January 21, 2011 10:02 pm

How to Change the World

Eric Hobsbawm makes the case for reading Karl Marx in our turbulent times
 

How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, by Eric Hobsbawm, Little, Brown, RRP£25, 480 pages

Born in June 1917, months before the October Revolution, Eric Hobsbawm has outlived both the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of Great Britain, which he joined in 1936. He is still in mourning. “The fall of the USSR and the Soviet model,” he writes in How to Change the World, “was traumatic not only for communists but for socialists everywhere.”

Speak for yourself, comrade. I, like many other socialists, greeted the fall of the Soviet model with unqualified rejoicing; and I don’t doubt that Karl Marx would have been celebrating. His favourite motto, de omnibus disputandum (“everything should be questioned”), was not one that had any currency in the realm of “actually existing socialism” – a hideous hybrid of mendacity, thuggery and incompetence.

This collection of essays and lectures about Marxism after Marx is slightly disfigured by the author’s enduring party-line coyness. When writing about how the anti-fascist campaigns of the 1930s brought new recruits to the communist cause, he cannot even bring himself to mention the Hitler-Stalin pact, referring only to “temporary episodes such as 1939-41”. The Soviet invasion of Hungary and the crushing of the Prague Spring are skipped over.

To anyone under 50, this book – with its lauding of Lenin and trashing of “dissidents” (the inverted commas are Hobsbawm’s), and its restaging of old academic disputes – will seem either incomprehensible or unpalatable. Those wanting a 21st-century assessment will have to wait for a new generation, untarnished by forgotten feuds and loyalties, to read Marx with unblinkered eyes.

Even so, Hobsbawm’s own lucid intelligence shines through the noxious 20th-century fog, especially in a couple of chapters on that enduringly interesting thinker Antonio Gramsci. And he makes his central point – that Marx will endure as long as capitalism does – so forcefully that I hope it will inspire younger writers to salvage something from the wreckage. Soon after the events of 1989 an idea was put about that Marx’s legacy had been buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall. “So far as I am aware,” Hobsbawm observes, “no leader of a party of the European left in the past 25 years has declared capitalism as such to be unacceptable as a system. The only public figure to do so unhesitatingly was Pope John Paul II.”

In truth, however, Marx’s works had been interred many decades earlier, trapped under all those grim Stalinist monuments to a deity who looked a bit like him but had a heart of stone. The death of communism provided an opportunity to rescue the man from his self-appointed disciples and hear what he himself had to say. Since he ceased to be an icon, Marx has become far more interesting.

As Hobsbawm admits, there’s no denying Marx’s fallibility. What he mistook for the death throes of the capitalist era turned out to be its birth pangs. He left behind no finished body of systematic theory, nor did he translate “the grandeur of his vision” (a tribute from the thoroughly non-Marxist economist Joseph Schumpeter) into a coherent and satisfactory analysis. The biggest threat to capitalism now is not the proletarians – whom Marx imagined as its gravediggers – but capitalism’s own recklessness, as the crisis of 2008 vividly demonstrated.

Yet not all of Marx’s grand vision can or should be forgotten. Hobsbawm recalls a lunch around the turn of the century at which George Soros said of Marx: “That man discovered something about capitalism 150 years ago that we must take notice of.” Much the same point was made by the FT in 1998, when economic meltdown in Russia, currency collapses in Asia and market panic around the world prompted this newspaper to wonder if we had moved “from the triumph of global capitalism to its crisis in barely a decade”.

As Schumpeter pointed out, capitalism depends on the “creative destruction” of perpetual instability. It lives by crises and booms. This was ignored in the post-communist epoch, when financial gurus babbled about new paradigms and a Labour chancellor in Britain proclaimed that he had abolished the cycle of “boom and bust”. No reader of Marx could utter such vainglorious nonsense.

It may be hard to believe, but 60 years ago many western politicians feared the Soviet bloc might outpace them. Hobsbawm notes that the advance of both communism and the USSR after the second world war seemed, at least in Europe, “to require from governments and employers alike a counter-policy of full employment and systematic social security. But the USSR no longer exists, and with the fall of the Berlin Wall capitalism could forget how to be frightened”.

There are many reasons for still reading Marx in our turbulent times, but this is not the least of them. He is, Hobsbawm suggests, an essential memento mori – the shackled slave who reminds capitalist generals that even they are mortal.

Francis Wheen is the author of ‘Karl Marx’ and ‘Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography’

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