Master of Exceptions

Workers: Worlds of Labor

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

Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm; drawing by David Levine

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…

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