Politics in Period Costume: The Popular Front in the Works of Eric Hobsbawm

All of us inevitably write out of the history of our own times when we look at the past and, to some extent, fight the battles of today in period costume. But those who write only out of the history of their own times, cannot understand the past and what came out of it. — Eric Hobsbawm, Echoes of the Marseillaise[1] 

Were you to have first encountered the legacy of Eric Hobsbawm through the obituaries that followed his passing in October 2012, you would have discovered a life presented in terms of two identities: acclaimed historian, fervent Communist. The relative importance of these two identities varied from paper to paper. The Guardian called him “Britain’s most respected historian of any kind” and did not mention his communism until its fifth paragraph;[2] the Telegraph said in its lede only that he was “widely considered one of the greatest historians of his generation” and spent the next seven paragraphs to laying out the depth of his Communist convictions.[3] What other facts that did trickle their way into the obituaries—his work as a jazz critic, tidbits about his personal life—served mostly as adornments to the backbone formed from these two identities, the defining features, one would expect, of his popular legacy. He will “be remembered not as Eric J. Hobsbawm the historian,” said fellow historian Tony Judt, but “as Eric J. Hobsbawm the unrepentant Communist historian. It’s unfair and it’s a pity, but that is the cross he will bear.”[4]

If Hobsbawm is to remain in our memory as a Communist historian, then, it is worth considering how we should understand the form of communism to which he ascribed. The public image of him as an unswerving Party member draws on his decision to remain in the party after 1956, when the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Khruschev’s speech against Stalin gutted the intellectual and cultural authority of the Party in the British public eye. It emphasizes, too, his assent to what Michael Ignatieff, in a 1994 BBC interview, offered as a summation of his views on the Soviet experiment, that the deaths of “1520 million” under Stalin “might have been justified” had he succeeded in establishing the “radiant tomorrow” that Marx foresaw.[5] His critics saw underneath his historical works the distortionary influence of such dogmatic Communism, attacking, for instance, his elision of communist atrocities in the Spanish Civil War[6] or his cursory treatment of the Soviet gulag system.[7]

And yet, if Hobsbawm’s unstinting allegiance to the Party defined him as what his conservative detractors might call an “extremist,” the form that allegiance took also inspired deep controversy on the left—and not just among the New Left and its heirs. Hobsbawm shared with his fellow Communists the dream of the socialist utopia, but he drew his tactics from the ideals of the Popular Front, born of the anti-fascist unity fronts that shaped Hobsbawm’s formative years in the party in 1930s Europe. Of course, it would do injustice to the evident depth of Hobsbawm’s commitment to suggest that his Communism rested solely on his fear of fascism; twelve years after the fall of the Soviet Union, he wrote in his autobiography that “the dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me…. I have abandoned, nay, rejected it, but it has not been obliterated.”[8] But Hobsbawm backed the Popular Front precisely because he saw it as the strongest vehicle in the West for advancing that cause. In that same autobiography, he describes himself as belonging “politically … to the era of anti-fascist unity and the Popular Front. It continues to determine my strategic thinking to this day.”[9]

Indeed, it was Hobsbawm’s Popular Front leanings that formed the foundation for his most significant and controversial intervention into contemporary leftist politics: his call for a rethink in Labour strategy to counter the rise of Thatcherism. In a series of essays from the late 1970s through the 1980s, Hobsbawm took aim at Labour for its continued dependence on its declining trade-unionist base in the face of Thatcher’s successes.[10] Just as 1930s fascism set itself against the aims of communists and liberals alike, so, too, did Thatcher’s agenda pose a radical threat to British progressives of all stripes; in this vein, he urged the party to transform itself from class-based into a broad front for the progressive cause. Hobsbawm’s essays, coming from a prominent intellectual with strong Communist credentials, attracted widespread attention within the left[11] and played a minor but influential role in weakening opposition among the British left to Labour reformists.[12] At the same time, they earned the ire of many more traditional fellow travelers, who slammed him for prescriptions “well to the right of classic reformism” that would aggravate the very dangers they sought to alleviate.[13]

Both Hobsbawm’s detractors and advocates have agreed that Hobsbawm’s Communism colored his histories in ineluctable ways. This essay will not concern itself with the entirety of that question, as complex and ideologically charged as the debate surrounding it has been. But I submit that, insofar as Hobsbawm the Communist was Hobsbawm the Popular Frontist, Hobsbawm’s historical writings are inseparable from his political convictions. From his scholarship on the French Revolution to his essays on Labour politics in the 1980s, Hobsbawm’s writings on social change can be understood as struggling with the central tension facing Popular Fronts: their necessity for stymieing the advance of the Right and their impotence in advancing the cause of the Left.

To understand this claim, it is important to first consider how Hobsbawm conceived of the Popular Front. A useful starting point for this question is his 1985 essay, “Fifty Years of Peoples’ Fronts,”[14] the fullest, most explicit presentation of his understanding of Popular Front theory. “Fifty Years” was originally published not in the Party journal Marxism Today, as were many of his most influential political commentaries from the 1980s, but in an anthology of essays from Marxist writers on Popular Frontism.[15] But Hobsbawm’s decision to include it within Politics for a Rational Left, an essay collection formed around his Marxism Today contributions, suggests that he conceived of it as part of his larger 1980s oeuvre championing a revival of the Popular Front. In this sense, one can see “Fifty Years” as a defense of the Popular Front in history, buttressing his arguments for its relevance to contemporary Britain. Its first-person tone, in particular, marks it as a good window into Hobsbawm’s personal conception of the movement.

“Fifty Years” presents the Popular Front as best suiting circumstances in which the working-class party is unable to “win on its own” and in which there exists a common enemy to a broad array of groups.[16] As formulated in the 1935 Communist International, the movement structures itself in four of what Hobsbawm calls “concentric circles of unity,” all with varying degrees of internal cohesion: (1) a core united working-class movement, (2) an anti-fascist front of democrats and liberals within nations, (3) a “National Front” of all willing to oppose Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan, and (4) an international front of all countries and peoples opposed to fascism and war.[17] To underscore the imperative of the alliance, Hobsbawm cites the words of Georgi Dimitrov, General Secretary of the International in 1935, who called for it as a means of finally overcoming the isolation of the revolutionary vanguard from the masses of the proletariat and all other toilers, as well as overcoming the fatal isolation of the working class itself from its natural allies in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, against fascism.[18]

Drawing implicitly on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, he attributes the isolation described by Dimitrov to the “institutions of civil society” on which rests the legitimacy of bourgeoisie rule; in this context, Popular Fronts can help bridge the gap between the vanguard and the masses.[19]

Though the Popular Front has often been interpreted as a defensive tactic, Hobsbawm is keen to emphasize that it was designed for greater aims:

The point I wish to make here is that the popular front strategy then adopted was more than a temporary defensive tactic, or even a strategy for eventually turning retreat into offensive. It was also a carefully considered strategy of advancing to socialism.[20]

The 1930s strategy for that advance, he acknowledges, was premised the unfounded assumption that fascism represented the logical culmination of capitalism, rather than a temporary phase. The offensive thrust of contemporary Popular Fronts instead depends on the ability of socialists to “convince and carry along their allies, or at least neutralize them.”[21] Independent of this, however, Popular Fronts enjoy an even bigger advantage over other socialist strategies: they are the one “that most frightens the enemy,” who “know that in most countries where socialism has come, it has been brought about by broad fronts led by Communists … rather than through the isolated actions of revolutionary Marxists.”[22]

Hobsbawm’s political and historical works reinterpret and comment upon the theoretical model presented here in two ways. His scholarship on the French Revolution and its legacy buttresses his argument for the necessity of the Popular Front. But his empirical examination on the movement’s offensive capabilities points to the principal weakness of his case for the Popular Front: his faith in socialists’ ability to bring their allies to their side.

Hobsbawm’s discussion of the French Revolution provides a good starting point. As an academic historian, he writes on the French Revolution in two works: the first volume of his Age trilogy, Age of Revolution: 1789-1848,[23] and Echoes of the Marseillaise, a reflection on the historiography of the Revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries. The former gives a more complete account of the Revolution: the era of the National Assembly from 1789-1791 and the Jacobin Republic of 1793-1794, through the consolidation and reformation of the state under Napoleon. Echoes focuses somewhat more on the historiography of the first two of these phases, and it is these two that bear most on the central concerns of his thinking on the Popular Front.

Hobsbawm’s French Revolution is a bourgeois revolution, the culmination of a class struggle that brought to a close the feudal-aristocratic political order and established the dominant political language of 19th-century bourgeois liberal society.[24] But its achievement required more than just the agitation of the bourgeois; it rested upon a convergence of their interests with those of the laboring poor and the peasants. The onset of an economic crisis in the late 1780s brought the peasants and laboring poor to the edge of a mass uprising. Their restlessness gave political force to the demands of the Third Estate, and the outbreak of revolution itself came through the storming of the Bastille by the Paris masses, sparking a surge of peasant upheaval that left the whole of the French state in ruins within just three weeks.[25] In this way, peasant unrest cleared the way for the reconstruction of the French state along bourgeois-liberal lines; to Hobsbawm’s mind, this bourgeois revolution “would not have been made but for the intervention of the people.”[26] And yet, already by the early 1790s, the alliance was already showing signs of strain. The upheaval that accompanied the eruption of the masses had unsettled a portion of the middle-class revolutionaries, who had begun drifting towards conservatism.

At this point, Hobsbawm interrupts his account with a passage of particular relevance to the Popular Front lens, a more general commentary on revolutionary change in the 19th century.[27] The tone shift that accompanies this passage underscores its special significance: he moves to a first-person plural voice narrating in the future tense to set up what he calls “the dramatic dialectical dance [that] was to dominate future generations.” His chapter on the French Revolution includes a number of similarly weighty passages extrapolating from particular phenomena larger historical trends.[28] However, most of these passages last just a line or two. Hobsbawm does not come down from his theorizing here for ten lines, indicating the peculiar weight he places for his own historical project on this commentary.

Now, then, the model itself. The first years of the French Revolution outlined above, he suggests, establish the “main shape of French and all subsequent bourgeois-revolutionary politics.” They begin with “moderate middle-class reformers mobilizing the masses against die-hard … counter-revolution.” But the masses’ ambitions extend well beyond those of their middle-class allies, who split into conservative and left-wing camps. This process repeats itself until the revolution reaches its resolution.

Hobsbawm sees in the unfolding of the nineteenth century a middle-class that, when facing situations with revolutionary potential, leans more and more conservative. This partly reflects the rise of the proletariat, who, for the first time, provide the masses with a coherent political voice that underscores for the middle class what revolution actually might mean. But it also reflects the peculiarities of the French Revolution itself—in particular, the presence of the Jacobins, “the one section of the liberal middle class … prepared to remain revolutionary up to and indeed beyond the brink of anti-bourgeois revolution.” The Jacobins were possible in part because of the absence of a proletariat, but also, he explains,

because the French bourgeoisie had not yet, like subsequent liberals, the awful memory of the French Revolution to be frightened of. After 1794 it would be clear to moderates that the Jacobin regime had driven the Revolution too far for bourgeois comfort and prospects, just as it would be clear to revolutionaries that “the sun of 1793,” if it were ever to rise again, would have to shine on a non-bourgeois society. [29]

The only forms of revolution left after 1794, then, were the very ones that the memory of the Jacobins had sullied for the middle class.

Hobsbawm’s accounts in the Age trilogy of the revolutions of 1848 in Europe and 1871 in France bear out the significance of this change. The various iterations of the 1848 revolution across Europe, he writes, all encountered the same problem: they were “social revolutions of the laboring poor” that “therefore frightened moderate liberals,” who saw in them the same sort of threat to societal order that had concerned the nobles and clergymen of France in 1789.[30] As a result, the revolution survived beyond 1848 only in countries like Italy and Hungary, where the radical cause’s nationalist sentiments was appealing enough to overpower moderates in seeking the peasant masses’ support—and even these lasted only a year or two longer, before military invasion by reactionary Austria restored conservatives to power.[31] The demise of the Paris Commune came even quicker, and no surprise, says Hobsbawm. Despite the heroism of its participants, the two-month insurrectionary government was “in the opinion of most serious observers doomed,” for, though the commune did not pose a real threat to the bourgeoisie, “it frightened the wits out of it by its mere existence.”[32]

To read Hobsbawm’s presentation of the French Revolution and its legacy purely as a commentary on the Popular Front would seem a step too far; his conclusions on 19th-century revolutionary change, significant though they may be for the work, form just one pillar of a much broader exploration of the Revolution’s impact on democracy, nationalism, and even forms of scientific and technical exploration. But what he does say on the topic helps to flesh out the historical perspective behind his defense of the Popular Front, as the ideal strategy for confronting circumstances in which “the classical revolutionary situations of the type of the October Revolution or other types … [are] not to be expected.”[33] The success of the Revolution in laying the groundwork for bourgeois ascendancy—that is, the accomplishments of 1789-1791—rested upon an ad-hoc alliance between the masses and the middle class. But the historical memory of the Jacobin Republic poses a formidable roadblock to the extension of that alliance to anti-bourgeois revolutions. That was true of the 19th century, and Hobsbawm’s Echoes, written in 1989, suggests he saw it as a continuing concern. The essay is devoted to rejecting the ascent of a revisionist school of thought in the historiography of the French Revolution, dating from the mid-1950s, that he sees as “entirely directed, via 1789, at 1917,” wherein the Jacobins are “the ancestors of the vanguard party.”[34] In this sense, the Jacobin threat, reinterpreted through the lens of the October Revolution, had retained its power as a warning to guard against those who toy with the foundations of the social order. Meanwhile, the traditional left—the industrial working class—does not have the votes to win elections on its own; given the circumstances, then, Popular Fronts seem the most workable solution.

In fact, Hobsbawm thinks Marx would have said just as much. In his 1985 essay “The Retreat into Extremism,” Hobsbawm quotes Marx describing the strategy for proletarian advance that he developed from the failures of the Paris Commune as “‘the revolution of the Commune as representative of all classes of society which do not live off others’ labour’”; this, says Hobsbawm, is “what we could call today ‘a popular front.’”[35] Debatable though his claim may be,[36] for Hobsbawm, even Marx was a Popular Frontist.

But recall now that a key portion of Hobsbawm’s case for the Popular Front, as expressed in “Fifty Years,” lies in its potential as a strategy not merely as a defensive compromise, but also as a means of advancing the cause of socialism. The Popular Front can do so by convincing or at least neutralizing their allies, while their failure in this regard can consign them to the role of water-carrier for liberals in power. Hobsbawm concedes that the historical record for Popular Front governments in this regard is far more mixed; he cautiously admits, for instance, that the French Popular Front’s attempt to advance socialism was rather half-hearted, and that other movements like Salvador Allende’s Chilean Popular Unity failed to recognize the difficulty of constructing effective governments out of ideologically diverse coalitions.[37]

In writing about the Labour Party in Britain, however, he seems more sanguine about its possibilities for advancing socialism. He lays out the strategy for this advance as part of his essay “Labour’s Lost Millions,” advocating essentially a shift in Labour’s rhetoric to convince nontraditional supporters of the merits and feasibility of socialism and to establish that Labour, like the Liberals, actually stands a chance against Thatcherism.[38] Responding to criticisms of that essay in 1985, he reaffirms that he meant this program as a workable strategy — that his essay was not a surrender to Thatcherism or a call to join the centrist SDP-Liberal Alliance, but “about the ways to avoid either of these two outcomes.”[39]

As mentioned above, Hobsbawm’s advocacy played a role in quieting leftist voices decrying Labour’s strategy rethink in the 1980s. But the culmination of that rethink—the mid-1990s “New Labour” of Tony Blair—was hardly the grounds for socialism’s advance that Hobsbawm desired. He suggests in his autobiography that, before Blair came to power in 1994, he and his allies at Marxism Today “could barely even envisage” a Labour Party with the platform that it championed under Blair, whom he calls a “Thatcher in trousers.”[40]

Hobsbawm’s scholarship on the French Revolution fits well with his arguments for the necessity of the Popular Front. And so it is somewhat indicative that Hobsbawm’s histories and historical essays provide much less material in favor of the movement’s offensive potential. The latter half of the 19th century in Europe saw large-scale extensions of the franchise that brought into politics new “levels of the social strata … several of which might form rather more heterogeneous alliances, coalitions, or ‘popular fronts’”;[41] and yet pre-1914 parliamentary socialism, to his mind, in Europe was ultimately unable to pose a serious challenge to the existing bourgeois-liberal hegemony.[42] As implied above, “Fifty Years” does not present the post-1914 era as particularly fertile ground for examples of Popular Fronts that advanced the socialist cause. Nor do his Marxism Today essays spend much time discussing this element of the movement’s record. Only the contemporary example of the Italian Communist Party, praised in “Labour’s Lost Millions” as a traditional mass socialist labour party that has succeeded in expanding its reach while preserving its base, strikes him as a successful example worth emulating.[43] As to social change in the non-European world, his 1980s essays do cite Lenin briefly as a strategist who saw broad alliances as compatible with class politics.[44] But his portrayal of the Russian Revolution in The Age of Extremes, his history of the 20th century, suggests circumstances that do not fit the Popular Front model—no surprise, since, as noted above in “Fifty Years,” the model was designed explicitly for situations without the revolutionary potential of Tsarist Russia in 1917.[45] Third World movements seem of little relevance to Hobsbawm in European contexts, for, with the exception of Allende’s Chilean Unity Coalition, he never cites Third World movements in his presentation of Popular Front strategy.

Indeed, the one area in which Hobsbawm seems to see long-term success for the Popular Front movement as an offensive strategy is not in popular politics, but in that form of politics fought in period costume, historiography. He places the movement at the heart of the journal he co-founded with other members of the Communist Party Historians’ Group (CPHG), Past and Present. Describing the journal’s early years in a 1983 essay, he and two fellow CPHG members present their goal of bringing together Marxists and non-Marxists as an attempt to “continue, or to revive, in the post-war period the politics of broad unity we had learned in the days of pre-war anti-Fascism.”[46] Past and Present was a central force in the mid-century emergence of historical sociology and social history within academic history,[47] and it still counts among the premier history journals in the English language.

Hobsbawm also presents the 1930s Popular Front movement in France as a key force for bringing Marxism into the historiography of the French Revolution. Its revival of the cult of Jacobin patriotism in the political arena legitimated the French left as the standard-bearers of a certain form of French nationalism, thereby creating the conditions for “the fusion of the Republican, Jacobin, Socialist, and Communist traditions.” These developments, he says, made the historiography of the Revolution “more leftwing and more Jacobin.”[48] What was to Hobsbawm the greatest work produced by this shift, Georges Lefebrve’s The Coming of the French Revolution, was published in 1939, as Leon Blum’s Popular Front government lay in ruins.

Hobsbawm’s discussion of the Popular Front as a historiographical force can be seen as giving a certain sort of perverse credence to his strategy for realizing the movement’s offensive potential. In “Fifty Years,” he had argued that socialists in Popular Fronts would need to convince or at least neutralize their more moderate allies, and there are several reasons to think that academic history might better suit such an enterprise than liberal-democratic politics. The former’s emphasis on critical argumentation can give ideas a relatively greater degree of sway than they enjoy in the more restricted discourse of mass political appeals, especially for a socialist in the Cold War West. Alternatively, one could also argue for a liberal skew within the discipline that would make its practitioners more open to leftwing ideas. Both claims suggest that the art of persuasion would come more easily to Hobsbawm and his allies as academic historians than as political commentators.

A close reading of the discussion of Popular Fronts in The Age of Extremes suggests that, by the mid-1990s, the movement’s luster had somewhat faded for Hobsbawm. In discussing the anti-Fascist unity program, he qualifies the remarkable electoral gains of socialist and communist parties with an extended discourse wholly missing from his 1980s essays, laying out the movement’s near-universal failure to draw in voters who had formerly identified with the right.[49] His discussion of Europe-wide shifts of the late 1970s in the composition of the working-class—a development whose British instantiation inspired his Marxism Today essays—evinces a similar shift. The labor and social-democratic parties of the West are singled out as the “major losers” of the period, undone by a combination of New Left ascendancy and the working-class fragmentation prophesied by his first salvo in that essay series, 1978’s “The Forward March of Labour Halted?”[50]

Juxtaposed against the earlier works of the Age trilogy, The Age of Extremes makes for a moving coda to Hobsbawm’s struggle with the tensions of the Popular Front movement. The French Revolution and its legacy had made Popular Fronts a necessary part of socialist strategy. And yet its record in the 20th century gave little evidence to suggest that it could help drive a real transition to socialism, leaving it, like the October Revolution, a movement of great promise that ultimately went unfulfilled.

Works Cited

“Eric Hobsbawm.” The Telegraph. October 1, 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/9579079/Eric-Hobsbawm.html.

Burleigh, Michael. “Eric Hobsbawm: A believer in the Red utopia to the very end,” The    Telegraph. October 1, 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9579092/Eric-Hobsbawm-A-believer-in-the-Red-utopia-to-the-very-end.html.

Carlin, Noah and Ian Birchall. “Kinnock’s Favorite Marxist: Eric Hobsbawm and the Working Class.” International Socialism Journal 2, no. 21 (Autumn 1983), 88-116, http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/1983/xx/hobsbawm.htm#pt1-5.

Grimes, William. “Eric J. Hobsbawm, Marxist Historian, Dies at 95.” The New York Times. October 1, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/02/arts/eric-hobsbawm-british-historian-dies-at-95.html?pagewanted=all.

Hill, Christopher, R. H. Hilton, and E. J. Hobsbawm. “Past and Present: Origins and Early Years.” Past & Present no. 100 (Aug. 1983), 3-14.

Hobsbawm, E. J. The Age of Capital: 1848-1875. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975.

The Age of Empire: 1875-1914. New York: Pantheon, 1987.

— “Age of Extremes.” Interview with Michael Ignatieff. The Late Show. BBC. October 24, 1994. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PEd7nTROwo.

Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. New York: Pantheon, 1994.

The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848. New York: Mentor, 1963.

Echoes of the Marseille: Two Centuries’ Look Back at the French Revolution. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002.

Politics for a Rational Left: Political Writings 1977-88. London: Verso, 1989.

Jacques, Martin and Francis Mulhern, ed. The Forward March of Labour Halted? London: New Left Books, 1981.

Kaye, Harvey J. The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984.

Kettle, Martin and Dorothy Wedderburn. “Eric Hobsbawm obituary.” The Guardian. October 1, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/01/eric-hobsbawm.

Miliband, Ralph. “The New Revisionism in Britain.” New Left Review 1, no. 150 (March/April    1985). http://newleftreview.org/I/150/ralph-miliband-the-new-revisionism-in-britain.

Panitch, Leo and Colin Leys. The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour. 2nd ed. London: Verso, 2001.

Pimlott, Herbert. “Eric Hobsbawm and the Rhetoric of Realistic Marxism.” Labour / Le Travail, vol. 56 (Fall 2005), 178-9. www.jstor.org/stable/25149620.

Stephens, Bret. “Eric Hobsbawm and the Details of History.” The Wall Street Journal. October 5, 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444223104578036813138698602.html.

[1] E. J. Hobsbawm, Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two Centuries Look Back on the French Revolution (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990), xiv.

[2] Martin Kettle and Dorothy Wedderburn, “Eric Hobsbawm obituary,” The Guardian, October 1, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/01/eric-hobsbawm.

[3] “Eric Hobsbawm,” The Telegraph, October 1, 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/9579079/Eric-Hobsbawm.html.

[4] William Grimes, “Eric J. Hobsbawm, Marxist Historian, Dies at 95,” The New York Times, October 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/02/arts/eric-hobsbawm-british-historian-dies-at-95.html?pagewanted=all.

[5] Eric Hobsbawm, “Age of Extremes,” interview by Michael Ignatieff, The Late Show, BBC, October 24, 1994, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PEd7nTROwo.

[6] Michael Burleigh, “Eric Hobsbawm: A believer in the Red utopia to the very end,” The Telegraph, October 1, 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9579092/Eric-Hobsbawm-A-believer-in-the-Red-utopia-to-the-very-end.html.

[7] Bret Stephens, “Eric Hobsbawm and the Details of History,” The Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444223104578036813138698602.html.

[8] E.J. Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 2002), 56.

[9] ibid., 218.

[10] E.J. Hobsbawm, Politics for a Rational Left: Political Writings 1977-88 (London: Verso, 1989), 1-99.

[11] So much so that Verso, under its label New Left Books, published the debates over his essay in a 1981 book-length collection. See The Forward March of Labour Halted?, ed. Martin Jacques and Francis Mulhern (London: New Left Books, 1981).

[12] Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2001), 210-3.

[13] Noah Carlin and Ian Birchall, “Kinnock’s Favorite Marxist: Eric Hobsbawm and the Working Class,” International Socialism Journal 2, no.21 (Autumn 1983), 88-116, http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/1983/xx/hobsbawm.htm#pt1-5. See also Ralph Miliband, “The New Revisionism in Britain,” New Left Review 1, no. 150 (March/April 1985), http://newleftreview.org/I/150/ralph-miliband-the-new-revisionism-in-britain.

[14] Hobsbawm, “Fifty Years of Peoples’ Fronts,” in Politics for a Rational Left, 103-117. In this essay, Hobsbawm uses the term “people’s [sic] front” for “Popular Front.” When not quoting his words, I will use the latter, as it is usually preferred in his other works: see, for instance, E. J. Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (Pantheon: New York, 1994), and Interesting Times.

[15] It may seem odd to call “influential” any essay that appeared in a 1980s theoretical journal put out by the Communist Party of Great Britain, but Marxism Today was an unorthodox Party journal. Formatted as a glossy newsmagazine, it sought a wide readership by consciously positioning itself as a reformist voice from the Left within debates over the future of the Labour Party in the 1980s. It also made a portion of its essays available to the Guardian; Hobsbawm was the most frequent benefactor in this arrangement, with ten of his essays picked up for republication. See Herbert Pimlott, “Eric Hobsbawm and the Rhetoric of Realistic Marxism,” Labour / Le Travail, no. 56 (Fall 2005), www.jstor.org/stable/25149620.

[16] “Fifty Years,” 114.

[17] ibid., 108.

[18] ibid., 109. Hobsbawm had cited this passage before in another essay from 1984: see Hobsbawm, “Labour: Rump or Rebirth?”, in Politics for a Rational Left, 82. His affinity for this quotation underscores its significance to his conception of the Popular Front.

[19] ibid., 113.

[20] ibid., 107.

[21] ibid., 115.

[22] ibid., 117.

[23] E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (New York: Mentor, 1963).

[24] Echoes, 6-7.

[25] Age of Revolution, 84.

[26] Echoes, 25.

[27] Age of Revolution, 84-85.

[28] “Peasant revolutions are vast, shapeless, anonymous, but irresistible movements” (ibid., 84). Likewise: “Revolutionary wars impose their own logic” (ibid., 89).

[29] ibid., 85.

[30] E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975), 15.

[31] Age of Capital, 17-19. One could even say the fact that only national liberation could tie together radicals and peasant masses in itself doomed the revolution. While non-nationalist revolutions would founder upon a lack of popular support, nationalist revolutions would have to marshal military firepower on a scale only accessible to nation-states if they hoped to avoid foreign conquest by the pro-status quo powers of the Concert of Europe.

[32] Age of Capital, 167.

[33] “Fifty Years,” 107.

[34] Echoes, 96.

[35] Hobsbawm, “The Retreat into Extremism,” in Politics for a Rational Left, 93.

[36] Against Hobsbawm, one could also invoke the Marxist concept of false consciousness here. On such a reading, true representation of the proletariat would consist of catering to its true interests, not to the less radical interests it imagines for itself under the influence of false consciousness. But Hobsbawm does not address this contention.

[37] “Fifty Years,” 111-115, and Hobsbawm, “The Forward March of Labour Halted?”

[38] Hobsbawm, “Labour’s Lost Millions,” in Politics for a Rational Left, 70-71.

[39] Hobsbawm, “Labour: Rump or Rebirth?”, in Politics for a Rational Left, 83.

[40] Interesting Times, 276.

[41] E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (New York: Pantheon, 1987), 88.

[42] Hobsbawm does describe the passage of  major social reform and welfare packages to the growing strength of labor, but he sees this as part of a largely successful push to incorporate its moderate wing into existing political blocs, rather than as the first step of a larger campaign for socialism. Thus, he concludes that, “in the years between 1880 and 1914, the ruling classes discovered that parliamentary democracy, in spite of their fears, proved itself to be quite compatible with the political and economic stability of their regimes.” See Age of Empire, 84-111. The ineffectiveness of earlier post-1848 movements is described in Age of Capital, 114.

[43] “Labour’s Lost Millions,” 74.

[44] “The Retreat into Extremism,” 94. My caveat in note 36 to his possible conflation of Marxism and Popular Frontism applies here as well.

[45] Age of Extremes presents as a major factor behind the Bolsheviks’ success their ability to win support from a broad coalition of groups. Conservative patriots who might have otherwise opposed their program backed Lenin’s party for its unique ability to hold the empire together, while peasants saw their odds of preserving the land grabs they had made during the revolution as better under Lenin than under the gentry. But note here that the support from both groups was largely conditioned upon circumstances arising from the chaos of the revolution — in other words, on circumstances that Hobsbawm sees as unlikely in postwar Western Europe. See Age of Extremes, 64-65.

[46] Christopher Hill, R. H. Hilton, and E. J. Hobsbawm, “Past and Present: Origins and Early Years,” Past & Present no. 100 (Aug. 1983), 4-5.

[47] Harvey J. Kaye, The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984), 17.

[48] Echoes, 88-89.

[49] Age of Extremes, 147-149.

[50] Age of Extremes, 417.

Leave a Comment

YRIS is a student publication, and Yale University is not responsible for its content.