Full Marx for effort

How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism by Eric Hobsbawm (Little, Brown)

‘This skull will never smile again.”

Thus the great scholar of Marxism, Leszek Kolakowski, to the British historian EP Thompson, when Thompson upbraided Kolakowski for abandoning the ideals of communism. Thompson should perhaps have been a little more circumspect—or at least tactful. He had lived all his life in a free society, where he was able to pursue his line of Marxist historiographical thought.

Kolakowski, by contrast, had been a professor of philosophy in his native Poland until dismissed from his post for ideological impurity. He found refuge at Oxford, where he completed his magisterial three-volume work Main Currents of Marxism, surely still one of the best, most comprehensive and most lucid guides to the field.

In his own retrospective view of Marxism’s historical fortunes, Eric Hobsbawm makes a passing reference to Kolakowski, describing his take on Marxism in a word: “hostile”. With Thompson, Hobsbawm was one of the Communist Party Historians Group (1946 to 1956) and a longtime member of the party itself, despite criticising the Soviet invasion of Hungary and other oppressions. He experienced the rise of fascism at first hand when he was young (and still surnamed Obstbaum), and his writings are imbued with and enriched by a Marxist understanding of history. His great trilogy on Europe from the French Revolution to World War I (The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire) is an indispensible study.

In the oddly titled How to Change the World, Hobsbawm traces the rise and fall of Marxism itself, which is to say the thought that so solidly underpins his own life’s work. It contains far more than the mere “tales” of the subtitle, but there is no reflection by Hobsbawm on whether he would rethink his own approach in the light of Marxism’s decline in credibility and the manifest failure of communist statehood. We must presume that he still sees immense value in Marx the historian and analyst of capitalism, but is somewhat more wary of his role as prophet and activist.

Failing to look forward
For here is where Marxism has suffered its most precipitous decline—in its predictions of the future. Capitalism would collapse, he said, because of its “internal contradictions”, and because the working class would develop “class consciousness” and become an irresistible force for change. He could not see that capitalism might survive repeated crises, both financial and political. He certainly did not predict the advent of a globalised techno-capitalism, or that capitalism (in the richest countries, at least) might ultimately generate enough wealth to buy off the proletariat, in essence, by lifting workers from the dire conditions in which the industrialised capitalism of the 1800s suffered them to live and die.

Yet all those possibilities are there, at least implicitly, in Marx. It’s as though he simply could not see beyond his own revolutionary wishes, despite the fact that they had already been dashed in 1848, the year of failed popular uprisings across Europe—and also the year of the first publication of The Communist Manifesto.

He was more wary of prophesying after that, but still hoped, until the end of his life, for a proletarian revolution he thought would happen sooner rather than later.

And, as Hobsbawm notes, it was the prophetic Marx that so appealed to the Western intelligentsia from the late 1800s onwards. For Marx did not only provide a thoroughgoing analysis and critique of capitalism. He also said the collapse of capitalism and the triumph of the proletariat were inevitable. It was as though intellectuals felt they had better get on the right side of history, and fast.

Ideological dogma
Ironically, of course, it was in the capitalist and liberal West that such intellectuals could pursue an active engagement with Marxist thought. Under communist regimes, by contrast, Marxism (hyphenated with Leninism) became an official dogma that could be contradicted only on pain of prison, exile or death; as Kolakowski argues, it was here that Marxism truly died, becoming a reified state religion with sacred texts, infallible popes, a hierarchical clergy, heresies to be persecuted and so on. In that, its ideological template was medieval Christianity: it even promised a socialist utopia to replace Christian dreams of heaven.

Hobsbawm is alive to such notions, but he is more concerned with tracing historical developments than having an argument about who was right and who was wrong. Half of this book is the first English translation of a history of Marxism up to 1979, when it was published in Italian—just before what Hobsbawm calls the “recession” of Marxism set in. The rest is made up of essays on particular works or developments, and for all that it has a remarkable coherence.

Part I of How to Change the World focuses on Marx in historical context (socialism before Marx and so on) or looks at individual works such as The Communist Manifesto or what came to be called the Grundrisse, the “foundation” or “blueprint” of Marx’s overarching theory as ultimately presented in Das Kapital in 1867. The Grundrisse was not published until 1939, in Russia, and was largely unknown in the West until the 1950s. In these pieces Hobsbawm’s intimate knowledge of Marxism proves an excellent guide to what such works signify in the Marxist corpus.

Part II traces the earliest reactions to Marx and Marxism’s impact on political groups and trends from the late 1800s to the end of the 20th century. For instance, there is its huge influence on social-democratic and labour movements in Europe. Hobsbawm shows, too, how social democrats had to distance themselves from revolutionary Marxism, so in this respect Marx’s heritage was both split and disavowed.

Here, perhaps, is the key to understanding Marx’s larger intellectual legacy. As James Buchan points out in his book on money, Frozen Desire, “Marx is so embedded in our Western cast of thought that few people are even aware of their debt to him.”

Some, though, are aware: George Soros, for instance, while making billions in currency trading, lauds Marx for articulating a theory that contradicts the classical economists’ belief in markets always maintaining their own equilibrium.

And even capitalists have to take note of one of those “internal contradictions” in laissez-faire economics, which is that capitalism requires competition to work properly, while at the same time generating monopolies and concentrating more and more wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

Savour of afterthought
How to Change the World is by no means as important a work as Hobsbawm’s great trilogy, or for that matter its successor, The Age of Extremes (on the 20th century).

It has the savour of afterthought about it, which is part of its value, but it will also appear outdated and irrelevant to those who feel Marxism has had its day and is no longer worth worrying about.
Hobsbawm makes only passing reference to “critical theory”, a term first used of post-war Marxists (or Marxist revisionists) such as Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, but now applied broadly to the post-structuralist manner of thinking that emerged in France in the 1960s and has since conquered the world, or at least the academic humanities.

Whether in the form of a Jacques Derrida, who claimed to have been a kind of Marxist all along, or that of a Michel Foucault, sceptical of Marx but in constant dialogue with him, this current of thought permeates critical engagement with culture and history, bringing together theories of reading and theories of power in a massively persuasive way.

Marx can still be credited with bringing together history, politics, economics and philosophy to create a holistic view of human progress, as well as with finally smashing the idealist (as in non-materialist) notions of history and progress that held sway in the 1800s. The end of the communist states has “liberated” Marxism, says Hobsbawm: no longer holy writ, it can help us think about the problems of the 21st century. In an age of electronic communications and identities, not to mention the monetisation of futures, derivatives and the like, where financial instruments are detached from any real physical mode of production, it’s hard not to think of The Communist Manifesto’s words—“all that is solid melts into air”.

At the very least, as Hobsbawm writes: “We have rediscovered that capitalism is not the answer but
the question.”

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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