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A kapital idea!

The ongoing crisis in capitalism is the perfect time to revisit Karl Marx and discover the power of his grand philosophy.

books Updated: Mar 11, 2011 22:24 IST
Dipankar Bhattacharyya

How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism
Eric Hobsbawm
little brown
Rs795 pp 480

Crises inevitably create a market for Jeremiahs. Capitalism’s latest catastrophe presents a rare opportunity to trot out the original Dr Doom and Eric Hobsbawm doesn’t disappoint with How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism. “By October 2008, when the London Financial Times published its headline ‘Capitalism in Convulsion’, there could no longer be any doubt that he was back on the public scene. While global capitalism is undergoing its greatest disruption and crisis since the early 1930s, he is unlikely to make his exit from it. On the other hand, the Marx of the 21st century will almost certainly be very different from the Marx of the 20th.” And we are off on a magisterial tour of Marxism in over 150 years since the Communist Manifesto was published.

At the outset of a collection of his writings from 1956 to 2009, Hobsbawm asks a central question. How are we to see Karl Marx today: as economist, historian or philosopher? Well, nobody comes even remotely close to Marx’s prediction of the irresistible global dynamic of capitalist economic development. But nobody was more horribly wrong about the “expropriation of the expropriators” bit either. So, mixed bag as an economic analyst.

Marx as a guide to understanding human history? The jury is unequivocal. “Most of those who wish to fit into place a general course of history would use the Marxist categories or some modified version of them, since there is little in the way of alternative versions that is available,” sums up John Hicks, on whose work a big chunk of capitalist economics stands.

The philosopher is an altogether different creature. Particularly when Marxist philosophy carries the injunction: the philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point is to change it. You can see where this could lead, in the evolutionary and revolutionary reading of Marx. Hobsbawm takes us down both roads, showing us on the way how the social utopia came to be used, and abused, by so many of the 20th century’s tyrannies and democracies. “We cannot foresee the solutions of the problems facing the world, but if they are to have a chance of success they must ask Marx’s questions, even if they do not wish to accept his various disciples’ answers.”

As the leaders of the group of 20 nations that produce nearly 90% of the world’s output huddle together to protect capitalism from the capitalist, Hobsbawm’s re-reading of Marx underscores the amazing self-healing powers of the planet’s surviving ideology. In large measure because the victor in the battlefield of ideas has taken so much that is good from the vanquished. Tales of Marx and Marxism is also the story of globalised capital and the affluent society it has spawned since the first industrial revolution in a Britain that Marx was witness to, and which formed the basis of his most penetrating observations.

Hobsbawm isn’t exactly rescuing Marx from the dustbin of history. “That man discovered something about capitalism 150 years ago that we must take notice of,’’ George Soros told the author at the turn of the century. Hobsbawm is merely feeding the capitalist’s rediscovery of Marx. “What I have tried to provide is a sense that the discussion of Marx and Marxism cannot be confined either to the debate for or against, the political and ideological territory occupied by the various and changing brands of Marxists and their antagonists.” He has.