History and the betrayal of radicalism

Eric Hobsbawm, the world’s best known Marxist historian has died at the age of 96. He notoriously stayed loyal to the Communist Party after the 1956 Hungarian revolution, that saw many of his comrades in the party’s historians group leave. Phil Hearse examines discusses his work and impact.

The obituaries of Eric Hobsbawm were almost universally laudatory, with the predictable exception of the Daily Mail, which proclaimed “He hated Britain and apologised for Stalin”. Even arch neoliberal pro-imperialist Niall Ferguson judged Hobsbawm a ‘great historian’. But it is doubtful that his death would have been a media event at all, were it not for the way he used his authority to intervene against the leftwing Bennite upsurge in the Labour Party at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s.

There are, so to speak, two sides to Hobsbawm’s legacy. On the one hand there is his work as a Marxist economic and social historian of the 18th and 19th centuries, and then there is his lamentable political intervention 30 years ago and indeed his whole view of politics in the 20th Century, summed up in his book The Age of Extremes (1). In my view these two legacies stand in contradiction to one another and below I explain why.

The Age of Extremes played the role of a somewhat unfortunate coda to his three best books, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire (2). These three books (together with Industry and Empire (3)) are the core of his work as a historian of the rise and consolidation of European capitalism and the revolutionary movements against it.

Fifty years since the first publication of Age of Revolution, there has not been a single serious Marxist rebuttal of the central tenets of Hobsbawm’s exposition, precisely because they represent an orthodox Marxist account of the main trends of history between 1798 and 1914. His account, a more-or-less successful attempt to apply Marx’s categories to European historical development, became the ‘common sense’ of generations of British socialists, both those from the Communist and social democratic traditions.

Hobsbawm’s account follows the logical (although not chronological) framework of: first the bourgeois revolutions which cleared the ground for capitalist development, then the industrial revolution and then the deepening of world capitalism’s stranglehold through the search for empire. Of course Hobsbawm doesn’t propose this as any kind of simplistic chronological framework because these three moments of transition were in the real world intermingled and overlapped.

But Hobsbawm was never tempted by the school of thought that emerged in the 1980s – the main spokespeople of which were Ellen Meiksins Wood and George Comninel – which denied on the basis of excruciating chop-logic that the French revolution and the English revolution in the mid-17th century were bourgeois revolutions at all (4). If Wood and Comninel had been more attentive to Hobsbawm’s account they would have unraveled the answer to the main mystery that bothered them: why didn’t full blown capitalism emerge directly from the heroic days of the Jacobins and the guillotine?

According to Hobsbawm the French revolution unfolded in two phases, the second starting in 1830:

The revolutionary wave of 1830 was therefore a much more serious affair … In effect it marks the definitive defeat of aristocratic by bourgeois power in Western Europe. The ruling class of the next 50 years was to be the ‘grande bourgeoisie’ of the bankers, wealthy industrialists and sometimes top civil servants, accepted by an aristocracy that effaced itself or agreed to promote primarily bourgeois policies… [this dominance was] unchallenged as yet by universal suffrage, though harassed from the outside by unsuccessful businessmen, the petty bourgeoisie and the early labour movements….The 1830 revolutions also introduced two further modifications into left wing politics. They split moderates from radicals and they created a new international situation.”(Age of Revolution p.140).

This latter consideration, the splitting of moderates from radicals, and indeed the suppression of the latter by the former, becomes an enduring theme of Hobsbawm’s account of the 19th century. Continuing his assessment of 1830 and its aftermath he says:

…after a short interval of toleration and zeal, the moderates tended to moderate their enthusiasm for further reform and to suppress the radical left, and especially the working class revolutionaries. ..In Britain the Owenite ‘General Union’ of 1834-5 and the Chartists faced the hostility of the men who had opposed the Reform Act and many who had advocated it. In France the suppression of the republican uprising of 1834 marked the turning point: in the same year the terrorization of six honest Wesleyan labourers who had tried to form an agricultural labourers union (the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’) marked the equivalent offensive against the working class movement in Britain.” (Age of Revolution p149).

Hobsbawm accurately describes how the high point of working class radicalism in the first half of the 19th Century, the Chartists, emerged before Marxism itself and thus lacked the theory, strategy and tactics to be able to chart a national, revolutionary and class independent course.

The breaking of the moderates from the radicals was vividly on show during the ‘springtime of the peoples’, the revolutions of 1848, when the bourgeois and republican radicals fully supported and participated in the suppression and even massacre of the working class revolutionaries, explained in Marx’s famous brochure The Class Struggles in France.

The Forward March of Labour Halted?”

If Hobsbawm’s work follows a more or less orthodox Marxist approach to European history up to 1914, then the final book of the series The Age of Extremes is severely flawed. The best way to approach it is to work backwards from Hobsbawm’s intervention against the rise of the Bennite movement in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

In 1978, just a few months before Thatcher won her first election to become Prime Minister, Hobsbawm gave the Marx Memorial Lecture entitled “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” Labour in the title it turned out was the Labour Party, because in essence the question that he poses is why the growth of the Labour vote has stalled, why the Tories still had so much support in the working and middle classes. His answer essentially was that the ‘old’ working class – male dominated, industrial and manual – was in decline to be replaced by a more differentiated, female and white collar working class. According to Hobsbawm, the ‘old’ Labour of social democratic reformism was based on this old working class, and something new was needed. This was picked up by the Eurocommunist wing of the Communist Party around Marxism Today and interpreted as a necessity to retreat from class politics towards identity politics, not the necessity to re-articulate a hegemonic working class strategy around the needs and concerns of a changing working class.

In fact, as Hobsbawm himself says with some pride in his autobiography Interesting Times, he intervened in the debates against the newly-emerged left-wing ‘Bennite’ trend in the Labour Party with vehemence, denouncing on the way ‘sectional’ and ‘sectarian’ left wingers on behalf of the Kinnock Labour leadership’ -so much so that Neil Kinnock proclaimed Hobsbawm “My favourite Marxist”. Ironically in his Forward March essay Hobsbawm had himself pointed to the Labour leadership as part of the problem:

If we are to explain the stagnation or crisis, we have to look at the Labour Party and the labour movement itself. The workers, and growing strata outside the manual workers, were looking to it for a lead and policy. They didn’t get it. They got the Wilson years – and many of them lost faith and hope in the mass party of working people.” (Marxism Today Sept, 1978 p.285)

Exactly so, but it is difficult to see how exactly Kinnock and Blair provided a more incisive and inspirational lead for working people. As Perry Anderson comments:

Hobsbawm recounts with relish, but overestimates, his role in the media outcry that finished off Benn and put the pitiable figure of Kinnock in office. Since the whole of Fleet Street, from the Sun and Mirror through to the Guardian and the Telegraph, was baying for Benn’s head, it is doubtful how much difference his personal bark made. He assures us that once Kinnock had conducted the necessary purges of the Party, ‘its future was safe.’ Alas, even with Thatcher out of the way, the new leader proved a fiasco at the polls in 1992. .. far from being saved, in the sense he wanted, [the Labour Party] was turned inside out to produce what he himself now calls a ‘Thatcher in trousers’.

Marxism Today

Remarking that, since his rescue-operation of the Party, a Labour Left no longer exists, he seems unable to grasp that just this was one of the conditions of the rise of Blairism he now deplores. It is obvious enough that on a minor scale Marxism Today – journalistically lively, but with no intellectual or political stamina (it disappeared in 1991 with the Party that kept it) – played the role of a sorcerer’s apprentice, not least in preparing the cult of Thatcher as a model of radical government that was taken over with a vengeance by New Labour.” (The Age of EJH, London Review of Books, Oct 3 2002).

In the last significant political act of his life, the historian who recounted so many acts of treachery by the liberals and moderates against the radicals and revolutionaries, did exactly the same himself.

The Age of Extremes, on the 20th century from 1914-1991, contains of course a lot of interesting material, but the central question he is discussing is the failure of the Communist movement in which he spent so much of his life. The book was written just as the Soviet Union was collapsing.

Lame wishful-thinking

Hobsbawm never adequately charts the social roots of the degeneration of the Soviet Union, but recounts some of its consequences. He accuses the Bolsheviks (‘in retrospect’) of a major error – the permanent division of the international labour movement, separating its revolutionary wing into independent Communist Parties, through the creation of the Communist International (Age of Extremes pp69 ff). This is lame wishful-thinking counterfactual history. The political separation of revolutionaries and reformists grew out of the struggle itself, not out of auto-proclamation of the Bolsheviks. The refusal to allow the Communists to form their own parties would have made them permanent subordinate victims of the reformist and right wing bureaucracy, and generally have resulted in expulsion if they challenged for the leadership of a united workers party, leading to the necessity…to form their own parties.

Hobsbawm claims that independent revolutionary parties could only be justified if the situation was imminently revolutionary, which after 1920 it was not in Europe. But as Trotsky’s famous speech at the third Comintern congress argued, the possibility of a stabilisation of capitalism would open up a long period of preparation by the Communist parties. The improvisation of a revolutionary party in the middle of a revolutionary crisis was hardly a viable prospect.

For Eric Hobsbawm the long boom that followed the second world war opened up ‘The Golden Age’ – the age of the mixed economy and the welfare state that lasted roughly from 1950 to the mid-late 1970s. Marxists have mainly seen this period as a class compromise made by the bourgeoisie in the advanced countries with a working class determined not to go back to the unemployment and poverty of the 1930s. Normally this has been seen as just one form of capitalism based on ‘Fordist’ mass production, but not a final goal or end in itself for socialists. Eric Hobsbawm at least wavered on this. Towards the end of Age of Extremes he speculates:

However it may well be that the debate which confronted capitalism and socialism as polar opposites and mutually exclusive will be seen by future generations as a relic of ideological Cold Wars of Religion. It may turn out to be as irrelevant to the third millennium as the debate between Catholics and various reformers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries proved to be in the eighteenth and nineteenth.” (Age of Extremes p564)

As Hegel said, all analogies are invidious – but some are more invidious than others. As a piece of wishful thinking this one takes the biscuit. Twenty one years after this was written the ‘debate’ between capitalism and socialism seems anything but ‘irrelevant’, with Golden Ages of compromise capitalism as likely on the horizon as pink elephants.

It may well be” that someone who did sterling work as a Marxist historian, but put his faith in the international Stalinist movement for a lifetime and who eventually did some dirty work for the labour bureaucracy against the left, completely lost his political bearings. His 20th century political judgements will happily last for a much shorter time than the core of his historical work.


1) EJ Hobsbawm, Ages of Extremes, Michael Joseph 1994.

2) Published in 1962, 1975 and 1987 respectively.

3) EJ Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire, 1968

4) George C Cominel, Rethinking the French Revolution, Verso 1987. Unhappily this argument is rehashed in Benno Teschke, The Myth of 1648, Verso 2009. See also The Bourgeois Revolutions, Robert Lochhead, Notebooks for Study and Research, IIRE 1989. Hobsbawm’s writing was itself an implicit rejection of the earlier anti-Marxist critics of the bourgeois revolution thesis like Alfred Cobban, who in many ways anticipated the later arguments of Comninel.


  1. It’s a good obituary but it could do with connecting Hobsbawm’s politics to his fatalism. His view, in particular, that social and political change happens across the long duration of history and not as a result of the conscious political actions of agents. This was ultimately highly deterministic, but not in the “usual” fashion of seeing the economic base wholly determine the superstructure, as he gave great emphasis to cultural transformation. While he gave this importance to culture, he arguably saw it as part of a determining set of social structures that only changed in the long duration and not in the “great historic ruptures” of 1917, 1968, 2011 (?), etc.

    Hobsbawm even once said that historians in the year 3,000 are likely to pay more attention to the cultural transformations after 1945 that we (living people, political actors, etc) adapted to rather than created through our collective activity, than they would to the wars, revolutions and massacres of that century. An incredibly far fetched and one sided statement that reflected his disillusionment with (or perhaps even rejection of) searching for active, political ways of achieving radical change.

    These positions are expressed in unusually explicit terms in his article for the Sociological Research Online from 2007 in a roundtable on Bourdieu:


    I say this as someone who loves Hobsbawm’s historical writing and in my own research on Chinese communism I try to understand it in “the long duration”. But Trotsky also took this long duration approach in The History of the Russian Revolution and that still didn’t stop him recognising the role play by conscious political actors, the Bolsheviks et al, in the revolution.

    Anyways, good review which I agree with. Just adding a footnote.

    Best wishes,


  2. Good article Phil.
    I think it’s vital to seperate Hobsbawn as historian from Hobsbawm as communist. The historian was a genius while the activist seems unable to relate to specific events- reducing everything to “the broad sweep of history”. That made his autobiography an interesting but frustating read.

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