Hobsbawm on Where We Are and Where We Might Go

Just put this up on Cedar Lounge Revolution too.

The prospect of a new Eric Hobsbawm book is always one to pique your interest. And today in the Observer, there is an interview with Hobsbawm on How To Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism. Unfortunately, the interview is conducted by Tristam Hunt MP, but still makes for interesting reading (there’s another, and shorter, interview in the New Statesman, and a review in the Daily Telegraph here). I have to say though that one’s confidence in the publishers and those writing about it is slightly diminished by the fact no-one seems to have noticed it is 162 years since The Communist Manifesto was published, and not Das Kapital.

So what is the book about? It is a collection of previously published and new essays, including, Hunt tells us, “some fine new chapters on the meaning of Gramsci”. Hobsbawm seems to be arguing that the current crisis has breathed new life not only into interest in Marx, but also into the possibility of systemic change, though he is unclear as to how it might come about.

he rediscovery of Marx in this period of capitalist crisis is because he predicted far more of the modern world than anyone else in 1848. That is, I think, what has drawn the attention of a number of new observers to his work – paradoxically, first among business people and business commentators rather than the left. I remember noticing this just around the time of the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto, when not very many plans were being made for celebrating it on the left. I discovered to my amazement that the editors of the [in-flight] magazine of United Airlines said they wanted to have something about the Manifesto. Then, a bit later on, I was having lunch with [financier] George Soros, who asked: “What do you think of Marx?” Even though we don’t agree on very much, he said to me: “There’s definitely something to this man.”

Hobsbawm sees the resurgence of Marx as coming about in particular from the fact that the crisis has proven neo-liberal economic orthodoxy completely wrong – we are in a crisis of a kind it said could not happen, in his view. The collapse of the USSR and associated countries, in Hobsbawm’s view, by removing a lot of the passion from the situation, allowed people to look at Marx afresh. Globalisation has become the victim of its own success.

You see, in a sense, the globalised economy was effectively run by what one might call the global north-west [western Europe and North America] and they pushed forward this ultra-extreme market fundamentalism. Initially, it seemed to work quite well – at least in the old north-west – even though from the start, you could see that at the periphery of the global economy it created earthquakes, big earthquakes. In Latin America, there was a huge financial crisis in the early 1980s. In the early 1990s, in Russia, there was an economic catastrophe. And then towards the end of the century, there was this enormous, almost global, breakdown ranging from Russia to [South] Korea, Indonesia and Argentina. This began to make people think, I feel, that there was a basic instability in the system that they had previously dismissed.

Hobsbawm continues his in his view that one of the main consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union has been the destruction of any meaningful form of social democracy.

In fact, one of the things I’m trying to show in the book is that the crisis of Marxism is not only the crisis of the revolutionary branch of Marxism but in the social democratic branch too. The new situation in the new globalised economy eventually killed off not only Marxist-Leninism but also social democratic reformism – which was essentially the working class putting pressure on their nation states. But with globalisation, the capacity of the states to respond to this pressure effectively diminished. And so the left retreated to suggest: “Look, the capitalists are doing all right, all we need to do is let them make as much profit and see that we get our share.”

That worked when part of that share took the form of creating welfare states, but from the 1970s on, this no longer worked and what you had to do then was, in effect, what Blair and Brown did: let them make as much money as possible and hope that enough of it will trickle down to make our people better off.

The significance, he says, of the current crisis is that living standards are clearly failling once again, and so the question of reformism will emerge once more.

Again, he continues with a pre-existing line, namely his argument that the traditional proletariat is no longer sufficient to change society on its own. Instead, it must form the backbone of progressive alliances. Hence Hobsbawm stating that

Today, ideologically, I feel most at home in Latin America because it remains the one part of the world where people still talk and conduct their politics in the old language, in the 19th- and 20th-century language of socialism, communism and Marxism.

Against some of the more excitable comments about the student protests, Hobsbawm questions the extent of the shift in student consciousness and reminds Hunt that the last major student protests (i.e. 1968) didn’t actually amount to all that much (an argument I have a great deal of sympathy for). In another argument I have some sympathy for, he seems unimpressed with Zizek as well.

I suppose Zizek is rightly described as a performer. He has this element of provocation that is very characteristic and does help to interest people, but I’m not certain that people who are reading Zizek are actually drawn very much nearer rethinking the problems of the left.

Hobsbawm, like everybody else on the left, feels that the coalition is taking the opportunity provided by the crisis to pursue a Thatcherite ideological agenda.

Behind the various cuts being suggested, with the justification of getting rid of the deficit, there clearly seems to be a systematic, ideological demand for deconstructing, semi-privatising, the old arrangements – whether it’s the pension system, welfare system, school system or even the health system. These things in most cases were not actually provided for either in the Conservative or the Liberal manifesto and yet, looking at it from the outside, this is a much more radically rightwing government than it looked at first sight.

I don’t think I’d agree with the remark that the government didn’t look this rightwing from the start. I think that was an illusion about Clegg and the Orange book LibDems, and perhaps even about Cameron, that some of the British centre-left allowed themselves to indulge in, culminating of course in the Guardian’s deluded and foolish call for progressives to vote LibDem. Hobsbawm calls for the Labour Party to concentrate on defending public services from cradle to the grave, and pointing to improvements it made in power. In other words, to move further to the left than Ed Miliband has positioned it so far.

Hunt points out that Hobsbawm’s book’s final paragraph notes that

the supersession of capitalism still sounds plausible to me

. Hobsbawm’s response suggests that he believes a move to socialism unlikely, but that he thinks the neo-liberal era may well be left in the past.

The record of Karl Marx, an unarmed prophet inspiring major changes, is undeniable. I’m quite deliberately not saying that there are any equivalent prospects now. What I’m saying now is that the basic problems of the 21st century would require solutions that neither the pure market, nor pure liberal democracy can adequately deal with. And to that extent, a different combination, a different mix of public and private, of state action and control and freedom would have to be worked out.

What you will call that, I don’t know. But it may well no longer be capitalism, certainly not in the sense in which we have known it in this country and the United States.

In a sense then, there’s not a lot new in this interview, and probably not a lot new in terms of Hobsbawm’s views on contemporary politics, as noted by the Telegraph review. I suspect that for the CLR audience, those of us who read it will find the more historical, philosophical or interpretive reflections on Marx and his followers as being of more interest than Hobsbawm’s political message, which seems perhaps unduly limited and perhaps defeatist.


9 Responses to “Hobsbawm on Where We Are and Where We Might Go”

  1. Justin Says:

    Hobsbawm’s political message, … seems perhaps unduly limited and perhaps defeatist.

    Exactly. Just as it did twenty years ago when he and his fellow eurocommunists/social democrats organised around Marxism Today argued that the forward march of labour had halted and only Third Way politics would put labour back in power. Many of that MT clique went into government with the odious Blair/Brown.

    Whatever his merits as a historian, Hobsbawm’s politics have been disastrous.

  2. Garibaldy Says:

    Yeah, the Marxism Today thing, like Eurocommunism generally, was a disaster. As Hobsbawm must know after what it did to his beloved PCI (as Hunt effectively points out). The hollowness of abandoning class politics is now beyond doubt.

  3. LeftAtTheCross Says:

    Ah give the guy a break 🙂 Not being a professional historian myself I find his books are accessible and generally line up in the right direction. In fairness it’s maybe a bit easy to be critical of political failure from outside the cauldron of power. Not saying that euro-communism and social democracy shouldn’t be criticised by any means, but whatever deformations occured along the path to power should be taken in that context. Criticising their mistakes isn’t dissimilar to the Trots criticising “actually existing socialism”, in the sense that it’s easy to be right when the onus of power and the compromises required have never been a burden. I’m not intending to heretical here by the way, I’m just interested in your more considered comments on that subject, rather than a somewhat glib dismissal of the CPGB as it fell apart (and by association those who left the WP for DL during that same era).

  4. Garibaldy Says:

    His books are great like you say. And I think that the forward march of labour halted argument (available here http://www.socialistunity.com/?p=802 ) was, for Hobsbawm anyway, based on an attempt to use objective analysis to examine the balance of class forces in British and western society, and to discuss the consequences of the changing nature of the economy. Marxists certainly need to do that, all the more so today with the decline of industry and trade union membership since then, as well as the deliberate fostering of self-employment as a means of breaking class consciousness.

    I think, however, that Hobsbawm drew the wrong conclusions from an attempt to apply Marxism creatively, and that politically he misjudged the nature of British social democracy and liberalism. I am less sure that the same is true of some of the other Marxism Today crowd, who basically gave up on class politics, and retreated into cultural/identity politics, as did their cohorts elsewhere.

    I think it’s worth bearing in mind that the CPGB – like the PCI – was not actually wielding the levers of power when they went Eurocommunist. Perhaps in the Italian case it was an attempt to gain access to it, as the PCF had done. The consequences of course were that people stuck with traditional social democracy, rather than move to a new variant, and they were destroyed (same as the DL as you mention).

    So I suppose I still have a lot of admiration of Hobsbawm because he tries to apply Marxist techniques to today’s world, by the same is not true of many others, including those who he allied himself with.

  5. LeftAtTheCross Says:

    Thanks for that link, and for the rest of your comment, good stuff.

  6. Garibaldy Says:

    Hobsbawm’s stuff definitely thought provoking

  7. Justin Says:

    As I recall, Hobsbawm was later scathing of Blair and in particular his decision to go to war in Iraq. So, as Garibaldy says, he is somewhat different from most of those Marxism Today people.

  8. LeftAtTheCross Says:

    Just read that Hobsbawm paper you referred to. Written in 1978, at the height of the nationalised industries in Britain, so very different to the world we live in today. A suggestion in terms of political education for new party members might be to discuss the political mistakes of euro-communism, lest a new generation of activists miss the opportunity to learn from errors of the past. Especially with the expected rise in influence of the ULA after the election, the whole trajectory of Left momentum will be skewed towards the ultra-left, making it all the more important that we don’t counter that by swinging the pendulum to far in the direction of realpolitik or whatever. For people like myself who haven’t been ective through the Left politics of past decades we have some catching up to do.

  9. Garibaldy Says:


    It’s a very interesting article I think, and something we must all face up to, and consider, even if we take different answers than Hobsbawm. I take your point about pointing out the mistakes of the Euro-Communists. They succeeded, in my view, in deligitimising Communism to a large extent among their own people before the fall of the wall. That made the amazing sight of the PCI dissolving itself possible. I wonder what the remaining veterans of World War II felt that day. Doesn’t bear thinking about.

    As for the future for the left at home. I think all the transformative left will work more closely together in future, and that there is no danger of any shift to the right among any of the people involved. There are though other dangers for certain.

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