After the fall: Hobsbawm from the north

The great reach of the historian Eric Hobsbawm found its limit at the borders of multinational Britain, says Christopher Harvie.

Christopher Harvie
18 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, who died at the age of 95 on 1 October 2012, was indeed a Marxist but also an intellectual of the old Jacobin-centralist school: fabulously learned and fluently persuasive in most, though not all, directions. The contrast with many of the new market-men practitioners such as Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson is telling. He did his own research, had an unerring eye for pictures, conversations and statistics, and would not have let a production as shoddy as Ferguson’s Civilisation: the West versus the Rest (2011) leave the works. I remember Arnold Kettle and Victor Kiernan duetting a Cambridge left-wing ditty of the thirties which had the refrain "But Eric Hobsbawm knows it all!" That was in 1978, and he still had another thirty-four years to run.

He also inherited a metropolitan capacity for business, as well as its spin on his Anglo-Marxist outlook. At the Open University in 1970, Kettle and the rest of us traded from the start on the goodwill of Michael Frayn’s "herbivore" middle classes - particularly graduate mums prepared to tutor for small rewards. Arthur Marwick as energetic innovator brought the famous debate on "the standard of living in the industrial revolution" into his Introduction to History, which was - like Kettle’s parallel work on literature - a groundbreaking exercise in distance-learning. He got a pro-market essay from the conservative Max Hartwell free; Eric the Red's came with an invoice.

Hobsbawm’s great trilogy - The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 and The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 - was published between 1962 and 1987 and together with his well-organised Industry and Empire (1968) had the peculiar effect of being a threnody for the Kipling-Elgar version of Britain and a beguiling overture to the altogether dodgier "United Kingdom of London". In the place itself history, like culture, became as much a product as financial services: as ambiguous and ultimately as disastrous.

Hobsbawm's attitude to Scotland and Wales was idiosyncratic. He knew the latter far better, in part as he holidayed for years in Snowdonia in a cottage belonging to the lefty aristo and architect Clough Williams-Ellis (of Portmeirion fame). But Hobsbawm took little interest in either country's religious democracy, the Scots Covenanters or the Welsh gwerin. In its secular form this bequeathed the fire and rhetorical strength of these nations' writers and politians, Thomas Carlyle or David Lloyd George, and also a near-intuitive understanding of the gestalt imposed by systems: the mental impact of technological breakthrough on the western littoral exemplified by the compound-engined tramp-steamer or the compact efficiency of the narrow-gauge railway.

Such innovations, starting from the Clyde industrialising west-central Scotland or next door to Hobsbawm’s Cwm Croesor at Blaenau Festiniog would - in the high imperial epoch after 1870 - go on to open up plantations and mines in Africa, southeast Asia and the Andes (see A Floating Commonwealth: Politics, Culture, and Technology on Britain's Atlantic Coast, 1860-1930 [Oxford University Press, 2008]). This was the world of Kipling's poem "McAndrew's Hymn". It is one whose balance-sheets Hobsbawm knew like the back of his hand. The personal geographies of the people concerned intrigued him - I remember an exhilarating conversation with him and Logie Barrow in the Institute of Historical Research in which various lacunae on the Hobsbawm Mappa Mundi were being filled in, chiefly about the migration of capital from cotton to ships, slate and railways during the American civil war.

But for the most part, and legitimately enough, it was London’s world of "telegrams and anger" that sufficed to focus his interests, with the main item on the agenda the culmination of empire in the notional "war of 1914-45" in which ideologies, people-movements, mechanisation, epidemic and famine-generated destruction on a vast scale. This may underlie the outstanding "Hobsbawm issue": his continuing communism in the face of the Stalinist record. The ambiguity wasn’t all on Hobsbawm’s side, not least because many of his accusers had themselves tholed Stalin, continued the propaganda battle when the crimes of Brezhnev-era weren’t homicidal but cultural and ecological, and (on the "my enemy’s enemy is my friend" principle) palliated the enormities of Mao’s cultural revolution.

The short 21st century

Broken faimlies in lands we've hairriet / Will curse Scotland the Brave nae mair, nae mair./ Black an white til-ainither mairriet / Mak the vile barracks o their maisters bare.

EP Thompson shared his friend Hamish Henderson’s solidarity with "the folk of Halifax or Glasgow" - the kind of sentiment finely embodied in these lines from Henderson's rousing "Freedom-Come-All-Ye" - and distinguished between their respectives cultures in his The Making of the English Working Class (1965), a cultural achievement that no individual work of Hobsbawm equals. This blindspot would inflect the latter’s interpretation of "the onward march of Labour halted" as a British issue - of doctrine and discipline - rather than as recurrent, regionally diversified centrifuge slowly tearing apart a war-driven centralisation.

It also meant that - despite the over-representation of Scots and Welsh in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) to which he belonged for six decades - he never quite grasped where the nations were heading. In fact his and Christopher Hill’s intra-party "historians’ group" seems in retrospect something of a left-wing version of TS Eliot’s "Little Gidding" - a refuge from the rather Celtic-Oriental world of King Street Stalinism run by National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) trusties, Moscow gold, and the propagandist Rajani Palme Dutt.

As a result, Hobsbawm didn’t make much sense at all about the shifting geopolitics of 1970s Britain. "Scottish politics would be complex and unpredictable, and might be rather savage..." he wrote, if the SNP - "a classic petty-bourgeois nationalist party of the provincial right" - succeeded in getting its hands on North Sea oil. This dated from around 1979, long after figures on the non-communist left had embraced autonomy: Neal Ascherson, the former Cambridge student whose intellect had most held him in awe, and Tom Nairn, who married the poet Hugh MacDiarmid’s rhetoric to the "common sense" of the Enlightenment gestalt. Yet Hobsbawm's impressions were the common currency of the time, and could stem pretty directly from the Scots encountered in official and commercial London life.

The set of conference papers published as The Invention of Tradition (1983), co-edited Terence Ranger, threw the Scots to Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre), who had fun with the phoneyness of James MacPherson’s Ossian and the Sobieski-Stewarts’ tartanry. Later in the same year, Dacre’s "exuberant authentication" of the forged "Hitler diaries" prefaced their appearance in the Sunday Times. (The remark of the paper’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, when his expert recanted at the last moment, could serve as a lapidary epitaph for British commercial history: "Fuck Dacre, publish!")

John Gollan, the CPGB's general secretary from 1956-76, and a hard-working Scots economic historian, was in this respect more open-minded. In 1969 he found Christopher Smout's A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 "the best book published in years". Smout, another Cambridge man and politically a Liberal, had Hobsbawm’s macroeconomic grasp, but allied to this a sensitivity to the natural world (where MacDiarmid and Gaelic praise-poetry both made ecological sense), the huge and uniquely Scots contribution of the Statistical Accounts of the 1790s and 1830s, and an appreciation of feminism and the private life that was never Anglo-Marxism’s strong point. The caption to Ingres’s "The Harem" in Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution - "The tired businessman’s relaxation" contrasts with Smout's remorseless depiction of the Scots and sex which both outed the delights of the erotic from Alexander Montgomerie to Robert Burns and showed up a male self-obsession that was, and alas remains, stultifying.

More broadly, in the 21st-century's second decade - twenty years on from the Wende of 1989-91 - the fear of a repeat of the 1914-45 explosion looks well grounded. A fusion of economic breakdown with oligarchic theft and environmental collapse in many regions is shifting attention to the failings of imperial constructs in general, and the impact of dynamic elite-minority groups in particular (such as the Scots perfected in their allotted "lieutenant" role in the British empire). The implosion of the Edinburgh banks could be said to restate in an even bleaker context the pessimistic case made in John A Mack & Hans-Jürgen Kerner’s The Crime Industry (1975): that globalism, tax-havens and computers have dissolved Hobsbawm’s idea of law as instrumental in the architecture of capitalism, and so capable of being coopted by humanist successors. Where that leaves the great historian's Jacobin-centralism - and indeed Scotland, Wales, and the United Kingdom of London - is for his successors to ponder.

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