Exactly forty years ago, in October 1981, one of the most important collections of essays from the British Left ever published saw the light of day. The keynote essay, already published three years earlier in the Communist journal Marxism Today was Eric Hobsbawm’s provocative The Forward March of Labour Halted? which had sparked 17 responses. The essay produced an intense debate which justified book publication, and the book has never been out of print. Its echo can be dimly heard even today, notably in Patrick Diamond’s Routledge book on Labour Politics 1979 – 2019 subtitled Forward March Halted * but essentially the argument, and Hobsbam’s essay, has been forgotten.
This is unfortunate. While the book itself is easily filed away as an essay on Communist themes, the essay itself is more than a period piece. This has become more obvious since the 2019 General Election and the defection of the so-called “Red Wall” working class seats to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. The shock might not have been so severe had the initial essay not been dismissed as an episode in the steady demise of the Communist Party and forgotten.
Though ‘Labour’ for Hobsbawm meant the Labour Movement and not the Labour Party, the essay raised key issues about electoral behaviour – where the Labour Party had the near monopoly on working class voters – in a country which still had a large element of heavy industry, with coal mines, factories, council housing and so on. These would not survive the coming of Thatcherism, which Hobsbawm did not anticipate, but the lecture focussed on the role class had played in Britain as a mature industrial society and which his expertise as a historian made him well placed to analyse. Hobsbawm’s essay was simultaneously part of the 1970s debate on class dealignment and political consciousness, and that on the future of orthodox communism. While the communist movement died, the wider issues are of continuing relevance.
The lecture was presented as the Marx memorial lecture 1978 and was originally published in Marxism Today (September 1978 pp279-286), so the paper is rooted in the politics of the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain), but non Marxists found the Marxist analysis useful as Labour habitually saw the working class as their core vote. Many still do so today on both left and right of the Party**. Indeed Labour’s 2019 manifesto stated
“The Labour Party was founded to give working class people a voice in politics” (p81)
True, but the question the essay posed is whether the class which was the focus of the original Labour Representation Committee (LRC) of 1900 is the progressive force that Marx had anticipated. The LRC was not, of course a Marxist organization and the Social Democratic Federation as an original affiliate of the LRC which did look to Marx struggled to accept the parliamentary focus of the LRC. Unlike the Fabians and ILP the SDF did not remain. But before the First World war there was a strong belief that a working class which still did not have the vote – some 40% of the poorer males and no women lacked the franchise – would swing massively behind the new organization, so the Marxists reluctantly joined in when the Committee was set up.
A smaller number of activists were attracted to the perspective that Marx and Engels adopted in 1848 that a large working class meant a proletarian revolution. This was the position of orthodox Marxists and formed a unifying factor for the Communist Party when it was formed in 1920. Both the LRC and the Communists could therefore see a sizeable working class as fitting their politics, which is why both Marxists and Labourists could read the Hobsbawm lecture with value when it appeared many years later. Whatever perspective was adopted the growth in numbers and class consciousness of the working class seemed to point towards fundmental political changes, notably when the right to vote was extended in 1918. Hobsbawm gained the ability to command attention sixty years later because as a Marxist he queried whether developments had met expectations.