The Age of Revolution: Eric Hobsbawm’s “How to Change the World”

By Jon WienerNovember 4, 2011

The Age of Revolution: Eric Hobsbawm’s “How to Change the World”

How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism by Eric Hobsbawm

"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 out the banks, which led to those same banks reaping windfall profits — a source of bitter anger now spilling onto the streets of cities all around the world. Indeed, today's Occupy Wall Street movement suggests this is a good time to think through the history of Marxism, and Hobsbawm's book does just that through a series of essays written at different points in his career. Some are new, and most of the rest have never been published in English until now. 

For Marx, Hobsbawm emphasizes, capitalism was not just exploitation and oppression — features which had been present, after all, in all previous modes of production. What made capitalism unique was its dynamism. It is a system of awesome energy and creativity; Hobsbawm calls it "ever-expanding," "self-transforming," and "crisis-generating." For Marx, it had the potential to create — for the first time in human history — a life of abundance for everybody and to free the workers of the world from backbreaking toil. That, however, would require a revolution that would replace capitalist control with working-class democracy.

How was this revolution going to happen? What was Marx's plan? Marx, Hobsbawm rightly insists, didn't have a plan. He rejected the idea that it was his job to come up with a plan. The workers themselves had to decide how to organize production and allocate work and leisure. In practice, the task of defining Marxist politics and program was left to the socialist and communist parties of the 20th century. Their success at doing so, or lack thereof, is the reality with which How to Change the World must now contend.



What makes How to Change the World so interesting is that the author is not just an academic — he's also a lifelong Communist with a capital "C," a full-fledged member of the Party since his teenage years. Unlike most of his comrades, he didn't leave the Party in 1956 after Khrushchev's revelations about Stalin's crimes or after the Soviets' repression of the Hungarian uprising; he didn't leave with other comrades in 1968 when the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring; he stayed until the end. Hobsbawm mentions his long Party membership in How to Change the World, but doesn't really answer the question "Why?"

For that you need to go to his wonderful memoir, Interesting Times, published in 2002, which sheds much light on How to Change the World, and on Hobsbawm's work as a whole. As a teenager, Hobsbawm lived in Berlin for two terrifying years, 1932-33, when Hitler seized power. It was there that young Eric joined a Communist youth group, campaigned for the CP candidates in what would be the last elections of the Weimar Republic, and marched in the Communists' final anti-Nazi demonstration in 1933 before the Party was banned and its members sent to concentration camps. That time in Berlin, he would write, "made me a lifelong communist ... even though that project has demonstrably failed, and as I now know, was bound to fail." His family sent him to live with relatives in London, and the relatives sent him to Paris to spend the summers of 1933-39. In 1936 he witnessed firsthand the electoral victory of the Popular Front, which the Communists supported, and then took part in the last great mass demonstration of the interwar European left, Bastille Day in 1936, when all of popular Paris took to the streets. 

If Hobsbawm got an early start at left-wing politics, he was a late bloomer as a historian. He started publishing books only in his forties, and, as he writes in his memoir, "By the time I could actually call myself 'professor' in Britain, I was in my middle fifties ... At that stage for most of us the promise is in the past, and so is such achievement as it has produced." But not for Hobsbawm. The most successful, and probably the best, of his 16 books — The Age of Extremes 1914–1991, the final volume in his ambitious three-part history of the world since the French Revolution — didn't appear until 1994, when he was 77. Young historians, take note: Your best work lies in your future!

Several of the essays in How to Change the World were published originally in the four-volume Italian series Storia del Marxismo. In his memoir, Hobsbawm recalls the occasion when the Storiawas commissioned as one of the politically best times of his life: 1978, at the Genoa Festa de l'Unità, the peak of the popularity and power of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the party's annual popular festival and political rally. Hobsbawm recalls that festival as "an unforgettable occasion of oratory in the vast amphitheatre above the blue sea, food-loaded tables in great marquees full of family parties and the greetings of friends, and hopeful communist leaders chatting and joking in the hotel lounge." His guides had fought in the Resistance, and the Party's full-time politicians at that point tended to be intellectuals and writers. That year the Communist vote equaled the vote of the Christian Democrats, "the party of permanent government," at 34 percent. It was an historic triumph for the PCI, which then had "massive strongholds" in the north, in prosperous and beautiful Tuscany, Umbria, and Emilia-Romagna. Communism in Italy had proven itself to be "a huge and deeply-rooted movement," and Hobsbawm became an enthusiastic advocate for the PCI's anti-Stalinist politics, "Euro-communism."

As the Storia del Marxismo series began to appear, Euro-communism declined, and the essays Hobsbawm published in Italy were never translated — until now. In them, he considers the radicalization of intellectuals during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the effects of Stalin's "canonical" interpretation of "dialectical and historical materialism," at a time when few of Marx's writings were translated. This Hobsbawm contrasts with the influence of Marxism after World War II, especially since the 1960s, when readers gained access to "a giant supermarket of Marxisms and Marxist authors," and when "versions" of Marx's ideas became the "official ideology of states in which, at their peak, something like a third of the human race lived" — not to mention the Marxist political movements in Latin America and Africa. No thinker in human history had ever succeeded with such speed on such a scale, Hobsbawm writes, "with the possible exception of Muhammad."

Today, Marxism, though greatly reduced in influence as a state or party ideology, provides us with a strong theory of capitalist crises, one whose relevance cannot be ignored given the "Occupy" protest movement and the economic meltdown from which it sprang. Which raises the question: What about the workers of the world? What about revolution? You might think that a lifelong member of the Communist Party like Hobsbawm would tend toward the doctrinaire and dogmatic where revolution is concerned, but he doesn't. He's dismissive of Party positions. He's also trenchant in his observations of the failure of Europe's socialist parties. If the working class was ever going to remake society, Hobsbawm argues, it would have done so in Western Europe in the 1970s, when proletarians constituted the largest proportion of the population and the electorate and social democratic governments ruled much of Europe. But this is exactly when the working class of the capitalist core began its decline. Globalization undermined its economic position, and anti-immigrant politics sapped its political unity. (Sound familiar?)

Hobsbawm remains firm in his conviction that "human needs cannot be satisfied by the market," and that capitalism is a historical phenomenon — which means it is not permanent, that its dynamism points to more and deeper crises to come. The current crisis has once again suggested to millions of people that "capitalism is not the answer, but the question." What are we then to make of this historical question, and how exactly do we resolve it?

How to Change the World is an optimistic title that seems to hold out the promise of some kind of answer. But Hobsbawm's book is not a call to today's working class, which in the end he diagnoses as "helpless." In fact, he argues that the most likely working-class politics in the coming era will not be some version of socialism but rather "ethnic nationalism": an attempt to fight globalization and mass unemployment through anti-immigrant (and anti-Chinese) policies. So if a rebellion from today's working class isn't going to "change the world," how exactly do we change it? The Communist Manifesto, Hobsbawm points out, did mention one alternative ending to the succession of capitalist crises: not proletarian revolution, but rather "the common ruin of the contending classes." Given what we're seeing today, with a profound weakening of the working class among contending forces, this "common ruin" seems like a possible scenario — and perhaps even a likely one.


LARB Contributor

Jon Wiener is a professor of history emeritus at UC Irvine. His most recent books are Set the Night on Fire: L. A. in the Sixties, co-authored with Mike Davis, and  Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory TowerHe is a contributing editor to and on the board of directors of Los Angeles Review of Books,  a contributing editor to The Nation, and host of a weekly afternoon drive-time interview show on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.


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