Lenin and the "Aristocracy of Labor"

By Hobsbawm, Eric | Monthly Review, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Lenin and the "Aristocracy of Labor"


Hobsbawm, Eric, Monthly Review


Eric Hobsbawm, who died last October 1, aged ninety-five, has been much celebrated as one of the twentieth century's greatest English-language historians despite his steadfast advocacy of socialism and use of the tools of Marxian analysis. But, if asked, the founding editors of Monthly Review, Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy, his lifelong colleagues and comrades, would have differed a bit. They would have said that it was precisely because Marxism was intrinsic to his theory, understanding, and action that he gained his preeminence.

Both Hobsbawm and MR were born in turbulent times, he in the year of the Bolshevik Revolution, this magazine in the chaotic aftermath of the Second World War. But both came of age with the grim realities of the Cold War. Hobsbawm 's first book, published in the United States as Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels (1960), looked for lessons for fundamental change in pre-modern forms of resistance and rebellion, just as Huberman, Sweezy, and Baran were examining emerging revolutionary forms, especially in China and Cuba. Hobsbawm, of course, went on to chronicle the nineteenth-century revolutionary awakening of Europe while MR examined and analyzed the nascent radical upsurge in the global South.

Given the differences in their respective projects, distinctions in emphasis and direction were inevitable. In the ajtermath of the 1956 events in the Soviet sphere Hobsbawm championed Eurocommunism, seemingly a break with the "hard line" Communism of the postwar European parties, but his stance was always to struggle within the movement not to separate himself from it. And for the next half-century he never considered himself anything other than part of the same project in which the editors of MR were engaged. So when W. W. Rostow's The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960), later seen as a justification for the KennedyJohnson third world imperial plans in Vietnam and elsewhere, became the blueprint for the counterattack against the insurgent developing countries, Paul Baran and Hobsbawm published a powerful rebuttal, that among other things, noted the uses that Cold War social science was put in aid of the U.S. imperial enterprise (see "The Stages of Economic Growth," Kyklos, May 1961, pages 234-42). The impact of this muchcited article was such that little attention is paid any longer to Rostow's work.

But like many radical academics, Hobsbawm 's perhaps greatest contributions were as a teacher and communicator; something he shared, especially, with MR editor Leo Huberman, who was most committed to what he called "spreading the word." The two of them became great friends when Hobsbawm came to New York for the first time at the end of the 1950s. In addition to much political talk, Hobsbawm took Huberman to The Five Spot, a dark smoky jazz club on the Bowery to hear music by the young followers of Charlie "Bird" Parker. Huberman, of course, had no idea who that was, but later said that the music and Hobsbawm 's running commentary was an extraordinary introduction to the quintessential musical form of this country. Hobsbawm was able to communicate to Huberman, as he did in his jazz reviews for the New Statesman, the place of jazz and Parka in the narrative of the struggle against ]im Crow on the eve of the civil rights movement. The reviews were collected in The Jazz Scene, which Hobsbawm published with the pseudonym Francis Newton, brought out by Monthly Review Press in the United States in 1960.

Hobsbawm's interests were wide-ranging, but his scholarship was singular and his commitment to socialism was steely. What made his work especially interesting was his ability not only to capture the historical specificity of a given age, but also his tendency to look at what was on the outskirts of the dominant view and see change as it emerged from the margins. Related to this was his proclivity to take on some of the hardest issues, including those facing the left. The following article, "Lenin and 'The Aristocracy of Labor,(TM) from the August 1970 issue of Monthly Review is an instance of the latter. …

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