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Hunting for Hobsbawms – A Tribute

October 9, 2012
By

Paying homage to a great British historian at the Marx Memorial Library in London

Marx Memorial Library chess room

It wasn’t difficult to find London’s Marx Memorial Library. It was just around the corner from the Betsey Trotwood, no doubt a favoured watering hole for more than a few earnest Marxist historians quenching their thirst before heading off to a corner of that tiny and somewhat clandestine place where Lenin once ran his sharp-edged editor’s pen over revolutionary texts that would later change the world.

Having spent the past several days hunting for Eric Hobsbawm’s Labouring Men (1964) and Primitive Rebels (1959), I was frustrated not to have found any – not even dog-eared, musty-smelling copies – in the many second-hand shops along Charing Cross Road. Betsey T’s, formerly the Butcher’s Arms, serves brews from Shepherd’s Neame, “the oldest brewer in Britain,” so it seemed a historical relevant spot from which to ponder my next course of action in the search for seemingly forgotten Hobsbawns.

I ordered a pint of Late Red, a “triple-hopped” ale that the brewer intended as “a full-flavoured treat for beer lovers,” or so it bragged. As I sipped the warmish brew I pondered the life and works of the prolific historian who died on October 1, 2012, at the age of 95. In fact, some of the proprietor’s of these dusty establishments had openly scoffed at the “old unreconstructed Marxist,” as one stubby, gapped-toothed bookworm put it.

I felt the compulsion to correct the man’s view of the celebrated Marxist historian, but managed to hold my tongue and move on to the library to seek refuge from such heresy. It is true, however, that Hobsbawn, unlike other Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill, remained in the Communist Party even after the Hungarian upset in 1956 that saw an exodus from the party.

Lord John Hastings mural

When I arrived at the blood-red door of the library in a remarkably quiet section of London at 37a Clerkenwell Green, I was struck by the absence of any identifying markings – no sign, no incisive quote from Marx, who is buried not too far away in Highgate cemetery. Just the red door and perhaps that would seem fitting to some ‘unreconstructed’ types. Red, the colour of revolution, the colour of action, the hue of all the things that Marx and Hobsbawn stood for.

A smallish man, wearing what seemed to me to be Trotsky glasses, finally came to the door, responding to my pathetic pleadings over the little intercom at the entrance. “Please, pretty please,” I intoned. “I’m only here for the day. I’m a Canadian labour historian…” I let this last bit sputter out with some uncertainty since I am still struggling to achieve exactly that status on an official academic level.

“There’s no one here,” said the man who on closer inspection was not wearing Trotsky glasses. “I’m just the IT guy. You’ll have to come back when there’s someone here.” I began my pleading again with one foot holding the red door solidly ajar. “I just want to take a peek. Promise I won’t touch anything.”

He finally relented and walked me around the place which was rather modern, clean and well organized. Large vertical banners displaying Marx’s famous bust were on at least two walls. Other faces, men who followed Marx and applied or refined his thinking to suit their needs, were pictured on other walls. Reddish flags sat in one corner, collages of the Spanish Civil War in another, and in the main section of the upstairs library the books were carefully catalogued and arranged.

A large mural entitled “The Worker of the Future: Upsetting the Economic Chaos of the Present” serves as the focal point of the library with the faces if Marx, Lenin, Engels and others staring intently down on patrons visiting the main desk. Lord John Hastings created the mural in 1935 after serving an apprenticeship under famed and controversial Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

Hobsbawn’s many works would be here somewhere. Surely his The Age of Revolution, which began a four-volume series in 1962, would be on the shelves. Most definitely the books I sought would be among those most often consulted. His later books on the fate of the labour movement and the future of capitalism would be tucked away amidst the 40,000 volumes available to loan.  How to Change the World (2011) might be found there. Even his writings on jazz might pop up on and most certainly his master work, Industry and Empire (1968) would be found.

Renowned for his study of nineteenth-century history, Hobsbawn never lost sight of the need to analyze what is happening in the present. Through much of a long career that began with his first book, Labour’s Turning Point (1948), he commented on the continuing value and relevance of Marx’s work and Marxist thought. McCarthyism in academe stopped him from getting a post at Cambridge in the 1950s, but he was nevertheless active in establishing the Communist Party Historians Group, which included such progressive history luminaries as Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson.

The Guardian in its obituary offered this tribute: “…he had achieved a unique position in the country’s intellectual life. In his later years he became arguably Britain’s most respected historian of any kind, recognised if not endorsed on the right as well as the left, and one of a tiny handful of historians of any era to enjoy genuine national and world renown.”

I didn’t get the chance to check Hobsbawn’s presence in the Marx Memorial Library, but I thanked the IT guy as I left, wishing him luck in keeping the Marxist computers humming. He handed me a brochure at the red door, suggesting that I too could support the library’s noble and worthy, if often maligned, cause. It is one that history has perhaps passed by for the moment, being drowned out by the din of capitalism run rampant and an American presidential election that threatens to send the world into an abyss.

I wanted to guzzle another Late Red at Betsey T’s and propose a toast to Hobsbawn and all the fine scholars who have explained the world to us, but there wasn’t time; my double-decker bus was already in sight. So I hoisted a fictional pint to the men and women that studied here, scholars who subscribed to the Marxist notion that the job of philosophers – and historians – is to do more than explain. Hobsbawn was among those who also wanted to change it.

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One Response to Hunting for Hobsbawms – A Tribute

  1. janis on October 29, 2012 at 1:10 am

    Not clear that Sir Whatsit learnt much at the arm of Diego. All seems a bit static – not unlike todays labour movement. Nice snap all the same.
    J

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