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Hobsbawm’s legacy for Labour

Despite all the compliments, we are entitled to ask: what has Britain’s current Labour Party really learned from Eric Hobsbawm?

Geoff Andrews
16 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawm’s legacy will live on far and wide. Among the attributes recalled by his many admirers, is his clarity of writing, his extraordinary depth of historical knowledge, his cosmopolitan compass, and his ability to articulate the intellectual and political trajectories of different periods. Labour leaders queued up to commemorate him. Ed Miliband, whose family had long associations with Hobsbawm, was joined by Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock, who once described him as his favourite Marxist. Tristram Hunt MP, himself a historian and the author of a brilliant biography of Friedrich Engels, pointed out in his Telegraph obituary, that ‘as a good Marxist, Hobsbawm also believed in the virtue of the dialectic, of the battle of ideas and the development of new thinking which emerged from them’.

Yet, despite all the compliments, and accepting that Hunt is not likely to assume the Labour leadership anytime soon, we are entitled to ask: what has the current Labour Party really learned from Hobsbawm? Or, indeed, from other members of that remarkable generation of labour and Marxist historians, amongst whom he was the leading figure and the last to go?

For some time historians have ceased to hold much appeal for Labour politicians as they seek new political strategies or try to re-acquaint themselves with lost traditions.  Historians are no longer the key players in the big debates over Labour’s ‘mission’, values and legacy. The current intellectual debate on where the Labour Party is headed, such as it exists at all, has been fickle, cursory, and shallow. This is mainly the outcome of New Labour’s earlier attempt to reposition itself politically, to eschew ideology in favour of ‘what works’, to prefix all policy agendas and pronouncements with ‘new’ and to overhaul its relationship with its core constituencies – notably the labour movement itself. Think tanks, policy wonks, and spin doctors now provide the key to understanding Labour’s traditions, as well as its identity, social composition and future prospects.

There is little sense of a ‘battle of ideas’ at the heart of New Labour’s discussion, certainly nothing of the kind that characterised the pivotal moments of the past, whether between the Bevanites and Gaitskellites, Benn and Healey, or even the early bouts between the traditionalists and modernisers in the 1980s. This no doubt pleases the Labour Party leadership, who fear electoral oblivion at the mere mention of the word ‘ideology’, but it does nothing to get the party out of its self-inflicted intellectual muddle. It would be useful to know, would it not, if it answers to ‘New’ Labour, ‘Blue Labour’, or ‘True Labour’? Is it social democratic, centre-left, or merely ‘progressive’? 

The most glaring intellectual failure of recent times was the preposterous ‘third way’, which simultaneously sought to ‘go beyond left and right’ and ‘renew social democracy’. Its all-encompassing merits, according to its prime mover, the sociologist Anthony Giddens, was inspiring centre-left politics from Brazil to Italy. Even in Gaddafi’s Libya, he pointed out in an extraordinary article in the New Statesman in 2006, the modernisers had the upper hand. In a three hour meeting over mint tea in the Libyan leader’s tent, Gaddafi explained to the evidently impressed Professor Giddens that the third way accurately described his own political philosophy set out in The Green Book; the document he would later wave defiantly at foreign journalists as he called for the annihilation of his opponents during his final days in power. Better to stick with historians.

The retreat from history helps us understand Labour’s main predicament in deciding what it believes in, and why it will not find long-term recovery easy. True, there is no Raphael Samuel to remind Ed Miliband that Disraeli’s ‘one-nation’ idea, was a paternalist, top-down solution to rising poverty born of social inequality and the prospect of social disorder and radical change. There is no longer an Edward Thompson to urge the labour movement to draw on its humanist traditions in the cause for peace. Hobsbawm himself, in one of his last public talks (to the Socialist History Society in 2011) reasserted his idea that citizens acting as ‘agents of social change’ still hold the solution to global economic and environmental problems. For Labour leaders and their advisors that idea of political agency disappeared with the Miners Strike in 1985.

While we should not be too surprised at the Labour leadership’s current antipathy towards history, given that Hobsbawm and the other historians came from the communist, New Left, feminist and peace movements, we should also remember that the Labour Party has a shared left history. Eric Hobsbawm was acutely aware of this. It was evident in ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted’, his Marx Memorial Lecture later published in the Communist Party journal Marxism Today, which provided a far-reaching analysis on where the labour movement had come from and its future prospects. It engaged a range of opinions across the labour movement and well beyond the Labour Party. There has been nothing like that in recent times.

Hobsbawm of course was more than a historian; he was a leading public intellectual who in his later years sought to intervene regularly on debates on the future of the left. After ‘The Forward March…’ there were more articles in Marxism Today and elsewhere and he was one of several intellectuals urging the left to rethink. The Labour Party clearly drew on his and others’ prognosis to the extent that they reformed the party and broadened its image and appeal, but their idea of ‘modernisation’ was to undermine the prospect of any left vision to replace the neo-liberal consensus. In retrospect we can see that the Labour Party now prefers to listen to think tank gurus and poll experts. In that regard perhaps the defining moment, for those who witnessed it, was Hobsbawm’s clash with Geoff Mulgan over New Labour at a Marxism Today seminar in 1998.  

Eric Hobsbawm was profoundly influenced by the experience of living through the 1930s. This extraordinary decade, characterised by the sense of imminent economic collapse and the devastating rise of fascism, prepared the ground for a uniquely committed generation of working class activists and intellectuals, who organised the Hunger Marchers, joined the battle against Oswald Mosley in Cable Street and volunteered to fight on the Republican side in Spain. The 1930s were also the time of the Labour Party leadership’s most abysmal failures as it followed the electoral fall-out from Ramsey MacDonald’s betrayal by keeping its distance from these movements. It learned many historical lessons from that decade, and was able to build broad support for social change which was realised in the 1945-51 government. We live in very different times, but the task of seeking ideas and solutions at a time of widening class inequality amid economic instability means we can learn much from Hobsbawm’s and the historians’ example.

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