One of the wittier placards displayed in the recent tuition-fee protests - "They say cutbacks, we say Feuerbach" - showed a sense of history as well as humour, for Ludwig Feuerbach is back on the agenda. Karl Marx's famous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach - "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it" - provides the title of Eric Hobsbawm's magisterial How to Change the World, which joins a series of major works exploiting the recent rise in Marx's fortunes, as capitalism's crisis marks the return of its greatest rival.
Born in 1917, a year of revolution, Hobsbawm is the most important Marxist historian writing today. Bringing together 50 years of his writings on the subject, this book offers extensive coverage of pre-Marxian sources; meticulous accounts of Marx's milieu through painstaking excavation of his predecessors, contemporaries and heirs; strenuous readings of key texts including Friedrich Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 and Marx's Communist Manifesto (1848); and assiduous treatment of the legacy of Marxism as a world-changing philosophy.
To prove words matter, the title is a tale twice told. The dust-jacket has "Tales of Marx and Marxism", while the title page reads "Marx and Marxism 1840-2011". The cover comes closer to the mark, for as Hobsbawm concedes, his is no "history of Marxism in the traditional sense", but a collection of richly referenced tales that take Marxism as "a major theme in the intellectual music of the modern world".
Hobsbawm is author of a series of books whose titles begin with "The Age of...", and this one is really The Age of Marxism. However, the cover's bearded portrait isn't of Karl, but Che. Guevara, a younger version of the father figure, is no mere poster boy who sells T-shirts and books - Michael Löwy's 1973 book The Marxism of Che Guevara: Philosophy, Economics and Revolutionary Warfare shows him as theorist as well as activist - but Hobsbawm is interested in Guevara only as a product of the 1960s maelstrom and not mainstream Marxism. Downplaying Cuba, the Irish and US civil rights movements, Vietnam and May 1968, Hobsbawm asserts that "the new radical left movements of the 1960s ... occurred at the height of western capitalist success, stabilised by rising incomes, welfare and symbiosis of ... enterprise and labour unions".
Latterly, Hobsbawm says he has little faith in "the imagined communities of ethnic, religious, gender, lifestyle, and other collective identities". For him, the key 20th-century issues are "revisionism, imperialism and nationalism". Surprisingly, however, for someone born in a former British colony (Egypt) and a city (Alexandria) bombarded by the British, and as author of The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (1989), Hobsbawm gives short shrift to questions of imperialism after 1914. A Gramsci or Lenin would surely be homing in on Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Sudan and Nigeria.
On the English Revolution, Hobsbawm has little to say, even though a turning point in Marxism came through reinterpreting that event. On 24 October 1869, Marx informed Engels of his reason for changing his mind about revolution occurring first in advanced capitalist countries: "Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland." Marx added something he knew would be "very irksome to the English gentlemen", namely that "Ireland came to grief because...from a revolutionary standpoint, the Irish were too far advanced for the English King and Church mob, while on the other hand the English reaction in England had its roots (as in Cromwell's time) in the subjugation of Ireland". No clearer statement of colonialism's role in extending the life of capitalism and displacing class struggle exists in the Marxist corpus.
Hobsbawm insists he isn't implying "that doctrines in the mainstream of Marxism are thereby more true than those on the fringe; only that they are more true to Marx". But who decides what is mainstream and what is fringe? Marx's point was that imperialism made the working class of the colonising country reactionary. Hobsbawm draws the opposite conclusion, that "a national liberation movement in an agrarian colony could become a crucial element in revolutionising an advanced empire" - an anglocentric slant on Marx's inconvenient truth.
"Ireland ceased to play much part in Marx's calculations after the collapse of Fenianism," Hobsbawm claims, but Lenin's analysis of Easter 1916, which was as vital as Marx's of the Paris Commune, suggests a peripheral line of Marxist critique that continues to irk. In this regard, James Connolly is one of many inexplicable absences in Hobsbawm's bustling book, which is rich in some senses, but impoverished in others. Despite his birthplace, he has scant interest in Africa - so Frantz Fanon and Ngugi wa Thiong'o don't figure. Maghrebian Marxists, French intellectuals born in or shaped by the politics of that region - Louis Althusser, Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard - have engaged with capitalist colonialism in a way that British Marxists born in Egypt (Hobsbawm) or India (R.H. Tawney) have not. Hobsbawm, praising Antonio Gramsci - "the only post-Marx/Engels Marxist specifically discussed in this book" - for his practical engagement, nevertheless overlooks Ethiopia, where Gramsci's fascist younger brother fought. In his Prison Notebooks (1929-35), Gramsci described it as "the only free indigenous state in Africa", which he believed could become "the collision site of the three world powers (England, United States, Russia)".
Instead, Hobsbawm uses Gramsci as a stick to beat other Marxists: "unlike Lenin he was a born intellectual", "the only genuine Marxist theorist who was also the leader of a ... mass party". Whether or not Gramsci's concept of hegemony is indebted to Lenin, Gramsci admired him, seeing him as Paul to Marx's Christ.
Claiming "much of what (Marx) wrote is out of date", Hobsbawm seldom offers supporting evidence. He is sharp on "market fundamentalism" and nation states as market empires, but there are inconsistencies. The Second International famously collapsed because of national chauvinism, yet Hobsbawm unshackles anti-war protest from Marxism as "not directly relevant to the activities of labour movements". His barbs at the vogueish theoreticism of Althusser and others - "It baffled a number of older Marxists, and not only from countries given to empiricism" - overlook the fact that one critic's theory is another's empiricism. And if Hobsbawm and his ilk are so empiricist, why act as if the Empire's over?
Inevitably, Hobsbawm's passionately argued study displays the same scholarly sectarianism and special pleading that characterises all such enterprises. The paradox at the heart of How to Change the World is that the "eclectic soup" of post-1960s varieties of "Marxism" that Hobsbawm so disparages is as nutritious as the materialist minestrone consumed by Marx and Engels in the 1840s.
Describing Lenin as a "brilliant...practitioner of revolutionary politics", he nevertheless dismisses his analysis of imperialism as out of date. But Hobsbawm's conclusion - "Once again the time has come to take Marx seriously" - means taking Lenin seriously, too, which this book doesn't. A singular attachment to Gramsci as Marx's authentic modern heir blinds Hobsbawm to the fact that, as Feuerbach bridges Hegel and Marx, so Lenin bridges Marx and Gramsci. Blowing up that bridge leaves a glaring gap. To mix metaphors: Lenin isn't the fly in the soup; he's the lentil.
The title deeds to Marxism remain disputed, but the lesson of its conflicted legacy is that words matter as much as worlds. The point is to change both.
Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm was born in 1917 in Alexandria, Egypt, where a clerical error altered his surname from that of his parents, Leopold Percy and Nelly Obstbaum.
At the end of the First World War, the family moved to Austria. At 13, Hobsbawm was orphaned, and he and his sister were adopted by their maternal aunt and paternal uncle, who had married and settled in Berlin.
In 1933, the family relocated to London, where Hobsbawm won a scholarship to study history at the University of Cambridge. While a student, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and edited the student weekly Granta.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, he was called up to the Army. When his service ended, he returned to Cambridge to pursue doctoral studies on the Fabian Society. In 1947 he became a lecturer at Birkbeck College, where he remained until 1982.
Hobsbawm was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1998. He speaks German, French, Spanish and Italian fluently.
How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism
By Eric Hobsbawm
Little, Brown, 480pp, £25.00
Published 20 January 2011