ISBN 978-0-349-12352-3. “How To Change The World – Tales of Marx and Marxism” by Eric Hobsbawm was published by Abacus (originally Little, Brown) in 2014. This is the twelfth reprint from an original dated 2011. Hobsbawm died a year later in 2012 at the ripe age of 95. He wrote at length about history with one commentator from the Daily Telegraph proclaiming him before his death to be “one of our greatest living historians”. This is a collection of 16 essays about the life and times of Marx & Engels and their influence upon civilisation. It is a dry, intellectual, read, at times makes Michael Burleigh’s “The Third Reich – A New History” look like Mills & Boon. Although not for the faint of heart there is something to be gained from the exercise when we focus upon the more contemporary impact of Marx. Around fifteen years ago it was George Soros of all people who asked Hobsbawm what he thought of Marx. By 2008 even the Financial Times had re-discovered Marx as events that year shook the very foundations of our faith in Capitalism.
So is there something about Marx that reaches out to us from 150 years ago? Like most conservatives I had dismissed his relevance in the same manner I would show disinterest with the scientific opinions of a caveman. Marxism seemed an anachronism belonging to a long gone era whose relevance had all but been crushed under a collapsing Berlin wall. Discredited, job done. It was not until we looked into Steve Keen’s “Debunking Economics” that we learnt something new. It was possible to use some Marxist economics to build better models of how the world works. Hence the current neo-liberal economic dogma could be challenged through elements of the work of a man who deconstructed Capitalism as a problem to be solved back in the 1860s. Hobsbawm quotes Soros who said of Marx
“That man discovered something about capitalism 150 years ago that we must take notice of.”
Of course the insight of Soros is extraordinary as he is no ordinary capitalist. Too few have heeded his advice. Dogma does precisely that: it rules out doubt and introspection. Hence we recall Marxism as some trendy fad of social science students from the 1980s. It calls to mind a character played by Rik Mayall in the BBC TV comedy “The Young Ones” from those times. Their uniform was the black donkey jacket and the Che Guevara beret. The TV character would write himself a birthday card every year from Comrade Lenin and reverse the “R” because that is how the Russians do it. It is easy to laugh but in my own days in University (in the following decade) I could see the same anti-capitalist shadow cast upon the aspirations of my peers running the Union of Students. Even as recently as 2012 we reviewed “No Local – Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World” by Greg Sharzer – a Marxist economist whose ludicrous attempt to deconstruct localism seemed stuck in the wrong century. The dogma lives on in a non-useful form. Yet value remains if you look beneath the surface. Marx remains a great philosopher and economist to whom we should heed a little more often – if only we could see beyond the cliché of the class struggle and the stereotypes that believe that sort of thing.
Therefore I can recommend that the reader certainly reviews Hobsbawm’s first chapter on “Marx Today” if little else. Beyond that the reader is quickly plunged into an intellectual monologue that borders the incomprehensible for vast tracts of the book. This is a work of history. Hence if you know little about the history of the industrial revolution, or events in Europe in the 19th century then you, like I, will struggle. Indeed you may well learn more about socialism from the books of Chomsky that you will learn here. Hobsbawn is quick to point out that what the Soviets read into Marx was unique to them in the same fashion that what modern neo-liberals read into Adam Smith is a purely modern invention:
“This attempt to hand over human society to self-controlling and wealth- or even welfare maximising market, populated by actors in rational pursuit of their interests, had no precedent in any earlier phase of capitalist development in any developed economy, not even the USA. It was a reduction ad absurdum of what its ideologists read into Adam Smith, as the correspondingly extremist 100% state-planned command economy of the USSR was of what the Bolsheviks read into Marx.”
Hobsbawm goes on to write at length about the failings in the many attempts to turn Marx’s ideas into the “inspiration of mass movements”. It became simplified, stylised and brutalised.
“A guide to action was constantly tempted to allow itself to be turned into dogma.”
This has damaged Marx’s reputation in the same manner that modern neo-liberals damage the reputation of Smith. Socialism was not invented by Marx and Engels. Labour movements pre-existed those times as did revolutions. The author devotes an entire chapter to the many influences behind Marx’s work. Most of it means nothing outside of the dusty bookshelves of historians. The first section of the book deals specifically with the times in which Marx lived and the contemporary influence of his work. Actually his impact in his own lifetime was minimal. Other intellectuals listed him almost as an also-ran of no great note. He wrote about the evolution of Capitalism, from earlier feudal societal structures, as if history was a great machine with predictable outcomes. To him it was not chaotic, it had order, it had a destination, it was inevitable that the disorder of Capitalism would have to give way under the weight of its own contradictions and lead onto a higher level of human civilisation.
Marx’s analysis of the contradictions within Capitalism remain with us today. These remain Capitalism’s weaknesses although Marx did not predict how Capitalism would reinvent itself to adapt and accommodate the problems that emerged. This didn’t disprove his economics but it did cast doubt upon his views of historical determinism. Still Hobsbawm remains an admirer of Marx’s philosophy
“Marx, like Darwin and Freud, belongs to the small class of thinkers whose names and ideas have, in one form or another, entered the general culture of the modern world.”
The author sees the influence of Marx everywhere. This sounds a little like confirmation bias. Many of us understand and name check Darwin but beyond that there is no common usage of Marxist thought. Unless you have been a student of dialectical and historical materialism, unless you are familiar with concepts of Hegelian idealism, then Marx’s idea are unlikely to mean much to you. It occurred to me that Marxism was more theology than regular economic or historical thought. As we read through the history of the many interpretations of Marx we are struck again and again how it resembles “Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy” by Jonathan A. C. Brown (Oneworld 2014 ISBN 978-1-78074-421-6). Generations of philosophers had haggled over the precise meaning of Marx’s work and how it should be interpreted and acted upon in the real world. The different understandings split out into a myriad of factions like the Catholic Church, Protestants, Shia Islam or the Shi’ites.
Hobsbawm also reaches much the same analysis in chapter 14 in his post-war review of Marxist influence.
“How far Marx himself would have approved of what has been done in his name, and what he would have thought of the doctrines, often transformed into the secular equivalent of theologies, which are officially accepted as unchallengeable truth, is a matter for interesting but academic speculation.”
Once again Hobsbawm draws the modern analogy with the neo-liberal faith in markets as being a vast departure from the actual writings of the classical economists. Dissent is not tolerated from the dogmas claimed to be based upon an ancient wisdom. Likewise criticism of Marx in recent history was often framed by Cold War dogmas. Since his belief systems were adhered to in the Soviet system then these ideas had to be suspect by definition. Post-1945 all Marxist thought in western culture became subversive, dangerous and threatening. Only since 1990 could new perspectives bear fruit. Even before that time the very dystopian nature of Soviet systems from Russia to Vietnam caused western Marxists to cling to a pre-revolutionary aspiration for a utopia through socialism. Its many failures were only lessons along a path to that goal. We guess that remains true today. Marx will forever be linked to the failed regimes he spawned. Yet this remains a poor bench mark by which to measure his philosophy.
Today Marxist thought remains in the realm of speculation and theory. It failed to predict the future yet its lessons still haunt us. The author goes on in the final chapter to raise the spectre of ecological limits as problems that dampen the utopian appeal of Marxism. Still the inevitable appeal of his work can still be observed in that the limits of nature can put a break upon Capitalism. It has the power to undo itself even if it is nature and not human society that has this power.
“…Karl Marx has proved so much more perceptive a guide than the believers in the rational choices and self-correcting mechanisms of the free market.”
We live in a world where Capitalism appears to have won and socialism has lost. This may remain a firm impression for, as Hobsbawm points out, our working classes have long lost their passion for revolution. No amount of economic hard times seem to invoke a turn out by the proletariat. This lament is shared by many campaigners across a range of topics. Why don’t people care any more? How will we change society for the better if nobody gets up and changes the world? Maybe this is the wrong question. The rich continue their divergence from the poor yet the old dogmas of class have ceased to have traction in the modern world. What we need is a new utopian ideal. We need a new Marx that reaches out to us beyond the stale dogmas of class warfare to tell us about a more equitable world and how we can achieve it. There is no more class politics but there is much to be done.
It is hard to recommend this book to anyone. It has its lessons but it is hard to glean much from its pages. You simply do not learn much about Marx’s modern relevance from this history lesson. ‘Marx for Dummies’ it is not nor was it intended to be. However what it can do is give you a flavour of what Marxism is and how it has influenced history. How we interpret Marx today and where it can take us must be left to modern visionaries. Of which there are few.