Picture the scene. Bloomsbury, London, circa 1990. Sat at the desk of 43, Gordon Square, was a young(ish) porter, at Birkbeck College, University of London. Stood the other side of the porter’s booth was an old man. A thin, bespectacled, man with bright eyes and a wry expression. The older man engaged the younger one in conversation.
I was the younger man. I was working as porter whilst doing my second degree, history this time. When I told the older man this fact, his eyes brightened further. We fell to talking.
He was a professor of history: emeritus professor (meaning, in essence, retired and distinguished). He was Eric Hobsbawm, the greatest of Britain’s Marxist historians, and one of our greatest historians of all.
It seems a strange and exotic hangover from another era now: Marxist historians. Communism, in any meaningful sense, is close to being a historical relic. We live its awful legacies (North Korea, or Zimbabwe) and its afterlife (China, perhaps Russia). Like Nietzsche’s God, Marxism is dead, because we have killed it (unless we are, of course, shadow chancellor).
The first thing to realise is that in the world the likes of me grew up in, Marxism was anything but dead, politically or intellectually. As a boy, on a university taster visit (I went to a school without a strong tradition of its pupils going to university) I came across the University of East Anglia’s Maoists: I still own the copy of the Little Red Book they gave away. The guy I first shared a flat with when I started university was a member of the Militant Tendency (kind of like today’s Momentum, the Corbynistas) and had visited Moscow; he was convinced that the Soviet system was superior.
The generation or two before had felt a powerful political attraction to Marxism. In the 1930s, a powerful cocktail had led many to embrace some form of Marxism: the rise of Fascism and Nazism, the Spanish Civil War, unemployment and depression, or illusions about the socialist nirvana being built in Stalin’s USSR. When the convulsions of the Nazi-Soviet Pact were resolved by Operation Barbarossa (the German invasion of the Soviet Union), it was easy in the teeth of they Second World War to view Soviet communism as something of a force for good.
In short, in the world either side of that war, it was perfectly possible to see communism as a viable alternative.
And then there is Marx’s view of history. To put it simply, Marx had insights, he got some things right. In particular, his insights into the role that the material realities of human life had upon human societies is pretty profound, and would have a profound and virtuous impact upon the direction of historiography. In large part, some of the most important intellectual developments in the study of history in the 20th century had their roots in Marxism.
To be personal, for reasons of family in part, I have an abiding interest in the political, social and economic history of the British, Jewish and Irish working class. Look at much of the history written before the last century and that working class was pretty much ignored by history, and historians. One could say the same for women or minorities of all sorts. We deserve of place.
Marxism’s emphasis on the pivotal role of the working class led historians to look at them seriously for the first time. EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class was an epochal book: a foundation of the idea of ‘history from below’. Thompson was one of what we might call a school of Marxist historians. Others would include Hobsbawm, and Christopher Hill. Together, they were part of the Communist Party Historians Group, pioneers of both Marxist history and history from below until the group was shattered, like the party, but the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 (the MI5 files on Hobsbawm, Hill and Thompson give us a fascinating insight into the intellectual and ideological convulsions involved; see the links at the foot of this page).
All of them were easily reducible to simplification, albeit unfairly. If we were to do so, for the sake of example, Thompson (above) depicted a working class coming to class-consciousness, or Hill depicted the Civil War as England’s bourgeois revolution. Both ideas were fundamental to classic Marxism.
In truth, all those mentioned were important historians. Thompson created a history of working class England; Hill introduced us to the Civil War radicalism of Levellers and their like (as one of our old boys was the great Leveller John Lilburne, we should be happy with that).
Hill, Thompson and Hobsbawm were among the founders of the academic journal Past and Present, in 1952. Past and Present did a great deal to pioneer new kinds of history, and new perspectives upon it, and the whole notion of history from below. Importantly, it was never merely a Marxist enterprise, instead being journal in which ideas and perspectives were nuanced, varied and new.
That is not to deny their Marxism, or their attachment to communism. We learned this week (from newly released security service files) that EP Thompson was an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, until the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 led him to reject Soviet communism; he became a leading light in the ‘new left’ of the 1960s, and later of CND in the 1980s.
Like Thompson, Christopher Hill (right) became a communist in the 1930s; like Thompson, he fell out with the party over Hungary.
It’s not just personal bias, but in my view the greatest of all the Marxist historians was Eric Hobsbawm. Hobsbawm’s influence on my alma mater, Birkbeck, was immense. What underpinned Hobsbawm’s greatness as a historian was an intellectual independence of mind (albeit one framed by Marxism) and a vast, even encyclopaedic, knowledge of European and world history allied to a rare ability to synthesise meaningfully. His intellectual and cultural breadth gives his work a broad historical sweep seldom found. Most important historians write great books on what they know, and lesser ones to satisfy publisher’s demands for the general; Hobsbawm wrote four great general works on European history.
Hobsbawm will be forever associated with Birkbeck College, London. Birkbeck was a college which enabled mature students, like yours truly, to study as they worked, yet learn from the very best. Hobsbawm loved Birkbeck.
I was a lucky young man. The conversations we had with me at my desk blossomed; he gave his time to me just as he had to so many Birkbeck students, freely and with what seemed like evident pleasure. It is something for which I will be forever grateful.
And yet, formally, he never left the Communist Party. For one from the Bevinite Labour tradition, one passionately anti-Communist, that has never sat easy. Yesterday, we learned of the way MI5 had tabs on Thompson, just as they had on Hill, and Hobsbawm. One wonders what the spooks would have made of such erudite, and highly cultured reds: one suspects much was misunderstood.
Hobsbawm’s attachment to the party was, perhaps, above all else emotional. As a young Jew who had known inter-war Vienna and Berlin, communism had a genuine emotional heft. Interestingly, Hobsbawm wrote with great perception on the place of identity and emotion in intellectual, social, cultural and political history. Intellectually, he was anything but a prisoner of simple Marxism (as, arguably, the others were to some extent). The Age of Extremes, his great work of the ‘short twentieth century’ (from the start of the First World War to the fall of the Berlin Wall) was pretty swingeing on the Soviet Union; some of his most perceptive work showed an understanding of nationalism no simple doctrinaire Marxist could have ever had.
In truth, Marxism had many terrible effects upon human beings. Its effect on the study of history was, in part, pretty much for the good. And, in Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist intellectual tradition spawned one of the great historians and, that rare beast, one who will continue to be read for a long time.
I was privileged to have known, however slightly, Eric Hobsbawm.
You can listen to Hobsbawm talking to Simon Schama about his life and work.