How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism

Gregory Elliott on an enduring relationship between a Marxist historian and his muse

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Reviewed by: Gregory Elliott
Author: Eric Hobsbawm
Publisher: Little, Brown
Price (RRP): £25

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With his collection How to Change the World, one of the most renowned living historians, now in his 94th year, celebrates more than half a century in books since the publication of Primitive Rebels in 1959.

Were it to prove to be his last, it will represent a fitting farewell to a career inseparably bound up with the name of Karl Marx and his intellectual and political legacy.

Subtitled Tales of Marx and Marxism, it does not in fact collect all of Hobsbawm’s writings on the subject, others of which can be found in Revolutionaries (1973) and On History (1997). As a result, the sole Marxist after Marx accorded extended treatment is Antonio Gramsci, not coincidentally perhaps the only one to have met with the author’s almost unqualified approval.

Still, it contains the bulk of the relevant texts and as such will be indispensable to three overlapping kinds of readership.

The first is readers with a specialist concern with the subject, who will particularly welcome the belated publication in English of revised versions of erudite chapters from
a multi-volume Italian history of Marxism co-edited by Hobsbawm from 1978–82.

Ranging from discussion of Marx and Engels’s relationship to pre-Marxian forms of socialism to a survey of their doctrine’s influence from the end of the Second World War down to the early 1980s, they appear here supplemented by a new chapter on ‘Marxism in Recession 1983–2000’.

A second type of readership is likely to be one with a specific interest in Hobsbawm’s own shifting relationship to the thinker whose cause he has variously championed since reading The Communist Manifesto as a schoolboy in Berlin. For in collecting materials that date back to 1957, he allows us to track a gradual recession in his own confidence in the explanatory and predictive powers of what its founders regarded as ‘scientific socialism’.

Finally, there will be those (possibly the most numerous) who want to know how things stand with Marx today.

Hobsbawm’s essential argument – a recurring theme of his later writings – is straightforward. Released by the fall of the Berlin Wall from the incubus of ‘Marxism-Leninism’, “once again the time has come to take Marx seriously”.

The return of Marx is staged in the guise not of prophet of the international communism that failed definitively in the 20th century, but as anatomist of the globalising capitalism whose waves of “creative destruction” threaten more destruction than creation in the new millennium.

Consequently, the questions he posed, as opposed to the answers his successors gave, remain on humanity’s agenda. It is a suitably bold claim with which to round off a major work of intellectual history. 

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Gregory Elliott is the author of Hobsbawm: History and Politics (Pluto Press, 2010)