on 13 February 2011
I think the cover and title of this book are a bit misleading. The book certainly doesn't contain any blueprint for 'changing the world'. What it does contain is a collection of essays written between 1956 and 2009, most never previously published before in English, many considerably extended, that provide a history of both Marx and Marxism.
The book is divided into two sections. Part 1 is entitled 'Marx and Engels' and consists of 'Marx Today', 'Marx, Engels and pre-Marxian Socialism', 'Marx, Engels and Politics', 'On Engels' The Condition of the Working Class', 'On the Communist Manifesto', 'Discovering the Grundrisse', 'Marx on pre-Capitalist Formations' and 'The Fortunes of Marx's and Engels' Writings'.
Part 2 - 'Marxism' - includes 'Dr Marx and the Victorian Critics', 'The Influence of Marxism 1880-1914', 'In the Era of Anti-fascism 1929-45', 'Gramsci', 'The Reception of Gramsci', 'The Influence of Marxism 1945-83', 'Marxism in Recession 1983-2000' and finally 'Marx and Labour: the Long Century'.
I have to admit I found some of the essays pretty hard work. 'The Fortunes of Marx's and Engels' Writings' looks at the publication histories of the works, how they have developed (for example, the MEGA or 'Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe' projects), the changing fates of the works in relation to the rise and fall of communist states and parties. A bit dry.
But, on the other hand, the second essay, 'Marx, Engels and pre-Marxian Socialism', is a fascinating contextualisation of the thoughts of Marx and Engels. Generally, as Hobsbawm points out, 'the origins can be found in French socialism, German philosophy and British political economy' (P34). Looking at these in some detail well illustrates the foundations of Marx's and Engels' thoughts.
The second section I found generally much more interesting. The essay 'In the Era of Anti-fascism 1929-45' considers how the growth of Marxism in the 'Age of Catastrophe' was a response to the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. As Hobsbawm says 'The radicalisation of intellectuals in the 1930s was rooted in a response to the traumatic crisis of capitalism in the early years of this decade' (P266) and '...the threat of fascism was far more than merely political...If fascism stamped out Marx, it equally stamped out Voltaire and John Stuart Mill.' (P268)
The two essays on Gramsci are also fascinating, partly because of the ideas themselves but also as an illustration of the way Marx's ideas can be developed, extended and modified. And, in the same way that Marx's ideas have spread, the developments of those ideas might also be propagated.
In 'The Influence of Marxism 1945-83', Hobsbawm charts the intellectual impact of Marxism. As he says, 'There are not many thinkers whose name alone suggests major transformations of the human intellectual universe. Marx is among them, together with such figures as Newton, Darwin and Freud.' (P347)
This was a period that saw huge increases in secondary and university education, the radical movements of the 1960s, the synthesis of Marxist ideas with structuralism, psychoanalysis, existentialism (think Althusser, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, the Frankfurt School et al). But this explosion of Marxian theory perhaps held within it the seeds of it's own destruction. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of radical neo-liberal economics, post-modern relativism are all considered in 'Marxism in Recession 1983-2000'.
The final section brings things almost right up-to-date. If Marxism has been discredited, so too has capitalism in its latest crisis. Hobsbawm suggests that '[s]ince the 1980s it has been evident that the socialists...were left without their traditional alternative to capitalism...But the believers in the 1973-2008 reductio ad absurdum of market society are also left helpless. A systematic alternative system may not be on the horizon, but the possibility of a disintegration, even a collapse, of the existing system is no longer to be ruled out.' (P418)
Hobsbawm points out that we have not reached 'The End of History'. Marxist-based analyses can still be productive and are still being produced - think of David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital. It is becoming increasingly clear that capitalism as it is currently constituted is not sustainable, in all senses of the word. As such, Hobsbawm's book serves as a timely reminder of the history, the depth and sophistication of Marx's analyses and perhaps provides a pointer to the future of Marxist inspired thought and action.
Interestingly, a young Egyptian protester in Tahrir Square, interviewed by Jeremy Paxman a couple of days ago, claimed she was a 'revolutionary socialist'...
In these tales of Marx and Marxism E. Hobsbawm explains why Marx is still highly relevant today, despite the bankruptcy of communist regimes all over the world. He also summarizes Marx's main works and socio-economic ideas as well as his political praxis and the influences of other people on his work.
The globalized capitalist world of the last decades had been anticipated in crucial ways by Marx: the concentration of Western economic and financial power in a few hands, high socio-economic inequalities and systemic (capitalist) crises.
Marx's ideas were influenced by Hegel (dialectics - destroyed by B. Russell in his `Unpopular Essays'), J.-J. Rousseau (egalitarianism), R. Owen (communities without private property), H. de Saint-Simon (the all importance of productive industry for progress) and C. Fourier (labor is the essential factor in the satisfaction of human instincts).
Political theory (to change the world)
With an inevitable historical development on its side, the working class had to be united in a class movement and consequently into a political party. Change (distribution of the surplus value) could also be induced by trade union action and favorable legislation.
For Marx, politics is essentially a class struggle within the State. The State through its government represents the ruling class and must therefore be eliminated, together with its monopoly on violence.
Marx and Engels didn't give guidance for the coming communist society or the socialization of the economy; however, Marx rejected elected assemblies of parliamentary representatives. But, all `Marxist' attempts to realize `real socialism' culminated in uncontrollable State apparatuses stuffed with apparatchiks, following Lenin's receipt of a rigid and centralized one party system and government.
Marxist failures and Hobsbawm's omissions
Marx's prediction of a political radicalizing pauperization proved not to be correct. He failed also to reckon with the `national' question (ethnic and religious factors). Moreover, the human capacity to produce in an unlimited way leads to an environmental catastrophe and is in contradiction with Marx's idea of progress. E. Hobsbawm admits that Marxism cannot master the crucial fields of natural science and technology. Its classic texts cannot `easily' be used as a handbook for political action today, because times have changed. There is also a chasm between Marx's analysis of capitalism and his hope of a perfect society to be achieved through proletarian action.
In his historical overview, E. Hobsbawm `forgets' the Berlin, Budapest and Prague `proletarian' revolts after WWII, the fate of the East-European satellite States, the Stalin-Ribbentrop Pact, the famines after the agricultural collectivization in the USSR or the power struggles within the communist parties (with show trials under Stalin in the USSR and in the satellite States).
All in all, Eric Hobsbawm had to concede that Marxism today is in retreat.
Some minor errors in this book: Georges Eekhoud is a (formidable) Belgian writer, not a painter. The U.S. painter is E. Hopper (not Gropper).
Eric Hobsbawm treats also Marx's `Grundrisse' and the idea of progress, `The German Ideology' and its historical periodization (kinship - feudalism - capitalism), `The Communist Manifesto' and the openness to failure of the proletarian action, F. Engels's formidable analysis of the dire straits of the English working class in the 19th century and A. Gramsci's Marxist importance for his concept of a political strategy in order to turn a class into a hegemonic power.
Although some parts of this book (the history of the influence of Marxist ideas in the world) will only interest specialist scholars, the other thought provoking texts are an excellent introduction to K. Marx's and F. Engels's works and ideas.
Highly recommended reading.
on 6 May 2012
I agree that the title and cover are misleading. No, I wasn't expecting instructions on how to change the world; but I was expecting some discussion of the way Marx and Marxists thought they were going to do that (or, indeed, did it). The object of the book seems to be to contextualise various aspects of Marxian history, without telling us much about the aspects themselves - it's characteristic that several of the chapters were originally introductions to original texts. I had hoped that an historian of Hobsbawm's experience would provide, here, a useful introduction to Marxist theory, but this is almost entirely avoided.
Incidentally I found the writing awkward in places. This seemed particularly true of the early chapters, but maybe I just got used to it.
on 19 April 2011
Professor Eric Hobsbawm, perhaps the world's most famous living Communist intellectual, hardly needs any introduction. His great age has not diminished the impact of his works or their popularity, and for good reason. It may therefore disappoint some to learn that this most recent publication is not a wholly new production. This despite its somewhat incongruous title ("How To Change The World: Tales of Marx and Marxism"), and its equally silly cover with Ernesto Guevara on the front, whom Hobsbawm generally dislikes. Instead, it is a collection of essays and prefaces hitherto either unpublished entirely or unpublished in English, having been written for his German and Italian publications. The fact alone that these are other major intellectual languages Hobsbawm is entirely familiar with despite being a native speaker of English does him credit among his colleagues.
Perhaps somewhat unorthodox in my judgement on Hobsbawm, while I think he is an excellent writer and a very good social historian, I do not think his political history or his political analysis worth much. He has been consistently mediocre when it comes to writing about practical politics, especially those of the last century, as shown also in his memoirs. I was therefore very pleased to see that this book concerns itself entirely - with the exception of the last chapter - with the history of ideas, the discipline Hobsbawm commands best. The various essays in this collection, ranging from notes on the prehistory and the contemporary reception of Marxism to musings on Gramsci and Marxist thought in the postwar world, are all concerned with Marxism as one major intellectual influence and current in the history of ideas. This is as it should be, because it allows Hobsbawm the necessary distance as well as giving him the freedom to exercise the kind of subtle and nuanced reflection on the nature and spread of ideas in history and their effect on politics that has made him justly famous. While this is therefore by all means a very intellectual book and certainly one step removed from any practical political question (even historical ones), it is a delight to read for those who value ideas and their history for their own sake. Some of the chapters, such as "Marx on Pre-Capitalist Formations" and "Dr Marx and the Victorian Critics" are so good that despite their considerable length they make the reader want them to go on for much longer. What greater praise for the historian?
on 2 February 2013
Eric Hobsbawm is arguably the greatest Marxist historian of the twentieth centuary, who had profound influence upon students and scholars of history, sociology and politics. He was not only an intellectual giant, he also impacted political action - the Marxist movements of the sixties and seventies drew upon his analysis of history and it provided "science" behind their radicalism.
I know of no other historian that had such vast knowledge of both Marxist thought itself, and at the same time applied Marxist analysis to his huge amount of substantive work. This book is devoted to the former, and gives us a thorough history of Marxism. It begins by putting Marxist theory itself in historical and political context, then proceeds to consider Marxist thought and influence in Marx's own lifetime. The second part of the book is devoted to Marxist theory and influence after Marx's death, through to the present day. The book is therefore a full and detailed history of Marxism and will be invaluable to students encountering Marx for the first time.
However, I have two critcisms of the book. Because it is a collection of Hobsbawm's writings about the history of Marxism over a fifty year period, we are not at any time actually provided with a summary of what Marxist thought actually consists of. Secondly, Hobsbawm refers to many obscure and virtually unknown intellectuals and activists who we are presumed to have prior knowledge of. This sometimes makes the reading difficult, as you find yourself needing to find out about these people before you can understand where they "fit in".
That said, we cannot understate the massive influence that Hobsbawn has had over the last sixty years,and he remained a committed and truly devout communist until the end.
on 7 July 2012
The author - Eric Hobsbawm (b. 1917) - is an academically esteemed British historian of some considerable note, who has written widely on the subject of (European) political, economic and cultural history, whose published works (to date) cover the time period between 1789 and 2011. He is a PhD graduate of Cambridge University and is currently the President of Birbeck (University of London) - where he serves as Professor Emeritus for The New School for Social Research (Political Science Department). He was honoured by the Queen in 1998- receiving Her Majesty's personal gift of the 'Companion of Honour'. His political views are inspired by intellectual Marxian philosophy and he remains one of the world's most influential leftwing thinkers, generally respected by both the left and right of the political spectrum.
The (2011) hardback edition of How To Change the World contains 470 numbered pages (with no illustrations) and is comprised of a Foreword, and two parts, with each part containing eight distinct chapters - the book is dedicated to the memory of George Lichtheim;
Foreword by Eric Hobsbawm (written in 2011)
Part I - Marx And Engels
1) Marx Today
2) Marx, Engels and pre-Marxian Socialism
3) Marx, Engels and Politics
4) On Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England
5) On the Communist Manifesto
6) Discovering the Grundrisse
7) Marx on pre-Capitalist Formations
8) The Fortunes of Marx's and Engels' Writings
Part II - Marxism
9) Dr Marx and the Victorian Critic
10) The Influence of Marxism 1880-1914
11) In the Era of Anti-fascism 1929-45
13) The Reception of Gramsci
14) The Influence of Marxism 1945-83
15) Marxism in Recession 1983-2000
16) Marx and Labour; the Long Century
Dates and Sources of Original Publications
The title of the book 'How To Change The World' is directly quoted from the writings of Karl Marx - where he writes (in his 1845 work entitled 'Theses on Feuerbach') that in the history of the world to date - "the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it". Of course this is only have the title of this book, which is completed with 'Tales of Marx and Marxism'. This is not a book written with one coherent thread running through its content, but is rather a collection of independent articles (written by Hobspawn between 1956 - 2009) regarding many different aspects of Marxism and the broader (but inherently related) field of leftwing political theory and historical observation. Therefore one chapter does not necessarily follow on from the previous chapter, and the reader must take into consideration the disparate nature of the texts involved.
This book is a delightful array of leftwing inspired, intelligent academia. The political and historical analysis by Hobsbawm is compelling, with perhaps the chapters on Antonio Gramsci showing Hobsbawm at his most philosophical brilliance. The chapters are arranged in historical order, and over-all their collective prsentation is designed to give a reliable history of the development and impact of the work of Karl Marx on world history over the last 150 years. This ambition the book thoroughly achieves. Eric Hobsbawm examines misconceptions about the work of Marx and dismisses them through a careful examination of what what Marx actually said, rather than through accepting (without question) what others - on both the political left and right - thought he said. In this regard, Hobsbawm carefully presents the philosophical evolution of the thought of Karl Marx (and to a lesser extent, Engels), and reveals the academic resources that these two men had at their disposal at the time of their writing. Compared to today, these resources might be described as 'meagre', and yet Karl Marx, nevertheless, constructed a coherent criticism of the Capitalist system that remains essentially valid to this day. In many ways this is a work of deconstructing the many interpretive errors that surround Marxist theory, and in the process clarifies exactly what it is that Karl Marx is saying - free from propaganda and ideological distortion. Finally, Hobspawn is not uncritical of Marx and occasionally explains where he disagrees with Marxist thinking. Although the ideology of Marxism has wained since the end of WWII in the West (a point that Hobspawns makes), it is equally true that the power of the writings of Karl Marx influenced the liberal democracies of Western Europe into providing welfare and health programmes that were designed to re-distribute the wealth produced by Capitalist enterprise to all sections of society - a point that Hobsbawm does not acknowledge in his historical narrative. A very interesting and important book book. Superb.
on 10 March 2014
Eric Hobsbawm writes in a clear style about Marxist thought and how it developed in various communist and non-communist states. He brings it up to date and explains what Marx's ideas really were and are. Good for the enthusiast.
on 29 March 2012
Hobsbawm's book provides a well-written and informed overview of the long-term influences of
Marxist theory and practice. His admiration of Gramsci as a classic Marxist thinker takes up two
full chapters of the book which make a rewarding read. What puzzled me was the author's lenience
when he discusses the development and achievements of the USSR and Stalinism and their impact on
the communist movement. The left opposition to the CP line of the thirties and beyond to Hobsbawm
is just a footnote. With hindsight, such an evaluation seems rather questionable in many ways.
Still rather rooted in orthodox Marxist thinking, Hobsbawm nevertheless is certainly an authority
on his subject. No small achievement at 94.
on 14 January 2012
I would buy this in an instant for my Kindle, but have noticed that the Kindle price is more expensive than the paperback, despite have no printing costs and few material costs. Not something, I think, of which the author would approve!!!
on 22 September 2014
interesting to know what happened in the recent past and why