Eric Hobsbawm: An Obituary

from: Barbara Humphries, Ealing – Southall CLP

Eric Hobsbawm, who died last month, was the author of many fine books on the history of the labour movement and economic history written from a Marxist viewpoint. Such historians are far and few between, and the service that they do for the labour movement is invaluable.

However Hobsbawm was also once described as ‘Kinnock’s favourite Marxist’. This was because of one lecture, the Marx Memorial Lecture of 1978 entitled The forward march of labour halted? This lecture has since been published in a collection of essays edited by Martin Jacques of Marxism Today, the theoretical journal of the Communist Party. It was extensively used by some on the left as a justification for moving away from class politics and even for ‘reforms’ within the Labour Party that led to creation of ‘New Labour’.

The gist of the lecture was that the manual working class had declined in numbers and no longer comprised the majority of the population. Proportionately the Labour vote had fallen from its 1951 peak of 49%. There was no longer a homogeneous working class, which had existed since the 1890s with its base not only in factories and trade unions but on council estates. Membership of trade unions had been maintained (in1978) but now comprised, Hobsbawm suggested, of white collar workers, women and migrant workers. Would not the radicalisation of these sections and their integration into the labour movement have confirmed Marx’s prediction of the trend toward proletarianisation? Apparently not, as white collar workers had a different culture!

Hobsbawm asserted that since the 1890s there had been a forward march of labour (apart from the defeat of 1931) that had ended in the 1950s. Labour historians would be stunned at the assertion that there had been an uninterrupted, forward march of labour since the 1890s. The history of the labour movement has been beset with defeats and setback, starting with the 1890s when economic recession led to the collapse in membership of the new unions formed in the 1880s. There were also serious defeats in the 1920s and 1930s – the General Strike of 1926 and when Ramsay MacDonald went over to the Tories in 1931. The rise of the Labour Party from its foundation in 1906 to government in 1929/31 had been meteoric but the defeat of 1931 was severe. Labour was knocked back to holding only parliamentary seats in its traditional areas.

However the Party at grassroots level rebuilt and prepared for the 1945 victory. As employment declined in traditional industries, such as coal mining and textiles, areas like Park Royal and the Great West Road in west London became the most industrialised areas in Europe. Trades unions had bitter fights to organise these factories.

There had never been automatic links between all sections of the working class and the Labour Party. When the Labour Representation Committee was set up in 1900 the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain did not relinquish its links with the Liberal Party. There had never been a unitary culture of the working class – that was simplistic. There were vast regional differences that have shaped the development of the labour movement. So what of 1978?

The election of the 1974-79 Labour Government had cut across the trade union militancy of the early 1970s. A social contract with the trade unions had ended with cuts and an IMF loan in 1976 and unions were again on the attack on the wages front, starting with engineers and ending with the low paid, public sector workers. This rise in ‘economic militancy’ was dismissed by Hobsbawm.

The largest industrial dispute in the post-war years, the miners’ strike of 1984-85, was yet to occur. A victory could have transformed the political situation. However, its defeat allowed the triumph of Neil Kinnock in his reforms of the Labour Party, paving the way for New Labour, with some advocating that Labour could never win an election again and that a progressive alliance should be drawn up with the Liberals.

According to Keith Flett (Morning Star (18.09.07) Hobsbawn has since apologised for that position and re-emphasised his opposition to Blair, war and imperialism.  He could not have foreseen that his essay would have been used by some as a justification for ending class politics.

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