Hobsbawm's unanswered question

Foreword
ERIC HOBSBAWM died on October 1, 2012, a little over a week after the review article of How to Change the World which follows first appeared in the Mumbai Economic and Political Weekly. It was obvious—as I rather tactlessly suggested in the first paragraph—that this book was likely to be his last (another volume of essays is in fact scheduled to appear in 2013). Some of his right-wing critics, like Michael Burleigh, argue in their obituaries of Hobsbawm that his historical work must be rejected because of his support for the USSR and the other Stalinist states.1 Others, like Niall Ferguson, are aware that books such as The Age of Empire cannot simply be dismissed on a priori political grounds, but nevertheless treat his work as quite unrelated to his Marxist theory of history: from this perspective Hobsbawm may have held dangerous and objectionable views, but as a professional historian he did not, at least until his final works, allow these to seriously influence his analysis.2

Hobsbawm himself always argued that his historiography was inseparable from his Marxism and, indeed, only made possible by it. I argue below that he was essentially right in this judgment. For those of us on the anti-Stalinist left, Hobsbawm’s orthodox communism meant that his political judgements—his extraordinarily narrow conception of the working class, for example, or his belief that nationalism could be harnessed for progressive ends—had to be treated with deep suspicion; but much of his historical writing has to be afforded a great deal more respect. Now that his life is over and his body of work complete, it is only fair to Hobsbawm that his critical admirers take time to assess his output as a whole, free from the demands of instant assessment required by obituaries. I am confident, however, that relatively little of his serious historical output is irredeemably tainted by the political tradition to which he belonged; most of is a lasting contribution, not only to the culture of the Left, but far beyond it. And can those critics of the Right who endlessly demanded that he recant the views which informed his entire life and work point to any historians with their beliefs who entered the public consciousness to anything like the same degree?

Neil Davidson
October 31, 2012


  1. Michael Burleigh, “Eric Hobsbawm: a Believer in the Red Utopia to the Very End”, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics...
  2. Niall Ferguson: “A Truly Great Historian”, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/...

How to Change the World:

Tales of Marx and Marxism

ERIC HOBSBAWM is now the only survivor of an entire generation of British Marxist historians born in the second and third decades of the 20th century. The roll-call of those who have predeceased him gives some indication of the extraordinary range of talent involved: George Rudé and Edward Thompson (both died in 1993), Geoffrey de Ste Croix (2000), Rodney Hilton (2002), Christopher Hill (2003), Brian Manning (2004), Victor Kiernan and John Saville (both 2009).1 Yet, remarkably for someone born in the same year as the Russian Revolution, Hobsbawm has only recently given up public speaking and he is still regularly sought out by the British media for commentary on current affairs, most recently on the Arab Spring.2 Nevertheless, it is likely that his latest collection, boldly entitled How to Change the World, will be his last. Appropriately enough it deals with the subject of Marxism itself and provides us with the opportunity to assess his own relationship to it, which has been far from straightforward.

For Hobsbawm, as for Hill, Hilton, Kiernan, Saville, and Thompson, the roles of Communist Party militant and Marxist intellectual were originally inseparable. Unlike these contemporaries, they remained so: he retained his membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) almost until the organization dissolved itself following the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in 1989-91. Hobsbawm has written that his Marxism “was, and to some extent still remains, that acquired from the only texts then easily available outside university libraries, the systematically distributed works and selections of ‘the classics’ published (and translated in heavily subsidized local editions) under the auspices of Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow.”3

Despite this declaration, Hobsbawm’s Marxism, at least as expressed in his historical works, has never been con- fined by the mechanical formulae of Stalinist orthodoxy. This may explain why—as he has noted with evident pique more than once—his historical works were not translated into Russian nor, Hungarian and Slovenian apart, into the majority of the other Eastern European languages until after the fall of the Berlin Wall.4 Hobsbawm has argued that for several reasons the general approach of the Historians’ Group of the CPGB was not as marked by “dogmatism” as it might have been. Outside of contemporary political issues which potentially conflicted with the views of the party leadership there were genuine attempts to explore historical issues. In the case of British history there was in any case no particular line and Group members specifically attempted to connect their work as Marxists with analysis of earlier radical traditions.5 Nevertheless, he candidly acknowledged the personal constraints imposed on his own work:

I myself became essentially a nineteenth century historian, because I soon discovered—actually in the course of an aborted project of the CP Historians’ Group to write a history of the British labour movement—that, given the strong official Party and Soviet views about the twentieth century, one could not write about anything later than 1917 without the likelihood of being denounced as a political heretic. I was ready to write about the century in a political or public capacity, but not as a professional historian. My history finished at Sarajevo in June 1914.6

Treating capitalism as a totality
Yet in two of his most substantial late works, Age of Extremes (1994) and now this new collection, Hobsbawm has become precisely what he once denied himself from being—a historian of the twentieth century. But as the evasions and refusals of these texts reveal, there remain limits to Hobsbawm’s capacity to deal with certain historical periods and problems which were not simply the result of bureaucratic fiat, but his own personal political beliefs.

Before turning to these issues it may be worth reminding ourselves of the methodological strengths of Hobsbawm’s Marxism, for it is one of the paradoxes of his career that, the legacy of Stalinism notwithstanding, Hobsbawm has remained more aligned with the classical Marxist tradition than comparably famous historians like Hill and Thompson who shared his formative communist background. It is sometimes argued that his classicism is primarily demonstrated by his adherence to the base-superstructure metaphor.7 It would be more accurate to say that Hobsbawm accepts that the relationship between the social organization of production and other aspects of human life which is encapsulated in the metaphor is the necessary starting point for understanding history; he has never regarded it as a substitute for doing so.8

What distinguishes Hobsbawm as a Marxist historian is his insistence—usually implicit, since he rarely engages in theoretical muscle-flexing in his substantive works—that capitalism forms a totality which is ever present no matter how microscopic the aspect which the historian may subject to scrutiny.

This insistence has manifested itself in his work in two particularly important ways. One is that since capitalism emerged as a system, which for Hobsbawm was signalled by the crisis of the seventeenth century, it has been international in character.9 The other is that lives of the exploited and oppressed cannot be understood in isolation from those of the people who are exploiting and oppressing them. This may seem obvious, but even though Hobsbawm is rightly regarded with Rudé as one of the founders of “history from below” his work has never involved the kind of social history which is concerned simply with exploring the texture of everyday experience. Endless repetition of Thompson’s expressed desire to “rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ handloom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott from the enormous condescension of history” has obscured the fact that, in hands other than those of Thompson or similarly committed writers, there is nothing specifically Marxist or even necessarily left-wing about this approach.10 Indeed, it can often simply involve a kind of microscopic antiquarianism about what Thomas Gray memorably called “the short and simple annals of the poor.”11 Hobsbawm has never been interested in this kind of history from below, but has focused instead on actual movements—no matter how apparently eccentric or removed from the mainstream of labour history—such as the millenarian sects and social bandits he investigated in the 1950s and 1960s.12 And he never regarded these movements in isolation, but in relation to the social forces to which they were opposed: for Hobsbawm totality necessarily involves history from above, as much as from below, even if it is the subjects of the latter which claim our retrospective sympathy or solidarity.

We turn to How to Change the World then to find some insight into the Marxism which has inspired his achievements as a historian. The book is highly uneven in terms of both style and quality, as is likely to be the case with any collection spanning fifty-three years (the earliest piece dates from 1957, the latest from 2010) and drawn from quite disparate sources. The sixteen chapters break down as follows: six contributions to the Italian book series Storia del Marxismo—only three of which have previously appeared in English—and a previously unpublished further chapter (“Marxism in Recession, 1983–2000”) apparently conceived as a coda to these; three introductions to works by Marx and/or Engels; five selections from journals or edited collections; and one lecture. But contrary to the book’s subtitle, these are very much tales of Marx (and Engels) rather than of Marxism. The second part of the book, devoted to the latter subject, deals with it in very general terms indeed and, as Hobsbawm himself notes: “The only post-Marx/ Engels Marxist specifically discussed in this book is Antonio Gramsci”.13 The problems with the second half of the book, at least in the sections dealing with the period after 1914, are not however simply their lack of specificity, nor are they a result of the unevenness typical of essay collections, but of the conflict between Hobsbawm’s historical materialism and his Stalinism.

Do not segment Marx
The first part of How to Change the World, on “Marx and Engels” is by far the stronger. The greatest and longest essay reproduced here as Chapter 7, and which alone would justify the appearance of this collection, is Hobsbawm’s introduction to extracts from the Grundrisse (“Pre-capitalist Economic Formations”) first published in 1964–65. Here, he not only delineates the trajectory of Marxist theory, but also makes his own contribution to it. The notoriously elliptical form of Marx’s notebooks has given rise to multiple and often mutually inconsistent interpretations; but Hobsbawm’s, perhaps the earliest to appear in English, remains one of the most convincing. Hobsbawm writes of “Marx’s refusal to separate the different academic disciplines”, noting that:

...such mechanical divisions are misleading, and entirely contrary to Marx’s method. It was the bourgeois academic economists who attempted to draw a sharp line between static and dynamic analysis, hoping to transform the one into the other by injecting some ‘dynamising’ element into the static system, just as it is the academic economists who still work out a neat model of ‘economic growth’, preferably expressible in equations, and relegate all that does not fit into the province of the ‘sociologists’. The academic sociologists make similar distinctions on a rather lower level of scientific interest, the historians on an even humbler one. But this is not Marx’s way. The social relations of production (i e, social organisation in its broadest sense) and the material forces of production, to which they correspond, cannot be divorced.

The warning that “Marx must not be divided up into segments according to the academic specializations of our time” is well made.14 The fact that it is regularly ignored by Marxist intellectuals is at least partly due to the fact that, as Hobsbawm notes in another essay reproduced here, since the Second World War they—or perhaps I should say, we—have operated largely in an academic context where identification with a specific discipline is virtually a condition of employment, ritual genuflections towards multi- or interdisciplinarity notwithstanding.15

More substantively, Hobsbawm in the same chapter deals sensibly with the claim that Marx believed in a universal succession of more advanced societies, each based on a more complex mode of production, as supposedly outlined in the 1857 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In fact, as Hobsbawm points out:

The statement that the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and bourgeois formations are ‘progressive’ does not...imply any simple unilinear view of history, nor a simple view that all history is progress. It merely states that each of these systems is in crucial respects further removed from the primitive state of man.16

Seen in this way, the only universal transition is from primitive communism to the various forms of pre-capitalist class society:

Feudalism appears to be an alternative evolution out of primitive communism, under conditions in which no cities develop, because the density of population over a large region is too low.17

But feudalism was the only mode of production whose own internal contradictions, as opposed to external pressures, has led to the emergence of capitalism. That there would be a further universal transition, namely, from capital- ism to socialism, would have been axiomatic for Hobsbawm in the mid-1960s; as we shall see, this is no longer the case. Hobsbawm’s admiration for the Grundrisse does not lead him to claim that Marxism remained an incomplete project until the notebooks were written, or even later. In a chapter originally published as an introduction to the “Manifesto of the Communist Party” he points out that, in economic terms at least, “Marx wrote the Manifesto less as a Marxian economist than as a communist Ricardian”. But, contrary to the position upheld in different ways by both Althusserians and Political Marxists, he argues that in most other respects historical materialism was essentially established as an explanation for transformative social change by 1848:

Unlike Marxian economics, the ‘materialist conception of history’ which underlay this analysis had already found its mature formulation in the middle 1840s. It remained substantially unchanged in later years. In this respect the Manifesto already was a defining document of Marxism. It embodied the historical vision, though its general outline remained to be filed in by fuller analysis.18

On Gramsci
The study devoted to Gramsci, also has many thought-provoking passages. As with Marx, Hobsbawm restores to sanity discussions which had quite unnecessarily confused. In particular, his assessment that Gramsci did not propose a “war of position” for societies in the West as opposed to a “war of manoeuvre” in the East seems to me to be soundly based:

...he did not in fact commit himself in principle to any particular outcome of the lengthy ‘war of position’ which he predicted and recommended. It might lead directly into a transition to socialism, or into another phase of the war of manoeuvre and attack, or to some other strategic phase. What would happen must depend on the changes in the concrete situation. ...In short, the ‘war of position’ had to be systematically thought through as a fighting strategy rather than simply as something for revolutionaries to do when there was no prospect of building barricades.19

Hobsbawm treats Gramsci as someone whose thought can still inform the strategic decisions which socialists are required to make today; the founders of historical materialism much less so. In the chapters on Marx and Engels, he (Hobsbawm) is rightly concerned to historicise his subjects and to refuse any sense that we can treat them as contemporaries from whom “lessons” can be learned about appropriate political action. In this connection Hobsbawm claims, correctly in my view, that it is “virtually impossible to derive from the classic writings anything like a manual of strategic and tactical instructions, dangerous even to use them as a set of precedents, though they have nevertheless so been used. What could be learned from Marx was his method of facing the tasks of analysis and action rather than ready-made lessons to be derived from classic texts”.20 Yet at several points he takes this position so far that the reader might doubt whether Marx and Engels had any fixed or definitive political views at all, other than supporting the formation of working class parties committed to socialism. Indeed, Hobsbawm explicitly argues against any attempts to establish a Marxist tradition involving policies as opposed to methods:

It is...vain to seek in Marx for the anticipation of such later controversies as those between ‘reformists’ and ‘revolutionaries’, or to read his writings in the light of the subsequent debates between right and left in the Marxist movement. ...The issue for Marx was not whether labour parties were reformist or revolutionary, or even what these terms implied. He recognised no conflict in principle between the everyday struggle of the workers for the improvement of their conditions under capitalism and the formation of a political consciousness which envisaged the replacement of capitalist by socialist society, or the actions which led to this end. ...It is an anachronism to identify Marx with either a ‘right’ or a ‘left’, ‘moderate’ or ‘radical wing of the international or any other labour movement. Hence the irrelevance as well as the absurdity of arguments about whether Marx at any point ceased to be a revolutionary and became a gradualist.21

Heirs to Marx
In another chapter Hobsbawm effectively turns this position on its head (although the end result is the same) by refusing to distinguish between any of Marx’s successors on the grounds that all can claim an equally legitimate lineage:

...we should...reject the idea that there is a sharp difference between a ‘correct’ and an ‘incorrect’ Marxism. His mode of enquiry could produce different results and political perspectives. Indeed it did so with Marx himself, who envisaged a possible peaceful transition to power in Britain and the Netherlands, and the possible evolution of the Russian village community into socialism. Kautsky and even Bernstein were heirs to Marx as much (or, if you like, as little) as Plekhanov or Lenin.22

This is intended to be provocative, but it is in one major respect simply wrong. Earlier I agreed with Hobsbawm that in most respects other than the economic (the dual nature of the commodity, the distinction between labor and labour power) historical materialism was a finished doctrine by 1847–48. There is however one very important exception to this: the nature of the state and specifically that of the capitalist state. In 1848, Marx and Engels argued for the proletariat to seize control of the existing state and “wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie. . .centralize all production in the hands of the state, i e, of the proletariat organized as a ruling class” and only in the future (“in the course of development”) after a period in which, having “swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally”, will we have “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all”.23

 Their position changed again after the experience of the revolutions of 1848–49; but as Hal Draper writes of Class Struggles in France, 1848–1850, where this change is first registered: “This summary look into the future includes the abolition of classes but does not specifically mention elimination of the state”.24 The change in attitude to the state indicated by the Paris Commune—“the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour”—is decisive here.25 As Engels was later to confirm: “One thing was proved by the Commune, viz, that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the readymade state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’.”26

Yet Hobsbawm passes over the Paris Commune in a handful of pages without giving any sense of how fundamental the experience was in reshaping Marx’ and Engels’s attitude to the state.27 Insofar as Marx did believe that a peaceful transition was possible in countries like Britain and the Netherland, it reflected a failure to consistently apply his own theoretical discovery concerning the nature of the capitalist state, not a retreat from it. In any case, over one hundred years of experience in Britain, the Netherlands, and indeed everywhere else has surely demonstrated the impossibility of peaceful transitions to power. The point is that the attitude towards the state adopted by post-Marx Marxists is broadly indicative of their fidelity to his views in other respects. In this crucial respect Lenin is an heir to Marx in a way that Bernstein and the later Kautsky and Plekhanov are not.28

Post-revolutionary society
One suspects that Hobsbawm’s vagueness over the nature of post-revolutionary forms of working-class rule (“whatever its precise form”) is informed by the vast chasm between the character of the Paris Commune and the Russian workers’ councils of 1905 and 1917 on the one hand, and the Stalinist states on the other. He obliquely alludes to the latter in a passing reference to the danger of post-revolutionary state entrenchment, but down to the early 1980s at any rate still seems to have regarded them as genuine socialist institutions.29 It is in this context that we can see the theoretical damage which Stalinism has inflicted on his work as a historian of the twentieth century. I noted earlier that Hobsbawm treats capitalism as a totality. In relation to what he takes to be socialism, however, he abandons this position. At the end of his reflections on Gramsci, Hobsbawm lamented the way in which the Stalinist states had concentrated on economic transformation at the expense of developing “political and legal institutions, and processes”:

Quite apart from the other disadvantages of this neglect of politics, how can we expect to transform human life, to create socialist society (as opposed to a socially owned and managed economy), when the mass of the people are excluded from the political process, and may even be allowed to drift into depoliticisation and apathy about public matters?30

How indeed? Seven years later, the “serious weaknesses” identified by Hobsbawm saw the mass of the people either participate in revolutions against the states from which they had been excluded or at least refuse to defend them. The echoes of Althusser are very strong here, particularly his claims that “a revolution in the structure does not ipso facto modify the existing superstructures and particularly the ideologies at one blow (as it would if the economic was the sole determinant factor), for they have sufficient of their own consistency to survive beyond their immediate life context, even to recreate, to ‘secrete’ substitute conditions of existence temporarily”.31 I am not accusing Hobsbawm of sympathy for Althusser, a thinker for whom he has always displayed a healthy scepticism.32 The point is rather that anyone who wishes to argue that the Stalinist states were based on a socialist economic base while simultaneously criticizing their lack of democracy is effectively forced to retreat into a non-Marxist pluralism in which any sense of mediated totality has been abandoned. Gramsci made the point in general terms in his prison notebooks:

Between the economic structure and the state with its legislation and its coercion stands civil society, and it is this latter which has to be radically transformed, in concrete terms and not just as it appears in statutes and learned books. The state is the instrument for bringing civil society into line with the economic structure, but the state has to ‘want’ to do that, i e, the representatives of the change that has already come about have to be in control of the state.33

By the late 1920s in the case of Russia and from the very beginning in the case of the other Stalinist regimes, the “representatives of the change that has come about” had brought civil society in line with the economic structure: lack of democracy was not an aberration or a residue, it was the necessary condition for accumulation and industrialization to take place under conditions of bureaucratic state capitalism. There have been times when Hobsbawm has come close to accepting this. Interviewed in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he said of the Soviet Union that it “obviously wasn’t a workers’ state...nobody in the Soviet Union ever believed it was a workers’ state, and the workers knew it wasn’t a workers’ state”.34 In one of the most recent essays reproduced here he notes of state planning and ownership that: “There is nothing exclusively socialist about this”.35 Yet this acknowledgement has not affected the sense of loss which Hobsbawm has expressed on several occasions for the collapse of the self-same non-worker’s state. How to explain this disjunction?

Assessment of the popular front
The answer, I think, lies not in what Hobsbawm thinks the Soviet Union was, but rather in what he believes that it did, above all to contribute to the victory over fascism. “It is an elementary observation of Marxism that thinkers do not invent their ideas in the abstract”, he writes in one of the essays reproduced here, “but can only be understood in the historical and political context of their times”.36 This comment, made of Gramsci, is equally applicable to its author. Hobsbawm’s own historical and political context was the Popular Front against Fascism and War—broadly, 1935–39, then 1941–45—and adherence to the politics of the Popular Front has been a constant in his politics ever since.37 It is difficult for those born afterwards to fully appreciate, for many of those becoming socialists at that time, just how deeply the Stalinist tactics of the period became a touchstone for politics as such, almost a form of Gramscian “common sense”. For this reason, Hobsbawm has always had a problem in dealing with the Popular Front as a historian.38 What we get instead is a recycling of Stalinist propaganda, mercifully minus the accusation that contemporary dissenters were actual fascist agents. Here, this approach is represented in a truly dreadful chapter, “In the Era of Anti-fascism, 1929–1945”, central to which is the Spanish Civil War:

What sacrifices ought revolutionaries to make in the necessary cause of rolling fascism back? Was it not conceivable that victory over fascism could be won—but at the cost of postponing the revolution, or even reinforcing non-fascist capitalism?...the radical element took the utopian road of denying any contradiction between anti-fascism and immediate proletarian revolution. Even those who did not reject the broad anti-fascist front altogether as an unnecessary betrayal of revolution (as Trotsky did, misled by his hostility to the Stalinist Comintern which was the main advocate of such a front), called for its conversion into insurrection at any suitable moment... ...at the time these utopian arguments carried little weight. They may even account for the isolation and lack of influence of those who propounded them, such as the Trotskyite and other dissident Marxist groups. People who fought with their backs to the wall against the encroaching forces of fascism gave priority to the immediate struggle. If it was lost then the revolution of tomorrow—even,in Spain, the revolution of today—had no chance.

“What alternative to the communist policy of fighting the Spanish Civil War was there? Then as now the answer must be: none.”39 In fact, given that communist policy led to total defeat in the Spanish Civil War, the only way that Hobsbawm can ascribe any success to the popular front is to stretch the category to include the second world war after the entry of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the People’s Democracies in eastern Europe and the Balkans after 1943.40 Hobsbawm’s discussion of Spain shows all too clearly the destructive influence of his politics on his historiography. First, it was not the case in Spain that the war was taking place and wellmeaning but mistaken ultra-lefts were arguing for a policy of revolution which would have inadvertently obstructed or sabotaged the Republican military effort—the revolution had already begun, with the popular seizure of land and factories, collectivization from below, and so on; the great historic crime of the Spanish communists and their Russian advisers was to reverse it, often though violent repression. Those who argued that the war could only be won by deepening the revolution did at any rate have one fairly important historical example on their side, that of Russia itself: “We must recall once again that if the October Revolution was able to triumph in a war of three years duration over countless enemies, including the expeditionary forces of the mightiest imperialist powers, it was only because this victory was assured above all by the fact that during the war the peasants had gained possession of the land while the workers held the mills and factories”.41

This was how Trotsky put it, after Franco’s victory in 1939; but there is no need to rely on Trotsky (who Hobsbawm frequently criticizes, but never quotes), or his supporters, or even eyewitnesses or participants like George Orwell or Franz Borkenau. The point has been made by figures much closer to Hobsbawm’s own politics. Hobsbawm is aware of the work of the Spanish communist Fernando Claudin, whom he cites in another connection.42 But Claudin, a leader of the Spanish Communist Youth at the time of the civil war and subsequently a member of the PCE’s Central Committee and Political Bureau until his expulsion in 1965, also conducted his own research into the role of Russia in the civil war. His conclusion? “Stalin helped the Spanish Republic in order that it might prolong its existence and arrive at a compromise solution acceptable to the ‘Western democracies’, within the framework of a system of anti-Hitlerite alliances, and not in order that it might win.” Claudin argues that this conclusion was “forced” on him by an analysis of the facts, even though he accepts that, at the time most anti-fascists would have regarded it as a “monstrous calumny”: “Subsequent events showed, nevertheless, clearly enough, that Stalin was not one to hesitate in sacrificing to raison d’etat not merely the possibility of revolution but an actual revolution, even when this occurred close to the Soviet frontier and there were no ‘technical’ difficulties in the way of supplying the aid needed to oppose imperialist intervention.”43

Social-democratic liberalism
Perhaps it is expecting too much of Hobsbawm to change his assessment of the Popular Front at this stage in his life: it seems to be an integral part of his—in my view, admirable—refusal to renege on his communist beliefs in the face of neoliberal demands for recantation such as those regularly issued by the likes of Niall Ferguson.44 His desire to establish a world of free and equal human beings is separable from his ambiguities concerning the Russian experience; but the nature of that experience cannot simply be written off as sui generis, as an experiment doomed to failure about which nothing can be said. Strangely perhaps, the problem emerges most acutely, not in Hobsbawm’s historical discussion, but in his reflections on the future:

Since the 1980s it has been evident that the socialists, Marxist or otherwise, were left without their traditional alternative to capitalism, at least unless or until they re- thought what they meant by ‘socialism’ and abandoned the presumption that the (manual) class would necessarily be the chief agent of social transformation. But the believers in the 1973-2008 reductio ad absurdum of mar- ket society are also left helpless. ...Paradoxically, both sides have an interest in returning to a critique of both capitalism and the economists who failed to recognize where capitalist globalization would lead, as predicted by him in 1848. ...Once again the time has come to take Marx seriously.45

The difficulty here is that the supposed symmetry of failure between Stalinist state capitalism and neoliberal market capitalism is liable to two interpretations. One is for a return to the type of social democratic compromise typical of the advanced West during Hobsbawm’s Golden Age between 1945 and 1973. Unfortunately this position has been taken by virulent enemies of Marxism and the socialist Left more generally. In 2006, Tony Judt wrote “that moribund, system-building explanations of the Left may indeed be due for a revival—if only as a counterpoint to the irritating over confidence of contemporary free-marketeers of the Right”. The twenty-first century is thus characterized by two fantasies. One is the “smug, irenic insistence” of the neo-liberal “policy consensus”:

The second fantasy is the belief that Marxism has an intellectual and political future: not merely in spite of Communism’s collapse but because of it. Hitherto found only at the international ‘periphery’ and in the margins of academia, this renewed faith in Marxism—at least as an analytical tool if not as a political prognostication—is now once again, largely for want of competition, the common currency of international protest movements.

Both fantasies, according to Judt, result from “a common failure to learn from the past”. With a classically liberal evenhandedness, Judt denounces both those who celebrate “the triumph of the market and the retreat of the state” and “those who dream of rerunning the Marxist tape, digitally remastered and free of irritating Communist scratches”, who “would be well advised to ask sooner rather than later just what it is about all-embracing ‘systems’ of thought that leads inexorably to all-embracing ‘systems’ of rule”.46 In a generally warm and respectful obituary article, Hobsbawm noted both Judt’s personal attacks on his own work and his “essentially social democratic liberalism”, but fails to grasp the essential if unwelcome point of similarity with his own position.47

The other interpretation would involve not synthesis of two failed models of capitalist development—failed from the perspective of the majority, that is, not that of the ruling classes—but transcendence: a resumption of the revolutionary project that so concerned Judt in his final years. Whether Hobsbawm thinks this is possible is unclear. The title of his uneven, infuriating and sporadically brilliant book is a statement: how to change the world, but in fact it is better understood as a question, which he leaves his readers to answer.

This article first appeared in the Mumbai Economic and Political Weekly, September 22, 2012.


  1. All references are to works by Eric J Hobsbawm unless otherwise stated. Of these historians, only Manning and Ste. Croix were never members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, although the former was involved with its Historians Group through the journal Past and Present.
  2. He announced that he would no longer be appearing in public at the launch of this book for the Socialist History Society at Bishopsgate Library, London on 25 February 2011. For an example of a recent appearance in the British media see Andrew Whitehead, “Eric Hobsbawm on the Arab Spring: ‘It Reminds me of 1848...’”, BBC News Magazine, 23 December 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16217726
  3. Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (London: Allen Lane), 2002, p 96.
  4. Ibid: 200, footnote; “Preface” in On History (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson), 1997, p ix.
  5. “The Historian’s Group of the Communist Party” in Rebels and Their Causes: Essays in Honour of A L Morton, edited by Maurice Cornforth (London: Lawrence and Wishart), 1978, pp 31-32.
  6. Interesting Times, p 291.
  7. See, for example, Harvey J Kaye, The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis (Cambridge: Polity Press), 1984, pp 132, 153-56.
  8. See, for example, “Marx and History” in On History, pp 160-65.
  9. “The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century” (1954) in Crisis in Europe, 1560-1660: Essays from Past and Present, edited by Trevor Ashton (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), pp 5-6.
  10. Edward P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963) (second edition, Harmondsworth: Penguin), 1980, p 12.
  11. Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) in The Faber Book of Political Verse, edited by Tom Paulin (London: Faber and Faber), 1986, 195.
  12. Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (1959) (Manchester: Manchester University Press), 1971; Bandits (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969).
  13. “Foreword” in How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism (London: Little, Brown), 2011, p vii.
  14. “Marx on Pre-capitalist Formations” (1964) in How to Change the World, pp 134, 135. For a similar position by a Marxist nominally operating within the discipline of Geography, see David Harvey, “On Countering the Marxian Myth—Chicago Style” (1978) in Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), 2001, pp 75, 78. For a more polemical statement of the same position by a writer unclassifiable in disciplinary terms see John Berger, “Where Are We?” in Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance (London: Verso), 2007, p 38.
  15. “The Influence of Marxism, 1945-83” (1982) in How to Change the World, pp 364-66.
  16. “Marx on Pre-capitalist Formations”, pp 152 and 147-52 more generally.
  17. Ibid: 143-44.
  18. “On the Communist Manifesto” (1998) in How to Change the World, pp 109-10.
  19. “Gramsci” (1982) in How to Change the World, pp 326-27.
  20. Ibid, p 87.
  21. “Marx, Engels and Politics” (1982) in How to Change the World, pp 61-62.
  22. “Marx Today” (2006) in How to Change the World, p 13.
  23. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848), “Manifesto of the Communist Party” in The Revolutions of 1848, Vol 1 of Political Writings, edited by David Fernbach (Harmondsworth: Penguin/ New Left Review), 1973, pp 86-87.
  24. Hal Draper, “The Death of the State in Marx and Engels”, The Socialist Register 1970, edited by Ralph Miliband and John Saville (London: Merlin Press), 1970, pp 286 and 285-89 more generally.
  25. Karl Marx (1871), “The Civil War in France” in The First International and After, Vol 3 of Political Writings, edited by David Fernbach (Harmondsworth: Penguin/New Left Review), 1973, p 212.
  26. Friedrich Engels (1872), “Preface to the German Edition of 1872” in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Harmondsworth: Penguin), 2002, p 194.
  27. Hobsbawm, “Marx, Engels and Politics”, pp 56-57. Compare the discussion in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol 3, the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ (New York: Monthly Review Press), 1986, pp 269-74, 315-17.
  28. Vladimir I Lenin, “The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution” in Collected Works, Vol 25, June-September 1917 (Moscow: Progress Publishers), 1964, pp 418-37.
  29. Hobsbawm, “Marx, Engels and Politics”, p 57.
  30. Hobsbawm, “Gramsci”, p 332
  31. Louis Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination: Notes for an Investigation” (1962) in For Marx (London: Verso), 2005, pp 115-16.
  32. See, for example, “The Reception of Gramsci” (1995) in How to Change the World, p 339: “Who now expects another vogue for Althusser, any more than for Spengler?” Hobsbawm’s scepticism about Althusser reaches all the way back to the French publication of For Marx and Reading Capital. See “The Structure of Capital” (1966) in Revolutionaries: Contemporary Essays (London: Quartet Books, 1977), pp 145-52.
  33. Antonio Gramsci, “The Nature and History of Economic Science: 4. Brief Notes on Economics [1] The Concept of ‘Homo Oeconomicus’ ” in Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks edited by David Boothman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 1995, p 167, Q10II§15.
  34. Waking from History’s Great Dream”, interview with Paul Barker, Independent on Sunday (4 February 1990).
  35. “Marx Today”, p 9.
  36. Ibid: 316.
  37. See, for example, “The Retreat into Extremism” [1985], in Politics for a Rational Left: Political Writings, 1977-1988 (London: Verso), 1989, pp 92-94. For his own assessment of the influence of the Popular Front on his politics, see Interesting Times, esp chapter 8, “Against Fascism and War” and pp 322-24.
  38. Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-91 (London: Michael Joseph), 1994, Chapter 4, “Against the Common Enemy”.
  39. Eric J Hobsbawm (1982), “In the Era of Antifascism, 1929-45” in How to Change the World, pp 273-74, 308.
  40. Ibid: 307-11.
  41. Leon D Trotsky, “Once Again on the Causes of the Defeat in Spain” (1939) in The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), edited by Naomi Allen and George Breitman (New York: Pathfinder Press), 1973, p 339.
  42. Ibid: 310, note 72 (text on p 448).
  43. Fernando Claudin, The Communist Movement: from Comintern to Cominform (Harmondsworth: Penguin), 1975, p 242 and see pp 210-42 more generally.
  44. Niall Ferguson, “What a Swell Party It Was...for Him”, The Daily Telegraph (22 September 2002).
  45. “Marx and Labour: The Long Century” (2010/2010) in How to Change the World, pp 418-19.
  46. Tony Judt, “Goodbye to All That? Leszek Kolakowski and the Marxist Legacy” (2006) in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (London: William Heinemann), 2008, pp 142-43.
  47. Eric J Hobsbawm, “After the Cold War”, London Review of Books, Vol 34, No 8 (26 April 2012), p 14.

Issue #74

November 2010

Obama's national security state

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    John McDonald
WeAreMany.org