The other side of the coin: Eric Hobsbawm as Eurocommunist


Even in death we must not forget Hobsbawm’s Stalinism, writes Stuart King

It is certainly true, as Ishan Cader says, that Eric Hobsbawm was a great historian. Along with Christopher Hill and E.P Thompson, fellow members of the Communist Party Historians’ Group, he transformed the understanding and teaching of British history for a generation of students from the 1960s onwards. His writings, much broader in scope than Hill’s or Thompson’s, remain deservedly influential today. However, Eric Hobsbawm was more than a Marxist historian, he was a political actor; a rare thing in Britain, an influential “public intellectual”. Therefore we need to judge his life and influence not only as Hobsbawm the historian, but also by his politics.

It is here, in the great political debates of the 20th century that he called ‘the Age of Extremes’, that Hobsbawm was most definitely found wanting.

Hobsbawm joined the Communist Party in Britain in 1936 and throughout the forties and fifties he kept silent during the show trials, shootings and purges of Communists and oppositionists in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Only in 1956 with the publication of Krushchev’s “secret speech” to the Soviet Communist Party’s 20th Congress, a speech that revealed only a small part of the horrors of Stalinism’s slaughter of party members, did Hobsbawm start to criticise the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) role in concealing these events.  

Hobsbawm was not alone in this complicit silence – the CP Historians’ Group carefully steered clear of twentieth century history in case it fell foul of party discipline. But Hobsbawm’s response, effectively “my party, right or wrong”, was very different to many other CP members, particularly EP Thompson, John Saville, Dorothy Thompson and Christopher Hill, all fellow members of the Historians’ Group.

Thompsons and Saville, after trying and failing to get a debate going in the party press on the implications of the secret speech for the CPGB and international socialism, set up The Reasoner, a magazine for party members and others to debate freely. After the first issue they were told by the CP to close it down and disciplinary proceedings were put in train against them. The third, November issue of the magazine came out as Soviet tanks were rolling in to Hungary to crush the Budapest uprising and the workers’ councils that had sprung up. Its editorial declared “The intervention of Soviet troops in Hungary must be condemned by all Communists. … In this crisis when the Hungarian people needed our solidarity, the British Communist Party has failed them.” It went on to demand the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops.[1] As a result EP Thompson and Saville were suspended from the party and resigned shortly after. They were joined by at least a quarter of the party’s membership, 7000 members, including many leading historians like Christopher Hill, who resigned that year in disgust at the leadership’s attitude to party democracy, the secret speech and Hungary.

In contrast Hobsbawm, while taking up a critical position on party democracy and the need to examine the issues behind the secret speech, and despite initially appearing to side with Hill and others, ultimately equivocated on the Hungarian invasion. In a letter to the Daily Worker, the CP’s newspaper in November 1956, he argued that while the crushing of a reactionary uprising would have been perfectly justifiable, this had been a popular uprising. Even so he declared “While approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible.”[2] This was the usual Stalinist argument that unless the Soviet Union was uncritically defended in all its actions then great perils would result. But Hobsbawm combined it with a fatalism, also found on occasion in his historical writing, because he would later argue that the crushing was “probably inevitable” as if no revolutionary alternative to Stalinism was ever going to be a living possibility, and so should not be prepared for, let alone fought for.

Despite the suppression of further protest letters, which Hobsbawm signed with others, one of which was published in the non-party press leading to the authors being given a final warning by the party, Hobsbawm remained a party member – if a semi detached one. In his own words “I recycled myself from effective membership of the British Communist Party to something like spiritual membership of the Italian CP which fitted my ideas of communism rather better”.[3]

By the Seventies, the Italian CP (PCI) as a mass party seeking parliamentary power was gradually throwing overboard embarrassing “political baggage” of the classical Marxist tradition, such as key ideas like the dictatorship of the proletariat – the idea that working people should have their own state – and the need to completely breakup the coercive apparatus of capitalist power, substituting for it a parliamentary road to power based on a “historic compromise” with Christian Democracy, i.e. a willingness to enter a coalition with a right-wing party. The PCI, developing these policies and claiming a Gramscian heritage for them, became a centre of what was to be called “Eurocommunism” in the international Communist movement. But, there was, in fact, very little communist left at all, it was an overtly “social democratising” current within the Stalinist family.

It was to this political current that Eric Hobsbawm now adhered and the reason he became feted by sections of the Labour Party stretching from Neil Kinnock to Tony Blair in the 1980s and 1990s.

Hobsbawm became an active intervener in CP politics again from the late 1970s with his essay “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” (1978). The essence of his argument was that changes in modern capitalism had diminished the size of the industrial proletariat and increasingly divided it along sectional lines. The pessimistic conclusions he drew from this was that the Marxist idea of the working class as a revolutionary class with a historic destiny to take power was now over (and presumably, though he did not say it at the time, so was any reason for a CP). Alongside Martin Jacques the editor of Marxism Today, the CPs theoretical magazine, Hobsbawm developed a Eurocommunism for Britain.

At one level this consisted in attacking trade union militancy as “sectionalism” – defined as groups pursuing “their members narrow economic benefits”. Thus, Marxism Today and Hobsbawm became increasingly hostile to the “strike happy” 1970s claiming that strikers were relying less on the loss they inflicted on the bosses and more on the inconvenience they caused to the public.[4] The new miners’ leadership, the left around Arthur Scargill, was part of the problem.

In the 1984-85 national miners strike “it was patent that the delusions of an extremist leadership of the union, relying on the rhetoric of militancy and the tradition unionist refusal to break ranks in the middle of battle, were leading the union and the coalfield communities to certain disaster.”[5] So, Marxism Today spent its time denouncing mass picketing as “macho”, waving the white flag at every opportunity and blaming the miners’ leaders for taking on Thatcher in a desperate attempt to prevent mass pit closures.

The same right wing positions were taken in relation to the Labour Party in the late 1970s and 80s. Here Hobsbawm took every opportunity to denounce the left in the party.

As part of the backlash against the anti-working class measures taken under the Callaghan-Healy government, a mass left in the LP were trying to democratise the party and place the MPs and the leadership under some sort of democratic control by conference and constituencies. Hobsbawm saw this as an attempt by “sectarian leftwingers” to take over the party, something he predicted would result in disaster. Tony Benn was not excluded from this attack. His decision to stand against Denis Healy for the deputy leadership in 1981 meant that “Benn’s total identification with the left sectarians made it evident to anyone who did not want the Labour Party to be reduced to a marginalised socialist chapel that its future required him to be defeated.”[6]

Having supported Healy against Benn, Hobsbawm went on to become a fervent cheerleader for Neil Kinnock and his attempts to purge the party of sectarian left wingers. It is no wonder that, with these politics, Neil Kinnock described Hobsbawm as “the most sagacious living Marxist” in 1983.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Hobsbawm joined the Eurocommunists in winding up the British Communist Party in 1991. Many of the followers of Marxism Today ended up as advisors to Kinnock and then New Labour. Their experience in suppressing debate and running an undemocratic top down party was no doubt warmly received by the bureaucrats in the LP as they gutted the Labour conference of any real powers, and rolled back the democratic reforms of the early 1980s.

Hobsbawm had provided the intellectual justification both for the winding up of the CP and the right-wing turn under Blair. This is the other side of the coin to his excellent contribution as a radical historian. It should never be forgotten.



[1] The Reasoner No 3, quoted in The 20th Congress and the British CP, John Saville – Socialist Register 1976

[2] Hobsbawm to the Daily Worker, 9 November 1956

[3] Interesting Times, E Hobsbawm p 216 (Allen Lane 2002)

[4] All these positions are summed up very well by Hobsbawm in Interesting Times p 264-272

[5] Interesting Times p 275

[6] ibid p272


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