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regime, which was the most important embodiment of Marx's revolutionary project in the 20th century, has collapsed and been replaced by one that owes more to Russian Orthodoxy than to any western ideology, while the largest and most important country still ruled by a communist party has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 a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life (Allen Lane)

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