By Kumar David –
Eric Hobsbawm (EH) described even by the reactionary magazine The Spectator as “arguably our greatest living historian—not only Britain’s, but the world’s” died on 1 October at the age of 95, following Hector Abhayavardhana (HA) who left for never-never land at the age of 93, just a week previously. Wikipedia quotes a certain Niall Ferguson saying: “That Hobsbawm is one of the great historians of his generation is undeniable. His quartet of books beginning with The Age of Revolution and ending with The Age of Extremes constitute the best starting point I know for anyone who wishes to study modern history. Nothing produced by British Marxist historians will endure as these books will”. The praise that has been heaped on EH during his lifetime is vast and similarly many are the hortatory obituaries of HA during the week; all undoubtedly well deserved. The difference however is that there has been close examination and criticism, some of it withering, of Hobsbawm, but a balanced critique of Hector’s political failures has as yet not appeared in print.
I am probably not the right person to undertake this mission since I was influenced by Hector in my late teens and twenties, but on the other hand maybe I am; there was political tension in the relationship as well. Is it not interesting to muse that these two old men may right now be sitting on a cloud and chatting about all this? It was this reverie that emboldened me to craft this irreverential piece about two men who were masters, each in his own domain.
The good that men do
Let it not be said that the good that men do is interred with their bones. Hobsbawm’s was a sweeping overview of European history from the French Revolution to 1914 (“the long nineteenth century”) in three famous works (The Age of Revolution:1789-1848, The Age of Capital:1848-1875, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914) and then a fourth, The Age of Extremes:1914-1991, about the “short” Twentieth Century, till the fall of the Soviet Union. The first three are universally recognised for sweep of historical vision, attention to detail and rigour of Marxist scholarship. The fourth was controversial, but more on that later.
EH was born in 1917 to a British Jewish father stationed in Alexandria, Egypt, and an Austrian Jewish mother and grew up with his sister in Austria and Germany with an aunt and uncle after they was orphaned in 1931. The family fled to Britain in 1935 after Hitler’s rise to power. EH studied at Cambridge where he collected a PhD and then took a lectureship at Birkbeck College, University of London. He was until his death President of Birkbeck and won numerous honours and awards in the course of a distinguished career. His influence on two generations of historians, Marxists, and card-carrying Communists was profound.
Hector’s influence on Lanka’s Marxists, especially in the LSSP was also weighty. What stuck out was his precision of thought; he could see deeper and farther than others. Both men articulated with great clarity and “masterly analysis” has often been used to describe their contributions. If The Age of Extremes was Hobsbawm’s Achilles’ heel, then Categories of Left Thinking, a singularly un-dialectical essay, was Hector’s, though inexplicably he was all too familiar with Marx’s splendid Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte; but more on that too later.
Both Hobsbawm and Hector were unshakable party men, stalwarts to the end. EH joined the German Young Communist in 1931 and the British Communist Party in 1936. He remained a party member through the horrors of Stalinism, the purges and show trials, the Polish uprising and the Soviet invasion which crushed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Throughout the worst of Stalinism he remained a loyal member of the CPGB and only let his membership lapse in 1991 a little before the party itself went into dissolution.
Hector was drawn into the LSSP as a schoolboy in 1936 and remained a member to the end. After his return from India in 1960 he worked closely with the NM-wing and was a member of the Party’s Central Committee and the influential Polit-Bureau after the fateful 1964 Party Conference. His weight in the PB during the momentous years of Coalition politics from 1964 to 1975 was substantial. It can be said that Hector was the theoretical architect and NM the public champion of coalition politics in the 1960s and 1970s.
Some twenty years later Hobsbawm caused similar turbulence in the Labour Party. Like Hector before him, by 1983 EH had become disillusioned in the revolutionary potential of the working class, and helped Neil Kinnock steer Labour into the blind alley of New Labour. Hence Hobsbawm was the intellectual forerunner of lightweight cheapies like Tony Blair. Years later, disillusioned but intellectually honest, Hobsbawm was won’t to call Blair, “Thatcher in trousers!”
Hector though, through the post-1975 years in the wilderness, the horrors of a racist civil war by participating in which the left soiled its shroud, and even in the Dead Left days of the Rajapake regime, did not embark on re-evaluation or take fresh theoretical bearings; he remained silent.
Hobsbawm’s blind spot was his Stalinist leanings which he only faintly renounced very late in life. A harsh but exaggerated jibe was that Hobsbawm was Stalin’s cheerleader in British high academia, but it is true that there is little one can learn from him about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the crushing of dissent in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany, the show trials, torture, the Gulag, and Stalin’s betrayal of the Spanish Revolution of 1936-39. He did not speak up on any of this and many are bitter that he did quit the CPGB when the Hungarian uprising was crushed. It seems a human condition that if one commits to an ideology without critical appraisal it is hard to surface again if the story spins out of control. Recall Marx’s uncompromising demand for total intellectual honesty, quoting Dante, which test Hobsbawm failed on this particular count?
“At the entrance to science, as at the entrance to hell, the demand must be made:
Qui si convien lasciare ogni sospetto
Ogni vilta convien che qui sia morta.”
[“Here must all distrust be left,
All cowardice must here be dead.”
– Dante: The Divine Comedy]
Hector Abhayavardhana’s Categories of Left Thinking, which he first presented at a session of the Association for the Advancement of Science in 1962 and Dick Henmman later published in the magazine Community, is not only overrated but also a denial of Marx’s dialectic and a retreat from Lenin’s way of dealing with strategy and tactics. Perhaps the elegant classes of Colombo society in those days gave more weight to the flourish of the title than digesting the contents! For once we have a document from Hector that waffles and is not well written; I think one half of his brain recognised that the other half was treading on categories of quicksand. I do not want to make too much of it but a single quotation says it all.
QUOTE: “The Left in Ceylon cannot continue to function on the two planes of parliamentarianism and doctrinaire (sic) revolutionism simultaneously. The split attitude that results from it makes effective action on either plane impossible. The stage has been reached when it is no longer possible to postpone a decision about this” UNQUOTE.
This refusal to adopt strategic and tactical flexibility is not just the opposite but actually the precise and polar opposite of Leninism. This political inflexibility contributed to the collapse of the Coalition strategy at those moments when bold confrontation within government was demanded. There was another lot in Lanka that took the same theoretical stance as Hectors but preferred to choose the other side of the same coin that was on offer in Hector’s menu. The JVP of 1971 held that political flexibility was a false dawn, so they opted for adventurist “revolutionism” abandoning all democratic discourse. Lenin would have called them infantile leftists. Marx would have held that Hector’s astute mind was logically so precise that it blindsided the dialectic – sometimes.
I will stop now and I hope that I have not said anything unfair about these two great men. Surely I can close with the usual trite line that neither would accept anything less than trenchant intellectual honesty when evaluating massive contributions to scholarship in the case of Hobsbaum and practical and intellectual political intervention in the case of Hector.