How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism

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"We need to take account of Marx today," argues Eric Hobsbawm in this persuasive and highly readable book. The ideas of capitalism's most vigorous and eloquent enemy have been enlightening in every era, the author contends, and our current historical situation of free-market extremes suggests that reading Marx may be more important now than ever.

Hobsbawm begins with a consideration of how we should think about Marxism in the post-communist era, observing that the features we most associate with Soviet and related regimes—command economies, intrusive bureaucratic structures, and an economic and political condition of permanent war—are neither derived from Marx's ideas nor unique to socialist states. Further chapters discuss pre-Marxian socialists and Marx's radical break with them, Marx's political milieu, and the influence of his writings on the anti-fascist decades, the Cold War, and the post–Cold War period. Sweeping, provocative, and full of brilliant insights, How to Change the World challenges us to reconsider Marx and reassess his significance in the history of ideas.

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Editorial Reviews


“Hobsbawm… is as clear and trenchant as ever in How to Change the World.”—Bookforum

London Review of Books - Terry Eagleton

"Hobsbawm has lived through so much of the political turbulence he portrays that it is easy to fantasize that History itself is speaking here, in its wry, all-seeing, dispassionate wisdom. It is hard to think of a critic of Marxism who can address his or her own beliefs with such honesty and equipoise."—Terry Eagleton, London Review of Books
Independent - Amol Rajan

"[T]his collection shows [Hobsbawm] is a brilliant writer, erudite critic and, as he approaches his 94th birthday, a joyfully unrepentant communist. . . . [How to Change the World] is a book anyone interested in politics could and should devour. It is charmingly optimistic and constantly lucid, and contains the distilled wisdom of a great thinker, thinking about a great thinker." Amol Rajan,  Independent
Daily Telegraph - Ben Wilson

"This is a book of serious ideas, not of politics."— Ben Wilson, Daily Telegraph

“Hobsbawm… is as clear and trenchant as ever in How to Change the World.”—Bookforum
London Review of Books

"Hobsbawm has lived through so much of the political turbulence he portrays that it is easy to fantasize that History itself is speaking here, in its wry, all-seeing, dispassionate wisdom. It is hard to think of a critic of Marxism who can address his or her own beliefs with such honesty and equipoise."—Terry Eagleton, London Review of Books

— Terry Eagleton


"[T]his collection shows [Hobsbawm] is a brilliant writer, erudite critic and, as he approaches his 94th birthday, a joyfully unrepentant communist. . . . [How to Change the World] is a book anyone interested in politics could and should devour. It is charmingly optimistic and constantly lucid, and contains the distilled wisdom of a great thinker, thinking about a great thinker." Amol Rajan,  Independent

— Amol Rajan

Daily Telegraph

"This is a book of serious ideas, not of politics."— Ben Wilson, Daily Telegraph

— Ben Wilson

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300176162
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 9/6/2011
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Hobsbawm is professor emeritus, Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, and president, Birkbeck University of London. One of Britain's most revered historians, he has a long record of important ideas and works, among them his trilogy on the long nineteenth century: The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, and The Age of Empire. He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

How to Change the World

Reflections on Marx and Marxism
By Eric Hobsbawm


Copyright © 2011 Eric Hobsbawm
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-17825-8

Chapter One

Marx Today


In 2007 a Jewish Book Week took place less than two weeks before the anniversary of Karl Marx's death (14 March) and within a short walking distance of the place with which he is most closely associated in London, the Round Reading Room of the British Museum. Two very different socialists, Jacques Attali and I, were there to pay our posthumous respects to him. And yet, when you consider the occasion and the date, this was doubly unexpected. One cannot say Marx died a failure in 1883, because his writings had begun to make an impact in Germany and especially among intellectuals in Russia, and a movement led by his disciples was already on the way to capturing the German labour movement. But in 1883 there was little enough to show for his life's work. He had written some brilliant pamphlets and the torso of an uncompleted major piece, Das Kapital, work on which hardly advanced in the last decade of his life. 'What works?' he asked bitterly when a visitor questioned him about his works. His major political effort since the failure of the 1848 revolution, the so-called First International of 1864–73, had foundered. He had established no place of significance in the politics or the intellectual life of Britain, where he lived for over half his life as an exile.

And yet, what an extraordinary posthumous success! Within twenty-five years of his death the European working-class political parties founded in his name, or which acknowledged his inspiration, had between 15% and 47% of the vote in countries with democratic elections – Britain was the only exception. After 1918 most of them became parties of government, not only of opposition, and remained so after the end of fascism, but most of them then became anxious to disclaim their original inspiration. All of them are still in existence. Meanwhile disciples of Marx established revolutionary groups in non-democratic and third-world countries. Seventy years after Marx's death, one third of the human race lived under regimes ruled by communist parties which claimed to represent his ideas and realise his aspirations. Well over 20% still do, though their ruling parties have, with minor exceptions, dramatically changed their policies. In short, if one thinker left a major indelible mark on the twentieth century, it was he. Walk into Highgate cemetery, where a nineteenth-century Marx and Spencer – Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer – are buried, curiously enough within sight of each other's grave. When both were alive, Herbert was the acknowledged Aristotle of the age, Karl a guy who lived on the lower slopes of Hampstead on his friend's money. Today nobody even knows Spencer is there, while elderly pilgrims from Japan and India visit Karl Marx's grave and exiled Iranian and Iraqi communists insist on being buried in his shade.

The era of communist regimes and mass communist parties came to an end with the fall of the USSR, for even where they survive, as in China and in India, in practice they have abandoned the old project of Leninist Marxism. And when it did, Karl Marx found himself once again in no-man's land. Communism had claimed to be his only true heir, and his ideas had been largely identified with it. For even the dissident Marxist or Marxist-Leninist tendencies that established a few footholds here and there after Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956 were almost certainly ex-communist breakaways. So, for most of the first twenty years after the centenary of his death, he became strictly yesterday's man and no longer worth bothering about. Some journalist has even suggested that this discussion tonight is trying to rescue him from 'the dustbins of history'. Yet today Marx is, once again, very much a thinker for the twenty-first century.

I don't think too much should be made of a BBC poll that showed British radio listeners voting him the greatest of all philosophers, but if you type his name into Google he remains the largest of the great intellectual presences, exceeded only by Darwin and Einstein, but well ahead of Adam Smith and Freud.

There are, in my view, two reasons for this. The first is that the end of the official Marxism of the USSR liberated Marx from public identification with Leninism in theory and with the Leninist regimes in practice. It became quite clear that there were still plenty of good reasons to take account of what Marx had to say about the world. And notably – this is the second reason – because the globalised capitalist world that emerged in the 1990s was in crucial ways uncannily like the world anticipated by Marx in the Communist Manifesto. This became clear in the public reaction to the 150th anniversary of this astonishing little pamphlet in 1998 – which was, incidentally, a year of dramatic upheaval in the global economy. Paradoxically, this time it was the capitalists and not the socialists who rediscovered him: the socialists were too discouraged to make much of this anniversary. I recall my amazement when I was approached by the editor of the inflight magazine of United Airlines, 80% of whose readers must be American business travellers. I'd written a piece on the Manifesto; he thought his readers would be interested in a debate on the Manifesto, and could he use something from my piece? I was even more amazed when, at lunch some time around the turn of the century, George Soros asked me what I thought of Marx. Knowing how widely our views differed, I wanted to avoid an argument so I gave an ambiguous answer. 'That man,' said Soros, 'discovered something about capitalism 150 years ago that we must take notice of.' And so he had. Soon after that writers who had never, so far as I am aware, been communists began to look at him again seriously, as in Jacques Attali's new life and study of Marx. Attali also thinks Karl Marx has much left to say to those who want the world to be a different and better society from the one we have today. It is good to be reminded that even from this point of view we need to take account of Marx today.

By October 2008, when the London Financial Times published its headline 'Capitalism in Convulsion', there could no longer be any doubt that he was back on the public scene. While global capitalism is undergoing its greatest disruption and crisis since the early 1930s, he is unlikely to make his exit from it. On the other hand, the Marx of the twenty-first century will almost certainly be very different from the Marx of the twentieth.

What people thought about Marx in the last century was dominated by three facts. The first was the division between countries in which revolution was on the agenda and those in which it wasn't, i.e. – speaking very broadly – the countries of developed capitalism in the North Atlantic and Pacific regions and the rest. The second fact follows from the first: Marx's heritage naturally bifurcated into a social-democratic and reformist heritage and a revolutionary heritage, overwhelmingly dominated by the Russian Revolution. This became clear after 1917 because of the third fact: the collapse of nineteenth-century capitalism and nineteenth-century bourgeois society into what I have called the 'Age of Catastrophe', between, say, 1914 and the late 1940s. That crisis was so severe as to make many doubt whether capitalism could recover. Was it not destined to be replaced by a socialist economy, as the far from Marxist Joseph Schumpeter predicted in the 1940s? In fact capitalism did recover, but not in its old form. At the same time in the USSR a socialist alternative appeared to be immune to breakdown. Between 1929 and 1960 it did not seem unreasonable, even to many non-socialists who disapproved of the political side of these regimes, to believe that capitalism was running out of steam and the USSR was proving that it might outproduce it. In the year of Sputnik this did not sound absurd. That it was, became abundantly evident after 1960.

These events and their implications for policy and theory belong to the period after Marx's and Engels' death. They lie beyond the range of Marx's own experience and assessments. Our judgement of twentieth-century Marxism is not based on the thinking of Marx himself, but on posthumous interpretations or revisions of his writing. At most we can claim that in the later 1890s, during what was the first intellectual crisis of Marxism, the first generation of Marxists, those who had been in personal contact with Marx, or more likely with Frederick Engels, were already beginning to discuss some of the issues that became relevant in the twentieth century, notably revisionism, imperialism and nationalism. Much of later Marxist discussion is specific to the twentieth century and not to be found in Karl Marx, notably the debate on what a socialist economy could or should actually be like, which emerged largely out of the experience of the war economies of 1914–18 and the post-war quasi-revolutionary or revolutionary crises.

Thus the claim that socialism was superior to capitalism as a way to ensure the most rapid development of the forces of production could hardly have been made by Marx. It belongs to the era when inter-war capitalist crisis confronted the USSR of the Five-Year plans. Actually, what Karl Marx claimed was not that capitalism had reached the limits of its capacity to boost the forces of production, but that the jagged rhythm of capitalist growth produced periodic crises of overproduction which would, sooner or later, prove incompatible with a capitalist way of running the economy and generate social conflicts which it would not survive. Capitalism was by its nature incapable of framing the subsequent economy of social production. This, he supposed, would necessarily be socialist.

Hence it is not surprising that 'socialism' was at the core of twentieth-century debates and assessments of Karl Marx. This was not because the project of a socialist economy is specifically Marxist – it isn't – but because all Marxist-inspired parties shared such a project and the communist ones actually claimed to have instituted it. In its twentieth-century form this project is dead. 'Socialism' as applied in the USSR and the other 'centrally planned economies', that is to say theoretically market-less state-owned and -controlled command economies, has gone and will not be revived. Social-democratic aspirations to build socialist economies had always been ideals for the future, but even as formal aspirations they had been abandoned by the end of the century.

How much of the model of socialism in the minds of social democrats, and the socialism established by communist regimes, was Marxian? Here it is crucial that Marx himself deliberately abstained from specific statements about the economics and economic institutions of socialism and said nothing about the concrete shape of communist society, except that it could not be constructed or programmed, but would evolve out of a socialist society. Such general remarks as he made on the subject, as in the Critique of the Gotha Programme of the German social democrats, hardly gave his successors specific guidance, and indeed these gave no serious thought to what they considered would be an academic problem or a utopian exercise until after the revolution. It was enough to know that it would be based – to quote the famous 'clause 4' of the Labour Party's constitution – 'on the common ownership of the means of production' which was generally understood as achievable by nationalising the country's industries.

Curiously enough, the first theory of a centralised socialist economy was not worked out by socialists but by a non-socialist Italian economist, Enrico Barone, in 1908. Nobody else thought about it before the question of nationalising private industries came on the agenda of practical politics at the end of the First World War. At that point socialists faced their problems quite unprepared and without guidance from the past or anyone else.

'Planning' is implicit in any kind of socially managed economy, but Marx said nothing concrete about it, and when it was tried in Soviet Russia after the revolution it had largely to be improvised. Theoretically this was done by devising concepts (such as Leontief's input-output analysis) and providing the relevant statistics. These devices were later to be widely taken up in non-socialist economies. In practice it was done by following the equally improvised war economies of World War One, especially the German one, perhaps with special attention to the electrical industry about which Lenin was informed by political sympathisers among executives in German and American electrical firms. A war economy remained the basic model of the Soviet planned economy, that is to say an economy where certain targets are fixed in advance – ultra-speedy industrialisation, winning a war, making an atom-bomb or getting men on the moon – and then plans to achieve them by allocating resources whatever the short-term cost. There is nothing exclusively socialist about this. Working towards a priori targets may be done with more or less sophistication, but the Soviet economy never really got beyond this. And, though it tried from 1960 on, it could never get out of the catch-22 implicit in trying to fit markets into a bureaucratic command structure.

Social democracy modified Marxism in a different way either by postponing the construction of a socialist economy or, more positively, by devising different forms of a mixed economy. Insofar as social-democratic parties remained committed to the creation of a fully socialist economy, this implied some thought about the subject. The most interesting thinking came from non-Marxist thinkers like the Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who envisaged a gradual transformation of capitalism to socialism by a series of irreversible and cumulative reforms and who therefore gave some political thought to the institutional shape of socialism, though none to its economic operations. The chief Marxian 'revisionist', Eduard Bernstein, finessed the problem by insisting that the reformist movement was everything and the final aim had no practical reality. In fact, most social-democratic parties which became parties of government after World War One settled for the revisionist policy, in effect leaving the capitalist economy to operate subject to meeting some of the demands of labour. The locus classicus of this attitude was Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism (1956), which argued that as post-1945 capitalism had solved the problem of producing a society of plenty, public enterprise (in the classical form of nationalisation or otherwise) was not necessary and the only task of socialists was to ensure an equitable distribution of the national wealth. All this was a long way from Marx, and indeed from the traditional socialist vision of socialism as essentially a non-market society, which probably Karl Marx also shared.

Let me just add that the more recent debate between economic neo-liberals and their critics about the role of the state and publicly owned enterprises is not a specifically Marxist or even socialist debate in principle. It rests on the attempt since the 1970s to translate a pathological degeneration of the principle of laissez-faire into economic reality by the systematic retreat of states from any regulation or control of the activities of profit-making enterprise. This attempt to hand over human society to the (allegedly) self-controlling and wealth- or even welfare-maximising market, populated (allegedly) by actors in rational pursuit of their interests, had no precedent in any earlier phase of capitalist development in any developed economy, not even the USA. It was a reductio ad absurdum of what its ideologists read into Adam Smith, as the correspondingly extremist 100% state-planned command economy of the USSR was of what the Bolsheviks read into Marx. Not surprisingly, this 'market fundamentalism', closer to theology than economic reality, also failed.

The disappearance of the centrally planned state economies and the virtual disappearance of a fundamentally transformed society from the aspirations of the demoralised social-democratic parties have eliminated much of the twentieth-century debates on socialism. They were some way from Karl Marx's own thinking, though very largely inspired by him and conducted in his name. On the other hand, in three respects Marx remained an enormous force: as an economic thinker, as a historical thinker and analyst, and as the recognised founding father (with Durkheim and Max Weber) of modern thinking about society. I am unqualified to express an opinion on his continued, but clearly serious, significance as a philosopher. Certainly what never lost contemporary relevance is Marx's vision of capitalism as a historically temporary mode of the human economy and his analysis of its ever-expanding and concentrating, crisis-generating and self-transforming modus operandi.


Excerpted from How to Change the World by Eric Hobsbawm Copyright © 2011 by Eric Hobsbawm. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword vii

Part I Marx and Engels

1 Marx Today 3

2 Marx, Engels and pre-Marxian Socialism 16

3 Marx, Engels and Politics 48

4 On Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England 89

5 On the Communist Manifesto 101

6 Discovering the Grundrisse 121

7 Marx on pre-Capitalist Formations 127

8 The Fortunes of Marx's and Engels' Writings 176

Part II Marxism

9 Dr Marx and the Victorian Critics 199

10 The Influence of Marxism 1880-1914 211

11 In the Era of Anti-fascism 1929-45 261

12 Gramsci 314

13 The Reception of Gramsci 334

14 The Influence of Marxism 1945-83 344

15 Marxism in Recession 1983-2000 385

16 Marx and Labour: the Long Century 399

Notes 420

Dates and Sources of Original Publication 453

Index 456

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