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Hobsbawm at the Margins

Histories of Marxism frequently imagine an essentially European body of thought spreading around the world. Yet, as Eric Hobsbawm’s work shows, revolutionary breakthroughs in the “periphery” could profoundly reshape Western Marxists’ own thinking.

The British historian Eric Hobsbawm in January 1976. (Wesley/Keystone/Getty Images)

It’s no accident that the history of Marxist thought is dominated by a small cluster of European thinkers. Occasionally, some space is made for a Frantz Fanon or a C. L. R. James, whose origins lie outside Europe. On very rare occasions, there is serious discussion of Marxist theorists who operated entirely outside Europe, like the Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui or the Indian “subaltern studies” school. But the reality is that European thinkers predominate. Still today, the story of Marxism is normally told in terms of the diffusion of ideas from a Western center to a non-Western periphery.

Such imbalances are almost unavoidable, given the disproportionate prestige and influence of European thought in the twentieth century. However, they also raise specific issues for the history of Marxism. After all, Marxist thought and practice has drawn much of its vitality from developments outside Europe. Marxist-inspired governments in countries like Cuba, Vietnam, and China arguably represent Marxism’s signature contribution to twentieth-century politics, at least as important as the various post-1917 attempts to make communism work in Europe.

This poses the problem of how the history of Marxism can be rewritten to take account of its global reach. One way is simply to make more space for non-Western ideas and personalities. Another is to turn the geography of Western Marxism upside down. This means recognizing that, while canonical European Marxist thought did travel to far-flung corners of the globe, there was also a return journey, as the ideas being articulated in the periphery reshaped those at the center.

Of the many twentieth-century Marxist intellectuals who benefited from this two-way exchange of ideas, one of the most interesting is the historian Eric Hobsbawm. Unlike many European intellectuals, he actively sought — and found — a global audience. His enormously successful books and articles sparked debates in places as diverse as Delhi, Mexico City, and Palo Alto, and he could boast of a long relationship with parties like the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI). Later in life, he was elevated to the status of a cultural icon even in a country like Brazil.

But this dazzling global success was only part of the story. Hobsbawm’s interactions with the rest of the world never just took the form of book deals, keynote lectures, and seminal articles discussed by enthusiastic students. On the contrary, his lived experiences at the “periphery” profoundly shaped his theoretical and historical frameworks. From the mid-1950s, they led to his most original and penetrating insights on three debates at the heart of Marxist thinking: the definition of the revolutionary actor, the notion of revolution itself, and the preferred strategy for democratic left-wing parties.

Finding a Revolutionary Actor in Europe’s Periphery

Hobsbawm always had an interest in the extra-European world, at least since his arrival in Britain in 1934. As a young communist, imperialism was at the forefront of his thinking. During his involvement with the global student congresses in Paris in 1937 and 1939, he rubbed shoulders with young revolutionaries from across the colonial world, and he got funding from King’s College, Cambridge, to do fieldwork on the agrarian problem in French North Africa in the summer of 1938. He spent several months there, talking to colonial officials and young communists, and observing the inner workings of French colonialism.

Had it not been for the outbreak of World War II, Hobsbawm might well have written his PhD on French North Africa. But the war and his first marriage restricted his horizons, and he gradually become increasingly absorbed into the intellectual and political world of British communism. From the end of the war until 1956, this became his dominant reference point. Although he maintained an interest in imperialism and decolonization, his primary intellectual home in this period — the Communist Party Historians Group — largely neglected the topic, and few British Marxist historians of his generation engaged with intellectual developments elsewhere in Europe, let alone further afield.

The multiple crises of 1956 tore the tight-knit world of British communism apart. Having refused to leave the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), Hobsbawm was stranded on the inside, caught between former comrades who could not understand his decision to stay and a party hierarchy that mistrusted him. Partly as a way of escaping the suffocating political environment of the time, he renewed his erstwhile interest in historical, social, and political processes that were taking place far from the centers of European intellectual life. He did not return to French North Africa — by then in the grasp of a violent anti-colonial war — but instead turned his attention to southern Italy and Spain. These regions, often neglected by Marxist thinkers, provided the raw material for Hobsbawm’s first original book, the set of essays that came to be known as Primitive Rebels (1959).

Primitive Rebels was a combination of two distinct strands in Hobsbawm’s early thought. First, an interest in the lived experiences of ordinary people, which was already visible in his articles on the English working class; second, a concern to identify the most promising revolutionary actors in modern European history. While the entire argumentative thrust of the essays represented an orthodox Leninist view that the “primitive rebels” who drove rural revolts were pre-political, incapable of sustained organization, and in need of direction by a vanguard party, the focus of Hobsbawm’s analysis was hardly orthodox.

Until the 1950s, both Marxists and non-Marxists had considered nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century rural rebellions as little more than inchoate and misplaced rage. Hobsbawm, however, made a sustained effort to explain the economic and social grievances of rural rebels, and he wrote sensitively about their exploits. He recognized that primitive rebellions were not political in a Marxist sense, but he firmly believed in the value of studying them as forms of protest that might provide the raw material for subsequent revolutionary politics.

It is impossible to understand this unexpected interest in the inner lives of forgotten rural rebels without appreciating Hobsbawm’s growing engagement with Spain and Italy in this period. In the early 1950s, he visited Spain for the first time and started to make regular trips to Italy, where he was introduced to a generation of enthusiastic PCI intellectuals and party workers. He used these connections to travel to parts of southern Italy and southern Spain, at that time home to some of Western Europe’s poorest populations. While there, he endeavored to talk to locals about their memories and their living conditions, making use of his rather basic Italian and Spanish. He took notes on these conversations and, on returning to Britain, sought academic works that backed up the scattered insights he had gained on his travels.

There was nothing systematic about this work. By today’s standards, his fieldwork was neither rigorous nor extensive. At best, it was what a foreign journalist might be expected to do while researching a story — and, indeed, he frequently wrote about his travels in publications like the New Statesman. Nevertheless, his travels did begin to inflect his theoretical leanings. He still believed in the primacy of the economic base and he maintained that primitive rebellion was primitive. Yet his encounters reinforced his sense of the vital importance of local traditions, practices, stories, and experiences. And the way he wrote about his subjects laid out alternative paths to revolution, opening the door to new revolutionary actors.

Hobsbawm’s experiences at the periphery thus played a central role in his reinterpretation of Marxist theory in Primitive Rebels, as well as its sequel, Bandits, published in 1969. After the bitter disillusionment of 1956, the forgotten histories of peripheral Europe offered the possibility of renewal, without upsetting a CPGB hierarchy that had no interest whatsoever in the folk songs of Sardinian peasants or Andalusian farmers. His chance encounters on village piazzas were not merely a product of Hobsbawm’s curiosity. He used them to reflect on revolutionary practice without straying into the most highly charged discussions among Western Marxist historians at the time, like debates surrounding England’s transition from feudalism to capitalism or the class dynamics of the French Revolution.

Rethinking Revolution from Latin America

Hobsbawm encountered Latin America in stages. He made short visits to Cuba in 1960 and in 1961, as part of the wave of European intellectuals who wanted to see Castro’s revolution in person. But his first deep engagement with the region came through a three-month Rockefeller-funded field trip to South America in late 1962. His travel followed a similar pattern to his earlier trips to Spain and Italy. Rather than spend a long time in any one place, he jumped from city to city, spending a few weeks in each. Over the course of 1962, he traveled to Recife and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Buenos Aires in Argentina, Santiago in Chile, Lima in Peru, Bogotá in Colombia, La Paz in Bolivia, and Caracas in Venezuela. In each city, he would arrange to meet and talk to academics and left-wing activists. If he was lucky, they would introduce him to workers and trade unionists, or take him to more rural areas to meet peasants, indigenous people, or anyone else who cared to talk to a curious British historian.

Hobsbawm continued to visit Latin America in subsequent years. This included his trip to the Cultural Congress in Havana in 1968 and frequent visits to Brazil through the 1970s. A long visiting fellowship at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in early 1971 was followed by a research stint in Peru that summer. By the 1980s, he had stopped trying to do any research on the region, but his growing fame meant that he no longer needed an excuse to travel there. Up till his death in 2012, he made frequent and increasingly successful visits to various Latin American countries, usually to coincide with the publication of one of his books.

Given the paucity of archival and field research Hobsbawm did on Latin America, he was careful not to claim that he was a specialist on the region. But, at a time when interest in the region was growing and English-language writing on Latin America was thin on the ground, he was rapidly labeled an expert. He was commissioned to write articles on the political situation in various Latin American countries — a task to which he was eminently well suited given his journalistic talents — while British university student societies invited him to explain the dynamics of the Cuban Revolution or peasant rebellions.

This process of becoming a regional expert, almost by accident, enhanced Latin America’s position in Hobsbawm’s ongoing reformulations of Marxist theory. In his grant application to the Rockefeller Foundation in 1962, he argued that he wanted to visit Latin America in order to study primitive social movements, as a direct continuation of his earlier work on primitive rebellion. But, by the 1970s, his horizons had expanded to take in a range of debates on Latin American history and politics. These encouraged him to rethink the idea of revolution at a time when revolutionary prospects in Europe seemed to have withered away.

Hobsbawm’s critical engagement with a Latin American history of revolution was visible in his two most substantial academic articles on the region. The first, published in 1969, focused on the peasant rebellion in Peru’s La Convención region, led by the maverick revolutionary Hugo Blanco; the second, published in 1974, was a broader study of peasant land occupations in the Peruvian central sierra, based on thousands of documents retrieved by a group of young researchers from haciendas that were being turned into cooperative farms. As many critics have pointed out, both these articles clung to orthodox Marxist frameworks of peasant revolutionary action as belonging to a pre-political phase of development. But, as in the case of his writing on Italy and Spain, Hobsbawm’s mastery of contextual detail and his obvious sympathy with many of the key figures belied this stern interpretative framework. Amidst the careful analysis of food prices and land-tenure patterns, he saw the potential for revolutionary social transformation in the actions of Latin American peasants.

Hobsbawm’s experiences in Latin America also confirmed his view of what revolution should not be. His encounter with radical-leftist movements (and their acolytes back in Europe) cemented his long-standing hostility toward anarchist and guerrilla-based strategies. He was consistently critical of Cuban attempts to incite revolution in different parts of the continent after 1959, and he poured scorn on the idea of a spontaneous revolution of the peasantry. On the contrary, he came to believe that highly stratified and unequal Latin American societies would only achieve revolution through the state. It was this that led him to come out in support of Peru’s “progressive” military dictatorship, led by Juan Velasco Alvarado from 1968 to 1975. In a prominent piece in the New York Review of Books in 1971, Hobsbawm argued that Peru under Velasco was undergoing a “peculiar revolution.” It was, in his words, a “transformation of the economic, social, and institutional structure” of the country, but which involved “no mass mobilization of popular forces.”

Such open support for a military regime came as a shock to Hobsbawm’s Peruvian interlocutors, many of whom believed that a military dictatorship could only spell disaster for the Left. But it typified his attempt to grapple with the problem of revolution in light of his travels. Hobsbawm recognized that the prospects for revolution were good in Latin America in the 1960s, but he also knew that organized communist parties were weak, and the specter of right-wing authoritarianism was ever present. The Velasco regime, which was committed to extensive land reform, nationalization of resource extraction, and some redistribution of wealth, offered a suitable compromise. It was undemocratic but promised to address the legitimate grievances of an impoverished, semifeudal rural peasantry without running into the idealistic dead end of Guevarist guerrilla politics.

This hybrid vision of revolution married Hobsbawm’s orthodox communist reflexes with a recognition of the desperate plight of the masses. It is unlikely that he would have come up with such a framework had he not been exposed to the scale of socioeconomic inequality that existed in Latin America in the 1960s, something he frequently mentioned in his field notes and in the journalistic pieces he wrote after his return. The places he visited, the people he met on trains and buses, and the interviews he conducted with left-wing academics and intellectuals forced him to reassess the conditions under which revolution might happen and the form it might take. Unlike many younger European Marxists, he was never seduced by the promise of global revolution. But he did get rid of some of his more rigid assumptions about what a successful social revolution might look like.

Democratic Socialism in the 1980s

In the late 1970s, Hobsbawm ignited a major controversy on the British left with his lecture “The Forward March of Labour Halted,” which was later published as an article in the revamped CPGB magazine, Marxism Today. His argument was simple: the development of the British labor movement, which had been so crucial to the emergence of the Labour Party in the early twentieth century, had by some time in the 1950s and 1960s come to a stop. Since then, the working class had become more fragmented and its trade union expressions weaker.

This intervention provoked a storm of criticism, especially from those who saw the surge of trade union activity in the late 1970s as an indicator of strength. But the advent of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1979 gave Hobsbawm’s argument renewed force. Her muscular neoliberalism, Labour’s successive electoral defeats, and the crushing of the miners’ strike all suggested that the British labor movement had hit the buffers. As someone who was credited with “predicting” the triumph of Thatcherism, Hobsbawm increasingly found himself drawn into debates over the future strategy of the Left.

For Hobsbawm, the answer to the crisis of the British left in the 1980s was much the same as the answer he had always given, namely that different tendencies should join forces in a united front to defeat Thatcher. This strategic position was a product of his student politics in the late 1930s. Until the very end of his life, Hobsbawm remained openly and unapologetically nostalgic about the popular front strategy of his youth, when the communists had sought to build broad alliances against fascism. He firmly believed that the Left could not win in a European democratic context without putting aside its differences and fighting together to defeat the Right. So committed was he to this strategy that, throughout the 1980s, he repeatedly compared Thatcher to Hitler. He always added caveats to his comparison, but it was a startlingly ahistorical argument to make for someone who had both lived through Hitler’s rise to power and was a professional historian of modern Europe.

For all that Hobsbawm emphasized the value of an interwar popular front strategy, the contemporary examples of left-wing unity he drew on were often taken from the European and global periphery. In his efforts to persuade the British labor movement to put aside its insular debates and look further afield for inspiration, he pointed not only to the united left in France (reaching office in 1981) but also to examples from Spain and Italy. Crucially, by the late 1980s, these reference points were complemented by that of Brazil’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT).

With the atrophying of the European left in the 1990s — especially in France and Italy — Hobsbawm came to consider the Brazilian left the preeminent example of a successful united-front strategy. He was happy to admit his open admiration for the PT, and he recognized the party’s uniquely broad social composition, which echoed the wide social base Italy’s PCI had achieved in its 1960s–70s heyday. He also repeatedly commented on the fact that the PT was, at the time, the only successful left-wing party in the world led by an actual industrial worker, the charismatic Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”). He even admitted to carrying a PT keychain around with him in his final years, an intimate acknowledgment of his emotional attachment to the party.

Alongside Brazil’s PT, Hobsbawm took a keen interest in the fate of the communist movement in India. By the 1990s, India had one of the largest communist movements in the world, with decades of experience in democratic government in the large states of West Bengal and Kerala. Despite the fragmentation of India’s communist movement and the emergence of a violent Maoist-inspired rebellion across the south and east of the country in the 1960s, for Hobsbawm, Indian communism was another example of a broad-based and popular united left strategy that could boast of real achievements at the ballot box.

If Hobsbawm’s popular front reflex was firmly European in its reference points, the examples he cited mostly did not come from the traditional centers of Marxist thought. Rather, they came from the experiences he had discussed or witnessed beyond European shores. In the 1980s, even as he anchored his interventions in the debates taking place on the British left, he also drew on Marxist practices in countries as far-flung as Brazil and India. In this decade, as in the 1950s, Hobsbawm’s experiences at the periphery informed his strategic interventions and shaped his political imagination.

Opening the Future

Emphasizing the role of the periphery throughout Hobsbawm’s career does not mean ignoring the many other influences on his work. It simply helps to paint a fuller picture of his intellectual trajectory and give a better sense of the circulation of Marxist ideas in the second half of the twentieth century. By giving due weight to fleeting encounters with Calabrian peasants, Mexican workers, Peruvian farmers, Argentinian bandits, and Indian communists, we can see Hobsbawm’s interactions with the periphery as more than a series of exotic encounters. Instead, they become a central part of his view of what the Left was and what it could become.

Just as his own work went on to influence thousands of Marxists in unexpected places, so too his engagement with different parts of the world deeply shaped his own Marxism. For Hobsbawm, the periphery was never peripheral. It was an exciting laboratory for the working out of Marxist ideas — one that offered a potentially more dynamic and open future for the communist vision to which he would forever remain committed.