Book Review: Eric Hobsbawm – How to change the world: reflections on Marx and Marxism

This is an excellent book, as with many Hobsbawm

Front Cover - How to change the world
How to Change the World by Eric Hobsbawm. Published by Yale University Press in 2011. Image taken from the publishers.

books. The title is a little offputting: I don’t like prescriptive-sounding books with only one author; I think somebody who is used to people shutting up and listening to them at length is the least likely to know how to make the world a better place. But it is Eric Hobsbawm and he is always very interesting to read, has a wealth of fascinating insights about the history of the left or history of the world from a leftist perspective. But actually (thankfully?) the title is a bit misleading. What the book offers is a history of Marxism, Marxism being an idea that was born out of industrialising capitalist europe, has been used as a toolbox by countless emancipatory movements of (and unfortunately too often for) the oppressed over the last 150+ years, has been used to legitimise some of the worst acts of humanity, and has struggled for its place in the last 25 years.

As Hobsbawm puts it in the introduction, when Marx died in 1883,

“there was little enough to show for his life’s work. He had written some brilliant pamphlets and the torso of an uncompleted major piece, Das Kapital, work on which hardly advanced in the last decade of his life. ‘What works?’ he asked bitterly when a visitor questioned him about his works. His major political effort since the failure of the 1848 revolution, the so-called First International of 1864–73, had foundered. He had established no place of significance in the politics or the intellectual life of Britain, where he lived for over half his life as an exile” (p3, 4).

But in the years since then the impact of his thought has been enormous, and often awful. So today, at time when popular movements have succeeded in escaping doomed strategies of various Marxist guises, yet also seem incapable of developing a strong enough counterpower to neoliberal hegemony (or the new variant of fascist demagogues) using alternative ideas on the left, a history of this sort can be very useful to help us figure out whether and how marxist thought can be a friend or foe.

The story begins with a brief sketch of some of the strands of socialist thought prior to Marx and Engles coming on the scene, before going on to tell us about the the context in which Marx and Engels lived and wrote much of their works. Reflections are given on particularly influential works through discussing their impact when ‘discovered’ and published later, often with adapted articles written by Hobsbawm at the times of the publications of certain new collections. Part two of the book goes on to discuss the trajector(y/ies) of the revolutionary theory and movement after the death of Marx. This starts with the meteoric rise of socialist parties in europe quite soon after his death and the formation and ultimate fortunes of the Second International, leading on the one hand to totalitarian dictatorships and on the other to bourgeoisification and support for their respective nations in the bloodbath that pitted worker against worker in World War I. From there, we are brought on a tour of anti-fascism, Gramsci, post-war resurgence in the anti-colonial independence movements and among the 60s movement in Europe and North America, and finally, decline. In all this, the book is made engaging because he doesn’t just describe Marxist theory, but what people did with it and how they changed its direction at different times throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. A true historian of ideas.

BUT there are problems with the book. Obviously any book on such a hugely influential subject has to be selective, but I think part of this selectivism is unfortunate. The biggest example is that the history stops in 1983. Although there is nominally a chapter on the years of decline for marxism 1983-2000 (followed also by the ‘comeback’ years 2000-2009), this chapter focusses mostly on events prior to 1983 which led to this decline rather than how marxist ideas coped and transformed with this decline. Arguably, the attempts of marxism to understand itself ‘at the End of history‘, without the anchor of ‘actually-existing socialism’, and at a time when Marxism did not have a hegemonic position within the radical left – the latter something not seen since 1930s Spain but which explosively re-emerged in 1994 with the Zapatistas – would be the most enlightening and promising in terms of emancipation and pedagogical re-invention. But you won’t learn much about this from the book.

Elsewhere, the role of Marxism in the post-WWII anti-colonial struggles and the movement of the non-aligned, while acknowledged, is underexplored. Its role in the movements against dictatorships in Latin America get barely a mention, and while its role in Greece and Portugal in ousting dictators is touched upon however briefly, the failure of these two post-revoluntionary countries to lead toward socialism or at the very least for the political landscape to take a similar leftist path such as those in Latin America would be a fascinating discussion but is unfortunately not taken up. Another topic that barely gets a mention is the Autonomia movement in 1970s Italy, a tendency which has since had an influence on leftist movements and theory proportionally far greater than other more classical schools. Of course, not everything can be included, but these kinds of exclusions mean that we are denied most the influences on Marxism from movements which are non-European, worker-led, and which creatively grapple with the contradictions of revolutionary ‘success’. As a consequence, we are left with a picture heavily influenced by the orthodox, the Euro-centric, the institutionalised, the educated, and the male. (Although in defence, there is a whole chapter if not two dedicated to Gramsci, and another to anti-fascism). For all his emphasis on the importance of history, this kind of selectivism leads to a standard of Marxism that is of limited use to changing today’s historical conditions (e.g. neo-liberal precarity, globalised divisions of labour, the importance of non-european repertoires of collective action in the global south above the European and american history of bureaucratic unions).

Another weakness is in his conclusions. I did mention that the prescritptiveness of ‘how to change the world’ is a bit deceptive. Still, Hobsbawm does pick out two main ‘conclusions’ from the historical narrative: (1) Marxism will(/should) continue to be of relevance; and (2) the importance of the Party. On both counts, the case for these conclusions has manifestly not been made. The only basis somebody could have for arriving at these conclusions from the book would be an implicit logic of, ‘well it is has been important in the past, ergo it shall continue to be important’. I would expect a bit more intelligence from an intellectual giant like Hobsbawm.

That being said, apart from these weaknesses – which admittedly would be difficult to address: how can one ‘comprehensively summarise’ such a large topic, and how can one ‘conclude’ anything concrete and definitive in an evolving history of our own making like this – the book is an absolutely fascinating read. Both because of Hobsbawm’s mastery of subject and his gift of being able to write in an accessible and engaging style, and because the subject itself is such an important one for the left. Of all books on Marxism that are not in graphic novel format, How to change the world is probably one of the most engaging and easy to read. For anybody finding themselves forced into struggle in these times, I recommend you acquire yourself a copy, but draw your own conclusions and don’t take his at face value.