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Mainstream, VOL L, No 51, December 8, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm: An Outstanding Marxist Theoretician

Wednesday 12 December 2012, by Anil Rajimwale

Eric Hobsbawm was a bold theorist, keeping alive the thought process of scientific Marxism as opposed to its mechanical and orthodox variety. He straddled the world of theory for long decades, leaving deep imprint on thought and practice. He was also an outstanding figure of the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain). His death has really made the world of Marxisn and theory much poorer.

His was an eventful life, uncommon in certain senses. Eric Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria, Egypt, on June 9, 1917, his father was Polish and his grandparents had settled in London in the 1870s. His father had gone to Egypt for a job and married an Austrian lady tourist. They both settled in Austria in 1919, where Eric got his initial education. Those were turbulent times, and soon Eric began to be influenced by political events after the First World War. In the words of Eric Hobsbawm himself, his life was shaped by events in Vienna and Austria, Hitler’s rise in Germany and his own later life in the Cambridge. Vienna was continuously torn by upheavals as, for example, in 1927 when the workers burnt down the Palace of Justice. He heard of Trotsky first there. His parents died soon, and his uncle took him to Berlin in the early thirties.

The Weimer Republic in Germany was being shaken to its very roots in the Great Depression of the thirties, paving the way for the rise of Hitler and Nazism. Such were the circumstances that politicised Eric and he began to read Marx and became a Communist. Eric joined an organisation known as the Socialist Schoolboys.

Towards Marxist Theory

FOR reasons of business, the family shifted to England in 1933. It was here that Eric really began to learn speaking English! He won a scholarship to enter King’s College, Cambridge, where he found a large number of Communist friends. Soon the Second World War broke out, and many Communists volunteered for Army duties, particularly for the field operations. Hobsbawm too did so, but his application for intelligence work was rejected on the ground that he was a Communist. Instead, he was assigned to the 560 Sappers Field Company. Eric wrote: “That war-time experience converted me to the British working class.”
He married his first wife in 1943, returning after the war to Cambridge where he took up History as his main field of study. He soon became a lecturer in Birbeck College, London.

The CPGB had at that time outstanding, even incomparable, historians and intellectuals in its ranks and around, like E.P. Thompson, Christo-pher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, George Thompson, Donna Torr, V. Gordon Childe, Rodney Hilton, Victor Kiernan, Brian Pearce and a host of others. The Indian group of Communists also came in contact with them and learnt much. Topping this illustrious galaxy of intellectuals was the famous British Communist theoretician and leader, RPD or Rajani Palme Dutt, who shaped generations of Indian and other Communists, and who was later to play a part in helping Indian Communists come out of sectarianism.

Hobsbawm was among those who developed close association with generations of Indian Communists like Indrajit Gupta, Mohan Kumarmangalam, Mohit Sen, Nikhil Chakravartty and a host of others. He kept in touch with them later too. Thus he helped in the theoretical grounding of the Indian communist movement. Besides, he was widely acclaimed by the intellectual community here.

Hobsbawm became one of the main organisers of the Communist Party Historians’ Group, which included a glittering constellation leaving a deep impact on History and on theory in general. Eric had an extraordinary memory for facts, events and interconnections of events. He wrote his famous “Age of…” series, which continue to be a crucial reference material: The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, and The Age of Extremes. History was immortalised.

Hobsbawm cannot be reduced to just a historian; he was a theorist in the real sense. He worked in a wide range of fields including the problems of socialism. He wrote Primitive Rebels and Bandits etc. and also a number of articles on the Soviet Union, China and problems of the communist movement. He brought out the refreshing Gramsci-Togliatti-Berlinguer line of thinking, which was both a novel contribution and a controversial trend in the broader movement of Marxist thought. Maurice Dobb was another giant intellectual who constituted another pole of attraction for Marxist novelty.

Hobsbawm’s first book was Labour’s Turning Point in 1943; among his last were the autobio-graphical Interesting Times in 2002 and Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism in 2007. His Industry and Empire was rarely out of print for thirty years. He became more active with advancing age and garnered increasing fame far beyond the Marxist circles.

Critical Approach to Orthodox Marxism

ERIC HOBSBAWM was highly critical of several aspects of theory, interpretations and practice of Marxism and of the ruling state socialist orthodoxies. Though highly critical of many of the positions and practices of the CPGB itself, he never left the party. He was at loggerheads with the party leadership over Hungary in 1956 and opposed the Soviet intervention there. He was critical of several aspects of the Soviet Union where his works were never published. He synthesised the various trends of intellectual enquiry in Europe and England in a positive manner.

He kept remembering various Indian Commu-nist leaders from time to time and, on occasions, gave his analyses of the Indian situation, and actively supported the Indian people and India itself against the machinations of the US, British and other imperialists.

He was increasingly critical of the European Communists and labour leaders as, for example, in his controversies with the Italian Communist, Georgio Napolitano, and others. He felt that the European labour leaders were increasingly failing to lead the people. Such views were reflected in his collection, The Forward March of Labour Halted.

His influence spread far wider than the communist circles, and circles in the Labour Party and elsewhere highly acclaimed him. He was even honoured by the Downing Street and Tony Blair made him the Companion of Honour in 1998.

He became more active mentally with advancing age. By the last decade of the 20th century and the first of the 21st, Eric Hobsbawm had risen even higher, a giant Marxist intellectual, who was unquestionably admired and respected by wide circles even of the non-Communists and non-Lefts who learnt a lot from him and his analyses of events and history.

There is no doubt he will again and again be referred to as the giant straddling across the political and intellectual landscape of Europe and the rest of the world.
Eric Hobsbawm has etched his place in history for ever.

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