Monday, April 4, 2011

Pity about the politics (2011)

Book Review from the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Hobsbawm: History and Politics. Gregory Elliott, (Pluto Press, 2010)

Once upon a time, the teaching of history in Britain was a fantasy world in which the emphasis was on the doings of kings and queens, statesmen and Prime Ministers, the role of Empire and ‘facts’ to be learned by rote. About 60 years ago this began to change and to some extent this can be attributed to the thinking of Karl Marx and his insistence that history had to be understood in its material contexts – that is, how wealth was produced, the parts played by social classes and the technology they used.

E.J. Hobsbawm along with other notable historians of this period such as E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hiil and Rodney Hilton produced works informed by Marx’s theory of history. Hobsbawm gained critical and commercial success with The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848, (1962), The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 (1975), The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (1987) and The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (1994). These and other works of Hobsbawm have been reprinted many times and have gained him a reputation as probably Britain’s best known historian and Marxist.

However, when it comes to Hobsbawm’s politics a very different picture emerges. Hobsbawm, Thompson, Hill and Hilton were at one time all members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). But whereas Thompson, Hill, Hilton and many others saw the error of their ways – especially after the suppression of the uprising in Hungary by Russian military in 1956 – and resigned, Hobsbawm remained in the CPGB until its dissolution in 1991. As a cheerleader for the CPGB and the Russian empire, Hobsbawm defended the leading role of the party advocated by Lenin, and dismissed the view that the emancipation of the working class had to be the work of the working class itself – the cornerstone of any Marxian politics. Even now, aged 93, he is still unapologetic about his political beliefs. Hobsbawm the historian had some interesting things to say, but his politics remain anti-Marxist.
Lew Higgins

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