In an essay calculated to offend colleagues in Oxford, the raffish A J P Taylor lamented the absence of enough bitterness and dispute in the study of English history. English historians (particularly medievalists) were, he implied, bores and unlike the excitable creatures across the Channel: unworthy, or so Taylor felt, of a vibrant European inheritance. “To be a historian in France is to be a combatant, to be also a politician and even a prophet, a moral teacher.”
Eric Hobsbawm was always perceived by his peer group to be more European than English. His packed evening lectures at Birkbeck College (which I attended in the mid-1970s) recreated the romance and intrigue of post-Napoleonic Europe with the same vividness that characterised Taylor’s narrative of otherwise dry, diplomatic history. Part of his appeal stemmed from clinical erudition — his ability to rise above excitability and hyperbole — which some saw as very German. But equally, the halo around Hobsbawm was enhanced by his credential as an unreconstructed member of the Communist Party. Unlike other British “intellectuals” who left the CPGB after the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Hobsbawm retained his membership till 1991 when the party dissolved itself.
Institutional attachment didn’t mar Hobsbawm’s reputation as a historian. He operated within what he saw as a Marxist framework, not the party framework. And even that Marxist framework was open-ended.
Insofar as he went beyond narrow diplomatic and constitutional history and explored the past through the additional prisms of economic and social transformation, Hobsbawm was being true to Karl Marx’s legacy. Yet, there was nothing specifically Marxist about this exercise. Like many scientists who saw little connection between their researches and Marxist theory, Hobsbawn noted that the inter-War years saw many creative people “linked to the politics of the Left not so much through theoretical reflection as through an emotional commitment of their practitioners and admirers to the struggles of the period.”
Hobsbawm was a good historian not because he was a Communist but despite being a Communist.
In this collection of essays, some published for the first time in English, Hobsbawm subjects both Marx and Marxist movements to the scrutiny of a historian liberated from the pressures of “official Marxism of the USSR” and a stultifying Leninist dogma. Marx is located within a contemporary intellectual context and ruthlessly (yet sympathetically) dissected. “It is obvious that much of what he wrote is out of date… It is also evident that his writings do not form a finished corpus but are, like all thought that deserves that name, an endless work in progress.”
Some of Hobsbawm’s conclusions are worth repeating, in view of the prevailing depiction of Marx in India as an infallible thinker. He questions the notion of a ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ Marxism; “(Marx’s) mode of enquiry could produce different results and political perspectives.” To Hobsbawm, this was not surprising. “There is no analogous systematic theoretical effort about politics” in Marx’s writings. “His writings in this field take the form, almost entirely, of journalism, inquests on the immediate political past… and private letters.” There is, for example, he felt, some basis to suggest that (had he lived) Engels may have supported Germany in August 1914 — a suggestion that prompts ticklish questions about the split in the Second International.
Hobsbawm questions many of the pillars of Marxist orthodoxy. In his view, “Marx himself never seems to have used the term ‘dictatorship’ to describe a specific institutional form of government, but always only to describe the content rather the form of a group or class rule… The only regime actually described by Marx as a dictatorship of the proletariat was the Paris Commune, and the political characteristics of it, which he emphasised were the opposite of dictatorial…”
Dissecting the Communist Manifesto, Hobsbawm questions the rationale behind the sweeping assertion that “of all the classes that confront the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a truly revolutionary class.” History certainly doesn’t justify Marx’s touching faith in this class.
This scepticism fits uneasily with the image of Hobsbawm as a loyal Communist ready, as he conceded in his autobiography Interesting Times, to even spy for the Soviet Union. Of the post-Marx Communist leaders, Hobsbawm is disdainful of Lenin, contemptuous of Stalin and somewhat dismissive of Trotsky. But he has the highest regard for the originality of Antonio Gramsci. Yet, his suggestion that Gramsci constructed a Marxist theory of politics is an odd overstatement. It implies that politics follows a predictable trajectory and permits a pre-defined range of options — a questionable assumption that has cost the Left dearly.
Hobsbawm should know. The most passionate section of the book is a chapter on Marxist politics in the era of anti-Fascism. It was the time Hobsbawm, the Jewish migrant from Vienna and Berlin, jumped into battle, embracing the only force that seemed determined to resist Hitler and Mussolini, even if that meant implicitly endorsing another tyranny. The issue, for him, was “the future of an entire civilisation. If fascism stamped out Marx, it equally stamped out Voltaire and John Stuart Mill…(In) the fight against fascism, communism and liberalism were, in a profound sense, fighting for the same cause.” Stalin was a “Russian problem”; Hitler threatened the world.
Hobsbawm’s Marxism, it would seem, wasn’t located in the bleakness of Stalinist Russia but in the pulsating excitement of the pre-1914 European Enlightenment. That is what gives this book a special poignancy.
HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD: TALES OF MARX AND MARXISM
Little, Brown/ Hachette India
470 pages; Rs 795