"HE'S BACK!" CRIED THE HEADLINE in The Times of London in fall 2008 as global stock markets crashed and banks failed. The "he," of course, was Karl Marx, who had written 160 years earlier about the periodic "crises of capitalism." President Sarkozy of France was photographed reading Marx's Capital, as British Labor MP Tristram Hunt pointed out, and the German edition soon appeared on that country's best-seller list. Even Pope Benedict XVI praised what he called Marx's "great analytical skill." This was the point at which Eric Hobsbawm set out to publish a new book about Marx with a putative call to action for a title: How to Change the World.
Hobsbawm, who lives and works in London at the ripe old age of 94, is probably the world's best, and best-known, Marxist historian. His first book, Primitive Rebels, appeared in 1959, and his second, The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848, in 1962; both were widely read not only on the left but by generations of college students. The first provided an unforgettable account of "social bandits" in 19th- and 20th-century Italy and Spain, men the law regarded as criminals but who were seen as heroes in their peasant communities; the second conveyed the big picture of sweeping social transformation in Europe. He went on to write more than a dozen vivid and compelling studies of the politics and history of the capitalist world, making him one of the most recognizable Marxist icons today. Tom Stoppard's 2006 play Rock 'n' Roll features a young Czech student at a British university arguing about Communist Party politics with his professor, an unrepentant party member who seems a lot like Hobsbawm.
(Full disclosure: Even though I grew up as part of the New Left that dismissed the CP as authoritarian, conservative, and out of touch, Hobsbawm himself has always been a hero of mine. I still remember him at dinner in my kitchen in 1981 after a conference at UC Irvine when the news came that Reagan had been shot. We gathered around the TV and Hobsbawm said matter-of-factly, "I hope it wasn't a leftist." Hobsbawm had returned to New York before we found out that John Hinckley's motivation had not been fomenting revolution but impressing Jodie Foster.)
Hobsbawm's argument in How to Change the World is not complicated. Yes, Marx was wrong about the workers of the world uniting to create a society without exploitation, but he does seem to have understood something essential about those crises of capitalism: They were not, he said, caused by "external" events like wars, natural disasters, or greedy mortgage brokers, but rather were part of the capitalist system itself — a "structural contradiction." Periodic crises in fact made capitalism stronger by destroying its weaker units. Marx predicted that as a result of these periodic crises, eventually a small number of gigantic corporations would dominate the entire world. As Hobsbawm writes, that looks "uncannily" like what we call "globalization."
The notion that Marx was at least partly right about capitalism was blasphemy for much of the Age of Reagan — especially after the collapse of the USSR in 1990. This was "the end of history" declared by political scientist Francis Fukuyama, freely adapting Hegel: Capitalism wins, and the market knows what's best — for everybody. Try telling that to people losing their jobs or getting foreclosed out of their homes after public money bailed...