Duncan Hallas


(December 1973)

From Review, International Socialism (1st series), No.65, Mid-December 1973, p.30.
Transcribed &marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Revolutionaries, E.J. Hobsbawm, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £3.95.

HERE IS a collection of ‘essays on a number of related subjects’, book reviews for the most part, by an author who is always clear, vivid and informative.

‘I belong’, Eric Hobsbawm tells us, ‘perhaps as one of its youngest surviving members, to a milieu which is now virtually extinct, the Jewish middle-class culture of central Europe after the first world war. This milieu lived under the triple impact of the collapse of the bourgeois world in 1914, the October revolution and anti-semitism. For most of my older Austrian relatives ordinary life had ended with the assassination in Sarajevo ... After 1914 there was nothing but catastrophe and problematic survival ... We knew about the October revolution ... It proved that capitalism could and indeed must end, whether we liked it or not ... What could young Jewish intellectuals have become under such circumstances? Not liberals of any kind ... We became either communists or some equivalent form of revolutionary marxists, or if we chose our own version of blood-and-soil nationalism, Zionists ... There was virtually no other choice ... The great October revolution and Soviet Russia proved to us that such a new world was possible, perhaps that it was already functioning. “I have seen the future and it works”, said Lincoln Steffens. If it was to be the future it had to work, so we thought it did.’

This background may explain something of the vitality and immediacy of Hobsbawm’s writing, so immensely superior in style to most of the output of our native ‘new left’. And yet there is the same fatal political ambiguity, the same disastrous equivocation with respect to Stalinism. For in spite of a number of sharp insights and a very considerable knowledge of the realities of Stalinist politics, Hobsbawm cannot bring himself to understand that Stalinism is a counter-revolutionary force. He writes:

‘Clear-sighted and unusually strong-minded communist leaders like Palmiro Togliatti soon realised that they could not, in the interest of their national movement, afford to oppose whoever came out on top in the CPSU, and tried to explain this to those less in touch with the Moscow scene, such as Gramsci’ (the emphasis in original).

The interest of the national movement? The Italian CP bent all its efforts in the critical years of 1943-44 to supporting the creation of a capitalist alternative to Mussolini. It even, on Moscow’s orders, opposed calls for the abolition of the monarchy!

On Germany Hobsbawm is even worse, if that is possible.

‘The history of the KPD is tragic,’ he concludes in his essay on the subject. ‘The great hope of the world in 1919. the only significant mass communist party in the west in 1932, it is little more than an episode in the history of Western Germany. Perhaps it failed for German reasons: because of the inability of the German left to overcome the historic weaknesses of both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat of that great and ambiguous country.’

What a monstrous falsification!

As a guide to revolutionary politics, then, this book is worse than useless. Its politics are the politics of a ‘liberal’, ‘critical’ Stalinism. It is indeed tragic that this talented and in many ways perceptive writer cannot emancipate himself from this heritage.


Last updated on 3.10.2007