March 2011

Arts & Letters

‘How to Change the World’ by Eric Hobsbawm

By John Keane

My first scholarly encounter with Eric Hobsbawm happened one afternoon at the London School of Economics, in the late spring of ’89. We were naturally ignorant of the coming revolutions, but the podium was ours on the subject of nations, states and democracy in a divided Europe. The topics of freedom, democracy and the fate of the Soviet Union sparked intense audience excitement, but the sage stood firm. At one point, in reply to talk of civil society, the power of the powerless and the possible re-unification of Europe through peaceful revolution, Hobsbawm suddenly snapped. “Everything will end badly,” said the cold warrior, wagging a hooked finger at all of us. “The end of socialism would be an unmitigated disaster. Capitalism in bloody, nationalist form will be the result.”

Wide sections of the audience hissed; I recall being gripped by a sudden sense of belonging to a different intellectual and political generation. But the sage stuck to his guns, as he still does. How to Change the World is a string of essays written from just before that moment to this day, connected by a stubborn red thread: we are living through a crisis of capitalism that beckons us back to Highgate Cemetery. “We have discovered that capitalism is not the answer, but the question,” he writes. “Marx is, once again, very much a thinker of the twenty-first century.”

Is he? Hobsbawm is unquestionably a great historian but this book’s dogmatic and rather parochial political reasoning ruins its own case for rehabilitating his friend’s insistence that capitalism is a crisis-ridden mode of production. The book is silent about Karl Marx’s outdated philosophical fixation on the conquest of nature through labour, his failure to grasp the constitutive role of language in human affairs and his bogus claim that historical materialism was a science like Darwin’s. There’s nothing substantial on Marx’s neo-Hegelian belief in history, his jumbled theory of state institutions or his cocky dismissals of civil society, parliamentary democracy and constitutional law as bourgeois frippery. Then there’s the oddest and most troubling thing about Marx: despite brilliant polemics against wage slavery, bourgeois stupidity and class domination, the subject of concentrated power – its potential evils and political abuse – simply eluded him. Marx’s preoccupation with property and markets was oddly bourgeois, so quintessentially nineteenth century that he never saw that things politically could get much worse after revolutions, nor that historical materialism could form a conspiracy with hubris, organised bossing, terror and murder.

After the death of Marx, such things repeatedly happened, often in his name, though you’d never know it from reading this book. The fact that Joseph Stalin alone killed more communists than all twentieth-century dictators combined, or that whole nations were made miserable by Marxism, seems as uninteresting to Hobsbawm as those other very bourgeois topics on which Marx has nothing to say: the political remedies for market failure, religion, democracy and civil society, the constitutional protection of human rights and the struggle of citizens to protect their ailing ecosystems.  

John Keane

John Keane is the co-founder of the Sydney Democracy Network and professor of politics at the University of Sydney and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). His The Life and Death of Democracy is the first full-scale history of democracy for over a century.

'How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism' By Eric Hobsbawm, Little, Brown, 480pp; $55.00

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