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.

Can we rebuild the Plebs League tradition?

There’s been a lot of discussion about the Plebs League, a socialist adult education movement formed in 1908 by dissident students at Ruskin College. It’s not surprising that we’re all taking an interest in the word ‘pleb’, as used – or not – by a disgruntled government minister. Then the Guardian picked up on a suggestion by the shadow Welsh Secretary that we consider reviving the Plebs League. And now I receive an email inviting me to a conference on rebuilding the Plebs League tradition in a new century.

Is it possible to repeat the success of Noah Ablett, George Hodgkinson and Arthur Cook in developing a living programme of what they called ‘independent working class education’? Capitalism isn’t looking too clever right now, and there’s certainly a renewed interest in Marxist ideas out there, with new editions of the Communist Manifesto and Capital proudly on display in the high street.

And the conference, organised by a group calling itself Independent Working Class Education, looks interesting. As well as discussions of contemporary union based learning, there are also presentations on radical approaches to family history and self-education in pre-1914 socialist groups, as well as a debate about building popular universities. But how realistic are the prospects of a Plebs League for the iPhone generation?

The portents are not all grim. The original Plebs set out to promote an education in revolutionary socialism, drawing on Marxist theoretical principles, informed by experience in trade unionism, and aiming to build a revolutionary movement based in the unions. And we could argue reasonably that organised labour in general, and the trade unions in particular, are in far better shape than they were in 1908. But is this a basis for a continuing, organised movement for independent working class education?

The main obstacles are pretty obvious. While the unions are larger and stronger than in 1908 in some respects, the meaning of membership has changed dramatically since the 1970s. Branch meetings are rarely ‘spaces for learning’; they are either sparsely attended or more often have disappeared altogether. Members pay their subscriptions by credit card or standing order, rather than in person to their shop steward. The revival of union learning is a real credit to those involved (including the much-maligned New Labour government), but it isn’t often concerned with building a new social order.

And this reflects much wider trends in popular culture, which has shifted dramatically from the world of chapel, co-operative, working men’s club and trade union that working people built as shelters from the worst ravages of unregulated capitalism. I see these shifts as irreversible, at least in our life time. And none of the newer social movements has yet emerged with the strength and sustainability to carry a similarly convincing narrative of independent radical education. Nor at present is there a group of intellectuals who believe that a new and desirable social order can be built through organised labour or any other social movement.

So I reckon the prospects are poor. And I would also remind you of the fate of the original Plebs League. It openly denounced other adult education movements, such as the Workers Educational Association, as class collaborators. It despised universities and academics as bourgeois lackeys (worth remembering given that my invitation to attend this conference came from a fellow professor). And the labour college movement that they inspired and often worked in was brought to its knees, not by the malign forces of capitalism and the state, but by the corruption of its leading officials, who embezzled its funds.  So we shouldn’t idealise the Plebs, but rather see them as sometimes admirable, sometimes foolish, and sometimes plain wrong.

But the ideal of a new movement for radical adult learning retains its appeal. There is plenty to organise against, and plenty to hope for. We’re unlikely to find a comforting and inspirational unifying narrative of the kind that drove Noah Ablett and his comrades in the early twentieth century. Rather, we need to build our own narratives and interweave different radical movements that demand new and possibly tricky forms of knowledge and capability, and therefore new forms of learning.  And given the political climate, there is something appealingly cheeky about calling it after the Plebs!

For details of the conference on 24 November see: