How to Change the World
by Eric Hobsbawm
Yale University Press, 2011, 480 pp.
Eric Hobsbawm is one of the great historians of the past century. His books and essays are beautifully written, full of stimulating insights, and able to capture the big patterns and tragic flow of events. Many of his works are justly considered classics, particularly his tetralogy on the “long” nineteenth and “short” twentieth centuries (The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, and The Age of Extremes).
Hobsbawm is also one of the premier Marxist intellectuals of the past century—something that has been a source of disappointment and even anger to many. Hobsbawm’s long-standing membership in the British Communist Party and his belated, tepid criticism of the Soviet Union have marred his reputation and called his judgment into question. Yet these two aspects of Hobsbawm’s mind are harder to separate than non-Marxist fans of his histories would like, because it is Marxist methods and arguments that provide the armature upon which the clarity, consistency, and force of his writings are constructed.
All of this makes what Hobsbawm has to say about Marxism interesting, and the appearance of a career-spanning collection of his essays on it welcome. Entitled How to Change the World, the volume includes analyses of key works by Marx and Engels as well as chapters on the reception and revision of Marxism after their death. Hobsbawm asserts that Marx is a “thinker [who has] left an indelible mark on the twentieth century,” and few would quibble with this (although most would put others in the pantheon as well). So what does this great, unrepentantly Marxist historian have to say about how Marxism changed the world?
As Hobsbawm stresses, the place to begin is with capitalism, the object of Marx’s lifelong fascination, study, and enmity and still a force the world struggles to understand and master. We now know that many of Marx’s predictions about capitalism turned out to be wrong: it did not lead to inevitable immiseration or class conflict, nor did it collapse. Hobsbawm argues that, despite these flaws, Marx’s analysis of capitalism remains an invaluable guide to the modern era.
I think this is correct, at least in part. Two features of Marx’s analysis of capitalism that remain distinctive and relevant are his emphasis on its transformative power and his insistence that its dynamics cannot be comprehended using a narrowly economic prism. Marx was in awe of capitalism’s capacity to “destroy all that came before it”—to wipe out the social, economic, and political relationships of the premodern era and set in a place a world whose only constant feature was continual change. He also wondered at its ability to produce immense riches and technological advance. Marx respected capitalism greatly; he had no illusions about the backwardness, poverty,...
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