From "Old Left" to "New Labour"? Eric Hobsbawm and the Rhetoric of "Realistic Marxism"

By Pimlott, Herbert | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

From "Old Left" to "New Labour"? Eric Hobsbawm and the Rhetoric of "Realistic Marxism"


Pimlott, Herbert, Labour/Le Travail


THE RISE OF TONY BLAIR and "New Labour" has generally been understood as the result of the 18-year-long hegemony of Conservative Party rule under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, from 1979 until 1997, wherein the Labour Party was forced to make fundamental changes to its program and values, ditching shibboleths and apparently "unpopular" policies, to make itself again electable. This process, however, involved deepening divisions within the party until the defeat of the Labour Left and the rise of "New Labour." The latter's takeover of the Labour Party could not have happened without the abandonment or modification of its traditional policies. It was the debate launched over the significance of Labour's loss of the general election in June 1983, the second out of four successive electoral defeats between 1979 and 1992, which became the fulcrum of division across the Left, and not just within the Labour Party. It is from this particular historical conjuncture that we can see the opening up of what would become the path towards New Labour as the debate led to the "rethinking" and "realignment" of the Left and the abandonment of many of the traditional objectives of "Old Labour." The debate brought out intense struggles within both the Labour and Communist parties, and their subsequent loss of thousands of members. It is the process, however, which has not been understood and the role of individuals who have contributed to that process: Eric Hobsbawm and the rhetoric of "realistic Marxism."

E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, two of the best known British Marxist historians who have had life-long commitments to socialist and working-class politics, became the two most politically engaged, high-profile intellectuals of that former group in the contemporary political issues of the late 1970s and 1980s, the European peace and British Labour movements respectively. Both historians were clear about the application of their own analysis and understanding of the past to contemporary political issues of importance. While the influence of both on history and historians has been the topic of a number of studies, Thompson's direct interventions and engagement in politics has been more widely recognized and understood than that of Hobsbawm's to date. (1)

However, Hobsbawm's contributions, while widely recognized, are not as obviously or as closely connected to his political interventions that began to take place during the 1980s in the struggle over the trajectory of the Labour Party and working-class politics. Both historians engaged politically during their later professional and personal lives, doing so on both international and national levels in ways that underline their own importance to the fields of historical inquiry and highlight the importance of understanding the past in order to struggle for a better future.

Hobsbawm and Thompson were both able to make effective, persuasive interventions in public debates because of their rhetorical and writing skills. While the relationships between intellectual research and political commitment, and indeed political engagement, have been identified amongst social, labour, and Marxist historians, such as the Communist Party of Great Britain's [CPGB] Historians' Group, there are few, if any, examinations of the rhetorical and communications process by which such public intellectual activity is made: i.e., the "how" of political interventions. This paper addresses this important area in examining the means by which Hobsbawm was able to intervene effectively in public debates, having a direct impact on the Labour Party's future trajectory. Hobsbawm exercised considerable influence in the highly public political infighting within the Labour Party, even though he was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and he was able to effect changes through his contributions to debates which affected both political parties simultaneously.

Indeed, Eric Hobsbawm came to be referred to as "Neil Kinnock's Favourite Marxist," despite having no close intellectual or personal relationship to the leader of the Labour Party, a statement of his alleged influence on Kinnock's "re-making" of the Labour Party. …

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