Revisiting the crisis of capitalism

Written by Rishi Raj | Updated: Mar 13 2011, 06:14am hrs
Eric Hobsbawm is generally referred to as the worlds greatest living historian and the title is not without merit. At 94, Hobsbawm is as intellectually alive and vibrant as he was decades back. This perhaps best explains his quest to understand the causes behind the social changes over the centuries. As a result masterly works ranging from the 18th centurythe end of French Revolution to the beginning of the Industrial Revolutionto the 20th century have come from him. The most famous are The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and The Age of Extremesthe history of the 20th century spanning from 1914 till 1991. After 1991, Hobsbawm has commented on contemporary times through a collection of his lectures from time to time in New Century and Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism. The current workHow to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxismalso fits into this genre as he tries to answer several questions relating to todays market economy in the context of the economic crisis of September 2008, which is seen as the worst since the Great Depression of 1929.

Hobsbawm brings together a collection of his lectures, some expanded from the original ones and some totally newly written on Karl Marxs and Marxisms relevance today. The topic is hugely tempting for anyone interested in contemporary times since the September 2008 meltdown has again drawn a debate regarding the infallibility of market economy as it is practised today and whether Marxism/socialism still has the potential to challenge it by way of an alternative. The author is candid to categorically state that the Marxism/socialism of yesteryears cannot be back in any form. However, he is equally categoric in stating that Marx is still relevant and it would be wrong to consign him to the dustbin of history. And who better to testify this than an apologist of market economy. The author narrates that some years back he had lunch with George Soros who said, That man discovered something about capitalism 150 years ago that we must take notice of.

Students of social science cannot agree more with Hobsbawm. Though in perfect disagreement with the ideology, its the starting point to approach most of the subjects like history, sociology and economy in any university even now. The only problem is that Marxism much like the teachings of any religious guru in history went through several changes and what is served as Marxist today is quite different from what Marx had ever thought or written. This is best described by the author when he says, Let me just add that the more recent debate between economic neo-liberals and their critics about the role of the state and publicly owned enterprises is not a specifically Marxist or even socialist debate in principle. It rests on the attempt since the 1970s to translate a pathological degeneration of the principle of laissez faire into economic reality by the systematic retreat of states from any regulation or control of the activities of profit-making enterprise.

However, what is the provocation behind coming out with a volume on Marx at this time is a little puzzling, more so when it is not meant to serve as a history of either Marx or Marxism. Hobsbawm tries to answer the query in his foreword when he says that most of the chapters are aimed at readers with a more specific interest in Marx, Marxism, and the interaction between the historical context and the development and influence of ideas. What is not said, but is apparent from the tone and tenor of the book is that the recent economic crisis was the best setting to reassess Marx and his principles. While nobody aspires to a return to the heydays of socialism, the best tribute perhaps to Marx is that capitalism today has incorporated all the critiques provided by socialism and with every crisis introspects and further improvises its core fundamentals, something which the practitioners of socialism never did in their heydays, but as the example of China shows are doing nowadays.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I deals with the theories and principles of Marxism while part II traces and examines its actual practice. Those in a hurry to catch up with the main essence of the book, Chapter I on Marx Today and Chapters 15 and 16 dealing with the Influence of Marxism (1945-83) and Marxism in Recession (1983-2000) are a must read. However, if the master historian had analysed the latest crisis of capitalism directly rather than through tales of Marx and Marxism, the book would have been much livelier.


Histories of Marxism have generally defined their subject by exclusion. Their territory is delimited by those who are not Marxists, a category which doctrinaire Marxists and committed anti-Marxists have both tended to make as large as possible, on ideological and political grounds. Even the most comprehensive and ecumenical historians have maintained a sharp separation between Marxists and non-Marxists, confining their attentions to the former, though ready to include as wide a range of them as possible. And indeed they must, because if there was not such separation a special history of Marxism would need to, and perhaps could not, be written.