Eric Hobsbawm’s Success Was Because of His Marxism, Not in Spite of It

A new documentary on Eric Hobsbawm presents a sensitive portrait of a historian who achieved international acclaim despite his Communist politics. Yet Hobsbawm’s Marxism is fundamental to understanding his work, and why he undertook it in the first place.

Eric Hobsbawm: The Consolations of History (London Review of Books)

Eric Hobsbawm was an unrepentant Communist for over three quarters of a century. One of the world’s most famous historians and an influential public intellectual, Hobsbawm possessed a range of qualities that British intellectuals have in general lacked. He became known for his polymath mastery of European and world history, multilingual range, theoretical sophistication, synthetic clarity, sense for empirical detail, and electrifying turns of phrase — and a moral commitment to those whom history unjustly ignored.

In mass-audience works like his Ages book series, Hobsbawm’s Marxism revealed itself subtly and without didacticism; the structure and logic of his argument showed his sympathies as much as the citations. He believed the Marxist tradition was founded on the search for truth. History mattered because it had a purpose: rational and objective inquiry into the past was a prerequisite for human progress. These qualities made him an unusual historian in the European left’s historic backwater. If Britain has long been known for its insensitivity to revolutionary ideas of both Left and Right, how can it have produced a historian of such epic global stature?

Hobsbawm’s individual biography provides one particular vantage point on this question. A new film on his life and work, produced for the London Review of Books (LRB) by its digital producer, Anthony Wilks, narrates and contextualizes Hobsbawm’s journey from the periphery to the center of British intellectual life. A lengthy, well-researched, and professional film, Eric Hobsbawm: The Consolations of History will likely become his audiovisual biography of reference for the foreseeable future.

Unusually for a film about a British intellectual, the centrality of state repression during Hobsbawm’s youth and middle age is a key framing device. The documentary starts and ends with a raid by the British secret state on a safe house of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) — Hobsbawm’s organization from 1936 until its dissolution. Forty-eight thousand documents — including autobiographies of its members — were seized and copied by MI5 in its Operation Party Piece.

Hobsbawm’s entry laments his ineffectual academic isolation from the industrial workers he wanted desperately to serve. We hear a secret police operative employed on the case describe Hobsbawm as a “tireless (and tiresome) organizer of petitions and champion of lost causes.” This melancholic self-portrait is the most important piece of evidence for the film’s main interpretative claim: Hobsbawm was a brilliant intellectual who, despite his rare gifts, was politically powerlessness before and after his professional success.

In this sense, the film ably captures how the color of Hobsbawm’s political commitments mellows in time to a lighter shade of red. Yet it offers relatively few glimpses of his inner life outside the memories of his widow, Marlene Hobsbawm. Hobsbawm’s former professional colleagues, and LRB contributors such as Richard Evans, John Foot, Stefan Collini, and Donald Sassoon, drive the film’s narrative. The result is a sensitive but not uncritical portrait of a brilliant intellectual whose legacy was tempered by failures.

On the Periphery

The film begins in 1917 in Alexandria, British-ruled Egypt, where Hobsbawm’s early life was marked by personal tragedy and precocious intellectual and political commitment. His parents died young. Hobsbawm’s father was sporty and aloof — taking little interest in the young Eric — while his mother was doting. Hobsbawm was sent from Vienna to stay with family relatives in Berlin after his mother’s death. His formative teenage years were spent there in the period immediately before the Nazi seizure of power. Berlin was where a lifelong political commitment began. Hobsbawm, enrolled in the gymnasium (grammar school), tells his teacher that he is now a Communist. The teacher patronizingly urges him to read more Marxism before making such a ridiculous statement.

The film shows Hobsbawm quickly making the leap from theory to practice. He remembered later stuffing letterboxes with German Communist Party (KPD) election leaflets at the height of the Communist International’s “Third Period” policy. Yet their slogans did not have a lasting influence on the young radical. Between 1928 and 1934, the KPD had been highly critical of the more moderate Social Democrats, who they accused of being “social fascist.” The SPD was understood to be the last support of the doomed Weimar order. Furthermore, for German Communists, the memory of the SPD’s complicity in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht was still fresh. Hobsbawm escaped this maelstrom to England and continued to study diligently until he went up to the University of Cambridge to read history. He joined the CPGB while an undergraduate in 1936. This was a significant year: the young Hobsbawm accompanied his uncle to Paris where he saw the Popular Front government of socialists, radicals, and Communists come to power. He finished Cambridge with a double starred first — the highest grade.

The film is keen to stress that Hobsbawm did not rise to intellectual stardom immediately. Intending to embark on a doctorate after graduation, the war intervenes. Enrolled as a sapper and asked to build bridges (a job to which he was unsuited), Hobsbawm was later moved to the army educational department. Here, he was put under state surveillance for the first time.

He found teaching jobs scarce after submitting his doctoral thesis on the Fabians at Cambridge. Only the small evening school at Birkbeck College, London, would take him. His Communist politics made attempts to share his ideas on platforms like the BBC difficult. Yet surreptitious monitoring by Britain’s secret state did not sap his intellectual vitality. Forced isolation cohered an innovative group of Marxist historians organized around the Communist Party Historians’ Group between 1946 and 1956. The film features archival footage of Hobsbawm speaking of his “luck to belong to a generation that transformed the teaching of history and practice of history.”

His secure position at Birkbeck provided the time to prepare his characteristically ambitious and accessible works of historical scholarship. The expansion of British postwar higher education provided a new and receptive audience of readers and critics. These shifting demographics transformed Hobsbawm’s personal fortunes. His success often came despite his orthodox communism. Hobsbawm was suspicious of European Marxist theory and was part of a generation culturally distinct from those coming after the 1960s: Jazz rather than rock and roll — not to mention (post-)punk — was his passion.

Hobsbawm’s Marxist historical approach was influenced by the most rigorous approach of British empiricism and the insights of European social sciences. He also showed a concern for a wide diversity of subaltern groups that many Marxists had undervalued. Hobsbawm treated peasant societies as legitimate subjects of research before many of his colleagues and co-thinkers. Appearing in 1969, Hobsbawm’s book Bandits combined an orthodox Marxist schema with a moral and ethical sympathy for the underdog, outsider, and “primitive rebel.” Yet those wishing to find non-Marxist heresy or liberal dissidence in these attitudes will be disappointed. Hobsbawm was not unusual in combining these elements; Antonio Gramsci and Nikolai Bukharin were notable precursors. Many of Hobsbawm’s intellectual and political sympathies dovetail with those of Bukharin: both would treat the peasantry as a historical protagonist rather than a relic of history and take seriously the insights of “bourgeois” social science. We are told by Hobsbawm, lecturing in German with an Austrian accent:

This is what makes the 1930s and 1940s so hugely interesting to historians. In one respect, the united front of liberal capitalism and communism was totally abnormal. Although not for long, a brief pause in their normal hostilities was forced upon them. Without Hitler it would not have come about. Yet in my opinion, liberal capitalism and communism belong to the same intellectual family. They were both children of the Enlightenment and spoke the same language. Indeed, if both wanted to survive, they would not only have to stop fighting and work together but also learn from each other.

Hobsbawm’s three-part history of the long nineteenth century is his tour de force. Its unparalleled ambition and comprehensiveness were matched by an emphatic defense of historical materialism. One of the defining themes of the series is its battle with the nemesis of classical Marxism: nationalism. Hobsbawm shows how nationalism was not a product of primordial consciousness but the child of the two modern revolutions in Britain and France. From The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848 onward, Hobsbawm shows how the increasing power of the territorialized modern state, impelled forward by industrial growth and revolutionary class struggles, invented the nation as its contrived ideological superstructure.

Flag-waving nationalists were given short shrift. While lounging in a train carriage in one of the film’s pieces of footage, Hobsbawm recounts how “the past is the raw material for nationalism . . . [yet] virtually everything that nationalists say about the past is wrong.” Nationalism, he continues, is “not compatible with the progress of history.” A recurring theme of Hobsbawm’s life is his fortunate timing. The Age of Capital: 1848–1875, published in 1975, appeared when the capitalist system seemed to be suffering a major crisis (though beliefs in its coming supersession were soon misplaced).

The Age of Empire: 1875–1914, published in 1987, appeared when the afterlives of fin-de-siècle colonialism were already being felt in an increasingly multicultural Europe. All three books are marked by a classically Marxist logic. They were conceived using a broad and creative conception of historical materialism rather than Rankean empiricism. One contributor to the film describes Hobsbawm’s Marxism as a “dogma” that his work would have been better off without. That the most famous British historian of the late twentieth century could be so successful while remaining a Marxist still has the power to perturb.

After the Fall

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991, appearing in 1994, is less marked by an explicit Marxist method. Published at the apex of liberal triumphalism after the collapse of the USSR, the book ends with portentous predictions for the future. However, the economy still determines its periodization. Hobsbawm’s pessimism is partly explained by the tendency of capital to destroy jobs faster than it can create them. The book’s third and final section — titled “The Landslide” — was a warning against those quick to pronounce “The End of History.” Capitalism’s declining rate of profit, overproduction, and overcapacity was matched only by the social and political tendency toward the fragmentation of identity. These trends would more likely bring endemic war and ethnic cleansing than restart the forward march of labor.

At the end of the film, Hobsbawm predicts that inequality born from unrestrained free markets would open the way for xenophobic nationalism of the ultraright. Viewed from the early twenty-first century, these comments seem prescient. Yet not all of his prognoses in this period came true. Hobsbawm was too quick to pronounce the death of neoliberalism in the mid-1990s and underestimated its power over much of the European and North American left.

Hobsbawm was fond of quoting Ernest Renan on the “invention” of national tradition: “Forgetfulness, and I would even say historical error, are essential in the creation of a nation.” Forgetfulness has also been a necessary condition for Hobsbawm’s journey to the heart of Britain’s liberal and progressive intelligentsia. His Communist commitment in the 1930s, at the height of the “Third Period,” is explained in the film as an idealistic, legitimate form of anti-fascism.

Yet also notable is that the twists and turns of Communist politics in the 1940s and 1950s are omitted. Why he stayed a member during the Moscow trials, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the antisemitic Slánský show trial in Communist Czechoslovakia is left unmentioned. Hobsbawm’s continuing membership to the Communist Party after 1956 is described as lacking “active” commitment of a true party militant. Hobsbawm is said to have discouraged one of his students from joining the party in order to save them from uselessly fighting “Stalinists.” The most compelling reason for why Hobsbawm stayed loyal to the end was given by the man himself: he didn’t want to dishonor his deceased comrades by becoming an “ex-Communist.”

National Treasure?

In parts of the film, crucial political context is absent. The Soviet Union is little more than a ghost. Though never an orthodox party activist, Hobsbawm’s intellectual interests were determined in the last instance by his relationship to the world Communist movement through his national party. His influential talk — “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” — was given to party members at the CPGB’s yearly Marx Memorial Lecture in 1978. If the structuring element of the Soviet Union in Hobsbawm’s politics is downplayed, his relationship with Eurocommunism is stressed. The film portrays the “moderate” Italian Communist Party and its reading of Antonio Gramsci as the inspiration for Hobsbawm’s arguments on the twenty-five-year decline of British Labourism’s social supports. This is despite the fact that the lecture is almost entirely concerned with long-term British demographic and sociological trends and makes no mention of Gramsci or his distinctive concepts.

Foregrounding demographic and sociological developments could have helped contextualize Hobsbawm’s individual trajectory. A radicalized social layer of white-collar former students, employed in the burgeoning state and service sectors, catalyzed what Hobsbawm saw as an unwelcome left shift in the Labour Party in 1970s and early 1980s. Yet this political radicalization also signaled an expanded and captivated audience for his books.

Consolations of History contributes to a growing body of work on Hobsbawm’s life. The film represents him as an unusual historian who achieved success and influence despite his Communist convictions and Marxist approach. Yet Hobsbawm’s intellectual brilliance and his Marxism cannot be so easily counterposed. Marxism was not a passing fad for Hobsbawm but the defining logic of his work. His most important interventions were conceived within the Communist movement, published in its journals, and were aimed primarily at his comrades. His academic research was structured by a lifelong political commitment that he shared with none of the film’s contributors.

History, for this version of Hobsbawm, was a source of understanding rather than consolation. As he argued in 1965, “the historian’s business is not praise and blame, but analysis.” New generations of historians can best rediscover this Hobsbawm by drawing on his own words.