Book Review

How to Change the World by Eric Hobsbawm

How to Change the World by Eric Hobsbawm

Tales of Marx and Marxism

2011 saw two major Marxist publications: How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840-2011 (Little, Brown: London), the latest in Eric Hobsbawm’s long line of ideological histories (not forgetting his jazz critic credentials, under the cover name - why? - of Francis Newton), and a reprint of Siegbert Salomon Prawer’s 1976 classic, Karl Marx and World Literature*.

Despite Verso’s advertising of it as a ‘new edition’, this is in fact a straight reprint. A missed opportunity. Perhaps Prawer at 85 was not up to revisions. Yet Hobsbawm is still going strong at 94, and surely some editor/researcher could have been conscripted. Though opulent for its time, the Bibliography needs considerable updating. Prawer was pre-Internet; there are countless relevant sites. Also, over the last 35 years, a mass of new articles, books, and editions in print. There was also scope for cleaning up some false details on both Prawer’s and Marx‘ parts. Nothing major, but irritating errors in their quoting and referencing of classical texts, mainly Juvenal.

Also room for Index improvement. Prawer only provided one, for names; a book like this cries out for one on major topics. And, the onomastic one is deficient. An egregious case is the omission of Juvenal, an author much liked and quoted by Marx and Prawer himself.

Despite these cavils, this reprint of a work rightly hailed as a classic by the likes of George Steiner (“A landmark in comparative literature in Britain”) is most welcome, perhaps introducing it to younger readers. Old hands will know and treasure it, albeit it is strangely under-used by Hobsbawm, Prawer being absent from his Index (he has no Bibliography) and (as far as I can see) cited only once (p. 430 n. 14), on the style of the Communist Manifesto, whereas it would greatly have enriched his own skimpy sentence (p. 137) on Marx‘ and Engels‘ knowledge and application of Greek and Roman authors and history. In his opening chapter, ‘Marx Today’, Hobsbawm keeps his chin up in face of the collapse of Soviet and East European communism, and their (almost) universally acknowledged failure, with consequent decline (outside academic gulags) of Marxist adherents. One might subjoin to his lament (p.10) over the likes of Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism the melodramatic closing-down by Martin Jaques in 1991 (there was a one-off revival in 1998) of Marxism Today (a journal alluded to by Hobsbawm, p. 174), in the light of Peter Mandelson’s “We are all Thatcherites now” - MT is credited with coining the term ‘Thatcherism’. It might cheer Hobsbawm up to reflect that, just as the failures of Christianity (Crusades, Inquisition, etc.) do not invalidate its founder’s doctrines, likewise Marx is not responsible for what has been done in his name. After all, his last words were supposed to have been “Whatever else I am, I am not a Marxist.”

Chapter Two examines pre-Marxian socialism and utopian thinking generally. [I have had my say on the classical side of this in ‘Ancient Socialism,‘ The Spokesman 112 (2011), pp. 59-64.] Closer to Marx, perhaps inspired by him, Robert Pohlmann produced (1893) his still fundamental (though not in Hobsbawm) Geschichte des Antiken Kommunismus und Sozialismus, which concluded that ancient socialism was one of distribution and not a rearrangement of society, a notion tempered by Aristophanes‘ comedy Plutus, in which the blind god of Wealth recovers his sight, sees the wrong people have got the money, and redistributes accordingly. Regarding Utopia, it needs to be emphasised that the word derives from Greek ‘No Place’, not from ‘Eu-topia‘ (‘Good Place’), hence Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and William Morris's News from Nowhere. Also (cf. John Ferguson, Utopias of the Classical World, 1975), the ancients (pace Plato) pessimistically located their ideal societies in the past, not the future. For my money, the best (certainly the most readable, though I’d wager not to Hobsbawm’s taste) survey of utopianism ancient and modern is A World Elsewhere (1994) by Tory-minded, polymathic, witty Bernard Levin (older readers will remember his appearances on the then controversial 1950s BBC satirical That Was The Week That Was). It includes a predictable salvo against Marx, albeit the most entertaining chapter is Levin’s devastatingly comic demolition of Charles Fourier and his Phalansteries, a tour de farce that the later Marx might have chuckled over, whereas Hobsbawm: “Fourierism flourished modestly, but persistently, in the proletarian soil,” (p. 42). Likewise, Hobsbawm’s brief remarks (pp. 34, 422 n. 45) on the tailor-communist Wilhelm Weitling skate over Marx’s brutal public humiliation of him at a March 1846 meeting of the Communist League in Brussels (for occasion and text of Marx's “extraordinarily aggressive attack,” see Paul Johnson, Intellectuals (1989 pb. ed., p. 61).

Chapter Three is a wide-ranging survey of Marx, Engels, and Politics. One of its many interesting points (p. 50) is that “There is hardly any specific reference to law in Marx's writings.” This made me think of the muddle in Orwell’s 1984, where we are told in the opening pages “Nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws,” coming straight after the information that the Ministry of Love maintains Law and Order, and before the remark “There was no law, not even an unwritten one against visiting the Chestnut Tree Cafe.” (I wonder, incidentally, if this haunt of suspect and doomed individuals, e.g. the to-be-vaporised lexicographer Syme and ultimately Winston Smith himself, was inspired by the Viennese Cafe Griensteidl, mentioned as that city’s artists‘ and intellectuals’ meeting-place by Hobsbawm, p. 252). Later on, Party-produced pornography is purveyed to proletarian youths “under the impression they were buying something illegal.”

Regarding (p. 54 & passim) Marx’s preoccupation with the French Revolution, one should smilingly remember Chou-en-Lai’s verdict on its influence - “It’s too soon to tell.”

Of the Revolution’s many remarkable figures, I was surprised Hobsbawm by-passed ‘Gracchus’ Babeuf (cf. Levin, pp. 44-45, also Prawer, p. 71, for his oratory’s influence on Marx) with his newspaper Tribun du Peuple, plus his post-Revolution movement Conspiracy of the Equals and eventual guillotining in 1799. Apropos France, and the dramatic events of 1848, another surprising omission are the three uprisings (1831, 1834, 1848) by the Catun silk workers of Lyons (a city mentioned only once, p. 40, in passing). Their advertised programme of egalitarian demands (fully documented by Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (1991), also Levin, p. 42) bears comparison with the Communist Manifesto itself. Relevant here too is Marx’s denunciation in Capital 1 (ed. Fowkes-Mandel, 1976, p. 456) of British silk manufacturers for their brutal exploitation of child labour.

These, and many such glittering moments, fizzled out. As one of Edward Upward’s Communist Party activists observes: “What really counts is not so much the more spectacular events such as demonstrations but the steady everyday political grind.” Marx and Engels would have said Amen to that. Since one of Hobsbawm’s many virtues is his frequent insertion of relevant literary history and criticism, it is a shame he does not take at least a glance at Upward’s fictional trilogy (The Spiral Ascent, comprising In the Thirties, 1962; The Rotten Elements, 1969; No Home but the Struggle, 1977) about life in the British Communist Party from the 1930s on. Hobsbawm and Upward must have overlapped during this time.

There are countless utopian dreams, often antithetical. Lenin’s ideal of every cook being able to govern the state (p. 53) is the reverse of Plato’s elite of trained specialists (and gentleman paederasts) in his Republic. Marx’s reticence in describing the nuts and bolts of his ideal society (p. 56) has a debased counterpart in British Trotskyite leader Gerry Healey’s “I don’t care what happens after we take power. All I’m interested in is the Movement.” At this point in Hobsbawm, I was led to wonder how Marx and Engels would have reacted to the collapse of modern Communism? Which of the competing definitions by Trotsky and others of the Soviet Union would they have embraced? State Capitalist? Deformed Workers’ State? Or some entirely different formula?

Chapter Four is a brief but cogent account of Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England - I’d have here mentioned Tristram Hunt’s The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Frederick Engels (2009). Both its merits and defects are analysed in an even-handed way, leading to the sensible conclusion, “The unbiased reader can only regard the short-comings of Engels’ book as incidental, and must be far more impressed with its achievements.” Marx’ own very similar account of working-class misery, equally detailed and indignant, in Capital, might have been subjoined, if only to point out that this latter is far more than dry statistics and abstract theory, being also, [as I showed in the Morning Star (March 3, 2011)] often very funny: what other economic treatise describes a rival’s work as ‘shit’ or dilates on an aristocratic lady’s penchant for fellatio? Hobsbawm gibes (p. 91) that anti-Marxists “periodically accuse him (sc. Engels) of plagiarism when unable to think of anything better.” A classier dismissal might have been T.S. Eliot’s (The Sacred Wood, 1920) “Mature poets steal.” Taken in conjunction with his defensive remarks (p. 207) on accusations that Marx’ quotations are often incorrect or downright fabrications, this raises a vital issue, one that Hobsbawm does not shirk, but where he might be thought to dodge some bullets.

Relying on J.R. Tanner & F.S. Carey, Comments on the Use of the Blue Books made by Karl Marx in Chapter XV of Capital (1885), on W.O. Henderson & W.H. Challoner in their 1958 edition of Engels’ Condition..., on Lesley R. Page, Karl Marx and the Critical Examination of his Works (1987), and on David Felix, Marx as Politician (1983), Paul Johnson (pp. 65-67) accuses Marx and Engels of wholesale inaccuracies and downright fabrications in their quotations from Adam Smith and other quarters. Hobsbawm acknowledges these charges (notably not echoed by the equally hostile Levin), but should have gone into at least some chapter-and-verse rather than vaguely attribute them to anti-Marxist scholarly bias (e.g. p. 428 n. 3). In particular, he might have tackled the claim that Marx knowingly misquoted a Gladstone speech and perpetuated this in Capital. Paul Johnson spends two pages thundering against Marx for this, although Karl had been convincingly exonerated by Engels in his Preface to the Fourth Edition. I am no purblind Marxist, simply taking it as a given that Marx (who admitted that he often quoted from memory) did make verbal mistakes and did strain the contexts of quotations on occasion - don’t we all?

Chapter Five reproduces the introduction to Hobsbawm’s own edition (1998) of the Communist Manifesto. He mentions Gareth Stedman Jones’ Penguin (2000), but not the earlier (1967) one reproducing Samuel Moore’s 1888 translation with long introduction and annotations by A.J.P. Taylor. It would have been fun to see Hobsbawm going head-to-head with Taylor, for example on the latter’s claim that the Communist League over which Hobsbawm enthuses was “the more or less imaginary creation of Marx and Engels.” Regarding the Manifesto’s notorious “idiocy of rural life”, the very good point is made (p. 108) that this is a mistranslation of the German ‘Idiotismus’, which reflects the classical Greek ‘Idiotes’, denoting someone who takes no interest or part in politics and society. It might, however, have been made clearer that credit for this observation properly belongs to Hal Draper’s The Annotated Communist Manifesto (1984), only cited by Hobsbawm (p. 429 n. 8) in a different connection.

Likewise, Prawer is only adduced (p. 430 n. 14) for stylistic analysis of the Manifesto, with no recognition of his documented demonstration (p. 148 n. 25) that a number of the document’s most memorable phrases actually come from other writers. This, of course, was not plagiarism. They were expected to be recognised, just as Marx trusted the readers of Capital to spot the clever adaptation of Dante that ends his Preface to the first edition.

Hobsbawm’s telling point (p. 112) about how capitalism can create or perpetuate underdevelopment in the ‘so-called Third World’ should be thrust into the hands of all climate-change fanatics. One may here subjoin the denunciations of the ‘Third World’ notion by Enver Hoxha during his split with former ally China (for an anthology of Englished extracts from Hoxha’s multifarious and often highly entertaining works, cf. Jon Halliday’s The Artful Albanian, 1986). Ironically, Hobsbawm’s sole mention (p. 357) of Albania is to put it in the ‘Third World’ category. Chapters Six & Seven (best read in conjunction with Prawer, pp. 272-306) comprise an exemplary account and evaluation of the Grundrisse, mature writings of Marx and Engels unpublished in their lifetimes and only coming to light in the 1930s. To my classical self (and, I fancy, some others), the one disappointment here is Hobsbawm’s single scanty sentence (p. 137) on the deep knowledge and constant application of ancient history and Graeco-Roman authors on the part of both Marx and Engels. No reference is made to the huge amount of research done on this, for which information is readily to hand in (e.g.) Marxism and the Classics, ed. J. P. Sullivan in Arethusa 8. 1 (1975) and George McCarthy’s Karl Marx and Classical Antiquity, Helios 26. 2 (1999), pp. 165-168, also available online. I will here single out Padelis Lekas, Karl Marx and Classical Antiquity (1988) and (immodestly) my own editions of Marx’s schoolboy Latin essay on Roman history and Engels’ youthful poem in Greek hexameters (1988 & 1989). Since Hobsbawm (p. 135) is nowadays unusual in citing Stalin’s books, it is worth indicating the extensive use made of them by the Marxist ancient historian and Irish Nationalist George Thomson in (e.g.) his Aeschylus and Athens (1941) and The First Philosophers (1972). Apropos his remarks on Marx and ancient Germany (p. 157), I should like to have seen Hobsbawm enter the long-standing debate (cf. Prawer, pp. 387-388) over Marx’s dispute with Jacob Grimm on how to translate a key sentence in Tacitus, Germania, ch. 26.

Apart from the (to say the least) odd claim (p. 177) that “the actual body of writing produced by Marx and Engels in Marx’ lifetime was relatively modest,” a verdict achieved by Hobsbawm’s unfair segregation of the “great body of journalistic work,” writings which (contrary to modern journalistic fluff) abound in important materials and are increasingly available in modern commentaries and editions (cf. Francis Wheen, TLS March 23, 2007, pp. 14-15, and James Ledbetter’s Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx, Penguin, 1997). Chapter Eight On the Fortunes of Marx’ and Engels’ Writings’ is superb, indeed meriting re-publication as a pamphlet, after adding to his survey (195) of East European translations the two-volume Albanian Vepra të Zgjedura (Tirana, 1975)

Part Two of the book (Marxism) kicks off with Chapter Nine, Dr Marx and the Victorian Critics. It valuably exhumes some now obscure ‘bourgeois’ critics, an adjective sometimes too loosely thrown about, as (e.g.) when George Thomson declared in The First Philosophers that ‘bourgeois’ critics can never write a history of slavery. I have endorsed, both in the Morning Star (April 11, 2011) and elsewhere, Hobsbawm’s high opinion of Marx as an historian of capitalism, as does Geoffrey de Ste Croix in The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (1981), a work that here deserved mention. Perhaps my favourite example is Marx’s eagle-eye spotting a poem in the Greek Anthology by Antipater of Thessalonica (hardly a household name, even amongst classicists) about the water-mill liberating slave-girls from grinding corn and restoring the Golden Age, with this delicious follow-up: “Oh, those heathens! They understood nothing of political economy and Christianity. They did not comprehend that machinery is the surest way of lengthening the working day,” - an epigram verified in modern business life, above all by e-mail! Hobsbawm’s remarks (p. 220) on American reactions to Marx and its early Socialist tradition are rather skimpy. Something might have been said about Emma Goldman’s anarcho-revolutionary speeches and early published disillusionment with Lenin; about crusaders Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas - their electoral campaigns and different approaches to Marxism; about American Trotskyism as represented by James P. Cannon (C.L.R. James’ accounts might be added); and George Orwell’s published hopes of America as representing the best future progressive hope.

A deal of this is subsumed in the following two chapters Influence of Marxism 1880-1914 and In the Era of Anti-fascism 1929-1945. Obviously wide-ranging, and containing much investigation of the literatures of these periods. In the little section (pp. 235-236) on Southeastern Europe, Albania is again neglected, with no mention of its revolutionary and eventually murdered ideologue Avri Rustemi (1895-1924). On the literary side, I would have included Robert Tressell’s 1914 classic The Ragged-Trousered Philanthopists, Edward Upward’s above-mentioned communist trilogy, and Tennyson’s 1882 play The Promise of May, deservedly booed off at its premiere, in which the heroine is seduced by the melodrama’s villain, Edgar, who goes around “carrying the latest revolutionary tome” (Marx?) uttering such slogans as “The Land belongs to the People!” and generally denouncing (in the words of its first-night reviewer in The Athenaeum 550, November 18, 1882, p. 372 - available on-line) “churches, priestcraft, marriage, property.” More could have been said about Orwell (pp. 297-298): not only Homage to Catalonia is relevant, but the treatment of communism, fascism, imperialism, and religion in A Clergyman’s Daughter, Coming Up for Air, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. 1930s American communism was intelligently treated in the Barbra Streisand-Robert Redford picture The Way We Were. Hobsbawm may do his readers too much credit by presuming a knowledge of Browderism (pp. 302 & 311). How many now remember Party boss Earl Browder, or for that matter his successor Gus Hall and the Communist Party experiences of novelist Howard Fast, victim of McCarthyism and author of Spartacus (all detailed in his 1990 memoir Being Red). The discussion of French intellectuals (Althusser, Sartre, et hoc genus omne) has now been exhaustively analysed in Richard Wolin’s The Wind from the East (2010). Finally, no discussion of these matters is complete without Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, passed over by Hobsbawm in a single sentence (p. 255) and oddly cited only from an Italian translation, a work that warranted more attention, especially its uplifting finale about human potential, with every man reaching and surpassing the levels of Aristotle and Goethe, echoing Marx’s own optimism in the Grundrisse: “All members of society will be able to develop their education in the arts, sciences, etc., thanks to the free time and means available to all” (cf. Prawer, p. 289), also Cliff Slaughter, Marxism, Ideology and Literature, Humanities Press, 1980, online).

Chapters Twelve and Thirteen focus on Antonio Gramsci. Largely beyond my competence, except to observe on the broader Italian front that Machiavelli occurs in Marx more often than Hobsbawm (p. 321) asserts, for instance dubbing his History of Florence “a masterpiece” and looking to him and Dante (Marx learned his Italian from this pair) for elucidation of Garibaldi (cf.Victoria Hershiser, Freedom versus Liberty: Karl Marx and Niccolò Machiavelli, 2008, online), also that much pleasurable light on Italian communism and Catholicism is shed by the Don Camillo novels of Giovannino Guareschi (1948-2007).

With Chapter Fourteen, we reach The Influence of Marxism 1945-83. Ironic that Hobsbawm’s centenary focal point 1983 coincides with Thatcher’s thrashing of the Labour Party and the distinctively left-wing manifesto promoted by Michael Foot. Marx was not (p. 346) the first philosopher to go beyond explaining the world to trying to change it: Plato from his very different standpoint had blazed the way in the fourth century BC (cf. Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945). Hobsbawm’s eminently sensible observations (pp. 372-373) on the need for Marxists to look beyond their own intellectual horizons can well be illustrated by Ken Coates telling George Thayer (The British Political Fringe, 1965, p. 138) that account must be taken of such developments as the European Common Market which had “posed problems for the labour movement in Europe that the British labour movement has not considered” - words just as true if not more so in 2011. When grasping the nettle of Marxists’ often uneasy relations with science (pp. 380-381), Hobsbawm might have looked to such classical scholars as Benjamin Farrington, whose Head and Hand in Ancient Greece (cf. my Preface to its 2001 re-issue by the Spokesman Press) was a model of the desired synthesis. Nothing much to be added to Chapter Fifteen, Marxism in Recession 1983-2000, save to remark that, given how it has turned out, few would agree with Hobsbawm (pp. 396-397) that the 1979 Iranian Revolution was “the last of the great social revolutions of the twentieth century,” and to balance the jokes about bankers and careerist graduate with an earlier one saying that 1930s Ox/Bridge communism was a very agreeable pursuit - if you could afford its lifestyle. The last chapter, Marx and Labour: the Long Century, blends optimism with pessimism. Hobsbawm is (perhaps reluctantly) sound when conceding (p. 404) “As for the presumption that by historical necessity the proletariat was or would be a ‘truly revolutionary class’, it is now evident that this was baseless” - Try telling that to The Socialist Workers’ Party! and other such groupuscules, save the (for all its oddities) the more realistic Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB, often derided by its rivals as the Small Party of Good Boys; cf. ex-member Robert Barltrop’s The Monument: The Story of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1975).

The above reservations and modifications apart. this latest jewel in Hobsbawm’s by now thickly encrusted crown is a must read, not just for Marxists and their opposites, but by anyone interested in history, literature, politics, and society at national and international levels - which ought to mean everybody. I can’t think of a book better calculated to send people back to Marx and Engels themselves, who - whatever you think of their ideas - are two of the most learned and readable (a rare combination in our age of academese and bafflegab) writers going.

* For a fuller review of S.S. Prawer's Karl Marx and World Literature (Siegbert's sister, by the way, is Booker Prize-winning novelist and Merchant-Ivory screen writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) see my review in The Spokesman (quarterly magazine published from Nottingham by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, for long edited by the late Ken Coates -the other ‘Red Ken‘ - once praised by Hobsbawm himself as one of Britain’s greatest political theorists).

-- Reviewed by Barry Baldwin on 06/12/2011

Further Information
ISBN-10: 1408702878
ISBN-13: 9781408702871
Publisher: Little, Brown
Publication Date: 20/01/2011
Binding: Hardcover
Number of pages: 480

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