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Eric Hobsbawm: peering darkly into the future

What would the left-wing historian have thought of Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit and the rise of Boris Johnson?

As I travel around the country talking to audiences about my recent biography of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, I find I’m always asked about what he would have thought of the present state of Britain and the world. It’s a difficult question, not least because Hobsbawm could be very unpredictable, and sometimes took rather unexpected positions on the issues of the day. As a lifelong communist he was firmly on the left, even the far left, but he moderated his opinions as time went on, and in any case he was never a Marxist pure and simple.

From the very beginning there was a strong admixture of other elements in his intellectual make-up, lending his historical writings a broad-based social and cultural flavour in which literary interests and influences were always strongly represented. As his career developed and he moved increasingly into the academic mainstream, he also gathered growing numbers of honours, ending as a Companion of Honour and a Fellow of the British Academy, a convinced royalist and a fully paid-up member of the establishment: “a Tory communist”, as he once described himself to me in later life.

As well as being a member of the Communist Party from the mid-1930s until it fell apart in the early 1990s – despite his growing disagreement with its politics –  Hobsbawm was also a firm believer in the need for the left to unite in order to combat the forces of conservatism and reaction, just as it had in the Popular Front French government led by the socialist Léon Blum in 1936. (Hobsbawm took part in the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris that year, which turned into a triumphant affirmation of the power of the united left.) By contrast, he deplored politicians he thought were splitting the left, like Tony Benn in the 1980s, not least because he believed their divisive activities made it more difficult for the left to win power; after all, the leftward shift of Labour at the time drove leading moderates to leave and form the Social Democratic Party, letting the Conservatives into government for the best part of a generation.

A fluent Italian speaker, Hobsbawm was also strongly influenced by the Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), who argued in favour of alliances between the proletariat and the progressive sections of the middle classes in the quest for political influence and effectiveness. It was essentially Gramsci’s influence that lay behind Hobsbawm’s famous article “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” in 1978, which pointed out that the industrial working class had begun to decline, necessitating collaboration with other elements in society if socialism were ever to be achieved. It was clear to him that the typical Labour Party member in Britain was not a manual labourer any more, but just as likely to be a college lecturer.

As Thatcherism entered its period of political hegemony, he pleaded for electoral pacts between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and voted Liberal Democrat in the swing constituency (then as now) of Brecon and Radnorshire, where his holiday cottage was located.

What would he have thought of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, then? Hobsbawm wasn’t too impressed by the “third way” policies of Tony Blair (whom he described, dismissively, as “Thatcher in trousers”), for all their socially progressive aspects, and he would have despaired at the endorsement of Conservative austerity policies by a “Tory-lite” Labour Party when it abstained in the vote on the Welfare Reform Bill of 2015, had he lived long enough to see it (he died in 2012, aged 95).

He would surely have welcomed the leftward shift under Corbyn as a return to something like a genuinely socialist position. Nationalising public utilities such as the water and energy industries and services like the railways; hitting “fat-cat” executives such as City bankers with punitive taxes on earnings and on abstruse sources of wealth such as derivatives trading; abolishing student tuition fees (providing the government plugged the resulting funding hole for universities); building more public housing; boosting the NHS; and introducing free school lunches – all this he would have welcomed as steps in the right direction.

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On the other hand, Hobsbawm, I think, would have deplored Labour’s ambivalence over Europe. He didn’t devote much space in his writings to the European Union and its predecessors, but what he did have to say was broadly favourable. It was, he wrote, “with all its problems, an entirely unprecedented form of political organisation, both created under the influence of the USA and designed as a counterweight to it”. He praised the EU for “taking responsibility for the poorer and more backward regions’’ and trying to equalise “burdens and benefits” through subsidising them. Its success was achieved above all in the economic sphere, while its declared mission of achieving the political integration of the member states remained unfulfilled.

More fundamentally, Hobsbawm would have been appalled by the English nationalism that lies behind Brexit. A socialist, he said, had no option but to be an internationalist: socialism was a universal creed and the advocacy of co-operation was one of its central features. He loathed nationalism, even if it took a relatively progressive form, as (for example) in Scotland. And he would have been shocked by the demons of racism and xenophobia that Brexit has released in parts of the population of England.

Brought up in Vienna and Berlin, living for much of the 1950s in France, spending a great deal of time in the 1960s and 1970s in Italy, and speaking several European languages, Hobsbawm regarded himself as a cosmopolitan through and through. At the same time, he was born a British citizen, lived and worked in Britain, and, as a friend remarked of him during his student years in Cambridge, “had a large and vulgar patriotism for England”. English patriotism, he knew from his own experience, is in no way incompatible with a cosmopolitan, outward-looking sense of identity. Brexit would have left him profoundly depressed about his country’s future.

For all these reasons, he would have been a Remainer, and – as someone who consistently argued for democratic decision-making, even (in 1956) within the Communist Party – an advocate of a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, given that what was on offer by 2019 was fundamentally different from what was promised during the first referendum three years before. Of course, he recognised the neoliberal elements in EU economic policy, and would have disapproved of the imposition of austerity on erring nations such as Greece. But he also knew more than enough history to recognise the input of the traditions of social democracy and social Catholicism into EU institutions, which underpin the welfare systems and policies such as worker protection that the right-wing advocates of Brexit are determined to dismantle once Britain leaves. For all these reasons, he would have found it difficult to understand why Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have so consistently blocked the commitment to Remain that most Labour Party members demand.

Worst of all from Hobsbawm’s point of view would have been the electoral damage that the Labour Party has done to its own fortunes under Corbyn, both through its equivocations over Brexit and its failure to cauterise the cancer of anti-Semitism that has spread through significant parts of its membership. Hobsbawm, whose Jewish identity may have been submerged for much of the time but was very real none the less, took a highly critical view of Zionism and publicly condemned the policies of successive Israeli governments. But he never opposed the very existence of Israel, as Corbyn’s “friends” in organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah do. He would have reminded socialists of the pre-1914 German Social Democrat August Bebel’s famous dictum that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools”.

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And, above all, Hobsbawm was a pragmatist in politics. What was the point of supporting a Labour Party, however ideologically pure it might be, if it didn’t win elections? Under Corbyn, Labour has failed to win an election against the most incompetent Tory government in modern history, and has sunk to unprecedented depths in the opinion polls. Hobsbawm would have seen this as a disaster. Ultimately, he would have concluded that Corbyn, like Benn, was a divisive sectarian who doesn’t care what damage he does to his party. Both the quasi-Stalinist stonewalling with which he and his entourage have reacted to the exposure of anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks, and their hatred of the “Blairite” moderates with whom they should be co-operating if they are to stand any chance of gaining power, would have dismayed him profoundly.

As an intellectual who spent a lifetime defending the values of the Enlightenment – rationality, truth and respect for evidence – Hobsbawm would have been shocked by the rise of populist politicians such as Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, yes, Boris Johnson, who respect none of these things. His long engagement with Latin America would have left him equally distressed at the triumph of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Hobsbawm’s books (such as The Age of Empire) were bestsellers there in the 1990s, but now the country is ruled by a right-wing extremist and open admirer of military dictatorship, in place of his personal friends – socialists like Lula da Silva and Fernando Cardoso. (One suspects, however, that he would have turned a blind eye to the failings of other socialists, like Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, or attributed the economic disaster that has struck that oil-rich country to the machinations of the US.)

In the face of the rise of populism and the crisis of democracy, the decay of rationality in politics, and the coarsening of public discourse encouraged by the internet, Eric Hobsbawm would have seen darkly into the future; but then, he always was something of a pessimist.

“Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History” by Richard J Evans is published by Little, Brown

This article appears in the 16 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy