How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism

The piety and provincialism of Eric Hobsbawm.

How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism
Eric Hobsbawm
Little, Brown, 480pp, £25

Eric Hobsbawm begins this collection of essays on Marx and Marxism with a note on how frequently visitors come to Marx's grave. "Walk into Highgate Cemetery, where a 19th-century Marx and Spencer - Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer - are buried curiously enough within sight of each other's grave. Herbert was the acknowledged Aristotle of the age, Karl a guy who lived on the lower slopes of Hampstead on his friend's money. Today nobody even knows Spencer is there, while elderly pilgrims from Japan and India visit Karl Marx's grave and exiled Iranian and Iraqi communists insist on being buried in his shade."

It is an odd way to start a book whose central thesis is that Marx's thinking can help solve the problems of the 21st century. The aged pilgrims described by Hobsbawm are a little like the Russian émigrés of the 1920s - disoriented refugees from a vanished world. The Soviet regime, which was the most important embodiment of Marx's revolutionary project in the 20th century, has collapsed and been replaced by one that owes more to Russian Orthodoxy than to any western ideology, while the largest and most important country still ruled by a communist party has embraced a type of capitalism that makes mid-19th-century English laissez-faire look tame. There is no longer any advanced country that has a mass party which can claim to be inspired by Marx's thinking.

Marx has never been more marginal politically. By contrast, Spencer's ideas are flourishing. Spencer the man, an eccentric Victorian thinker, is largely forgotten, and it is a safe bet that none of the many writers who interpret social and economic life in evolutionary terms today has read anything much of his writings. But whether or not they acknowledge it, modern propagandists for the free market are promoting a version of Spencer's social Darwinism, embellished with ideas of genes and memes - a toxic mix that is no more genuine science than was the theory of survival of the fittest that Spencer so ardently promoted.

Free-market capitalism may be in trouble, but crackpot theories of social evolution continue to give the failing system a deceptive aura of intellectual legitimacy. One of Hobsbawm's strengths is that he is too good a historian to take this nonsense seriously. 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 "provincialised himself". It is a damning judgement, but one that the present volume vindicates.

When he can bring himself to address the subject of the Soviet experience, Hobsbawm's comments are offhand and conventional. As if its truth were self-evident, he recites the cliché that Russia was too backward to produce anything like the socialist society Marx envisioned. As the Marxist theorist Georgi Plekhanov intimated in a statement that Hobsbawm cites approvingly, the result of a revolution in Russia would be "a Chinese empire in red". Seizing on Plekhanov's observation, generations of western Marxists have argued that the Soviet experiment was thwarted by Russian traditions of "Asiatic despotism". It is a dubious claim, empirically unproven and notably provincial in the contemptuous attitude it expresses towards non-western traditions. This drearily familiar narrative has one large advantage, however: it absolves those who hold it from confronting the historical record of communist regimes throughout the world.

Rehearsing another version of the cliché, Hobsbawm tells us that "a liberal capitalist Russia wouldn't come about either". The clear implication is that, by late-tsarist times, Russia was set on a course that led inexorably to dictatorship of the kind that Lenin and Stalin practised. One wonders how he can be so sure of this. Aside from anything else, the view that nothing other than brutal dictatorship could develop in Russia is hard to reconcile with the eminent historian's 60-odd years of continuous Communist Party membership. More to the point, it is impossible to square this conventional narrative with the dictatorships that have been a feature of every communist regime - not just in Russia, but across eastern Europe and in central Asia, China, south-east Asia, Africa and Latin America. Were the peoples of these lands, with their widely varying histories, cultures and levels of development, unfailingly backward and semi-barbaric? Or was Marx's vision of a post-capitalist society flawed from the start? These are questions Hobsbawm never confronts. If he did he would be forced to accept that his entire political life was founded on a gigantic delusion.

When he considers the contemporary crisis of capitalism, Hobsbawm might be expected to be on safer ground. "The globalised world that emerged in the 1990s," he writes, "was in crucial ways uncannily like the world anticipated by Marx in the Communist Manifesto." Well, up to a point. Certainly Marx did not anticipate the resilience of nationalism and the resurgence of religion. Nor did he foresee the possibility that countries which were subjugated by the forces of imperialism might rebel not only against western power, but also - as is clearly the case in China, despite its nominal adherence to Marxism - against western ideas. No less than John Stuart Mill or Spencer, Marx took it for granted that Europe was the centre of the world.

Where Marx was ahead of his time was in grasping that capitalism was an inherently revolutionary mode of production that would eventually consume bourgeois civilisation. Economists and politicians who celebrated the triumph of capitalism in the 1990s imagined that the result would be a "property-owning democracy". In fact, the result has been a type of reproletarianisation - an economic system in which middle-class life has ceased to be a viable option for most of the population. Here, if nowhere else, Marx was prophetic, but that does not mean we can turn to him for an understanding of the current crisis. Hyman Minsky's post-Keynesian account of the inherent instability of finance-capitalism is more illuminating and practically useful than anything produced by Marx or his disciples.

Most of the nearly 500 pages of How to Change the World relate to 19th- and early 20th-century Marxian disputes that have been rightly forgotten. If Hobsbawm seeks to rescue Marx from history's memory hole, it is in the same spirit of atavistic piety that superannuated revolutionaries make the melancholy pilgrimage to the master's grave at Highgate Cemetery.

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead reviewer. His next book, "The Immortalisation Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death", will be published by Allen Lane on 3 February

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, War on WikiLeaks

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.