Friday, 7 July 2017

Eric Hobsbawm’s 20th Century Self-Censorship

Eric Hobsbawm was a famous Marxist historian and member of the Communist Party who died in 2012. Recently I read his autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life, first published in 2002. He overcame Cold War-inspired barriers to his early career and contributed much to our understanding, so his story looked to be fascinating. Instead, it was rather dull. What struck me as most interesting was interesting for bad reasons.
Not to be accused of quoting out of context, I will cite a relatively long passage of text. It occurs in Chapter 17, ‘Among the Historians’, on pages 291-292, and discusses post-1945 developments in historiography:
“Explosive subjects such as Russia, especially in the twentieth century, and the history of communism were, of course, ideological battlefields, although the debate was one-sided, since the orthodoxies enforced in the Soviet Empire crippled both their historians and their interpretations. If one was a serious Soviet historian, the best thing was to stick to the history of the ancient East and the Middle Ages, although it was touching to see how modernists rushed to say (within the constraints of the permissible) what they knew to be true every time the window seemed to be slightly opened – as in 1956 and in the early 1960s. I myself became essentially a nineteenth century historian, because I soon discovered – actually in the course of an aborted project of the CP [Communist Party] Historians’ Group to write a history of the British labour movement – that, given the strong official Party and Soviet views about the twentieth century, one could not write about anything later than 1917 without the likelihood of being denounced as a political heretic. I was ready to write about the century in a political or public capacity, but not as a professional historian. My history finished at Sarajevo in June 1914.
“Luckily, I abstained from twentieth century history until it was almost over, but it went against the grain of the historiographical movement, which was away from the remote past and towards the present. Until well past 1945 ‘real’ history finished, at the latest, in 1914 after which the immediate past reverted to chronicle, journalism or contemporary commentary. Indeed, since the archives remained closed in Britain for several decades, it simply could not be written to the standards of traditional historians. In most countries, even the nineteenth century had not yet been fully absorbed by academic history departments, except by the economic historians. The great historiographical debates had not been about it, although political radicalism, not least in the form of a new passion for labour history, now drew attention to an era which had been seriously neglected by historians in a number of countries. Even in Britain, until the 1960s politicians, serious journalists, relatives and essayists wrote the biographies of the great figures of Victorian Britain, not the professors. Nevertheless, the gap between past and present narrowed, perhaps because so many professional historians had actually been involved in the Second World War.”
While these are interesting biographical details, they are also an apologia for a lack of intellectual integrity. Hobsbawm starts out by noting the key point, Soviet censorship of dissident political views. Then he notes his capitulation, but tries to support his stance by arguing that, because ‘the archives remained closed’, he could not have analysed the post-1914 period until the late twentieth century ‘to the standards of traditional historians’. Ah yes, those ever so incisive and objective traditional historians!
Notably, his Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, was first published in 1994. In its Preface, he makes the same basic point as in the later autobiography, distinguishing his ‘professional historian’ scholarly position from those cases where he wrote about post-1914 events in ‘other capacities’. There he also says: ‘I think it is now possible to see the Short Twentieth Century from 1914 to the end of the Soviet era in some historical perspective’ (p ix). This is the telling point: he could now exercise his historical scholarship on the post-1914 period because of the end of the Soviet Union in 1991!
In one book, Revolutionaries, published much earlier in 1973, Hobsbawm does cover post-1914 developments in a number of ‘contemporary essays’. But there his Preface makes the point that ‘speaking as a historian, these are not fields in which I would claim professional expertise’. His essays were written in a general style, and one that would be safe from political censure.
Hobsbawm’s argument about ‘closed archives’ meaning that historians cannot analyse a historical period to a sufficient standard is just ridiculous, especially so for the UK. Yes, more information of all kinds may well surface in future, and possibly it will provide a different perspective. But neither that future information, nor the present sources to analyse, need necessarily be the government’s officially released archives. Nor is one only limited to ‘chronicle, journalism or contemporary commentary’. Let me take one example from the supposedly barren, pre-1991 days of insufficient material.
In 1975, Partha Sarathi Gupta published a book on the labour movement in Britain, a topic close to Hobsbawm’s favoured subject area. Gupta was a professor of British and European history at Delhi University and president of the Indian History Congress, who died in 1999. His book, Imperialism and the British Labour Movement, 1914-64, was published by Macmillan as part of the Cambridge Commonwealth Series. So he was well within the realm of the ‘traditional historians’. Gupta’s focus was not on the British working class as such, although he makes a number of pertinent comments on its political outlook. Instead, the book focuses on ‘the attitudes and policies of the British Labour Movement towards the British Empire and Commonwealth’.
Gupta recognises a limitation due to British government records after 1945 being closed at the time he was writing. However, he still makes a thorough analysis of the available private papers and public documents. The latter for the post-1945 period include House of Commons debates, statements by policymakers and advisers, and records from the conferences of the major political parties. Having read Gupta’s book only a few years ago, I was not aware of anything that has since emerged from the ‘archives’ to question his basic conclusions written some three decades earlier. My citation from his work is in an article on Labour’s colonial policy, on this blog.
I do not blame the late Eric Hobsbawm for the weak analysis of (British) imperialism after 1914. Yet it is a pity that someone of his abilities could not have applied himself more effectively, and much sooner, to this subject.

Tony Norfield, 7 July 2017


  1. Spot on Tony. I think there is also a second factor in Hobsbawm's inability to deal with post-1917 labour history and controversies. British labour historians often some excellent books about the early working class (like Thompson's 'The Making of the English Working Class'), but they were not good at dealing with British imperialism, regardless of their involvement or not in the CP. If you look at an intellectual journal like NLR, there is scarcely anything in it about British imperialism and Ireland even in the 1800s let alone the 1900s. Yet Marx and Engels wrote more about Ireland than any other *political question*. Given how important Britain was as an imperialist player and the impact this had on, and in, the labour movement and wider working class, it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect there should be a fair old whack of books on the area. But it is very scant indeed. I have some respect for the work of the CP Historians Group based on some of their writings, but they too were heavily affected by the curse of British imperialism. They adopted a largely silentist attitude about everything to do with Britain's oldest colony, even though it is only a few miles across the water.

  2. Thanks. In this short article I decided to focus on Hobsbawm's self-censorship. There is plenty more to say, of course. For example, many years ago (early 1980s, I think) I made an intervention attacking his support for the nationalist Labour Party 'left-wing' when he gave a 'Forward March of Labour Halted' speech at Conway Hall in London. On the Ireland point you raise, I also note that his famous 'Industry and Empire' book does not mention that one factor in the 1847 Irish famine disaster was continued exports of food by English landlords, something that a radical observer of the British Empire would surely have found significant. So much for British Communism!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.