Review: “How to Change the World”

Does Eric Hobsbawm provide a revolutionary perspective?

The relevance of the ideas of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky has been underlined by recent events. Financial crisis, economic recession, savage austerity and waves of revolution are sparking new interest in socialism and Marxism. Left-wing intellectuals are keen to ride this wave. However, as PETER TAAFFE explains in this review, their writings often fall far short of providing real answers to the question, how to change the world?

Eric Hobsbawm is enjoying a revival of interest in his ideas, particularly through this book in which he sets out to ‘change the world’. This, he freely admits, arises from a growing inquisitiveness in the ideas of Karl Marx. It is a pity, however, that his book could be the first introduction to Marx’s ideas for many. Its subtitle is ‘Tales of Marx and Marxism’. They are indeed tales, because the book’s contents bear very little relationship to what Marx really stood for and how Marxism can change the world in the modern era.

Hobsbawm has a long pedigree as a Marxist academic and theoretician. He appears to recant his former position of slavish support for Stalinism, but he has not yet fully broken with its baleful heritage. He remained within the British Communist Party even after the Stalinist obscenities of the suppression of the Hungarian political revolution in 1956 and the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.

Even in this book, he continues to employ the term ‘socialist’ in relation to the former Stalinist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe, etc. In reality, these regimes were much closer to capitalism than the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky as to what constituted genuine socialism – even though they did possess the vital elements of a planned economy based on the nationalisation of the main productive forces and, therefore, were relatively progressive. To continue to describe one-party totalitarian regimes as ‘socialist’ will further the aims of bourgeois ideologists in discrediting socialism, in the eyes of the new generation in particular.

It is quite incredible that Hobsbawm relegates Leon Trotsky and Trotskyism to a minor historical role. As Terry Eagleton points out, Hobsbawm consigns “one of the most fertile currents of modern Marxism – Trotskyism – to a few casual asides”. (London Review of Books, March 2011) Yet it is absolutely impossible to begin to understand the phenomenon of Stalinism without reading and understanding the works of Trotsky and the Russian and International Left Opposition on this issue. Moreover, it is not possible to approach the struggle for socialism today without clearing out of the way any apology or connection with Stalinism or totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, which are still used as scarecrows by capitalist ideologists to frighten the working class away from real democratic socialism.

This is underlined by bourgeois reviewers of Hobsbawm’s book. While praising him for his erudition, they remorselessly mention his Stalinist past. Hobsbawm “has never convincingly dispelled accusations of being an apologist for the Soviet Union [read Stalinism]”, writes Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. (9 January 2011) Geoffrey Goodman, former industrial correspondent of the Daily Mirror, argues, quite mistakenly, that Hobsbawm “offers neither illusions nor excuses for the failure of Soviet communism”. (Camden New Journal, 10 February 2011) But even if this were true, he offers no real explanation as to why Stalinism triumphed and effectively strangled all the ideals of the October revolution: workers’ democracy and the international goal of world socialism.

There is no mystery as to why Hobsbawm fails to do this. A rigorous examination, from the Marxist point of view, would lead him back to the analysis and conclusions advocated by Trotsky: that a political revolution against the one-party totalitarian Stalinist regimes could have saved the planned economies and re-established genuine workers’ democracy. The continuation of Stalinism, which Hobsbawm did not do anything to defeat, led to the collapse of the bureaucratic regimes and the liquidation of the planned economies, which was a massive ideological victory for world capitalism.

A revival of interest

In the first chapter, Hobsbawm records the revival of interest in ‘Marxism’ in the recent period. Even hedge fund billionaire George Soros has praised Marx. There is no surprise in this; it is connected intimately with the current economic crisis, one of the greatest to affect the system that Soros supports, world capitalism. The capitalists, however, are more interested in Marx now because of his diagnosis of the maladies of their system rather than the remedy he recommends, socialism.

There have been times in history when the bourgeois have similarly sought to use Marx for their own ends. For instance, in pre-revolutionary Russia, bourgeois ideologists attempted to use Marx’s ideas to argue for the ‘inevitability’ of a stage of capitalism to replace tsarism. In this, they garnered the support of the Mensheviks – in the early part of the 20th century, the minority in the Russian workers’ movement – to argue that socialism was the music of the future. Vladimir Lenin and particularly Trotsky, in his famous theory of the permanent revolution, opposed this and argued that the bourgeois-democratic revolution could only be carried through by an alliance of the working class and the peasantry. Once having come to power, this alliance would be compelled to pass over to the socialist stage of nationalising industry, the land, etc. This, in turn, would provoke the international socialist revolution. This is what actually happened in the aftermath of the first world war and the 1917 October workers’ revolution.

But for the betrayal of the social democratic leaders, a European socialist democratic revolution would have resulted. This would have transformed the objective situation in Russia itself and eradicated the backwardness from which Stalinism was a later outgrowth. All of this is absent in Hobsbawm’s analysis.

Hobsbawm, in seeking to account for the renewed interest in Marxism, asserts that there are two reasons for this: “The first is that the end of the official Marxism of the USSR liberated Marx from public identification with Leninism in theory and with the Leninist regimes in practice”. Thrown overboard in a single phrase is the colossal contribution made by Lenin, who created and led the Bolshevik party – the most democratic mass workers’ party in history – supplying the necessary ‘subjective factor’ to carry through the greatest single event in history, the Russian revolution. It is a gross bourgeois and Stalinist slander to link Lenin with the subsequent bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution. Lenin and Trotsky stood for socialism – creating the basis for this in the planned economy in Russia – and workers’ democracy.

There is also an airy dismissal of the “official Marxism of the USSR”, with which Hobsbawm was identified for a very long time. Again, there is an evasion of any historical analysis of this “official Marxism” which, to give it its real name, was a Stalinist distortion of genuine democratic socialism and the ideas of Marxism. So long as Hobsbawm is imprisoned in this ideological straitjacket he will continue to make some of the political mistakes evident in this book.

Take his remarks on the economic foundations of the Soviet Union: “The claim that socialism was superior to capitalism as a way to ensure the most rapid development of the forces of production could hardly have been made by Marx”. This is a quite astonishing admission of this ‘scholar’s’ lack of awareness of the historical schemas traced out by Marx, and developed by the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky and their work in the October revolution and subsequently.

Socialism remains a utopian dream unless it can develop a higher productivity of labour, and is able to develop the productive forces – science, the organisation of labour and technique – onto a higher level. This is necessary, argued Marx, in the very first period of socialism, its lowest level. Its starting point should be on a higher level than the most advanced capitalist economy, for instance, the USA today. Marx summed up this idea in one of his first works, German Ideology. He wrote that, unless the productive forces could develop in a new socialist society, “want would be generalised and all the old crap would reappear”. What he meant is that classes, the state, as well as the bureaucratic remnants of the old society, inequality and the rest, would exist and even grow to some extent in the ‘new society’ unless it possessed a higher economic level and productive capacity.

Is this not the reason why Stalinism developed in Russia and elsewhere? The October revolution took place under the signboard of democratic socialism, the abolition of inequality, and of a democratic workers’ state controlled by the masses with workers’ control and management. And this did exist to a great extent in the first immediate period after the October revolution – but in a ‘besieged fortress’. The Bolsheviks never perceived that this could be maintained, particularly in an economically and culturally backward society like Russia, unless the revolution spread to the west – particularly to Germany, which probably had the most industrially developed economic capacity in the world at that stage – and, ultimately, to the whole world. Therefore, all the old ‘crap’ was revived in the growth of the bureaucracy, reflected, unconsciously at first, by Stalin. The working class was elbowed aside and power concentrated in the hands of the greedy and inefficient bureaucracy. Hobsbawm seems to be ignorant of all this, leading him to discard the progressive elements of the planned economy which showed, in practice, what would be possible on the basis of a genuine workers’ democracy.

An eclectic mishmash

Hobsbawm’s book is an eclectic mishmash, without a clear idea being pursued to the end. For instance, he states that “the traditional socialist vision of socialism [is of] essentially a non-market society, which probably Karl Marx also shared”. There is no ‘probably’ about it. The idea that socialism was the answer to capitalism runs like a red thread throughout Marx’s works. What this comment really indicates is that Hobsbawm, in full flight from his previous, mistaken pro-Stalinist position, is discarding central features of Marx’s analysis, particularly relating to the goal of socialism.

This is not the first time he has engaged in such an exercise. He was the high priest of so-called ‘new realism’, which evolved from the Eurocommunist layer of the Communist Party of Great Britain, around the journal Marxism Today in the 1970s and 1980s. Neil Kinnock drew heavily on Hobsbawm’s ideas to shift the Labour Party towards the right, furnishing the basis for the expulsion of the Marxists around the Militant newspaper (now the Socialist Party) from the Labour Party. This was decisive in the emergence of Blairism, which transformed the Labour Party from a workers’ party at its base into a bourgeois formation.

Hobsbawm and the Eurocommunists saw in the decline of the industrial working class – a product of so-called ‘post-Fordism’ – an overall weakening of the labour movement, industrial militancy and class consciousness. Marxists opposed these ideas, amongst other things pointing to a growing industrial militancy of former ‘white-collar’ workers – teachers, post office workers, technical workers in offices, etc. The bourgeois were forced to attack these layers because of the economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s and the need to boost their profits and increase capitalist accumulation. In the process, they undermined their social reserves. The ideas of new realism were themselves products of the overall ideological offensive of neo-liberalism – individualism against so-called ‘statism’ (privatisation, etc) – which came to full fruition after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the liquidation of the planned economies.

Hobsbawm, Kinnock and Blair were not apostles of a new ‘realistic’ adaptation to changing conditions. They represented the liquidation of the combative fighting spirit and programmatic class opposition of the labour movement to all aspects of pro-capitalist ideas and methods. Any real balance sheet of the failure of the ideas of ‘new realism’ is entirely absent from this work. Hobsbawm mentions the opportunist reconciliation of the German Social Democratic leader Eduard Bernstein to capitalism, during a boom period at the end of the 19th century. Yet he and those like him did exactly the same thing in the British labour movement in a similar period – the short economic boom in the 1980s. Moreover, they reconciled themselves to the more sustained boom of the ‘noughties’. We, on the other hand, never ceased to argue that the financialisation of world capitalism was creating massive bubbles, which would end in tears for capitalism. Our prognosis was borne out with the onset of the present devastating economic crisis, from which capitalism is finding great difficulty in extricating itself.

On almost every page, examples of praise for Marx can be found alongside thinly-veiled dismissals of some of his major conclusions. In the chapter ‘Marx Today’, on the one side Hobsbawm believes that Marx’s idea that capitalism would be superseded is “a prediction that still sounds plausible to me”. In the next paragraph, he writes: “[Marx’s] prediction that industrialisation would produce populations largely employed as manual wage-workers, as was happening in England at the time… was correct enough as a middle-range prediction, but not, as we know, in the long term”. On the contrary, while the industrial working class has declined in the formerly industrialised countries, given the industrialisation of China, India and Brazil, Marx’s ideas still retain their validity, from a world point of view. On a global scale, the industrial working class has probably grown in the past ten to 20 years in numbers as well as in specific weight in society.

Even if this was not the case, the proletarianisation of formerly ‘privileged’ layers means that, today, they form a substantial section of the working class who will be involved in the task of ‘expropriating the expropriators’, democratic socialism. Hobsbawm seeks to sanitise Marx’s more revolutionary conclusions, to make them more acceptable, perhaps to academia and bourgeois and petty-bourgeois public opinion. In the process, this blunts the message for workers, particularly young workers, who are engaged in a mighty struggle against capitalism.

This clearly comes out when Hobsbawm deals with the issue of the state: “The mature Marxian theory of the state was thus considerably more sophisticated than the simple equation: state equals coercive power equals class rule”. Contained in these lines is the same opportunistic approach, beginning with the German Social Democratic reformists and their counterparts in Britain and France, etc, towards the problem of the capitalist state. As Hobsbawm concedes, Marx was quite clear that the working class could only take power if it were organised “as a ruling class” through “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. This term did not denote, as the detractors of Marx argue, a kind of anticipation of one-party dictatorial Stalinism. Marx’s idea clearly meant what subsequently transpired in Russia in October 1917: a state organised as a ‘workers’ democracy’. For Marxists, this term is preferable today. We do not use the term ‘dictatorship’ because it conjures up visions of one-party totalitarian regimes synonymous with the idea of a socialist society.

Hobsbawm qualifies ‘his’ Marxist definition of the state: “The concept of the state as class power was modified, particularly in the light of the Bonapartism of Napoleon III in France and the other post-1848 regimes which could not simply be described as the rule of a revolutionary bourgeoisie”. This is not a valid interpretation of Marx – certainly not a rounded-out one – let alone of Engels, Lenin and Trotsky on the state. Marx brilliantly described the phenomenon of Bonapartism where, because of the deadlock in the class struggle, the state is able to attain a relative independence and balance between the classes. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, it represents the “dominant economic class” which in France post-1848 was the bourgeoisie, who were not so ‘revolutionary’ at this stage. Hobsbawm seeks to water down the Marxist conception of the state in order to smuggle in the idea that the state can in some way be ‘reformed’. The struggle is seen by him as taking power away from the ruling class – the capitalists – and creating a new state. A rupture, a sharp break, is therefore not necessary to establish socialism.

Hiding behind Gramsci

This informs Hobsbawm’s whole approach. This is revealed in the chapter dealing with Antonio Gramsci, leader of the young Italian Communist Party (PCI) after the first world war, who was jailed by Mussolini and died in prison. Gramsci had many fine qualities. Trotsky, for instance, credits him with understanding the character of fascism – that after the victory of Mussolini in 1922, the working class, weakened and scattered, would be in for a lengthy struggle – earlier than others, including Trotsky himself. But Hobsbawm asserts that he was “the most original thinker produced in the west since 1917”.

Gramsci, because of his imprisonment, was cut off from developments in Italy and internationally. Therefore, it was not possible for him to form a complete picture of the development of the workers’ movements and, particularly, of events in Russia with the rise of Stalinism. But it is no accident that Hobsbawm lights on the figure of Gramsci. He thinks he has found in some of his prison writings a theoretical explanation for both his own and the PCI’s adaptation to capitalism. Is it entirely incidental that the long-time PCI leader, Palmiro Togliatti, also used the alleged ideas of Gramsci to shift his party to the right? The net effect of Togliatti’s actions and those of his successors was to lead effectively to the disintegration of the once mighty PCI.

Hobsbawm’s attempts to single out the objective conditions of Italy to explain the unique character of the Italian labour movement and the figure of Gramsci are one-sided to say the least. He highlights the character of Italy combining features of backwardness and semi-feudal conditions with the elements of modernity, industry, factories in the north, etc. But Italy was not the only country, even in Europe, where the working class was a minority, with a rural population, the peasantry, together with the rest of the middle-class forming a majority. In Germany and France, the task of winning these intermediate layers to the side of the working class was also posed. Hobsbawm states that Gramsci “pioneered a Marxist theory of politics”, regarding “politics as ‘an autonomous activity’.” Hobsbawm invokes Gramsci to underline “the autonomous role of the superstructure in the social process, or even the simple fact that a politician of working class origin is not necessarily the same as a worker at the bench”. Gramsci also sought to analyse the ideological role of “intellectuals”.

Of course there is more than a grain of truth in these ideas. Politics is not an automatic reflection of the economic situation. If that was the case, the politics of the working class today would be clearly revolutionary given the devastating world economic crisis. Consciousness – which is a bedrock for a Marxist’s approach to ‘politics’ – is formed by events, together with the intervention of the organisations of the working class, and develops in a contradictory fashion. An economic crisis does not automatically lead to mass radicalisation and rising consciousness, no more than a boom lowers it. The Russian revolution of 1905-07 was followed by an economic crisis. This did not lead to a radicalisation of the masses because it came after the defeat of the revolution. On the other hand, the boom beginning in 1910, by economically strengthening the working class, laid the basis for a further upswing in the class struggle. Having said this, however, politics is not completely ‘autonomous’. Marxists are not crude reductionists. Politics, like the state itself, can retain a certain relative ‘autonomy’ for a time. But, ultimately, it is dependent on and reflects the economic fortunes of the ruling class and those of the middle class as well as the working class.

Hobsbawm betrays his real intentions in drawing on Gramsci’s alleged ideas: “Italy was a country in which, after 1917, several of the objective and even subjective conditions of social revolution appeared to exist – more so than in Britain and France and even, I suggest, than in Germany. Yet this revolution did not come off. On the contrary, fascism came to power. It was only natural that Italian Marxists should pioneer the analysis of why the Russian October revolution had failed to spread to western countries, and what the alternative strategy and tactics of the transition to socialism ought to be in such countries”.

To paraphrase Trotsky, every word here is a mistake and some are two. Different objective conditions were not the primary reason that the revolution did not transpire in Europe – although there were different conditions in all the European countries, particularly compared to Russia. If anything, opportunities for revolution were greater because of the greater strength of the working class and the huge upheavals following the first world war. Nor did the failure of the revolutionary wave lie in the subjective consciousness of the working class who threw themselves against capitalism following the Russian revolution. It was entirely due to the perfidious role of the social-democratic leaders who betrayed the revolution. Hobsbawm indicates his pure Menshevism when he implies that Britain and France were not ready for revolution after 1917, ‘or even Germany’.

The German working-class movement was probably the strongest in the world outside of Russia at this stage. Between 1917-23 the German working class tried again and again to take power, throwing itself against capitalism in mighty mass movements. In 1923, the German workers, faced with a very favourable position, failed to take power because of the fatal prevarication of their leaders at a decisive moment. Hobsbawm does not even mention this. He looks for a different, easier, more ‘objective’ reason. How ironic that this book with this message is published against the background of the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa! The Egyptian and Tunisian masses ignored the nostrums of their ‘Hobsbawms’ in their chosen methods to overthrow their dictators. In the circumstances that obtained, they could take no other road. The weak bourgeois forces in each country and the region had built a brick wall against all attempts to reform the system either from above or below

Hobsbawm’s pessimism

The conclusion from Hobsbawm’s interpretation of Gramsci is that the gradual transformation of the state, the conquering of ‘civil society’ and a kind of ‘long march’ towards ‘changing the world’, is the only possibility for the workers’ movement. This reformist approach, where it was tried, from Spain in the 1930s to Chile in the 1970s, broke its neck against counter-revolution, which is the chosen method of the bourgeois when all else fails. They have no recourse to such methods today because they are not being seriously challenged politically by mass organisations of the working class, which have either been ‘Blairised’ out of existence or, like the trade unions, have been effectively neutered up to now by cowardly and passive leaders.

One of the positive things in the book – few in number it must be confessed – is Hobsbawm’s reference to Engels’s demand for the independence of the working class and the creation of its own organisations: “Never mind how, so long as it is a separate workers’ party”, wrote Engels. This is exactly the task which the Committee for a Workers’ International has set itself around the world, in order to politically rearm the working class in the stormy battles to come. One of the reasons why this task is necessary today, 150 years after Engels first made the call, is precisely because independent organisations of the working class disappeared in the ‘noughties’, partly helped by the likes of Hobsbawm, the theoretician of the gravediggers of the old Labour Party like Kinnock.

Gramsci wrote a great deal about the role of ‘intellectuals’. He was dealing primarily with this issue from the point of view of the development of consciousness, including the dominant consciousness or ideology of the bourgeois. This general idea, which has been misunderstood by his latter-day interpreters, is an important one. The labour movement, including the Marxists, wish to influence and win the intellectuals, the best of them at least, to their side. For instance, a struggle is necessary in the state to win over technicians, the middle class in general, and even managers.

Moreover, as the present situation in Britain indicates, savage attacks on state employees – including the police and armed forces – can radicalise layers who have never seen themselves as allies of the working class. Lawyers will protest against the cuts on 26 March. Faced with attacks on their rights and conditions, they can be drawn over to the side of the labour movement. But this will not be achieved by watering down the programme of struggle, solidarity and socialism.

It is only by offering a new vista, the idea of a change in society, that state employees, as well as intellectual ‘brain workers’, will be attracted to the labour movement and, even then, not just by propaganda but by struggle. This has been underlined in all the great social movements seen in Britain, from the poll tax to the miners’ strike, etc. A similar situation can now develop in the anti-cuts movement. It is emphasised by the revolution in the Middle East and North Africa. That part of the intellectuals and youth going through universities and colleges can also be attracted to the labour movement. A significant section can be influenced and won to Marxism.

Hobsbawm writes: “Granted that in Italy and most of the west there was not going to be an October revolution from the early 1920s on – and there was no realistic prospect of one – [Gramsci] obviously had to consider a strategy for the long haul”. But Hobsbawm admits that Gramsci was not committed to just this one strategy. He did not rule out a ‘frontal attack’, that is revolution, in the classical sense of October 1917. He feared the ‘integration’ of the revolutionary movement into the capitalist system. He elaborated, in the manner of Machiavelli’s idea set out in The Prince – which, for Gramsci, meant the party – a programme for the working class to establish ‘hegemony’ over other classes in the struggle for power. Ironically, this idea of ‘hegemonism’ has been interpreted in exactly the opposite sense of what Gramsci intended. It is used as a criticism, usually by anti-Marxists, against any attempt to establish the primacy of the working class and its organisations or of Marxists striving in a principled political fashion to win a majority in the organisations of the working class.

Overall, despite the title of the book, Hobsbawm is pessimistic about how to change the world. Surely, the starting point today would be how to face up to the devastating economic crisis afflicting the whole world, the deepest since the 1930s? One indication of this is that, according to the International Monetary Fund, world capitalism lost a total of $50 trillion from 2008-10, through the loss of production and the devaluation of assets – equal to the total output of the world in goods and services in a single year! Yet, Hobsbawm comments: “The socialists, traditional brains-trust of labour, do not know any more than anyone else how to overcome the current crisis. Unlike in the 1930s, they can point to no examples of communist or social-democratic regimes immune to the crisis, nor have they realistic proposals for socialist change”.

The collapse of his former idols, the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe and Russia, means for him that there is no traction in arguing for the socialist alternative. However, before the Russian revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union, socialists did argue, and quite effectively, for socialist change – without having a prepared model. Without this struggle over generations, the labour movement would not have been built and the subjective factor necessary for carrying through a revolution and social change would have been absent. There were many periods of disillusionment because booming capitalist economies appeared to be ‘doing the job’ – for instance, between 1896 and 1914. Then, reformists like Bernstein in Germany, Millerand in France and MacDonald in Britain sought to reconcile the labour movement to an inch-by-inch ‘march toward socialism’. The first world war, which signified the absolute impasse of the productive forces under capitalism, put paid to these ideas, although their advocates were not completely defeated politically within the labour movement.

True, the actual creation of a workers’ state in Russia was followed by the terrible historical fact of Stalinism. That is an obstacle to workers easily drawing socialist conclusions today. Stalinism has acted as a blot on the history and the reputation of the labour movement, introducing complications that did not exist prior to the first world war and the Russian revolution. But the only way to overcome this ‘contradiction’ is to have an honest and serious balance sheet of why the revolution in Russia degenerated and how this can be avoided in the future. Hobsbawm is incapable of doing this because of the tawdry political garments of the past he still clings to, the remnants of a much distorted ‘Marxism’ which has not come to terms with the phenomenon of Stalinism.

How to Change the World

By Eric Hobsbawm

Little, Brown, 2011, £25

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April 2011