By Patrick Ward
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Eric Hobsbawm: half Marx

This article is over 11 years, 5 months old
Eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm's latest book champions Karl Marx as capitalism's great critic, but he argues that Marx's alternative to the system has failed. Patrick Ward looks at why it is wrong to abandon Marxism as a project for transforming the world
Issue 356

The financial and economic crisis that erupted in 2008 has a fed a renewed interest in the ideas of Karl Marx. The latest book from respected Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, How to Change the World, is a welcome addition to this resurgence.

Hobsbawm is a key historian of the left. He has produced some of the most insightful studies of empire, capitalism and class struggle, and is perhaps best known for his series of classic texts, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and then The Age of Extremes.

How to Change the World, a collection of his articles on Marxism’s history, offers a fascinating account of the influence of Marxist ideas. It looks as far back as the young Marx who, with his co-thinker Frederick Engels, attempted to develop an explanation of a world undergoing a revolutionary transformation as the new system of production, capitalism, took root.

Hobsbawm makes a strong claim that Marx has a central relevance for anyone wanting to understand the world of the 21st century, especially his insistence that capitalism was doomed to recurrent crises, and his work should therefore be welcomed.

But understanding the world is only half of the problem. As Marx himself famously put it in his 1845 Theses on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Understanding capitalism is one thing, but understanding how it might be overcome is the vital task of socialists today, just as it was in 1848 when Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto.

Since Marx wrote his body of work we have not seen the demise of capitalism. Indeed, what was generally perceived as the main challenge to capitalism in the 20th century, the “official” Communism of the Soviet Union and elsewhere, also failed.

It is perhaps little wonder, then, that many people who once looked to Marx might see his project for changing the world as having failed. Unfortunately, Hobsbawm himself is not immune to such pessimism. As he writes in How to Change the World, “Unlike in the 1930s, [socialists] can point to no examples of communist or social democratic regimes immune to the crisis, nor have they realistic proposals for socialist change.”


Hobsbawm’s disillusion with the prospects for socialism today is rooted in the illusions he held in the past. He was a key intellectual figure in the British Communist Party – a party wedded to the Soviet Union (despite his own opposition to some of its worst policies from within the party). Hobsbawm, like many others in his generation, sickened by the inequalities, wars and instability inherent in capitalism, looked to the apparent “actually existing communism” of the Eastern Bloc as the only realistic counterbalance to the free market.

Each defeat suffered by the working class in the 1930s – such as the Nazis’ victory in Germany in 1933, the collapse of the Popular Front government in France, and Franco’s victory over the Spanish republic – eroded a belief in the power of workers’ own activity to change the world. It correspondingly fed a faith in salvation from above in the form of Stalin’s regime. This was despite the fact that it was the politics and influence of the Communist parties which time and again led to defeat in the first place.

The Stalinist states were the very opposite of what Marx stood for. Central to Marx was the idea that “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself”.

Capitalism creates huge concentrations of workers with no means of making a livelihood except to sell their labour power to those who own and control the means of production, the capitalists. As the collective source of profits workers have an enormous potential power – not just to challenge capitalism, but to create a new form of society without exploitation. All this was true in the time of Marx and it is still true today. So why does capitalism still survive?

Of course, capitalism exercises immense power over our lives and ideas, through its domination of the media, through forcing us into a struggle to make ends meet in often tiring and demanding jobs, through its police and armies if we do revolt and a myriad of other means of domination.

But workers have repeatedly revolted at key moments and the possibility of socialist revolution has been a reality. A red thread ran through the last century: from 1905 and again in 1917 in Russia, in 1918-23 in Germany, in 1919 in Hungary, 1920 in Italy, 1925-7 in China, 1936 in Spain and France, 1956 in Hungary, 1968 again in France, 1972-3 in Chile, 1974-5 in Portugal, 1978-9 in Iran to 1980-1 in Poland. In each of these moments workers’ power drove revolutionary processes forward.

The key to explaining why only one of these revolutions broke through and turned the possibility of socialist revolution into an actuality is to see that Marx was far from the determinist that the Stalinist tradition (and most academic interpretations of Marx) hold him to be.

Marx never saw the triumph of communism as inevitable. Rather it is dependent on the actions of human beings and, crucially, on whether the working class can develop traditions, ideas and organisation that can mobilise its full power at key moments. As Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, historical crises may result in either “a revolutionary reconstitution of society” or “the common ruin of the contending classes”. Hobsbawm too often seems to overlook the crucial role played by the subjective factor in history.


Only this approach can come to terms with the decisive event of the last century – the 1917 Russian Revolution. The successful overthrow of capitalism by Russian workers in October 1917 rested ultimately on the strength of its revolutionary traditions and ideas that crystallised around Lenin’s Bolshevik Party.

The revolution did not survive. But the counterrevolution in Russia should not be seen as happening in 1989 when the Stalinist states collapsed – it occurred tragically earlier, as the revolution spread but failed to break through in other industrialised states in Europe, crucially Germany. The invasion of the workers’ state in Russia by numerous foreign capitalist armies, and the civil war that ensued, led to the decimation of Russian industry and the working class which had led the revolution.

This opened the door for Stalin to seize control of the husk of the Communist Party, and then the state, before he purged from it those most associated with the revolution. From this wreckage capitalism was restored (though this process took over a decade to complete) with workers exploited not for private capitalists but for a state seeking to compete – economically and militarily – with other capitalist states. Stalinism represented the defeat of the revolution, not its continuation in however a distorted a form, as Hobsbawm tended to see it.

But the isolation and defeat of the Russian Revolution was far from inevitable. The fate of the struggle between revolution and counterrevolution in Germany between 1918 and 1923 was decided by the contending strengths of the reformist tradition embodied in the old Social Democratic Party and the inexperienced forces of the revolutionary left. The failure of German revolutionaries to build at least the embryo of a party like the Bolsheviks before the outbreak of the revolution proved a terrible mistake.

The defeat of the German Revolution paved the way for the rise of Stalinism in Russia, whose influence on many of the best fighters inside the international working class movement in turn created the conditions for further, unnecessary defeats in the revolutions that followed.

It was the traditions of reformist social democracy and Stalinism which dominated the working class movement in the last century and repeatedly choked off the potential for socialist revolution.

It is precisely Hobsbawm’s entanglement in these two traditions which lies behind his inability to see the continued potential for socialist revolution. It leads him to sever Marx in two, accepting the ideas of Marx the economist and Marx the historian, but rejecting the ideas of Marx the revolutionary activist.

So he concludes his book with the lament that, “Since the 1980s it has been evident that the socialists, Marxist or otherwise, were left without their traditional alternative to capitalism, at least unless or until they rethought what they meant by ‘socialism’ and abandoned the presumption that the (manual) working class would necessarily be the chief agent of social transformation.”

Both social democracy and Stalinism claimed to represent and speak for the whole of the working class. Both have been in crisis, most obviously the Communist parties after the fall of the Soviet Union, but also social democracy thanks to its failure to offer real reforms any longer.

Hobsbawm equated a crisis for these traditions with a crisis for the working class itself and argued that this rendered obsolete Marx’s claim that the working class was capitalism’s gravedigger.

Billions strong

But the working class around the world, far from shrinking in power, has continued to grow in size. One estimate suggests the core of the global working class is around 2 billion, with perhaps another 2 billion subject to similar pressures to sell their labour power. This is vastly bigger than the total working class of Marx’s era.

We are currently witnessing another wave of revolutions, in Egypt, in Tunisia and potentially across the Arab world (with not just manufacturing workers playing a leading role but groups of workers like tax collectors, bank workers and tourism workers at the forefront in Egypt).

It is in such waves of struggle that new traditions can be built that can ensure that the next opportunity to do away with capitalism is seized not just in one country but across the globe.

Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism is published by Little Brown, £25.

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