Unlike CLR James, I have no idea whether or not Eric Hobsbawm enjoyed cricket – probably not, though he did like jazz. Anyhow, at 95 he has had, as they say, ‘a good innings’ during which he witnessed interesting times, by his own account. As a socialist historian I have had ambiguous feelings towards Hobsbawm over the years and only in recent times have I begun to realize that, purely as a historian, he was much more of an unorthodox Marxist than his political affiliation led one to believe and a very good writer.
It would be wrong of me to totally criticize him for remaining loyal to the Communist Party through the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956 and then again the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, as well as numerous other ‘betrayals’. After all, I was a CPGB member myself between 1966 and 1968, despite full knowledge of 1956. In his own mind he remained loyal to the Communist Party and its wider international traditions out of loyalty to the original revolution of 1917 and out of loyalty to the fight against fascism in the 1930s that caused him to join.
His failing was to not translate this loyalty into one towards the international working-class and its wider movement, which should have been the primary loyalty of anyone calling themselves a communist or socialist. He paid the price in the end by sinking into a much deeper disillusionment, lost all hope for a better future and ended up coat-tailing the New Labour project of Tony Blair and his cohorts. Perhaps that showed that he was not merely an ‘unorthodox Marxist’, he was not a Marxist at all.
As a historian he has therefore to be also judged by his poor excuses for his own decisions, not only at the time he made them, but in continuing to justify them long after the evidence showed he should have known better. Perhaps it is also worth remarking on a certain patrician attitude in that he continued to repeat old chestnuts about the past without engaging in the kind of detailed research for which others like E.P. Thompson were renowned. Quite rightly, he was picked up by Louise Raw in her recent book on the Bryant and May Match Factory strike, for not examining more closely and open-mindedly the role of the women strikers themselves. He remained a Stalinist, never quite able to conceive of the wider working-class being able to motivate and organise themselves politically and economically without the ‘aid’ of a superior political elite leadership.
Having said that, as a historian he beats a lot of big media names into a cocked hat. He quite rightly takes his place alongside a handful of great British historians – Asa Briggs, AJP Taylor, EP Thompson, Christopher Hill. Thanks for the good things you have done, Eric, now rest in peace.