Was Hobsbawm a Marxist? - Part one

News of the death of Eric Hobsbawm on 1st October was marked by an unprecedented outburst of flattery and adulation in the bourgeois media. [part 1]

Click here for Part 2

hobsbawmEric HobsbawmFor the past few weeks, the flood of obsequious obituaries exceeded all bounds. He was described variously as “the most widely read, influential and respected British intellectual and historian from the Marxist tradition”; “Britain's most distinguished Marxist historian”, and even “one of the leading historians of the 20th century”.

Those on the Left who have been taken in by this deafening chorus should think carefully about the words attributed to the German Marxist August Bebel: “What has old Bebel done wrong, that they should praise me?” The question should be asked: why should the Establishment make such a fuss about a dead Marxist historian?

Long before his death this British historian was the darling of the bourgeoisie. Already in 2002, Hobsbawm was described by right wing Tory magazine The Spectator as “arguably our greatest living historian—not only Britain's, but the world's.”  Giorgio Napolitano, the current President of Italy and former CP leader, sent his greetings to Hobsbawm's 95th birthday, along with former Brazilian president Lula.

It is unthinkable that the bourgeoisie should write in such glowing terms about somebody who really defended the ideas of Marxism. It is sufficient to call to mind the campaign of spiteful and vindictive abuse that even the most respectable bourgeois “academics” have poured on the heads of Lenin and Trotsky long after their death to realise this.

The solution to this paradox is not hard to find. The fact is that Eric Hobsbawm ceased to be a Marxist many years ago, if he ever had been one. He had long since abandoned all pretence to stand for socialism and had accepted capitalism as an established fact of life that one might regret but could never hope to replace.

The establishment would never fawn before a real Marxist but is very eager to promote the image of man who long ago became “respectable” from their point of view.  For the ruling class people like Hobsbawm are always useful as “tame Marxists” for whom the words socialism and revolution go no further than a comfortable armchair and warm carpet slippers.

Such people are useful precisely because they threaten nothing and nobody. The only people who they may frighten are the kind of retired old ladies and gentlemen who read the Daily Mail and look anxiously for Communists under their beds every night before retiring.

The ruling class, which is not so impressionable and has an acute sense of smell in such matters, instantly recognised in this ex-communist, an invaluable ally in the struggle against Marxism and Communism. It is high time we stripped this particular saint of his halo and asked: who was Eric Hobsbawm and what did he represent?

Early years

Eric Hobsbawm was born in 1917 in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. His parents were from the Jewish middle class. His father was a British tradesman called Leopold Obstbaum. The name Hobsbawm seems to have been the result of an error of the registry office. His father died when he was twelve, and his mother died two years later.

After he had been orphaned Eric lived for a time with an uncle in Berlin. These were stormy times. The Wall Street collapse of 1929 ushered in the Depression in central Europe, with mass unemployment, and an intensification of the class struggle. In Germany this was the stormy period that preceded Hitler's rise to power.

In his autobiography, published when he was 85, Eric Hobsbawm wrote:  “I belong to the generation for whom the October Revolution represented the hope of the world.” In 1931 at the age of 14 he joined the Communist Party, or, to be precise, its school student organization, the Sozialistischer Schülerbund (Association of Socialist Pupils).

At that time it was logical that many Jewish people, menaced by fascism and anti-Semitism, should be sympathetic to Communism and the Soviet Union. That he looked to the Russian Revolution for a way out was, of course, to his credit. But what the young Eric thought was “communism” was in reality a bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of communism. It was this to which he dedicated himself for the rest of his life.

The Stalinists played a disastrous role in the rise of Hitler. The German labour movement was the strongest in the world, yet in the moment of truth, Hitler boasted that he had come to power “without breaking a window”. The reason was that the working class was paralysed by a criminal split between the Social Democratic and Communist workers. The result of this was the most catastrophic defeat of the German working class.

Trotsky explained tirelessly that the united front was the only means of smashing Hitler and preparing the way for the victory of the working class. But the Stalinists rejected this proposal out of hand. They devoted the most of their energy on fighting the social democrats as the “main enemy”.

The leaders of the German CP incited Communist workers to beat up Socialist workers and break up their meetings, even going to the extreme of inciting the school children to attack the children of Social Democrats  ('Beat the little Zoergiebels in the schools and the playgrounds).

As a direct result of this criminal policy, in 1933 the Nazis came to power. But the young Eric would have an uncritical attitude to Stalinism, which he wrongly saw as the continuation of the traditions of the October Revolution. At a time when Europe and the USA were wracked by mass unemployment, the first Five Year Plans were registering impressive successes.

As a very young man, Hobsbawm would probably never have heard of Trotsky. He would scarcely have been conscious of the disastrous policies of the German CP, and still less would he have been aware of the criminal role that Stalin and the Moscow bureaucracy played in the German catastrophe.

Hobsbawm as a historian

Shortly after Hitler came to power, Eric left Berlin for the safety of London. In 1935 he won a scholarship to Cambridge, where the Communist Party had many sympathisers. These were the years when the notorious spy ring of Philby, Burgess and MacLean were recruited by Moscow. At King's College Eric became involved in the activities of the university's Communist Party branch.

The British Communist Party had in its ranks many talented intellectuals: people like the historians Christopher Hill, George Thomson and E.P. Thompson, the classicist Benjamin Farringdon, the artist Anthony Blunt, the poet Christopher Caudwell, the famous biologist J.B.S. Haldane and many others. They were attracted by the ideals of October and the impressive economic and cultural advances of the Soviet Union.

Having obtained a PhD from Cambridge, Hobsbawm was appointed as history lecturer at Birkbeck College in London in 1947. He was lucky to secure this post just before the Berlin crisis of 1948 produced an intensification of the Cold War. He published his first book in 1948. His first major work, Primitive Rebels, in 1959, about southern European bandits, was published under the pseudonym Francis Newton.

In all, Hobsbawm wrote more than thirty books and it is this that earned him his reputation and his high standing on the Left. This reputation is not altogether underserved. Here was a man who wrote history, not in terms of kings, queens and statesmen, but on the economic and social forces that in the last instance are the motive forces of history. This is to his credit and explains his high standing in left circles internationally.

However, it must be said that his books are of uneven quality and interest. In his later works we see a marked decline. Even in his best works, however, there are blemishes. As is the case with many of the Stalinist historians, his version of history tends to overstate the economic element and to present it as a direct causal factor of the historical process – something that Marx and Engels repeatedly warned against.

Rather than a Marxist, Hobsbawm was a product of the English school of empiricism, with both its strong and its weak sides. The empiricist school is characterised by an extensive use of facts and figures. That is its strength. It is probable that the wealth of facts and figures in his books was largely responsible for his success in the Latin countries, where there was not the same rigorous tradition of presenting facts and figures in scholarly works. Not for nothing did Marx characterise Britain as “the country of statistics.”

To cite just one example, Hobsbawm provided statistical support for Marx's view that the industrial revolution was at the expense of working-class living standards; a view that contradicted the prevailing line of bourgeois academics who claimed that industrialisation improved living standards. To that extent, one can say that his work was influenced by Marxism, and made a useful contribution, at least in the early period.

But the weakness of even his best works is also quite typical of the British school of history and of the British intellectual tradition. This lacks the broad sweep and dynamism that comes from a profound grasp of dialectics. The same mechanical, undialectical method was a common feature of many of the old Stalinist historians, giving the impression of a gradual uninterrupted process, and totally lacking in any revolutionary spirit. Here the economic factors are stressed, while the class struggle is presented in an academic way, as seen from the outside, not by a participant but as a passive observer, which Hobsbawm was, and remained all his life.

At least in his earliest works he was an observer that is on the side of the revolutionaries. In his last works, however, he was a purveyor of a most pernicious kind of scepticism. This former Stalinist ended his life a respectable member of the Establishment who was explicitly hostile to revolution in all its manifestations.

A process of degeneration

Hobsbawm started his career working on the 19th century. His best-known works were those that deal with that period, such as The Age of Revolutions (1962) and Age of Capital (1975) and Labouring Men. These have become text books for all left-leaning history lecturers. They created his reputation, and if he had ceased writing after that, his reputation would have been, at least in part, deserved.

These early books provide a reasonable introduction to the development of capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries. They have certainly acted as an introduction to a materialist understanding of the development of 19th century capitalism to several generations of history students, and to that extent, we can recommend them. But thereafter it was downhill all the way.

A decade later when The Age of Empire (1987) was released it was the height of the Thatcher period. Though he still occasionally pays lip service to Lenin’s ideas, this book is characterised by scepticism, pessimism and cynicism. In other words, it is an accurate expression of someone who is in the process of breaking with socialism but does not yet wish to admit it.

His later writings have no value whatsoever, either as works of history, politics or even as literature. In particular his book The Age of Extremes (1994) which purports to cover the eight decades from WWI to the collapse of the USSR, which naturally was welcomed in the bourgeois press, is utterly worthless. It is badly written and completely lacking in serious analysis of any of the great subjects it mentions.

What is striking about The Age of Extremes is not just what is said but what is not said. It is, in fact, a collection of anecdotes embellished with superficial judgements of the most philistine kind. In a word, it belongs to the kind of gossip history that Hobsbawm in his youth despised. 

The very title is sufficient to understand its essential meaning, which is the philistine view that all “extremes” are bad.  We shall see later on where this outlook landed Hobsbawm at the end of his life. For the time being, we will confine ourselves to a criticism of Hobsbawm as a historian.

For instance, in The Age of Extremes he attempts to explain the victory of Hitler. But it is impossible to understand the reason why the mighty German labour movement was paralysed in the face of Nazism unless we explain the disastrous role of the leadership of both the Social Democracy and, above all, the Stalinists who deliberately split the working class. On this subject, however, the Red Professor skates very carefully:

“The strengthening of the radical Right was reinforced, at least during the worst period of the Slump, by the spectacular setbacks for the revolutionary Left. So far from initiating another round of social revolution, as the Communist International had expected, the Depression reduced the international communist movement outside the USSR to a state of unprecedented feebleness. This was admittedly due in some measure to the suicidal policy of the Comintern, which not only grossly underestimated the danger of National Socialism in Germany, but pursued a policy of sectarian isolation that seems quite incredible in retrospect, by deciding that its main enemy was the organized mass labour movement of social-democratic and labour parties (described as 'social-fascist').” (Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes - The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, pp. 104-5)

With these few lines, which appear almost as a footnote or an afterthought, Hobsbawm seeks to dismiss the role of the Communist Party in handing victory to the Nazis. It was not the Depression that “reduced the international communist movement outside the USSR to a state of unprecedented feebleness,” but the criminal ultra-left line of the Comintern, which was in turn dictated by Stalin as part of his struggle against “Trotskyism” in Russia. 

He provides no explanation for the Stalinist theory of “social fascism” or the “Third Period”. He says only that this “seems quite incredible in retrospect” and that it “in some measure” was responsible for the defeat of the German workers. This is dishonest in the extreme. In effect, Hobsbawm is trying to play down the disastrous role of Stalinism in Germany, which was the central reason (not just “in some measure”) for the victory of Hitler. This little “lapse” is not an isolated case. There are similar “lapses” on every page.

As for his final book, which appeared in 2011 under the modest title, How to Change the World, the less said the better.

Hobsbawm and Spain

In his book Age of Extremes Hobsbawm defended the Stalinist view of the Spanish revolution and the popular front in France, not to mention the resistance movements in Greece and Italy.  A very clear case of Hobsbawm’s Stalinist distortion of history is his treatment of the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s. Attacking Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom, he writes:

“Today it is possible to see the civil war, Spain's contribution to the tragic history of that most brutal of centuries, the 20th, in its historical context. It was not, as the neoliberal François Furet argued it should have been, a war against both the ultra-right and the Comintern - a view shared, from a Trotskyist sectarian angle, by Ken Loach's powerful film Land and Freedom (1995). The only choice was between two sides, and liberal-democratic opinion overwhelmingly chose anti-fascism. ” - (War of Ideas, 17 February 2007, The Guardian)

This is both a historical distortion and a complete abandonment of Marxism. Here we can let him answer himself. In The Age of Revolution, written at a time when his writings still bore some kind of vague resemblance to Marxism, we read the following: 

“Time and again we shall see moderate middle-class reformers mobilizing the masses against die-hard resistance or counter-revolution. We shall see the masses pushing beyond the moderates' aims to their own social revolutions, and the moderates in turn splitting into a conservative group henceforth making common cause with the reactionaries, and a left-wing group determined to pursue the rest of the as yet unachieved moderate aims with the help of the masses, even at the risk of losing control over them. And so on through repetitions and variations of the pattern of resistance – mass mobilization – shift to the left – split-among-moderates-and-shift-to-the-right – until either the bulk of the middle class passed into the henceforth conservative camp, or was defeated by social revolution. In most subsequent bourgeois revolutions the moderate liberals were to pull back, or transfer into the conservative camp, at a very early stage. Indeed in the nineteenth century we increasingly find (most notably in Germany) that they became unwilling to begin revolution at all, for fear of its incalculable consequences, preferring a compromise with king and aristocracy.” (E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, pp.84-5.)

How well Hobsbawm wrote in 1962! How well he understood the inner dynamics of revolutions that occurred in the long-distant past! But how do we square this accurate analysis with what he wrote later about the revolution in Spain, which he reduces to a simple choice between fascism and support for the bourgeois liberal Republicans?

Not only Marx but especially Lenin explained many times that after 1848 the bourgeois liberals always played a treacherous role and betrayed the revolution, out of fear of the proletariat. They had nothing but contempt for the petty bourgeois “progressives”, who they regarded at best as unreliable allies and at worst as traitors to the revolutionary cause.

Lenin continuously attacked the Russian bourgeois liberals for their treachery and cowardice. He demanded a complete break with them as a prior condition for the success of the Revolution. And here Lenin was referring, not to the socialist revolution, but to the bourgeois-democratic revolution itself.

Let us remind ourselves that the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia were accomplished, not by alliance with the bourgeois liberals, but against them. The October Revolution was carried out by the only genuinely revolutionary forces in Russia: the workers and poor peasants. It was not the Bolsheviks but the Mensheviks who advocated alliances with the bourgeois liberals. The policy of the Stalinists in Spain in the 1930s was merely a malicious caricature of Menshevism.

The victory of Franco in Spain was not a foregone conclusion. The Spanish workers could undoubtedly have smashed the fascists - as they succeeded in doing in Catalonia – and set about the task of transforming society on one condition – that the workers' leaders would have had a revolutionary policy.

The prior condition for victory in Spain was that the conduct of the war be taken out of the hands of treacherous bourgeois politicians and that the resources of Spain – the land, the factories, the banks – be taken over by the workers and peasants. The masses would have to be armed in defence of their social conquest and the leadership of the struggle would have to be in the hands of the known and trusted representatives of the workers' cause.

Let us compare what happened in Spain to the Russian Civil War, when Soviet Russia was invaded by 21 foreign armies of intervention. The Bolsheviks did not even have an army. Yet they fought back and defeated the White armies and their foreign allies. Trotsky organised the Red Army practically from nothing.

At one point the area controlled by the Bolsheviks was no greater than the old Muscovite state. The position seemed hopeless. But the Bolsheviks combined military policy with revolutionary measures and internationalist propaganda. The workers and peasants fought like tigers because they knew they were fighting for their social emancipation. This and this alone, guaranteed the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War. 

In reality the bourgeois liberal ministers preferred to hand Spain over bound and gagged to the fascists than allow the workers and peasants to take over the running of society. The unwillingness and complete incapacity of the Republicans to fight the fascists was revealed from the very beginning. The Republican leaders refused to arm the workers, who were demanding them. They even tried to suppress news of the fascist coup.

The question is how victory was to be achieved. Trotsky answered in this way:

“You are right in fighting Franco. We must exterminate the fascists, but not in order to have the same Spain as before the civil war, because Franco issued from this Spain. We must exterminate the foundations of Franco, the social foundations of Franco, which is the social system of capitalism.” (Spanish Revolution 1931-39, p.255)

Stalin and Spain

The most pernicious role was played by the leaders of the “Communist” Party, who took their orders from Moscow. The leaders of the Spanish Communist Party became the most fervent defenders of capitalist “law and order”. Under the slogan “first win the war, then make the revolution”, they systematically sabotaged all independent movement of the workers and peasants.

Their excuse was the need to maintain unity with the bourgeois Republicans in the Popular Front. But in reality, the Popular Front was a fiction. The bulk of the Spanish bourgeoisie had fled to Franco on the outbreak of the Civil War. In uniting with the Republicans the Stalinists were uniting, not with the bourgeoisie but only with its shadow.

The only social force which remained to fight against fascism was the workers and peasants. What were they supposed to be fighting for? For the “Republic”? But the capitalist Republic had failed to solve any one of the basic problems of the workers and peasants. Not for nothing did the fascists demagogically use the slogan: “Que te da a comer la Republica?” (“What does the Republic give you to eat?”)

This is not the place to provide a detailed account of how the Stalinists helped the bourgeoisie to smash the revolution in Catalonia and rebuild the old capitalist state. Suffice it to say that this counterrevolutionary act, far from strengthening the Republic, fatally undermined it and handed victory to the fascists.

Stalin was terrified of the possibility of a victorious workers' revolution in Spain. The example of a healthy workers' democracy in Spain would have exercised a powerful effect on the Russian workers, who were growing restive under the impositions of the bureaucratic totalitarian regime.

It is no accident that Stalin unleashed the infamous purge trials precisely at this time. Having abandoned Lenin's revolutionary internationalist policy, which based the defence of the Soviet Union fundamentally upon the support of the world working class and the victory of socialism internationally, the Russian bureaucracy attempted to get the support of the “good”, “democratic”, capitalist states (Britain and France) against Hitler. At one stage, they even supported “good” Italian fascism against the “bad” Germany variety!

The victory of Hitler in 1933 was the result of a mistaken policy, but in Spain Stalin deliberately strangled the revolution. In so doing, he also guaranteed the defeat of the Spanish Republic and the victory of Franco. This is how Hobsbawm deals with this:

“The conflict between libertarian enthusiasm and disciplined organisation, between social revolution and winning a war, remains real in the Spanish civil war, even if we suppose that the USSR and the Communist Party wanted the war to end in revolution and that the parts of the economy socialised by the anarchists (ie handed over to local workers' control) worked well enough. Wars, however flexible the chains of command, cannot be fought, or war economies run, in a libertarian fashion. The Spanish civil war could not have been waged, let alone won, along Orwellian lines.” (War of Ideas, 17 February 2007, The Guardian)

This is casuistry of the basest sort. Hobsbawm juxtaposes two things as though they were mutually incompatible: either carry out the revolution or win the civil war. But the fact of the matter is that in the end they did neither. By destroying the revolution, the Stalinists and their bourgeois allies in the Popular Front also undermined the morale of the Spanish workers and peasants and thus prepared the ground for the military victory of the fascists.

“The government of victory”

The main cutting-edge of the counter-revolution in Catalonia was provided by the “Communist” Party. The old capitalist state machine in Catalonia had been destroyed by the workers in July 1936. The Stalinists of the PSUC now helped the Catalan bourgeois nationalists to rebuild their power base. In order to do this, the anarchist and POUMist workers must be crushed. The Stalinists assumed the main responsibility for this hangman's task.

On the role of the Stalinists in Spain, Hobsbawm writes simply that “its pros and cons continue to be discussed in the political and historical literature”. But the crimes of the GPU in Spain were known and documented at the times by George Orwell at the time in his eye-witness account Homage to Catalonia. This fact explains Hobsbawm’s vitriolic attitude to Orwell, whom he refers to contemptuously as “an upper-class Englishman called Eric Blair”.

The Spanish Civil War exposed Stalin’s determination to liquidate every Left tendency that was not under his control. What has the Red Professor to say about this?

“In short, what was and remains at issue in these debates is what divided Marx and Bakunin. Polemics about the dissident Marxist Poum are irrelevant here and, given that party's small size and marginal role in the civil war, barely significant. They belong to the history of ideological struggles within the international communist movement or, if one prefers, of Stalin's ruthless war against Trotskyism with which his agents (wrongly) identified it.” (War of Ideas, 17 February 2007)

Hobsbawm wishes to draw a discrete veil over the activities of the Stalinists in Spain, and in particular their liquidation of the POUM, a left wing party whose leader Andreu Nin had once been an ally of Trotsky. Nin was kidnapped by Stalin’s GPU, brutally tortured and murdered. The same fate awaited many other Poumists, anarchists and others who were not prepared to follow blindly the dictates of Moscow.

The defeat of the Barcelona proletariat unleashed an orgy of counter-revolution. The Stalinists began to round up anarchists and POUMists and to disarm the workers. The workers' committees and collectives were destroyed. The POUM was made illegal, under the lying pretext that it had plotted with Franco. Nin and other leaders were brutally tortured and murdered by Stalin's agents in Spain.

Largo Caballero, the left Socialist leader, who attempted to stand up to the Stalinists, was replaced with the right-wing Socialist Juan Negrin, described by Hugh Thomas as “a man of the grande bourgeoisie, a defender of private property, even of capitalism.” (The Spanish Civil War, p. 667). The Stalinists described the Negrin government as “the government of victory”. In reality it was the government of defeat.  

The Stalinists had helped reconstruct the capitalist state and deliver the army to the control of the old officer caste. Having used them to do the dirty work, the latter now proceeded to kick the “Communists” to one side and carry out a coup d'etat behind the lines. Generals Casado and Miaja (still with a CP card in his pocket) conspired with Negrin to illegalise the “Communist” Party and attempt to do a deal with Franco.

Casado offered to arrest and hand over to Franco many CP and other workers’ leaders. La Pasionaria and other Stalinist leaders had to flee to France, leaving the ordinary CP members to their fate. All this is passed over in silence by Hobsbawm.

The policies of class collaboration that Hobsbawm presents as the only way to secure victory over fascism in fact prepared the way for a crushing defeat. The fascists took a terrible revenge on the workers. Up to one million people were killed in the civil war itself. Thousands more were murdered in the immediate aftermath of defeat. The Spanish working class paid an appalling price for the false policies, cowardice and outright betrayal of its leaders, in particular, the Communist Party. This is what Hobsbawm attempted to justify right to the end of his life.

In the Age of Extremes he defends the actions of the Stalinist bureaucracy. He writes that the alliance of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt “would have been impossible without a certain slackening of hostilities and mutual suspicions between the champions and the adversaries of the October revolution.” Therefore, the Spanish Revolution had to be sacrificed on the altar of the “anti-fascist alliance”. According to this twisted Stalinist logic the defeat of the Spanish Revolution was a price well worth paying to consolidate the alliance between the USSR and the European “democracies”, thus paving the way for a “democracy of a new type”:

 “The Spanish Civil War made this [“slackening of hostilities” between the USSR and the western “democracies”] a great deal easier. Even anti-revolutionary governments could not forget that the Spanish government, under a Liberal president and prime minister, had complete constitutional and moral legitimacy when it appealed for aid against its insurgent generals. Even those democratic statesmen who betrayed it, out of fear for their own skins, had a bad conscience (!). Both the Spanish government and, more to the point, the communists who were increasingly influential in its affairs, insisted that social revolution was not their object, and indeed, visibly did what they could to control and reverse it to the horror of revolutionary enthusiasts. Revolution, both insisted, was not the issue: the defence of democracy was.”

This is false from start to finish. The defeat of the Spanish working class actually removed the last remaining barrier to the Second World War. The so called alliance of the Western democracies with the USSR was always a fiction. As a matter of fact, Britain in particular was all the time encouraging Hitler in his aggressive foreign policy in the hope that he would attack the Soviet Union.

That is the real meaning of Chamberlain’s policy of “appeasement”. Only at the 11th hour, when they realised that Hitler would attack France, did the gentlemen in London change their stance. The idea that the likes of Chamberlin and Churchill had a guilty conscience because they facilitated Franco’s victory is simply laughable. Their calculations were never based on sentimental or moral considerations but only on the interests of British imperialism.

Even when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, a significant section of the British ruling class had the idea of allowing Germany and Russia to exhaust themselves and then intervene to smash both of them. That is the real reason why Churchill, supposedly the ally of the USSR, continuously prevented the opening of a second front in France. The only reason he finally agreed to the invasion of France in 1944 was because of the spectacular advance of the Red Army, which threatened to reach the English Channel.

[To be continued...]