Marx of weakness, Marx of woe

BY BEN PIMLOTT ON HISTORY by Eric Hobsbawm, Weidenfeld pounds 20
What is history? In this collection of essays, lectures and reviews written over a period of 30 years, Eric Hobsbawm wisely avoids tackling the question head on - even though there is no historian living who is better qualified to do so. What he provides, instead, is the product of a lifetime's musing on what history is and should be for. History, he tell us, is neither a pastime nor a precision instrument. Yet it is, emphatically, a tool.

It is an important aspect of this book, and of the author as a great historian, that he has not only been a Marxist all his adult life, but is still an unapologetic one, who remained a Communist from his student days until the party withered into effective non-existence. Many of his generation broke with the party in 1956, and spoke later of their bitter disillusionment. Not Hobsbawm. After joining the youth section in Germany six and a half decades ago (he has just turned 80) he remains doggedly loyal to its ideals. "If the Party had said anything," he was recently quoted elsewhere as saying, "I'd have done it. I was a disciplined member of the Party. Having been recruited at that time and at that place, in Berlin as Hitler came to power, I could never leave."

His views evolved, and in recent years his everyday politics have often seemed more middle-of-the-road than the Labour Party's - if "New Labour" had intellectual founding fathers, he could certainly claim to be one of them. But there was never a moment of rejection, a negative Damascus Road experience sufficient to make him sever the political and personal cord linking him to a system that produced the Great Terror and the Gulag.

Such an unfashionable - and, in professional terms, self-sacrificing - position leaves serious puzzles, not least because Hobsbawm's historical work is profoundly open-minded. How can a writer and artist simultaneously hand himself over to the will of a totalitarian organisation and remain objective? Is it possible to see your own writing or art as a moral exercise, while never fully opposing an authority you increasingly know to be immoral? In the case of - say - a romantic poet or a sculptor, one might regard lifelong communism as a kind of religious backcloth to aesthetic creation (examples spring to mind). In the case of a historian with a unique appreciation of the sweep of events over the last few centuries, and, moreover, one who has remained actively a political animal at an age when many professional politicians are tending their roses, the puzzle deepens.

This book provides no single answer, and in some ways it ducks the issue: one longs to say to the author, when he is flagellating some capitalist or social democratic leader or other for naivete, "But what about you?" There were, after all, no people or organisations that got things wronger for longer with less excuse than the Communists of the West. However, On History does provide some implicit self-appraisal. Hobsbawm is defiant about his Marxism, which indeed suffuses every limpid page. His definition of Marxism, however, is emphatically not a religious one: for him, Marx is not a godhead, or the author of a sacred text, but a teacher, "what the Japanese call a sensei", as he puts it, "an intellectual master to whom one owes a debt that cannot be repaid", but who is certainly not beyond argument or criticism. At pre-war Cambridge, he explains, his generation used to joke that in the student Communist fraternity the philosophers tended to be Wittgensteinians, the economists Keynesians, but the historians were Marxists faute de mieux - Cambridge could supply the world's greatest philosopher and economist, but not its greatest- ever historical thinker.

Indeed, the secret to understanding Hobsbawm (it becomes clear) is that he was a Marxist first and a Communist second, unlike many others for whom Marxism was a theoretical justification for a political faith. Hence his Marxism was all the more unshakeable in the face of the vagaries of actually-existing Communist systems. In this book, he remains as convinced as ever, both of the sensei's essential rightness, and the continuing importance of his ideas. "Marx's influence in non-socialist countries is undoubtedly greater among historians today than ever before in my own lifetime," he declares, "and probably than ever before since he died." He sees this influence not as diffuse, but as central - we are all Marxists, in various senses believers in materialism and in the notion of society as composed of levels that interact, whether we realise it or not. He quotes Gellner: "Even those who do not accept the Marxist theory of history tend to lean upon its ideas when they wish to say what they do positively believe."

But there is also something else: the contention that the writing of history is for something. It is a nice irony that Hobsbawm's Marxism makes him particularly aware of the dangers of the abuse of history. In an essay on partisanship, the author argues that propaganda and scholarship each have their place, but must not be confused. Partisanship may even be a necessary tin-opener without which some cans of worms would stay sealed: he points out (as a pioneering labour historian) that without partisanship, British labour-movement history might never have been written, because only partisans were interested in it. However, partisanship is not the same as bias, and the rules of objectivity are absolute: history is about what actually happened. "Either Elvis Presley is dead," he writes, "or he isn't." As a Jew, he is scathing about Zionist claims to a historically legitimised right to the territory of Israel. He cites Renan more than once: "Getting history wrong is an essential part of being a nation." A particularly searing essay examines the history, the nonsense, and the dangers associated with any idea of "Europe" as a single human (or even geographical) entity.

If history is about what happened, knowing history is essential for what to do next. All human activity, Hobsbawm points out, is based on accumulated experience, and so are all political judgements. As a Marxist, he is intrigued by the imagined "predictive" element in historical writing, and seeks to unravel it. He acknowledges that Marx's goal was "to prove a priori that a certain historical result, communism, was the inevitable result of historical development" - something he accepts as absurd.

Nevertheless experience permits Delphic predictions: in the 1840s it was already possible to see Russia and America as future pre-eminent powers; in the 1890s, that Tsarism would end in revolution; and today that "the chances of the Jews establishing themselves permanently by conquest in a Middle Eastern enclave are not much greater in the long run than the chances of the Crusaders". Moreover, understanding and analysing the history of economies and societies is as important for such broad-brush forecasting as understanding high politics. If, indeed, there has been progress in historiography (Hobsbawm thinks there has) it has been towards the universal acceptance of a more analytic, societally-based approach.

There are blind spots. Hobsbawm is cautious of "oral" history: excessively so, it seems to me. He offers no good reason why spoken recollections should be treated with greater suspicion as evidence than published memoirs. He mentions biography only once, and then to dismiss in passing "neo- Victorian biographies of politicians which have recently become the fashion again". Yet biographies have become an increasingly serious and sophisticated way of writing history, and of connecting disparate historical strands, including the important marginal wisps which partisan or theoretical historians easily neglect. He also imagines, wrongly, that nobody reads them. They do.

Yet for all this, Hobsbawm is right much more often than he is wrong, with a gift for the surprising assertion that has the reader nodding in agreement. This book of his essays - crisp, clear, logical, mordantly witty, splendidly aloof from British class assumptions, and untarnished by ancient-university snobbery - fully justify his reputation as one of the outstanding historians of our age.

Ben Pimlott is the author of `The Queen: a Biography of Elizabeth II', published tomorrow in paperback (HarperCollins, pounds 9.99) .