Once upon a time in history

How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism 1840-2011
by Eric Hobsbawm
Little, Brown, 470 pp, £25.00, January 2011, ISBN 978 1 4087 0287 1
Reviewed by Jack Whitman

Hobsbawm’s latest and sixteenth book consists of a collection of essays, or ‘tales’ as the subtitle would have us believe – as if Little Red Riding Hood was a CP operative and Stalin the evil stepmother. No, this isn’t a barnyard fable by any stretch of the imagination.

It is, rather, Hobsbawm’s take on the development of Marxism, its intellectual genesis, subsequent adaptation by social movements looking for a language to articulate their economic and social repression, and recent retreat in the face of neoliberalism and the fall of ‘really existing socialism’.

You’ll forgive a 94 year-old historian for not writing a completely new text on 160 years of Marxism but instead bringing together his past writings, about a third of which haven’t been published in English before; he does nonetheless rework some of the articles, and I’m glad to say furnishes a completely new chapter on post-1983 Marxism, as well as rehashing a lecture he delivered in 1999 on the place of labour. The rest you may have read from his previous works – introductions and forewords to Marxist texts or his ambitiously named: The History of Marxism: Marxism in Marx’s Day, Vol. 1, which never got past the first volume.

Nevertheless, How to Change the World, even with its modest title, does in fact live up to the standard that one would expect from a historian from the Marxian tradition whose analytical ability and global scope are well known.

The book is split into two parts. The first is centred on the actual writings of the founding fathers and is thus more of a bibliographical study; the second upon the movements and intellectuals that adopted and, consciously or not, transformed Marxist orthodoxy.

Thus, in the first section, we begin with a look at the philosophical antecedents and contextual elements of Marxism’s genesis, as well as a brief look at its view of political strategy. With a nod to the usual suspects – Hegel, Ricardo, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen, etc. (though with a surprising mention of that ‘genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity’, Bentham) – Hobsbawm, in the first few chapters, gives us a rounded account of the ideas that Marx and Engels would have been exposed to in the first part of the nineteenth-century, while adding the significant contextual elements of the rise of an industrial proletariat as well as the perception of these, following the uprisings of the 1840s, as the agents of historical change. As Hobsbawm rightly puts it, this was the development of a ‘scientific socialism’ – one based on dialectical materialism – rather than the utopian strand of socialism that had prevailed.

Hobsbawm then leads us into an interesting discussion on some of the main works of Marx and Engels, choosing to focus upon the somewhat limited selection of The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), The Communist Manifesto (1848) and The Grundrisse (1857-58). I particularly enjoyed reading the chapter on Engels’ classic; Hobsbawm rightly depicts the book as methodologically ground-breaking and pioneering in terms of its application of Marxist theory. Historiographically speaking, it is still the best out there for an analysis of the working class condition during this particular period of Victorian Britain; it is hard to believe that Engels wrote it when he was just 24.

The chapter on the Communist Manifesto is less interesting, but it does clarify some of the controversies surrounding the work while accrediting it with the visionary nature it deserves. Hobsbawm argues against the suggestion that the book, and by extension Marx and Engels, succumbed to determinism in their depiction of historical materialism, and emphasises its prediction of globalisation.

The two chapters on The Grundrisse, on the other hand, are insightful. Once you get through the somewhat turgid discussion of the bibliographical history of these collected works, it opens up into an appreciation of Marx’s theoretical maturation, his adoption of dialectical materialism, his application of this to political economy and the subsequent conceptual framework that was built – use-value, exchange-value, coercive laws of capital, accumulation, etc.

Hobsbawm handles the theory relatively well here, and, putting back on his historian’s hat, delivers a resounding blow to Marx and Engels’ work on the ‘epochs of historical development’ and peasant economies, which, quite rightly, are depicted as limited and lacking in evidence; Anthropology being just a twinkle in a scientist’s eye at the time. Hobsbawm does a tidy job of tying these strands up with the final chapter of Part 1 on the fortunes of the Marx and Engels’ work, which leads us nicely into Part 2.

If you’ve ever asked yourself the question: why has Marxism become so popular since the progenitors’ deaths, you’ll find an answer here. Hobsbawm begins by giving an account of how well received Marx’s ideas were towards the end of the nineteenth-century; the acceptance of many of his concepts by academic peers – the social division of labour, centralisation of capital, for instance – as well as the attempted refutation of his labour theory of value, even with Ricardo’s ploughing of the ground before him.

However, as Hobsbawm rightly notes, it was with the adoption of Marxism by the social democratic parties of the time, and subsequent distortion by the revisionist movement, along with the growth in influence of the Second International, which really made Marx a household name; indeed, by 1914, besides Freud and Darwin, Marx was one of the only theorists to be found in the common lexicon, even enjoying some influence in the arts through people like William Morris and Zola.

Thus, Hobsbawm is quite accurate when it comes to this period; he is, however, lacking in lucidity in his take on Marxism and the anti-fascism of 1929–45. Here, the indefatigable historian gives a brilliant account of the class polarisations of the Great Depression, but, as in his Revolutionaries (1973), we see the Stalinist apologetics of Hobsbawm; while doing an effective job in making understandable the overlooking of Stalin’s iron fist amongst leftists, he does, in the process, apologise for such behaviour.

Hobsbawm, furthermore, overlooks the Trotskyist critiques of the period; indeed, as Terry Eagleton quite rightly points out in his own review of the book, Hobsbawm fails to give enough credence to one of the strongest currents of Marxism. Whether this has anything to do with the author’s CP membership or not is purely speculation, but, as a result, the book is somewhat lacking in historical accuracy.

The subsequent chapters on Gramsci and Marxism in the latter part of the twentieth-century are insightful and interesting. The first of the two chapters on Gramsci gives a concise, if simplistic, description of Gramsci’s theoretical approach, providing the reader with an understanding of what the Italian revolutionary meant by hegemony; the emphasis on the need for socialism to become hegemonic and thus axiomatic; his formulation of a political strategy which maintained a certain realism in the face of theoretical abstraction; and the influence of Gramsci today, particularly in the field of cultural history and through his concept of the subaltern; Gayatri Spivak being of pertinent example here in my view. The second chapter, on the other hand, is more bibliographical and demonstrates effectively what Gramsci stood for in terms of heterodoxy and Stalin’s consequent repression of the great man’s works.

The following two chapters on Marxism’s influence in the latter part of the twentieth-century go into some detail on the reasons for the doctrine’s decline during this period: the widening gulf between the worker and the intellectualism of the movement; general perceptions of the failure of ‘really existing socialism’; the decreasing popularity of trade unions and social democratic parties; and, most importantly, the growing hegemonic dominance of neoliberalism.

There are some holes here, however, such as in his perceptions of religion as the prevailing revolutionary force and his overlooking of certain Maoist groups in Asia, but the reader gets the picture nonetheless.

Then, as if experiencing a last minute realisation that he may have left something out, Hobsbawm finally provides us with a chapter on the agents of historical change; the working class themselves. Throughout the book there is a conspicuous lack of engagement with working class experience and perceptions of Marxism; this for me is the main error of the text.
Furthermore, even when he does attempt such a chapter, he makes the same old mistake of Whig historiography of looking at the working class from the top down, rather than applying the methodology so well demonstrated and pioneered by E. P. Thompson, one from the ‘bottom up’. He thus provides us with an analysis of party activity; the rise of revisionism and social democracy; the demise of the USSR; deindustrialisation; free market liberalism – but all from the perspective of the ruler over the ruled.
He should really take a leaf out of Gramsci’s book, followed by one from E. P. Thompson’s, for at the end of the day, we need people to change the world, not just theory.


About the author

More posts by | Visit the site of Terry



  1. Annalisa G-W says:

    A good informative, well written review, unbiased approach, objective and honest. Would ‘barnyard fable’ be reference to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, . . or am i digging too deeply ?. . I have just ordered the book on the strength of !(Hobsbawn, not Orwell). I agree 100%, we need people to make the change, yet a metamorphism will only come from many points of view being aired in collective debate, and from one’s own reality checks and circumstance. Its coming !!

Leave a Comment




Solidarity & peace groups