Eric Hobsbawm: a conversation about Marx, student riots, the new Left, and the Milibands

As he publishes his latest book, 93-year-old historian Eric Hobsbawm talks communism and coalition with one of Britain's newer breed, Tristram Hunt, now a Labour MP

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Tristram Hunt The Observer,

1. How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism 2. by Eric Hobsbawm


Eric Hobsbawm, left, in conversation with Tristram Hunt. Photograph: Karen Robinson


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Hampstead Heath, in leafy north London, is proud of its walk-on part in the history of Marxism. It was here, on a Sunday, that Karl Marx would walk his family up Parliament Hill, reciting Shakespeare and Schiller along the way, for an afternoon of picnics and poetry. On a weekday, he would join his friend Friedrich Engels, who lived close by, for a brisk hike around the heath, where the "old Londoners", as they were known, mulled over the Paris Commune, the Second International and the nature of capitalism. Today, on a side road leading off from the heath, the Marxist ambition remains alive in the house of Eric Hobsbawm. Born in



in the wake of Martin Amis's anti-Stalin book Koba the Dread. But talking to Eric in his airy front room. the continual duty to engage with Marx and his multiple legacies (including. which has wreaked havoc on the world economy since 2007. as he put it. The global crisis of capitalism. The global sensibility and lack of parochialism. his brilliant autobiography Interesting Times – chronicling a youth in Weimar Germany. historical understanding for a 20th-century life shaped by the struggle against fascism. He suffered a nasty fall over Christmas and can no longer escape the physical constraints of his 93 years. the great ogre of the 20th century. rather. political incisiveness and breadth of vision. under the British protectorate of Egypt). there is an almost tangible sense of connection to the men and their memory. filled with family photos. remain wonderfully undimmed. continue to shape his politics and history. With a well-thumbed copy of the Financial Times on the coffee table. For Hobsbawm. But the humour and the hospitality of himself and his wife. in this book. Since then things have changed. Even Pope Benedict XVI was moved to praise Marx's "great analytical skill". approval or sympathy". together with new material on Marxism in light of the crash. And after one hour of talking Marx. of course. you leave Hobsbawm's Hampstead terrace – near the paths where Karl and Friedrich used to stroll – with the sense you have had a blistering . It was also amid another cyclical media attack. Suddenly. The last time I interviewed Eric. academic honours and a lifetime of cultural objets. has transformed the terms of debate. Marlene. on Eric's membership of the Communist party. "He's back. The "Marxist professor" of Daily Mail ire did not seek. But Eric himself has changed. he knew neither man personally. Eric moved seamlessly from the outgoing President Lula of Brazil's poll ratings to the ideological difficulties faced by the Communist party in West Bengal to the convulsions in Indonesia following the 1857 global crash. some fine new chapters on the meaning of Gramsci) remains compelling. as well as the intellect. always such a strength of his work.1917 (in Alexandria. but. Marx. banks were summarily nationalised and President Sarkozy of France was photographed leafing through Das Kapital (the surging sales of which pushed it up the German bestseller lists). a lifetime's love of jazz and his transformation of the study of history in Britain – had appeared to great acclaim." screamed the Times in the autumn of 2008 as stock markets plunged. in 2002. Marx's critique of the instability of capitalism has enjoyed a resurgence. materialism and the continued struggle for human dignity in the face of free-market squalls. had been resuscitated across campuses. more than 20 years after both Marx and Engels had died. So there seemed no better moment for Eric to bring together his most celebrated essays on Marx into a single volume. "agreement. branch meetings and editorial offices.

What happened from the 1970s on. between 1945 and the early 1970s. I think. a pathological deformation of the free-market principle behind capitalism: the pure market economy and rejection of state and public action that I don't think any economy in the 19th century actually practised. is there a sense of vindication? That even if the solutions once offered by Karl Marx might no longer be relevant. as one might say a universal globalisation. the way in which capitalism had actually worked in its most successful era. in Chicago and elsewhere and. a bit later on. not even the USA. who asked: "What do you think of Marx?" Even though we don't agree on very much. It wasn't ideal. there certainly is. TH And this was the language of "an end to boom and bust" and going beyond the business cycle? EH Exactly. eventually. shall we say. capitalism with a human face. iconoclasm and potential of capitalism? That that's the part that attracted the CEOs flying United Airlines? EH I think that it is globalisation. first among business people and business commentators rather than the left. I remember noticing this just around the time of the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto. Then. Tristram Hunt At the heart of this book. TH By "successful". Because the official theory in that period [the late 1990s] theoretically dismissed the possibility of a crisis. when not very many plans were being made for celebrating it on the left. I suppose. And it was in conflict with. the fact that he predicted globalisation. he was asking the right questions about the nature of capitalism and that the capitalism that has emerged over the last 20 years was pretty much what Marx was thinking about in the 1840s? Eric Hobsbawm Yes. what has drawn the attention of a number of new observers to his work – paradoxically. The rediscovery of Marx in this period of capitalist crisis is because he predicted far more of the modern world than anyone else in 1848. among other things. I discovered to my amazement that the editors of the [in-flight] magazine of United Airlines said they wanted to have something about the Manifesto. from 1980 with Thatcher and Reagan was. I was having lunch with [financier] George Soros. And someone determined to keep a critical eye on the 21st. you mean in terms of raising living standards in the postwar years? EH Successful in that it both made profits and ensured something like a politically stable and socially relatively contented population. that impressed them. ." TH Do you get the sense that what people such as Soros partly liked about Marx was the way he describes so brilliantly the energy.tutorial with one of the great minds of the 20th century. but it was. first in the universities. including the globalisation of tastes and all the rest of it. That is. But I think the more intelligent ones also saw a theory that allowed for a sort of jagged development of crisis. he said to me: "There's definitely something to this man.

less distorted by passion than before. I would even say that the new parties were largely left to improvise. TH You raised the issue of the political consequences of the crash. On the other hand. the specific Marxian programme was that the working class should form itself into a classconscious body and act politically to gain power. the globalised economy was effectively run by what one might call the global north-west [western Europe and North America] and they pushed forward this ultra-extreme market fundamentalism. if you like. with a variety of possibilities. In your book. there was a huge financial crisis in the early 1980s. And then towards the end of the century. This began to make people think. Or is this simply our turn to suffer the crises they had 10 years ago? EH The real rise of the Bric countries is something that has happened in the past 10 years. but where do you think Marxism as a political project goes now? EH I don't believe that Marx ever had. Marx quite deliberately left it vague. in a sense. I feel. What Marx had written about simply amounted to little more than clause IV- . It's therefore a mistake to believe that the rise of the Bric countries is simply the same thing as the generalisation of western capitalism. a political project. that there was a basic instability in the system that they had previously dismissed. Brazil. it seemed to work quite well – at least in the old north-west – even though from the start. you drop an insistence on looking at the classic texts of Marx as providing a coherent political programme for today. from the state-directed capitalism of France to the free-market of America. 15 years at most. Beyond that. Europe and Britain isn't so much a crisis of capitalism. India and China – "Bric" – are growing their economies on increasingly capitalist models at the same time. you could see that at the periphery of the global economy it created earthquakes. per se. because of his dislike of utopian things. Indonesia and Argentina. big earthquakes. It isn't: the only time they tried to import free-market fundamentalism wholesale was into Russia and there it became an absolutely tragic failure. as neoliberals and free marketeers do. the capitalists stopped being afraid and to that extent both they and we could actually look at the problem in a much more balanced way. In the early 1990s. But it was more the instability of this neoliberal globalised economy that I think began to become so noticeable at the end of the century. breakdown ranging from Russia to [South] Korea. Paradoxically. The Leninist shadow was taken away and you were able to return to the original nature of Marxian writing? EH With the fall of the Soviet Union. there was this enormous. Meanwhile. TH There has been some suggestion to say that the crisis we've seen since 2008 in terms of America. I think there's a risk in assuming. Initially. that there's only one type of capitalism. a family. Politically speaking. Capitalism is. You see. Russia. as it were. In Latin America. So to that extent you can say that it was a crisis of capitalism. to do what they could do without any effective instructions. almost global.TH And do you think that the renewed interest in Marx was also helped by the end of the Marxist/Leninist states. in Russia. but of the modern west's finance capitalism. there was an economic catastrophe.

all we need to do is let them make as much profit and see that we get our share. With the exception of the United States. the capitalists are doing all right. My view is that the main model that 20th-century socialists and communists had in mind was the state-directed war economies of the first world war. But with globalisation. of course. if the profits were healthy and investment could be secured for education and health. the capacity of the states to respond to this pressure effectively diminished. completely working class. which weren't particularly socialist but did provide some kind of guidance on how socialisation might work. In fact. it is true. so long as the standard of living improved. I think the rapidity of deindustrialisation in this .style ideas about public ownership. this no longer worked and what you had to do then was. nowhere actually near enough to provide a guidance to parties or ministers. we are struggling for answers? EH Now that we're going the other way with western countries. in terms of the left. we didn't ask too many questions? EH Yes. where economic growth is relatively static. to some extent. TH So there was that Faustian bargain that during the good times. TH Do you see as part of the problem. with minorities. the working class remained a massive. religious and cultural minorities. They were. always alliances: alliances with certain kinds of liberal and leftwing intellectuals. These parties were never. The new situation in the new globalised economy eventually killed off not only Marxist-Leninism but also social democratic reformism – which was essentially the working class putting pressure on their nation states. TH Are you not surprised by the failure of either a Marxian or a social democratic left to exploit the crisis of the last few years politically? We sit here some 20 years on from the demise of one of the parties you most admire. which was traditionally essential to social democratic politics? EH Historically. It was around the working-class parties that social democratic governments and reforms crystallised. And so the left retreated to suggest: "Look. recognisable bloc for a long time – certainly well into the 1970s. or only rarely. TH And now with the profits falling away." That worked when part of that share took the form of creating welfare states. even declining. but from the 1970s on. the Communist party in Italy. what Blair and Brown did: let them make as much money as possible and hope that enough of it will trickle down to make our people better off. in effect. Are you depressed by the left's state at the moment in Europe and beyond? EH Yes. the end of a conscious and identifiable mass working class. labouring poor. one of the things I'm trying to show in the book is that the crisis of Marxism is not only the crisis of the revolutionary branch of Marxism but in the social democratic branch too. possibly many countries with different kinds of working. then the question of reforms becomes much more urgent again.

Today. He has this element of provocation that is very characteristic and does help to interest people. A good example of this. ideologists and varying kinds of left [wingers]. I feel most at home in Latin America because it remains the one part of the world where people still talk and conduct their politics in the old language. with meetings and rallies. it didn't amount to all that much. And there is no country now in which the pure industrial working class in itself is sufficiently strong. as it were. there's real enthusiasm. Communism's gone. On the negative side… if you look at the last time of massive radicalisation of students in '68. And if we look at the works of Naomi Klein or David Harvey or the performances of Slavoj Zizek.communism and Marxism. What is still possible is that the working class forms. something that comes out very strongly in your work is the role of intellectuals. after all. we see enormous excitement on campuses such as yours at Birkbeck. which. It's also true that the Communist party in China appears to be recruiting a largely technocratic leadership. certainly in Asia. TH In terms of Marxist parties. . One of the urgent questions you ask in this book is whether the Chinese Communist party can develop and respond to its new place on the global stage. which has a classic case of a late-19th-century Labour party based on an alliance of trade unions. in the 19th. but one important element of communism remains. And you can't say it's an unsuccessful one after eight years of government with an outgoing president on 80% approval ratings. intellectuals. there is. if you like. a higher degree of consciousness of the potential instability of the situation. possibly hundreds of millions. EH This is a big mystery. TH And do you think men such as Harvey and Zizek play a sort of helpful role in that? EH I suppose Zizek is rightly described as a performer. but I'm not certain that people who are reading Zizek are actually drawn very much nearer rethinking the problems of the left. How does this work? In China. namely the state Communist party directing society. the consciousness of the working class. is Brazil. TH Let me move from west to east. will be measured in has played hell with not only the size but also. I think. Today.and 20th-century language of socialism. However. Are you excited by these public intellectuals of Marxism today? EH I'm not sure there has been a major shift. ideologically. That's one thing on the positive side. it's better to have the young men and women feel that they're on the left than to have the young men and women feel that the only thing to do is to go and get a job at the stock exchange. workers. on the left. the general poor. which has produced a remarkable governing coalition. as I thought then and still think. but there's no doubt: over the present government cuts there will be a radicalisation of students. the skeleton of broader movements of social change. There is probably a tendency to provide more elbow room for a rapidly growing intellectual middle class and educated sectors of the population.

semi-privatising. The one thing that I think is possible with this rapid industrialisation is the growth of labour movements. TH And what do you think the response of the Labour party should be? EH The Labour party on the whole has not been a very effective opposition since the election. I don't know. ideological demand for deconstructing. I think the Labour party should. None the less. welfare system. What do you think Ralph would have made of the contest between his sons and the outcome of Ed leading the party? EH Well. and to what extent the CCP can find room for labour organisations or whether they would regard these as unacceptable. and particularly in areas such as schools. income inequalities. the old arrangements – whether it's the pension system. there clearly seems to be a systematic. he obviously couldn't help but be rather proud. I think that Ralph was really identified for most of his life with dismissing the Labour party and the parliamentary route – and hoping that somehow it would be possible that a proper socialist party could come into being. for one thing. It seems to me there's a 1930s air to it in terms of its fiscal orthodoxy. I think we need to defend what most people think basically needs defending and that is the provision of some form of welfare from the cradle to the grave. stress much more that for most people in the past 13 years. What is your reading of it? EH Behind the various cuts being suggested. These things in most cases were not actually provided for either in the Conservative or the Liberal manifesto and yet. as the Miliband family are old friends. school system or even the health system.But how you pull all this stuff together. hospitals and a variety of other cultural achievements – so the idea that somehow or other it all needs to be taken down and ground into the dust is not valid. TH Let's talk about politics here in Britain. this is a much more radically rightwing government than it looked at first sight. to get your sense of the coalition. with the justification of getting rid of the deficit. is unclear. I think Ralph would certainly have hoped for something much more radical than his sons have so far looked like doing. with David Cameron as an almost Stanley Baldwin figure. as a father. He would certainly be much to the left of both of his sons. looking at it from the outside. partly because it spent months and months electing its new leader. it was in the least useful period. . the period was not one of collapse into chaos but actually one where the situation improved. When Ralph finally got reconciled to the Labour party. in the way they regarded the Tiananmen Square demonstrations [as unacceptable]. TH You knew Ralph Miliband. namely in the Bennite period when it didn't really do much good. spending cuts.

All rights reserved. What I'm saying now is that the basic problems of the 21st century would require solutions that neither the pure market. • © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. But it may well no longer be capitalism. I don't know. a different combination. and so on – that remain as government and potential government parties everywhere. workers' parties. The record of Karl Marx. . Is that hope undimmed and does that keep you working and writing and thinking today? EH There's no such thing as undimmed hope these days. You write. nor pure liberal democracy can adequately deal with. And to that extent. of state action and control and freedom would have to be worked out. an unarmed prophet inspiring major changes. through the Russian Revolution and all its consequences. How to Change the World is an account of what Marxism fundamentally did in the 20th century.TH The title of your new book is How to Change the World. And second. certainly not in the sense in which we have known it in this country and the United States. a different mix of public and private. I'm quite deliberately not saying that there are any equivalent prospects now. that "the supersession of capitalism still sounds plausible to me". in the final paragraph. is undeniable. What you will call that. partly through the social democratic parties that weren't directly derived from Marx and other parties – Labour parties.

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