Eric Hobsbawm is one of Britain's most creative Marxist historians. Anyone who teaches at a school or university is aware of the effect of his writing, even on those who do not know from which stable he comes. He has this effect because he can discover in history a dynamic yet comprehensible movement. Furthermore, he can write two kinds of history with equal facility: there are books with great sweep like Industry and Empire and there are others, like Primitive Rebels or Labouring Men, which are more intimate and local in their focus. One of the reasons why he can do this is that he is primarily a Central European Marxist. His cultural lineage is the Continental Marxist tradition and it is this which shapes his writing in a particular way. He is thus more familiar with both the substance of Continental Marxism and its mode of argument than is (or was) usual in British Marxism. This is immediately obvious in (say) Revolutionaries - in my view, one of his most remarkable books - as it is in Politics for a Rational Left. This tradition has also shaped the literally global range of his interests: European cities, Italian Communism, Australian general unions, Latin American revolutions, English football, all beat together in a great historical engine which might lurch and shudder but whose parts cannot operate independently. Marxism has moreover placed him in time. He believes that there was before 1914 both a 'classical' Marxism and a 'classical' high capitalism, a capitalism which produced a 'classical' proletariat and a 'classical' bourgeoisie. In approaching this latest volume of his essays the reader should remember, therefore, that Hobsbawm's writing is grounded in this classical Marxism and his politics in the mass working-class parties which high capitalism created.
LRB 22 June 1989 | PDF Download