Eric Hobsbawm, How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxist Theory

Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World is a powerful text that arrives at a needful moment in history. In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse and with the Occupy movement challenging capitalist hegemony, it is indeed time, as Hobsbawm says in his conclusion, “to take Marx seriously.” Fortunately, this book provides a potent model of precisely the type of studious, conscientious and nimble engagement that we need.

The book, comprised of writings from 1956 to 2009, is more than the series of reflections implied in its title. It is grounded in an admirable commitment to maintaining Marxism’s flexibility – especially when it comes to forms of praxis – while still insisting on a thorough accounting of both Marx’s works and their extensive influence on subsequent thought and action. Hobsbawm gracefully transcends Manichean debates about Marx and his theories and instead highlights Marxism’s open-ended capacity to adapt to new situations and accept a range of political tactics. He impels his readers not only to appreciate Marxism as an intellectual current that has informed debates and practices across academic disciplines and social movements, but also to use Marxism to explore the emancipatory promise that exists in the 21st century. In this way, he fittingly honors the spirit of Marx and Engels’ own praxis, as he never loses sight of Marxism’s “capacity to mobilise social forces.”

How to Change the World is divided into two parts. Part One focuses on the careers of Marx and Engels and the reception of their ideas during their lifetimes. The portrait painted here is one that humanizes Marx greatly. It is difficult today to imagine an elderly Marx who bitterly asks, “What works?” when approached about his writings by a reporter (as Hobsbawm shows, it was not until the 1960s that all of Marx’s works were reliably in print). Hobsbawm, however, brings this frustrated pioneer to life. Marx emerges as a serious, diligent scholar with the good fortune to live at the right time and in the right places, emboldened by a deep solidarity with the working class and informed by Engels’ hands-on experience of bourgeois production. Rather than the popular image of a dour authoritarian, therefore, Hobsbawm guides us back to an authentic Marx, one who did not assume progress was automatic or must be pursued at the expense of liberty.

The reader is thus able to dismiss any lingering suspicion that Marx’s theory is about controlling people, and finds instead the vast spaces Marx leaves open for self-determination. Hobsbawm’s Marx, indeed, demands only that we recognize that if capitalism is to be buried, the “graves have to be dug by or through human action,” and that our fate is thus up to us. This careful, multifaceted study of Marx and Engels is one of the strongest models Hobsbawm offers of “how to change the world.”

With a brilliant and hopeful reading of “Marx Today,” moreover, Hobsbawm shows that much of what has made many feel that Marxism is dated (most notably the ideological baggage of the Cold War) stands in the way of our rediscovering Marx as a useful resource in the globalized world.  We must shed these layers, says Hobsbawm, to rediscover Marxism’s dialectical sensitivity and capacity to adapt to present needs and hopes. As we do this, a Marxism most remarkable for its flexible vision – a theory that predicted and speaks strongly to a globalized world – is thrown into stark relief. By airing Marxism’s history, in other words, Hobsbawm reveals at once elements uniquely bound to the past and those that still raise alternatives and useful questions today.

Hobsbawm does not fall into the trap, however, of overestimating the direct relevance of Marx’s texts for contemporary praxis. Instead, he implies that we learn best from Marx when we ask his questions – informed by his belief that the human dignity lost under capitalism can only be restored through resisting global capital – to seek our own answers. In flatly rejecting the idea that there is a dogmatic, “correct” Marxism, this work points toward a fluid Marx for our times, one that transcends the past to help us seek out the future.

Part Two consists of remarkably rich analyses of the impact of Marxism (and reactions to it) from 1880 to 2000, including two highly engaging chapters on Gramsci. Given the reflexively critical reaction many have to Marx today, it is refreshing to uncover the wide and varied impact Marx has had on numerous academic fields (including, especially in the 1930s, the natural sciences), as well as on cultural and political movements. Hobsbawm shows that “virtually all social thought” has been affected by Marxism, and that Marxism in turn has adapted to a world where revolution seems unlikely except as the culmination a long-term political struggle. Marxism, framed as one deep intellectual current in dialogue with many others, becomes inherently less rigid in the reader’s mind. The divergences Hobsbawm catalogues amongst nations, disciplines and decades show that there was and is no “ready-made” Marxism.

Of particular note is Hobsbawm’s account of anti-fascist cooperation amongst the various factions of the left, in which Marxism (in several forms) played a central role. Not only does this struggle show that Marxism at its best can work with liberals and within liberalism in the name of progress; it also highlights the vast numbers of talented, intelligent individuals deeply attracted to Marxism. Their hopeful commitment to a free world and to a real socio-cultural left is a useful example to us today. Above all, Hobsbawm’s discussion of anti-fascism reveals that Marxists and non-Marxists can be united by a recognition – as in the context of the slump and of Hitler’s triumph – that history and theory “belonged together in the tradition of the French Revolution, of reason, of science, progress and humanist values.”

Hobsbawm also attends to the numerous challenges Marxism has faced since its rise to prominence, both externally and internally. Beginning with Marx’s Victorian critics, many of whom have been “justly forgotten,” Hobsbawm shows that reaction to Marx has never been so trenchantly and automatically hostile as in recent years. Of particular concern to Hobsbawm is the retreat from Marx – typified by neoconservatism and “extreme forms” of postmodernism – in the post-Soviet world. It is thus sobering, yet mobilizing, that How to Change the World ends with an account of “the long century” in which Hobsbawm argues that the shift toward reformism itself has lost cachet due to rising standards of living and increasing alienation. Old variants of Marxist politics and the “simple slogans” of the past are thus no longer sufficient to guide action in the present. The reader is not left rudderless, however, as Hobsbawm ends the text on a hopeful note. The socioeconomic crises of the present have swept away the illusion that the “market fundamentalism” that emerged in the 1980s brought human development to a satisfactory conclusion. For the first time since the days of the New Left, therefore, “capitalism is not the answer, but the question.” With capitalism’s core delusions laid bare, it is once again possible and necessary “to take Marx seriously” by developing his legacy in light of our present situation and hopes for the future.

In Gramsci, Hobsbawm finds a model for exactly this type of work. Uniquely aware of “political theory as a problem,” Gramsci was able to develop the “elements of a full political theory within Marxism.” Gramsci thus not only uncovered gaps to be developed in Marx’s work, but also spoke to many of the difficulties – most notably the need to win hegemony in addition to power – that activists have confronted since his death. By shattering the dogma already calcifying in Marxist thought and practice, Gramsci achieved a flexible new system based on solidarity with the oppressed and on support for liberation. This commitment led Gramsci to a tireless, fearless form of resistance, one seeking to disrupt everything that sustained bourgeois cultural dominance. Hobsbawm leaves us enriched with Gramsci’s essential lesson “that the effort to transform the world is not only compatible with original, subtle, open-eyed historical thinking, but impossible without it.”

How to Change the World is a forceful example of this type of insightful thought leading to praxis. It is important that Hobsbawm refrains from commenting on Marxism’s 21st-century impact. The volume subtly frames Marxism’s present-day role as an open question, while gently pushing readers to engage anew with Marx and thereby seek out their own answers. Hobsbawm leaves the reader with a host of insights into effective praxis that will speak to all those in the present who, like Marx, cannot abide oppression. Historical developments have exposed capitalist ideology to renewed criticism and contestation. Eric Hobsbawm is to be thanked for recalling his readers to a Marxism that not only can support this effort, but also insists that it be undertaken unflinchingly.

Amy Buzby
Arkansas State University

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