How to Change the World
How to Change the World
Tales of Marx and Marxism
Little, Brown 480pp £25
ISBN 978 1 4087 0287 1
In his latest collection of essays, some published in English for the first time, Eric Hobsbawm brings over half a century of historical research and scholarship to bear on the extraordinary impact of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. He charts the labyrinthine story of how their work was disseminated and chronicles how it hardened into doctrine.
Hobsbawm shows how when socialists in the Second and Third Internationals tried to encapsulate the thought of the founding fathers they were inclined to oversimplify in order to achieve lucidity. This would be particularly true of Marx’s thinking, which has suffered from being presented ‘seriatim instead of simultaneously’. Hobsbawm’s tale of the texts is related to a wider history. Fierce political combat and the bloody creation of Socialist states contributed to a tendency for dogmatic rectitude which he describes as ‘a secular equivalent of theology’.
This exhilarating study demonstrates the extraordinary breadth of Hobsbawm’s scholarship, the remarkably wide span of his interests and the daring sweeps of analysis that characterise his writing. Who else but Hobsbawm could remark with authority on splits in Armenian socialism over nationalism; the interaction between naturalism and symbolism on the Belgian Left; or summarise 1930s’ scientific debates, the dilemmas of socialist planning and the contribution of the French Annales school of history? Clarity and a wry sense of incongruity make his extraordinary erudition eminently readable. He notes in passing how the Austrian Social Democrats enabled the radical, atonal composer Arnold Schönberg to survive as director of workers’ choirs even though they deplored his highly experimental music.
Concerned to comprehend without endorsing, Hobsbawm is clear about what Marx and Engels got wrong; the demagogic French emperor Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was not to be succeeded by proletarian revolution. He also elaborates what Marx and Engels disregarded. Despite daunting scholarship, there were crucial gaps in their knowledge of ancient history and feudalism. The subsequent gloss on their thinking, which produced general laws of change for pre-capitalist formations, intensified the tendency to assume that history unfolded in a tidy pattern and that Marxists could foresee what was to come. Hobsbawm admits it took the collapse of the Soviet Union after 80 years to demonstrate to many Marxists ‘the evident failure of their theory’s predictions of the historical future’.
Part of the dramatic tension in Hobsbawm ‘s work is because he has been both historical commentator and political protagonist. In general he keeps a tight hold on the manner in which he writes. Wary of romantic flights, purple passages and utopian enthusiasm, he relies on analysis touched with irony. Nevertheless in the chapter ‘In the Era of Anti-Fascism’, the formative period of his life, the profound emotion he feels about the defence of Republican Spain and the defeat of fascism infuses his prose. It is possible to detect from this intensity just how hard it has been for him to balance conviction and critique.
It may seem contrary to complain over what he himself ignores. After all his topic is vast and he has given us over 400 fascinating pages. Yet the silences in Hobsbawm’s account of the impact of Marx and Engels’ ideas indicate the channels along which his assumptions flow. He breaks from and yet is pulled towards the Marxist heritage from which he began – the Communist movement of the 1930s. He may subsequently have come to tolerate Trotskyists and anarcho-syndicalists; nevertheless he still fades them out of the story. He notes how women intellectuals tended to be attracted to the Left between the wars, yet he does not mention any individuals. He is notably cursory too on the dissidents who left the British Communist Party following the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and its subsequent crushing by Soviet tanks.
Hobsbawm sweeps us powerfully forwards, but tends not to root about in the undergrowth. Hence he occasionally points to an intellectual Marxism within the working class but never considers its manifestation in any depth and, while he shows that political cultures persist locally, he has a curious blind spot when these have been sustained by a Left outside the Communist Party. Yet several contemporary trade union leaders in Britain were formed by the conjuncture of Marxism, social movements and the popular culture of the 1970s. So too were gays and feminists who sought to connect rather than oppose ‘new social movements’ to labour.
Feminist historians were inclined in the 1970s to discover insights from the socialists who preceded Marx; more recently the anti-capitalist and environmental movements have reawakened interest in anarchistic rebellions. If a Left perspective on history is to be reinvigorated and claim back terrain these broader sources of radicalism are needed alongside the weighty heritage of Marx, Engels and Marxism that Hobsbawm articulates in this volume with such consummate skill.
Sheila Rowbotham is the author of Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (Verso, 2008).
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