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Hobsbawm on Where We Are and Where We Might Go January 16, 2011

Posted by Garibaldy in Books, British Politics, History, Marxism.

The prospect of a new Eric Hobsbawm book is always one to pique your interest. And today in the Observer, there is an interview with Hobsbawm on How To Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism. Unfortunately, the interview is conducted by Tristam Hunt MP, but still makes for interesting reading (there’s another, and shorter, interview in the New Statesman, and a review in the Daily Telegraph here). I have to say though that one’s confidence in the publishers and those writing about it is slightly diminished by the fact no-one seems to have noticed it is 162 years since The Communist Manifesto was published, and not Das Kapital.

So what is the book about? It is a collection of previously published and new essays, including, Hunt tells us, “some fine new chapters on the meaning of Gramsci”. Hobsbawm seems to be arguing that the current crisis has breathed new life not only into interest in Marx, but also into the possibility of systemic change, though he is unclear as to how it might come about.

he rediscovery of Marx in this period of capitalist crisis is because he predicted far more of the modern world than anyone else in 1848. That is, I think, what has drawn the attention of a number of new observers to his work – paradoxically, first among business people and business commentators rather than the left. I remember noticing this just around the time of the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto, when not very many plans were being made for celebrating it on the left. I discovered to my amazement that the editors of the [in-flight] magazine of United Airlines said they wanted to have something about the Manifesto. Then, a bit later on, I was having lunch with [financier] George Soros, who asked: “What do you think of Marx?” Even though we don’t agree on very much, he said to me: “There’s definitely something to this man.”

Hobsbawm sees the resurgence of Marx as coming about in particular from the fact that the crisis has proven neo-liberal economic orthodoxy completely wrong – we are in a crisis of a kind it said could not happen, in his view. The collapse of the USSR and associated countries, in Hobsbawm’s view, by removing a lot of the passion from the situation, allowed people to look at Marx afresh. Globalisation has become the victim of its own success.

You see, in a sense, the globalised economy was effectively run by what one might call the global north-west [western Europe and North America] and they pushed forward this ultra-extreme market fundamentalism. Initially, it seemed to work quite well – at least in the old north-west – even though from the start, you could see that at the periphery of the global economy it created earthquakes, big earthquakes. In Latin America, there was a huge financial crisis in the early 1980s. In the early 1990s, in Russia, there was an economic catastrophe. And then towards the end of the century, there was this enormous, almost global, breakdown ranging from Russia to [South] Korea, Indonesia and Argentina. This began to make people think, I feel, that there was a basic instability in the system that they had previously dismissed.

Hobsbawm continues his in his view that one of the main consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union has been the destruction of any meaningful form of social democracy.

In fact, one of the things I’m trying to show in the book is that the crisis of Marxism is not only the crisis of the revolutionary branch of Marxism but in the social democratic branch too. The new situation in the new globalised economy eventually killed off not only Marxist-Leninism but also social democratic reformism – which was essentially the working class putting pressure on their nation states. But with globalisation, the capacity of the states to respond to this pressure effectively diminished. And so the left retreated to suggest: “Look, the capitalists are doing all right, all we need to do is let them make as much profit and see that we get our share.”

That worked when part of that share took the form of creating welfare states, but from the 1970s on, this no longer worked and what you had to do then was, in effect, what Blair and Brown did: let them make as much money as possible and hope that enough of it will trickle down to make our people better off.

The significance, he says, of the current crisis is that living standards are clearly failling once again, and so the question of reformism will emerge once more.

Again, he continues with a pre-existing line, namely his argument that the traditional proletariat is no longer sufficient to change society on its own. Instead, it must form the backbone of progressive alliances. Hence Hobsbawm stating that

Today, ideologically, I feel most at home in Latin America because it remains the one part of the world where people still talk and conduct their politics in the old language, in the 19th- and 20th-century language of socialism, communism and Marxism.

Against some of the more excitable comments about the student protests, Hobsbawm questions the extent of the shift in student consciousness and reminds Hunt that the last major student protests (i.e. 1968) didn’t actually amount to all that much (an argument I have a great deal of sympathy for). In another argument I have some sympathy for, he seems unimpressed with Zizek as well.

I suppose Zizek is rightly described as a performer. He has this element of provocation that is very characteristic and does help to interest people, but I’m not certain that people who are reading Zizek are actually drawn very much nearer rethinking the problems of the left.

Hobsbawm, like everybody else on the left, feels that the coalition is taking the opportunity provided by the crisis to pursue a Thatcherite ideological agenda.

Behind the various cuts being suggested, with the justification of getting rid of the deficit, there clearly seems to be a systematic, ideological demand for deconstructing, semi-privatising, the old arrangements – whether it’s the pension system, welfare system, school system or even the health system. These things in most cases were not actually provided for either in the Conservative or the Liberal manifesto and yet, looking at it from the outside, this is a much more radically rightwing government than it looked at first sight.

I don’t think I’d agree with the remark that the government didn’t look this rightwing from the start. I think that was an illusion about Clegg and the Orange book LibDems, and perhaps even about Cameron, that some of the British centre-left allowed themselves to indulge in, culminating of course in the Guardian’s deluded and foolish call for progressives to vote LibDem. Hobsbawm calls for the Labour Party to concentrate on defending public services from cradle to the grave, and pointing to improvements it made in power. In other words, to move further to the left than Ed Miliband has positioned it so far.

Hunt points out that Hobsbawm’s book’s final paragraph notes that

the supersession of capitalism still sounds plausible to me

. Hobsbawm’s response suggests that he believes a move to socialism unlikely, but that he thinks the neo-liberal era may well be left in the past.

The record of Karl Marx, an unarmed prophet inspiring major changes, is undeniable. I’m quite deliberately not saying that there are any equivalent prospects now. What I’m saying now is that the basic problems of the 21st century would require solutions that neither the pure market, nor pure liberal democracy can adequately deal with. And to that extent, a different combination, a different mix of public and private, of state action and control and freedom would have to be worked out.

What you will call that, I don’t know. But it may well no longer be capitalism, certainly not in the sense in which we have known it in this country and the United States.

In a sense then, there’s not a lot new in this interview, and probably not a lot new in terms of Hobsbawm’s views on contemporary politics, as noted by the Telegraph review. I suspect that for the CLR audience, those of us who read it will find the more historical, philosophical or interpretive reflections on Marx and his followers as being of more interest than Hobsbawm’s political message, which seems perhaps unduly limited and perhaps defeatist.


1. Budapestkick - January 16, 2011

Good points Garibaldy. I’ll be seeing him speak at an event in late Feb if anyone wants a report back?


Garibaldy - January 16, 2011

That would be great.


2. Hugh Green - January 16, 2011

Has anyone read Hunt’s book on Engels? Any good?


Budapestkick - January 16, 2011

It’s ok surprisingly. It’ very readable and hopefully that will mean it gets a wider audience than other stuff that’s been released in the past. I think he overstates the significance of Engel’s involvement in his family firm but perhaps emphasising this aspect of his life is something that probably makes sense for a popular biography.

Of course he uses the opportunity of writing the book to launch an attack on Lenin and Trotsky. It’s quite strange how Marx and Engels are not anathemic to sections of the buorgeoise but they always draw the line at the Bolsheviks. Basically the idea being that Marx and Engels stuff is ok but was ‘distorted’ by Lenin and Trotsky. Oddly enough it echoes the SPGB line. Personally, I think this hostility is more due to the fact that Lenin led a successful revolution than anything else. Ideas can be watered down and sanitised but an act that sent shockwaves through international capitalism and threatened all of Europe for a brief peiod cannot.

Hunt claim that that Lenin reduced Marxism to dogma is especially absurd considering that himself and Trotsky were among the most innovative Marxist thinkers of their day, far more sophisticated than most of the continental Second International theorists.

Anyway, it’s alright and will have a wide readership but John Green’s lesser known book and McLellan’s slim volume are both better works.


Garibaldy - January 16, 2011

I know some people who were concerned at the thought of writing Engels’ biography without any German, although I have to say that didn’t worry me. Hunt’s ability to communicate the facts of Engels’ life doesn’t worry me, but I was surprised to see Hunt doing the introduction to the Penguin edition of the Condition of the Working Class in England, where the language problem and the lack of background in studying socialism would seem problematic. You mightn’t agree with Gareth Steadman Jones’s introduction to the Penguin Communist Manifesto, but there’s no question he knows what he’s talking about.


Garibaldy - January 16, 2011

I’ve just realised it’s worse. He’s done the Penguin Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State too.


WorldbyStorm - January 16, 2011

Funny you should mention the SPGB…


Budapestkick - January 16, 2011

You’ve piqued my curiosity. Why is it funny? Or is it a sign of my political background that I can’t write a post without at least one polemical remark 🙂


WorldbyStorm - January 16, 2011

Wait a day or so… you’ll see… 😉


3. fergal - January 16, 2011

I`ve never come away from reading Hobsbawn`s books with fire in my belly in the same way I have when I read Zinn.I can`t for one moment question Hobsbawn`s incredible erudition and depth, but and there always is one,his Marxism has become tiresome,timid and repetitive.Let me explain,as a libertarian socialist I don`t believe that the steam engine and the resulting concentration of industrial production is the ultimate factor in human history.The future may well be in Proudhon`s self-governing workshop and Kropotkin`s idea of decentralising production and its combination with horticulture.I genuinely believe that these ideas correspond more closely to the actual experience of people`s grandparents and their grandchildren.
I wonder if Hobsbawn will discuss Proudhon and Kropotkin in his new book?
Getting back to Marx and there is no doubt about his absolute genius either, he tends to do politics with ideology.I reckon the trick is to do politics with…people.
Marx helps us see the world in a binary way.The evil rich against the goody poor.The enlightened avant garde of the working class against the backward peasantry.Working class virtue versus bourgeois vice.Real/scientific socialism as opposed to any other form of socialism(Owen,Blaqui,Proudhon)which is mere “Utopianism”.This is simple and straightforward.It`s great for rallying the troops!Not very intellectually demanding either.
Who can choose one vice over another one?(a working class one or a middle class one?)
Proudhon,Kropotkin and Martin Buber might provide “the different combination” Hobsbawn sees as the future


WorldbyStorm - January 16, 2011

That’s an interesting analysis. I’m kind of taken to a degree with your point about binary approaches to politics, though Marx surely is in some ways more complex than that, after all consider his thoughts on how Marxists should use various methods to achieve their goals.


Mark P - January 17, 2011

Maybe he’ll discuss Kropotkin’s support for World War One and Proudhon’s antisemitism in his new book.


21stcenturypartisan - January 17, 2011

You’re right, I never get the feeling of fire in my belly, but I do feel I understand the world more, especially after reading the first three ‘Age of’ books, and understanding the world is surely beneficial to changing the world. Hobsbawm’s works are always interesting, if sometimes I don’t agree with his conclusions, and forced favourable analysis of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. I remember reading an essay on the KPD in Germany in his book Revolutionaries, where he basically said that the KPD from the twenties and thirties finally achieved their goal with the formation of the DDR.


4. Reading the Grundrisse, pt. 2 « Palaverer - January 17, 2011

[…] Hobsbawm on Where We Are and Where We Might Go (cedarlounge.wordpress.com) Bookmark on Delicious Digg this post Recommend on Facebook share via Reddit Share with Stumblers Tweet about it Subscribe to the comments on this post […]


5. Ken MacLeod - January 17, 2011

Fergal, it’s perhaps unfortunate that the English title of Engels’ pamphlet is ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ which gives the impression that it’s a polemic against the utopians. The pamphlet itself is an edited extract from Anti-Duhring which is a polemic all right, but against Duhring. And the chapter on the utopian socialists is (far more clearly in the book than in the pamphlet) a critical and qualified but nevertheless warm defence of Owen and Saint-Simon against Duhring’s ignorant aspersions.


6. Eamonn - January 17, 2011

“Today, ideologically, I feel most at home in Latin America because it remains the one part of the world where people still talk and conduct their politics in the old language, in the 19th- and 20th-century language of socialism, communism and Marxism”

Bolivian socialism, interestingly, involves a new constitution that classifies citizens according to their “race” and gives power to traditional leaders who haven’t been chosen by anyone.
In Argentina, Peronism, an explicitly anti-Marxist and anti-socialist movement, is in better health than ever.
In Chile, the slightly reconstructed Pinochetista right rules.
In Venezuela, Chávez has given himself power to rule by decree for 18 months because he didn’t like the cut of the new congress.
In Perú, Alan Garcia has reconstructed himself as a friend of global multinationals.
In Colombia, Santos continues to stick it to the FARC and cuddle ever closer to Washington.
In Brasil, Dilma won, so more timid reforms designed to upset the Paulista bourgeoisie too much and, with luck, some sort of accountability for the crimes of the dictatorship, though Lula had a go at that to0 and had to back track pretty rapidly.
Lots of talk indeed.
Those who read Spanish might be interested in the blog by an Argentine lawyer and philosopher.



7. ejh - January 17, 2011

an argument I have a great deal of sympathy for

I don’t, much: I think it’s arguable that 1968 didn’t change much in the short term, but if one thinks in terms of ripple effects, or various kinds, I think its effects were huge. I think it’s probable that many things happened at later dates because people were involved with student protests in 1968, or were in some way politially aweoken by them.

Re: Zizek, I often like him, but he does have a large wind-up element to him and you just know that he’s going to be referred to by every faux-radical pop-music writer who wants to show they’re cool, just as Roland Barthes was referred to by a previous generation of charlatans.

(Anyway, that’s got in my weekly dig at Paul Morley, Jon Savage and their imitators. I feel better now.)


8. Captain Rock - January 17, 2011

‘an argument I have a great deal of sympathy for’

I don’t either. It’s usually an excuse to sneer at any movement your party doesn’t control. The numbers of working class secondary school kids on the British demos is an interesting factor.


9. fergal - January 17, 2011

WbS-point taken on methods,very valid
Mark P-don`t see how this will advance the debate.You hardly expect me to condone anti-semitism or the butchery of World War One?The third person on my list,Martin Buber a Jew had no problem referencing Proudhon in his “Paths to Utopia”
Ken-interesting point on words being lost in translation and the importance of words in their original version,very true
21stcenturypartisan-fair point
Garibaldy/ejh- on 68-for French workers it meant a 4th week of paid holidays and a good rise in the minimum wage(The Grenelle Agreements).68 helped to end De Gaulle`s rigid and puritanial-like mores,the end of Vieille France.The thing about 68 was its DIY spirit and autonomy.Students and workers boast of learning more in May 68 when they occupied factories and campuses about work,life and being creative,than at any other time in their life-not bad!


10. Reading the Grundrisse, pt. 2 « Palaverer's - March 22, 2011

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