some stories about Eric Hobsbawm

Justin Schwartz jkschw at
Tue Oct 31 13:48:02 PST 2000

Nice overview of the CPGB Historian's Group.

You talk of Hill as if he were no longer with us. Have I missed something? I realize he is, or was, very old, but I get the Economisrt and the Manchester Guardian, and I surely would have registered the passing of one of the great intellectual figures of this age and my own life. I hope.

As for The Age of Extremes, while contemporary history is of necessity "weaker" than the older stuff; it's still a wonderful book, even though, apart from the fact-checking, I disagree with many of its substantive claims.


>From: James Heartfield <Jim at>
>Reply-To: lbo-talk at
>To: lbo-talk at
>Subject: some stories about Eric Hobsbawm
>Date: Tue, 31 Oct 2000 21:26:47 +0000
>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
> >comments?
>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
>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
>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
>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
>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
>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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