Eric Hobsbawm was probably the most famous historian of the 20th Century, and though I fancy myself as a student of history, I never read a single work of his until after his recent death. The book I picked up, How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, was bought by Ameya and duly borrowed (with no intention of returning it) by me. Now, Hobsbawm was a self-confessed Marxist historian and it is always fascinating to see how people dissect and write about their biggest influences, making the choice of reading this particular book a bloody good coincidence.
How to Change the World, is a collection of essays and lectures given by Hobsbawm on Marx and Marxism, and traces the evolution of Marxism from the very beginning, in the 1840s, to the 21st Century. Hobsbawm, unlike many other self-avowed Marxists, doesnot begin with Marx but goes further back, tracing the German, French and English philosophical lineages which were the direct ancestors of Marxism. Neither does he concentrate solely on Marx, giving Fredrick Engels his due, devoting one whole essay to his seminal work, The Condition of the Working Classes in England, which set the tone for the economics of Marxism, and continuously highlighting the fact that it was Engels who introduced Marx to probably his single greatest influence, the English socialist philosophies and to the various groups and leagues already calling themselves ‘Communist’, long before it became synonymous with Marx. Hobsbawm also bisects the Communist Manifesto, and goes on to trace the growing influence of Marxism in the left-wing politics of Europe in the late 19th Century, through the tussles between the Marxists and Anarchists in the First and Second Internationals, before looking at the influence of Marx right through the 20th Century and ending with its relevance in a post-Soviet world.
The single greatest achievement of Hobsbawm however, is not the fascinating evolutionary timeline of Marxism that he gives, but that he breaks Marx and Engels free from the highly restrictive dogma imposed by the CPSU and consequently the various Communist parties of the world. Hobsbawm points out for example that Marx did not speak about what exactly the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ meant, and the one instance where he did identify a political system as the dictatorship of the proletariat, he referred to the Paris Commune, an anarchist society, which was definitely a far cry from the ‘dictatorship’ of Lenin or Stalin. Hobsbawm also takes great pains to show that there is no one single form of Marxism, as Marx himself was silent on a number of issues, but a number of streams of thought that interpreted Marx’s writing in a variety of different ways, from Kautskyian to Leninism to Trotsykism.
I must confess, I was never a great fan of Communism, which I always equated with Marxism, but reading How to Change the World, it is easy to see that Marxism and Communism are quite distinct. Marx, taken down to his roots and his bare texts, makes as much sense today as he did in the 19th Century. Hobsbawm may not have converted me to Marxism, but then again, that was never his intention, but what he has done, is quite lucidly and clearly, clarified exactly who Marx is and what did he say, and given us a refreshing take on idea of Marxism and why it is relevant in the 21st Century.