Eric was a deeply political person. He was shaped, above all, by, in his own words, ‘the two most decisive years of my life,’ those in Berlin between 1931 and 1933, during which, as a young teenager, he witnessed the rise of Hitler and the parallel rise of the KPD. In 1932 he joined the SSB, a young communist organisation. ‘As I entered the school year 1932-3’, he wrote, ‘the sense that we were living in some kind of final crisis, or at least a crisis destined for some cataclysmic resolution, became overpowering.’
His experiences in central Europe gave Eric his near-lifelong commitment to communism. He grew up in a period of volcanic change, he lived with a foreboding of catastrophe. His political co-ordinates were profoundly different from what they would have been had he spent these years in Britain. At the same time, growing up in central Europe before moving to Britain at the age of 15, imbued him with a highly cosmopolitan outlook, including a facility with so many languages, that, certainly in a British context, was most unusual and was to shape his subsequent political and intellectual development.
Eric was possessed of a remarkably independent mind. If the left, alas, has very often been characterised by a dull predictability, Eric was the very antithesis. Be it in an article, a lecture, or a conversation, you never quite knew what he was going to say: but you waited on his every word, because what he had to say was invariably stimulating and different, informed by his vast knowledge, his originality, and that extraordinarily analytical mind. A conversation with Eric was an educational experience. If the left was tribal, Eric was detached, open-minded, curious, endlessly thoughtful, able to view things at a distance. In similar vein he saw no reason why his friends should necessarily share his views or why those who shared his views should necessarily be in his friends. Eric’s salon of friends and sources of influence stretched far and wide.
For most of his academic career, Eric rarely wrote about contemporary politics. In retrospect, I think the main reason was that, as a member of the Communist Party, he knew there was little latitude for writing about the twentieth century, at least after 1917, in his kind of way. One caught a glimpse of the possibilities in several articles he wrote for New Society in the late 60s, and elsewhere during the early mid 70s in articles on Eurocommunism and also Antonio Gramsci, who he found enormously stimulating. It was abundantly clear that his outlook and sympathies were far more closely aligned with those of the Italian Communist Party than the British, especially after 1956. In the event, it was not until the late 70s that Eric was to burst upon the scene as a political writer. We were all the poorer for the long delay.
Of course, there is no reason why an historian, even a great one, should necessarily be interesting on politics. Let’s be honest: very few are. But Eric was different, Eric was always different: his extraordinarily enquiring mind, his fascination with the world, his aversion to dogmatism in any shape or form, his ability to see the big picture and the larger trends, the way in which he deployed his historical knowledge to throw light on the present, his grasp of the interconnection between the economic, political, cultural and anything else for that matter or – to put it another way – an outlook subtly and richly informed by his own very distinctive view of Marxism as a tool of understanding. Eric was not just a great historian. He was also fascinating about politics.
When I became editor of Marxism Today in 1977, I soon made contact with Eric. In fact, I made a bee-line for him. I was hoping he would write for the magazine. I found I was pushing at an open door. Over a period of fourteen years, he wrote a multitude of articles and conducted more than a few interviews: he was to be our most important and influential writer. The journey started with a wonderful article on the tenth anniversary of 1968: which was typically Eric in its global reach and historical reference. Around the same time, I discovered that he had given a lecture arguing that the labour movement was in decline. This was the triumphalist period of union militancy: Eric directly contradicted the conventional wisdom of the time. Its title was ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ The article was to mark a turning point in the debate on the left.
What followed were fateful days: the rise of Thatcherism and the retreat of the left. In retrospect what Eric propounded is now patently obvious: at the time, though, outside Marxism Today, it was for long heresy. He argued that Thatcherism represented a new kind of formidable right-wing populism, that the country far from moving to the left was moving to the right, that after the disastrous defeat in the 1983 election the task was not moving Labour to the left but regaining the millions of lost votes. In 1987 Eric called for an electoral pact between Labour and the SDP-Liberal Alliance to defeat Thatcher and, failing that, tactical voting. On every count he was to be proved right. He became hugely influential: his views commanded the national stage, a remarkable feat for an intellectual, an extraordinary one for a Marxist intellectual. His articles were reproduced on countless occasions in the Guardian: in fact, they never turned a single one down. And, I would remind you, Eric was never paid a penny for all those articles in Marxism Today: it was all, as it were, for the political cause.
I vividly recall a speech he gave at a huge meeting on the eve of the 1983 Labour Conference. It was chaired by Neil Kinnock just before his election as leader. Eric was flavour of the month, he was on everyone’s lips. He began by likening the Labour left’s explanation of the party’s disastrous defeat in 1983 to the man who lost his pipe on Hampstead Heath but went to search for it in his living room because the light was much better there. He brought the house down.
Now his voice is silent. His death has left a terrible void. But in our sadness we celebrate his extraordinary historical and political contribution. It is our good fortune that he bequeathed such a remarkable legacy. He hugely enriched us all.