Chris Harman


Working Classes

(Summer 1965)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.21, Summer 1965, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Labouring Men
E.J. Hobsbawm
Weidenfield & Nicolson, 55s.

Collected together in this book are some of the most perceptive studies available on British working-class history. Some of the most important and interesting episodes in the development of the class are discussed and analysed without scholarship being sacrificed to sympathy. It would be difficult to find a single one among the eighteen studies that is without relevance to an understanding of the present situation of the labour movement.

The essays deal with a very mixed bag of topics. The early essays can be seen either as prolegomena for or as footnotes to Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class. The later are in the main concerned with the development of trade unionism – particularly General Unionism – and of the various political trends in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The mode of presentation is just as heterogeneous. This is inevitable, as the essays originally appeared in journals as diverse as The New Statesman and the Economic History Review.

Many of Hobsbawm’s judgements cannot, of course, be uncritically accepted. For instance he seems completely to miss the point about Fabianism. He argues – probably correctly – that the Society had less influence on the development of the Labour movement than, say, did the Social Democratic Federation, or even Engels’ small group. The real problem, however, is not the influence of the Fabians themselves, but the ability of Fabianism to provide an ideological basis for the pragmatic reformism of trade-union leaders after 1926 and the parliamentary party after 1931. Further the closer to the present one gets, the more the analysis is marred by the author’s optimistic evaluation of the British Communist Party. Certainly it seems that his residual Stalinism might make him – for example – overestimate the calibre of the leadership that the BSP passed on to the CP.

But these are minor faults in a book as important as this. Parts of it at least are essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the crucial features in British Labour history.

Last updated on 15 November 2009