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The Forging of a Communist

The historian Eric Hobsbawm kept faith with the Marxist orthodoxies of his youth even after the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956, of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Why?

Eric Hobsbawm, 1976 © Wesley/Hulton/Getty Images.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm died on 1 October 2012 at the age of 95. Niall Ferguson, a historian of very different ideological persuasion, claimed that ‘Hobsbawm the historian was never a slave to Marxist-Leninist doctrine’. He thought Hobsbawm’s works on the history of the last two centuries the best available in English. 

Hobsbawm’s focus on how industrialisation and capitalism altered the social conditions of workers and peasants constitutes the nucleus of the social history that he and his fellow historians in the British Communist Party developed from just after the Second World War to the mid-1950s. They departed from a focus on the ‘great’ – monarchs, politicians or popes – shifting the object of analysis to ‘those below’ or ‘ordinary people’.

For more than half a century Hobsbawm was a card-carrying Communist, obedient to the guidelines established by Moscow. He joined the minuscule Communist Party of Great Britain in 1936 and remained a member until the dissolution of the party following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991. His membership after the 1950s was that of a ‘fellow traveller’, to use his own term. In the 1970s, Hobsbawm turned towards the Italian Communist Party and its creed of ‘Eurocommunism’, of which he felt himself to be a ‘spiritual member’. This somewhat contradictory move indicated a reaffirmation of his commitment to orthodox communism, since the Italian party adhered faithfully to Stalinist strategy. Astonishingly, he remained a member even after Stalin’s crimes became public knowledge and after the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. 

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