Communist Party Historians Group

The Good Old Cause – Communist Intellectuals and the English Radical Tradition-By David Morgan-Issue Number 45 in the Occasional Publications series of the SHS- Cost: £4.00

David Morgan’s The Good Old Cause is part of the Socialist History Society’s Occasional Publications series. The title “The Good Old Cause” has been used before. The great historian of the seventeenth century Christopher Hill produced a collection of political writings from the seventeenth century that was published in 1949. More recent use of the term was Willie Thompson’s The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991, published in 1992.

All these titles are referencing the phrase whose origins stem from the sentiment espoused by veterans of Cromwell’s New Model Army and other supporters of the English Republic like John Milton. The Good Old Cause was the name given, retrospectively, by the soldiers of the New Model Army, to the complex cause that motivated their fight on behalf of the Parliament of England.

For such a little book, Morgan manages to cram an awful lot of work into it. Morgan examines the work of a group of very important Communist Party historians and some others who were outside the formal group. Like many of their generation, these intellectuals were drawn to left-wing politics in the early part of the twentieth century.

The historians and significant intellectuals that occupied the British Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG) in the 1940 and 1950s played an important and dare I say leading role in the study of British and World history throughout the 20th century. It is significant that in London’s National Portrait Gallery there used to hang a painting which has been described as “of seven people arranged on either side of a low table in a book-lined study”. They were historians, members of the editorial board of the journal Past & Present, which arose from the British Communist Party’s Historians’ Group”.

Eric Hobsbawm, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Christopher Hill, Victor Kiernan, George Rude, Raphael Samuel and Rodney Hilton to name a few were all moulded by the early strategic experiences of the 20th century, the depression of the 1930s, the Second World War and of course the Russian revolution. “For some, the group was, if not exactly a way of life, then at least a small cause, as well as a minor way of structuring leisure. For most it was also friendship,”  said Eric Hobsbawm.

Again given the brevity of the book Morgan attempts to examine the work of people like Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Margot Heinemann, Arnold Kettle, Raymond Williams, E P Thompson, and Victor Kiernan.

As Morgan correctly points out, there were of course not just “Communist intellectuals”, in the CP writing about history, a significant number of workers were drawn into their circle.

Morgan does not dwell too much on the output of the historians on their chosen historical field but their attitude to the use of literature as a way of understanding the past. In some ways, the use of literature to help explain complicated historical events was groundbreaking. However, even today, there is a hostility amongst many in academia to the use of literature to understand history or historical events.

The historian who perhaps was most open to the idea of using poetry, literature etc. to understand the past was Christopher Hill. Certainly in later life Hill made use of varied literary forms of poetry, fiction, plays, sermons, diaries, and letters. Also in later life Hill started to use the genre of “history from below” adopted by the Communist Party. While this type of historical study does retain some uses, I am inclined to agree with Ann Talbot’s evaluation of this type of historical enquiry when she wrote: “the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History”, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr.[1]

There is a positive side to this type of history that introduces to the wider working class figures from history that they would under normal circumstances not get to meet. The Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG) wrote about figures such as Milton, Bunyan, Defoe, William Blake, Shelley and William Morris. A modern working class will not be able to make a revolution without a study of these figures and others. It must also learn about previous struggles such as the Peasants’ Revolt, groups such as the Levellers and Diggers of the English revolution. It must have an intimate knowledge of its revolutionary figures such as the Digger Gerrard Winstanley and the Leveller pamphleteers.

Morgan also mentions “popular dreams and myths of a Utopian past” which are also important in helping the working class to understand that it is a revolutionary class.

Hill’s work is important in that it sought under tremendous difficulties to answer important questions such as why were the radicals such as the Levellers etc. were defeated. Hill was one of the few historians who understood the difficulty these revolutionaries faced when mounting a revolution as Hill says “I think it is right to say that the revolution was not planned. One of the things that should be made more of is that no one in England in the 1640s knew they were taking part in a revolution. American and French revolutionaries could look back to England, the Russian revolutionaries had an ideology of revolution based on English and French experience, but no one in England could draw on such experiences. The very word revolution emerges in its modern sense in the 1640s. So that the English revolutionaries are fumbling all the time, they have not got a Rousseau or a Marx to guide them. The examples of the Netherlands and the French Huguenots were discussed in the 17th century as religious or nationalist revolts. The only text they could look to was the bible, but of course, the bible says such different things that you can get any theory out of it so that it proved unsatisfactory. One of my arguments in my new book is that it was the experience of its uselessness as an agreed guide to action in the 1640s and 1650s that led to its dethroning from its position of absolute authority. That was a major problem for the English revolutionaries; they had no theory to start from.[2]

My difference with Morgan is that while a study of these figures is important, that does not mean that there is an unbroken thread of radical struggle that workers can tap into. The working class must take a critical approach to all historical phenomena. This radicalism does not replace the need for a conscious revolutionary party along the lines of the Bolsheviks to take power.

One question Morgan does not ask is how to characterise these historians.  Ann Talbot asks of Hill but could be said of other CP historians “What any serious reader interested in history or politics wants to know is when we read Hill’s books are we reading the work of an apologist for the Stalinist bureaucracy or of someone who was genuinely struggling to make a Marxist analysis of an aspect of English history? It has to be said that this is a complex question”.

Despite many caveats, this is an important little book, and it is hoped many workers interested in the past put it into their library.


[1] “These the times … this the man”: an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html

[2] John Rees and Lee Humber-The good old cause an interview with Christopher Hill- From International Socialism 2 : 56, Autumn 1992, pp. 125–34.Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.

Yvonne Kapp, Time Will Tell: Memoirs (New York: Verso, 2003), 296 pages, cloth.

“We are not women arrayed in struggle against men but workers who are in a struggle against the exploiters.”

Eleanor Marx

“We see no more in common between a Mrs Fawcett [the leading light of the women’s rights movement in the late 19th century] and a laundress than we see between [the banker] Rothschild and one of his employees. In short, for us, there is only the working-class movement.”

Eleanor Marx

“We had to take new bearings. Though we were not deflected from our course, it marked a turning point. ‘Never glad confident morning again.'” This is not a recantation but an adjustment.”

Yvonne Kapp

Time Will Tell by Yvonne Kapp is an ordinary memoir by an extraordinary woman. She is best known for her excellent biography of Eleanor Marx (1855–1898). Published in two volumes in 1972 and 1976. The Verso publication is issued in one volume as part of its Marx 200 series. Verso also published Kapp’s memoir.

Kapp’s memoir was published very late in the day by Verso. It has joined a veritable cottage industry of memoirs of members or former members of the Communist Party of Britain. One of the more well known was Raphael Samuel’s The Lost World Of British Communism[1].

Raphael Samuel’s book consists of three separate articles reprinted from the New Left Review written in the mid-1980s. His primary purpose for writing the book remains unclear, although it is common for political activists to put down in writing their understanding of events that have played a crucial role in their political development. Written amidst a bitter faction fight inside the British Communist Party for political control, the book does almost nothing to further our understanding of Stalinism. The book is part autobiographical, part “social history” and part “history from below”. It is almost hybrid. Most of the book takes the form of a polemic about Samuel’s life inside the British Communist Party. Given the political nature of his subject, the book is remarkably free of political analysis. He also has selective amnesia towards the betrayals of the Communist Party both in the USSR and Britain.

Samuel had a very romantic view of his time in the CP and tended to see his party through rose-tinted spectacles. Its betrayals are glossed over. He says nothing of the Show Trials that were responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of old Bolsheviks. The countless betrayals of the working class by Stalinism remain untouched. Samuel, it should be said took the death of Stalin hard. He cried when it was announced and wore a black armband.

Eric Hobsbawm, who like Kapp, stayed in the CP until the end was not too polite about Communist Party memoirs saying that some authors exhibited a “twilight zone of memory”.[2]

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Kapp’s biography of Marx’s youngest daughter rescued her from historical obscurity. The biography should be on the reading list of any young socialist today. Although overshadowed by her famous father, the book restores her place amongst the leading socialists of her day. It is hard not to agree with Eric Hobsbawm who said the book was “one of the few unquestionable masterpieces of twentieth-century biography.”

Like many of her generation, Kapp’s life (1903–1999) spanned nearly a century of struggle. She witnessed the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and took part in many of the great struggles of the 20th century.

Kapp joined the CP in 1935 on the way back from the USSR. Recruited by its then General Secretary Harry Pollitt. Despite being in her thirties, it would seem that Kapp was blissfully unaware of the Stalinist nature of the party she was joining. It might be added that she stayed in this state of mind until she died in 1999. Kapp joined at the same time as an increasing number of other middle-class people were joining.

Kapp led a bohemian life. She did not undertake formal education and moved from one job to another. According to one writer Kapp had until meeting Pollitt no fixed ambitions and had no political awareness. Kapp admitted that she had no sudden blinding light on the road to Damascus that awakened her political consciousness.

According to Ellen Leopold, “her life story becomes a picaresque chronicle of progressive movement activities leavened by often amusing tales of encounters with colleagues, friends, and lovers. At one moment, she is traipsing across town shouting “Arms for Spain.” The next she is marching to prevent Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts (members of the British Union of Fascists that Mosley founded) from entering the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of Whitechapel in London’s East End. Or she is organising a fundraiser at the Royal Albert Hall where Paul Robeson comes to sing for refugees from the Spanish Civil War”.[3]

1956

It is doubtful that her twenty years in the CP would have prepared her for the cataclysmic events that happened in 1956. In 1956 sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy turned on its commander in chief and partner in crime Stalin. Kruschev’s “secret speech” was hardly secret and was not so much a political break with Stalinism but a mechanism in which to deal with the raging political and economic crisis that gripped world Stalinism.

Khrushchev’s speech was typical of a man who was implicated in all the major crimes committed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. One subject all the Stalinist bureaucrats were in agreement was the correctness of the struggle against Leon Trotsky the only leading Bolshevik not to have been rehabilitated by the Stalinists. Khrushchev said “We must affirm that the party fought a serious fight against the Trotskyists, rightists and bourgeois nationalists and that it disarmed all the enemies of Leninism ideologically. The ideological fight was carried on successfully … Here Stalin played a positive role.”

Khrushchev had a very limited understanding of what social forces he was inadvertently unleashing with his speech. Far from preventing revolution, he opened the floodgates. His response was the same as Stalin and unleash terror on the working class.

The fact that Kapp brackets her house purchase in 1956 with the significant political events of the same “traumatic year”—the Hungarian uprising, Suez, and Krushchev’s speech to the Communist Party Congress said a lot about her miseducation inside the CP.

In her memoir Kapp makes light of the event saying “We had to take new bearings. Though we were not deflected from our course, it marked a turning point. ‘Never glad confident morning again.'” This is not a recantation but an adjustment”.[4]

This adjustment did not mean leaving the party but ignited a passion for the study of the past. Kapp conceived the idea of writing the life of Eleanor Marx while translating the correspondence between Frederick Engels and Paul and Laura Lafargue.

Kapp was politically aware enough to see that writing about specific events of the 20th century such as Stalinism, bourgeoise nationalism to name but two was not possible under the control of the Communist Party leadership. It was only in a study of the past she could escape for a time its dominance. Kapp said “I have said that the idea of writing the life of Eleanor Marx arose from my translating the correspondence between Frederick Engels and Laura and Paul Lafargue. Eleanor flits in and out of the pages of these three volumes most tantalisingly. Every reference to her evoked an interesting personality who aroused my curiosity. I wished I knew more about her, but when I enquired I found there existed no biography of her”.

To her credit, she did not mimic Josef Stalin’s attitude to the study of Marx’s family. Stalin upon looking at the file on Marx’s son minuted the file “Unimportant, keep in the archives,”

Another subject that was taboo inside the CP was the question of Leon Trotsky or the leading Trotskyist party of her day Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League. Unsurprisingly Kapp does not mention anything on the CP’s hostility to Trotskyism. In her article, Lynne Segal recounts Sheila Rowbotham although not a Stalinist describing the animosity the radical and Stalinist milieu had against the Trotskyist of the SLL she writes “Nevertheless, on moving to Dalston, East London, in 1964, she joined the Hackney Young Socialists the year Harold Wilsonʼs Labour government assumed power, heightening hopes for social reforms and cultural change. There she encountered, in continued action replay, the venomous sectarian combat between differing Trotskyist factions working as ʻentristsʼ inside the Labour Party. ʻUnited Front, yes; Popular Front, noʼ, the member from Militant explained when she joined, warning her against his enemies from Gerry Healyʼs Socialist Labour League: ʻI blinked, trying to concentrate. It would be easy to get this the wrong way round, and his tone suggested the consequences could be direʼ.

Scrutinising the battle of dissenting certainties, she was quickly an expert on the ritual differences between rival Trotskyist sects, admiring their tenacity (always angry, acerbic, alert for betrayal), even while appalled by their arrogance and dogmatism (which served primarily to drive away any working-class youth they managed to recruit). It was the beginning of a permanent aversion to vanguardism, a conviction that it was not the most effective, least of all the most creative, way of winning people for progressive ends while sowing the seeds of potential intimidation or abuse. Several short satirical efforts at illustrating this over the years would culminate in her influential critique of Leninism in 1979, in Beyond the Fragments, with its call for solidarity between differing campaigning movements, creating immediate but the short-lived impact, in by then already harsher times.” [5]

The unprincipled attacks on the SLL did not deter Healy and the SLL. It did not stop the orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International from doubling their efforts to gain from the crisis within the British Communist Party. Healy continued to believe that Stalinism was a counter-revolutionary force. The SLL won prominent figures such as Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp, Peter Fryer and Brian Pearce out of the CP. They were able to double their efforts through the journal Labour Review and the weekly Newsletter to wage a political-theoretical offensive, leading to the formation of the Socialist Labour League (SLL) in 1959.

Gender

Kapp correctly places Eleanor Marx within her own time and was criticised by the feminists of her day and today refused to place Marx as a leading feminist thinker or activist. Kapp correctly states that Eleanor Marx believed that the fundamental social division was class, not race or gender.

Kapp was writing her biography at a time when inequality amongst women was growing very fast. Another more disgusting phenomena were the unbridled ambitions of various layers of the upper-middle class women who were seeking to leverage past or present abuses, to advance their selfish interests.

The project took Kapp ten years to complete. Kapp said it “drew in one way or another upon my whole accumulated experience.” The book is all the more extraordinary since according to Hobsbawm, she ‘never passed so much as a single examination, even at school.’

To conclude, given the enormous struggles witnessed by Yvonne Kapp, you would think that a writer with her literary gifts would have given the reader a deep insight and understanding of the “Long Twentieth Century. It is blatantly not the case with this memoir. Any young socialist looking for insight into political problems of the 20th century should look elsewhere. On the other hand, anyone interested in the early socialist movement should read her masterpiece biography of Eleanor Marx.


[1] See review – https://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2018/03/review-of-lost-world-of-british.html

[2] Lost worlds Political memoirs of the Left in Britain-Lynne Segal

[3] monthlyreview.org/2005/03/01/committed-chronicler-eleanor-marxs-biographer/

[4] Yvonne Kapp, Time Will Tell: Memoirs (New York: Verso, 2003), 296 pages,

[5] Formations of feminism Political memoirs of the Left (II) Lynne Sega

History Today Continues its Love Affair with Eric Hobsbawm

Jesus Casquete’s recent article in the May edition of History’s Today continues the magazines love affair with Eric Hobsbawm. Given the stature of Hobsbawm, there is nothing wrong in examing a historian that made a significant contribution to the study of history.

However, like many articles before there are substantial problems with the content of this article. It is written from the standpoint of airbrushing any criticism of Hobsbawm’s  Stalinism from left to be more precise from an orthodox Marxist viewpoint. There are several issues worth examining in this article. Casquetes is correct that Hobsbawm was obedient to the “guidelines established by Moscow”. This is a very strange formulation, almost casual and non-descript. Hobsbawm was not just obedient, he agreed with the political line that came from Moscow and implemented it when he was a member of the British Communist Party. It is not hard to figure; he was after all a Stalinist to his dying day.

Casquete is also correct to praise Hobsbawm’s “literary quality”, and Judt’s description of him as “master of English prose” is very accurate. The problem occurred for Hobbawm when he wrote anything that took place in the 20th Century and especially on the Russian Revolution.

As the Marxist writer David North states “his writing suggests that he has failed to subject to any critical review the political conceptions that allowed him to remain a member of the British Communist Party for many decades: “The terrible paradox of the Soviet era,” Hobsbawm tells us with a straight face, “is that the Stalin experienced by the Soviet peoples and the Stalin seen as a liberating force outside were the same. Moreover, he was the liberator for the ones at least in part because he was the tyrant for the others.”North said that it would have been no great loss if Hobsbawm had stuck to writing history before the 20th Century.

The subject of the rise of Fascism is a legitimate topic. My two issues of concern are that the article airbrushes from the historical record Stalinism’s part in the coming to power of the Fascists. The other concern is the consistent airbrushing out the history of the opposition to both Stalinism and Fascism by Leon Trotsky. Whether you agree with Trotsky or not the readers of history Today should be allowed to make up their mind. Trotsky was not just some innocent bystander and wrote extraordinarily perceptive articles as this one shows.

What is Fascism? The name originated in Italy. Were all the forms of counter-revolutionary dictatorship fascist or not (That is to say, prior to the advent of Fascism in Italy)?. The former dictatorship in Spain of Primo de Rivera, 1923-30, is called a fascist dictatorship by the Comintern. Is this correct or not? We believe that it is incorrect. The fascist movement in Italy was a spontaneous movement of large masses, with new leaders from the rank and file. It is a plebian movement in origin, directed and financed by big capitalist powers. It issued forth from the petty bourgeoisie, the slum proletariat, and even to a certain extent from the proletarian masses; Mussolini, a former socialist, is a “self-made” man arising from this movement.[1]

To conclude it must be said that Casquete’s last remarks on Hobsbawm are a little generous. He continues the political line that Hobsbawm was a willing dupe of Stalinism’s “Poisonous legacy”. This is not only wrong but gives a false picture as to what Hobsbawm represented.


[1] FAascism What it is Extracts from a letter to an English comrade, November 15 1931;printed in The Militant, January 16, 1932-https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1944/1944-fas.htm#p1

Englishmen with Swords by Charles Montagu Slater, Merlin Radical Fiction, (1950)

Montagu Slater was a minor figure inside the British Communist Party. Outside the party, he had limited success as a playwright and poet.He was born into a working-class family in 1902 who went on to win a prestigious scholarship to Oxford. Like many of his generation, he was shaped intellectually by the social, economic and political upheavals caused by the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism. While active in local politics at an early age he joined the CP in 1927.

It was an unfortunate time to join the British Communist Party because by 1927 it was already exhibiting signs of political degeneration and slavishly sided with Joseph Stalin’s struggle against Leon Trotsky. Slater very quickly sided with the revisionist Stalinist theory of building Socialism in One Country in opposition to Leon Trotsky’s orthodox Marxist position of permanent revolution.

The CPGB slavishly followed the Soviet party’s line. When anybody stepped outline such as in the case of Maurice Dobbs who wrote for a journal that had “Trotskyists” writing for it, he was forced into a humiliating retreat.

According to John McIlroy “by 1933 G.A.Hutt was denouncing accounts of the development of Marxism which failed to privilege Stalin by an invocation of Stalin’s letter, declaring: ‘There is no true Marxism today that is not Leninist. Lenin developed and extended the work of Marx and Engels and Lenin’s unchallenged successor in the field of both theory and practice is Stalin’. A new orthodoxy, a new canon and new controls over party intellectuals were in place: in late 1933 the requirement that books written by CPGB members were to be submitted for approval by the party leaders was formalised”. [1]

Any assessment of Slater’s literary work should take into consideration his Stalinist politics. His craven adherence to Stalinism paved the way for him in the 1930s to become founder and then editor of the journal ‘Left Review’ in October 1934. Left Review from the beginning was an apologist for Stalinist crimes against the working class and became a house organ for attacks on Leon Trotsky.

As Brian Pearce writes “right from the very first number, Left Review revealed where its basic allegiance lay, with a poem by Louis Aragon glorifying the speed-up in a Soviet tractor-works. And in the number for February 1935 Tom Wintringham, one of the co-editors, launched a violent attack on Max Eastman’s book Artists in Uniform, which had shaken illusions among some left-wing intellectuals about the position of literature and the writer in the Soviet Union. A characteristic jolly-them-along phrase in Wintringham’s article ran: ‘Not a few bureaucratic absurdities have happened at times during the Soviet Revolution. And as soon as the party has been able to be quite clear on what it is all about – they go.’ (Wintringham was himself expelled from the Communist Party only a few years later, for keeping company with the daughter of an alleged Trotskyist.)

Pearce continues “In November 1937 the publisher Frederick Warburg revealed in a letter to the New Statesman that Left Review had refused an advertisement for The Case of Leon Trotsky, published by his firm. This book was the report of the examination of Trotsky, regarding the statements affecting him made in the trials, carried out by an independent commission of inquiry headed by John Dewey. The new liberalism of Left Review did not include giving a show to the other side. Editor Randall Swingler explained on behalf of the journal, in the next issue of the New Statesman, that “there is a line at which criticism ends and destructive attacks begin, and we regret that this line separates us both from Dr Goebbels and Leon Trotsky”. [2]

Slater, who died at a very early age of 54, stayed true to his Stalinist ideas. Despite being linked with the new Reasoner wing inside in the Communist Party, Slater agreed with every twist and turn of the British Communist party’ s attack on Trotskyism. He backed the party’s reformist “British Road to Socialism”. When the Hungarian Revolution took place in 1956, Slater called it a counter-revolution. He died in 1956 still retaining his party membership.

Englishmen with Swords

As was said before any assessment of Slater’ss literary achievements should within the context of his politics. Englishmen with Swords is a piece of historical fiction which centres on the years 1647-1649, these years being the highpoint of the English Bourgeois revolution. Slater wrote the piece using material from the journal of a minor but significant real-life participant of the English Civil War Gilbert Mabbot.

As much as I can tell, the storyline remains faithful to actual events. The book should not be seen as a historical document but should be seen as a complement to academic historical research.

Slater does bring Mabbott to the attention of a wider audience. Too many figures such as Mabbott have been lost because revisionist historians reluctance to research figures such as Mabbott and others.  Revisionists attempt to replace “history from below” genre with history from above has done much damage.

Mabbott (1622—c. 1670) was according to Graham Stevenson “the official licenser of the press from 1647 to 1649 and himself a pioneering journalist and publisher of newsbooks during the English Civil War period”. He was significantly linked to radical groups such as the Levellers during his publication of the Moderate newsbook.Describing his time with the Moderate Mabbott said: “I have laid down my former title of ‘Moderate Intelligencer’ and do go by another, ‘The Moderate'”. The Moderate espoused republican views. It fully supported the execution of the King and held views that were similar to the Levellers.

Mabbott’ss link to the Levellers has been questioned by  Frances Henderson who said “Mabbott’s reputation as a Leveller, which rests solely on his alleged editorship of the radical newsbook The Moderate, is open to question. It is possible that he contributed to early issues of this newsbook, but there is no evidence that he was responsible for editing it and nothing in his career or conduct to link him directly to the Levellers”.

Henderson’s view have in turn been challenged by Pattrick Ludolph “Gilbert Mabbott was a licenser of pamphlets and newsbooks from 1645 to 1649. He was also brother-in-law to Sir William Clarke and a client of John Rushworth. From 1647 to 1649, he was in the pay of the New Model Army, acting as their “agent” in London. As well, Mabbott has been accused of being the editor of the radical newsbook The Moderate, an accusation which I have come to believe”.

Patrick’s views on Slater’s book is worth quoting “I have read it, but I could not tell you much more about its background than what is already on the dust jacket. It is from Gilbert Mabbott (which you know because you commented here, but I thought I would say for others out there) and makes use of several original documents from the Civil War. However, Slater chose Mabbott because he knew absolutely nothing about him. 

He saw his name on a bunch of documents and decided to write from his viewpoint because Mabbott was a virtual nobody, a clean slate to write on. The irony is not lost on me. It has been a while since I looked at it; I seem to recall that Slater was a little confused about some things, but I do not remember what. Come to think of it, I probably should have done a post on this, but I read it before I started blogging”.

To conclude, it is difficult to say how good this book is. As Chris Hopkins says “Lukacs in his The Historical Novel (1937; 1963) distinguishes between various periods when literary historicism has become merely a mannerism and periods when historical genres have made authentic engagements with history, as some of his section titles may briefly suggest: ‘The Classical Form of the Historical Novel’, ‘The General Tendencies of Decadence and the Establishment of the Historical Novel as a Special Genre’. Lukacs, of course, as one of the most influential Marxist critics of the twentieth century sees the success of the historical novel at different period as not simply an aesthetic matter, but as one deeply determined by history itself” [3]


[1]   The Establishment of Intellectual Orthodoxy and the Stalinization of British Communism 1928-1933 John McIlroy Past & Present, No. 192 (Aug., 2006), pp. 187-226[2] Brian Pearce-Some Lessons from History:The Left Review, 1934–1938(November 1959)From The Newsletter, 7 November 1959.Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.[3] Historicising the Historical Novel: Introduction-Chris Hopkins, Sheffield Hallam University

Ideology, Absolutism and the English Revolution: Debates of the British Communist Historians, 1940-1956 (2008) David Parker-Lawrence & Wishart.

This book offers a fascinating insight into some of the early debates inside the History Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain, whose members included Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm. In essence, these people made an outstanding contribution to historical studies. 

The debates they initiated formed the theoretical basis for academic research that is continuing, in particular, the work on the nature of English civil war and revolution in the seventeenth century, and on the development of capitalism in Britain. 

This book focuses on the debates of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century section of the group and their work on ideology and absolutism. It reproduces original documentary material – single contributions, reports and minutes – from the debates, and also includes an informative introductory essay as well as useful notes and appendices.

An important proviso before reading David Parker’s book is for the reader to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the writings of the British Communist Party and most importantly a firm grasp of the differences that occurred in the Soviet Communist Party in the early 1920s between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. A basic understanding of the debate over the adoption by the CPSU of Stalin’s theory of Socialism in One country as opposed to the internationalist theory of Leon Trotsky would also help.

One of the main weaknesses of Parker’s book, which is well researched and useful is that it tends to present the only side of the debates that occurred between 1946- 56. There tends to have a pronounced nationalist feel to the book. Leaving the developments that took place in the former USSR out of the equation is a little like doing a history of the Bible and leaving Jesus out.

The historians and significant intellectuals that occupied the British Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG) in the 1940 and 1950s played an important and dare I say leading role in the study of British and World history throughout the 20th century. It is significant that in London’s National Portrait Gallery there used to hang a painting which has been described as “of seven people arranged on either side of a low table in a book-lined study”. They were historians, members of the editorial board of the journal Past & Present, which arose from the British Communist Party’s Historians’ Group”.

Eric Hobsbawm, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Christopher Hill, Victor Kiernan, George Rude, Raphael Samuel and Rodney Hilton to name a few were all moulded by the early strategic experiences of the 20th century, the depression of the 1930s, the Second World War and of course the Russian revolution. “For some, the group was, if not exactly a way of life, then at least a small cause, as well as a minor way of structuring leisure. For most it was also friendship,”  said Eric Hobsbawm.

The first seventy-odd pages provide the reader with a valuable introduction to the book. In this Parker attempts to give a picture of the relationship between the historian’s group and the Communist Party and its leading figures such as R Palme Dutt (See his Document 1 1940 Amended Draft The English Revolution 1640). It is evident from Parker’s book that there were significant differences between the historians on the class nature of the 17th Century English Revolution but also on other wide-ranging subjects.

The first major fault of the book is that you get no feel for the times the historians began writing in. These historians, in particular, were not writing in some academic vacuum. It should, therefore, be noted the historians and Hill, in particular, began writing their books and essays amid the Moscow Show Trials instigated by Stalin against all the old Bolsheviks.

Leon Trotsky, one of the chief defendants in the trials, had this to say “It is time, my listeners; it is high time, to recognise, finally, that a new aristocracy has been formed in the Soviet Union. The October Revolution proceeded under the banner of equality. The bureaucracy is the embodiment of monstrous inequality. The revolution destroyed the nobility. The bureaucracy creates new gentry. The revolution destroyed titles and decorations. The new aristocracy produces marshals and generals. The new aristocracy absorbs an enormous part of the national income. Its position before the people is deceitful and false. Its leaders are forced to hide the reality, to deceive the masses, to cloak themselves, calling black white. The whole policy of the new aristocracy is a frame-up.’ And “But it remains an incontestable historical fact that the preparation of the bloody judicial frame-ups had its inception in the “minor” historical distortions and innocent” falsification of citations. The bureaucracy found it indispensably necessary to adapt Bolshevism to its own needs. This could not be done otherwise than by corroding the soul of Bolshevism. To the revolutionary essence of Bolshevism, the bureaucracy gave the name of “Trotskyism.” Thus it created the spindle on which to wind in the future its falsifications in all the spheres of theory and practice”.[1]

None of this drama and the other main historical events that would impact on the lives and writings of the CPHG is touched on by Parker. Why? It is apparent to any person who has studied the period that the Popular Front Policy pursued by the Stalinists was an old millstone around the necks of the CPHG and would have a profound effect on the Communist Party History Group in the future. Yet again nothing is mentioned by Parker of this. Parker also fails to mention Leon Trotsky at all in the book.

Trotsky, after all, was the joint leader of the Russian revolution and wrote considerable amounts on this policy. His writings on the Spanish Civil War are some of his best. “The theoreticians of the Popular Front do not essentially go beyond the first rule of arithmetic, that is, addition: ‘Communists’ plus Socialists plus Anarchists plus liberals add up to a total which is greater than their respective isolated numbers. Such is all their wisdom. However, arithmetic alone does not suffice here. One needs as well at least mechanics. The law of the parallelogram of forces applies to politics as well. In such a parallelogram, we know that the resultant is shorter; the more component forces diverge from each other. When political allies tend to pull in opposite directions, the resultant proves equal to zero”. Continue “A bloc of divergent political groups of the working class is sometimes completely indispensable for the solution of common practical problems. In certain historical circumstances, such a bloc is capable of attracting the oppressed petty-bourgeois masses whose interests are close to the interests of the proletariat. The joint force of such a bloc can prove far stronger than the sum of the forces of each of its component parts.

On the contrary, the political alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose interests on basic questions in the present epoch diverge at an angle of 180 degrees, as a general rule, is capable only of paralysing the revolutionary force of the proletariat.” Civil war, in which the force of naked coercion is hardly effective, demands of its participants the spirit of supreme self-abnegation. The workers and peasants can assure victory only if they wage a struggle for their emancipation. Under these conditions, to subordinate the proletariat to the leadership of the bourgeoisie means beforehand to assure defeat in the civil war.”[2]

It does not take a tremendous leap of faith to work out that the origins of the concept of “history from below” instigated by the CPHG owe a lot to the Popular Front policy. That historians such as Hill, Rude and Morton were influenced by it was evident. Leslie Morton’s work, a People’s History of England, was the founding book of the group.[3]

From the beginning, there was a contradiction between the avocation of Popular Front politics and the historian’s group writing about Democratic groups such as the Levellers in the vein of history from below. The CPHG group tended glorify an unbroken historical line of English radicalism. This outlook permeated E P Thompson is the Making of the English Working Class, which portrays the English working class as inherently radical and therefore not needing a scientific perspective. A leading member of the Group, Dona Torr, decided to position Tom Mann in her study Tom Mann and his Times, as a figure that “was a late representative in a story of England’s long-running struggle “.

 For Ann Talbot “the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and modern leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr”. [4]

One striking aspect of the group was that none of them specialised in twentieth-century history.  More specifically, the experiences of the Russian revolution were never to be explored by the group apart from one book by Christopher Hill, which in reality was an apology for Stalinism. Again according to Talbot “In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too great to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena”. As Matt Perry correctly points out, the group had absolute academic freedom on the subject of English history pre 20th century because the CP had no official line on that period of history.

Hobsbawm was acutely aware that broaching the subject was largely taboo according to him “it raised some notoriously tricky problems”. According to one essay on the CPHG a study of the journal Our History between 1956 and 1992 showed there was not a single article dealing with any part of Soviet history. Having visited the Marx Memorial Library to check this statement out, I can say there was one article by Monty Johnson on Leon Trotsky in 1992. It is still a poor record nonetheless.

Eric Hobsbawm was the de facto leader of the groups. It would be fair to say that for good or bad Hobsbawm’s writings have shaped the world-historical view of a generation of students, academics and laypeople. He was born in 1917 in Alexandria, under the British protectorate of Egypt, just twenty years after the death of Marx. Hobsbawm was part of an extraordinary group of historians that took on many of the characteristics of a political party. It had membership subscriptions, a secretary and a chairman. He was the only one of the CP historians to write on the 20th century and the taboo subject of the Russian revolution. But this was done mainly after the group had collapsed.

Hobsbawm has gone on the record to say that he “wasn’t a Stalinist. I criticised Stalin and I cannot conceive how what I’ve written can be regarded as a defence of Stalin. But as someone who was a loyal Party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about a number of things about which it’s reasonable not to be silent – things I knew or suspected in the USSR. Why I stayed [in the Communist Party] is not a political question about communism, it’s a one-off biographical question. It wasn’t out of idealisation of the October Revolution. I’m not an idealiser. One should not delude oneself about the people or things one cares most about in one’s life. Communism is one of these things and I’ve done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and to its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the passion it aroused is particular to the twentieth century. It was a combination of the great hopes which were brought with progress and the belief in human improvement during the nineteenth century along with the discovery that the bourgeois society in which we live (however great and successful) did not work and at certain stages looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. And it did collapse and generated awful nightmares “.

According to the Marxist writer and expert on Leon Trotsky David North Hobsbawm’s writing on the Russian Revolution mainly portrays the revolution as being “doomed to failure” and a “fatal enterprise.” It leads to the assumption that the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the “Shipwreck of Socialism.”North admits Hobbawm has produced some excellent work but,” the subject of the Russian Revolution is dangerous territory for Professor Hobsbawm, for in this field his scholarship is compromised by his politics. Hobsbawm once confessed that as a member of the CPGB he had avoided writing about the Russian Revolution and the 20th century, because the political line of his party would have prevented him from being entirely truthful. Why he chose to remain a member of a party that would have compelled him to tell lies is a question to which he has never given a convincing answer. At any rate, it would have been best for him and no loss to the writing of history, had he continued to limit himself to events before 1900″.[5]

Here lies the tremendous contradiction at the heart of the group. Despite this handicap, it would be fair to say that without the fear of interference from the Stalinist bureaucracy the CPHG historians did try to examine “the early plebeian movements and utopian communists of the English revolutionary period as precursors of the modern socialist movement”. This was done by the CPHG largely in the spirit of Marx who in 1847 said “The first manifestation of an active communist party is contained within the bourgeois revolution, at the moment when the constitutional monarchy is eliminated. The most consistent Republicans – in England the Levellers, in France Babeuf, Buonarroti, were the first to proclaim these ‘social questions’.”

It was correct for the early Marxists to look at the first plebeian movements as precursors of the modern socialist movement. What needs to be clarified is what a modern socialist movement looks like. The CPHG historians alongside numerous radical groups did tend to glorify the spontaneous circulation of the “middling sort” and to link it to working-class struggles today as if there was some unbroken radical and democratic thread that would supersede the need for a scientifically grounded need for a revolutionary party.

To his credit, Parker also attempts to establish what kind of ‘Marxists’ were in the history group. He says their attempt to apply orthodox Marxist theory i.e. Historical Materialism to a study of the English Revolution was no easy task. He reviews other issues of methodology and the ’empiricism’ of the group. However, on this subject as with others, the biggest problem of the book is not so much what is in it as to what has been left out.

The group’s use of Marx was mainly mined from his work on historical materialism mostly from his Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. The group relied heavily on Engel’s’ correspondence in the 1890s which was translated by Historians Group member Dona Torr. Despite the attempts at absorbing the Marxist method, the group was also prone to a type of empirical methodology which would primarily stem from the influence of Stalinism.

This methodology was confirmed by E P Thompson, who described the group’s approach as “quaintly empirical.” I am not condemning all the work of the historians as empirical that would be inaccurate as they produced some of the most outstanding historiographies of any generation, but it does show the handicap they were working under.David Parker’s collection of the internal discussions of the British Communist Party Historians Group in the 1940s-50s provides only a partial record of debates within the group despite this you get an inkling on the tremendous ideological pressure that was exerted by the CPGB and the Soviet Communist Party on the CPHG. Parker refuses to believe that Stalin’s theory of socialism in a Single Country which ran in contradiction to Trotsky’s theory of an international revolution had a profound impact on the history writing and research of the history group. Stalin’s writings also had a significant impact on the History group. Hill for instance sided with Stalin over the debate on Pokrovsky. The Stalinist’s in the late 1930s used the controversy over Pokrovsky to attack Trotsky. Again Parker mentions none of this. His portrayal of the debate over Pokrovsky is one-sided.

If Parker did not understand the role, Stalin played Leon Trotsky did “In what way did Stalin’s theoretical work express itself? In nothing. All he did was to exploit his fellow-traveller theorists, in the interests of the new ruling caste. He will enter into the annals of the history of “thought” only as of the organiser of the greatest school of falsification. But for this very reason Stalin, more truly and comprehensively than anybody else, expresses the ideological physiognomy of the new ruling stratum. Each theoretical formula of anti-Trotskyism (whether it involved Zinoviev, Bukharin or Pokrovsky) became at the very next stage an intolerable burden to the new masters of the situation. Official “theory” is today transformed into a blank sheet of paper on which the unfortunate theoreticians reverently trace the contours of the Stalinist boot. Retreating with seven league strides from its Bolshevik past, the bureaucracy at first devoured at each successive stage its own theoreticians. Nowadays that is no longer adequate. The bureaucracy cannot be reconciled with anything but the destruction of the entire old generation of Bolsheviks. Such is the consummation of the Soviet Thermidor!”

The English Revolution has been written on quite extensively down the years by many of the great Marxist thinkers. Parker’s book gives the reader a chance to evaluate to what extent the CPHG applied orthodox Marxism to their studies of the English Revolution. It must be said that some did a better job than others.In 1850 Marx and Engel’s reviewed a pamphlet, entitled why did the English Revolution succeed? It was written as a polemic against the historian M Guizot in it they said Guizot “finds it superfluous to mention that the subjection of the crown to parliament meant subjection to the rule of a class. Nor does he think it necessary to deal with the fact that this class won the necessary power in order finally to make the crown its servant. According to him, the whole struggle between Charles I and parliament was merely over purely political privileges. Not a word is said about why the parliament, and the class represented in it, needed these privileges. Nor does Guizot talk about Charles I’s interference with free competition, which made England’s commerce and industry increasingly impossible; nor about the dependence on parliament into which Charles I, in his continuous need for money, fell the more deeply, the more he tried to defy it.” “The English class of great landowners, allied with the bourgeoisie – which, incidentally, had already developed under Henry VIII – did not find itself in opposition, as did the French feudal landowners in 1789, but rather in complete harmony with the vital requirements of the bourgeoisie. In fact, their lands were not feudal, but bourgeois property. On the one hand, they were able to provide the industrial bourgeoisie with the manpower necessary for manufacturing, and on the other they were able to develop agriculture to the standards consonant with industry and commerce. Thus their common interests with the bourgeoisie, thus their alliance with it.”

One of the most important points made by Marx and Engel’s is that England passed from what amounted to a feudal country into the early stages of a bourgeois country in the 17th century. This analysis was common coin amongst other Marxist thinkers of both the 19th and 20th century. In Karl Kautsky’s ‘Revolutions, past and present’ (1906), and also in Trotsky’s Where is Britain Going? (1926). Trotsky wrote “In the England of the 1640s we see a parliament based on the most whimsical franchise, which at the same time regarded itself as the representative organ of the people. The lower house represented the nation in that it represented the bourgeoisie and thereby national wealth. In the reign of Charles I it was found, and not without amazement, that the House of Commons was three times richer than the House of Lords. The king now dissolved this parliament and now recalled it according to the pressure of financial need. Parliament created an army for its defence. The army gradually concentrated in its ranks all the most active, courageous and resolute elements. As a direct consequence of this, parliament capitulated to this army. We say, “as a direct consequence,” but by this we wish to say that parliament capitulated not simply to armed force (it did not capitulate to the King’s army) but to the Puritan army of Cromwell which expressed the requirements of the revolution more boldly, more resolutely and more consistently than did parliament.

“The adherents of the Episcopal or Anglican, semi-Catholic Church were the party of the court, the nobility and of course the higher clergy. The Presbyterians were the party of the bourgeoisie, the party of wealth and enlightenment. The Independents and the Puritans especially, were the party of the petty bourgeoisie, the plebeians. Wrapped up in ecclesiastical controversies, in the form of a struggle over the religious structure of the church, there took place a social self-determination of classes and their re-grouping along new, bourgeois lines. Politically the Presbyterian party stood for a limited monarchy; the Independents, who then were called “root and branch men” or, in the language of our day, radicals, stood for a republic. The half-way position of the Presbyterians fully, corresponded to the contradictory interests of the bourgeoisie – between the nobility and the plebeians. 

The Independents” party which dared to carry its ideas and slogans through to their conclusion naturally displaced the Presbyterians among the awakening petty-bourgeois masses in the towns and the countryside that formed the main force of the revolution”.Hill’s absorption of Marx (we do not know if he studied Trotsky)and application of Historical materialism enabled him in the words of Ann Talbot identify “the mid-seventeenth century crisis as a revolution, which in the case of Britain overthrew the rule of one class and brought another to power. Secondly he recognised that revolutions are made by the mass of the population and that for a revolution to take place the consciousness of that mass of people must change, since revolutions are not made by a few individuals at the top although the character of their leadership is crucial at certain points. These achievements were considerable at the time and are of continuing relevance today when historians increasingly reject any severe economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators”.

Perhaps the most important discussion that took place and which dominated all the groups was the discussion over the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.Christopher Hill’s essay The English Revolution of 1640 was the catalyst for a wide-ranging and divisive battle within the groups and beyond. Some  Stalinists which included leading historians inside the group and leading members of the central committee of the Communist party took exception to Hill’s characterisation of the English Revolution as ‘Bourgeois.’ They, therefore, opposed the conception that the 1640s revolution represented major a turning point in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Anyone who sided with Hill’s position was accused of “Hillism.” [6]

As I said earlier, Parker downplays the influence that the CPSU had on politics and actual discussion inside the CPHG. In reality, the official line on all “revolutions” was dictated directly or indirectly by Joseph Stalin. The fact that Parker uncritically presents quotes from his work in his choice of documents is a testament to this.Stalin’s position as advanced in 1924 was that socialism could be built in the Soviet Union using its national reserves. Not caring that this position would have catastrophic consequences for the socialist revolution internationally and according to David North “represented a fundamental revision of the perspective that had guided the Soviet leadership and the Communist International under Lenin. This divorcing of the prospects for the Soviet Union from the development of the world socialist revolution likewise constituted a frontal assault on the theory of permanent revolution, upon which the October Revolution of 1917 had been based”.

Stalin’s position on the October revolution was primarily a Menshevik one in that the revolution could not leap over the bourgeois-democratic stage of its development and called for limited support to the bourgeois Provisional Government. He opposed Trotsky’s theory that the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution could only be achieved by the working class taking power and building their state.How did this theory interfere with the debate over Hill’s position? One of the more overt attacks on Hill’s conception of the revolution was by Victor Kiernan who argued that the revolution of 1640 “was not a decisive turning point” because it was spread over several centuries. While it is true the revolution was spread over centuries the denial of a watershed has less to do with the debate over the transition from feudalism to capitalism and more to do with the political line of the CPGB at the time. During the high point of the discussion, the Communist Party of Great Britain adopted its “British Road to Socialism” which saw the development of socialism as a purely national event that happened gradually rather through violent revolution. 

Another remarkable aspect of the transition debate was the fact that a number of the arguments marshalled against Hill by his fellow historians were adopted in some form by early and current day revisionist historians.  Conrad Russell refused to believe that a revolution took place during the 17th century. German Stalinist Jurgen Kuchynski described the 1640 revolution somewhat bizarrely as an attempted feudal counter-revolution. Kuchynski also put forward that Tudor England was already capitalist. In his book Parker quotes him describing Queen Elizabeth I was “the most prominent capitalist in capitalist bourgeois society” (p32) His theory is not a million miles away from several revisionist historians who contend that the 1640s saw a “noble’s revolt” against the monarchy.

Debates took place over the correct Marxist usage of the term feudalism. It took a long while before Hill’s definition was accepted. Hill explained his reasoning “I use the word feudal in the Marxist sense, and not in the more restricted sense adopted by most academic historians to describe narrowly military and legal relations. By “feudalism” I mean a form of society in which agriculture is the basis of economy and in which political power is monopolised by a class of landowners. The mass of the population consists of dependent peasants subsisting on the produce of their family holdings. The owners are maintained by the rent paid by the peasants, which might be in the form of food or labour, as in early days, or (by the sixteenth century) in money. In such a society, there is room for small handicraft production, exchange of products, internal and overseas trade; but commerce and industry are subordinated to and plundered’ by the landowners and their state. Merchant capital can develop within feudalism without changing the mode of production; a challenge to the old ruling class and its state comes only with the development of the capitalist mode of production in industry and agriculture”. [7]

This leads me onto another debate over the term Merchant capital. One of the charges against Pokrovsky was that he believed that merchant capitalism was a mode of production and therefore Merchant capitalist was the prominent motor force of the revolution. They made up the most relevant section of the bourgeoisie. Pokrovsky was wrong, but this is not the place to analyse his theory suffice to say that his conception of merchant capitalism came under ferocious attack inside the Soviet Union. Stalin saw it as a threat to the theory of socialism in one country theory. He was labelled mistakenly a Trotskyist which he was no. It did not seem to bother the Stalinists that Trotsky opposed Pokrovsky theories as essentially ill-defined and borrowed from Marx and was taken out of context.

In his history of the Russian revolution, he wrote “Pokrovsky has published an article dedicated to my book: 1905, which demonstrates – negatively, alas! – What a complicated matter it is to apply methods of historic materialism to living human history, and what a rubber-stamp affair is often made out of history even by such deeply erudite people as Pokrovsky. The book which Pokrovsky criticises was directly called out by a desire to establish historically and justify theoretically the slogan of the conquest of power by the proletariat, as against the slogan of a bourgeois-democratic republic, and also that of a democratic government of the proletariat and the peasantry … This line of thought produced a very great theoretic indignation on the part of no small number of Marxists, indeed an overwhelming majority of them. Those who expressed this anger were not only Mensheviks, but also Kamenev and Rozhkov (a Bolshevik-historian). 

Their point of view in broad outlines was as follows: The political rule of the bourgeoisie must precede the political rule of the proletariat; the bourgeois-democratic republic must be prolonged historic schooling for the proletariat; the attempt to jump over this stage is adventurism; if the working class in the West has not yet conquered the power, how can the Russian proletariat set itself this task? etc., etc. From the point of view of this pseudo-Marxism, which confines itself to historical mechanisms, formal analogies, converting historic epochs into a logical succession of inflexible social categories (feudalism, capitalism, socialism, autocracy, bourgeois republic, dictatorship of the proletariat) – from this point of view the slogan of the conquest of power by the working class in Russia must have seemed a monstrous departure from Marxism. However, a serious empirical evaluation of the social forces as they stood in 1903 – 05 powerfully suggested the entire viability of a struggle for a conquest of power by the working class. Is this a peculiarity, or is it not? Does it assume profound characteristics in the whole historical development or does it not? How it does come that such a task arose before the proletariat of Russia – that is, the most backward (with Pokrovsky’s permission) country of Europe?

If Parker is planning another book on the subject, he could no better than a systematic study of the debates in the Former USSR. This work would have shed a not unsubstantial light on this theme of the CPHG. Parker’s book is not an easy read. For the casual reader, it is almost a nightmare. But for a careful, methodical and political nuanced reader it is a window of opportunity to carry out some serious study of a crucial period. Parker only really presents one side of the debate. However, David Parker’s book is an important but flawed contribution to this discussion. 



[1]Leon Trotsky –The Stalin School of Falsification-Foreword to the American Edition
[2] Leon Trotsky Writings on the Spanish Revolution- Pathfinder Press.]
(3)Morton’s book was first published in the 1930s. The Communist Party Historians Group first began to meet after the war to inform the argument of the second edition.
[4] “These the times … this is the man”: an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill Ann Talbot.
[5] Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the 20th Century A Reply to Professor Eric Hobsbawm By David North 3 January 1998
[6] Document 12 (1947) the Basis and Character of Tudor Absolutism
[7] The English Revolution of 1640 C Hill

Review: Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History by Richard J Evans-Little Brown-2019

Richard J Evans new biography of the Communist Party historian Eric Hobsbawm is a significant publishing event. It is hard to believe that Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History is the first orthodox biography of such a distinguished historian and leading member of a group of Communist Party historians who have been a dominant historical force for past fifty or so years.

Evans is an interesting choice for Hobsbawm’s biographer. The book on Hobsbawm is well outside his comfort zone as previously he has concentrated on modern German History. Having said that it is pretty clear from reading the biography that Evans is a safe pair of hands. Evans was given unrestricted access to Hobsbawm’s private archive and is mostly in awe of his subject so much so that he never really challenges Hobsbawm’s clear Stalinist world view. As Evans says “I was too much in awe of him to become a good friend”. The more I have read his writings, the more I have come to admire and respect him not just as a historian but as a person.”

While portrayed as “Marxist intellectual” Hobsbawm was a ideas historian or political historian. In his tenure in the Communist Party Historians Group(CPHG), he was encouraged to become an “empirical historian”. To his credit Hobsbawm fought against this and as he put it: “I would like most to describe myself as a kind of guerrilla historian, who does not so much march directly towards his goal behind the artillery fire of the archives, as attack it from the flanking bushes with the Kalashnikov of ideas [1]

Hobsbawm once wrote that he came to history through Marxism rather than the other way around. In Interesting Times Hobsbawm credits the Communist Party for providing him with camaraderie and fellowship. The CP further polished his early acceptance of Stalinism, and to paraphrase Gerry Healy, Hobsbawm kept one “soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism”.His membership of the Party as cited in Evan’s book did not always help his academic career. Quite extraordinary in the book and public recently Evans plays down the extent Hobsbawm’s life was damaged by his membership of the CP. It is worth reading both Evans book and Hobsbawm’s Interesting Times together.

Reading both it is clear that despite his Stalinism Hobsbawm is an impressive writer. Sharp and unbridgeable political differences aside his autobiography does have a striking similarity to Leon Trotsky’s My Life.One writer went so far as to say that “ Hobsbawm’s significance goes beyond the structure of his books. In his writings on European history, he covered the whole range of the continent’s civilisation, from politics to the economy, and social and cultural life. He also placed Europe within a broader global context. The absence of chronology might have been disturbing to non-academic readers, but he wrote with verve, flashing insights, arresting ideas and lucid prose. As he set out in one of his most popular books, The Age of Revolution, the economy — or the mode of production — determined everything else. In this manner, he brought a Marxist interpretation to a wide readership”.

Hobsbawm’s embrace of the already Stalinist British Communist Party is a complex issue. One however Evans is not really up to the task solving. It is pretty clear that Evans has no real understanding of the complex political issues that led to the CP’s break with Marxism and has only a cursory understanding of the Russian Revolution and its betrayal by Stalinism. This is not helped by Evans own hostility towards Trotskyism.Hobsbawm cites many reasons for his joining the CP. He had a lonely childhood and was always on the move. The CP became to some extent a substitute family who gave him security and friendship. However, more importantly, Hobsbawm was attached to its politics. Hobsbawm was always on the right wing of the party, and that took some doing. He shared with the Stalinist British Communist Party two significant things, one was a deep hostility to Trotskyism, and secondly, he was incredibly dismissive of the revolutionary capacity of the working class. Hobsbawm would retain these two interrelated perspectives to his dying days.

Hobsbawm, CPHG, MI5

Evans plays down MI5’s close attention to the CP and the Communist Party historians in particular. Hobsbawm and large numbers of CP members, their wives, husbands and friends were spied on. Spending a few days at the National Archives at Kew it is clear that this was not only a considerable operation but was conducted by leading members of MI5 and was orchestrated by leading members of the British ruling elite.The files themselves need a substantial book-length investigation. Evans believes that Hobsbawm despite being under constant surveillance had help from a social circle of friends that not only were members of the British secret service but were sympathetic if not actual members of the CP. How else would Hobsbawm get a US visa at a time when Communists were barred from the country.

It was during the 1940s that Hobsbawm came to the attention of MI5, the domestic intelligence service. Among others being watched was a large number of historians involved in the Communist Party Historians groups such as the likes of AL Morton, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton and E.P Thompson.According to the Guardian “The files show that Hobsbawm, who became one of Britain’s most respected historians and was made a Companion of Honour while Tony Blair was prime minister, first came to the notice of MI5 in 1942 when he and 38 colleagues were described as being “obvious members of the CPGB [the Communist Party of Great Britain] on Merseyside”. He became number 211,764 on MI5’s index of personal files. Although he was cleared of “suspicion of engaging in subversive activities or propaganda in the army”, MI5 noted it was doubtful that he would be suitable for the Intelligence Corps. Roger Hollis, later head of MI5, and Valentine Vivian, the deputy chief of MI6, prevented him from joining the Foreign Office’s political intelligence department”.[2]

The origins of the CPHG are many fold and complex. The group included Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Victor Kiernan, George Rudé, Raphael Samuel, John Saville, and Dorothy and EP Thompson. It would be true to say that the lives of these historians “mirrored the great events of the twentieth century”.Many of the historians who later became internationally recognised historians in their own right were first inspired by the book A Peoples History of Britain by A. L Morton to form a group that would examine “history from Below” or “peoples history” as it was commonly known. Another intellectual inspiration came from the historian R H Tawney and his “Social History” school. Later on, the group would be heavily influenced by the  French Annales school. The collaboration between the CP historians and the Annales school would produce the groundbreaking journal Past and Present. The journal attracted distinguished scholars such as Moses Finley, Lawrence Stone and John Elliott who joined CP members Hill, Hilton, Thompson.

Hobsbawm, of course, was part of this extraordinary group of historians. The Communist Party Historians Group took on many of the characteristics of a political party. It had membership subscriptions, a secretary and a chairman. It was not a homogenous group, and most of the historians were radicalised in the 1930s by the rise of Fascism and the oncoming Second World War.  Having researched this period In Hobsbawm’s life and having unrestricted access to his files Evans comes up with the preposterous statement that he did not think Hobsbawm was a Stalinist. What is more unbelievable is that Hobsbawm himself did not believe he was a Stalinist. Saying he “was not a Stalinist. I criticised Stalin, and I cannot conceive how what I have written can be regarded as a defence of Stalin. However, as someone who was a loyal Party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about many things about which it is reasonable not to be silent – things I knew or suspected in the USSR. Why I stayed [in the Communist Party] is not a political question about communism, it is a one-off biographical question. It was not out of idealisation of the October Revolution. I am not an idealiser. One should not delude oneself about the people or things one cares most about in one’s life. Communism is one of these things, and I have done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the passion it aroused is specific to the twentieth century. It was a combination of the great hopes which were brought with progress and the belief in human improvement during the nineteenth century along with the discovery that the bourgeois society in which we live (however great and successful) did not work and at certain stages looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. Moreover, it did collapse and generated awful nightmares “.[3]

From an international standpoint, the CPHG was probably the most important collection of historians ever to write and study on a variety of subjects. For the subject of the English revolution, it produced one of its foremost historians Christopher Hill. It would be fair to say that these historians books have shaped the world-historical view of a generation of students, academics, and lay people. However, the historians would pay a heavy price for their membership of the CP As Ann Talbot explains  “In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too high to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena. “It is notable that of the Marxist Historians Group Hill wrote on the seventeenth century, Thompson on the eighteenth century, Hobsbawm mostly on the nineteenth century and Hilton on the Middle Ages. However, none of them specialised in the twentieth century. In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too great to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena. It is notable that E.H. Carr, who was never a member of the Communist Party but wrote on the history of the Russian Revolution and expressed high regard for Trotsky, was for long periods unemployed and unemployable because his views clashed with those on both the left and right of British academic life”.[4]

Hobsbawm was acutely aware that broaching the subject of the 20th century and especially the Russian Revolution was largely taboo. According to Hobsbawm “it raised some notoriously tricky problems”. A simple study of the journal Our History between 1956 and 1992 showed there was not a single article dealing with any part of Soviet history would confirm this. Hobsbawm was one of the few CP historians to write in the 20th century and the taboo subject of the Russian revolution. However, this was done mainly after the group had collapsed.When Hill wrote his book Lenin and the Russian Revolution, it was attacked by John Gollan for not being sufficiently hostile towards Leon Trotsky, Gollan wrote “Because of this completely insufficient attention was paid to the history of the Communist Party and the struggle around policy in the period immediately before and during Lenin’s illness and death. Hence the role of Stalin as Lenin’s successor, his struggle against Trotskyism are not brought out. In his references to Trotsky, Comrade Hill correctly presents Lenin’s criticism of Trotsky’s role at decisive periods of the revolution.

However, Lenin did not and could not know that Trotsky and his confederates, already in those days were wreckers and plotters criminally associated with foreign powers. Stalin succeeded to Lenin’s leadership, not only because of his mastery of Lenin’s teachings, but because of his record in the pre-revolutionary days, his editorship of Pravda, his work on the national question, his leadership in the insurrection, the decisive role entrusted to him by Lenin in the Civil War, and above all, his leadership of the Party in the critical tense period of Lenin’s illness and death. If this had been done Trotsky’s “History” could never have been included in the bibliography”.[5]

The Russian Revolution, Socialism and Stalinism

Several reviews of Evans book have touched upon Hobsbawm’s scepticism towards achieving Socialism. One writer puts it “Whenever he speaks about socialism, Professor Hobsbawm is plunged into the deepest pessimism. However, when he speaks of the prospects for capitalism, he immediately perks up and expresses his complete confidence in its prospects”.
It is clear from the early days of his membership in the CP Hobsbawm never really believed that the working class could overthrow capitalism in a revolutionary way. At best it could hope for is to ameliorate the worst aspects of capitalism and put its faith in a reformist labour government.Responding to a question about the relationship between the state and economy Hobsbawm states “Yes, as long as you understand that the economy is not an end in itself, but affects humans. It can be seen by looking at the progress of the crisis. According to the antiquated beliefs of the Left, the crisis is likely to produce revolutions. We have not seen this (except for some angry protests). Moreover, since we do not know what problems are going to arise, we cannot know what the solution will be.” State Capitalism? “It is not obvious that capitalism could function without institutions such as Welfare. Welfare is usually managed by the State. Therefore I think that state capitalism has a great future.”

This last quote is one of the reasons that it is problematical to label Hobsbawm a Marxist. Hobsbawm is very cynical when criticises the “the antiquated beliefs of the Left”. These beliefs are nothing more than a defence of Classical Marxism. A form of Marxism Hobsbawm abandoned when he entered the CP.This hostility towards the “the antiquated beliefs of the Left” was expressed in its sharpest expression in Hobsbawm’s attitude towards the Russian revolution. An attitude supported by Evans in his book.

Hobsbawm’s viewpoint on the Russian revolution is that it was “doomed to failure” and a “fatal enterprise”. Hobsbawm’s pessimism was picked up by the conservative Economist magazine which gloated in its obituary of Hobsbawm “Communism collapsed ‘so completely ‘that it must now be apparent that failure was built into this enterprise from the start”.According to the Marxist writer David North ”the subject of the Russian Revolution is dangerous territory for Professor Hobsbawm, for in this field his scholarship is compromised by his politics. Hobsbawm once confessed that as a member of the CPGB he had avoided writing about the Russian Revolution and the 20th century because the political line of his party would have prevented him from being entirely truthful. Why he chose to remain a member of a party that would have compelled him to tell lies is a question to which he has never given a convincing answer. At any rate, it would have been best for him and no loss to the writing of history, had he continued to limit himself to events before 1900”?

The Moscow Trials

Throughout his entire career, Hobsbawm defended the worse aspects of Stalinism. Of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, he thought that Stalin made “a wise move”. Even more sickeningly he said it was “surely not easy” for Feliks Dzierżyński (founder of the Soviet secret police) to have people shot, an “objective cruelty” that was justified by “belief in the proletariat and the future of the movement”.

Hobsbawm defended his Stalinism in this reply to, Assistant Secretary of the Communist Party, George Matthews; he wrote: “We have presented the facts wrong or failed to face them, and unfortunately, though we have kidded few other people, we have kidded ourselves. I do not mean primarily the facts revealed at the Twentieth Congress and others of the kind. Many of us had strong suspicions about them, amounting to a moral certainty, for years before Khrushchev spoke, and I am amazed Comrade Matthews had none. There were overwhelming reasons at the time for keeping quiet, and we were right in doing so. No, the facts we failed to face are those about Britain, our tasks and our mistakes”.[6]

It comes as no surprise that Hobsbawm defended the Moscow Trials. The trials saw the frame up and murder of not only all the leading members of the Bolshevik party but hundreds of thousands of workers who took part and defended the October revolution.British Stalinists like Hobsbawm defended the trial and other British Stalinists like  Campbell and Pritt wrote whole books in their defence. The British Daily Worker produced headlines like “Shoot the reptiles!” People on trial were “a festering, cankering sore’, and we echo fervently the workers’ verdict: Shoot the reptiles!”[7]

The repercussions of the trials were felt all over the world as Fred Williams wrote “the Moscow Trials and the blood purges that followed had a devastating impact, virtually annihilating the socialist elements in the working class and intelligentsia. The trials paved the way for the betrayals and defeats that followed—the suppression of the French general strike, the defeat of the Spanish Revolution, the Stalin-Hitler pact, the suppression of the postwar revolutionary upsurge—all of which culminated in Stalinism’s final betrayal, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the restoration of capitalism”.[8]It hardly comes as no further surprise that Evans and Hobsbawm relegate Leon Trotsky and Trotskyism to a minor historical role in both their books. Terry Eagleton points out, Hobsbawm and Evans for that matter consign “one of the most fertile currents of modern Marxism – Trotskyism – to a few casual asides”.[9]

Hobsbawm and the Labour Party

When Hobsbawm decided to write on the Labour Party or Labour history he had already drawn very pessimistic conclusions from the post-war defeats suffered by the working class which his party along with the trade union leadership and the Labour Party had organised.Hobsbawm had very close political ties to the Labour Party and was even made– a Companion of Honour by a Labour government. A rarity for a historian especially of his political persuasion. Hobsbawm was lauded from both sides of bourgeois democracy in Britain. Labour leader Ed Miliband said Prof Hobsbawm was “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of his family”. His historical works brought hundreds of years of British history to hundreds of thousands of people. He brought history out of the ivory tower and into people’s lives. However, he was not simply academic; he cared deeply about the political direction of the country. Indeed, he was one of the first people to recognise the challenges to Labour in the late 1970s and 1980s from the changing nature of our society.”

In this respect, Milliband says more than he intended. Hobsbawm was a principal theoretical architect of the right wing shift of New Labour. During his membership of the “Eurocommunist” wing of the CPGB and his time with the Marxism Today’s theoretical journal, he wrote many articles urging labour to adopt a more right-wing trajectory. In 1978 he wrote the essay “The Forward March of Labour Halted”. Which in many ways laid the basis for Labours future development? “If anything, I was an extremely right-wing Communist and generally attacked by the leftists, including the leftists in the Labour Party”.

Hobsbawm’s relationship with the origins of New Labour was explored in an article by Chris Marsden which revealed Stalinism’s role in spawning new Labour. Marsden said the Communist Party of Great Britain Euro-Communist tendency acted as the midwife of New Labour.Marsden writes that the “ideological framework for what was to become New Labour was first established in the editorial offices of Marxism Today. Moreover, it was mostly made possible to implement the project so defined due above all to the liquidation of the Soviet Union”.Hobsbawm had no real faith in the revolutionary capacity of the working class as can be seen in his Marx Memorial Lecture in 1978 The Forward March of Labour Halted. 
Marsden says “Hobsbawm too began by asserting that the crisis of the labour movement could be attributed to the decline of the working class itself. His evidence for this mainly consisted of a presentation of the fall in the number of workers employed in heavy industry and the supposedly concomitant fall in support for the Labour and Communist parties. He then argued that industrial militancy had failed to provide an answer to the failures of the Labour government of the time.

Hobsbawm’s lecture was not just unconvincing. It was an attempt to provide an apologia for the betrayal of the working class by Labour and the TUC. He was writing after the election of a Labour government in 1974 as a result of a mass militant movement that culminated in the downfall of the previous Conservative government of Edward Heath. After making sure minimal concessions to the miners, who had led that campaign, Labour had proceeded to implement austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund and, when this produced a significant decline in its support amongst workers, had formed a coalition with the Liberal Party in order to continue with its attacks. Hobsbawm responded to this by blaming the working class—and identifying a supposed decline in its numerical strength—for Labour’s loss of support”.Despite Hobsbawm’s fawning support of Labourism some of his work on Labour history is still worth reading, and much of it was groundbreaking. As historian Norah Carlin put it “his studies of early nineteenth-century machine-breaking, Primitive Methodism, and general unions in Britain, for example, broke new ground and inspired a generation of Marxist labour historians”.

In examining the history of the British Labour movement, Hobsbawm discounted the possibility of a Marxist Party being established in the working class or as Norah Carlin puts it “Hobsbawm became so convinced that the dead weight of tradition on the British labour movement was irremovable?.In rejecting the ‘heroic moral epic’ style of labour history and deciding to concentrate on the long-term social and economic background of the movement, Hobsbawm ruled all revolutionary and near-revolutionary situations out of consideration. Thus he has very little to say about the high points of working-class struggle such as Chartism, the peak of the new unions in 1889-93, the waves of militancy of 1910-14 and 1919, or the General Strike of 1926”.

Hobsbawm’s Body of work

There is no denying that Hobsbawm was an exceptionally gifted historian. He had an aptitude for writing in an accessible manner while retaining a robust academic rigour. If he had concentrated on writing about any other century than the 20th century, then this article would have taken a different course. However, he did not and much of his work written in the 20th century was influenced by his membership of the Stalinist British Communist Party.Hobsbawm core body of work was the Tetralogy. Hobsbawm understood in embarking on such a wide-ranging study that he was writing separate books but was, in essence, writing a history of the 19th century. Hobsbawm’s first book of the Tetralogy The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 while maintaining a very high academic standard was written for a broad audience. There followed The Age of Capital, 1848–1875 (1975), The Age of Empire, 1875–1914 (1987), and finally The Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (1994).

As one writer puts it “Hobsbawm gained a global reputation after his first bestseller, The Age of Revolution was published by George Weidenfeld in 1962. In it, he jettisoned the customary political narrative. Instead, he provided a thematic, analytical account of the politics, economy, society, culture, the arts and sciences of Europe. In truth, the book’s perspective was mostly Franco-British, for its two ruling themes were the global impact of the French political revolution of 1789 and Britain’s contemporaneous industrial revolution. Hobsbawm gained a global reputation after his first bestseller, The Age of Revolution, was published by George Weidenfeld in 1962. In it, he jettisoned the customary political narrative. Instead, he provided a thematic, analytical account of the politics, economy, society, culture, the arts and sciences of Europe. In truth, the book’s perspective was mostly Franco-British, for its two ruling themes were the global impact of the French political revolution of 1789 and Britain’s contemporaneous industrial revolution. However, Hobsbawm projected European ideas into global history with a brio that seemed new and bracing. The book has never gone out of print and has been translated into 18 languages, including Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew and Japanese.

Conclusion

Hobsbawm was not an orthodox Marxist, but he was a great historian. This contradiction would be the theme for a great PhD thesis. Politically speaking Hobsbawm was closer to social democracy and the conservative side of the Labour Party than to Marxism.The harsh tone of this article should not take anything away from Hobsbawm’s historical writing especially pre the 20th century, but you cannot separate his historical writing from his politics. You can take the man out of Stalinism, but you can’t take Stalinism out of the man.Hobsbawm ended his days as a Liberal Democrat the logical political outcome of his earlier Stalinism. The Hobsbawm’s had a house in Hampstead and maintained a holiday cottage in the Brecon and Radnor constituency where he voted for the Lib Dems. He also died a very wealthy man, a Companion of Honour and a member of private members club Athenaeum and a small shareholder in Shell. Not the epitath most Marxists would want.

Further Reading
1. Hobsbawm, Eric J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
2. Martin Jacques: embittered British Stalinist pronounces on the death of the “left “Part One By Chris Marsden15 December 2004
3. Martin Jacques: embittered British Stalinist pronounces on the death of the “left”Part Two By Chris Marsden16 December 2004
4. Essays on Historical Materialism edited by John Rees Booksmarks.1998
5. Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the 20th Century A Reply to Professor Eric Hobsbawm By David North 3 January 1998.
6. “These the times … this the man”: an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill By Ann Talbot 25 March 2003
7. A Life With No Apology By Sarah Lyall
8. Professor Eric Hobsbawm Interview Transcript London, 17 June 2008 Interview was conducted for the project ‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’.
9. Interview with Maya Jaggi published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002.
10. For an alternative view of life in Germany in the 1930s see, And Red is the Colour of Our Flag: Memories of Sixty Years in the Workers’ Movement






[1] https://www.ft.com/content/7cd0c6e2-22f6-11e9-b20d-5376ca5216eb
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/24/mi5-spied-historians-eric-hobsbawm-christopher-hill-secret-files
[3]Man of the extreme century-Tristram Hunt- https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/sep/22/history.politicalbooks
[4] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html
[5] John Gollan-An Historian on the Russian Revolution-https://www.marxists.org/archive/gollan/1948/02/historian.htm
[6] World News, 26 January 1957
[7] (Daily Worker, 24 August 1936)
[8] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/09/01/pers-s01.html
[9] (London Review of Books- March 2011

Eric Hobsbawm-A Life in History-Richard J. Evans in conversation with Martin Jacques and Donald Sassoon

To mark the publication of Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History (Little, Brown) by Richard J. Evans, the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck and the Institute of Historical Research  held a meeting on 7th February 2019.The publication of A Life in History is a significant event, and the book deserves a wide readership. The meeting itself contained no surprises and minimal controversy. The most exciting part of the evening happened before the event.

People entering the meeting were met by workers protesting at the deplorable conditions faced by outsourced workers at Britains leading universities, Birkbeck included. The protestors had called for a boycott of the meeting. Evans was accused of ignoring the boycott by holding the meeting.

According to his Twitter account, Evans has sent out contradictory statements regarding the boycott, In one of his latest tweets he said  “At the launch of my ‘Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History’ yesterday at London’s Senate House last night, I took a bundle of the protesters’ leaflets into the meeting so people could read them. I am sure we all support the end of outsourcing labour there. I certainly do. I think it is right that outsourced labour should be brought under the aegis of the University of London and given the same working terms and conditions as those employed by the university directly. I understand that the university is making efforts to do this.” 

However, in an earlier tweet, he states “Misleading press reports on last night’s launch of my “Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History -undermining-workers-protest …. Hobsbawm would not have approved of the protest, which was mounted by a small sectarian group unaffiliated with the TUC. It was not a picket line mounted by workers”.Maritza Castillo Calle,

University of London branch chairwoman of the IWGB union,  said “It is disappointing that these respected academics chose to ignore the boycott in order to talk about a Marxist historian that we are sure would be on our side in this struggle,
 Castillo Calle said the boycott was “a last resort following countless strikes”. She added: “We hope the stand taken by our supporters will make university management finally see sense.”Calle’s point is valid. The meeting could have spent some time discussing the issue. Evans said he would “bring it to the attention of the meeting. However, Evan’s, regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University, did not open such discussion at the meeting. A statement from Birkbeck University said the institution was “strongly supportive of the University of London’s decision to bring currently outsourced staff into direct employment of the university – a process which is currently underway

A comment disputed by an  IWGB spokesman who said “The bulk of outsourced workers – including maintenance, cleaners and catering – will remain outsourced at least until their contracts are up for tender in 2019, 2020 and 2021. At that point, an in-house bid will be presented alongside other commercial bids, leaving the door open for the workers to remain outsourced indefinitely.”

The meeting itself was a disappointment. The discussion held between Richard J. Evans author of The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, Martin Jacques Editor of Marxism Today from 1977 to 1991 and Donald Sassoon author of One Hundred Years of Socialism was polite, jovial. Given that Hobsbawm was an extraordinarily complex and controversial figure most of the issues that made him so were not discussed. One of these issues was Hobsbawm’s attitude towards the 1917 Russian revolution.

To what extent this was deliberately avoided is open to debate but given that Eric Hobsbawm (1917–2012) was one of the most influential historians of the twentieth century his views on one of the most important events of the Long Twentieth Century are essential.A member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, he wrote extensively on the modern history of Europe and the world, notably on the rise of industrial capitalism, nationalism, and the socialist movement. He taught at Birkbeck College in London from 1947 to 1982 and held the post of visiting professor in the political science department at the New School for Social Research in New York City from 1984 to 1997.

According to the Marxist writer and expert on Leon Trotsky David North believes that Hobsbawm’s writing on the Russian Revolution mostly portrays the revolution as being “doomed to failure” and a “fatal enterprise.” Hobsbawm believed that the demise of the Soviet Union was the “Shipwreck of Socialism.”

North admits Hobsbawm has produced some excellent work but,” the subject of the Russian Revolution is dangerous territory for Professor Hobsbawm, for in this field his scholarship is compromised by his politics. Hobsbawm once confessed that as a member of the CPGB he had avoided writing about the Russian Revolution and the 20th century because the political line of his party would have prevented him from being entirely truthful. Why he chose to remain a member of a party that would have compelled him to tell lies is a question to which he has never given a convincing answer. At any rate, it would have been best for him and no loss to the writing of history, had he continued to limit himself to events before 1900″.

Review of ‘The Lost World Of British Communism’, Raphael Samuel, Verso £19.99

“I once defined Stalinism as bureaucratic centrism, and events brought a series of corroborations of the correctness of this definition. However, it is obviously obsolete today. The interests of the Bonapartist bureaucracy can no longer be reconciled with centrist hesitation and vacillation. In search of reconciliation with the bourgeoisie, the Stalinist clique can enter alliances only with the most conservative groupings among the international labour aristocracy. This has acted to fix definitively the counter-revolutionary character of Stalinism on the international arena.” Leon Trotsky

Introduction

Raphael Samuel’s book consists of three separate articles reprinted from the New Left Review written in the mid-1980s. His primary purpose for writing the book remains unclear, although it is common for political activists to put down in writing their understanding of events that have played a crucial role in their political development. Written amidst a bitter faction fight inside the British Communist Party for political control the book does almost nothing to further our understanding of Stalinism.

The book is part autobiographical, part “social history” and part “history from below”. It is almost hybrid. Most of the book takes the form of a polemic about Samuel’s life inside the British Communist Party. Given the political nature of his subject, the book is remarkably free of political analysis. He also has selective amnesia towards the betrayals of the Communist Party both in the USSR and Britain.

Samuel had a very romantic view of his time in the CP and tended to see his party through rose-tinted spectacles. Its betrayals are glossed over. He says nothing of the Show Trials that were responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of old Bolsheviks. The countless betrayals of the working class by Stalinism remain untouched.A further deadly weakness of the book is Samuel’s failure to place his account of British Communism within its international context. This gives the book a one-sided feel to it. When mentions international events they are uninformed and simplistic.It is perhaps a little strange that while he had a disdain for the undisciplined nature various left groups and publications, he later joined Samuel missed the time when Stalinism had political control over the working class.

Life in the Party

Samuel was a teenager when he joined the CP and the CPHG (Communist Party Historians Group). “Like many Communists of my time, I combined a powerful sense of apartness with a craving for recognition, alternating gestures of defiance with a desire to be ordinary and accepted as one of the crowd. If one wanted to be charitable, one might say that it was the irresolvable duality on which British Communists find themselves impaled today.”Samuel was part of a historical phenomenon. Born in 1934 he had a relatively comfortable childhood and was educated at a private school. During his late childhood, he would have been schooled by his mother who was in the Communist Party about the defeat of Nazi Germany, continued global economic depression and the Second World War. His teenage years would be coloured by the continued rise of Stalinism, the further betrayal of the Russian revolution, and the rise to global eminence of American capitalism.The book contains significant autobiographical reminisces of Samuels parent’s life inside the party. Their life and his inside the party will strike a chord with any political activist whose party became their life, socially, politically, and morally.

While membership of such a party does engender a strong sense of loyalty, Samuel’s point-blank refusal to criticise and draw conclusions from the betrayals of Stalinism is a severe weakness of the book.It is debatable to what extent Samuel was a Stalinist, but his refusal to criticise the “rights and wrongs” of his party certainly makes him apologist of their betrayals. He did exhibit a Stalinist like disdain for the revolutionary capacity of the working class and was extremely hostile to Trotskyism.As was said earlier Samuel laments about the time Stalinist parties had control of the working class. As Eric Hobsbawm states the book is “full of melancholy empathy for an irrecoverable past, Communism is as ‘a doomed, flawed but noble faith.”. This quote should be taken with a large pinch of salt, Hobsbawm also talks about the October revolution in the same way.

Samuel’s use of anecdotes to try to explain complicated political and theoretical problems can only take you so far. He quotes a letter sent in 1926 from the party secretary in St Pancras to the London District asking for advice: “… Mrs Kingston, although she has passed party training, and is, therefore, a full member of the party, does not accept the materialist conception of history, and she believes that communism is founded on idealism and not on materialism. She is trying to form a group of people who think the same”. On hearing this, any orthodox Marxist would ask why my party is recruiting idealists. Is there something wrong with the method of the party.

While it is essential to understand the political opinions of party members and people do make history Samuel’s approach was not an orthodox one.As one orthodox Marxist once wrote “Men make their history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under the circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”

Alternatively, “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material forces of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society — the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”.

Unfortunately, when Samuels left the party, he did not take this methodology with him. He took all the wretched ideological baggage from the Stalinists and transferred it into his new project the Universities and Left Review(ULR). While you could make a case for his tender years inside the CP, there is no excuse for transferring this ideological baggage into his later historical writing.During his time with the ULR, he and his associates had an almost umbilical link to their sister magazine the New Reasoner, founded in 1957 by the historians E.P. Thompson and John Saville.

Samuel did not brood over his leaving the CP in 1956 he went straight into political activity. In November 1956, Samuel sent a letter to Stuart Hall suggesting they set up a magazine called ‘New University Left’, Hall accepted the idea, but the magazine was to be called Universities & Left Review. To gain support for the magazine which would orientate not towards the working class but to students, former CP members, fellow travellers and various other left-wing radicals Samuel sent letters to these forces appealing for money and articles.Both magazines were hostile to Trotskyism and favoured an “English Marxist” tradition to justify their opportunism. As Paul Bond writes “ New Reasoner claimed to be elaborating a “socialist humanist” version of Marxism, promoting the “British Road” advanced by the CPGB but carried out instead through the Labour Party”.

Samuels insight into the rise of Thatcherism is at best pedestrian at worse deceiving and relied heavily on his partner in the ULR Stuart Hall. Hall and Samuel’s adoption of Cultural Studies as Paul Bond state “originated as part of an attack on revolutionary Marxism, directed above all against its contemporary expression, Trotskyism. The academic field sought to shift the focus of social criticism away from class and onto other social formations, thus promoting the development of identity politics. Its establishment, in the final analysis, was a hostile response to the gains made by the Trotskyist movement in Britain from the 1950s onwards”.

He continues This was Hall’s preferred political milieu, and he never left it. Significantly, while editing Universities and Left Review, Hall stayed in the house of Jock Haston, whom he described as “a wonderful old Trotskyist”. In fact, Haston was by then a bitter opponent of Trotskyism. He had left the movement in 1950, explicitly rejecting the Fourth International, declaring in a resignation letter that “we have no right to claim political and organisational authority as the international leadership of the world proletariat”. Haston, the future mentor of various trade union bureaucrats, pledged his loyalty to the Labour Party, asserting that despite its “bureaucratic feature…it is one of the most democratic workers’ organisations in existence…the task is to loyally adhere to the mass party and seek to drive it forward on the road to the complete transformation of the system”.

The Socialist Labour League and the ULR

The ULR was not the only magazine around in 1957 that sought to gain political ground from the breakup of the Communist Party. A magazine of an entirely different political calibre was founded by Gerry Healy’s the Club forerunner of the SLL (Socialist Labour League) called Labour Review.Healy’s initial response to the ULR was friendly, and he sought a dialogue with them and other New Left groups. The ULR’s hostility to Trotskyism soon became apparent. Samuel said “There has been an incredible mushrooming of inner-party groups. On the ultra-Left—the dissidence of Dissent—a dozen ‘vanguard’ parties, and as many tendencies and groups, compete for the honour of leading a non-existent revolutionary working class”[1].

Healy was not only rebuffed by the ULR, but E P Thompson’s New Reasoner was equally hostile towards the SLL leaving Healy to state that a “Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage, he was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism.”The knockback from the ULR did not stop the orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International from doubling their efforts to gain from the crisis within the British Communist party. Healy continued to believe that Stalinism was a counter-revolutionary force. The SLL won prominent figures such as Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp, Peter Fryer and Brian Pearce out of the CP. They were able to double their efforts through the journal Labour Review and the weekly Newsletter to wage a political-theoretical offensive, leading to the formation of the Socialist Labour League (SLL) in 1959.

Pseudo Left and the Lost Cause of Communism.

he reviews emanating from the Pseudo Lefts groups of Samuel’s books is indicative of their relationship with the Stalinist movement. One study from Red Pepper Magazine said “In this book, Raphael Samuel shows in this wonderfully written history and memoir; its puritanical party members stood aloof from the workers and, overall, this attitude was returned in kind. The Communist Party is now part of history, and as the left reforms itself, it should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of this heroic but ultimately misguided tribe.This one came from the former SWP member Ian Birchall, “Contrary to the foolish idea sometimes heard on the left that Communist Parties are external to the working-class movement, Samuel shows that the British CP had deep roots in the working class and that its membership held high moral ideals and showed great self-sacrifice. All this is true – yet it is also true that the cause they devoted themselves to was a deeply unworthy one. Samuel was no Stalinist”[2].

Birchall’s party the Socialist Workers Party despite perfunctory attacks on the CP had a close relationship with Stalinism. It printed the flagship paper of the CP the Morning Star and was in the SWP’s eyes an important if misguided part of the working-class movement.

Conclusion

Because of the broad political disagreement I have with Samuels, it is difficult to recommend this book. This is not to say that Samuels was not a gifted historian and his books are probably worth a read. It is because this is such an inadequate analysis of his time in the Communist Party that it would be irresponsible to recommend it to a broad audience without very deep caveats.

1] Samuel Raphael, The Lost World of British Communism Verso 2017
[2] Review of ‘The Lost World of British Communism’, Raphael Samuel, Verso £19.99- http://socialistreview.org.uk/312/growing-left

Eric Hobsbawm: Socialist Historian (Socialist History Occasional Publications) Pamphlet – 2 Nov 2015- Malcolm Chase, Willie Thompson, and David Parker

This pamphlet is the product of the Socialist History Society special event held in 2013 to assess the work of Eric Hobsbawm. The title was a Historian, Teacher and Critic. This review is made up of four parts. Part one looks at Eric Hobsbawm and Labour History; part two examines Hobsbawm’s Tetralogy and Other Works, the third part Hobsbawm, History and Politics and finally Hobsbawm’s relationship with the Pseudo Left.

The pamphlet Eric Hobsbawm: Socialist Historian aims to celebrate and assess the life’s work of the historian. It does indeed celebrate his life, but the assessment it makes whitewashes his politics.The pamphlet correctly portrays Hobsbawm as an exceptionally gifted historian. He had an excellent aptitude for writing in an accessible manner while retaining a robust academic rigour. However, If he had concentrated on writing before the 19th century, then I would not have much problem in recommending his work. However his work on the 20th century especially the Russian Revolution was severely hampered by his near Jesuit defence of both the Stalinist British Communist Party and the Soviet Communist Party.

Eric Hobsbawm and Labour History

Malcolm Chase’s article sets the tone for the rest of the pamphlet. He begins the whitewash of Hobsbawm’s politics, especially his defence of the Communist Party. His amnesia regarding the many betrayals of the party is breathtaking and offers only limited criticism at the end of his essay.

From Chase’s essay, you would not have guessed that Hobsbawm adopted a genre (Labour History) which was a combination of both his party’s support for the Popular Front and more importantly the Annales school of history. This Annales school combined Front Popular front politics profoundly influenced Hobsbawm and most of the historians that formed the Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG).

When Hobsbawm started to tackle Labour history he had already drawn very pessimistic conclusions from the post-war defeats suffered by the working class which his party along with the trade union and Labour Party leadership had organised. It was not wrong for Hobsbawm to examine Labour history, but his refusal to expose the betrayals of the working class by the leadership of that class was.

A perfect expression of Hobsbawm’s pessimism was his article The Forward March of Labour Halted. Hobsbawm had no real faith in the revolutionary capacity of the working class as can be seen in this Marx Memorial Lecture of1978. According to the Marxist writer, Chris Marsden “Hobsbawm began by asserting that the crisis of the labour movement could be attributed to the decline of the working class itself. His evidence for this mainly consisted of a presentation of the fall in the number of workers employed in heavy industry and the supposedly concomitant fall in support for the Labour and Communist parties. He then argued that industrial militancy has failed to provide an answer to the failures of the Labour government of the time. Hobsbawm’s The lecture was not just unconvincing. It was an attempt to provide an apologia for the betrayal of the working class by Labour and the TUC”.

Hobsbawm played lip service for the need for a revolutionary Marxist Party that would combat the reformist leadership of the working class. Hobsbawm, in this quote below, believes that all a party should aim for is to stop the working from drifting into reformism.”A higher degree of political consciousness, a special effort, is needed to prevent the movement from drifting into mere reformism … a conscious socialist movement, and notably a communist party, provide such a special factor. If the working class attached itself to such a movement at the crucial phase of its development when it forms such attachments, it would have some built-in guarantee against the drift into reformism. However, if, as in the British case, it attaches itself to a movement largely formed in the pre-Marxist mould, it will not. The loyalty and theoretical inertia which it derives from its spontaneous experience will maintain its traditional attachments, and – unless quite extraordinary catastrophes occur, and even then by no means lightly or rapidly – it will stay with them” [1].

While examining the history of the British Labour movement, Hobsbawm discounted the possibility of a Marxist Party being established in the working class. As Norah Carlin suggests “Hobsbawm became so convinced that the dead weight of tradition on the British labour movement was irremovable? .In rejecting the ‘heroic moral epic’ style of labour history and deciding to concentrate on the long-term social and economic background of the movement, Hobsbawm ruled all revolutionary and near-revolutionary situations out of consideration.

Thus he has very little to say about the high points of working-class struggle such as Chartism, the peak of the new unions in 1889-93, the waves of militancy of 1910-14 and 1919, or the General Strike of 1926″. As was said, previous Hobsbawm had a near Jesuit ability to avoid upsetting both the Labour and Stalinist bureaucracy when writing about the working class. Despite this handicap, it would be wrong to say that all Hobsbawm writing on the Labour movement was worthless. To his credit, Hobsbawm wrote about Labour History with the same academic rigour as any of his other subjects. He believed historians should “consolidate the new territories won by the committed.’In many ways, his new writing was as groundbreaking as was the former Communist party historian E P Thompson. As Norah Carlin put it “his studies of early nineteenth-century machine-breaking, Primitive Methodism, and general unions in Britain, for example, broke new ground and inspired a generation of Marxist labour historians”.

Hobsbawm’s Tetralogy and Other Works

Willie Thompson’s essay concentrates on Hobsbawm’s four core writings The Age of Capital, 1848–1875 (1975), The Age of Empire, 1875–1914 (1987), and finally The Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (1994). He also examines Hobsbawm as both historian and activist.Hobsbawm understood in embarking on such a wide-ranging study that he was, in fact, writing three separate books but was, in essence, writing a history of the 19th century. Hobsbawm’s first book of the Tetralogy The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 while maintaining a very high academic standard was written for a broad audience. Like in the first essay Thompson largely absolves Hobsbawm from any blame regarding Stalinism’s betrayals. When commenting on the Khrushchev revelations of Stalin’s murderous regime, he manages to lump together right-wing commentators with those he calls the “anti-communist left”.

In another point, he glosses over the crimes of Stalin by saying that their exposure proved that the Communist Party could reform itself from its worst excesses. Which was Hobsbawm’s position also?Hobsbawm subsequent later life as a historian and activist was shaped by his early political experiences. This worldview was dominated by the rejection of the working class as a revolutionary force and his anti-Trotskyism.

Especially crucial in shaping his outlook were the political events in Germany that he witnessed as a child. Joining the Communist Party as a direct result of the threat of Fascism, Hobsbawm stood on the right of his party and drew extremely pessimistic conclusions from the rise of Fascism. He says “Liberalism was failing. If I had been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they would become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you did not believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed”.

This is quite a statement. Instead of the nationalism of the Nazis, Hobsbawm adopted the nationalism of the Stalinists. Hobsbawm joined the CP in 1931. It was unfortunate that the party he joined had broken decisively with orthodox Marxism and the German Communist party would later commit a vast betrayal by allowing Hitler to come to power without a shot being fired. The refusal of CPSU to acknowledge any fault for this calamitous defeat of the German working class led later on to the Russian Marxist and opponent of Stalin, Leon Trotsky forming a new Fourth International.

Hobsbawm parrotted the party line on the victory of Hitler by saying “In Germany, there was not any alternative left,” he said in an interview with Maya Jaggi published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002. This was untrue. There was a Left Opposition to the rise of Fascism which sought to oppose both the increase of the fascists and the betrayal of the party that Hobsbawm had just joined. From an early part of his life, it is clear that Hobsbawm rejected the Trotskyist view of events in Germany.

Age of Extremes

The Age of Extremes was dangerous territory for Hobsbawm. His previous three volumes were to a much lesser extent coloured by his politics. In the fourth volume, they were very much to the fore.While Hobsbawm did not write extensively on the Russian revolution in this book, he did in a later book called On history. The Russian revolution was the dangerous territory of for Hobsbawm. It is well-known that Communist Party historians avoided like the plague writing on the Russian revolution. For the simple reason that his party leadership would have frowned upon it. With the threat of expulsion a real possibility. Hobsbawm knew that when he finally wrote on the subject, he would have to lie about it. One striking aspect of the group was that none of them specialised in twentieth-century history. More specifically, the experiences of the Russian revolution were never to be explored by the group apart from one book by Christopher Hill, which in reality was an apology for Stalinism.

According to A Talbot “In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too high to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena”.Hobsbawm was acutely aware that broaching the subject was largely taboo according to him “it raised some notoriously tricky problems”. According to one essay on the CPHG a study of the journal Our History between 1956 and 1992 showed there was not a single article dealing with any part of Soviet history. Having visited the Marx Memorial Library to check this statement out, I can say there was one article by Monty Johnson on Leon Trotsky in 1992.

Hobsbawm has gone on the record to say that he “wasn’t a Stalinist. I criticised Stalin and I cannot conceive how what I have written can be regarded as a defence of Stalin. However, as someone who was a loyal Party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about some things about which it is reasonable not to be silent – things I knew or suspected in the USSR. Why I stayed [in the Communist Party] is not a political question about communism, it is a one-off biographical question. It was not out of idealisation of the October Revolution. I am not an idealiser. One should not delude oneself about the people or things one cares most about in one’s life. Communism is one of these things, and I have done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the passion it aroused is particular to the twentieth century. It was a combination of the high hopes which were brought with progress and the belief in human improvement during the nineteenth century along with the discovery that the bourgeois society in which we live (however great and fruitful) did not work and at certain stages looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. Moreover, it did collapse and generated awful nightmares “[2].

According to the Marxist writer and expert on Leon Trotsky David North Hobsbawm’s writing on the Russian Revolution mostly portrays the revolution as being “doomed to failure” and a “fatal enterprise.” This leads to the assumption that the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the “Shipwreck of Socialism.”North admits Hobsbawm has produced some excellent work but,” the subject of the Russian Revolution is dangerous territory for Professor Hobsbawm, for in this field his scholarship is compromised by his politics. Hobsbawm once confessed that as a member of the CPGB he had avoided writing about the Russian Revolution and the 20th century, because the political line of his party would have prevented him from being entirely truthful. Why he chose to remain a member of a party that would have compelled him to tell lies is a question to which he has never given a convincing answer. At any rate, it would have been best for him and no loss to the writing of history, had he continued to limit himself to events before 1900″ [3].

Hobsbawm and the Labour Party.

It does not come as a surprise that Hobsbawm’s writing on Labour history brought him closer to the Labour Party. He was made a Companion of Honour. A rarity for a historian especially of his political persuasion. Hobsbawm was lauded from both sides of bourgeois democracy in Britain. Labour leader Ed Miliband said Prof Hobsbawm was “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of his family”. His historical works brought hundreds of years of British history to hundreds of thousands of people. He brought history out of the ivory tower and into people’s lives. However, he was not simply academic; he cared deeply about the political direction of the country. Indeed, he was one of the first people to recognise the challenges to Labour in the late 1970s and 1980s from the changing nature of our society.”

In this respect, Milliband says more than he intended. Hobsbawm was a major theoretical architect of the right-wing shift of New Labour. During his membership of the “Eurocommunist” wing of the CPGB and his time with the Marxism Today theoretical journal, he wrote many articles urging Labour to adopt a more right-wing trajectory. In 1978 he wrote the essay “The Forward March of Labour Halted”. Which in many ways, laid the basis for Labours future development? “If anything, I was an extremely right-wing Communist and generally attacked by the leftists, including the leftists in the Labour Party”.

Hobsbawm relationship with the origins of New Labour is explored in an article by Chris Marsden, which reveals Stalinism’s role in spawning new Labour. Marsden said the Communist Party of Great Britain “Euro-Communist” tendency acted as the midwife of New Labour.”Marsden continues with the observation that Marxism Today of which Hobsbawm was a frequent writer for laid the “ideological framework for what was to become New Labour was first established in the editorial offices of Marxism Today. Moreover, it was mostly made possible to implement the project so defined due above all to the liquidation of the Soviet Union” [4].

Historian and activist

To begin this part of Thompson’s essay, he uses a quote from Isaac Deutscher in which he regrets being expelled from the Polish Communist Party and advises Hobsbawm not to leave the party.The fact that Deutscher was expelled from the party for “exaggerating the danger of Nazism and … spreading panic in the Communist ranks.” Moreover, Deutscher opposed the Stalinist line that Nazism and Social Democracy were “not antipodes but twins.” largely passes Thompson by. Hobsbawm never undertook any systematic work opposing the party line. This sleight of hand by Thompson is a hallmark of his political writing.

When Hobsbawm made issue mild criticism of the party’s line on Hungary, he immediately backed down and accepted his punishment. Never to combine his history writing with opposition to the party’s line.This went for all the historians who were part of the Communist Party Historians Group. As Ann Talbot points out “There is something Jesuitical about the relationship of these historians to Marxism. They seem to have been capable of partitioning their minds and pursuing a scientific Marxist approach to history up to the point where the Stalinist bureaucracy drew the line, like the Jesuit scientists who would pursue their investigations as far as the Church authorities permitted, but no further. It was an approach that was further encouraged by the extreme specialisation of academic life that enabled them to concentrate on very narrow areas of history that never brought them into direct collision with the bureaucracy on political questions” [5].

Hobsbawm, History and Politics

David Parker has written extensively on the Communist movement. His essay Hobsbawm, History and Politics is an expansion of his concluding remarks from the Socialist History Society special event held in 2013 to assess the work of Eric Hobsbawm. Parker is correct to say that this pamphlet is only a small start to what must be a massive project. Recently Oxford University Press[6] released a collection of essays in an attempt to evaluate Hobsbawm’s place in history.Parker justifies Hobsbawm’s decision to stay inside the Communist Party. The fact that all writers closely associated with SHS have primarily whitewashed Hobsbawm’s Stalinism is staggering.

Another comment equally startling is Parker’s opinion that Hobsbawm was instrumental in developing New Labour. A comment that seemed genuine as it was stupid. As if this was some great achievement. Hobsbawm was indeed motivated by the struggle for humanity to better itself, but Parker continues the SHS’s attempt to whitewash history will not bring that about.

Hobsbawm’s relationship with the Pseudo Left.

Although not a subject tackled in the SHS pamphlet, Hobsbawm relationship with the Pseudo left is critical in understanding, his history and his politics. It should be the starting point for any understanding of Hobsbawm’s place in history.Firstly a point of clarification. The term Pseudo Left comes from the Marxist David North who characterises these groups in this way “the pseudo-left denotes political parties, organisations and theoretical/ideological tendencies which utilise populist slogans and democratic phrases to promote the socioeconomic interests of privileged and affluent strata of the middle class”.

He continues. The pseudo-left is anti-Marxist. It rejects historical materialism, embracing instead various forms of subjective idealism and philosophical irrationalism associated with existentialism, the Frankfurt School and contemporary postmodernism.[7]The second paragraph is crucial to understanding their relationship with Eric Hobsbawm. None of the writings of these groups came from the standpoint of classical Marxism when examining Hobsbawm place in history.

A cursory look at a number of the titles of articles on Hobsbawm by these radicals shows this. Neil Davidson, who is a member of the State Capitalist Socialist Workers Party, wrote an article: Hobsbawm As A Marxist Historian: An Appreciation. He states “Now that his life is over and his body of work complete, it is only fair to Hobsbawm that his critical admirers take time to assess his output as a whole, free from the demands of instant assessment required by obituaries. I am confident, however, that relatively little of his serious historical output is irredeemably tainted by the political tradition to which he belonged; most of is a lasting contribution, not only to the culture of the left but far beyond it. Moreover, can those critics of the right who endlessly demanded that he recant the views which informed his entire life and work point to any historians with their beliefs who entered the public consciousness to anything like the same degree?” [8].

Davidson follows a well-worn path where Hobsbawm’s history is largely divorced from his Politics. This amounts to a political amnesty from an organisation that professes itself to be Trotskyist.Hobsbawm himself did not hide his political orientation which became more pronounced towards the end of his life. In his Guardian article in 2005[9]” I have a lasting admiration for Mikhail Gorbachev. It is an admiration shared by all who know that, however, for his initiatives, the world might still be living under the shadow of the catastrophe of a nuclear war – and that the transition from the communist to the post-communist era in eastern Europe, and in most non-Caucasian parts of the former USSR, has proceeded without significant bloodshed” [10]. His place in history is secure. How does admiration for a man that helped restore capitalism into the former Soviet Union not colour one’s history writing?

As the Marxist writer David North said “Hobsbawm is not merely blind to all this. His writing suggests that he has failed to subject to any critical review the political conceptions that allowed him to remain a member of the British Communist Party for many decades: “The terrible paradox of the Soviet era,” Hobsbawm tells us with a straight face, “is that the Stalin experienced by the Soviet peoples and the Stalin seen as a liberating force outside were the same. Moreover, he was the liberator for the ones at least in part because he was the tyrant for the others.”

What Hobsbawm really should have written is that “the Stalin experienced by the Soviet people and the Stalin as he was deceitfully portrayed by the British Communist Party were not quite the same thing”. Instead, unfortunately, Hobsbawm compromises himself as a historian by engaging in shabby pro-Stalinist apologetics, and thereby exposing what has been the tragic paradox of his own intellectual life” [11].

There is no denying that Hobsbawm was a hugely significant historian. His work is read all around the world and for anyone wanting to understand the world we live in they are very useful. However, a proper assessment of his politics and history is overdue. The starting point of this assessment must be an examination of the extent his politics clouded his judgement, especially on such a crucial subject as the Russian Revolution.

[1] Kinnock’s favourite Marxist-Eric Hobsbawm and the working class-Norah Carlin & Ian Birchall- http://www.marxists.de/workmvmt/birchcarl/hobsbawm.htm
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/sep/22/history.politicalbooks
[3] Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the 20th Century A Reply to Professor Eric Hobsbawm By David North 3 January 1998.
[4] Martin Jacques: embittered British Stalinist pronounces on the death of the “left “Part One By Chris Marsden15 December 2004
[5] “These the times … this the man”: an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill By Ann Talbot 25 March 2003
[6] History after Hobsbawm-Writing the Past for the Twenty-First Century-Edited by John H. Arnold, Matthew Hilton, and Jan Ruger
[7] What is the pseudo-left?-30 July 2015- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/30/pers-j30.html
[8] Hobsbawm As A Marxist Historian: An Appreciation -www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/hobsbawm_as_a_marxist_historian_an_appreciation
[9] The last of the utopian projects- https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/mar/09/russia.comment
[10] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/mar/09/russia.comment
[11] Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the 20th Century -A Reply to Professor Eric Hobsbawm-By David North -3 January 1998

E. P. Thompson and English Radicalism Edited by Roger Fieldhouse and Richard Taylor. Published: February 2013 256 pages Publisher: Manchester University Press

Published in 2013 E P Thompson and English Radicalism is a collection of essays to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of E. P. Thompson’s most famous book, The Making of the English Working Class. Manchester University Press has produced a stylish and very well designed book cover which reminds one of a Soviet propaganda poster from the 1920s or 30s.The book has been warmly received Sheila Rowbotham called it an “eloquent set of essays manages to address, both sympathetically and critically, the many and varied aspects of Thompson’s life, as a historian, a teacher, a poet, a political activist, a Marxist and libertarian, and an Englishman and a cosmopolitan.

Thompson’s legacy is hugely relevant for the troubled times in which we now live.’ [1]Mary Kaldor, from the London School of Economics and Political Science, called it “A major book on Edward Thompson, who died 20 years ago, is an important reminder of the loss of English radicalism and the need to revive it.”The book has appeared at the same time as a veritable cottage industry of material relating to the life and work of E P Thompson. It is after all fifty years since Thompson published his seminal work The Making of the English Working Class. Harvard University held a conference on the book. Birkbeck University held a conference entitled the future of ‘history from below’: an online symposium, papers from the conference can be found at the many-headed monster blog[2]. Lastly, Monthly Review Press has just released E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays & Polemics Carl Winslow (Editor)

It is impossible to examine every chapter of the book, and it is certainly impossible in a review to discuss every aspect of E P Thompson’s work as a politician and historian, some of this will be done in a review of Carl Winslow’s new book on Thompson mentioned. The fact that his work is still being translated all over the globe that new books about his life and work appear almost daily is testimony alone to his historical and political significance.Thompson was a natural teacher. He had a passion for teaching. Whether you agreed with his politics or his interpretation of historical events he sought to imbue in his student a passion for history and learning. He had a partisan approach to education in that it should have a social purpose.

John Rule, in his Biography of E P Thompson for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, said “ith his postgraduate students his relationship was excellent. They remember with affection a painstaking and inspiring mentor, and most became lifelong friends. With the university itself, relations were more strained. Resources for the centre were short of his expectation; undergraduate teaching took up much time, as did boards and meetings, leading him to complain that little time was left for writing. His writing was itself undergoing a shift. The Making carried marks of having been written by someone not fully bound by academic conventions. It is invective, for example in its infamously hostile depiction of Methodism as ‘ritual psychic masturbation,’ could be immoderate. He had a blind spot when it came to quantification, and a glimpse of his feelings towards some academic tendencies is exemplified in a passage which summarizes the average worker’s share in the benefits of the industrial revolution as: ‘more potatoes, a few articles of cotton clothing for his family, soap and candles, some tea and sugar, and a great many articles in the Economic History Review”.

Given the number of books, papers, lectures, and conferences examining every aspect of Thompson’s life and writing it is extremely disturbing that none of it has been given over to an Orthodox Marxist criticism of his work both in politics and history. It would appear that an orthodox Marxist critique of his work is still a taboo subject and has been largely airbrushed out of history. Given the current climate of hostility to genuine Marxism in academia, this is not a major surprise. For the sake of balance and the historical record and more important historical truth, an orthodox Marxist position should be given space in future books on Thompson.

Thompson spent most of his academic career distancing himself from life inside the British Communist Party. His criticism of Stalinism was not from an orthodox Marxist position; instead, he advocated a type of “socialist humanism”. Thompson at an early age rejected the classical Marxism of Leon Trotsky despite later breaking with Stalinism it is clear that Thompsons’ subsequent historical and political writings were still retained baggage from his Stalinist past.
While the Communist Party of Britain did attract a large number of historians,

It was still an appalling training school and Thompson never entirely abandoned all that he learned there. An orthodox biography of Thompson is long overdue. The purpose of this review is to examine certain aspects of Thompson’s work mentioned in the book. Therefore the chapters discussed will not flow in numerical order.

Michael Newman discusses what is perhaps the most significant period in Thompson’s life. From 1956 it is clear that the crisis that developed within world Stalinism over Khrushchev’s semi-secret denunciation of some of Stalin’s crimes impacted profoundly on Thompson and other historians that were around or in the Communist Party Historians group.
Newman is correct to point out that with the development of Khrushchev’s speech the crisis of the Communist Party brought about a realignment of radical politics.

Thompson’s answer was to reject a path towards Orthodox Marxism represented by the Fourth International, he instead created the first New Reasoner and later the New Left Review (NLR).Newman’s description of the NLR as an “Internationally renowned organ of Marxist scholarship” was way off beam. A useful work, Intellectual Radicalism after 1989: Crisis and Re-orientation in the British and the American Left by Sebastian Berg (2017), traces the evolution of left academia following the collapse of Stalinism.

Among the many responses to the collapse of the Stalinism perhaps one of the most stupid came from G. A. Cohen, Canadian-British philosopher and “analytical Marxist,” who said “It is true that I was heavily critical of the Soviet Union, but the angry little boy who pummels his father’s chest will not be glad if the old man collapses. As long as the Soviet Union seemed safe, it felt safe for me to be anti-Soviet. Now that it begins, disobligingly, to crumble, I feel impotently protective toward it.” What can one say about this pathetic comment—except that it has nothing whatsoever to do with Marxism?[3].

The orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International which was led in Britain by Gerry Healy of the Socialist Labour League (SLL), saw the crisis within the British Communist party as an opportunity to insist on the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism. Healy went on an offensive to win the most important cadre from the breakup of the Communist Party. Those figures who had not been entirely corrupted by the years of lies and calumny of the Stalinist regimes throughout the world were won to orthodox or classical Marxism. Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp and Peter Fryer.

Suffice to say Thompson was not one of them despite Newman’s attempt to portray Thompson as being at the centre of a “Marxist revival.” Marxists inside the SLL were hostile to the New Reasoner’s politics but were open to debate. In an article from Labour Review October –November 1959 edition Healy was mindful of the sharp polemics that Thompson had been involved in and sought in his article called – The New left Must Look to the Working Class to open a debate with Thompson and his supporters.Healy did not mince his words when he said “What strikes one immediately on reading E P Thompson’s article is that he entirely omits the working class; consequently, there is no attempt to analyze the relationship between the left of today and the working class. One would imagine that the New Left had just arrived and existed in a world of its own. The opposite, of course, is the case.

The New Left is not just a grouping of people around some new ideas that they have developed independently. This new development on the left reflects a particular phase in the elaboration of the crisis of capitalism, which for socialists is the crisis of the working-class movement. Like movements among intellectuals and students in the past, the recent emergence of the new left is the advance warning of a resurgence of the working class as an active political force in Britain. The crisis which is the basis of such action finds its first reflection in the battle of ideas.”During the early years of Thompson’s magazine the New Reasoner, it was clear that he did not intend to have a debate with the Trotskyists. Despite Healy trying to secure cordial relations with Thompson and his supporters, it became increasingly clear that Thompson did not see the Trotskyist’s around Healy as being a part of the working class. Healy’s response was to say that “Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage, he was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism.” Thompson’s response to the SLL was to accuse it of factionalism.

An epithet I might add that has been levelled at the Trotskyist movement throughout its history.
At the same time that Healy sought to clarify the issues involved in the crisis of world Stalinism Pseudo Left groups such as the Socialist Workers Party started to muddy the water and tried to argue that despite Khrushchev’s speech, there was “a process of self-reform” going on and that under pressure from the working class Stalinism would move in a revolutionary direction.

Thompson would get a warmer reception from groups such as the British SWP who broke from the Fourth International in the early 1940s. The SWP also sought to profit from the crisis in world Stalinism. The New Left was courted by the SWP, and some of its leaders spoke at numerous SWP events. The SWP has for the last 50 or so years sought to give these emigrants from Stalinism a left cover and justified their reformist and nationalist adaptation and orientation.
According to SWP member David Mcnally E P Thompson, “was the greatest Marxist historian of the English-speaking world and had a “political commitment to freeing Marxism from the terrible distortions of Stalinism, a commitment which originated in the battles of 1956 within the official Communist movement” [4].Thompson founded the New Reasoner in 1957 along with historian John Saville. The group was made up of ex- and current members of the CPGB, a varied group of common elements which left the Fourth International, and members of the Labour Party. The group was characterized by its opposition to the orthodox Marxists represented by the Fourth International.Thompson was avowedly hostile to its international revolutionary perspective and sought to imbue his new publication with an “English Marxist” tradition. As Kate Soper writes that Thompson rejected orthodox Marxism, and in its stead, he offered up a form utopian socialism entitled socialist humanism. To distance himself from orthodox Marxism, he entered into a series of reckless, stage-managed and convoluted polemics against a series of academics, intellectuals who in one form or another had been mistakenly labelled Marxists.

It is not in the realm of this review to go into detail Thompson’s polemics, but an evaluation of Thompson’s socialist humanism is overdue. Firstly it must be said that this theory has nothing to do with Marxism. Thompson’s critique of Stalinism had as one writer said a “certain sense of vagueness.” For Thompson Trotskyism was just another “variant of Stalinism.”Despite McNally’s glorification of Thompson, he makes an interesting point when he noted that Thompson had a ” lackadaisical attitude toward scientific rigour. ‘For all its moral and political fervour, there was something remarkably imprecise about his attack on Stalinism. Thompson described his as a ‘moral critique of Stalinism’ – and there is much to be said for that.

Whatever its limitations, revolutionary socialists can only applaud a critique which refuses to countenance slave labour camps, show trials, mass murder, a police state regime of lies and crimes against human rights, as authentic forms of socialism. But alongside the vigour of moral denunciation, one needs a clear analysis of the nature of the regimes at issue. At no time did Thompson offer the latter.”At no stage of his chequered history did Thompson and his friends in the New Left advocate the need to build a Leninist-type party. To do so would as Thompson believed would lead directly back to Stalinism. The New Left explicitly rejected Lenin’s theory of the vanguard party, which it blamed for the development of Stalinism. On this matter, Thompson invited a former Stalinist turned Labour Party bureaucrat Eric Heffer to write an article in the New Reasoner in 1959, Heffer’s views fitted in nicely with Thompsons when he wrote that “The ‘Vanguard corresponded to a given historical need but is not essential today: in fact, it is a definite hindrance”.[5]

E.P. Thompson and his New Left Review colleagues sought to imbue every article he wrote with the spirit of a new “humanist” version of Marxism. As Julie Hyland points out “In the ensuing decades, it acted as a meeting place for Stalinist-influenced historians and other academics and members of the pseudo-left groups such as the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. Its various authors offered combined advocacy of Western Marxist philosophies, the Frankfurt school, French structuralism, Maoism, anarchism, post-modernism, and various other petty-bourgeois theories of student radicalism.[6]

As Theodore Koditschek writes Thompson began a “lifelong engagement with the politics of socialism and Marxism.” It should be clear that Thompson’s Marxism had nothing to do with the “dogmas of orthodox Marxism as Koditschek puts it… “Class rather Classes is a highly misleading phrase.Thompson’s rejection of a historical materialist method in examining historical phenomena underpins his most famous work the Making of the English Working Class. The book is deeply flawed in the absence of any materialist understanding of the development of the working class.Despite the popularity of the book, Thompson’s methodology has caused significant damage. His use of the history from below genre is now being revitalized by a growing section of historians, and radical groups such as the British Socialist Workers Party.

History from below or people’s history genre has become increasingly popular during the current social, economic and political turmoil caused by the latest crisis facing the capitalist system. It is not to say that this genre does not have its merit. Books that are written well can add to our understanding of complex historical events or processes.But books and more precisely the historians who have written essays using the methodology either underestimate or deliberately leave out not only the origins of this type of history but the politics of such history writing.Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the genre is its disdain for an understanding of the role consciousness plays in history. To be more precise how that knowledge comes about. It is one thing to rescue the working class from the past it is another to understand not only where it came from but how and where it gets its ideas from.

Stuart Hall, who collaborated with Thompson on the New left project writing in NLR in 2010, shared Thompson’s downplaying of the need for historical materialist understanding when it came to the origins of the working class. “We had a deep conviction that against the economism of the Stalinist, Trotskyist and Labourist left alike, socialism was a conscious democratic movement and socialists were made, not born or given by the inevitable laws of history or the objective processes of the mode of production alone.” [7]

If historians like Hall had bothered to read Marx properly then maybe they would not be so free with their labelling Thompson a Marxist who did not adhere to the basic tenents of Marxism espoused in the German Ideology. Marx believed that “the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their actual life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their natural life-process.

In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and by their actual life-process, we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process.

The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness but consciousness by life. In the first method of approach, the starting-point is consciousness taken as the living individual; in the second method, which conforms to real life, it is the real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness. This method of approach is not devoid of premises. It starts out from the real premises and does not abandon them for a moment. Its premises are men, not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions. As soon as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as it is with the empiricists (themselves still abstract), or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists”.

Nina Power’s chapter examines Thompson’s conception of class. Thompson tended to romanticize the working class, which in turn led to his glorification of spontaneity. He admitted to having an empirical outlook. Many writers fell over themselves to praise the book. The Making of the English Working Class “was a highly influential work which contributed significantly to a revolution in the way history was studied, not only in Britain but in many countries. Instead of viewing history solely regarding kings, courtiers, aristocrats and politicians, historians began to consider the perspective of the ordinary people”. “Edward Thompson’s masterful The Making of the English Working Class (1963), has had an undoubtedly positive effect on historiography, the pressures of academic specialization have also led to the production of an awful lot of dross”.

When you cut through the hyperbole written about Thompson’s conception of class in the book, it is clear that Thompson and others were hostile to socialism being based on the working class.As Paul Bond puts it, His “Marxism” was an ideology purpose-built to meet the requirements of the “left” petty-bourgeoisie, discontented, looking for “space,” but tied by a thousand strings to the existing order”.[8]To conclude, it is tough in a short review to estimate Thompson’s politics and historical preferences, let alone his place in history. He is a historian worth reading and his books will be read by future generations looking for answers to complex political and historical problems of our day. If they read his books with the understanding that he was closer to Stalinism than he was to Marxism, they will be better off for it.


[1] https://www.amazon.co.uk/P-Thompson-English-radicalism/dp/0719088216
[2] http://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/
[3] Intellectual Radicalism after 1989: Crisis and Re-orientation in the British …
By Sebastian Berg
[4] E P Thompson: class struggle and historical materialism by D Mcnally Issue 61 of International Socialism Journal Published Winter 1993 Copyright © International Socialism
[5] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/03/05/hall-m05.html
[6] Embittered row between UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and Daily Mail over his father, Ralph-by Julie Hyland 2013- http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/10/08/mili-o08.html
[7] Stuart Hall Life and times of the first New Left NLR 2010,
[8] Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014): A political career dedicated to opposing Marxism by Paul Bond 5 March 2014 http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/

The Crisis of Theory: E. P. Thompson, the New Left, and Postwar British Politics- Scott Hamilton ISBN: 9780719084355 Pages: 288pp.Publisher: Manchester University Press

“I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “Utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking”.

The Making of the English Working Class

Even a basic internet search for the name E. P. Thompson brings forth a wealth of material by and about the historian. It is without a doubt that he played an extremely important part in the intellectual, social and political life of hundreds of thousands of people over the last half-century. He was an extremely capable historian, and his work has provided us with valuable insight into the problems of mankind’s historical development.A cursory read of Hamilton’s book reveals that Thompson was not only a historian of note but was a political animal. Unlike many of his co-thinkers in the Communist Party Historians Group Thompson wrote major polemical essays concerning political events during the 20th century.

Hamilton’s book is not an orthodox biography. It concentrates heavily on Thompson’s political career to the detriment of his historical writings. The book’s title The Crisis of Theory stems from Hamilton’s belief that Thompson’s break with Stalinism in 1956 was a ‘crisis of theory’ Whether it led Thompson away from the working class and Marxism is a moot point as he was never an orthodox Marxist in the first place. The fact of the matter is that he was never close politically to the working class and was never close to an orthodox Marxist position or group. We shall see later in the review that he was opposed virulently to orthodox Marxism.

Scott Hamilton’s book is largely an extension of his PhD dissertation covering Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory. Hamilton spent a significant amount of time studying the writings and letters from the archive of Hull University. He offers an extremely friendly account of Thompson’s polemical battles.The book has appeared at the same time as a veritable cottage industry of material relating to the life and work of E P Thompson. It is after all fifty years since Thompson published his seminal work The Making of the English Working Class. Harvard University will be holding a conference on the book. Birkbeck University held a conference entitled The future of ‘history from below’: an online symposium, papers from the conference can be found at the many-headed monster blog. A new collection of essays called E. P. Thompson and English Radicalism by Roger Fieldhouse (Editor), Richard Taylor (Editor) will be published by Manchester University Press (1 December 2013) in celebration of the anniversary of Thompson’s book The Making of the English Working Class.

Hamilton’s book The Crisis of Theory is an interesting addition to our attempt to understand Thompson’s place in history. Hamilton has taken great care to try and locate Thompson’s life and work in the context of broader political, social and events.Even though this is not an orthodox biography, he still had the foresight to do this. Also, to his credit, he has not created a hagiography. However, this is not to say that the book does not have several political shortcomings and not a few mistakes, for instance, Thompson went to Cambridge, not Oxford as Hamilton said and perhaps worse several historians are misnamed and their books assigned to the wrong authors. Like all good semi-biographical books, Hamilton’s takes us through Thompson’s life chronologically. He and his brother Frank were drawn at an early age to the British Communist Party. Hamilton’s evaluation of this period is very useful.

He makes clear that the two brothers joined an extremely nationalistic party. Thompson joined at a time when the British Communist Party had broken from orthodox Marxism and had adopted Stalinism as its political orientation. One thing perturbs me about Hamilton’s evaluation of the Thompson’s early politics is his tendency to romanticize the Thompson brothers national outlook and in the case of Frank, a case of outright racism. During the Second World War Frank Thompson lamented that “it is humiliating, just sitting around while Yanks, the Chinks and the Russkies teach us how to fight”.

E P Thompson did not join a Marxist party. It was clear that Thompson came back from the war a convinced Stalinist. He made no statement condemning the Moscow Trials and subsequent executions of leading Bolsheviks at the hands of Stalin and his supports in the Soviet Union. No statement was made in defence of the Russian working class which had its entire revolutionary leadership destroyed by Stalin. At his time of joining the British CP, he had broken from any traces of Marxism. It is perhaps a major weakness of the book that it does not discuss this period. Especially the conflict In the Soviet Party between Stalin and Trotsky.

Thompson at an early age rejected the orthodox Marxism represented by Leon Trotsky despite later breaking with Stalinism it is clear that Thompsons’ subsequent historical and political writings to a lesser extent were still imbued with Stalinist influences. It was a very bad training school and Thompson never entirely abandoned all that he learnt there.

Thompson’s adoption of the theory of the Popular front would mould his thinking up until he died. The most finished example of this was his making of the English Working Class. As he said the Making “I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “Utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties”.The same could be said about Thompson.

The book is a significant piece of history and deserves its high place in the historiography of English history. However, the book has a too heavy emphasis on the subjective nature of class consciousness and not enough of the objective. Furthermore, Thompson in one preface to his book tends to right off completely the revolutionary capacity of the English working class when he says “Causes which were lost in England might occur in Asia or Africa, yet might be won.”

It may be true that Thompson sought in his political writings to distance himself from his Stalinist past but in his historical writings this not the case. This separation was almost Jesuit, like. Thompson’s use of the concept of “history from below” owes a lot to the Popular Front policy used by the Stalinists in the 1930s. He was not alone in using the concept nearly all the Communist Party historians including Hill, Rude and Morton were influenced by it.For Ann Talbot “the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torre”.[1]

For Thompson and others, there was never a contradiction between the avocation of Popular Front politics and the historian’s group writing about democratic groups such as the Levellers in the vein of history from below. As Talbot says above the CPHG group tended to glorify an unbroken historical line of English radicalism. This outlook permeated E P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, which portrays the English working class as inherently radical and therefore not needing a Marxist scientific perspective. A leading member of the Group, Dona Torr, decided to position Tom Mann in her study Tom Mann and his Times, as a figure that “was a late representative in a story of England’s long-running struggle”.

This downplaying and in some cases the outright hostility to a scientific Marxist study of these radical groups is expressed in several pseudo-left groups today. The largest group being the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). When the SWP review any book by the members of the CPHG, there is a tendency to glorify the attachment these historians had to ‘Marxism’.As Paul Blackledge writes “Edward Thompson’s masterful The Making of the English Working Class (1963), has had an undoubtedly positive effect on historiography, the pressures of academic specialization have also led to the production of an awful lot of dross. Saville has stood out against this tendency, and for that, he is to be congratulated. Indeed, his background in both Historians? Group and the New Left seems to have left him incapable of following the traditional historians? Path of finding an archive and mining it for information irrespective of any meaning that might be attached to the published results. So, where contemporary historiography is torn by a debate between postmodernists and empiricists, Saville practices the kind of Marxist historiography that overcomes the opposition between theory and facts. Against the postmodernists, his work is steeped in a serious examination of primary evidence; against traditional empiricist history, his Marxism provides him with a vantage point from which he can justify his research method”.[2]

E P Thompson described the CPHG approach as “quaintly empirical”. I am not condemning the all the work of the historians by raising this point that would be facile as they produced some of the most outstanding historiographies of any generation, but it does show the handicap they were working under.Thompson’s methodology would lead him to periods of great elation and periods of abject pessimism. Hamilton, to his credit, gives numerous examples of this. He believed that Thompson had ‘an uneasy mixture of catastrophism and hyper-optimism’ (p. 159).

Hamilton does not go into detail regarding Thompson’s role inside the CPHG. Despite having a close working relationship with Christopher Hill. Hamilton seems to believe that Thompson was not close to the group. It is strange that Hamilton makes little of this relationship. Hill appears only once in Hamilton’s index.One reviewer queries this “there are certain problems with Hamilton’s analytical scheme. One may ask, for instance, why the definitive moment of Thompson’s life (1936–46) is not extended to 1956. His relationship with Communist writers and historians of the period from 1946 to 1956 played a crucial role in Thompson’s Popular Frontism. Hamilton omits from his account the most influential group in Thompson’s life, the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Dona Torr, the guru of the Historian’s Group and Thompson’s mentor, is never mentioned. Yet, it is highly unlikely that Thompson’s William Morris and The Making of the English Working Class would have been written without her influence”. He and Hill quit the Communist Party in 1956, and Thompson’s view of the 17th Century revolution shares some similarities with Hill’s, however, Thompson’s view diverged from Hill’s over the timing of the transition from feudalism to capitalism”.

Thompson’s view that there was an “epochal” bourgeois revolution in England in the 17th century came under heavy criticism from his onetime colleague Perry Anderson. The reply to Anderson’s criticism of Thompson evaluation of English history took the form of a book-length polemic called The Peculiarities of the English.Anderson wrote “The notion of an ‘epochal’ bourgeois revolution in Britain, stretching from the 12th to the 19th century, is a Ptolemaic hypothesis. It implies that capitalism can only be introduced by a classical bourgeoisie—a view parallel to the belief that socialism can only be introduced by an industrial proletariat. Both are incorrect. History has what Ernst Bloch calls a certain ‘aperity’, which allows several possible agents for a single process. [128] This interpretation restores the civil war to its pivotal role in modern history, without characterizing it crudely as a ‘bourgeois revolution’.[3]

It is not possible in the space of this review to go into great of this debate, but some points can be made. It must be said that Anderson’s position is remarkably close to a large number of revisionist historians in the field of the early modern English history who in one way or another downplayed the significance of the English revolution.Another thing is Anderson’s use of the work of J H Hexter against Thompson. Hexter was a very right-wing historian who attacked Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill with a ferocity that would not have looked out of place in a boxing match. Anderson says “One cannot help wondering if Thompson has kept up with the literature on the subject since that date. Has he, for instance, ever looked at Hexter’s devastating essay The Myth of the Middle Class in Elizabethan England? Is he even aware of Hexter’s famous critique of precisely the notion of an ‘epochal’ bourgeois revolution? His text is innocent of the smallest echo of all this. He would surely have shown more misgivings in pronouncing the English landowners of the era of Lord North a ‘true bourgeoisie’ if he had assimilated the lessons of this body of work. He would also have been less surprised at the stress laid in our essays on the pre-eminence and perdurance of the English aristocracy (in the sociological, not the titular sense) well into the 19th and 20th centuries”.

Having read Hexter’s essay, I am not sure it is all that devastating. And to use it against Thompson is Anderson’s right but he should have chosen his friends in this argument with a little more care. To give Thompson his due, he knew a little more about the English revolution than Anderson. Having said this, I do not give him a blank cheque. More work needs to be done on his differences with Christopher Hill.If the time spent in and around the Communist Party was Thompson’s first critical period of influence. His involvement with the New Reasoner/New Left projects was undoubtedly his second most critical time.After his resignation from the CP Thompson was one of several left-wing intellectuals who founded the New Reasoner which was the forerunner of the New Left Review. The latter journal is still published today. In reality, the New Reasoner was a home to anybody who was opposed to orthodox Marxism.
While Hamilton’s book concentrates on Thompson’s polemic against other political rivals such as Louis Althusser, Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson to name a few, it says nothing on Thompson’s attitude to the orthodox Marxist groups at the time such as G Healy’s Socialist Labour League. Maybe this is an error that will be corrected by Hamilton in future projects.

If Hamilton had spent a little time at the British Library which contains a number of the Socialist Labour League theoretical journal Labour Review it would have given him a much closer approximation of Thompson’ political and for that matter historical proclivities. Marxists inside the SLL were hostile to the New Reasoner’s politics (Thompson’s earlier magazine), but the SLL was open to debate. In an article from Labour Review October –November 1959 Healy was mindful of the sharp polemics that Thompson had been involved in and sought in his article called – “The New left Must Look to the Working Class” to open a debate with Thompson and his supporters.Having said that Healy did not mince his words when he says “What strikes one immediately on reading E P Thompson’s article is that he entirely omits the working class; consequently there is no attempt to analyze the relationship between the left of today and the working class. One would imagine that the New Left had just arrived and existed in a world of its own. The opposite, of course, is the case. The New Left is not just a grouping of people around several new ideas that they have developed independently. This new development on the left reflects a particular phase in the development of the crisis of capitalism, which for socialists is the crisis of the working-class movement. Like movements among intellectuals and students in the past, the recent emergence of the new left is the warning of a resurgence of the working class as an active political force in Britain. The crisis, which is the basis of such action finds its first reflection in the battle of ideas.”[4]

From the early origins of Thompson’s magazine New Reasoner, it was clear that he did not intend to have a debate with the Orthodox Trotskyists. Despite trying to have cordial relations with Thompson and his supporters, it became increasingly clear that Thompson did not see the Trotskyist’s around Healy as being a part of the working class. Healy’s response was to say that “Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage, he was equipped within the Communist Party except-one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism”.[5]

That analysis of Healy despite his subsequent political degeneration is true now as it was then. Thompson’s response to the SLL was to accuse it of factionalism. An epithet I might add that has been levelled at the Trotskyist movement since time immemorial.We live as then in stormy political times, an examination of the differences between Healy and Thompson would greatly strengthen the book. To conclude this review, it was never my intention at this moment to go into fuller detail of the disputes which occurred in the left during Thompson’ lifetime. That will be done in much greater detail when I write further on E P Thomson. My main criticism of Hamilton is that he omits whether deliberately of by accident this history which does a disservice to an otherwise competent book.


[1] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html
[2] https://isj.org.uk/a-life-on-the-left/
[3] https://newleftreview.org/issues/I35/articles/perry-anderson-socialism-and-pseudo-empiricism
[4] The New Left Must Look to the Working Class Gerry Healy Labour Review Oct- Nov 1959
[5] An Unreasonable Reasoner Editorial Labour Review Vol 3 No 2 March April 1958

Eric Hobsbawm-1917-2012

The death of Eric Hobsbawm at aged 95 marks the end of an era when a group of Communist historians dominated their respective fields of study. The purpose of this obituary is to place the historian in the context of his politics and his role as a dominant force inside and out of the Communist Party Historians Group.The influence of this group of ‘Marxist historians’ has since waned mainly due to the ‘Marxism is Dead’ campaign which found support amongst an aggressive collection of revisionist historians who sought to counter Marxist historiography and to replace it with a hodge-podge of theories that in one way or another denied that class or economic issues had anything to do with the revolutionary upheavals of the last four hundred years.

Hobsbawm, who was born in Egypt in 1917 just a few months before the Bolshevik revolution. His father worked as a colonial officer, and his mother was Austrian.Hobsbawm spent his childhood mainly in Berlin. He saw the early dangers of the rise of Fascism, and the Nazi’s hatred of Jews. Hobsbawm said later on in his life “Anybody who saw Hitler’s rise happen first hand could not have helped but be shaped by it, politically. That boy is still somewhere inside, always will be”.[1]Hobsbawm left Berlin in 1933 and came to London. His life spanned all the significant events of the 20th century. It is safe to say his politics, personality and history writing were shaped by these developments. He became a communist in 1931. It was unfortunate that the party he joined had broken decisively with orthodox Marxism and the German Communist party would later commit the stupendous betrayal in allowing Hitler to come to power without a shot being fired. The refusal of CPSU to acknowledge any fault for this calamitous defeat of the German working class led to the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky forming a new Fourth International.

In many ways, Hobsbawm perception of the events in Germany would be important in shaping his future political and historical career. Even at an early period in his political career, Hobsbawm was on the right of his newly adopted party, how else do you explain the following extraordinary statement about the developments in Germany, “Liberalism was failing. If I had been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they would become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you did not believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed”. In Germany, there was not any alternative left”.[2]It was untrue. There was a Left Opposition to the rise of Fascism which sought to oppose both the fascists and the betrayal of the party that Hobsbawm had just joined. From an early part of his life, it is clear that Hobsbawm rejected the Trotskyist view of events in Germany.

Hobsbawm’s acquiescence to the Stalinist programme and perspective would be a problem for him in later life and for that matter other members of the CPHG. Hobsbawm wrote more than 30 books; his most famous works were the trilogy, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire. He characterised the period he wrote about as the “the long 19th century” from the start of the French revolution in 1789 to the outbreak of war in 1914, but he wrote very little in the 20th century and most of this when it was relatively safe to do so.One striking aspect of the CPHG was that none of them specialised in twentieth-century history. More specifically, the experiences of the Russian revolution were never to be explored by the group apart from one book by Christopher Hill, which in reality was an apology for Stalinism.

According to A Talbot “In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too high to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena”. [3]As Matt Perry correctly points out, the group had particular academic freedom on the subject of English history pre 20th century because the CP had no official line on that period of history.Hobsbawm was acutely aware that broaching the subject was largely taboo according to him “it raised some notoriously tricky problems”. According to one essay on the CPHG a study of the journal Our History between 1956 and 1992 showed there was not a single article dealing with any part of Soviet history.

Eric Hobsbawm was the de facto leader of the historian’s group. It would be fair to say that for good or bad Hobsbawm writings have shaped the world-historical view of a generation of students, academics and laypeople. Hobsbawm was part of an extraordinary group of historians that took on many of the characteristics of a political party. It had membership subscriptions, a secretary and a chairman.Despite his politics, Hobsbawm did write some very good stuff. His essay “The General Crisis of the European Economy in the Seventeenth Century” and “The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, II” were particularly important.

It is a very useful guide to deepen our understanding of the 17th century, which contained a large number of revolutions. It is important to bear in mind one piece of advice on this subject according to Spinoza “the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things”.[4] While the revolutions in Europe had many differences, they also had significant similarities.Hobsbawm’s The “general crisis” thesis-like many ground-breaking essays provoked significant controversy from historians who opposed the emphasis on the social and economic origins of the revolutions that were carried out throughout Europe. Also, several historians refused to believe that there was any “general crisis” at all such as the Dutch historian Ivo Schöffer, or the Danish historian Niels Steengsgaard.

Eric J. Hobsbawm’s essay, which was printed in two parts in 1954, as “The General Crisis of the European Economy in the Seventeenth Century” and “The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, II” sought to present a Marxist analysis of the transformation from a feudal society to a capitalist one in the 17th century. This change was held responsible for the revolutions, wars and social unrest that took place. Hobsbawm put forward that most of the social and economic structures associated with capitalism had grown and developed during “long sixteenth century.” He believed that feudal “elements fatally obstructed growth” of capitalism. He believed that a revolution was needed to clear away the feudal rubbish for a new capitalist system to develop.

The most pronounced expression of this process of was to be found in England. Hobsbawm writes, “It will be generally agreed that the I7th century was one of social revolt both in Western and Eastern Europe. This clustering of revolutions has led some historians to see something like a general social-revolutionary crisis in the middle of the century. France had its Frondes, which were significant social movements; Catalan, Neapolitan and Portuguese revolutions marked the crisis of the Spanish Empire in the I64os; the Swiss peasant war of I653 expressed both the post-war crisis and the increasing exploitation of peasant by town, while in England revolution triumphed with portentous results. Though peasant unrest did not cease in the West – the “stamped paper ” rising which combined middle class, maritime and peasant unrest in Bordeaux and Brittany occurred in 1675, the Camisard wars even later- those of Eastern Europe were more significant. In the i6th century, there had been few revolts against the growing enserfment of peasants. The Ukrainian revolution of I648-54 may be regarded as a major servile upheaval.

So must the various ” Kurucz ” movements in Hungary, their very name harking back to Dozsa’s peasant rebels of I5I4, their memory enshrined in folksongs about Rakoczy as that of the Russian revolt of I672 is in the song about Stenka Razin. A major Bohemian peasant rising in i68o opened a period of endemic serf unrest there. It would be easy to lengthen this catalogue of the large social upheavals – for instance by including the revolts of the Irish in 164I and 1689″.[5]Hobsbawm has gone on the record to say that he “was not a Stalinist. I criticised Stalin, and I cannot conceive how what I’ve written can be regarded as a defence of Stalin. But as someone who was a loyal Party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about a number of things about which it’s reasonable not to be silent – things I knew or suspected in the USSR. Why I stayed [in the Communist Party] is not a political question about communism, it’s a one-off biographical question. It wasn’t out of idealisation of the October Revolution. I’m not an idealiser. One should not delude oneself about the people or things one cares most about in one’s life. Communism is one of these things and I’ve done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and to its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the passion it aroused is particular to the twentieth century. It was a combination of the high hopes which were brought with progress and the belief in human improvement during the nineteenth century along with the discovery that the bourgeois society in which we live (however great and fruitful) did not work and at certain stages looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. And it did collapse and generated awful nightmares “.[6]

According to the Marxist writer and expert on Leon Trotsky David North Hobsbawm’s writing on the Russian Revolution mostly portrays the revolution as being “doomed to failure” and a “fatal enterprise.” This leads to the assumption that the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the “Shipwreck of Socialism.”North admits Hobsbawm has produced some excellent work but,” the subject of the Russian Revolution is dangerous territory for Professor Hobsbawm, for in this field his scholarship is compromised by his politics. Hobsbawm once confessed that as a member of the CPGB he had avoided writing about the Russian Revolution and the 20th century, because the political line of his party would have prevented him from being entirely truthful. Why he chose to remain a member of a party that would have compelled him to tell lies is a question to which he has never given a convincing answer. At any rate, it would have been best for him and no loss to the writing of history, had he continued to limit himself to events before 1900″?[7]
As North points out Hobsbawm did not in later life limit himself to write on events pre 1900. Hobsbawm was very active writing about politics. It is in this regard I would like to examine his political career. While I believe that the plaudits Hobsbawm got recently for his history writing are thoroughly deserved. Given the level of press coverage and favourable obituaries from establishment figures highlight the importance Hobsbawm was for the ruling elite in Britain and internationally.

He was, after all, made a Companion of Honour. A rarity for a historian especially of his political persuasion. Hobsbawm was lauded from both sides of bourgeois democracy in Britain. Labour leader Ed Miliband said Prof Hobsbawm was “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of his family”. His historical works brought hundreds of years of British history to hundreds of thousands of people. He brought history out of the ivory tower and into people’s lives. But he was not simply academic; he cared deeply about the political direction of the country. Indeed, he was one of the first people to recognise the challenges to Labour in the late 1970s and 1980s from the changing nature of our society.”In this respect, Milliband says more than he intended. Hobsbawm was a major theoretical architect of the right-wing shift of New Labour. During his membership of the “Eurocommunist” wing of the CPGB and his time with the Marxism Today theoretical journal, he wrote many articles urging Labour to adopt a more right-wing trajectory. In 1978 he wrote the essay “The Forward March of Labour Halted”. Which in many ways, laid the basis for Labours future development? “If anything, I was an extremely right-wing Communist and generally attacked by the leftists, including the leftists in the Labour Party”.

Hobsbawm relationship with the origins of New Labour is explored in an article by Chris Marsden, which reveals Stalinism’s role in spawning new Labour. Marsden said the Communist Party of Great Britain “Euro-Communist” tendency acted as the midwife of New Labour.”Marsden continues with the observation that Marxism Today laid the “ideological framework for what was to become New Labour was first established in the editorial offices of Marxism Today. And it was mostly made possible to implement the project so defined due above all to the liquidation of the Soviet Union”.Hobsbawm had no real faith in the revolutionary capacity of the working class as can be seen in his Marx Memorial Lecture in 1978 and as Marsden concluded “Hobsbawm too began by asserting that the crisis of the labour movement could be attributed to the decline of the working class itself. His evidence for this mainly consisted of a presentation of the fall in the number of workers employed in heavy industry and the supposedly concomitant fall in support for the Labour and Communist parties. He then argued that industrial militancy had failed to provide an answer to the failures of the Labour government of the time. Hobsbawm’s lecture was not just unconvincing. It was an attempt to provide an apologia for the betrayal of the working class by Labour and the TUC. He was writing after the election of a Labour government in 1974 as a result of a mass militant movement that culminated in the downfall of the previous Conservative government of Edward Heath. After making sure minimal concessions to the miners, who had led that campaign, Labour had proceeded to implement austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund and, when this produced a major decline in its support amongst workers, had formed a coalition with the Liberal Party in order to continue with its attacks. Hobsbawm responded to this by blaming the working class—and identifying a supposed decline in its numerical strength—for Labour’s loss of support”.

Hobsbawm was not an orthodox Marxist. Politically speaking Hobsbawm was closer to social democracy and the right-wing side of the Labour Party than to Marxism. The harsh tone of this obituary should not take anything away from Hobsbawm’s historical writing, especially pre the 20th century, but you cannot separate his historical writing with his politics. This should be borne in mind when reading him.


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19786929
[2] Interview with Maya Jaggi published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002
[3] . “These the times … this the man”: an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill By Ann Talbot 25 March 2003
[4] http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/4h.htm
[5] https://academic.oup.com/past/article-abstract/5/1/33/1452973?redirectedFrom=PDF
[6] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/sep/22/history.politicalbooks
[7] Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the 20th Century A Reply to Professor Eric Hobsbawm By David North 3 January 1998.