Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Ages of Eric Hobsbawn

By Andy Newman 
Socialist Unity 
March 19, 2011

hobsbawm_cover2.JPGGregory Elliott’s new book on the political thought of Eric Hobsbawm is a welcome work of serious scholarship about an important and influential thinker.

Elliott seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of Hobsbawm’s politics, and does very successfully develop an intellectual biography showing the evolution of the subject’s thought, particularly as evidenced by the changing viewpoints through Hobsbawm’s history of modernity, from The Age of Revolution in 1962, through the The Age of Capital in 1975, The Age of Empire in 1987, and The Age of Extremes in 1994.

Given the length of Hobsbawm’s political and intellectual career, and the breadth of his achievement, it would have been a Herculean task to do justice to every aspect of Hobsbawm’s work. However, I do feel that Elliott’s decision to omit a critical discussion of Hobsbawm’s account of nations and nationalism was a mistake.

Hobsbawms, work “Nations and Nationalism Since 1780” alongside the book he edited “The Invention of Tradition” are not only seminal texts in the understanding of the theory of nationalism, to be read alongside Gellner and Anderson, but their approach is both informed by and informs Hobsbawm’s commitment to the politics of the Popular Front. Georgi Dimitrov’s report to the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935 on the ideological battle against fascism clearly sounds out some of themes about how national identity is a contested political terrain that Hobsbawm later develops. This was the forge in which Hobsbawm’s world view was wrought.

Indeed, it is Hobsbawm’s insight into the way politics is shaped by collectively shared and socially constructed identities that made him sensitive to the impact of the declining communal experience of proletarian life, and the way that the nostalgic iconography of labourism was struggling to relate to modernity. I feel Elliott doesn’t give sufficient weight to Hobsbawm’s impact on contemporary politics, as opposed to his work as an historian.

Hobsbawm’s critical article “The Forward March of Labour Halted” from 1978 is not specifically discussed, despite the enormous influence it had on the British radical left.

Elliott’s downplaying of these important themes in Hobsbawm’s thought perhaps flow from his own seemingly perfunctory dismissal of popular front politics as having been ineffectual.

That is not the way it looked to Hobsbawm, who was acutely aware that it was the labour movement’s influence that tipped the balance between the pro-appeasement Halifax wing of the Conservative Party, and the anti-fascist supporters of Sir Winston Churchill. What is more, the popular front politics which dominated the British left during the wartime period also created a seismic shift in the values popularly identified as typically British.

Nevertheless Elliott’s discussion is intelligent and nuanced. He sympathetically locates Hobsbawm’s particular Marxism in what Hobsbawm called the Brechtian generation, which deliberately trained itself to approve the harshest of discipline in a struggle for socialism against a background of fascism, economic depression and war. For Hobsbawm, “Communist Parties were not for romantics, they were for organisation and routine”

It is a constant of Hobsbawm’s politics that he remains unsentimentally focussed on the realities of state power. Contrary to the naïve faith in working class “self-emancipation”, Hobsbawm argues that socialist governments  arise “not out of class, but out of the characteristic combination of class and organisation. It is not the working class itself which takes power and exercises hegemony but the working class movement or party, and (short of taking an anarchist view) it is difficult to see how it could be otherwise” 

Socialism for Hobsbawm could never be divorced from the active seeking of government power, and wielding that power for the collective good. For that reason he has been dismissive of those aspects of the New Left which focussed on the “personal is political”. Collective organisation against oppression is progressive, but concentrating on individualistic expression and non-conformity is for Hobsbawm a surrender to the prevailing personal consumerism and shallow alienation of capitalist society. He has argued that the polar opposite of socialism is individualism.

Elliott convincingly demonstrates that despite his self-confessed Marxism, Hobsbawm has been refreshingly disengaged with traditional Marxist accounts of capitalist economics and class conflict as driver of history. In his later writing Hobsbawm accounts for the dynamics of capitalism more in terms of their external competition with the socialist bloc.

This is an approach with some merit, although it is perhaps only a partial account. The USSR impacted upon liberal capitalism by enabling the West to win the Second World War, by providing an incentive for capitalism to reform itself, and through the USSR’s apparent immunity to the great depression granting credibility to Keynesiam concepts of state intervention. It also provided a model of independence and national development for the former colonies, along with more practical help for liberation movements, that spelled doom for the French and British Empires, especially when combined with the free market pressure on those imperial blocs from the USA.

However, as Hobsbawm observed, the fact that actually existing socialism was confined to backward, agrarian zones meant that it could never realistically overtake the West; material shortages and both external and internal pressures ensured that it could never transcend “a ruthless, brutal command socialism”
In more recent years, while Hobsbawm has remained a qualified defender of the experience of the USSR, he has shifted his focus to see it more as a transition phase in development towards modernity. Hobsbawm has also developed a more cautious approach to human progress, where he originally took a fairly deterministic, almost Whig, view that history followed a march towards human emancipation, this has now become more tempered.

Hobsbawm’s work is located in a difficult space for a historian, both politically engaged, but also directly commenting on near contemporary events. He remains the product of his own life and experience, where as a Jewish intellectual from Mitteleuropa, identification with the anti-fascist alternative of the USSR was almost a question of existential survival. It remained a key frame of reference, which allowed him a particular and unique voice. However, Hobsbawm, now a very elderly although mentally active man, has not yet grasped a key aspect of the modern world, and in particular the rise and rise of China stands less tall for him than it should.

I do recommend this book. It is frustrating in parts, brilliant in other parts, but it does help you look at the world through Eric Hobsbawm’s eyes, which is a very worthwhile thing.

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