The name Hobsbawm was virtually institutionalized at Birkbeck. While there I felt obliged to read a bit of Hobsbawm at a time when I was also reading G. E. M. de Ste. Croix – the latter so much deeper and more compelling than the former. I took inspiration from De Ste. Croix’s paper “Why were the Early Christians Persecuted” published in Past and Present, a paper that after all these years still stands as one of my favourite pieces of critical scholarship, “Croicks” later taking on the task of assimilating Jerry Cohen’s very difficult Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. So why did Hobsbawm make little or no impression on me? Struck by the rather bland but certainly prominent obituary of Hobsbawm in The Economist I asked a friend who is very familiar with EH’s work to give his brief assessment.
I had three problems with Hobsbawm’s Marxism. The first is the he never was able, or saw the need, to explain why he became a Marxist in the first place. He came from a Marxist background and assimilated the creed. There was nothing else to think, given his German background: that’s what comes across from his autobiographies. When you think of the reflectiveness of English communists, the contrast is poignant. He wasn’t a Marxist because of the crisis of capitalism, which was the (reasonable) ground of much English Marxism. He was just a Marxist and could give no more account of it than a child brought up by Jesuits can explain why he’s a Catholic.
The second is that he doesn’t do micro-history. If you read EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, here you see a historian working from a messy mass of primary material and illuminating it with a marxist analysis. He’s not putting up a prefabricated house; he’s, in Oakeshott’s metaphor, building a dry wall brick by brick. Hobsbawm by contrast takes big events & trends and sets them out in a stereotyped Marxist narrative. If you read Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916/17) you already know what Hobsbawm is going to say, what line he is going to take, about Western imperialism.
Thirdly, as for the claim that he separated his ideological commitments from his historical scholarship, which he kept scrupulously pure and objective, this is just a lie. Read all you want by Hobsbawm on postwar East European and Russian history, and where are the gulags? Where is the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe? The man closed his eyes to every inconvenient truth and finished up – oh exquisite irony – lauded for his scholarship. Which, by the way, is wholly secondary. I don’t think he knew what an archive was.
A final consideration is that he showed no interest in the more sophisticated brands of Marxism that were produced by a string of writers from Gramsci to Althusser. He never moved on from Ernst Thälmann! . . .
What I didn’t know about EH was his interest in jazz:
Alongside history and politics, Hobsbawm was an important figure in the New Orleans Revival (the introduction of jazz to Britain in the Forties and Fifties). He started writing jazz criticism in 1947 and had a weekly column as jazz critic of The New Statesman from 1955 to 1965 under the name Francis Newton.
Even here his purpose was often polemical: Jazz he believed to be “a musical manifestation of populism — where jazz plays its most important part and has its real life in the common tradition of culture.” He wrote a number of books on the subject including The Jazz Scene (1959) and Uncommon People, Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz (1998).
Perhaps EH on jazz will be more interesting and palatable. I’ll give it a go sometime.