Hobsbawm concludes that “once again the time has come to take Marx seriously”
The publication of a work by Eric Hobsbawm, arguably the most celebrated Marxist historian of this generation, has always been an event. Original in method and provocative in ideas, his studies not only chartered a new path, but also ruffled the existing orthodoxy, both academic and political. More so in the case of his latest publication, as it deals with a widely debated issue during the post- Soviet Union era, namely, “the development and posthumous impact of the thought of Karl Marx.”
While Marxism is written off as a failed ‘dogma' and the end of history is being celebrated by liberal scholars, Hobsbawm majestically recapitulates the political fortunes and intellectual attainments of Marxism, and the lessons they proffer lead him to the conclusion that “once again the time has come to take Marx seriously,” as “economic and political liberalism, singly or in combination, cannot provide the solution to the problems of the 21st century.”
The key to understand the problems of contemporary world is implicit in Marx, not because of his popularity — evident from the poll conducted by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which rated him the greatest of all philosophers — but because, unlike his predecessors who had thought of man in his totality, he apprehended the world as a whole which is “at once political, economic, scientific and philosophical.” Such a conception was in fact the essence of Hobsbawm's political perspective, firmly rooted in Marxist theory and practice.
The essays in this volume represent his incisive understanding of the intellectual and political content of the history and philosophy of Marxism and its prospects in a world where capitalism has established itself as the hegemonic system.
In the first part of the book, some of the important Marxist texts highlighting conceptual and theoretical issues central to Marxist analysis are discussed. A re-reading of Communist Manifesto, Grundrisse, and Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England, among others, revives the debates around concepts like state, democracy, nationalism and so on.
In a brief but succinct account of the evolution of Marxist thought on state beginning with the Critique of Hegel's philosophy of Law (1843), Hobsbawm demonstrates how “mature Marxist theory of the state was considerably more sophisticated than the simple equation: state = coercive power = class rule.” He draws attention to the conclusion of Marx that constitutional forms were secondary to social content and that he was critical of government by representatives — that is, by “introducing democracy as a formal part of the state rather than recognising it as its essence.”
The general ideas about politics that Marx bequeathed to his successors continue to be relevant in contemporary times. They included the subordination of politics to history and political action as the essence of the proletarian struggles. More importantly, politics is located in class struggles within states, and the state neither stood above classes, nor represented the common interest of all society nor was neutral between classes.
Besides these formulations, Marx and Engels left to their successors, according to Hobsbawm, “a number of empty or ambiguously filled spaces in their political thought.” He contends that it is “virtually impossible to derive from the classic writings anything like a manual of strategic and tactical instruction, dangerous even to use them as a sort of precedents, though they have nevertheless been so used. What could be learnt from Marx was his method of facing the tasks of analysis and action rather than ready-made lessons to be derived from classic texts.”
Otherwise what was essentially a guide to action would be turned into dogma and “the texts of the founders would acquire classic or even canonical status.” It was in such a contingency that Marxism encountered a setback during the course of the 20th century. However, he recalls that the “practice of valuing Marxism primarily as a ‘method' rather than a body of doctrine” has been a polite form of expressing disagreement with what Marx had actually written.
The 20th century witnessed three important tendencies within the Marxist fold: first, rapid advance of intellectual and cultural influence; secondly, a sharp decline in its political fortunes; and thirdly, a critical advance in its theoretical reformulations, particularly in matters of ideology and culture. In order to highlight these developments Hobsbawm turns his attention to three important dimensions: the proliferation of Marxist epistemology during 1880-1983; the importance of Gramsci's intervention in Marxist theoretical formulations; and, finally, the “recession of Marxism” during 1983-2000. During this period, the influence of Marxism extended beyond the political field as enacted in the rival and conflicting Marxist orthodoxies of the Soviet bloc and China and played out in the Communist parties in other countries to make a significant impact on the academic and cultural spheres. Even those who were not sympathetic to the Marxist framework of analysis could not but draw upon the method and arguments of Marx. Hobsbawm cites the example of Fernand Braudel, a French historian of no Marxist leanings, whose path-breaking work, Capitalism and Material Life, has more references to Marx than any other single author.
Despite the failure of the socialist states, the intellectual appeal and influence of Marxism remains global. And this is based on the notion that the “traditional theory and doctrines of Marxism required substantial rethinking, modification and revision.” Hobsbawm's tale underscores this tendency most admirably.