Eric Hobsbawm, MI5 and the politics of history

This post was contributed by Brodie Waddell, Lecturer in Early Modern History in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. He also writes at the Many-Headed Monster.

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most influential historians of the last century and late President of Birkbeck, was under surveillance by MI5 for at least two decades. Last Friday, the National Archives released the formerly secret files documenting how the security services monitored Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill from the 1940s onwards. To their credit, the archives have actually digitised some of the files, so you can now read the MI5 reports for yourself.

Both Hobsbawm and Hill were members of the British Communist Party and this explains why they were of such interest to MI5 during the Cold War. Indeed, they were part of the famed Communist Party Historians Group, a cluster of brilliant scholars that also included E.P. Thompson and Raphael Samuel, whose History Centre is closely tied to Birkbeck. Hobsbawm came to Birkbeck as a lecturer in 1947, a few years after the surveillance began. His communist affiliations apparently blocked his path to a post at Cambridge, the conventional destination for a historian of his calibre at the time, but he was much more welcome at Birkbeck and here he honed his craft by writing magisterial histories of revolutions, capitalism, imperialism and global conflict. However he did not limit himself to the ‘big picture’. My own love for his work began when I read his essay on ‘political shoemakers’ and he also wrote a surprising amount about modern jazz. As an MI5 officer wrote in 1962, Hobsbawm broadcast on an eclectic range of topics on the BBC: ‘Some recent talks were entitled ‘Sicilian Peasant Risings’ and ‘Robin Hood’.’

The fact that he was watched by the British security state should not be surprising. Any communist connection was enough to justify a police file during the Cold War. Hobsbawm was, however, not a compliant party man. He was, in fact, a constant source of irritation and worry for the party’s national leadership. Although several commentators have – with some justification – criticised him for remaining a member of the CP even after the extent of Stalin’s terrible crimes became known, Hobsbawm hardly towed the party line. His open criticism of Soviet aggression in Hungary in 1956 and his other public critiques led the party leaders to consider expelling him.

Ultimately, Hobsbawm’s constant involvement in radical politics made him an obvious target for MI5. Would he still be monitored if he were alive today? Perhaps not. The label of ‘communist’ is not such a security bugbear as it once was. Yet it is odd to find Martin Kettle suggesting that it would be unlikely any historians writing today would be worrying enough to the state to justify surveillance. There are many historians across the country whose search for justice and a better world takes them beyond the classroom and into the streets to protest against British government policies. Right here at Birkbeck, we continue to build links with community groups and networks of activists. As recently as this week, our own Dr Becky Taylor published a poignant piece on the recent history of homelessness and squatting that took the story right up to the present with the Focus E15 Mothers occupation in Newham.

We at Birkbeck take pride in offering opportunities for anyone – whether a student, an activist or even a dusty old historian – to not only build up their knowledge of the contentious issues of the day, but also to speak out about them. Birkbeckers are keen to critique conventional wisdom and express their dissent, even if it means risking the possibility of ending up in a file in the National Archives marked ‘secret’.

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Eric Hobsbawm 1917-2012

Professor David Feldman pays tribute to Professor Eric Hobsbawm.

Eric Hobsbawm – or, rather, E.J. Hobsbawm as I first knew him – was unavoidable from the moment I had any ambition to think seriously about history. I bought Industry and Empire – Eric’s crystalline economic history of Britain from the industrial revolution to the mid-twentieth century – at the very start of my sixth form career and it was supplemented, inevitably and quickly, by The Age of Revolution. But it was another twenty years before I met Eric. I had recently arrived at Birkbeck College as a history lecturer, excited by the department’s connection with the Hobsbawm name. By then Eric had retired from teaching but he was still a regular presence in the department, collecting mail, chatting to the secretaries and gathering company for lunch in the college canteen.

It was immediately clear that Eric inspired affection as well as respect. This was interesting. Grand old historians, in my experience, had turned a more rebarbative face to the world. Eric was a model of how to grow old well. His interests remained omnivorous. Lunch conversation would usually begin with him asking something like, ‘what are you working on these days?’ I would tell him. Invariably, Eric would set off convinced he knew just as much, or more, about the subject as I did. Invariably he was right. He was quiet on just one occasion. I had been looking at nineteenth-century nonconformist Christianity.  ‘That’s not something I ever much looked at,’ he replied. And we left it at that. The history of nationalism marked the limits of Eric’s sympathy but not of his interest and he wrote with insight on the subject. The history of religion, perhaps, marked the limits of both sympathy and interest for him.

In 2003, Eric was awarded the Balzan Prize for his work on the history of Europe in the twentieth century. The honour gave him almost a quarter of a million pounds to spend on a research project of his own choosing. Eric chose as his subject the reconstruction of Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and he asked Mark Mazower and me to direct the project. I remember meeting Eric for a drink and his insistence that we examine the process of physical reconstruction: the bricks, mortar, steel and concrete. This was easier said than done. That sort of economic history is less practiced now than fifty years ago. More colleagues now write about the history of citizenship, culture and identities – what Eric would once have called the superstructure – than about the history of material life. Yet this was a moment when Eric was admirable. Above all, there was his principled and clear-sighted historical vision. For Eric the research project was important because it would explore how communism as much as capitalism contributed to the recreation of Europe from the ashes of war. There was also his insistence, both obstinate and luminous in the face of intellectual fashion, on the importance of economic history.  And, equally apparent, was Eric’s consideration and curiosity. He had made his intellectual point and Mark and I respected it as much as we felt able. But it did not limit us and Eric never protested. He was an ideal presence: appreciative, engaged and ready to intervene sharply at the workshops and conferences we organised.

I had not always revered Eric in the way I came to regard him over these last two decades. Having read him in the sixth form, in my first term as an undergraduate ‘Hobsbawm’ was there again. I had to write an essay on the living standards of workers during the industrial revolution. Eric was at the heart of a dispute which combined an ideological charge with an approach that, at the time, I found dry and excessively technical. As a graduate student I encountered Eric in person for the first time, albeit across a room. Living in London I sometimes attended his seminar at the Institute of Historical Research. One particular afternoon I remember. The paper was given by Raphael Samuel and the sight of Eric and Raphael side by side, and my angle of vision from the corner of a packed room, led me to wonder why it was both these Marxist historians had adopted extravagant versions of the Bobby Charlton comb over.

Eric, then, was inescapable but in common with many others of my generation I was more attracted to the work of more romantic Marxist historians such as Edward Thompson. In recent decades, as the appetite and capacity of historians to account for change in the long term has diminished, Eric’s contribution has appeared all the more distinctive and magnificent. The degree of austerity, the refusal of sentimentality, all of which I had found a little off-putting when a student, now appear among his great strengths as a historian. As he acknowledged in his 1993 Creighton Lecture, as a Communist he was on the losing side of history. Movingly he tried to recuperate as a historian what had been lost politically. Winners, he suggested, rarely asked the interesting questions. How could they? Their victory so often seemed right or inevitable or both. In his last decades, when I knew him, having lost, Eric was able to ask how it was things turned out the way they did.

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