Hobsbawm’s Last Work

Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm died seven years ago today. Here we remember his final book, How to Change the World.

It is a little bright spot at the end of the penultimate, gloomiest chapter of Hobsbawm’s history of Marxism: at least the albatross of “really-existing socialism” might not hang around the neck of the latest generation to turn to Marx. “Even today only those in their thirties and above have any memory of the actual years of Cold War.” 

The idea that Marx was “the inspirer of terror and gulag, and communists . . . essentially defenders of, if not participants in, terror and the KGB” was no more valid than “the thesis that all Christianity must logically and necessarily lead to papal absolutism, or all Darwinism to the glorification of free capitalist competition.” Most “really-existing communists” in the West had been critics of Stalinism since 1956 (yes, says Hobsbawm, who stayed in the British Communist Party into the 1980s, even “by implication” within Moscow-line parties). But the line that socialism meant Stalin and Mao was always an effective rhetorical strategy for anticommunists, always a way to change the subject whenever socialists were in the conversation. As the Soviet Union and the Great Leap Forward recede into history, surely the shadows they cast over the very idea of a post-capitalist society will lighten.

No such luck for Hobsbawm himself. The Guardian sicced Iraq War apologist Nick Cohen onto How to Change the World, and ended up with a quarter of a review and three-quarters reheated lines like: “If Hobsbawm had followed the logic of his convictions and moved from Nazi Germany to seek a home in the Soviet Union rather than Britain, his chances of surviving would have been slim.” In a “review” in Australia’s Monthly, John Keane mentions Hobsbawm’s book three times, two of them to complain about things he did not write about, such as “Karl Marx’s outdated philosophical fixation on the conquest of nature through labour, his failure to grasp the constitutive role of language in human affairs and his bogus claim that historical materialism was a science like Darwin’s,” and “the fact that Joseph Stalin alone killed more communists that all twentieth-century dictators combined, or that whole nations were made miserable by Marxism”.

Such attacks must be exasperating for Hobsbawm. The people who will read a history of Marxism with most interest are surely people with some stake in it, his political compatriots. But, as Perry Anderson noted about Hobsbawm’s autobiography, he has since The Age of Extremes sometimes written as if explaining or apologising for his politics to an audience of establishment liberals. He takes pride in those features that appear in the press every now and again about “the return of Marx,” about how Marx predicted “globalisation,” or the GFC, or the fall of communism. Indeed, the first chapter of How to Change the World is based on a speech of his own recorded in the New Statesman in 2006 under the headline “The New Globalisation Guru?” He ends the final essay (originally a 1999 lecture) saying that socialists and neoliberals alike “have an interest in returning to a major thinker whose essence is the critique of both capitalism and the economists who failed to recognise where capitalist globalisation would lead . . .” But the latter is an ungrateful audience that sees his life’s political hopes as foolish at best, and it is a shame to genuflect to them.

Fortunately, though, in most of the essays here, Hobsbawm is addressing Marxists and fellow-travellers, past and present. It is even possible to believe Hobsbawm is at least partly writing for us, that post-Cold War generation who have been attracted to Marx and Marxisms of various kinds, with no sentimental attachment to any phase of the Soviet Union, and who cannot in any plausible way be accused of a guilty conscience regarding Stalin or Mao. If Hobsbawm, born in 1917, is surprised to find himself among those of us who first encountered Gorbachev in a Pizza Hut commercial, it feels strange for us to get this transmission from someone who got his formative political experience with the Popular Front on the streets of Paris in 1936. A full generation older than the student radicals of the 1960s, he kept much more distance from the New Left than his near-contemporaries in British Marxism, Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson, both of whom he has long survived. This is a dispatch very much from the Old Left, the Class of 1936, but also, paradoxically or not, from the Marxism Today cohort of the 1980s, who criticised Bennite Labourism from its right.

Terry Eagleton remarked in the London Review of Books that Hobsbawm writes so dispassionately of the history of Marxism that it would be difficult to tell from this book alone that he had been a partisan within it. This is a strength: far from a celebration, How to Change the World is an honest attempt to evaluate its weaknesses as well as its successes. He concludes bluntly that:

The “classic” texts cannot easily be used as handbooks to political action, because Marxist movements today, and presumably in the future, find themselves in situations which have little in common (except by an occasional and temporary historical accident) with those in which Marx, Engels and the socialist and communist movements of the first half of this century elaborated their strategies and tactics.

The first half of the book is all about those classic texts, collecting many of Hobsbawm’s essays from the 1960s to the 2000s on the works of Marx and Engels. There is plenty of exegesis, but not of the barren kind which treats them as a universe unto themselves, complete and self-contained. The point is always to historicise and contextualise, and so far as it is possible in the glutted field of Marxology, this brings some novel insights. For example, in a study of the influence of the utopian socialists, he argues that they had an enduring impact on the pair, not abandoned after the critique in the Manifesto but in some ways deepened in the mature writings, with Fourier an important presence in Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and “the youthful Engels . . . clearly much less impressed with the Saint-Simonians than the later Engels . . .”

In one of the strongest of those chapters, “Marx, Engels and Politics” (originally published in Italian in 1982), Hobsbawm emphasises the changes in their ideas over time and therefore in their political strategies: from the optimism up to the 1848 revolutions and counterrevolutions; to the pessimism about the immediate prospects for revolution in the remainder of Marx’s lifetime, especially following the failure of the 1857 crisis to detonate another wave of revolt; and finally to Engels’ role as elder statesman to nascent German social democracy. He returns to points well-made in the past, but which bear repeating: the absence of a dilemma between reform and revolution in Marx’s worldview; the insistence from the Manifesto to the 1870s that communists ought not form political sects that isolate them from the working class movement as it is; and the anticipated protraction of the transformation to socialism before or after any successful proletarian revolution, because of the profound distinction between a changed state and a changed society.

It is obvious that Hobsbawm means to draw morals for present strategy here — but he is also at pains again to stress how alien the political situation of the last half of the nineteenth century is to us, and consequently how foolish it would be to try to recreate the strategies of Marx and Engels. Most importantly, Marx and Engels had no experience of universal suffrage and no way of foreseeing how the structure of political conflict and compromise would evolve with it. (This also reveals the anachronisms in John Keane’s Monthly attack, his bizarre claims that the passionate supporter of the Chartists saw parliamentary democracy as “bourgeois frippery,” and that the veteran of 1848, exiled by Continental reaction, was blind to the “potential evils and political abuse” of “concentrated power.”) If there is a single basic idea that separates a Marxian strategy from a liberal or a utopian one, Hobsbawm suggests, it is precisely the recognition of the importance of historical context and a rejection of voluntarism, the belief that society can be changed simply by force of will or morality.

Later chapters deal with the reception of Marx and Engels: one on Victorian reactions (more measured and calm in an age of bourgeois confidence) and one on the publication history of their works. Everybody knows that Capital was left unfinished by Marx, the later volumes worked up by Engels and Kautsky from drafts, and that the 1844 Manuscripts and the Grundrisse were artefacts of the twentieth century — in the latter case, accessible to very few until some time after World War II. But Hobsbawm does an excellent job of tracing what the changing body of “classics” meant for the movement, as both cause and effect of shifts and splits in “Marxism” — texts suppressed, texts forgotten, texts rediscovered and used as rhetorical weapons.

This provides a bridge into the second half of the book: Hobsbawm’s history of Marxism from 1880 to 2000. Except for an unfortunate gap — the critical years 1914–1929 — this is a relatively unified narrative, three of the essays having been written for the same Italian project thirty years ago, and another newly written to bring the story up to the millennium. It is important to realise what this is not, however: a comprehensive history of Marxism as movement. Rather, it is a history of the intellectual influence of Marxism, in which the movement appears mainly as a medium through which the ideas spread, though its political fortunes and problems shaped the course of those ideas. Hobsbawm is not much interested here in “official Communism” of Soviet or Chinese varieties, especially after 1945, presumably because he sees it as sterile — where Marxist thought went to die. It is thus mainly a history of Marxism in the West, though not only in Europe and not only the “Western Marxism” of philosophers and literary critics. The geographical and historical scope covered in these short essays comes at the expense of much depth of engagement with content: these are broad descriptive outlines rather than detailed genealogies. Still, certain forms reveal their shape more clearly at a distance.

Most prominently, Hobsbawm draws a vast gulf between Marxism before the Second World War and the Marxism of the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1930s, it tended to be based around a small canon of classical texts — Marx, Engels and Lenin and a selection from the Second International. It was for the most part excluded from the university and developed mainly among intellectually self-sufficient communist parties. Western intellectuals joined dissident Marxist groups, especially Trotskyist ones, “but such groups were numerically so small compared with the main communist parties that this is quantitatively negligible.” So, when Hobsbawm was setting out on his career as a historian after the war, there were few “Marxist or near-Marxist” works of history in English. By the 1960s, a different world:

Intellectual Marxists since the 1960s have been submerged in a flood of Marxist literature and debate. They have had access to something like a giant supermarket of Marxisms and Marxist authors, and the fact that at any time the choice of the majority in any country may be dictated by history, political situation and fashion does not prevent them from being conscious of the theoretical range of their options. This is all the more wide since Marxism, again mainly from the 1960s, has been increasingly integrated into the content of formal higher education, at least in the humanities and social sciences.

Hobsbawm himself was, of course, in the vanguard of the march into the institutions, one of the historians most responsible for the flourishing of Marxian approaches in his discipline. But he is deeply ambivalent about the development, as is to be expected from someone who stayed in the party after 1956 when most of his peers moved out. His chapter on 1945–83 portrays the period as the great flowering and maturation of Marxism as an intellectual force, even as it declined politically. The 1960s multiplied both the producers and consumers of Marxist literature “in a spectacular manner,” and the 1970s saw Marxism emerge as a force within most academic social sciences. He compares the radical upsurge with 1848 — coming from nowhere and disappearing almost as quickly, but leaving much more behind than it first seemed to. The social base of Marxism in the West was now primarily intellectual, as the working class base, where there had been one, was fading away.

A sometimes unfair caricature of a theoretical fashion victim 1970s academic New Left emerges, with Hobsbawm finding the most egregious quotations from some Althusserians — i.e., “the study of history is not only scientifically but politically valueless” — while mostly ignoring the likes of his peers E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams and Perry Anderson, who combined serious scholarship with active attempts to open political space outside Labour and the Communist Party. But he leaves little doubt that official Marxism had intellectually atrophied and there was no going back:

It tended to be reduced to a few simple elements, almost to slogans: the fundamental importance of the class struggle, the exploitation of workers, peasants of the Third World, the rejection of capitalism or imperialism, the necessity of revolution and revolutionary (including armed) struggle, the condemnation of “reformism” and “revisionism,” the indispensability of a “vanguard” and the like. Such simplifications made it possible to liberate Marxism from any contact with the complexities of the real world, since analysis was merely designed to demonstrate the already announced truths in pure form. They could therefore be combined with strategies of pure voluntarism or whatever else the militants favoured.

Ultimately, the fate of Marxism depended less, he implies, on anything internal to its thought, but on the decline of the labour movement itself: conditions not of Marxists’ choosing. The final chapter redresses the balance of the intellectual history to discuss the relationship between Marxism and the labour movement across the twentieth century. Marx and Engels never anticipated that the movement might be integrated into the capitalist political framework in a stable way — but it makes a great deal of materialist sense that it did.

In short, the (constitutional) countries of developed capitalism, in which revolutions were not on the agenda . . . contained revolutionaries within or outside labour movements, but most organised workers, even the class-conscious ones, were not normally revolutionary even when their parties were committed to socialism . . . So nothing in the core states of developed capitalism seemed to stand in the way of a symbiosis between labour and a flourishing economic system at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Communists were always internal critics of the labour movement rather than its leaders. 1917 seemed to bring revolution into the realm of possibility (entrancing even the Fabian Webbs), but in a manner with major consequences for Western Marxism — communism would be forever associated with the Soviet Union. Before the Ancient Mariner shot it down, the albatross was a sign of good luck, and “really-existing socialism” came at first as a revelation. But communism now became a foreign society in the present, with obvious problems, and not just a promise expected to grow painfully but organically from a fatally flawed capitalism. Communists were now as concerned with geopolitics as with the domestic prospects of their labour movements, and the concerns could come into conflict. The Depression brought the heroic-era of the Popular Front, but its glory dimmed with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. After the war, the whole sequence since 1917 turned out to be a temporary divergence from the long-term trend: labourism as a functional element in capitalist society, with socialists — Soviet-aligned or otherwise — critics on the margins, or even outside, of the movement.

From this perspective, the decline of labourism since the 1970s has been much more decisive a blow to Marxism in the West than the fall of the Soviet Union, because most illusions in “really-existing socialism” had already been lost decades before. Hobsbawm does not have much of an explanation for this decline beyond an ideological shift to “neoliberalism,” but its consequence is clear: when even the modest reform of capitalism becomes a marginal proposition, socialism becomes a margin of a margin and loses its oxygen.

Does Hobsbawm think Marxism have a future? In one way, its survival is guaranteed as a substantial part of the classical heritage of academic social science. Specifically “Marxist” social science has for the most part dissolved its boundaries with other currents, which have proved both receptive to Marxist ideas and helpful to Marxists. There will be, and indeed ought to be, no going back to “classical” Marxism, which good historical materialists ought to see in context as a product of its time:

Even if a consensus about what constitutes the Marxist mainstream (or streams) re-emerges, it is likely to operate at a greater distance from the original texts of “the classics” than in the past. It is unlikely that they will often be referred to again, as they so often were, as a coherent corpus of internally consistent theory and doctrine, as an immediately usable analytic description of present economies and societies, or as a direct guide to current action by Marxists. The break in the continuity of the Marxist tradition is probably not completely repairable.

Academic survival is, of course, cold comfort. Does Marxism have a political future? Hobsbawm is clearly not optimistic. But at the same time, he gives the impression that hard as it may be to imagine the transcendence of capitalism in the short term, it is difficult for him to conceive that socialism is not on the cards in the long run. He still thinks Marx was basically right about the logic of capitalism — to ever greater centralisation, or socialisation even, of the organisation of production, combined with episodic breakdowns. He now thinks Marx was wrong to see the proletariat as the gravedigger, leaving that position vacant.

Those of us who have come so very late to the party, so to speak, inevitably have a different perspective. We discovered Marx long after the flaws of Marxism and “really-existing socialism” had become obvious, in a period of protracted recession in the labour movement. And yet, we still found something of value. Many, probably most, of us learned much of our Marx at university, deeply impressed by that intellectual flowering of the 1970s which Hobsbawm sees as the high-water mark. The course of his life has followed an epic rise and fall which naturally shapes his conclusions. For us, there is a lot more future to come. Hobsbawm is right that Marxism is academic without a labour movement whose margins can be haunted. But it is hard to believe that the labour movement is dead, even in the rich countries of the West. Surprisingly, “working class” is nearly always prefaced with “industrial” in this book, and it is indeed unlikely that the labour movements of the future will be dominated by manufacturing workers. But in the broad sense, in Marx’s sense, the proletariat includes anyone who has to work for a living. They are still around, and more than a few of them even go to university.

Reform will need to revive before there are many people to talk to about revolution. But the point that Hobsbawm sees as the core of a Marxian approach to politics will be as relevant as ever: that political strategy takes place within a framework of social forces that voluntaristic moral force cannot overcome. This is a point that can be read in different ways, and in the past Hobsbawm has read it the wrong way, as one of the right-wing communists of the 1980s who tried to save UK Labour from the unelectable Tony Benn — as if Labour needed Marxists to look after its electoral interests. But it can also be read the right way. The unrealistic utopians of our day are busy developing non-partisan position papers proposing rational reforms of financial regulation and making reasonable cases for a reduction in inequality, because it is harmful to the social fabric and to health and safety. But there is no genuine way forward that does not polarise class interests and galvanise a movement, and if there is a lesson to be taken from the politics of the last few decades it is that there will be no sustainable gains that do not fundamentally undermine wealth and its power.