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Book Review. Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism 1840-2011 February 8, 2011

Posted by Garibaldy in History, Marxism.
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Once again it is evident that even between major crises, ‘the market’ has no answer to the major problem confronting the twenty-first century: that unlimited and increasingly high-tech economic growth in the pursit of unsustainable profit produces global wealth, but at the cost of an increasingly dispensable factor of production, human labour, and, one might add, of the globe’s natural resources. Economic and political liberalism, singly or in combination, cannot provide the solution to the problems of the twenty-first century. Once again the time has come to take Marx seriously.

This is the conviction that has motivated Eric Hobsbawm to produce a collection of his essays on Marx and Marxism. Written over 50 years, these 16 essays range in length from 6 pages to over 50; most have been published before, but not necessarily in the form or language they appear in here. The book is broken into two sections, the first looking at aspects of the work of Marx and Engels themselves, and the second looking at the history of Marxism as it grew into a significant political force. It’s impossible to read these essays without marvelling at Hobsbawm’s range of knowledge, not least his linguistic skills: the essays and the footnotes are a stark reminder that those of us without German are doomed never to fully appreciate the writing of Marx and Engels (Hobsbawm makes the point that he has never read an English translation of the Communist Manifesto that has the power of the original), nor to read some of the best scholarship on their work and ideas (for which we would also need, say, Russian, French and Italian). Given the controversies over translations changing the meaning of ideas (Hobsbawm cites the phrase “the idiocy of rural life” as something that has been mistranslated, saying it should be something more like the isolation of rural life), again we will never be able to truly make our minds up for ourselves.

Not of course that that necessarily matters. We have a sense of what we think Marxism means, and operate on that basis. If it turns out that there has been some confusion over what Marx meant, it doesn’t mean that we would have to change our ideas. At the same time, it could be that a lot of Marxist contempt for rural life was based on a misunderstanding. Still, hard to read Hobsbawm’s book without a sense of regret at not having access to the range of material he does.

The book is a bit of a strange read. It mixes the the history of the intellectual development of Marx and Engels and close analysis of their texts with the publication history of their major works and that broad history that sweeps over countries, periods and issues (from politics to science to art) that Hobsbawm does so well. It serves as a reminder of the gap between the academic study of Marx and Marxism, and the way the works are approached by those seeking to apply them to practical politics. The second half of the book has more coherence than the first. It is, essentially, the story of the influence of Marxism from the 1880s to the start of the current century, with reflections on who Marxism appealed to and why and various points. Much of what Hobsbawm says, especially in the chapter ‘In the Era of Anti-Fascism 1929-45’, is very convincing, although I found that there was an overconcentration on the attitude of intellectuals to Marxism to the detriment of why Marxism appealed to the working class at various points. These sections are mainly taken from a multi-volume history of Marxism produced in Italy that Hobsbawm edited with other Eurocommunists, including his hero Franz Marek, so it may be that his brief was to deal more with intellectuals. This focus on intellectuals seemed to me to cause him to overstress the extent to which people had turned their backs on orthodox Marxism in the second half of the twentieth century in favour of other variants. It could also be that this is one of a number of points where Hobsbawm’s own political commitments, which largely don’t openly colour what is being written, creep in to the work. I’m fairly sure that Trotskyist readers, for example, will feel that is the case when the Spanish Civil War and some other issues come up.

The main influence of Hobsbawm’s own politics on his interpretation of Marx and Engels, however, does not come in sectarian sniping, but rather in the influence on his overall outlook of his thesis outlined three and a half decades ago in The Forward March of Labour Halted. Bastardising it to a large degree and mixing it with arguments he made elsewhere, he has argued that the proletariat as traditionally understood, the manual working class, was in decline in advanced capitalist countries, both as a proportion of the population and in terms of its class consciousness. It could no longer be seen as capable of changing society on its own, and so communists would have to seek firmer alliances with other social and progressive forces than they had previously thought necesary, and this would require changes in both ideas and strategy and tactics. This belief may or may not come out of an undercurrent in parts of the book that once Marxist parties decided to work the system, they effectively became reformists rather than revolutionaries. The second major influence that runs throughout the book is a belief that the collapse of the socialist states has rendered the Leninist model definitely outdated, something he had probably concluded before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He has, therefore, given up on the idea of proletarian revolution, but not on the possibility of the transformation of society that would see the removal of capitalism as we understand it.

This Marx believed would lead to the supersession of capitalism, a prediction that still sounds plausible to me but in a different way from what Marx anticipated.

In very broad brush terms, when it comes to the ideas of Marx himself (and also Engels), Hobsbawm argues that there remained throughout a Hegelian legacy; Marx and Engels had come to conclusions early in their lives about the need for the liberation of mankind; what then happened was that they married this to their more hard-headed analysis of the flaws of capitalist society and the role of class conflict in human history. Their desire for the liberation of humanity led them to draw conclusions about the ability and historic mission of the proletariat that the facts turned out not to support.

I’m not going to try and outline each essay, but rather mention some I found the most interesting. On the suggestion of our commenter Bakunin, I recently read Kevin B. Anderson’s Marx at the Margins, which among other things argued that towards the end of his life Marx became much more critical of capitalism as he viewed its impact on the colonies, and that he saw the Russian and Indian village as offering alternative roads to socialism than that likely to take place in Britain and the other advanced capitalist countries. Certainly some thought provoking stuff in the book, although personally I’d wonder about putting Ireland at the margins of capitalism in the same way as the colonies or Russia. But that’s an argument for another time. Having read Hobsbawm’s 50-odd page introduction to Grundrisse in this collection, I’m less convinced of the novelty of Anderson’s arguments than I was, and still more impressed with Hobsbawm than I had been. Also of great interests were the two chapters on Gramsci, especially the first, in which Hobsbawm argues that he was the first thinker to fully elaborate a Marxist theory of politics. As already mentioned, I found the chapter on the era of anti-fascism particularly interesting, and in my view it provided an excellent insight into the mentality of the people attracted to communism in this crucial period. The reflections on 1983-2000 – Marxism in Recession – are also interesting for the various reasons Hobsbawm discusses for its retreat, that expand far beyond the collapse of the USSR.

So is the book worth reading? Absolutely (despite the fact that the cover still mixes up the publication dates of the Manifesto and Capital volume I). Hobsbawm states that to solve the problems faced by the twenty-first century, we must ask Marx’s questions. I’m not sure the book does actually set out to show why that is the case, although the introduction to the Communist Manifesto from 1998 addresses that to some extent. Nor is there a great deal to be learnt for practical politics from this book, other than some reflections on how communists in the past sought the balance between pragmatism and principle, and the need to constantly analyse the world around us using Marxism as a tool, not scripture (even if we don’t all end up with the Forward March of Labour Halted). Inevitably there are elements of repetition. Nevertheless, it gives a greater understanding not only of Marx and Engels, but also of those who followed them, and the impact of society and politics on their ideas. As a work of both the history of ideas and the history of political culture, it is a masterclass, and is the product of a long life spent reading and thinking about Marx and Engels and their ideas with one of the finest minds of the twentieth century.

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1. Tweets that mention Book Review. Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism 1840-2011 « The Cedar Lounge Revolution -- Topsy.com - February 8, 2011

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Northern Ireland, Garibaldy. Garibaldy said: My review of Hobsbawm's new book at Cedar Lounge Revolution http://tiny.cc/f79id […]

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2. Garibaldy - February 8, 2011

Shane has very kindly pointed me to a different view of the influence of marxism on Britain, from one of the many gems he has over at Lux Occulta, an edition of the Maynooth Laymen’s Journal. The article in question starts at page 75. It’s brilliant – the totalitarian National Health Service and Bevan as secretly leading Britain down the road of Moscow being particularly entertaining.

http://lxoa.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/maynoothlaymensannual.pdf

(it’s a massive file, but worth the wait)

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LeftAtTheCross - February 8, 2011

I’ve posted that article here (less massive file):

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Garibaldy - February 8, 2011

Thanks LATC.

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LeftAtTheCross - February 9, 2011

Fascinating document. I took pleasure, while reading through it, knowing that 50 years later the RCC’s fear of religion losing control over the population has long become a reality in Britain, and is heading that way here too. You’d sort of wonder is there a committee in the RCC somewhere even now tasked with the challenge of defending “the faith” from socialism and other materialist distractions. I presume so. Mad stuff. F**k them, they’re onto a loser and they must know it.

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3. Jim Monaghan - February 8, 2011

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/06/eric-hobsbawm-marx-review-cohen
I fell that Hobsbawn like so many others covered up the indefensible.I remember a friend saying that in the early 50s the safest place for a veteran of the International Brigades was in the West, so many were on trial for their lives in the Eastern bloc.
In 1956 the CPGB lost most of their intellectuals due to Hungary, eg Thompson.
Cohen though now a rightwinger, in my view, has made a case.
I like his writings, though I think he has no understanding of nationalism of the oppressor or oppressed.But I would put Deutscher over him any day

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4. Mark P - February 8, 2011

When you and/or Hobsbawm speak of “Orthodox Marxism” is this simply an odd way of saying Moscow-line Stalinism? Or is the reference to something else?

I’m still undecided as to whether to get this book. I’ve read most of Hobsbawm’s others and find irritation at his politics increasingly outweighing enjoyment of his erudition.

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Garibaldy - February 8, 2011

Mark,

I don’t know how that term crept into my vocabulary really, but I think it came in over the last year or so, from reading more stuff about Marx and Marxism written by academics as opposed to political activists. It’s not intended as a value judgment, but to be descriptive. A bit like describing neo-liberalism as the orthodoxy in economics I suppose. It’s not that odd a term in that context I don’t think.

I think there are probably a few bits that you would find especially irksome (the stuff written from the 1950s has a bit more engagement than the later stuff for example, but that’s mostly aimed at capitalist critics), but I think by and large most of it can be read without it setting the blood boiling at the author’s politics. Some of us are more easily enraged than others though, as we see here regularly.

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Mark P - February 8, 2011

That didn’t really answer my question though, Garibaldy. What exactly are you calling “Orthodox Marxism”?

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Garibaldy - February 8, 2011

Sorry, I thought it was clear that I was referring to pro-Soviet Marxism before and after 1956/Moscow-line Stalinism or whatever one wants to call it. The Marxism that had the adherence of the overwhelming majority of Marxists, hence the term orthodox.

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Garibaldy - February 8, 2011

Like I said, no value judgment intended.

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Mark P - February 8, 2011

Ah, that’s what I assumed you were talking about, but I wasn’t entirely sure.

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5. Terry McDermott - February 8, 2011

The most interesting stuff in my view is Hobsbawm’s descriptions of life and politics in the world of the 1920s and 1930s, especially among Jews for whom Zionism seemed a strange/mad or at least unappealing idea. Hobsbawm was in the KPD in Berlin for a while just before Hitler came to power, which, to put it mildly, would leave a big impression on anybody. I can just about excuse some of his defence of the Soviet system. What’s less appealing is that some younger people still try to defend Stalin, even with the masses of evidence of his crimes (and not just against the ‘class enemy’)- handing over German communists after 1939 for example.

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6. Earl Williams - February 8, 2011

On the subject of the dissident Marxism that came out of 1956, Dorothy Thompson has just died:

http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2011/02/last-e-mail-from-dorothy.html#links

She had some rude things to say about the party-liners who stayed behind, it appears.

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Jim Monaghan - February 8, 2011

Another tribute to Dorothy Thompson
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/06/dorothy-thompson-obituary
I heard her husband pay tribute to her insights many years ago where he said that she saw more clearly than him the contribution of the Irish (particularly the United Irishmen) to the formation of workingclass consciousness in England

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Garibaldy - February 8, 2011

Thanks for these obituaries Earl and Jim.

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7. Garibaldy - February 8, 2011

Meanwhile, an interview with someone who would like to see himself as the heir to the likes of the Thompsons and Hobsbawm.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12285707

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Budapestkick - February 8, 2011

He’s not a bad writer but I think he’s almost symbolic of an attempt to water down Marx’s ideas and sanitise them. It’s absurd that a New Labour brat is now considered the expert on Engels, especially given that John Green’s work is considerably better than his.

Nevertheless, he’s not nearly as reactionary as other British celebrity historians like Starkey and Schama and his bio of engels will at least introduce his thought to a wider audience.

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Earl Williams - February 8, 2011

Starkey? He’s the one who thought Britain should have made peace with Hitler in 1940, isn’t he.

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Budapestkick - February 8, 2011

Maybe. He mainly writes on the monarchy.

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Ramzi Nohra - February 9, 2011

Earl
You’re not thinking of Alan Clark are you ?
I saw him give a particularly pathetic attempted defence of it once. The conditions of the occupation “would be for the French to work out with the Germans”.

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Earl Williams - February 9, 2011

Clark was a wrong ‘un too, but I’m not thinking of him.

Actually while we’re on the subject, I remember a thing in the Daily Telegraph a few years ago saying ‘if only we hadn’t gone to war, the Third Reich would have produced a Gorbachev or a Rafsanjani’.

Sooner or later, the mask always slips.

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Michael Carley - February 8, 2011
Captain Rock - February 8, 2011

Someone should tell Tristrim that you can’t support Stoke AND Port Vale…

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8. Dhaarna Gupta - February 15, 2011

One of the wittier placards displayed in the recent tuition-fee protests – “They say cutbacks, we say Feuerbach” – showed a sense of history as well as humour, for Ludwig Feuerbach is back on the agenda. Karl Marx’s famous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach – “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” – provides the title of Eric Hobsbawm’s magisterial How to Change the World, which joins a series of major works exploiting the recent rise in Marx’s fortunes, as capitalism’s crisis marks the return of its greatest rival.
This book offers extensive coverage of pre-Marxian sources; meticulous accounts of Marx’s milieu through painstaking excavation of his predecessors, contemporaries and heirs; strenuous readings of key texts including Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 and Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848); and assiduous treatment of the legacy of Marxism as a world-changing philosophy.

How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism

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9. What does it mean to be a socialist party in the 21st century? The Future of the CPUSA « Garibaldy Blog - February 17, 2011

[…] under Stalin echoes themes in Hobsbabm’s recent book on Marx and Marxism (reviewed by me here), and this fact in itself may offer something of a guide as to the politics behind some of […]

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10. Jim Monaghan - February 17, 2011

http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/books/extracts/morgan.pdf
John Savill was one of those who left over Stalinism unlike H.

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11. Reading the Grundrisse, pt. 5 « Palaverer - February 21, 2011

[…] Book Review. Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism 1840-2011 (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 […]

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12. Reading the Grundrisse, pt. 5 « Palaverer's - March 22, 2011

[…] Book Review. Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism 1840-2011 (cedarlounge.wordpress.com) Categories Uncategorized LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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13. Hobsbawm, 1848 and 2011. And Barack Obama. « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - December 23, 2011

[…] interview or whatever from Hobsbawm. Besides which, at least one of us is awaiting Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World from Santa. The BBC has an interview with Hobsbawm, in which he discusses the parallels between the […]

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