Eric Hobsbawm was no slave to Marxist-Leninist doctrine
October 2nd, 2012
The Daily Telegraph was, almost literally, jumping for joy at the death, aged 95, of the leading Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn. In an article headlined Eric Hobsbawm: A believer in the Red utopia to the very end, historian Michael Burleigh savaged Hobsbawm as an apologist for tyranny who had refused to accept the Bolshevik Revolution had been a murderous failure. Burleigh wrote:-
Everything Hobsbawm wrote deceitfully downplayed the grim role of the Communists in Spain in the Thirties or the forcible nature of the coups the Soviets carried out in Eastern Europe after 1945. Such a cosmopolitan thinker had ironically become imprisoned within a deeply provincial ideological ghetto, knowing or caring nothing for the brave Czechs or Poles who resisted Stalin’s stooges, while being manifestly nonplussed by the democratic transformations of Central Europe since 1989-90. That the secret police – the Sword and Shield of the Revolution – would end up running Vladimir Putin’s FSB-mafia state was literally inexplicable to him.
Hobsbawm’s implacable refusal to recant his views when faced with their grotesque consequences tells us something about the belligerent mindset of the wider British Left. But the eminence that he and his fellow travellers have enjoyed also speaks to the bovine complacency with which, since Mrs Thatcher, the Conservatives have allowed such dubious figures licence to dominate the soft culture of the BBC and our universities.
I am no Communist but I do find this over the top, especially when you consider that another right-wing historian, Niall Ferguson sang Hobsbawm’s praises in today’s Guardian. Ferguson wrote:-
His politics did not prevent Eric Hobsbawm from being a truly great historian. I continue to believe that his great tetralogy – The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Industry (1975), The Age of Empire (1987) and The Age of Extremes (1994) – remains the best introduction to modern world history in the English language. Unlike many continental intellectuals of the left, Hobsbawm the historian was never a slave to Marxist-Leninist doctrine. His best work was characterised by a remarkable breadth and depth of knowledge, elegant analytical clarity, empathy with the “little man” and a love of the telling detail.
I don’t really intend to comment on Burleigh’s piece, other than saying there may be some truth in some of his claims, but overall he seems chippy and small-minded. What interests me more is what Hobsbawm had to say about the future of capitalism, especially in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2007- .
On January 20th, 2012, he was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on BBC2′s Newsnight (see video clip above – h/t Philip Duval). In answer to Paxman’s opening question about “responsible capitalism“, a concept that was in vogue with UK politicians including David Cameron, Vince Cable and Ed Miliband from about September 2011 to March 2012, Hobsbawm said:
As an economic system, capitalism has nothing to do with responsibility; it has to do with growth and with making profit. Over the last 40 years it seems to me, capitalism developed a sort of pathological degeneration of the Adam Smith line, in which you believed that responsibility had absolutely nothing to do with it as all good results, such as they were would arise from the operations of the free market, provided the free market was left completely free …
Marx isn’t a utopian solution. Marx [provided us with] a definition of the problems which we have to deal with, and with which capitalism cannot at present deal. And the major problem at the moment – which is going to be very, very hard for anyone to deal with — is that, what with the transformation of the world through capitalism and high technology, and the enormous extraordinary advance, one element of production has become surplus to requirement, namely people. If we go on developing, what happens to the people who previously managed to get in on the system through getting jobs? … and we can see some of the problems right now in de-industrialised areas. What happens, particularly to the men, if there are no longer any jobs?
And, in a piece published in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on April 10th, 2009, Hobsbawm wrote:-
The idea that dominated economics and politics in the last century has disappeared down the plughole of history. This was the way of thinking about modern industrial economies, or for that matter any economies, in terms of two mutually exclusive opposites: capitalism or socialism.
We have lived through two practical attempts to realise these in their pure form: the centrally state-planned economies of the Soviet type and the totally unrestricted and uncontrolled free-market capitalist economy. The first broke down in the 1980s, and the European communist political systems with it. The second is breaking down before our eyes in the greatest crisis of global capitalism since the 1930s.
In some ways it is a greater crisis than in the 1930s, because the globalisation of the economy was not then as far advanced as it is today, and the crisis did not affect the planned economy of the Soviet Union. We don’t yet know how grave and lasting the consequences of the present world crisis will be, but they certainly mark the end of the sort of free-market capitalism that captured the world and its governments in the years since Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan.
Impotence therefore faces both those who believe in pure, stateless, market capitalism, a sort of international bourgeois anarchism, and those who believe in a planned socialism uncontaminated by private profit-seeking. Both are bankrupt.
The future, like the present and the past, belongs to mixed economies in which public and private are braided together in one way or another. But how? That is the problem for everybody today, but especially for people on the left.
Nobody seriously thinks of returning to the socialist systems of the Soviet type — not only because of their political faults, but also because of the increasing sluggishness and inefficiency of their economies ….
… between the fall of the USSR and now I can think of no such party or leader denouncing capitalism as unacceptable. None were more committed to it than New Labour. In their economic policies both Tony Blair and (until October 2008) Gordon Brown could be described without real exaggeration as Thatcher in trousers. The same is true of the Democratic party in the US.
…Under the impact of what it saw as the Thatcherite economic revival, New Labour since 1997 swallowed the ideology, or rather the theology, of global free-market fundamentalism whole. Britain deregulated its markets, sold its industries to the highest bidder, stopped making things to export (unlike Germany, France and Switzerland) and put its money on becoming the global centre of financial services and therefore a paradise for zillionaire money-launderers.
That is why the impact of the world crisis on the pound and the British economy today is likely to be more catastrophic than on any other major western economy — and full recovery may well be harder.
…we don’t know how to overcome the present crisis. None of the world’s governments, central banks or international financial institutions know: they are all like a blind man trying to get out of a maze by tapping the walls with different kinds of sticks in the hope of finding the way out. For another, we underestimate how addicted governments and decision-makers still are to the free-market snorts that have made them feel so good for decades.
Have we really got away from the assumption that private profit-making enterprise is always a better, because more efficient, way of doing things? That business organisation and accountancy should be the model even for public service, education and research? That the growing chasm between the super-rich and the rest doesn’t matter that much, so long as everybody else (except the minority of the poor) is getting a bit better off? That what a country needs is under all circumstances maximum economic growth and commercial competitiveness? I don’t think so.
…Public decisions aimed at collective social improvement from which all human lives should gain. That is the basis of progressive policy – not maximising economic growth and personal incomes. Nowhere will this be more important than in tackling the greatest problem facing us this century, the environmental crisis. Whatever ideological logo we choose for it, it will mean a major shift away from the free market and towards public action, a bigger shift than the British government has yet envisaged. And, given the acuteness of the economic crisis, probably a fairly rapid shift. Time is not on our side.
Put that in yer pipe and smoke it, Mr Burleigh.
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