Master of Exceptions

Workers: Worlds of Labor

by Eric Hobsbawm
Pantheon, 369 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Last year a touching and curious film was shown on British television. It consisted essentially of home movies made by a left-wing Cambridge undergraduate in 1939; the jerky camera captured and preserved moments of uncomplicated political activity on marches and in discussion groups, shared by a jeunesse engagée perched on the edge of apocalypse. Many of the faces who smiled self-consciously into the camera were fated for oblivion; but every now and then one caught a fascinating glimpse of features doomed later to prominence. Among these appeared the unmistakable aquiline profile of Eric Hobsbawm, sardonically amused and strangely unchanged. Amid all those round English faces, curly hair, cheerful tweedy earnestness, he looked affectionate but abstracted, as if he were already marching to different music.

This impression returned strongly to mind while I was reading the latest collection of Hobsbawm’s essays. In the more than forty years since his undergraduate days he has brought to bear on labor history an analysis that is searching, ironic, and sometimes caustic. He displays his tremendous learning in a highly allusive but never dense way. Above all, his analysis is Marxist, in the sense that Marxism is used as an intellectual method rather than as a prophetic formula. In all this, Hobsbawm’s work is sharply different from the labor historiography that prevailed before he made his mark on it; he continues to arouse strong disagreement as well as admiration among the generation that has followed him.

English by adoption, Hobsbawm is Viennese by origin and was educated partly in Berlin, partly in England. His work has a flavor of the international culture which such a background implies. A combination of cosmopolitanism and intellectualism was not characteristic of the writers who dominated British labor history before him—guild socialists like G.D.H. Cole, bons vivants like Raymond Postgate, declamatory radicals like J.L. and Barbara Hammond, and Christian moralists like R.H. Tawney. They were passionately committed writers, but their thinking was often fuzzy. The great exceptions, significantly, were Sidney and Beatrice Webb; and Hobsbawm has long been interested in their work, on which he wrote an influential essay thirty years ago.1 But in a characteristically English way, the labor movement has preserved the Webbs as “personalities” rather than as thinkers; and their work has been more criticized than read.

Much left-wing British labor history before the 1950s was diffuse and emotional in its analysis and literary in its tone. Therefore “optimistic” (and conservative) economic historians like Sir John Clapham could smoothly marshal statistics to puncture claims of economic exploitation, such as those Engels had made in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. They saw the social effects of the Industrial Revolution as consistently benign.

Hobsbawm’s early work had a strong effect on this kind of history. Most notably, he reopened the great debate about the workers’ standard of living during the first era of industrialization in the early nineteenth century. By means of detailed analysis of food consumption, and a sophisticated breakdown of variations in employment patterns, Hobsbawm showed that Engels had described the experience of industrialization with considerable accuracy. Because of Hobsbawm’s work, the process of exploitation again became central for labor historians, not simply as a moral horror but as a condition that was built into the structure of economic relations. Most challengingly of all, Hobsbawm showed more clearly than anyone else had done how Marxism appeared to Marx’s contemporaries: he saw Marx as an eminent Victorian intellectual whose ideas were perceived in his own day as no more frightening or apocalyptic than the nostrums of most other economic analysts. In his analysis of the history of British labor during the nineteenth century he grafted onto British history a Marxian perspective that owed much more to Kapital than to the Communist Manifesto, and provided the basis for a generation of historical research.

Hobsbawm put much emphasis on the strategic shift from craft to “general” unions toward the end of the century. “By the 1870s,” he wrote in his textbook Industry and Empire,2

trade unionism was officially accepted and recognized, where it had succeeded in establishing itself. Thanks to the archaic structure of the British economy, this was not only among the skilled craftsmen of manual trades, (e.g., the builders, tailors, printers, etc.), but also in the core of the basic industries, such as the cotton mills and the coal mines, and the great complex of machine-and shipbuilding, in which most of the skilled work remained essentially that of manual craftsmen

Although these unions created a base for further advance in the labor movement, the lack of organization among them had the “disadvantage (which it shared with British industry as a whole) of saddling it with a rather old-fashioned and unadaptable structure, from which the later advocates of more rational and effective union organization (e.g., by ‘industrial’ unions) have never since been able to liberate it.”

This peculiarity of British history helps to explain for Hobsbawm the slide of the labor movement from revolutionary agitation toward reformism. By the end of the century, he writes, “there were no Socialists to dream of a new society. There were trade unions, seeking to exploit the laws of political economy in order to create a scarcity of their kind of labour and thus increase their members’ wages.”

Hobsbawm’s work has also been characterized by an international approach that contrasted the British experience, where unions arose from concrete activity in the factories, with that of France, where unions were based more on ideological programs. (He could also, rather more questionably, airily illustrate the part religion played in the experience of the Yorkshire working class under the stress of industrialization by comparing it with the experience of poor white millworkers in early twentieth-century North Carolina.) In the brilliant essays that were published in Primitive Rebels, Hobsbawm wrote on crime and subversion in peasant societies and showed how an archaic form of social organization persisted in traditional banditry. Whether he discussed popular culture in Sicily or Andalusia, or the values of the Mafia, or the divisions within nineteenth-century millennial movements, he was often able to trace implicit ideas of revolution in local feelings of discontent. That such approaches are now popular among historians should not conceal the fact that they were original when Hobsbawm published them in 1959; so was his tone, with its detached speculativeness that (while often sardonic) avoided both condescension and idealization.

Hobsbawm’s work was also distinctive in insisting that “culture” should be understood in the broad sense used by social anthropologists, not simply as a self-contained historical or aesthetic phenomenon. In Industry and Empire, he posed a question that has since been pursued by a generation of historians: at what point in the late nineteenth century did a distinctively working-class culture become both perceptible and clearly perceived in industrial Britain? Hobsbawm argued that mid-Victorian observers were united in seeing the working classes as existing in a kind of undifferentiated sink or den like Tom-All-Alone’s in Bleak House.

According to him, the ” ‘traditional’ working class with its specific patterns of life and views of life did not emerge much before the 1880s,” when the middle class also became a clearly identifiable group. Football increasingly became a “proletarian activity” in the 1880s, as did betting and reading the Sunday paper; the flat peaked cap became something like a working-class badge. The growth of the working class also gave rise to distinct ideological and social values, especially “a profound sense of the separateness of manual labour, an unformulated but powerful moral code based on solidarity, ‘fairness,’ mutual aid and cooperation, and the readiness to fight for just treatment.” These values began to be widely adopted, according to Hobsbawm, as the workers’ response to the growth of the middle class. He rejects the special status piously imposed on the “history of the English working class” by his predecessors: “The history of any one class cannot be written if it is isolated from other classes, from the states, institutions and ideas that provide their framework, from their historical heritage.”

The quotation comes from his new collection, Workers—inaccurately described by the publishers as “a companion to his earlier books Bandits and Revolutionaries,” which are collections of pieces that often began life as reviews. Workers is a more considerable book—a sister volume to Labouring Men (1964), Hobsbawm’s first collection of major articles and essays.

In Workers Hobsbawm takes up a number of debates he has previously written about. For example, he again tries to explain the rapid transformation of trade unionism throughout Europe in the years between 1880 and 1914, when “new” union leaders, who wanted to break with the caution and “reformism” of the old unions, adopted new strategies and policies. Such new unions arose not only in new or previously unorganized industries like the railways and electrical trades, but also in older industries like the metal trades, which consisted largely of unskilled or semiskilled workers whose livelihood was threatened by mechanization.

In comparison with the experience of other countries such as Belgium and Germany, the new unionism in Britain, Hobsbawm contends, was unique. In Britain “alone do we find an already established and significant ‘old’ unionism, rooted in the country’s basic industries, to combat, transform and expand.” What was new in British “new unionism” was that it “brought to the fore issues which were by definition national, such as the Eight Hour Day.” This was made possible by “conscious and well-considered attempts” to change the structure of unions in order to adapt to the growing scale of the next phase of capitalism.

Another debate Hobsbawm returns to in Workers concerns the “labor aristocracy” that developed in nineteenth-century Europe, especially in Britain. These were mostly white-collar lowermiddle-class workers—shopkeepers, small employers, office workers—who saw themselves as set apart from “laborers” by having learned a “craft” or acquired skills, even though many of them had not done so.

The members of the labor aristocracy differed in their way of life from other workers: they dressed differently (some tradesmen insisted on wearing stiff collars in the workshop); they played different sports; their houses were different, often having a “front room,” or parlor, with a piano, which symbolized “respectability, achievement and status.” Some historians have stressed the part played by such social cultural values in the creation of the labor aristocracy. Against these, Hobsbawm says he remains “sufficient of a traditionalist Marxist to stress its determination by the economic base.” This is because “only men who could expect a certain level of wages, which in the nineteenth century indicated relative scarcity in a free market, however this was obtained, could enjoy the life-styles and develop the tastes and characteristic activities of the labour aristocracy.”

In this essay, however, he departs from one well-known Marxist claim about the labor aristocracy, namely Lenin’s claim that the labor aristocracy “explains the reformism of social-democratic movements, that is to say that it accounts for the failure of the working classes in developed countries to be as revolutionary as Marxist theory expected them to be.” He does not agree that the members of the labor aristocracy inevitably identified themselves with the bourgeoisie. For one thing, he says, the skilled artisan was often “the core of organized labour movements, and to that extent might properly be considered more radical than the rest of the working class, and not less so.” Moreover, as mechanization increased in the early twentieth century, the labor aristocracy was itself threatened. Despite the economic advantages they had over other workers, many labor aristocrats moved to the left and in some industries became “the main base of leftwing movements.”

Workers is dominated by Hobsbawm’s inquiries about “culture.” He discusses when the flat cap became a standard of workers’ apparel, or why fish and chips became identified as the staple working-class fast food, with the same enthusiasm as he explores ostensibly more rarefied issues like the adoption by working-class Italians of secular and militant names for their children (like Galileo and Rigoletto) or the coincidence of free thought and wine growing in certain parts of France.

He also analyzes the iconography, ritual, and the trappings of class identity in “The Formation of British Working-Class Culture.” This essay includes a marvelous account of the sheer awfulness of life at the bottom of the heap in the first decades of the twentieth century. Hobsbawm describes the social function of the radio (“unquestionably by the end of the 1930s the most universal medium for popular culture, because the most domestic”), the visits of the ” ‘insurance man’…to collect the small payment which would normally achieve no more than the cost of a ‘good funeral’ for the dead,” the reliance on patent medicines or “a bottle of something from the doctor,” the part played in working-class men’s lives by the pub, which provided a “respite from labour and domesticity.” He then asks: “Where, in all this world of cramped, enduring, stoic and undemanding men and women, do we find class consciousness?” To which he answers laconically: “Everywhere.”

Hobsbawm’s point is that the growth in the early twentieth century of a distinct working-class culture, however deprived and insufficient, is inseparable from the workers’ political development as a class—a class that was conscious of its separate interests and of the idea, in however rudimentary a form, that they were engaged in a conflict of economic interests. Hobsbawm’s Marxism becomes clear when we compare his view of the 1926 general strike to that of A.J.P. Taylor. Where Taylor, a radical populist, rather condescendingly praises the workers for a doomed “act of spontaneous generosity,” Hobsbawm argues that the strikers were deliberately reaffirming their convictions and class interest: ” ‘Generosity’ is the wrong word. It was the moral conviction that people had the right to fair treatment, to a decent wage for a hard life, to ‘fair shares’ even of poverty, which dominated them.”

Hobsbawm’s internationalism, astringency, and his taste for puncturing rhetoric have set him sharply against many who have ostensibly agreed with his ideas. Where the romantics of labor history like E.P. Thompson try to rescue the forgotten and deluded from “the enormous condescension of posterity,” Hobsbawm is more apt to criticize his colleagues for “failing to distinguish the relatively important from the relatively trivial.” An important piece in Workers called “Man and Woman: Images on the Left” shows how provocative he can be. The essay deals with the representation of allegorical archetypes in the imagery of political radicalism, from Delacroix’s bare-breasted Liberty on the Barricades to the improbably half-stripped workers of social realist monuments.

His fundamental thesis, that “the iconography of the movement reflects an unconscious reinforcement of the sexual division of labor,” might not by itself seem antipathetic to feminists; but on the essay’s first appearance in the journal History Workshop, Hobsbawm was subjected to howls of execration. His reference to nineteenth-century working-class women conventionally staying at home while their husbands went out to work was taken as a dismissal of the importance of female wage labor; his description of Félicien Rops’s Peuple as a naked woman “in the posture of a whore” aroused even more outraged comment, of a curiously subjective kind. (“Eric Hobsbawm’s article made me deeply angry,” one historian wrote. “I was interested at the power of my own reaction to it, and I have remained interested in my anger, which has endured.”) Hobsbawm’s response is to reprint the essay in Workers, unchanged except for a description of Rops as “reactionary,” illustrating his mandarin disdain for sanctimoniousness, radical or conservative.

The fact remains, however, that as British intellectual life under Mrs. Thatcher has become increasingly polarized, British historians have not remained immune to radical as well as conservative pieties, and Hobsbawm is uneasy in the company of those who, for instance, justify the reprinting of bad labor history “on the ground that it is the sort of thing that trade union militants today would understand and like.” His insistence that the historian’s function is “to advance a discussion which must, inevitably, sooner or later, make his or her work obsolete” is unpopular with those who believe one can establish permanent truths. In much the same way, his advocacy (in British political journals) of a broad Labour front against Thatcherite Conservatism is anathema to the far left. It may not always have been thus; an interesting footnote in Workers admits that he pulled punches in airing early disagreements with conventional Marxist historians, because he preferred to engage in polemics with anti-Marxists. He has refreshingly few such inhibitions now.

In a sense, Hobsbawm has always attracted controversy because he has chosen to ask questions that have so far defied clear-cut answers. One such question is the relationship between nationalism and socialism, which he treats with particular reference to Ireland in an important essay, “What Is the Workers’ Country?” Here he argues that Irish history has produced “two Irish working classes,” north and south, which show increasing signs of divergence. The “most obvious explanation,” he adds, “is that—except at moments or for rather limited trade unionist purposes—the potential Irish constituency for such working-class movements have identified themselves in politics as Catholic nationalists or Protestant unionists rather than as ‘labour.’ ” The most powerful forces responsible for this division of the working class, Hobsbawm writes, such as nationalism, “come from outside the working class.” One difficulty for Hobsbawm’s Marxism is that if nationalism is an extraneous ideology, brought to the working class from outside, then its appeal cannot easily be explained by his Marxist perspective. Hobsbawm does not clearly address this question, although he admits that when “working-class consciousness…has come into conflict in our century with national, or religious, or racial consciousness, it has usually yielded and retreated.”

Moreover, one trouble with the large, open questions Hobsbawm likes to address is that they recur in unexpected ways. Thus in reprinting a 1971 discussion of the kinds of class consciousness that are “out of tune” with current historical development, Hobsbawm writes that “the pure programme of nineteenth-century economic liberalism, as put forward, say, in the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964,” although it “did once serve to transform the world economy,” is “as unrealizable as the peasant or petty-bourgeois utopias.” To this dismissal of fundamentalist capitalism, Hobsbawm has now merely added an ironic footnote: “Since this was written such backwoodsmen have formed governments in both the United States and Britain.” But they have done so twice, with large majorities, and one must ask how and why this occurred. Similarly, Hobsbawm’s view of British labor militancy in the 1970s as “not so much an alternative to politics as unconcerned with them” no longer applies to Britain in 1985, where the miners’ strike, for instance, became an intense political conflict in which economic issues were submerged. If gaps appear in the Hobsbawm method of spinning general problems into a web of allusive, synthesizing themes and threads, it is at interconnections between past and present such as these.

Hobsbawm himself stresses that history is not a prophetic art. If this is consistent with the writings of Marx the analyst (as opposed to Marx the polemicist), it is also reminiscent of a more conservative intellectual tradition. Its echoes are audible in the tones with which Hobsbawm, writing in 1979, ended his account of British working-class culture:

Today less than half the British occupied population consists of manual workers, and with the exception of the great complex of metalworking and electrical industries, the ancient strongholds of working-class culture—coal, textiles, shipbuilding, the railways—are dying or much diminished. More than half of all married women work for wages today. The young working-class militants have gone to school and are now young professional militants; the most characteristic Labour Member of Parliament today is not a miner or a railwayman, but a lecturer in some college aspiring to the status of a university. Not the windy beaches of Lancashire but the sunny coasts of Spain see the annual holiday mass migrations of the British proletariat. Fish-and-chip shops have given way to takeaway food. In material terms the gain is enormous. Since the 1950s, for the first time in history, most workers in Britain have been able to live a life worthy of human beings. In non-material terms, a way of life is ending or has ended. And, like Britain itself, anchored in the nineteenth century, the British working class is in danger of losing its bearings. But its present situation and prospects are a subject for the reporter and the sociologist. They are not yet a subject for the historian.

The implication of regret for a lost douceur de vivre takes us back to the Cambridge film of intellectuals in their youth; but the sardonic flavor of the reflection, and the final disclaimer, serve as a reminder that now as then Hobsbawm is prepared to follow his own path. His readiness to strike out at those he considers to be overcommitted ideologues on both the left and the right remains tonic; so does his repudiation of simpleminded empiricism. E.H. Carr once pointed out that British historians only discerned “meaning” and pattern in history for as long as history seemed to be going Britain’s way. Hobsbawm, by contrast, has reinstated the importance of pattern making. But at the same time, he has continued to follow the advice set out in Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s Methods of Social Study: “Treasure your exceptions.” The best of his work—much in evidence here—does not stop at brilliant synthesis; it also yields a treasury of exceptions.

  1. 1

    The Fabians Reconsidered” in Hobsbawm, Labouring Men (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964).

  2. 2

    Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire: An Economic History of Britain since 1750 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968).