Understanding and Action

July 1, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism,
London: Abacus, 2011

Reviewed by Michael Todd

Eric Hobsbawm is a well known British historian born in 1917 (the year of the Russian Revolution which so coloured his political life and academic interests). He was brought up in continental Europe, including Germany until the rise of Nazism, when he moved to England in 1933. He served in the British army during WWII. Hobsbawm has pursued an academic career since 1947.

Hobsbawm has written a number of well-received histories. The most influential being the quartet The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, The Age of Capital 1848-1875, The Age of Empire 1875-1914 and The Age of Extremes 1914-1991. Hobsbawm has also written on Bandits, Revolutionaries and Nationalism. One of his areas of particular interest is the use of national myths to create the nation state. Hobsbawm is also a regular contributor to The New Statesman on Jazz.

Hobsbawm was a member of the youth wing of the German Communist Party and joined the British Communist Party after his arrival in England. Controversially, although criticising the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, he remained a member of the British Communist Party, but he was associated with the reformist wing of the party.

The volume under review contains a number of texts covering more than fifty years of Hobsbawm’s writings on Marx, Engels and the development of Marxism after Marx’s and Engels’s deaths through to the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989. A number of these essays were originally published in Italian and are now published in English for the first time. For students this has to be one of the best cheat sheets around when it comes to politics, economics and sociology; not just in relation to Marx and Engels but for giving a brief historical overview of the topics about which Marx and Engels wrote, and the historical developments of the twentieth century.

Hobsbawm, albeit briefly, gives a guide to political, economic and social thinking in Europe from the French Revolution onwards. Having been more than the odd decade or so since I last formally studied politics and sociology in the classroom, the names of Proudhon, Saint-Simon, Fourier in France and Robert Owen and William Morris in Britain certainly gave a jolt to my memory. This book provides an indication of which writers and movements are worth following up in the history of socialism, communism and utopianism. It makes clear the influence of French Socialism, German Philosophy and British Political Economy in the creation of Marxism.

Many key debates within the various movements are referred to: the role of the proletariat, social problems, reformist vs revolutionary tendencies, Tsarist Russia and its backward economy, and the relationship of communists with Social Democratic parties. Also noted is the lack of considered reflection on non-European politics and colonial liberation. The weakness of Marxist thinking on pre-capitalist production (Asiatic, ancient and feudal) are also covered, with an interesting aside on the state of archaeological evidence and a recognition that anthropology was in its infancy at the time of Marxism’s early theoretical formulation and how that would have limited political and economic interpretation.

Hobsbawm takes us through each of the most important works such as Engels’s The Condition of The Working Class in England and how it has stood up as a historical work despite attempts to denigrate the political basis of its thinking by Liberal and Conservative economists. (Clearly, as a document of the living standards of the English working class and poor Engels’s book is as important as Henry Mayhew‘s writings on Victorian working and living conditions and any number of reports commissioned by British governments of the time).

The discussion of The Communist Manifesto, quite apart from addressing the powerful impact of the writing, gives an interesting description of the number of editions and in what languages it has been published. The good timing of its publication just weeks before the outbreak of the 1848 revolutions throughout Europe, and more importantly its re-emergence in the political crises of the 1870s, cemented the reputations of Marx and Engels.

The discussion of Capital tends to be diffused through the volume (given Capital’s size, incompleteness, and depth of economic debate this is probably not a complete surprise in a volume of some 400 pages). If you are after a detailed analysis of Marx’s economic thinking this volume from Hobsbawm is unlikely to be sufficient or satisfactory.

With the deaths of Marx and Engels, this book moves onto a more generalised discussion of their influences. Given that these sections cover how others have considered or applied Marxist theory it might be somewhat unfair to expect this book to have addressed these issues in a different light, but some of these matters do seem to be deserving of more coverage than they receive.

The roles of Karl Kautsky as editor of the later works in German, Eduard Bernstein’s Evolutionary Socialism and the debates in the German Social Democratic Party from the 1880s are lightly touched upon. Fabianism in Britain also doesn’t get much of a mention, but then again each of these topics rate a number books in themselves.

Probably the most disappointing aspect for me, given Hobsbawm’s experience and interest, was the limited coverage of issues following the Russian Revolution. Bolshevik vs Menshevik, Leninism, Stalinist policies and oppression of opposing interpretations have only a glancing mention. Trotsky barely rates a sentence. There is interesting coverage of Marxism amongst British scientists from the 1930s and a reasonably detailed discussion on Gramsci, but not a great deal on the New Left and its influences. But all of the above would have entailed at least another 400 pages. Anyone with an interest in Marxism or even a general survey of European political thought from the French Revolution would find this book a useful starting point.

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