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The Spectre of Marx

Eric Hobsbawm argues for the relevance of Marx in a post-recession world

Written by Sudeep Paul |
April 2, 2011 3:03:04 am

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had signalled the advent of Marxism’s darkest hour. It was not merely the failure of the revolutionary branch of Marxism,but also the beginning of the growing irrelevance and subsequent marginalisation of social democratic parties and trade unionism in the Western world. Not surprisingly,the 1990s readily invoked several ends of history. Yet,it was as early as 1993 that Jacques Derrida felt compelled to write Spectres of Marx to refute all Fukuyama-esque finality. But Derrida’s was not a tangible,concrete Marx. It was a plurality — many Marxes for many purposes,constantly reassessed in the light of circumstances. The idea was to resuscitate Marxian ideas and set them at play amidst the march or foundering of the fin de siecle apocalyptic triumphalism. While Spectres was nothing less than heresy for classical Marxists,Derrida took the honours for an attempt to resurrect Marx at the nadir of the latter’s intellectual reputation.

Almost two decades have passed since Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and Derrida’s Spectres. Capitalism has suffered a number of jolts beginning around 1998 and culminating,so far,with the 2008 financial meltdown. Suddenly,Marx was back from the dead. In the autumn of 2008,The Times’ headline screamed,“He’s back!”,signalling a resurgence of interest in Marx’s critique of capitalist instability. While Das Kapital soared to the bestseller list in Germany,those suddenly taking an interest in Marx were not the hesitant and humiliated socialists,social democrats,left-wing academics,et al,but the likes of George Soros — financiers and other market fundamentalists. Soros admitted as much to Marxist stalwart Eric Hobsbawm. If the global economic downturn signalled the arrival of Marx for the 21st century,what kind of Marx are we looking at? Almost 130 years after his death,is Marx acquiring sharp contours again,unlike Derrida’s ghosts?

Polymath Hobsbawm,in his 94th year now,has been more the Marxist historian than the historian of Marxism. His most widely read works remain the four histories of modern society from The Age of Revolution to The Age of Extremes. How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism,Hobsbawm’s 16th book,is a history of Marxism told through essays mostly unpublished in English earlier,some updated,others altogether new,with introductions to Marx’s texts,such as the first English introduction to the Grundrisse,and two chapters on the man who might have been the greatest of Marxist thinkers — Antonio Gramsci. Perhaps there was no one better to offer us tales of Marxism at this point than the man who was born in Alexandria in 1917,the year of the Bolshevik Revolution,and who lives off Hampstead Heath,a stone’s throw from where Marx lived in celebrated penury on Friedrich Engels’ money.

For Hobsbawm,two important reasons are responsible for the continued relevance of Marx. The first is that the Soviet collapse ended “official Marxism”,liberating Marx from “public identification with Leninism in theory and with the Leninist regimes in practice”. The second is what struck the likes of Soros: “the globalised capitalist world that emerged in the 1990s was in crucial ways uncannily like the world anticipated by Marx in the Communist Manifesto”.

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While the Soviet economy was not really a socialist but a war economy,the social democrats modified Marxism “either by postponing the construction of a socialist economy” or “by devising different forms of a mixed economy”. With the

Soviet model vanquished and social democracy marginalised along with labour movements by globalised capitalism and state withdrawal,global productive capacity has made it possible for most people to move from “the realm of necessity into the realm of affluence”. With the realm of necessity gone,socialism is yet to figure out a new modus operandi. Yet,two factors expose capitalism’s vulnerability — first,the “prominence of market fundamentalism”,by generating “extreme economic inequality”,has brought back “the element of catastrophe to the basic cyclical rhythm of the capitalist economy”; second,undermining the environment has led to a “patent conflict” between the need to reverse or control the economy’s impact on the biosphere and the “imperatives of a capitalist market”.

Under this umbrella of discomfort,returns Marx (if he ever went away). But to do what? Hobsbawm points at Jacques Attali’s emphasis on the “universal comprehensiveness of [Marx’s thought” —

despite the datedness and mistakes of much of what Marx wrote,his corpus remains a “work in progress”,which can no longer be turned into a dogma,but studied and utilised “to ask Marx’s questions” in the 21st century,even if his disciples’ answers are rejected.

Part I of the book offers analyses of Marx and Engels’ works and ideas. Part II combines a historical overview of the fortunes of Marxism and an argument for Marx’s relevance. In sum,this is an insight into the Marxist evolution of Hobsbawm,who can still catalogue translations of Capital into Azerbaijani,Hindi,Bengali or Marathi,and lecture you on the CPM’s troubles in West Bengal. The delight of reading Hobsbawm is the characteristic lucidity of analysis. But a former Stalinist can never cross the Rubicon. Hobsbawm can only gloss or passingly refer to the horrors of the Soviet regime or the East Bloc,which is very much the story of the revolutionary half of Marxism,no matter how vague or elusive or undecided Marx was about what exactly should succeed capitalism and how. Hobsbawm signs off with the hopefulness of “the supersession of capitalism still sounds plausible”. He redeems himself by making this hope dim enough for an age of uncertainty,and by eschewing a specific plan of action.

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