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Eric Hobsbawm: Historian and Leninist

The death of Eric Hobsbawm on 1 October marked the end of a generation of left-wing historians who, while advancing historical materialism, rejected Marxian politics by embracing Leninism.

Prominent amongst this group were E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton, but the list also includes Maurice Dobb, A.L. Morton, Dorothy Thompson, John Saville, Victor Kiernan, Raphael Samuel and George Rudé. They entered the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and were active in the Communist Party Historians Group. Despite their political shortcomings, in the decades following the Second World War their work was part of a challenge to the arid, high-political history of ‘great men' that had previously dominated the academic study of history. Some went on to be active in the founding of the Society for the Study of Labour History and were part of the rise of social history ‘from below’ as an established academic subject. They produced works of historical scholarship which sometimes received a warm welcome from Socialists eager to absorb scholarship with a historical materialist perspective. Some of the work of this group of historians will continue to be a rich resource for socialists. If only they could have applied their historical materialism as rigorously to their own times as to their respective periods of study, perhaps they would not have politically affiliated to Leninism.

Hobsbawm, like many of the Communist Party historians who later rose to prominence, was radicalised during the inter-war years, pinning his hopes for the future on the Soviet Union. Nonetheless most of them left the Communist Party after the Russian repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, already disillusioned by the dawning realisation of the horrors of Stalin’s Russia and ongoing state repression. Hobsbawm was unusual in that he did not leave the Communist Party but remained a member until its collapse and to some extent continued as an apologist for Bolshevism until his death.

Hobsbawm was no unrepentant Stalinist, being an advocate of Eurocommunism in the 1970s and a supporter of Neil Kinnock’s reform of the Labour Party in the 1980s, but he retained a sense of the Soviet Union having been a worthy experiment gone awry. In his memoirs he wrote that the “dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me . . . I have abandoned, nay, rejected it, but it has not been obliterated. To this day, I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness.” (Interesting Times, p.56) In an article in the Guardian (14 September 2002) Hobsbawm said, “In the early days we knew a new world was being born amid blood and tears and horror: revolution, civil war, famine … Thanks to the breakdown of the west, we had the illusion that even this brutal, experimental, system was going to work better than the West. It was that or nothing.”

But it wasn’t that or nothing. As a member of the CPGB Hobsbawm supported the Soviet Union because it represented the hopes of those who mistakenly believed that a brutal form state capitalism could transform itself into a genuinely socialist society. As such he was an opponent of the Socialist Party, which then as now, seeks to establish socialism on the basis of real common ownership and democratic control of the means of living without a ‘transition period’ involving state capitalism. In one of his articles, originally published in New Left Review, Hobsbawm wrote on the subject of H. M. Hyndman and the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and referred to the Socialist Party of Great Britain as a “wholly irrelevant conventicle”. For a historian known for his grasp of detail, however, he wrongly stated the date of the formation of the party as 1906 instead of 1904. Doubtless this is because, like most historians who dismiss the Socialist Party out of hand, he had never taken the time to seriously examine its historical background or record.

The article went on to call for a reassessment of the SDF which had previously been scoffed at by left-wing historians. The SDF, argued Hobsbawm, had demonstrated longevity, had a proletarian character and had many left-wing workers that passed through it. It was characterised not by sectarianism but by an understandable intransigence (although, as a good Bolshevik, Hobsbawm remarks that the SDF was “quite unable to envisage … the problems of revolt or the taking of power.”). Hobsbawm’s qualified acknowledgments of the achievements of the SDF are all equally applicable to the historical place of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in British working-class political life. But one thing rules it out of contention for inclusion in the historical record of socialism in Britain for left-wing historians – it did not feed into the formation of the CPGB in 1920 but opposed it. For Hobsbawm, the SDF had historical credentials as part of a political exercise of looking for British native antecedents of the CPGB. The Socialist Party has stood for socialism as understood by Marx – non-market and non-state – and was therefore anti-Bolshevik. Because of this, the Socialist Party has been ignored or summarily dismissed by historians of communism and the labour movement who have generally been Leninist, Trotskyist or Labourite.

Disappointment with the realities of the Soviet Union led many of Hobsbawm’s contemporaries in the CPGB to ultimate political disillusionment and subsequent trajectories into other variants of left-wing politics. Whilst that generation of historians has itself become history, the Socialist Party still carries on the political task ignored by them – that of trying to begin to make the Socialist revolution that the Bolshevik revolution in Russia could never have achieved. That task necessarily involves an understanding and rejection of the strategy of the insurrectionary seizure of the state and the establishment of state capitalism as a route to Socialism. Today Socialists still have much work to do to recover the words socialism and communism from their association with state capitalism and the brutality of the political strategy supported by Hobsbawm.