians Group under Dona Torr and AL Morton established just before the war was a training ground for many of the greats of English labour history. Alumni of that discussion group were Christopher Hill, EP Thompson, Raphael Samuel and Eric Hobsbawm. The output was truly awesome: Thompson's 'Making of...', Hill's English revolution and subsequent seventeenth century work, Hobsbawm's trilogy (now quadrology) The Age of... (incidentally, the Age of Extremes is the weakest for reasons that will become apparent).

The group was understandably rocked by the events of 1956 that called into question their relationship to the Communist Party. For the older generation this was no issue (I believe Torr, editor of Marx and Engels' letters, and possibly Morton, 'People's History of England' were dead already). But for Thompson and the others 1956, and its sequel 1968 were defining moments.

Thompson broke with the CP and was instrumental in setting up the New Left Review and later CND and his own ginger group END (European Nuclear Disarmament). Intriguingly, Thompson only managed to save his orientation to history from below by distancing himself from the putative vanguard party of organised labour, and increasingly looked further back to a pre-labour plebeian arcadia of Customs in Common.

Hill, stood back from political engagement and absorbed himself in the history of the defeat of the English Revolution, exorcising the demons of the defeat of the labour movement. (Hill was pursued vindictively by new right historians who sought to show that he had invented an embryo labour movement in the English revolution). Towards the end of his life, Hill looked favourably upon the trotskyist SWP (UK).

Hobsbawm was different. He stuck it out in the Communist Party. He was closely associated with the campaign to re-connect the somewhat battered CP with the New Left currents that had defined themselves against it. Known as 'Euro-Communists', the revisionists around the CP journal Marxism Today included eminence grise Hobsbawm, editor Martin Jacques and new boy Geoff Mulgan (now senior advisor to PM Tony Blair).

At a Marxism Today event, Hobsbawm gave the defining speech 'the forward march of labour halted' which gave a sociological account of the disappearance of organised labour as the reason for the exhaustion of socialist politics. This was key for a number of anti-socialists who felt their political turn to the right was therefore justified by an objective sociological trend that rendered leftism historically redundant.

Perhaps one of his best-known interventions into intellectual life though is the collection the Invention of Tradition (with the excellent Africanist Terence Ranger, now returned to Zimbabwe). In this the essays pointing out the artificiality of many of the cultural traditions appealed to by conservatism helped New Labour thinkers escape from the weight of the past. This is, if you like, the model for Tony Blair's modernisation programme, in being posed equally against the conservatism of left and right alike (here demotically forced together).

Other useful additions to the sum of human knowledge were Hobsbawm's essay on the Labour Aristocracy, which goes a long way to explaining the over-utilised concept of Lenin's analysis of revisionism. His essay on Marx and Engels' relation to the British labour movement is quite good too.

Though Hobsbawm was a key revisionist at a time when the now compact CP was re-purposed as a New Labour think-tank, he did recoil from some of the theoretical positions that were associated with the shift to the right. For example, he wrote an interesting defence of the Enlightenment (contra-Postmodernism).

Age of Extremes, though is Hobsbawm's weakest work (even the empirical material is below standard - he does the Thatcher quote there is no such thing as society wrong from memory, for example). But more to the point, the book, coinciding as it does with Hobsbawm's own complex life-time association with Stalinism, involves some self-justifications that are disappointing.

In a recent one-issue resuscitation of Marxism Today, itself the outcome of a weekend discussion group, the upstart Mulgan turned on his now elderly tutors, denouncing them as all very wise but without any decent policy proposals (that he could take to number ten). I think it was Hobsbawm (and perhaps Stuart Hall) who led the counter-attack.

Hobsbawm's daughter Julia is one half of the public relations company Hobsbawm-Macauley that did the PR for many New Labour projects. The other half, Sarah Macauley recently married Chancellor and close colleague to the PM, Gordon Brown (to the cruel allegations that she was just his 'beard').

This account comes with all the necessary qualifications that anything dredged up from memory has. Don't rely on anything said here without double-checking.

The story of the Communist Party Historians Group was told (over- critically) by Gregor Maclennan in a collection published by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies whose name escapes me. -- James Heartfield

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