When Chairman Mao was asked how the French revolution had affected the course of history, he is reported to have replied: "It is too early to tell." This month the Marx Memorial Library, in association with Lawrence & Wishart and the Socialist History Society, launched the final volume of the collected works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the effect of which might well have been judged in the same terms by Eric Hobsbawm, when he spoke at the meeting in Friends House in Euston to mark the occasion. "This book is indispensable to anyone with a serious interest in Marx, Marxism and the 19th century," Hobsbawm told an audience whose average age may have been 70. One of the doyens of Marxist philosophy, David McLellan, observed: "In an increasingly mean and meretricious world, Marx's work is be-coming more relevant, especially his writings on historical materialism." The public address system began to falter as he spoke, and someone whispered: "Counter-revolutionary microphones!"
We were addressed as "distinguished guests, friends and comrades", and it turned out that the distinguished guest was the first secretary of the Chinese embassy, who left just before the speakers began mourning the lack of any "force to reverse the trend towards capitalism and globalisation - even in China". The Chinese, as it happens, still like to believe that Marxism underpins their soaraway free-market economy, but what the comrades would make of the news imparted to me in Beijing recently - namely that Peter Mandelson went down well with the Central Committee on his chosen subject of the "Third Way" - I shudder to think.
"Sometimes," said one of the speakers, "it is as if everything solid has melted into the air." That sentiment will echo beyond the dwindling band of British Marxists still travelling in hope. Gordon McLennan was the last general secretary of the long-dissolved Communist Party of Great Britain. Sprightly and enthusiastic, I caught him in conversation with the former Labour MEP Stan Newens.
Their argument, our argument, was a perennial one of little interest to the new breed of political technocrats - whether the Labour Party could be changed from within. "There needs to be proportional representation so that Britain, in common with every other European country, can have a party of the left," said McLennan. In this I suspect that he, Hobsbawm and the rest are at the head of a renewed "forward march of Labour", and Newens and I are the ones travelling in hope. But who else could be in this march? Even McLennan volunteered that the old battalions, the shock brigades of miners, dockers and steelworkers, had melted into the air. And the last shock brigade I witnessed in action waving red flags and spades was digging trenches in Pyongyang. In the future, the vanguard may well be the geeks in every company's "technical support" office.
Yet I have a feeling that the Marxists who kept the faith (others who didn't, such as John Reid and Charles Clarke, were joshed for not turning up) may have some cause for optimism.
The thoughtful introspection of the gathering didn't have a "redprint" for the future, but instead seemed focused on re-evaluating and, as Marx would have it, reinterpreting history. On the other hand, the reformed Marxists, who abound in new Labour and around the cabinet table, appear to have abandoned the philosophy but kept the methodology. Those such as Hobsbawm who escaped that political chastity belt know a thing or two about the dead hand of "democratic centralism". After all, it helped do for the old Soviet bloc.
Marx and Engels's Collected Works, in 50 volumes, are published by Lawrence & Wishart (www.lwbooks.co.uk)