Geoffrey Fox - Literature & Society


Understanding Marx & Marxism


The announcement of Mark R. Levin’s  panic-inducing book American Marxism made me think of the need to truly understand what Marx and Marxism were/are about — because Levin clearly does not. According to the publisher: « In American Marxism, Levin explains how the core elements of Marxist ideology are now pervasive in American society and culture—from our schools, the press, and corporations, to Hollywood, the Democratic Party, and the Biden presidency—and how it is often cloaked in deceptive labels like “progressivism,” “democratic socialism,” “social activism,” and more. » Ridiculous!  Hobsbawm had a much clearer, more complex analysis. Here is my review from 2011.

How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840-2011How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840-2011 by Eric J. Hobsbawm
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Marx is back. Even finance capitalists like George Soros are re-reading him with attention, and — more tentatively, after the terrible experience of Stalinism — leftists are rediscovering him. Hobsbawm notes two main reasons: 1st, the collapse of the Soviet Union “liberated Marx from public identification with Leninism in theory and with Leninist regimes in practice,” and 2d, “the globalised capitalist world that emerged in the 1990s was in crucial ways uncannily like the world anticipated by Marx in the Communist Manifesto.” Hobsbawm himself has been liberated from identification with Leninist regimes (though long active in the British Communist Party, he became increasing critical of Soviet practices beginning in the 1960s).

In this collection of essays, one written as long ago as 1957 and others published here for the first time, he stresses the “enormous force” of Marx’s thought “as an economic thinker, as a historical thinker and analyst, and as the recognised founding father (with Durkheim and Max Weber) of modern thinking about society.” But he also points out that Marx never completed his magnum opus, Capital — volumes 2 and 3 were put together by Engels from Marx’s notes after Marx’s death in 1883 — and left many important issues unresolved. No theory of literature or other arts, though he and Engels were obviously interested and commented on these in their correspondence. Engels’ anthropological theorizing, based mainly on the flawed research of Lewis Morgan, doesn’t hold up today, though we can still learn something from the questions Engels posed if not his answers.

But the lack most seriously felt by later Marxists has been a theory of politics, despite what Hobsbawm calls (correctly, I think) many “brilliant” political insights in Marx’s journalistic writings, especially “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” and the pieces gathered by Engels under the title “Civil War in France”. How exactly were revolutionaries supposed to make the revolution? And how would the new socialist or communist society be organized? Marx and Engels chose not to say. Lenin, a great pragmatist more than a theoretician, made up theoretical positions on the fly as he tried to solve one problem after another. But according to Hobsbawm it was Antonio Gramsci who “pioneered a Marxist theory of politics.” Gramsci was not only the founder of the Italian Communist Party but also a rare intellectual who knew both the rural (Sardinia) and urban industrial (Turin) proletariat. Hobsbawm’s two essays on Gramsci will not only remind you of his brilliance and originality, they will no doubt make you want to reread the Prison Notebooks.

Now as then (in the 1880s or 1930s or 1960s) if we are looking for answers for our current economic crisis, we’re going to have to make them up ourselves — but Marx and Engels, Gramsci and others can help us formulate the questions we should be asking. And this book by Hobsbawm should help us understand those thinkers.

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I found it hard to believe that such a goofy film as “Gladiator” could be nominated for so many Academy Awards. Or that anybody thought that what Russell Crowe was doing in the film was “acting.” But the movie did have one great virtue for me: it made me look up the real history of Emperor Commodus, Lucilla and the gladiators. (From Themestream, March 24, 2001)

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