I guess much of my life has been lived in the shadow of Eric Hobsbawm, whose death has just been announced. At a certain moment, however, I began to move toward criticism of his position on working-class internationalism, as represented by his Opening Address to a conference on this, held at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, and then in the two volume book coming out of this conference (Van Holthoon and Van der Linden, 1988).
20 years after this, I took issue with him in a review article, 'The World of International Communism and Communist Internationalism: Lost But Not (to be Forgotten)'. This will reappear in a compilation, 'Recovering Internationalism, Creating the New Global Solidarity', to be published by into-ebooks.com before the end of this year. Below is an extract.
Now read on...
The greatest social historian of his time
This is the moment to roll on Eric Hobsbawm. He has just crowned an impressively long career as an outstanding social historian, of truly international repute, with his almost-century-long and wide-ranging memoirs (Hobsbawm 2002). Born in Year One of the Russian Revolution, growing up in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, Eric really has more reason to consider himself a child of the revolution than all the rest of us combined. Reading him has been an unsettling experience since I cannot help feeling that his life foreshadows my less illustrious one. He came from a secular Jewish family, became a Communist, then an academic specialist on labour history and social protest, traveled widely. One generation older than me, the guy could have practically been my father! I certainly read and was inspired by Eric’s writings, even whilst still at school. Beginning my own career as an international Communist bureaucrat, later an academic specialist on labour and social movements, I sat quietly at the back of meetings of the Communist Historians Group, in the early-1960s, listening to Eric and a whole generation of brilliant British social historians. Or, at least to those of them who had stayed in the CPGB after 1956-7.
Eric Hobsbawm did not really leave the Communist world and movement until this movement left him and that world self-destructed. Conveniently for readers, Eric has a chapter on Communism and his life as a Communist (127-51). This begins unpromisingly, I think, since he declares that:
The question why I stayed so long [1936 to c.1986?] obviously belongs in an autobiography, but it is not of general historical interest. (127)
That, surely, depends on what kind of history one is generally interested in. Hobsbawm continues along his Communist half-century, providing us with historical cases, anecdotes and explanations, but never quite giving us his own coming-to-terms with a faith, with a party, with states, which were having an ever-decreasing attraction to, respectively, the believers, the members and their citizens.
Although, moreover, Hobsbawm denies that Communist Parties were for romantics (133), both his account and his own prolonged attachment to Communism suggest, rather, the contrary:
The Leninist ‘vanguard’ party was a combination of discipline, business efficiency, utter emotional identification and a sense of total dedication. (ibid. Original stress)
If this does not itself include romanticism, membership surely requires it. (So, indeed, does the internationalism of the new global justice movements, hopefully under the slogan, ‘Another Emancipatory Romanticism is Possible!’). It also, however, requires a certain denial of, or blindness toward, other realities or other people’s (and peoples’) experiences and perceptions of such realities. Eric Hobsbawm certainly describes the rise and fall of this ultra-secular and ultra-modernist faith. But he does not note the extent to which it also incorporated religious and other pre-modern elements. Jorge Semprun (1980:258) reports a Spanish Party article of faith: ‘It is better to be wrong with the party, inside the party, than to be right out of it or against it’. He compares it to the Catholic belief that ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’. Hobsbawm does not, furthermore, I think, admit responsibility for continuing to endorse through his party membership (alright, as a dissident) something that in 1953 (Berlin), 1956 (Poznan and Budapest), and 1968 (Prague) was crushing the labour and popular protest which he as a historian was both a student of and publicly identified with! Even after the collapse of Communism, he evidently had no problem appearing on TV in prolonged and affable conversation with Markus Wolf (150, Figure 30), an equally urbane and cosmopolitan Communist, who nonetheless served the German (Un-)Democratic Republic, as the Allen Dulles of its CIA, until two years before this concrete dystopia collapsed.
Edward Thompson, another of those brilliant British Communist labour and social historians, but of a more culturalist and humanist bent, left the Communist Party after 1956, and then started a whole new political life, championing the social movements that only later came to be called ‘new’ – citizen rights, peace, and solidarity across the Cold War divide. Although I left the Party one disaster after Thompson and one final crisis before Eric, I followed the path of the former rather than that of the latter.
This brings us back to Marxism Today, and Eric’s influential ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted’ (263-81). This period actually marks Hobsbawm’s most dramatic intervention into the politics of labour in the UK. Originally intending to record the progressive differentiation of the working class and consequent marginalisation of the Labour Party and union movement, Eric came to be the leading Marxist voice for the rightward march of labour. His analysis, in this memoir, of the various failed attempts of various socialist lefts, to capture the Labour Party, carries considerable conviction. But the political impact of Hobsbawm’s argument was to nudge the Labour Party in the direction of Tony Blair, a ‘Thatcher in trousers’ (276), who leaves Hobsbawm appalled.
A lifelong cosmopolitan and an internationalist (not the same thing), Eric, it seems to me, here lost the plot – or failed to see the emergence of a new one. I have elsewhere recorded the contrasting positions – at a low point of labour and socialist internationalism - of Edward Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm (Waterman 2001:40-42). Whilst both saw this flag in tatters, Thompson referred to the necessary preservation of an ‘internationalism of the imagination’, Hobsbawm saw the hope for its future as lying with the African National Congress of South Africa (for which see again Footnote 111)! The ANC, though heavily influenced by Communism, was, of course, less a labour or a socialist than a radical-nationalist movement. And it has to be said that its internationalism implied, for example, identification with the Soviet Union’s fatal reproduction in Afghanistan of the disastrous US strategy in Vietnam. Hobsbawm, the labour historian, here revealed ignorance of the ‘new labour internationalism’ associated at that very time with a South African trade union movement that had escaped from both the traditional Communist and the Radical-Nationalist shackles (Southall 1995).
Eric Hobsbawm remains for me a great social historian of his time, but then in both senses: the time he writes about and his imprisonment within it. Where Thompson’s internationalism of the imagination helps us imagine a new kind internationalism, Hobsbawm’s remains an internationalism.
 A point recognised in a masterly review of the autobiography by Perry Anderson (2002), who also identifies a series of political and personal contradictions, or changing tones, in the work. Anderson’s looks likely to be the review-of-reference for the Hobsbawm memoirs.
 Here matters get murkier - and dirtier. In his role, Markus Wolf was either directly or indirectly responsible for the major East German solidarity activity in the world, this being the training of Third World nationalist movements in matters of internal security (spying, imprisonment, torture and death). One of these organisations was the African National Congress, and such people as Ronnie Kasrils, something of a Communist Pimpernel, then head of security for the ANC’s military arm, Umkonto we Sizwe (Kasrils 1993, Trewhela 1992). Ronnie Kasrils, along with numerous other leading South African Communists, nationalists and – it must be said – unionists, have now converted themselves into the ideologues and bearers of neo-liberalism in South Africa! I am not at all sure that we can blame all this on the ironies of history. There is in Communist party tradition, and not only in Communist state practice, something that puts loyalty (subservience to institutions, leaders and ideology) above personal autonomy and responsibility (the critical/self-critical personality). These were, of course, not only characteristics of Communism. But given Communism’s pretensions to represent human emancipation, the contradictions are sharper here. The new internationalisms really need to surpass any notion that human emancipation can be embodied in a state or party.
 A leader of the UK Socialist Workers Party, characteristically, understands Hobsbawm’s autobiography in terms of a Tale of Two Erics (Harman 2002), one Virtuous, one Vicious. Evil Eric is, of course, the one whose critique of the British left of the 1980s still scores against the SWP of the 2000s.
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