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Salvaging the socialist cause

Richard Seymour reviews Eric Hobsbawm's latest book, and a new biography of this influential historian

May 15, 2011
5 min read

Hobsbawm: History and Politics
Gregory Elliott, Pluto Press, 2010

How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism
Eric Hobsbawm, Little Brown, 2011

Eric Hobsbawm, known widely as Britain’s pre-eminent Marxist historian, has also made more of a mark on the British political landscape than perhaps most are aware. As a former Communist Party intellectual, he has provided an ideological rationale and direction for left practice that has been influential well beyond the party itself. For example, his essays on politics in the 1980s, informed by a reading of Gramsci, provided the rationale for Labour to take a lurch to the right in order to win over middle class and ‘affluent’ working class voters, and construct a popular front against Thatcherism. As a historian, he has demonstrated the subtlety and power of the Marxist method; as a political activist, he has shown the strengths, and weaknesses, of the socialist praxis that he espouses.

Gregory Elliott’s shrewd and characteristically elegant intellectual biography of Hobsbawm is a timely intervention, coming just as Marxist ideas are experiencing an intellectual revival – a revival that Hobsbawm himself seeks to assist with his collected essays on Marxism. Elliott shares many of Hobsbawm’s concerns, not least his view that socialism suffered a historic catastrophe, with no apparent rebound in sight, in 1989. But though sympathetic to Hobsbawm, Elliott’s analysis is studded with judicious and sometimes stiletto-sharp criticisms.

The pleasure of reading Hobsbawm on Marx and socialism is partly aesthetic. He is, as he has written, animated by a ‘bit of the Blakean vision of the New Jerusalem’. For all that his version of Marx, Engels and the early socialists holds that they were the legatees of bourgeois Enlightenment progressivism – a progressivism which, Elliott points out, Hobsbawm shares – he retains a romantic, elegiac streak. But in addition to this, there is real joy in seeing Hobsbawm bring to bear his powerful, penetrating historical analysis on the contentious subjects of so many tendentious books and columns. The essays on Engels, the Communist Manifesto and pre-capitalist formations strike an effective balance between often obscure historiographical debates and rich historical and biographical detail.

It is the 19th century – or rather the latter half of the 19th century – that occupies the majority of this book. Yet the 20th century, and Marxism’s impact on it, forms the real fulcrum of the argument. A paladin of Hobsbawm’s book, and a key influence on his political life, is the Sardinian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci – he gets two chapters, whereas Trotsky and those who Hobsbawm calls ‘Trotskyites’ get a few scattered references here and there.

For Hobsbawm, Gramsci’s major contribution to Marxism was to provide a ‘Marxist theory of politics’, setting out the coordinates for socialist strategy outside of what he considered the exceptional era in which the Bolshevik revolution occurred. Of all the communist parties in post-war Europe, Hobsbawm had most sympathy for the Italian PCI and its leader Palmiro Togliatti, whose appropriation of Gramsci provided a medium way between an unavailing revolutionary socialism and an unappealing social democracy.

There have been many acute critics of this version of Gramsci, lately including Peter Thomas, who points out just how orthodox Gramsci’s Leninism was. But the utility of this centrist Gramsci for Hobsbawm was in part to provide a rationale for applying the ‘popular front’ model of action, pioneered by pro-USSR parties in opposition to fascism, to a wider array of political struggles. This model, which Hobsbawm celebrates in a lengthy chapter covering the Great Depression and the second world war, seeks to create broad coalitions between workers and the middle classes, socialists and liberals. It therefore lends itself to strategic dilutions of socialism and perhaps ultimately its abandonment.

Hobsbawm’s praise for ‘Eurocommunism’, the rightward moving tendency in Italian, French and Spanish communist parties, as an example of popular frontism, shows how this works in practice. His later praise for Kinnock, and even his endorsement of New Labour, was a continuation of this strategy. Elliott is critical of some of this, as he is generally of many of Hobsbawm’s minute redactions in the service of his perspective. He might have been harsher in his judgments: Eurocommunism was a disaster, especially in the Italian variant to which Hobsbawm professed spiritual adherence.

A powerful motive force in Hobsbawm’s post-communist writing, it emerges from Elliott’s book, is to find an intelligent way to salvage the reputation of the cause to which he dedicated so much of his life. He is firmly of the view that socialism is not a realistic possibility, and that it was always doomed to fail. The class struggle will go on, and in this respect he urges that Marx’s central insights into capitalism were correct. But he is convinced that communism was a pathology of modernity, or at least of the transition to modernity.

The redemption turns primarily on the role of the USSR in upholding the incentive to oppose free market capitalism, and in defeating fascism. This is not much of a consolation. It would seem to be urgent to construct socialism on an alternative basis to Stalinist barbarism – fortunately, Hobsbawm’s sparkling essays and Elliott’s judicious, polished biography give us some of the materials with which to do so.

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