Reviewed by Jacob Knowles-Smith
In the week after Michael Foot, socialist and former-Labour Party leader, died I encountered a veteran taxi-driver early one morning in Liverpool. What started as mere headshaking and tutting at the fellow revellers eventually became a discourse on the political traditions of Liverpool and the state of Britain as a whole. (All of this was nicely juxtaposed outside the ‘Golden Arches’ of a crammed McDonald’s.) It was thrilling to hear someone who was clearly once so passionate about his beliefs; however, he had never thought much of Foot and it was clear that his interest in politics generally had gone the same way. He summed up his apathy with this closing statement: “You go to work, you do your best, but nothing ever changes.”
Eric Hobsbawm’s recent collection of essays under the somewhat misleading title of How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism would probably not be much help to him, but is, nonetheless, a valuable resource for anyone interested in Marxism or even wider political theory – at least for those already interested. For this collection is not Marxist-Soup for the Soul or A Very Long Introduction to Marx; despite containing sixteen separate essays covering everything from the Utopian Socialists and their influences on Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to Antonio Gramsci and the role of Marxism over the post-Second World War 20th century, several chapters may be too obscure for the casual reader and throughout the whole book Hobsbawm makes references that require prior knowledge or further research.
On the one hand, any book that inspires further reading and thought should be praised (and indeed this reader went scrabbling around bookshelves for a tattered copy of The Communist Manifesto) and yet on the other, surely Hobsbawm thwarts his aim of encouraging people to think about Marx seriously again with a fairly inaccessible text. This is an especially important consideration when one considers that ‘Marxist’ is still, even in this time of recession, greed and bankers, a dirty word; you’ll never meet one – save the token poseurs on university campuses everywhere with their Che Guevara t-shirts and/or berets. Some criticise Hobsbawm himself for what they see as his failure to properly repudiate the Soviet Union – and, sure enough, early on in the book there is a mild, passing mention that “Russia was too backward to produce anything other than a caricature of a socialist society”. However, such critics are wrong to dismiss his work out of hand and his desire to change the way Capitalist society thinks – which is, after all, admirable.
Another concern follows this; Hobsbawm confidently asserts that “the end of the official Marxism of the USSR liberated Marx from the public identification with Leninism in theory and with the Leninist regimes in practice.” How can he be sure of this? None of the notes in the back of the book give further clarification. But it seems rather more likely that, for the foreseeable future, Marx will be as firmly connected, in the public imagination, to the horrors and failures of the USSR as Nietzsche is, more spuriously, connected to the Nazis.
Hobsbawm’s upbeat views about Marx and his philosophies’ make How to Change the World a book you truly can judge by its cover: lots of red (a given); on the front cover a flag-wielding worker (perhaps a Cossack) striding over a Russian cityscape with a sea of people running through it; beneath that the iconic black and white image of Guevara (to pull in those aforementioned enthusiasts?); and on the back cover a Soviet parade replete with guns, tanks and two giant Lenin busts. Such images are damaging to the essence of the book – thinking afresh – because they attempt to create an almost bucolic vision of Communism which would be laughable even to early critics of Communism such as Orwell and Koestler.
Overall, the first section of the book, which deals with Marx and Engels, is more enjoyable than the second, dealing with Marxism itself. The latter contains the chapters that would lose the vast majority of readers –two about Antonio Gramsci, though obviously important to the macrocosmic perspective of Marxism, seemed somehow out of place and served to remind me that this collection was made up of pieces written by Hobsbawm at various times for different projects. The first section, however, is a great examination of the early influences on Marx and Engels such as Fourier and Saint-Simon (whom Marx expanded upon for some of his most memorable phrases, such as: “The exploitation of man by man”), their early politics and the writing of their major works. Anyone intrigued by these chapters, who hadn’t already done so, would be well advised to read Marx’s widely available works and also Francis Wheen’s splendid biography of Marx which adds further depth to him as a philosopher and as a man.
Returning to the cabbie from Liverpool, the real problem with changing the world is not rescuing Marx from history but engaging the working population of the present. Obviously the mass of Western people do not actively think of themselves as Capitalists, though this may be slightly more prevalent in the USA, indeed they don’t think of themselves as anything, they are apathetic – but they are not nihilists, which, of course, requires a particular kind of belief in futility – which is why, in the end, it’s disappointing Hobsbawm doesn’t engage more thoroughly with the problem of engaging the working-classes in political movements or underscore the need for new thinking rather than new interpretations of old ideas.