Remembering Eric Hobsbawm: historian, Marxist and adult educator

I was delighted to learn about Birkbeck College’s Eric Hobsbawm Postgraduate Scholarships. Hobsbawm was one of Europe’s leading historians, who inspired several generations of younger scholars through his remarkable syntheses of world history. He was also a fine teacher and one of British Communism’s few intellectual giants.

Theoretically, Hobsbawm’s work was visibly strongly informed by his Marxism. But as well as a broadly Marxist conceptual framework, his interests and thinking were also influenced by his lengthy membership of the Communist Party. He claimed in his autobiography, as well as in person, that his political loyalties were forged during the struggle against Nazism, and when others forged new movements in the 50s and 60s, he remained.

Coming from a later generation, viewing the Soviet Union as an oppressive, imperialist and violent dictatorship, I found this hard to swallow. But it wasn’t something he was prepared to argue about with young whipper-snappers like me, and – as Perry Anderson points out – his autobiography is at best oblique about his views on Stalinism and the dishonesty that it engendered.hobsb times

What he did take from the Communist tradition was a strong belief in the virtues of discipline, hard work and organization. I have strong memories of Hobsbawm’s bewilderment and dismay when Raphael Samuel and others involved in History Workshop suggested that creativity and even a bit of chaos never did anyone much harm. For Hobsbawm, this was the sin of ‘romanticism’.

He was also – although I don’t think ever he saw himself this way – a lifelong adult educator. He often spoke of his disappointment at being denied a post at Cambridge, which he attributed – publicly at least – to the anti-Communist anxieties of the University authorities.

Even McCarthyism could have unintended consequences, and perhaps one of them was that Hobsbawm spent most of his working life teaching at Birkbeck College. Or perhaps it was partly that, like several of his friends and comrades who also found themselves teaching adults in the late 1940s, full-time academic posts at that time were few and far between.

Hobsbawm must have given gave hundreds of lectures to non-academic audiences, of trade unionists and weekend schoolers and others, in Britain and elsewhere, showing every sign of enjoying the lively exchanges that followed. He was a spell-binding speaker, combining analytical precision and clarity with a broad sweep across the historical landscape.

So it should be clear that I am ambivalent about Hobsbawm, whom I see as a complex figure and a flawed one. But he was an inspirational writer, an encyclopedic historian and a great teacher, and the Birkbeck scholarships are a fine way of marking his memory.

Did Moscow control the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Interwar Britain?

westI’ve been reading Nigel West’s book Mask, which recounts MI5’s surveillance of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It’s a rum old book, and West is an odd character, but I was given it, and it tells a good story. It also includes a large amount of original material, including a 1934 message from Alexander Abramovich of the Comintern telling the British Communist leader Harry Pollitt how to handle the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement.

The NUWM was one of the most successful radical campaigning groups in inter-war Britain. Its protests, marches and local advocacy enjoyed significant popular support, and won the NUWM considerable publicity. But ever since the 1930s, participants and historians alike have debated the extent to which the NUWM was controlled by the Communist Party.

In the most authoritative account to date, Alan Campbell and John McIlroy concluded that from 1929 on, the CP effectively imposed its own agenda on the NUWM, at least at national level. Or, more accurately, it translated the interests of the Soviet leadership into its own agenda. It also, on Comintern instructions, tried to undermine Wal Hannington, the NUWM organiser viewed by Moscow as failing to turn the unemployed towards revolution.

Of course, if the CP did Moscow’s bidding, it did so with an eye to maintaining the NUWM’s support among the unemployed, and its attempts at control were sometimes resisted by leading NUWM members like Hannington, as well as by local branches who simply got on with their own activities without always paying much attention to headquarters.

Campbell and McIlroy benefited from access to a much wider range of evidence than was available to earlier historians. In particular, they were able to use the Communist Party archives, as well as reproductions of material in the Russian State Archives. They also use the material that West has reproduced, drawn from the declassified decrypts of radio messages between the Soviet-controlled Comintern and officials of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Campbell and McIlroy used the November 1934 message in their 2008 article, so it is not surprising that it largely confirms what we already know. In the message, the Comintern urged the CP to get the NUWM to engage with the trade union movement and their local unemployed associations in what it called the United Front, and told them to put pressure on Labour controlled councils by organising union delegations to work camps, with a view to demanding their closure.

In the event, this was pretty much what happened. NUWM branches demonstrated at meetings of public assistance committees in Labour-controlled areas like Llanelli, Kirkcaldy and Durham, and the movement made closure of the ‘slave camps’ a central feature of its campaign against the 1934 Unemployment Assistance Act.

In 1934, the campaign against the Unemployment Assistance Act was genuinely popular, and the NUWM needed no persuasion to focus on the Act’s provisions for compulsory training in camps. Where the Comintern did require change was where it told the CP to get the NUWM to cooperate with the official trade union movement, particularly its local unemployed associations. For the previous four years, the CP had complained that the NUWM was not enthusiastically following it in attacking such groups as ‘social fascist’; now it turned on Hannington for continuing to criticise the official unemployed associations as too moderate.

As it happens, I had not read the Comintern message – other than the few lines cited by Campbell and McIlroy – when I wrote about protest and resistance in my book on British work camps. I can’t see that it would have changed my understanding of the NUWM, which I believe was weakened by the CP’s attempts to use it to pursue the twists and turns of Stalinist policy.