E[ric] J. Hobsbawm, Revolutionaries (London: Quartet Books 1977) - Extracts.

[ Note: see remarks on Ireland - ‘However, Marx’s main recipe for revolutionizing the British situation was through Ireland ... &c.’ - infra. ]

There is a Wikipedia page on Hobsbawn - online.

‘Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement’, in Revolutionaries (London: Quartet Books 1977), [Chap. 10], pp.95-108; pp.98-102.


Marx himself spent less time – at least after the 1850s – in, discussing these broad economic perspectives and more time in considering the political implications of the increasing feebleness of British labour. His basic view was that:

England, as the metropolis of world capital, as the country which has hitherto ruled the world market, is for the time being the most important country for working-class revolution; moreover, it is the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have developed to a certain degree of maturity. Hence the most important task of the International is to accelerate the social revolution in England. (Marx to Meyer and Vogt, 9 Oct. 1870.)

But if the British working class had the material requisites for revolution, it lacked the willingness to make a revolution, that is to say to use its political power to take over power, as it might have done at any time after the parliamentary reform of 1867- Perhaps we should add in passing that this peaceful road to socialism, on the possibility of which for Britain Marx and Engels insisted at various times after 1870, was not an alternative to revolution, but simply a means of ‘removing legally such laws and institutions as stand in the way of working-class development’ in bourgeois-democratic countries; a possibility which evidently did not exist in non-democratic constitutions. It would not remove the obstacles which stood in the {99} way of the working class but which did not happen to take the form of laws and institutions, e.g. the economic power of the bourgeoisie; and it might easily turn into violent revolution in consequence of the insurrection of those with a vested interest in the old status quo; the point was that if this happened the bourgeoisie would be rebels against a legal government, as (to quote Marx’s own examples) the south was against the north in the American Civil War, the counter-revolutionaries were in the French revolution and — we might add — in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9. Marx’s argument was not concerned with any ideal choice between violence and non-violence, or gradualism and revolution, but with the realistic use of such possibilities as were open to the labour movement in any given situation. Of these, in a bourgeois democracy, Parliament was clearly a central one.

Yet the British working class was plainly not ready to make use of any of these possibilities, even the formation of an independent labour party or independent political behaviour by such individual workers who happened to get elected to Parliament. Without waiting for the long-term tendencies of historical development to change the situation, there were several things to do: and one of the great merits of Marx’s writings is to show that communists can and must avoid both the error of waiting for history to happen, and the error of opting for unhistorical methods such as Bakuninite anarchism and pointless acts of terrorism.

In the first place, it was essential to educate the working class to political consciousness ‘by a continuous agitation against the hostile attitude shown towards the workers in politics by the ruling classes’ (Marx to Bolte, 23 Nov. 1871), i.e. by producing situations which demonstrated this hostility. This might, of course, imply organizing confrontations with the ruling class, which would lead it to drop its appearance of sympathy. Thus Marx welcomed the police brutality during the Reform demonstrations of 1866: ruling-class violence could provide ‘a revolutionary education’. So long, of course, as it isolated the police, and not those who fought them. Marx and Engels were scathing about the Fenian terrorist actions in Clerkenwell, which had the opposite effect.

In the second place, it was essential to ally with all sections of non-reformist workers. That is why, as he wrote to Bolte (23 Nov. 1871) he worked with the followers of Bronterre O’Brien {100} relics of the old socialism of Chartist days, on the Council of the International:

In spite of the crack-brained ideas, they constitute a counterweight to the trade unionists. They are more revolutionary ... less nationalist and quite immune to any form of bourgeois corruption. But for that, we should have thrown them out a long time ago.

However, Marx’s main recipe for revolutionizing the British situation was through Ireland; i.e. by the indirect means of supporting colonial revolution and in doing so destroying the major bond which linked the British workers to the British bourgeoisie. Originally, as Marx admitted, he had expected Ireland to be liberated through the victory of the British proletariat. (Marx to Engels, 10 Dec. 1869.) From the late 1860s he took the opposite view - namely that the revolutions in the backward and colonial countries would be primary and would themselves revolutionize the metropolitan ones. (It is interesting that at much the same time he began to have these hopes for a revolution in Russia, which sustained him in his later years.) Ireland acted as a fetter in two ways: by splitting the English working class along racial lines, and thus by giving the British worker an apparent joint interest with his rulers in exploiting someone else. This was the sense of Marx’s famous statement that ‘a nation which oppresses another cannot itself be free’. Ireland was thus at one moment the key to England - more than this to the advance of progress in the world in general:

If we are to accelerate the social development of Europe, we must accelerate the catastrophe of official (i.e. ruling class) England. This requires a blow in Ireland, which is the weakest point of Britain. If Ireland is lost, the British ‘empire’ goes and the class struggle in England, which has up to now been sleepy and slow, will take more acute forms. But England is the metropolis of capitalism and landlordism in the entire world.

[... 101]

As it happens, he failed to ‘re-electrify the British labour movement’, and this failure, as he realised, condemned the international movement to wait for very much longer, and when the movement revived, Britain and the British working class no longer played the potentially central role in it that they might have done, while Britain was ‘the metropolis of capitalism and landlordism everywhere’. As soon as he realised that the strategy of the 1860s had failed, Marx ceased to concern himself very much with the British labour movement. [...] (p.102.)

‘Vietnam and the Dynamics of Civil War’ [Chap. 17] in ibid.:


Anti-guerrilla governments are more likely to talk about, say, giving peasants the land, than actually doing it, but even when they carry out a series of such reforms they do not necessarily gain the gratitude of the peasants. Oppressed peoples do not want economic improvement alone. The most formidable insurrectionary movements (including very notably the Vietnamese) are those that combine national and social elements. A people who want bread and also independence cannot be conciliated merely by a more generous distribution of bread. The British met the revolutionary agitation of the Irish under Parnell and Davitt in the 1880s by a combination of coercion and economic reform, and not without success – but this did not forestall the Irish revolutionary movement which threw them out in 1916-22.

[...; 167]

Nevertheless, there are limitations to a guerrilla army’s ability to win a war, though it usually has effective means to avoid losing one. In the first place, guerrilla strategy is by no means applicable everywhere on a national scale, and that is why it has failed, or partly failed, in a number of countries, e.g. Malaya and Burma. Internal divisions and hostilities — racial, religious, etc. — within a country or a region may limit the guerrilla base to one part of the people, while automatically providing a potential base for anti-guerrilla action in another. To take an obvious case; the Irish revolution of 1916-22, essentially a guerrilla operation, succeeded in the twenty-six counties but not in Northern Ireland, despite a common frontier and active or passive help from the south. (The British government, by the way, never made this sympathy an excuse to drop bombs on the Shannon barrage on order to force the Dublin government to cease its aggression against the free world.) (pp.167-68.)


It is hard, in such circumstances, to cut one’s losses, but there are occasions when no other decision make sense. Some governments may take it earlier than others. The British evacuated Ireland and Israel well before their military position had become untenable. The French hung on for nine years in Vietnam and for seven years in Algeria, but went in the end.


Intellectual and the Class Struggle" [Chap. 25]:


Why do men and women become revolutionaries? In the first instance mostly because they believe that what they want subjectively from life cannot be got without a fundamental change in all society. There is of course that permanent substratum of idealism, or if we prefer the term, utopianism, which is part of all human life and it can become the dominant part for individuals at certain times, as during adolescence and romantic love, and for societies at the occasional historical moments which correspond to falling and being in love, namely the great moments of liberation and revolution. All men, however cynical, can conceive of a personal life or society which would not be imperfect. All would agree that this would be wonderful. Most men at some time of their lives think that such a life and society are possible, and quite a number drink that we ought to bring them about. During the great liberations and revolutions most men actually think, briefly or only momentarily, that perfection is being achieved, that the New Jerusalem is being built, the earthly paradise within reach. But most people for most of their adult lives, and most social groups for most of their history, live at a less exalted level of expectation.

It is when the relatively modest expectations of everyday life look as though they cannot be achieved without revolutions, that individuals become revolutionaries. Peace is a modest and negative objective, but during the first world war it was this elementary demand which turned ordinary people objectively and later subjectively into persons dedicated to the immediate overthrow of society, since peace seemed unrealizable without it. Such [247] an assessment is the situation may be mistaken. For instance, it may turn out that British workers can, on the whole, enjoy full employment and a high standard of life for quite a long time without first overthrowing capitalism, a prospect whcih looked hardly credible forty years ago. But that is another matter. The modest expectations of everyday life are not, of course, purely material. They include all knids of demands which we make for ourselves or the ocmmunities of whcih we consider ourselves members: respect and self-respect, certain rights, just treatment, and so on. But even these are not utopian demands for a new, different and perfect life, but envisage the ordinary life we see around us. The demands which make North American blacks into revolutionaries are elementary enough, and most whites can take their fulfilment for granted.

Here again, what forces people towards conscious revolutionism is not the ambition of their objective, but the apparent failure of all alternative ways of attaining it, the closing of all doors against them. If we are locked out of our house, there are normally several possibilities of getting back in, though some imply a hopeful patience. It is only when none of these appear realistic that we think of beatering in the door. However it is worth observing that even so we are unlikely to batter in the door unless we feel that it will give way. Becoming a revolutionary implies not only a measure of despair, but also some hope. The typical alternation of passsivity and activism among some notoriously oppressed classes or peoples is thus explained. (pp.248.)

Note: With J. O. Ranger Hobsbawn jointly wrote The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge 1983), in which they suggested that ‘many traditions [...] which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented’ (p.1.) The idea is at the root of Benedict Anderson’s classic study of the rise of nationalism considered as such a ‘tradition’ wherever it occurs in Imagined Communities (also 1983).

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