Is Marxism Alive and Well?: Review of Eric Hobsbawm, ‘How to Change the World’

Review of: Eric Hobsbawm, How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism – London: Little, Brown, 2011, viii + 470 pp. – ISBN 978-1-4087-0387-1

Christopher Rollason, independent scholar (Luxembourg)


Review of How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism (2011), a collection of essays by Britain’s veteran Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, tracing the history of Marxism as a belief-system and arguing for its continued relevance in the light of the current crisis of global capitalism.

The city of Trier, in Germany just over the border from Luxembourg, once seat of an archbishopric and later part of Prussia and subsequently, the former West Germany, enjoys the curious distinction of still boasting a Karl-Marx-Strasse, thanks to the circumstance that the founder of Marxism was born there in 1818. The same city is also the former capital of the Western Roman Empire and imperial seat of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. The stones of Trier serve as a reminder of the life and death of belief-systems, and interrogate the thoughtful visitor as to whether the once seemingly impregnable system of Marxism has any more life left in it today than the old pagan religion. 

Certainly, eleven years into the twenty-first century, it might seem difficult to imagine a less fashionable theme to consecrate a long and appreciative volume to than Marxism. However, if anyone can get away with it, it has to be Eric Hobsbawm, who, publishing this book at the ripe age of 93, occupies the unassailable position of the English-speaking world’s foremost Marxist historian, and, having unreconstructedly stuck to his Marxist guns in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, has the necessary credentials and weight to offer the world a study of this nature.

Hobsbawm, the product of hybridated identities (born in Alexandria of Jewish-Germanic origins, long since resident in Britain) and author of such essential historical works as The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and Industry and Empire, now presents what he calls “a set of studies in the history of Marxism” (399) – sixteen chapters encompassing multiple aspects of the thought of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and their Italian successor Antonio Gramsci, and of the history of Marxism as an intellectual and political movement and its changing fortunes up to the present. Most of the texts have been published before, though not necessarily in English, but Hobsbawm has carried out a systematic revising and updating exercise on his pre-existing material, with a care and skill that allows the whole thing to be read as a logical sequence.

The previously published material takes various forms. Some pieces appeared in the first place as introductions to works by Marx (the Grundrisse), Engels (The Condition of the Working Class in England) or both (The Communist Manifesto). The two chapters on  Gramsci reprise earlier introductory material, in the case of the second originally in Italian. Three chapters on the reception of Marxism were originally published in Italian as part of a multi-author historical conspectus of Marxism; a further three chapters are excerpted from a book published by Hobsbawm in Britain in 1982, The History of Marxism. The first and penultimate chapters are largely new; the closing chapter, “Marx and the Labour Movement: the Long Century”, is based on a lecture given in German in Linz, Austria, in 2000. Even if we are dealing essentially with material that is not new to print as such, the author’s updating effort has visibly been far more than perfunctory: in recycling these writings, he has been fully aware of the need to make them pertinent to the second decade of the present century. None of the material that started life in Italian or German has been published before in English, and here Hobsbawm shows a commendable desire to make as much as possible of his writing available to a wider public, and, implicitly, an even more laudable absence of the Anglocentric parochialism that too often characterises British intellectuals (it helps, of course, that he is not British by origin) 

Along the way, Hobsbawm as a historian displays his by now familiar impeccable analytic and expository skills and in-depth knowledge of his subject-matter. The book contains, notably in the chapters on the Manifesto and “the fortunes of Marx’s and Engels’ writings”, invaluable information on the textual and publication history, translation and international reception of some of the major works in the Marx/Engels canon, Capital included. It should be added that the only Marxist philosopher apart from Marx and Engels themselves singled out for detailed discussion is Gramsci (apparently for his indeed useful concept of hegemony) – there is no close analysis of, say, Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse or (to cite a British name) Raymond Williams. Nonetheless, here as in a book like The Age of Capital, Hobsbawm signally eschews the trap of Eurocentrism, treating world history as an interrelated totality and giving Asian and Latin American Marxism, in particular, their due. Considering all that is there, as a general research aid this book should rapidly earn its spurs: of the author’s scholarship there is not the slightest doubt.

It is worth stressing that the book’s material is organised as a coherent, chronological narrative, its sequence corresponding in broad terms to the time-frame of the subjects discussed. Thus, it validates Marxism in terms of narrative form as well as of content. Here, one might conclude that Hobsbawm is throwing down the gauntlet to the postmodernists. It is not always sufficiently noted that the celebrated critique of “grand narratives” (the English term being, incidentally, a portentous and somewhat dubious translation of the French “grands récits”) launched by postmodernism’s high priest Jean-François Lyotard in his manifesto of 1979, La condition postmoderne, is aimed not only at classical liberalism but also at Marxism, devaluing not only the Enlightenment notion of progress but also its Marxist successor: in other words, the replacement of Marxism by postmodernism as ruling discourse on the Western left is a phenomenon not of continuity but of rupture.

Hobsbawm’s book takes its title from the celebrated aphorism from Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world (…): the point is to change it”. The author thus affirms Marxism as, even for our days, more than a philosophy – as a recipe for political and social change, of continued validity and relevance. At the same time, he admits that Marxism as a belief-system no longer exerts the intellectual fascination that it did until two decades ago; as he puts it in the chapter “The Influence of Marxism 1954-83”, as the world entered the 1980s “few observers predicted the speed and scale of the reversal”, adding self-deprecatingly, “Certainly I did not”. He closes that chapter with the observation: “The twenty-five years following the centenary of Marx’s death were to be the darkest years in the history of his heritage” (384).

Darkness or no darkness, our historian remains a Marxist, with not the slightest hint of conversion to postmodernism, deconstruction, multiculturalism, cultural relativism, postcolonialism, or any other of the discourses that have to a large extent replaced Marxism on today’s Western left. Nor has he become any kind of cyberprophet or acolyte of the new technologies. What needs to be gleaned, then, from the pages of this book is what Eric Hobsbawm believes Marxism is, and what characteristics he finds in it as a belief-system that continue to convince him, flying in the face of fashion, to offer it as a remedy for our times.

Among the components of Marxian or later Marxist theory, those which might appear striking for our day as elements for debate – whether to be accepted, revised or refuted – include the labour theory of value, the alienation/reification/fetishisation triad and the related concept of false consciousness, the mastery of nature, the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, capitalism as a system prone to periodic crisis, the classless society as ultimate goal, and the project of universal emancipation (with, for classical Marxism, the proletariat as standard-bearer). Especially controversial today might prove the notion of a historically static “Asiatic mode of production”, less oriented to development and transformation than Western modes, and the prediction, as made notably by the Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel a few decades back, of the inevitable absolute immiseration of the peoples of what was then known as the “third world”.

It is further important to recall that these specifically Marxist concepts are underpinned by a number of epistemological assumptions which Marxism shares with the liberal world-view of the Enlightenment – some of which, however self-evident they might have appeared thirty years ago, may now look quaint to those reared on postmodernism. These include the belief in reason and the rationalist preference for the secular over the religious, the concept (even if qualified) of progress and the validity of a teleological perspective, the assumption that a coherent and all-embracing narrative of history is possible and makes sense, the elevation of totality over fragmentation, and, perhaps above all, the notion of universals – of universal human nature, human potential and, ultimately, human liberation.

Such, I would argue, are the traits of Marxism as a belief-system that implicitly emerge from Hobsbawm’s book. Only in passing does he specifically allude to Marxism’s postmodern detractors, as in stray references to “extreme forms of postmodernist relativism” (392) or “the imagined communities of ethnic, religious, gender, lifestyle and other collective identities” (417). However, what might be called an X-ray picture of Marxism can be deduced from his pages.

Thus, Hobsbawm speaks approvingly of the Enlightenment-derived Marxian concept of progress, “the belief in human history as progress towards what must eventually be the best possible society”, within an intellectual framework in which “reason provided the basis of all human action and the formation of society” (20). He clearly believes in a positive mutation from Enlightenment values into Marxism, seeing both as manifestations of a secular world-view and arguing for a “continuity with the pre-Marxist tradition of rationalism and progress” (296). In this philosophical framework, he affirms, “for Marx progress is something objectively definable, and at the same time pointing to what is desirable”, namely the “triumph of the free development” of all, a concept underpinned for Marxists by the “assumed correctness” of historical-materialist analysis (130). At the same time, if progress is to mean anything one also has to admit the possibility of its converse, namely regression. Here, Hobsbawm repeats the stark message of twentieth-century Marxism that the choice is between “socialism and barbarity” (121), as well as more generally evoking “historical decay and regression” as a legitimate issue (145).

 Further, Hobsbawm conceives Marxism as a form of depth reading, and therefore as antagonistic to empiricism and empowered by its hermeneutic nature to refute more surface-oriented readings as erroneous: “The fact that analytically it penetrated deeper than the superficial phenomena accessible to empirical criticism implied an analysis of the ‘false consciousness’ which stood in the way, and the (historical) reasons for it” (44). Here there is surely a conflict, perhaps irresoluble, with postmodernism and its multiple surfaces and colliding subjectivities. Hobsbawm also considers Marxism to be a system grounded in a conception of totality, “a comprehensive, all-embracing and illuminating view of the world” (381). It follows that he believes that universals exist, the dictatorship of the proletariat as conceived by classical Marxism thus being not an end in itself but a staging-post on the way to the full “emancipation of humanity” that will be achieved “through the historically inevitable rise and triumph of the proletariat” (361). For Hobsbawm, then, Marxism conceives the proletariat not as a vector of sectional group rights, but as a metonym for a humanity envisioned (in however utopian a fashion) as a whole.

 Hobsbawm is aware enough that Marxism is currently beleaguered (as, it might be added, is, the parallel edifice of another rationalist, secular, anti-empiricist and hermeneutic world-view, namely Freudianism). He remains convinced that Marxism’s totalising vocation is far more intellectually credible than the kaleidoscope of fractured subjectivities that have taken its place; and at his age, if he believes he has better things to do than read up on postmodernist thought (Lyotard is conspicuously absent from the book’s index), any such decision should surely, even more so given his intellectual eminence and record of hard work, be respected even by the most passionately intense detractors of anything remotely resembling a coherent narrative.

 It may reasonably be suggested that if Marxism is to return in our day as an intellectual and political force, it will necessarily have to adapt itself to a number of phenomena which have arisen on the world agenda since its eclipse. These include: the environmental challenge (here Walter Benjamin offers a lead, with his proposal of replacing the “mastery of nature” by the mastery of relations between humanity and nature); the rise of the so-called “emerging economies”, above all China and India, which adumbrates a coming multi-centred world economy with the US no longer in pole position, thus burying Marxian and post-Marxian notions of either an immobilist “Asiatic mode of production” or inevitable non-Western immiseration; and the growth of information and communications technology (another phenomenon anticipated by Benjamin), which has created a networked world that, capitalist though it may be, makes Soviet-style isolationism all but impossible and has given rise to paradoxes like that obtaining between a hyper-wired South Korea and an all but IT-dead (and ten times less prosperous) North Korea. Indeed, one of the harshest challenges today to anyone still calling themselves a Marxist may be to ask whether, in whatever circumstances, the old Soviet Union could have invented the Internet (which, despite its Pentagon origins, none will deny escaped the grip of the Western state apparatus with remarkable speed …)

 The question, then, is whether the Marxist world-view, with its currently ill-regarded baggage of scientific rationalism and attachment to a much-derided logic of coherent narration, has anything to offer to the twenty-first century. Certainly, Hobsbawm offers a compelling accumulation of historical evidence for the validity of Marxist perspectives. His defence, at the beginning and end of his book, of Marxism’s relevance to our time, however, relies primarily on economics, foregrounding how the current economic and financial crisis bears out Marx’s analysis of the internal contradictions of capitalism – “endless bouts of tensions and temporary resolutions, growth leading to crisis and change, all producing economic concentration in an increasingly globalised society” (14) – or, again, “a built-in mechanism that generates potentially system-changing periodic crises” (418). It is on this basis that Hobsbawm affirms that anyone confronting “the problems facing the world in the twenty-first century … must ask Marx’s questions” (15), and that he concludes the book by reiterating that “capitalism is not the answer, but the question” (417) and that “once again the time has come to take Marx seriously” (419).

 Hobsbawm does not attempt a detailed defence of the philosophical aspect of Marxism, as a depth-reading of the world predicated on the possibility of progress. Nonetheless, to “take Marx seriously” surely also means to take him seriously philosophically. Such an ontological defence may be extrapolated from the pages of Hobsbawm’s book, which do very visibly imply the validity as concepts of both progress and regression. If, as postmodernist theory and practice might seem to suppose, there is no such thing as regression – if, on relativist grounds, the world-view of certain Central Asian theocratic movements is just as valid as that of a Western liberal – can there ever be progress, for anyone? If a concept like barbarism is deemed inadmissible – if (one might here recall certain recent debates in France) there is no such thing as vestimentary retrogression, or if any criticism of punishments or customs that impair physical integrity can be written off as culture-bound – then, conversely, is any concept of civilisation also and equally meaningless?

 It is surely not beyond the bounds of belief that there may still be a case for arguing in favour of the continued utility of Marxist analysis, in a rapidly mutating world – a world the multipolar and networked nature of which was not foreseen by the philosopher from Trier whose insights may yet nonetheless, subject to their necessary adaptation to new realities, prove of greater use to the future of humanity than the siren lucubrations of a thousand Lyotards. Eric Hobsbawm’s book certainly defies fashion; the jury is out on whether it, and the Marxism it narrates, will also prove to have the capacity to defy gravity.


Lyotard, J.-F. 1979. La condition postmoderne. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit

Marx, K. ‘Theses on Feuerbach’. [1845]. Early Writings. Tr. R. Livingstone and G. Benton. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975. 421-423


Note, 12 January 2013: This review has been published in the journal BABEL: Aspectos de Filoloxia Inglesa e Alemá (University of Vigo, Galicia, Spain), No 21, 2012, pp. 169-176.


2 responses to this post.

  1. From the far side of the pond, I recall having offered Lewis H. Lapham at Harpers a take-off on “Without Marks or Jesus” by Jean-Francois Revel. The decline indicated that one doesn’t satirize a satirical work. But one review (British) noted: “The particular fun of this book is the way he punctured European, and particularly French, pretentions to hold a monopoly on the progressive left. He applied acid sarcasm and hilarious examples of their prejudices against the US, which sound so petty today. Indeed, he shows them up for the snobs and hypocrites that they still are with great wit. Along the way, he makes many points that hit home, such as, it is not what is done that is necessarily most important, but the process and ability to change things democratically that is.” Jean-Francois Revel was certainly less “portentous” than much of the works cited by Hobsbawm.


  2. Hello Chris,

    Sorry it has taken me so long to get around to commenting on this.

    I find you charmingly caught here—and tiptoeing—between respect for a grand old man who sticks to his guns (and why not? If I get within a decade of Hobsbawm’s near-century I will remain obstreperously defensive of anything I have ever thought) and the feeling that he may be a bit, er, well, out of date. I guess that’s natural and I would probably feel much the same.

    But your review doesn’t make me feel particularly inclined to read the book. I loved Hobsbawm’s histories for the breadth and sharpness of their vision, their intellectual energy and passion, and I think I learned a lot from them. But I’m not really interested in the author’s defence of what he (or you?) sees as their ideological underpinning, because I don’t think the relation between his historical work and his “ideology” or “belief system” can be that simple (or systematic). When I was around 15 I went for several months to private study sessions with a Youth Communist League mentor, a lecturer in industrial relations at some college in Aylesbury, of all places. (Today Aylesbury, tomorrow the world!). After the first few sessions he used to make me read newspaper clippings and critique them ‘from a dialectical materialist perspective.’ What a load of old tosh. (It was incredibly dull, so I became an anarchist instead). And that makes me think: can we imagine Hobsbawm ploughing through Capital etc and then ‘applying’ Marxist theory? Surely not. Surely something much more complicated–and much less consciously ideological—must be going on in the grown-up reading and writing of history, at least in the case of people of Hobsbawm’s intellectual stature.

    If I wanted a defence of Marxism and its enduring relevance, I would probably go elsewhere. I am interested to note that, missing from your list (in paragraph 9) of Marxist ideas “which might appear striking for our day” (a list that starts with “the labour theory of value”— a bit oddly, I think, since that derives from Ricardo, doesn’t it?), is any direct mention of historical materialism and the centrality in human affairs of ‘the mode of production of material life.’ Is this missing from Hobsbawm’s book? If so, it’s an interesting omission, because I would have thought it fairly important in informing a, roughly speaking, political economy approach to the study of history. The most comprehensive defence of such an approach that I have encountered—one that reads world history in terms of the ‘mode of production’ albeit it not in terms of linear progress—comes not from a historian but from an anthropologist: Eric Wolf in his (1982) Europe and the People Without History. It’s a breathtakingly impressive grand récit. (This, of course, appears to contradict my argument in the preceding paragraph—but, fuck it, what would life be without contradictions?—since Wolf does appear explicitly to embark on a reading of history through what he—rightly, I think—identifies as the core of Marxist theory. But Wolf’s scholarship is so expansive, and his approach so fundamentally subversive of European historiography, that I’m confident he experienced Marx’ central insight through his work, or found it vindicated by his own scholarship, rather than building that work on a theoretical foundation. As, no doubt, did Hobsbawm.)

    More incidentally, I see no reason for any Marxist to be embarrassed by the ‘Asiatic mode of production’ discussion. Marx, to be sure, went along with the commonplace (and pig ignorant) European view of the time that the Orient was a place of stagnant despotism etc. But wasn’t the point for Marx—put most succinctly in a notorious New York Herald essay—that all that was already in the process of being swept away by the revolutionising forces of global capitalism. As in the equally famous passage from the Manifesto:

    “The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

    It strikes me, therefore, that a latter-day Marxist actually has an easier time than almost anyone else in accounting for the ‘rise’ of Asia (and especially China.) Many liberals get their knickers terribly twisted over this—how could anywhere prosper without proper democratic institutions blah blah blah?—but for the Marxist it’s much easier: Marx anticipated globalisation and those barbaric Asians are indeed finally developing a real bourgeoisie and adopting a bourgeois mode of production. The funny thing is that if you look at the kind of ‘thinking’ coming nowadays from corporate analysts and international ‘development’ agencies, they are actually all singing pretty much the same tune (and not just of China and the rest of Asia, but of the ‘promising’ places in Africa too): ‘Look! They’re developing a “middle class,” which is wonderful for business and will over time lead to political reform and blah blah blah . . .’ So to some extent I think we are nearly all half-baked Marxists nowadays, and that Marx’ real legacy is this permeation of the mainstream, not the enduring ‘relevance’ of bands of ‘Marxist’ disciples squabbling over his mantle.

    Talking of which, have you read Leonardo Padura’s novel about the assassination of Trotsky? I just reviewed it on my website but you won’t be able to post a response there because, as you know, I don’t go along with all this Internet emancipation twaddle.




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