For a Brighter World: the Quest Continues

Arindam Sen

How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism by Eric Hobsbawm
Hachette India/ Little, Brown, UK, 2010,473pp., Rs 795 (HB) ISBN 9781408702871

[A slightly modified version of this review was published in Biblio, September – October 2011.]

“We do not set ourselves up against the world in doctrinaire fashion with a new principle: Here is the truth! Here you must kneel! We do not seek to anticipate the new world dogmatically, but rather to discover it in the criticism of the old... It is not our task to build up the future in advance and to settle all problems for all time; our task is ruthless criticism of everything that exists, ruthless in the sense that the criticism will not shrink either from its own conclusions or from conflict with the powers that be...”
Karl Marx (Letter to Arnold Ruge, 1843)

Upright against the fiercest powers that be and dauntless about the most unexpected or shocking outcomes of its own critical investigation, Marxism was born free -- intrepid and thoroughly democratic, bent on continuous self renewal and never demanding blind loyalty from others. But before long it began to find itself in chains -- chains of determinism and doctrinarism -- compelling an ageing Marx cry out in disgust: “All that I know is that I am not a Marxist.” The history of Marxism since then has been one of struggle against such lifeless canonisation, better known as dogmatism, and against the opposite trend, conveniently called revisionism, of abandoning the key principles and goal of Marxism in the name of adapting it to new objective conditions. All through, the theoretical battles were as a rule closely connected to large-scale mass mobilisations for revolutionary transformation of society; the theoretical and practical endeavours helping each other and jointly propelling Marxism forward along a tortuous course with periodic ups and downs in its appeal and influence. If the decline became quite palpable with the rise of the TINA (There Is No Alternative -- to liberalism) paradigm since the 1980s, by the time of the 150th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto (1998) that document began to earn new acclaim everywhere -- including from people like George Soros -- for its astonishingly accurate description of capitalist globalisation. Then in the face of a severe banking crisis spreading on to other sectors of the economy in 2008, the “Globalisation Guru” was in demand again, this time for his profound analysis of the causes and consequences of capitalist crisis. Startling indeed was the way Marx pinpointed the credit system as the focal point of the eruption of contradictions inherent in capitalism. He showed, and recent experience proved, that credit temporarily helps the self expansion of capital by breaking through the inherent limits of capitalist production and thus “accelerates the material development of the productive forces and the establishment of the world market.” But “At the same time credit accelerates the violent eruptions of this contradiction -- crises -- and thereby the elements of disintegration of the old mode of production.” (Grundrisse, p 441). The “rediscovery” made Marx fashionable again. “He’s back,” screamed the Times in the autumn of 2008.
Long and interesting is the story of Marxism and internationally acclaimed Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm in his latest book recapitulates many important episodes of it with professional competence. The title itself captures the seminal impulse and enduring spirit of Marxism (“Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” -- as the young Marx famously wrote in 1845 in his Theses on Feuerbach) while the subtitle refers to an assortment of “tales” or essays, revised and expanded in many cases, that he had occasion to write between 1956 and 2009. As often happens in such cases, while each essay or chapter is complete and thorough-going in itself, the collection as a whole is not without gaps. Thus the excellent description of the characteristic features of the Marxist discourse in four distinct historical periods (1880-1914, 1929-45, 1945-83 and 1983-2000) covered in four essays leaves the reader unhappy about the missing link of the 1914-29 period. That was the time of Marxism in the name of Bolshevism (later to be called Marxism-Leninism) spreading across vast new regions across the globe and the rise of communist parties in many countries including China and India. Of course, one should not complain and ask why the nonagenarian author did not write a separate chapter on this period especially for this edition; but there is a more serious issue.
The author’s Foreword says that we have before us “a study of the development and posthumous impact of the thought of Karl Marx (and the inseparable Frederick Engels).” Indeed it is a very good study. Unfortunately, it remains largely Euro/West-centric and does not tell us how Marxism, Western in origin and theoretical-intellectual roots but global in outlook from the very inception, flourished in the East, or to be more correct, in the capitalistically less developed countries including Russia. This progress was achieved through creative integration of the universal principles of Marxism with varying local conditions, which added new vitality to Marxism and made it “a material force by gripping the masses” in some of these countries -- as Marx originally envisaged but did not live to see. The major milestones of this process of development -- such as the Bolshevik theory of uninterrupted transition, under proletarian leadership, from democratic to socialist revolution in Russia and Mao’s formulation of New Democracy -- do not find place in the study while the works of Marxist scholars like Maurice Dobb and Paul M Sweezy as well as social scientists like A. Gunder Frank and Emmanuelle Wallerstein do. In fact the author’s understanding of Marxist theory and theorist becomes evident when he declares that Gramsci was “the only genuine Marxist theorist who was also the leader of a Marxist mass party”. Not many would endorse this view.
In this compendium the historian does not, with good reason, offer his own prescription on how to change the world today. But parties, movements and individuals concerned with that question will definitely find his insightful overview highly stimulating. At the same time the treatise will prove very useful to all those who are interested in questions like, say, the way Marx and Engels complemented each other in the development of the new world outlook, of the contributions of Antonio Gramsci and the importance of the posthumously discovered Grundrisse which, Hobsbawm tells us, “is an enormously difficult text in every respect, but also an enormously rewarding one, if only because it provides the only guide to the range of the treatise of which Capital is only a fraction, and a unique introduction to the methodology of the mature Marx.” Here, as in many other places, the book acts as a dependable guide to further reading.
In addition to the Grundrisse, key texts like The Communist Manifesto (henceforth CM) and Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks are incisively evaluated, brilliantly underscoring the interaction between the historical context and the development and influence of ideas. On CM, for example, Hobsbawm writes, “... if today we must be struck by the acuteness of the Manifesto’s vision of the remote future of a massively globalised capitalism, the failure of another of its forecasts is equally striking. It is now evident that the bourgeoisie has not produced ‘above all, its own gravediggers’ in the proletariat. ‘Its fall and the victory of the proletariat’ have not proved ‘equally inevitable’. “
While certain specific observations like the continual growth and pauperisation of the working-class may not hold good today, the more general and most crucial conclusion about the self-destructive forces built into capitalist development appear much more convincing now than it probably did when Marx and Engels lived. However, one must avoid a deterministic reading of the document, cautions the author:
“When it leaves the field of historical analyses and enters the present, it is a document of choices, of political possibilities rather than probabilities, let alone certainties.... Historical change through social Praxis, through collective action, is at its core....
“But then, the Manifesto -- it is not the least of its remarkable qualities -- is a document which envisaged failure. It hoped that the outcome of capitalist development would be ‘a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large’ but... it did not exclude the alternative: ‘common ruin’.
“Many years later another Marxian [Rosa Luxemburg -- A Sen] rephrased this as a choice between socialism and barbarity. Which of these will prevail is a question which the 21st century must be left to answer.”
Well, does Marxism help find an answer? Yes it does, asserts the historian. Recent experience, most strikingly of the financial meltdown of 2008, has once again proved that economic and political liberalism -- or market fundamentalism, if you will -- cannot solve the problems of our century and “Once again the time has come to take Marx seriously.”

That’s right, but why only Marx? Why not Marxism? Like biology after Darwin, physics after Newton and economics after Smith and Ricardo, Marxism as a weapon of social transformation made giant strides, in fact it came into full bloom, after the demise of its founders. This was only natural, because “revolutionary theory is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.” (Lenin in Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder; emphasis added) and such sustained movements took place mainly after Marx and Engels died. The collective experience gained in the process enormously enriched the arsenal of Marxism and were summed up in the works of leaders like Lenin, Gramsci, Mao Zedong and others. Moreover, Marxist theory arose in the first instance from the most advanced intellectual currents of 19th century, namely German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism, but since then it has been continually developing in close interaction with all progressive streams of human thought and activity such as the feminist and the ecological movements. These achievements as well as the progress made in understanding, say, imperialism and globalisation, have been systematised in the works of scholars -- not all of them are necessarily Marxists in a very strict sense -- as diverse as Ernest Mandel, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Leo Huberman, JB Foster, Perry Anderson, Shiela Rowbotham -- to name only a few. Another dimension of the development of Marxism we have mentioned at the outset – the internal polemics or struggle against dogmatism and opportunism/ revisionism – as recorded in the ideological and political documents of the communist movement.  A critical study of such contributions also (in addition to texts of Marx and Engels) is vital to comprehending Marxism not as a received orthodoxy but in a broad, dynamic sense -- the only sense in which Marx and Marxism must be taken seriously -- at least by those who are seriously engaged in the struggle to change the world.