Thursday, September 18, 2008

The present importance of Marx, 150 years after the Grundrisse

Conversation with Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm is considered one of the greatest living historians. He is President of Birkbeck College (London University) and Professor Emeritus at the New School for Social Research (New York). Among his many writings are the trilogy about the “the long 19th century”: The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 (1962); The Age of Capital: 1848-1874 (1975); The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (1987), and the book The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (1994).

Marcello Musto is editor of Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, London-New York: Routledge 2008.

1) M. M. Professor Hobsbawm, two decades after 1989, when he was too hastily consigned to oblivion, Karl Marx has returned to the limelight. Freed from the role of instrumentum regni to which he was assigned in the Soviet Union, and from the shackles of “Marxism-Leninism”, he has in the last few years not only received intellectual attention through new publication of his work, but also been the focus of more widespread interest. Indeed in 2003, the French magazine Nouvel Observateur dedicated a special issue to Karl Marx - le penseur du troisième millénaire? (Karl Marx - the thinker of the third millennium?). A year later, in Germany, in an opinion poll sponsored by the television company ZDF to establish who were the most important Germans of all time, more than 500,000 viewers voted for Marx; he came third in the general classification and first in the “current relevance” category. Then, in 2005, the weekly Der Spiegel portrayed him on the cover under the title Ein Gespenst kehrt zurück (A spectre is back), while listeners to the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time voted for Marx as their Greatest Philosopher.

In a recent public conversation with Jacques Attalì, you said that paradoxically “it is the capitalists more than others who have been rediscovering Marx”, and you talked of your astonishment when the businessman and liberal politician George Soros said to you “I’ve just been reading Marx and there is an awful lot in what he says”. Although weak and rather vague, what are the reasons for this revival? Is his work likely to be of interest only to specialists and intellectuals, being presented in university courses as a great classic of modern thought that should never be forgotten? Or could a new “demand for Marx” come in the future from the political side as well?

E. H. There is an undoubted revival of public interest in Marx in the capitalist world, though probably not as yet in the new East European members of the European Union. It was probably accelerated by the fact that the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Manifesto of the Communist Party coincided with a particularly dramatic international economic crisis in the midst of a period of ultra-rapid free market globalization.

Marx had predicted the nature of the early 21st century world economy a hundred and fifty years earlier, on the basis of his analysis of “bourgeois society”. It is not surprising that intelligent capitalists, especially in the globalized financial sector, were impressed by Marx, since they were necessarily more aware than others of the nature and instabilities of the capitalist economy in which they operated. Most of the intellectual Left no longer knew what to do with Marx. It had been demoralised by the collapse of the social-democratic project in most North Atlantic states in the 1980s and the mass conversion of national governments to free market ideology, as well as by the collapse of the political and economic systems that claimed to be inspired by Marx and Lenin. The so-called “new social movements” like feminism either had no logical connection with anti-capitalism (though as individuals their members might be aligned with it) or they challenged the belief in endless progress in human control over nature, which both capitalism and traditional socialism had shared. At the same time the “proletariat”, divided and diminished, ceased to be credible as Marx’s historical agent of social transformation. It is also the case that since 1968 the most prominent radical movements have preferred direct action not necessarily based on much reading and theoretical analysis.

Of course this does not mean that Marx will cease to be regarded as a great and classical thinker, although for political reasons, especially in countries like France and Italy with once powerful Communist parties, there has been a passionate intellectual offensive against Marx and Marxist analyses, which was probably at its height in the 1980s and 1990s. There are signs that it has now run its course.

Continued . . .

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