The Books Interview: Eric Hobsbawm

Why did you decide to return to Karl Marx in your new book, How to Change the World?
The book isn't simply about Marx's relevance today, though that's one of the things it discusses. What I also try to do is point out that Marx and Marxism had enormous influence, intellectually and socially, way outside the range of the Marxist, communist and socialist parties.

You suggest that he made a decisive return to the public scene with the global financial crisis. Was that a vindication of his work?
I think it was widely regarded as a vindication of Marx's work. The official theory of economics had virtually denied the possibility of such a crisis, whereas Marxism insisted, together with some of the other pre-Chicago theories of economics, that capitalism operates in a sort of discontinuous, jagged form which, from time to time, generates major crises.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.

How important is the predictive power of Marx's work, though? After all, the working class still hasn't overthrown capitalism.
Predictive power is a very tricky business, because the future, in its specifics, is not predictable. Marx's analysis of how the capitalist system operates is not a specific prediction and it doesn't imply one. For instance, it didn't imply revolution in any particular country, nor did it imply a particular type of revolution.

So Marx himself was relatively open. What is clear is that the analysis of how capitalism operates implies problems that the working-class movement has to face. And how it faces it depends on the specific situation. On the other hand, Marx did believe that the working class would eventually take over from capitalism. And in this he proved to be mistaken.

Is there also a moral aspect to Marx's work, a critique of the injustice of capitalism?
Certainly. The fact is that Marx did not like to base his critique of capitalism on moral outrage, but that he and virtually everybody else on the left was morally outraged is beyond doubt.You've only got to read not only the Communist Manifesto, but Capital, to have a sense of this moral outrage, which helped to make Marxism a much more politically effective movement when labour parties and working-class parties emerged.

The British Labour Party is led by a man whose father thought it was the principal obstacle to socialist change. Is this a view that you share?
My own view is that Ralph Miliband was, to some extent, excessively leftist. For quite a long time he dismissed the Labour Party, though he drew near to it during the Benn period. In the 1980s, I found myself arguing with him, saying that the only way forward for the British left was in and through the Labour Party: there was no way of bypassing the labour movement. But that doesn't mean only the Labour Party will do it.

I think that his sons retain a little bit of the left-wing tradition in which the family was steeped - at least Ed does; he could hardly not. However, I doubt that he could agree with what his father wrote in Parliamentary Socialism [1961], which, once upon a time, was something of a textbook on the left.

What did the collapse of the Soviet Union do to Marx's reputation?
Marx, I suppose, 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. It is quite clear that, for some time, the great bulk of people interested in Marx and Marxism were critical of the Soviet Union andregarded it as a diversion from the original path.

On the other hand, you've got to remember that Marxism, as a political as well as an intellectual phenomenon, depends on the political atmosphere. And all socialists were hurt to some extent by the fall of the Soviet Union, simply because the example of having some part of the world which claimed to be socialist inspired them, and had inspired them for most of the 20th century. It wasn't until the beginning of this century that interest in Marx revived again.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
Eric Hobsbawm is the author of "How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism" and many other books