Monday, October 15, 2012

Desperately seeking Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm's death has produced a flurry of commentary, not because the quality of his books but because of his belated celebrity status as an historian who was ... shock, horror ... a Marxist.

He might have got away with it if he had not also been a member of the Communist Party and remained a member when colleagues of his resigned in the wake of the Russian suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. People are right to have reservations. I have posted before on his equivocal stance on the history of the nineteen thirties that borders on apologism, as well as his more recent descent into fashionable relativism.  Then again, his work on the nineteenth century is impressive, though I have no doubt that his political allegiance did shape some of his later work for the worse.

None of this is an excuse for some of the shoddy journalism that didn't try and engage with his academic merit, but instead flaunted a smug superiority masquerading as analysis. Some of his old friends have come out with flattery, others have given far more rounded appreciations, especially this one from Donald Sassoon, who balances the merits with the errors nicely. The tendency to lurch into simplistic bluster has also irritated Shuggy who put up a couple of good posts in response. Alex Massie also puts Hobsbawm's much misquoted interview with Michael Ignatieff in context in a well-judged piece.

What I want to argue is that the 'Hobsbawm was a Marxist and therefore a mass murderer' line of writing makes two cardinal mistakes. The first one is a misunderstanding of the term totalitarianism. Here is a typical, unoriginal and self-satisfied example. The old trick of substituting the word 'fascist' for 'communist' for effect is hackneyed and tiresome, yet still people fall for it. Of course what it is really doing is using the notion of totalitarianism to say that because fascism and communism were totalitarian they were both the same. I find totalitarian theory really interesting and useful, however the utility of any theory depends on the appropriateness and the precision of its use. Apply it too loosely or widely and it becomes meaningless. Totalitarianism describes a particular form of ideologically driven, illiberal, authoritarian state or movement that demands the complete subjugation of the individual to some form of common purpose imposed by a particular, unquestionable ideology. It doesn't say what that ideology is. Thus you can get very different totalitarianisms that appeal to different people for different reasons. What is more, it is clear that some totalitarianisms are preferable to others. Just ask a Cambodian whether there was a real difference between the post-Stalinist Vietnamese communism imposed on the country and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge it replaced.

Fascism and communism were both totalitarian, but they were very different variants. And if we want to combat totalitarianism we are beholden to analyse its appeal beyond the notion that all we need to know is that anyone who attaches themselves to any type is, of necessity, a partisan of evil. Whatever you think of Hobsbawm, the one thing that cannot be denied is that he was as determinedly anti-fascist, just as he was stubborn in his, not uncritical, attachment to the Communist Party.

The second mistake is another over-simplification; seeing Marxism solely as a form of political allegiance and not as a tool of analysis. Here is one example of its impact on his work. Just as enemies have emphasised his membership of the Communist Party, his admirers have tended to pick out his seemingly contrary role in the 'modernisation' of the Labour Party. In fact both share the same intellectual roots, a class analysis.  Hobsbawm's hugely influential expanded essay, The Forward March of Labour Halted?, does not argue, as many have said, that the Labour Party was losing its base support because of the disappearance of the working class. Instead, he was writing that Labour was still the party of the working class, but that the working class was changing and becoming fragmented. In becoming so, it developed a range of sectional interests that were sometimes in conflict with each other. One approach to the problem was to try and aggregate as many of those sectional interests as possible. Hobsbawm thought that this would merely encourage division and instead urged a policy that would speak for the core interests that united a fragmented working class - education, health, welfare, housing - at the expense of the pet projects of many party activists.  Though portrayed as moving right, it was an analysis that was rooted in his Marxism. He saw Labour's need to speak for the whole working class, not to move beyond it.

Hobsbawm's Marxism meant more than allegiance to the Communist Party. It was the starting point for his academic interests, including the study of history from below and his work in economic history. These will continue to be read and appreciated - and by non-Marxists as well. His political position was more problematic, mainly due to the tenacity to which he clung to the old faith, hoping for reform from within the party rather than accepting its demise. In this he was hardly alone, even if he was increasingly isolated. He paid for that isolation in hostile obituaries.


Bob-B said...

I think this is a good (critical) piece on Hobsbawm:

Jason said..., that is not a good piece at all. Just the same bunch of shit from Alan Johnson as per usual. Before it was Zizek now it's Hobsbawm, just the typical boring reductionist liberal shit

The Plump said...

The trouble with all of this is that it is easy to cherry-pick quotes. I have just opened the Age of Extremes at page 391 on Stalinist terror. Hobsbawm writes:

What gave this terror an unprecedented inhumanity was that it recognized no conventional or other limits"

And here on p.393:

"... it does not much matter whether we opt for a 'conservative' estimate nearer to ten than to twenty millions or a larger figure: none can be anything but shameful and beyond palliation, let alone justification."

Yet this is still hedged round with qualifications about a general relapse into barbarism in the 20th century and that democracy provided a mere check against it.

And this is why his work as a historian is flawed once he moves out of the nineteenth century. His equivocations mirror those of his generation as they came to terms with the history of their time.

Bob-B said...

Well if Johnson has criticized Zizek he must be a very bad man indeed (but at least he manages to express himself without using 'shit' in every other sentence).

Will said...

bOB B is shit. a cretin from harrY Arse shit place of shit.

Will said...

thart alUn JoHnsUN. Good GRief.