With How to Change the World, Eric Hobsbawm marks over sixty years in books since editing Labour’s Turning Point in 1948 and making his authorial debut proper, with The Jazz Scene and Primitive Rebels, in 1959. Should it prove to be the last of his twenty-five or so titles to date, it would represent a fitting farewell to a career intimately bound up with the name, and intellectual and political legacy, of Karl Marx. Actually sub-titled ‘Marx and Marxism 1840–2011’, rather than the ‘tales’ of them advertised on the dust jacket, the book does not in fact assemble all its author’s writings on the subject, others of which can be found in two splendid earlier collections—Revolutionaries (1973) and On History (1997)—not to mention the new edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, which contains his long entry on Marx. As a result, the sole Marxist after Marx dealt with at length—two chapters of sixteen—is Gramsci; not coincidentally, perhaps, the only one to have met with Hobsbawm’s almost unqualified approval since his discovery of the Prison Writings in the 1950s, and gravitation to what (in a revealing aside in his 2002 autobiography) he described as ‘spiritual membership’ of the Italian Communist Party.
Still, How to Change the World contains the bulk of the relevant material written since the watershed year of 1956, ranging from an article on Marx’s Victorian critics featured in the inaugural issue of the New Reasoner in 1957, presumably as earnest of collaborative intent with the New Left, down to a set of reflections on ‘Marx Today’ worked up for this volume. As such, it will be indispensable to at least two, doubtless overlapping, types of readership. The first, naturally, is those with a specialist interest in the field. As Hobsbawm observes, How to Change the World is ‘essentially a study of the development and posthumous impact of the thought of Karl Marx (and the inseparable Frederick Engels)’. It is not a history of Marxism, attempts at which have been rare, in English at any rate, in recent decades. (Symptomatically, but two instances are referred to by Hobsbawm: Kołakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism from 1978 and the ‘historical and critical study’ undertaken in 1961 by George Lichtheim, to whose memory this book is dedicated.) However, the core of How to Change the World—more than half the contents—comprises six densely erudite chapters composed for the last genuinely satisfying such endeavour, inasmuch as its remit extended from Marxism as intellectual system to encompass the practical movements and regimes informed by it, and which in their turn re-formed (and deformed) the theory, now become an institutionalized ‘material force’. This was the multi-volume Storia del marxismo co-edited by Hobsbawm with Georges Haupt and others for Einaudi in 1978–82; only the first instalment—which included three of the chapters reprinted here—was translated, as the now long unavailable Marxism in Marx’s Day (1982).
Non-Italian readers will especially welcome the belated publication in English of explorations of the interaction between Marxism and European intellectual culture in the lifetime of the Second International; of its progressivist inflection in the era of anti-fascism, when Stalin’s Soviet Union could be cast as the embodiment of the Enlightenment rationalism betrayed by the heirs of a once-revolutionary bourgeoisie; and of its post-war mutations up to the impending centenary of Marx’s death in 1983. Together with the chapters on the founders’ relationship to pre-Marxian socialisms, their political thinking, and the geographically differential reception of their work, these now appear supplemented by a less fine-grained survey of ‘Marxism in Recession, 1983–2000’. Occasionally updated to signal more recent literature, they might have formed a self-contained volume, displaying Hobsbawm’s capacity for authoritative analysis and synthesis at the very height of his powers as an intellectual historian; though it is a matter for regret that revision of them has not involved modification of the countless references to Marx and Engels’s oeuvre, many of which remain to the German Werke despite the fact that publication of the English Collected Works was completed in 2004.
A second type of audience is likely to be equally attracted by the prospect of learning more about the continuities and discontinuities in Hobsbawm’s attitude to the tradition he has championed, from the time he read the Communist Manifesto at his Berlin Gymnasium in the early 1930s. In gathering texts from six decades of engagement with it, How to Change the World actually discloses more about this than the disappointingly sketchy remarks in Interesting Times. Thus, the great chapter on ‘The Era of Anti-Fascism 1929–45’ can in part be read as an apologia for this phase of Hobsbawm’s life as a Communist militant, typically defending Popular Frontism as ‘coincid[ing] with common sense’ and concluding: ‘For some it is the only part of their political past on which the survivors of that time look back with unqualified satisfaction.’
More generally, within and between the lines we can trace a gradual, then accelerating, recession in Hobsbawm’s confidence in the explanatory and predictive powers of what, for its founders, was not only historical materialism but also ‘scientific socialism’. To all intents and purposes, Hobsbawm reasserts its claims in his 1964 introduction to the section of Marx’s Grundrisse on ‘pre-capitalist economic formations’, where the ‘superb’ 1859 Preface is favourably contrasted with the ethical cast of the early writings of the ‘immature Marx’; and again apparently, albeit in more nuanced fashion, towards the close of the chapter on ‘Marx, Engels and Pre-Marxian Socialism’ (1978), both collected here. However, as demonstrated by republication alongside one another of prefaces to The Condition of the Working Class in England and the Communist Manifesto, whose composition is separated by an interval of thirty years (1969–1998), those claims have now been as explicitly rescinded as they were once pressed. Where Engels’s communism is conceived as integral to his insight as a ‘social scientist’, Marx’s is treated as divisible from his achievement in offering a ‘concise characterization of capitalism at the start of the new millennium’—in effect, a non-manifesto without the communism.
If nothing else, this serves to draw attention to a curious feature of How to Change the World—namely, the lack of any prefatory explanation of its title for the uninitiated. In the Preface to Marxism in Marx’s Day, Hobsbawm quotes Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach—‘The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world: the point, however, is to change it’—and proceeds to note that:
Marxism, the most practically influential (and practically rooted) school of theory in the modern world, is both a method of interpreting the world and of changing it, and its history must be written accordingly.