Not having yet read Eric Hobsbawm’s recent book on the contemporary relevance of Marx and Marxism (‘Noted’, March 2011), it is not possible to respond to John Keane’s assessment thereof. However, many of Keane’s comments are about Marx rather than Hobsbawm, and are less than convincing in those terms.
Keane rejects outright Marx’s claim that “capitalism is a crisis-ridden mode of production”. But if the system that currently holds sway globally is still capitalism, the evidence of its crisis-prone character is surely evident since 2008 – even if Australia and some other countries linked to the Asian prosperity have so far escaped the worst consequences.
Second, Keane wants to claim that Marx, as a nineteenth-century thinker, had no inkling of environmental crisis and was an apologist for the “conquest of nature through labor [by capitalism]”. There is much textual evidence to the contrary from the writings of both Marx and his collaborator Engels. See, for example, the recent extensive documentation by John Bellamy Foster.
Thirdly, Keane wants to take Marx to task for having failed to foresee the great crimes of the twentieth century – in particular totalitarianism, whether in its fascist (unmentioned by Keane) or in its communist guise.
However, as Hannah Arendt argued in Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), the roots of both WWI and WWII, as well as of twentieth-century totalitarianism, were in the heightened imperialist rivalry of the period from the 1870s to 1914.
It was Marx who laid an essential part of the theoretical foundation for a critique of these most ugly of crisis-prone capitalism’s manifestations. Such a critique is exemplified in the work of the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg, on which Arendt drew heavily.
As it turned out, the socialist movement – Marxian and otherwise, and constrained as it was within national boundaries – was often unable to resist the pressures of totalitarianism, imperialist rivalry and colonialism. However, there can be no doubt that much of the twentieth-century’s struggles against both totalitarianism and imperialism have taken major inspiration from the socialist tradition and from Marx as its major theorist. This is a truth that the crimes of Stalin and others should not be allowed to obscure.
Though no one would see Marx providing a sufficient guide to the problems Keane lists as significant for the twenty-first century, Keane fails to rebut Hobsbawm’s claim that Marx is very much a thinker of this century.