An underappreciated aspect of Eric Hobsbawm’s political thought is the case for a more pluralistic, dynamic and intellectually inquiring Labour party. This is particularly relevant given the recent election of Keir Starmer, and the avowed quest for ‘unity’ in bringing Labour back to power.
Hobsbawm came to believe that political strategies which sought to exploit social and political stratification and conflict – such as vilifying reformist political movements – doomed Labour to permanent opposition. A broad-based people’s party, uniting objectives of solidarity and aspiration, was the only viable class politics.
Hobsbawm’s ideas were about political style, how to do politics on the left, alongside the need for a clearly articulated strategy. He consistently made the case for a party that rejected ideological and organisational sectarianism. It is important to remember that Hobsbawm was a Marxist, committed to the end of free market capitalism. Yet he understood the limits of what the Labour party could achieve, and what the British electorate would vote for.
‘The forward march of Labour halted?’
Hobsbawm’s 1978 Marx Memorial Lecture contained the ingredients for his political writings over the next decade. At the time, the Labour left – represented by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) – was on the march organisationally. It was seeking to change the method for electing Labour’s leader, to reform the selection of parliamentary candidates, and to bind the leadership to movement-created policy commitments. Yet while Hobsbawm agreed with some of these procedural advances, he warned of the illusion that “organisation can replace politics”.
For Hobsbawm, the Labour party had to succeed on its own terms, and those terms were necessarily imperfect. Voters needed to want what Labour offered, rather than it being prescribed for them; they needed to believe Labour’s policy was realistic; they needed to believe the party was for all workers and not just some; and they needed to feel Labour had a chance of winning.
These claims attracted trenchant criticism from others who identified as Marxists. But to be on the left in Britain in the 1980s, Hobsbawm suggested, was to embrace anti-Thatcherism and support practical electoral alternatives, since there was no other vehicle for the achievement of a fairer society. ‘Anti-factionalism’, then, became integral to Hobsbawm’s message.
Hobsbawm and Labour in the 1980s
Following Labour’s 1983 defeat and his resignation, Michael Foot wrote approvingly of Hobsbawm’s work: “It is a demand that socialists should recognise the scale of the setback … and the falsity of so many of the excuses for what has happened”.
And while Neil Kinnock sought to avoid controversy during the 1983 leadership campaign, his appetite for a ‘change to win’ approach shone through. He quoted Hobsbawm’s argument that for supporters of Benn and Healey, compromising to coexist would be a smaller price to pay than being members of a narrower, electorally weaker socialist force. And he began his leadership with an appeal to stop internal disputes – something a dwindling minority ignored, but with which an increasingly large majority agreed.
Alternative routes to party modernisation
From the mid-80s to the closure of Marxism Today in 1991, Hobsbawm’s political writing stressed not only the need to entertain an ‘anti-Thatcher’ electoral pact, but also greater flexibility for a leadership desperate to win. His rhetoric on party change, and his attacks on the sectarian left, became more vehement as the decade progressed. As such, he became a kind of outrider for Labour’s leadership.
Hobsbawm consistently made the case, in the climate of world communist retrenchment, for all progressives to support those social democratic parties still standing and with a chance of power. In the face of apparent right-wing hegemony, Hobsbawm wrote that it was “understandable, in such circumstances, that many socialists should take refuge in ideological sermons.” But Labour remained the vehicle for socialist change while practising politics in the world as it is, rather than what we may want it to be.
Hobsbawm’s thoughts on strategy were fundamentally intertwined with the changing political environment Labour confronted. His work in the late 1980s was that of a political thinker who recognised the Bennite left had been defeated, and who felt that some form of victory for a more ‘rational’ politics was near. Several competing modernisation narratives had emerged on the British left, not all of which were compatible with the eventual outcome – New Labour. Having played his part in arguing against turning the Labour party into a political force it had never been, what use were his protestations that he did not like what it became?
Keeping social democracy alive
Not only was Hobsbawm’s work influential, it spoke to what are long-running debates on the left, and within the Labour party, about the degree to which its ‘socialism’ should be shaped not by factions, but through dialogue with citizens beyond the party.
It speaks to two traditions within the Labour party, one often called ‘the broad church’, and another concerned with the representation of the working classes. Although Hobsbawm came from the Marxist tradition, he believed Labour’s fundamental purpose was to make liberal democracy function effectively by accommodating the working class within the institutions of the state, rather than creating an entirely different economic and political system. Such a belief, Hobsbawm argued, was the tradition that kept social democracy alive.
A longer version of this piece appears in the Political Quarterly journal.