ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Hobsbawm's Unanswered Question

How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism by Eric Hobsbawm (London: Little, Brown; distributed in India by Hachette), 2011; pp 470, Rs 795 (HB).

Eric Hobsbawm is now the only survivor of an entire generation of British Marxist historians born in the second and third decades of the 20th century. The roll-call of those who have predeceased him gives some indication of the extraordinary range of talent ­involved: George Rudé and Edward Thompson (both died in 1993), Geoffrey de Ste Croix (2000), Rodney Hilton (2002), Christopher Hill (2003), Brian Manning (2004), Victor Kiernan and John Saville (both 2009).1 Yet, remarkably for someone born in the same year as the Russian Revolution, Hobsbawm has only recently given up public speaking and he is still regularly sought out by the British media for commentary on current affairs, most recently on the Arab Spring.2 Nevertheless, it is likely that his latest collection, boldly entitled How to Change the World, will be his last. Appro­priately enough it deals with the subject of Marxism itself and provides us with the opportunity to assess his own relationship to it, which has been far from straightforward.

For Hobsbawm, as for Hill, Hilton, ­Ki­e­rnan, Saville and Thompson, the roles of Communist Party militant and Marxist intellectual were originally ­inseparable. Unlike these contemporaries, they remained so: he retained his membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) almost until the ­organisation dissolved itself following the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in 1989-91. Hobsbawm has written that his Marxism “was, and to some extent still remains, that acquired from the only texts then easily available outside university libraries, the systematically distributed works and selections of ‘the classics’ published (and translated in heavily subsidised local editions) under the auspices of Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow.”3 Despite this declaration, Hobs­bawm’s Marxism, at least as expressed in his ­historical works, has never been confined by the mechanical formulae of Stalinist orthodoxy. This may explain why – as he has noted with evident pique more than once – his historical works were not translated into Russian nor, Hungarian and Slovenian apart, into the majority of the other eastern European languages until after the fall of the Berlin Wall.4 Hobsbawm has argued that for several reasons the general approach of the Historians’ Group of the CPGB was not as marked by “dogmatism” as it might have been. Outside of contemporary political issues which potentially conflicted with the views of the party leadership there were genuine attempts to explore historical issues. In the case of British history there was in any case no particular line and Group members specifically attempted to connect their work as Marxists with analysis of earlier radical traditions.5 Nevertheless, he candidly acknowledged the personal constraints imposed on his own work:

I myself became essentially a nineteenth century historian, because I soon discovered – actually in the course of an aborted project of the CP Historians’ Group to write a history of the British labour movement – that, given the strong official Party and Soviet views about the twentieth century, one could not write about anything later than 1917 without the likelihood of being denounced as a political heretic. I was ready to write about the century in a political or public capacity, but not as a professional historian. My history finished at Sarajevo in June 1914.6

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