On your Marx, Eric

Hobsbawm's latest book provokes strong criticism from the New Statesman's John Gray.

In this week's magazine, the philosopher and the New Statesman's lead reviewer John Gray gives a caustic critique of the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm's latest book, How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism. Gray argues:

If The Age of Capital (1975) and The Age of Empire (1987) are landmark works of history, one reason for this is the deep understanding they show of the interactions of ideas with power. Hobsbawm's great weakness is that he chose not to apply the same historical understanding to the period between 1914 and 1991 - the era he has called "the short 20th century", in which communism came to power in many parts of the world and then disappeared, leaving only a trail of ruins. His writings on this period are banal in the extreme. They are also highly evasive. A vast silence surrounds the realities of communism, a refusal to engage which led the late Tony Judt to conclude that Hobsbawm had "provinicalised himself." It is a damning judgement, but one that the present volume vindicates.

In this week's Books Interview, the NS culture editor, Jonathan Derbyshire, interviews Hobsbawm himself. On looking at the global financial crisis in a Marxist context, Hobsbawm states:

I think it is widely regarded as a vindication of Marx's work... Very few people predicted a financial crisis. But when the trouble began to be evident, some people on the business side began to rediscover Marx -- paradoxically, well before the left did.

On the effect that the collapse of the Soviet Union had on Marx's reputation, Hobsbawm argues:

Marx... was saved by the collapse of the Soviet Union -- but not necessarily Marxism, because the Soviet Union was a Marxist state only of a kind.

In his review, Gray bluntly takes issue with this, pointing out that:

The Soviet regime, which was the most important embodiment of Marx's revolutionary project in the 20th century, has collapsed... there is no longer any advanced country that has a mass party which can claim to be inspired by Marx's thinking.

In another interview with Hobsbawm from last weekend's Observer, the historian confesses that he feels ill at ease with modern European politics: "Ideologically, I feel most at home in Latin America because it remains the one part of the world where people still talk and conduct their politics in the old language, in the 19th- and 20th-century language of socialism, communism and Marxism." He also criticises the current coalition government in Britain as being "much more radically right-wing... than it looked at first sight."

Read John Gray's full review of Eric Hobsbawm's book and Jonathan Derbyshire's interview with Hobsbawm in this week's New Statesman

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue