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Marking time with Marx
In his autobiography, Interesting Times, published almost a decade ago, Eric Hobsbawm had little to say about his intellectual engagement with Marxism. This was surprising for Hobsbawm, a renowned Marxist historian. That puzzling omission is fully rectified in his new book, How to Change the World. The book is a collection of Hobsbawm's writings, spanning several decades, on the ideas of Marx and Engels, and their intellectual and political legacy. Many of the pieces collected in this volume have been published previously;though many of them are being published in English for the first time.
Hobsbawm insists that this is a particularly apt moment to re-engage with the writings of Marx. He recalls a discussion about Marx with George Soros some years ago. "That man, " said Soros, "discovered something about capitalism 150 years ago that we must take notice of. " This fits nicely with Hobsbawm's own views about the contemporary relevance of Marx. He argues that Marx's analysis of the unstoppable global dynamic of capitalism and its capacity to carry all before it is amply borne out by the current economic crisis. Marx's ideas remain important because he saw and analysed capitalism as a passing historical phenomenon - and not as the immutable force of nature that neo-liberal thinkers have made it out to be. The supersession of capitalism, writes Hobsbawm, "still sounds plausible to me but in a different way from what Marx anticipated. "
The first part of the book looks at the writings of Marx and Engels. His heterodox view of Marxism is apparent from the start. Unlike most Marxists, he does not believe that socialism sprang fully formed from Marx's forehead. Hobsbawm traces Marx and Engels' major debts to earlier socialist writers, who ranged from "the penetratingly visionary to the psychically unhinged". He goes on to examine the political ideas of Marx and Engels, particularly their thinking about the state and its institutions, and about the transition from capitalism to socialism. Hobsbawm argues that Marx and Engels did not envisage the revolution as a transfer of power at one fell swoop. They believed that the period of transition would be long, complex and unpredictable. Marx's use of the term "dictatorship of the proletariat" did not correspond to the idea of "dictatorship" as it came to be practiced in communist states of the twentieth century.
Hobsbawm rightly insists that Marx had left no blueprint for what a socialist state would (or should) look like. The communist states starting with the Soviet Union modelled their economies not on any "Marxist" plan, but on the experience of economic management during the First World War. Part One of the book also includes lucid and trenchant introductions to socialist classics like Engels' Condition of the Working Class in England and The Communist Manifesto. Hobsbawm effortlessly shifts gears to a more analytically dense explication of Marx's writings on "pre-capitalist formations" in an unfinished manuscript known as Grundrisse. The second part of the book looks at the influence and reception of the ideas of Marx and Engels. Here Hobsbawm provides a sweeping survey of Marxism after Marx;though he has little time for any serious Marxist thinker apart from Antonio Gramsci. But what he does discuss is unfailingly interesting and insightful. A chapter on the 1930s has a brilliant account of the influence of Marxism on the 'Red Scientists' : J D Bernal, Joseph Needham, and J B S Haldane. Indian readers might be tickled by his observation that outside of the socialist world, "the only other major linguistic extension of Capital occurred in independent India, with editions in Marathi, Hindi, and Bengali in the 1950s and 1960s".
Hobsbawm has no doubt that much of what Marx wrote is either dated or unacceptable. Nor do Marx's writings form a complete body of thought. But it is this lack of closure that makes some aspects of his work interesting and relevant to a 21st century reader. Marx, as seen by Hobsbawm, remains an essential memento mori for a world besotted by the idea of unrestrained capitalism.
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