The Not-So-Great Eric Hobsbawm

The British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm died on October 1, aged ninety-five. I was at a conference in England at the time and was surprised by the local response. The Guardian devoted its entire front page to the news, with more conservative newspapers and commentators not far behind. The London Times gave him both an editorial and an obituary. The former described him as “a peerless social historian who transcended ideology”, while the obituary over two whole pages called him “a magisterial historian of the modern age whose nuanced Marxist views helped to reshape the political Left in Britain and beyond”. The obituary in the Financial Times ranked him “among the great historians of his time”. In the Guardian, conservative historian Niall Ferguson said despite Hobsbawm’s lifelong commitment to the Communist Party and his refusal to express remorse for the crimes of Joseph Stalin, he remained “a truly great historian” and a friend. In his blog for the English Spectator, leftist apostate Nick Cohen took the same line: while Hobsbawm supported some of the most monstrous regimes in human history, he was “a great historian with a sweeping vision and an ability to comprehend and communicate the vast movements in human history”. On the night he died, BBC television interrupted its program schedule to broadcast a one-hour tribute, which included favourable comments from television pundits Simon Schama and Melvyn Bragg.

Among the political figures who gave eulogies to the media were Tony Blair and Ed Miliband. Blair called Hobsbawm “a giant of progressive politics and history, someone who influenced a whole generation of political and academic leaders”. Opposition leader Miliband described him as “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of my family”.

This chorus had a few notable discords. In his Spectator blog, conservative journalist Douglas Murray wrote a satirical obituary for a fictional great historian who joined the Nazi Party in the 1930s but nonetheless gained numerous positions of seniority and influence in British academic and political life, despite the fact that he thought, as Hobsbawm admitted in an infamous interview with Michael Ignatieff in 1994, that the death of millions was a justifiable cost for his cause. In the Daily Mail, another conservative author, A.N. Wilson, made the same point. “Just imagine what would happen if some crazed Right-winger were to appear on the BBC and say that the Nazis had been justified in killing six million Jews in order to achieve their aims. We should be horrified, and consider that such a person should never be allowed to speak in public again.” Wilson observed that, apart from modifying his once hard-line support of Stalin’s death camps, Hobsbawm had never retracted his political views or Communist Party membership. Nor had he ever publicly regretted his 1939 co-authorship with his academic colleague Raymond Williams of a Communist pamphlet defending Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, the Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact and the Soviet invasion of Finland.

None of the eulogies I read, however, took the trouble to explain why his work was supposedly so great, or which of his historical findings had been confirmed by the test of time. Niall Ferguson went furthest by saying Hobsbawm’s “great tetralogy” from the French Revolution to the fall of communism—The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Industry (1975), The Age of Empire (1987) and The Age of Extremes (1994)—remains the best introduction to modern world history in the English language. “Unlike many continental intellectuals of the Left, Hobsbawm the historian was never a slave to Marxist-Leninist doctrine,” Ferguson wrote. “His best work was characterized by a remarkable breadth and depth of knowledge, elegant analytical clarity, empathy with the ‘little man’ and a love of telling detail. He and I shared the belief that it was economic change, above all, that shaped the modern era.” 

I have followed Hobsbawm’s career since the 1960s and have read most of his major works without feeling the same reverence. I’ve also read the major debates about history in which he has been involved. While it’s obvious he has been a big name in the profession, I am puzzled by the veneration his death produced. The idea that he was one of the great historians of his times seems to me an insult to the few who were.

The first major debate in which he engaged was over the standard of living of the British working classes during the industrial revolution. In the 1950s and 1960s, he took on those economic historians and statisticians, especially J.H. Clapham and T.S. Ashton, who argued that the industrial revolution from the late-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century had produced an improvement in living conditions. Hobsbawm defended the popularly accepted leftist position, introduced by Marx’s co-author Friedrich Engels and shored up by labour historians John and Barbara Hammond and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, that the industrial revolution subjected the working classes to dark satanic mills, hunger and growing exploitation by employers. Fought mainly in the pages of the Economic History Review and the Journal of Economic History between 1957 and 1970, the debate drew in the Australian academic Max Hartwell, then reader in economic history at Oxford.

In what became one of the most gripping intellectual clashes of the Cold War, Hartwell crushed Hobsbawm completely, both in the way he conceptualised the question—it was quite implausible to argue that real wages fell, Hartwell argued, at a time when other indices showed rapid economic growth and rising labour productivity—and the wide range of data he produced to authenticate it. By 1968, Hobsbawm’s fellow Marxist historian E.P. Thompson, whose book The Making of the English Working Class devoted a chapter to the same debate, had withdrawn graciously in defeat: “My comments on the exceedingly complex and developing research in demography are trivial: and the reader who wishes to inform himself on this, or the problems of health, housing, and urban growth, must on occasions turn to the work of those economic historians whose assumptions are, in this chapter, under criticism.” But Hobsbawm never found the courage or the decency to do the same. More recent analyses, especially by Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson in 1983, found that in the thirty-two years from 1819 to 1851, real wages in Britain actually doubled. 

The chief problem for all of Hobsbawm’s history was that his primary aim was to verify the theories of Karl Marx. Despite claims by his obituary writers that he was never a slave to Marxist doctrine, or that his work was “always nuanced” and “elegant”, the opposite was true. As a Festschrift to him in 1972 argued, and as his much-cited essay “Karl Marx’s Contribution to Historiography” of the same year confirms, he subscribed to the orthodox base/superstructure model, in which the economy or “the relations of production” comprise the social base which in turn determines the superstructure, or the ideas and culture of a society. Their position as wage earners purportedly determines how workers think, what they value and the kind of institutions they create; and their position as capitalists determines how employers think, what they value and the very different institutions they create. The notion that ideas might be autonomous, or even historically causative, is simply bourgeois naivety. Meanwhile, capitalist growth produces periodic crises and generates class conflicts that cripple the entire system.

Once an historian adopts a model like this, his task is not all that difficult. He goes hunting for evidence to support the conclusion he has already decided. In newspapers and secondary sources he finds incidents and social trends, and interprets them within the same framework, thereby “verifying” his model. Hobsbawm was able to write his “great tetralogy” of European history because Marx had already given him its framework. He never had to study everything available on a topic and then comprehend it all within an original narrative. He simply took the theoretical colouring book provided by Marx, and filled it in. This is not how you should do history, and it is certainly not how you produce great history. 

I don’t have space here to discuss Hobsbawm’s several other idiosyncrasies, such as his books Primitive Rebels and Bandits, where he tries to give political legitimacy to a range of pre-modern outlaws who were no more than gangsters and protection racketeers, or his even more unpardonable influence on the intellectual fashion for social history. Instead, let me finish with a comment on his last major work, How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840–2011.

In this book, Hobsbawm declared that the global financial crisis of 2008 represented the collapse of the policies of laissez-faire economics that by then prevailed throughout much of the capitalist world. While the capitalist triumph since the 1980s had left socialists bereft of an alternative, he said the GFC had left the advocates of market fundamentalism equally helpless. Even though there was no alternative system on the horizon, he claimed the possibility of the existing system’s disintegration, or even collapse, could not be ruled out.

This was no doubt wishful thinking from Hobsbawm, who seemed to be hankering to return to the world of high drama and political hatreds that dominated his youth. The bigger problem, however, is that someone of his intellectual prestige and reputation is very unlikely to be alone with these thoughts. Indeed, in an era when radical leftists like Barack Obama and Julia Gillard can and do climb to the top of the political pole, ideas like Hobsbawm’s are likely to be a more than reliable guide to the thinking of at least half of today’s political class. While socialism might still be consigned to history’s dustbin, the foragers will now be returning to the junkyards of theory looking for usable refuse to salvage.

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