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Eric Hobsbawm’s final message to Ed Miliband

2012 October 4
by Paul Vallely

The death of one of Britain’s most eminent historians, Eric Hobsbawm, provided an ironic counterpoint to the attempt by the Labour leader Ed Miliband, to re-brand himself to the people of Britain at his party’s conference in Manchester this week.

Professor Hobsbawm was a historian in the Marxian tradition, much as Mr Miliband’s father, Ralph, was in the field of political philosophy – though that was not a fact overly-emphasised in the Labour leader’s recollections about his own childhood. Those consisted chiefly of recalling his own comprehensive school education and his birth in the NHS hospital in which his own two sons were also subsequently born. This was Ed as Everyman, rather than the policy wonk son of a Marxist intellectual.

In the glowing encomiums to Eric Hobsbawm much was made of his refusal to disown his Communist identity even after Stalin so cruelly put paid to the idealism with which many Western intellectuals had surrounded the Bolshevik Revolution. Ever the historian he demanded to be understood in his own context – as someone whose political identity was forged in the Nazi era when the Communists seemed on the right side of history.

Mr Miliband, by contrast, has in the past happily played the apologist card for Labour’s record in the Blair/Brown era. His task this week, despite that party political broadcast continuously re-emphasising his comprehensive school background, was to paint himself as common man rather than class warrior.

So it was intriguing to see the economics correspondent Stephanie Flanders in her BBC2 series Masters of Money report a significant comeback in academic and City circles for the analysis which Karl Marx brought to bear on the workings of capitalism. The depth of the present global slump adds credibility to his view that crisis is inherent in the capitalist system.

For decades Marx’s insistence that capitalism seeks non-stop to drive wages down seemed out of date, as the living standards of ordinary folk rose steadily. But globalisation is changing that for ordinary people in the West. Top people’s earnings have soared while average incomes have been flat or falling for 10 years, long before the current crisis. In the US the top 1 per cent of people took 12 per cent of the national income a decade ago; today they cream off 23 per cent. Inequality has risen in the UK too.

All that was disguised by a credit boom based on what seemed ever-rising house prices – until bankers’ greed imploded the system from within. Marx’s  Communist Manifesto, Ms Flanders points out, feels even more relevant today than when it was written.

So if Marx did not have the right answers he certainly asked the right questions. Students of Eric Hobsbawm’s writings will know that, for all his lack of apology for his past, he did acknowledge the failures of the Left’s solutions. But he insisted that socialism and the gulag were not synonymous and he never lost faith that a more just social order might one day be achieved. There was a touch of that in Ed Miliband’s pledge to transform the lives of the “forgotten 50 per cent” of young people in England who do not go to university.

Capitalism is like the weather; it is just there and there is no alternative, the right-winger Peter Hitchens told Stephanie Flanders. Eric Hobsbawm remained more optimistic. Not long before his death he was having lunch with the historian MP Tristram Hunt in the House of Commons. When Ed Miliband joined them for coffee the old Marxist immediately complained that the Labour leader was not being nearly radical enough. As the economic downturn continues to bite on those at the bottom that judgement may become politically more attractive rather than less.

The Church Times

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