By Adrian Chan-Wyles
THE BRITISH “Marxist” historian, Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) died in his 95th year in London. This Cambridge-educated former Communist had a thoroughly bourgeois background, which saw him born to a British father and German-Jewish mother in Alexandria in the British protectorate of Egypt. He spent much of his youth being educated in Germany, and only left for the UK with the rise of Adolf Hitler.
His privileged background enabled him to attend the best schools, and enter Cambridge with little fuss in the mid-1930s. He claims to have been a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain for around 50 years, from 1936 onwards. In his 2002 autobiography Interesting Times – a Twentieth-Century Life, Hobsbawm, under the guise of literary honesty, reveals the true nature of his bourgeois upbringing and conditioning through a single paragraph, the revisionist content of which, re-appears throughout the 418 pages in ever-expanded form, so that the reader is left with no doubt that although Hobsbawm made a living out of the intellectual output of Karl Marx, in the final analysis, Hobsbawm was not a “Marxist”, but instead specialised in turning Marx into a “fetish”:
‘The months in Berlin made me a lifelong communist, or at least a man whose life would lose its nature and its significance without the political project to which he committed himself as a schoolboy, even though that project has demonstrably failed, and as I now known was bound to fail. The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me, as deleted texts are still waiting to be recovered by experts, somewhere on the hard disks of computers. I have abandoned, nay, rejected it, but it has not been obliterated. To this day I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness which I do not feel towards Communist China, because I belong to the generation for whom the October Revolution represented the hope of the world, as China never did. The Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle symbolised it.’ (Eric Hobsbawm: Interesting Times – A Twentieth Century Life – Pages 55-56)
Eric Hobsbawm, despite claiming to be a Marxist academic, was very popular, and his work was respected throughout the bourgeois academic world – his work also appears extensively in Chinese translation in the People’s Republic of China. Why would an openly Marxist academic be so popular amongst his ideological enemies? The answer is that despite Hobsbawm’s cursory nod toward the philosophical work of Marx, that is the defining and use of the theory of historical materialism, he was essentially a bourgeois revisionist at heart, which applied a misty-eyed vision, similar to a religious attitude, when interpreting historical events.
When viewed in this way, a doubt must be assumed when assessing the Marxist validity of all of his historical analysis. His “age of” historical analysis series contain a vital flaw running through its centre – namely the flaw of bourgeois intellectualism masquerading as “Marxism”. Applying Marx correctly to Hobsbawm, it is clear that Hobsbawm was popular amongst the bourgeois educational establishment not because of his supposed and professed adherence to Marxism, but because in reality he was presenting a distorted Marxism shot-through with bourgeois sentiment and class bias, for whatever else Hobsbawm may, or may not have been, he remained a bourgeois throughout his life.
His autobiography is nothing more than an apology to his bourgeois class, for his indulgence with Marxism. It also serves a far more sinister function of warning-off any young people interested in pursuing a Marxist path in contemporary Britain, as a means to combat the injustices current within UK society. Hobsbawm’s work, although carefully camouflaged in places, nevertheless, reaches precariously beyond and around the Marxist narrative, and introduces an idiosyncratic interpretation that says more about the psychological conditioning of Hobsbawm than it does about the historical subject he is assessing.
This explains why the distorted work of Hobsbawm – as bourgeois revisionist and apologist – is dangerous to the progressive communist cause. If people are taken in with Hobsbawm’s scattering of sayings of Marx throughout his work, and fail to understand the great bourgeois project he is undertaking, Hobsbawm will succeed in stamping-out the revolutionary heart that beats at the centre of correct Marxist thinking.
Criticism of three of his major works can be easily summed-up using Marxist analysis:
The Age of Revolution 1789-1848
Most years between the French Revolution (1789) and the 1848 revolutionary movement across Europe, when taken as a world perspective, (rather than following Hobsbawm’s scheme of limiting his analysis to western Europe), had no more, or no fewer “revolutionary” movements than any other historical period. Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution is an arbitrary sham, masquerading as historical and dialectical materialist analysis.
The Age of Capital (1849-1875
This is perhaps the easiest of Hobsbawm’s work to see through, as he obviously is using the productive period of Karl Marx – particularly from his move to London – where Marx wrote many (but not all) of his most influential works, including Das Kapital, his superb and often meandering analysis of the capitalist mode of production; its origin, perpetuation, theory of labour and surplus value amongst many other important issues.
Three more volumes were published after his death in 1882. This time period, regardless of any assessment made by Hobsbawm, (which is, in any case, an analysis made after the event), is only the “age of capital” because the genius of Karl Marx made it so through his assessment. There is no originality in Hobsbawm simply taking the subject of Marx’s analysis and distorting it into an “epoch”.
The Age of Empire (1875-1914)
Hobsbawm, brought-up as a secular Jew in Germany heading toward Hitlerism, makes much of his “Britishness” and refuses to accept in his biography, that his move to Britain was inspired by the excesses of early Nazism. He would have the reader believe that his “Jewish” family moved on the cusp of Nazi persecution, not because it made sense to do so, particularly as he possessed a British passport, but rather that such a move was purely coincidental and linked entirely to his uncle’s migrating business interests.
Hobsbawm has written that he, and his family were not German-Jewish refugees escaping Nazism, but gives the impression of holidaying bourgeoisie, who casually float from one country to the next. Hobsbawm’s Eurocentricism is palpable. His “age of empire” is actually the age of the British Empire, the establishment of which he firmly joined in the 1930’s. A “floating” member of the international bourgeois, who swapped the German Empire for that of the British Empire.
Hobsbawm’s work is popular throughout the bourgeois system because it undermines the very Marxism it claims to represent, through the careful and clever presentation of many small, but important misrepresentations of Marxist philosophy and its application. The over-all effect of this policy is a movement away from a correct Marxist analysis and toward a thoroughly (and for Hobsbawm a comfortable) bourgeois interpretation.
His deliberate and illogical separation of the Russian Communist Revolution from that of the Chinese Revolution is bizarre in its certainty, and smirks of Eurocentric bias bordering on the racist. Whatever Hobsbawm’s motivation for this flawed analysis, it is obvious that he does not adhere to the Marxist principle of internationalism.
What Hobsbawm fails to acknowledge is that Marx eulogised the Paris Commune of 1871, and that the hammer and sickle flags flies just as equally over China, as it does over north Korea and many other former Soviet Republics, and is not limited in its meaning to the ethnocentric bias Hobsbawm appears to be exhibiting. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is exactly this Asian Communism that is giving hope to many who hold leftwing views in the West.
After-all, it is in these countries that a living Communist government continues to exist. Communists are internationalists and derisive historians such as Hobsbawm should not be allowed to drive a wedge in the sense of collective, unfolding history. Marxists must acknowledge this weakness in Hobsbawm’s work, as well as any strengths, but must not allow correct historical interpretation to be clouded by the smoke and mirrors used by the bourgeois establishment to peddle its sub-standard wares.