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

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.