LITTLE, BROWN, 2011
There is a subtle but noticeable tension between the packaging and the contents of this volume. Simply put, the publishers appear to lack the courage of their author's convictions.
How to Change the World is a somewhat misleading title, suggesting a how-to book for twenty-first century radicals rather than a diverse collection of scholarly articles about Marx and Marxism written over the past fifty-five years by Eric Hobsbawm. The dust jacket carries the misrepresentation a little further, using a subtitle, 'Tales of Marx and Marxism', that does not appear in the book itself - where the enticing suggestion of bedtime narratives is replaced by the more dour 'Marx and Marxism 1840-2011'. The cover also includes an iconic image of an unshaven Che Guevara, an interesting choice given that he is mentioned only once in Hobsbawm's text, as an 'image of voluntarist insurrection' (p. 394) popular amongst 1960s radicals suspicious of Marx. The publishers were perhaps worried that the biblical proportions of Marx's own beard might put the punters off. Pity also the prospective reader keen to follow up the intriguing suggestion in the cover blurb of Quaker 'influences' on Marx's work. Sadly, the solitary reference to Quakers in the text concerns the presence of religious pacifists amongst the minority refusing to engage in the war against fascism after 1940. Finally, the cover blurb claims that Capital was published 163 years ago (whereas, of course, the first volume appeared in 1867, and not in 1848). The same care that the publishers have lavished on the wrapper is evident in the main text. Readers will notice the 'typos', the inaccurate cross referencing, and the mangled footnote numbers. They are less likely to spot the dedication - to the memory of George Lichtheim - hidden away on a page of legal and copyright information.
The publishers' apparent reticence about the contents of this volume seems to have been shared by some early reviews. Hobsbawm's achievements as a historian are widely recognised, and not seriously in doubt. There is no need to rehearse the encomiums here. Even the range of his work is impressive - stretching geographically from India to Latin America, chronologically from the late 18th century to the late 20th century, and disciplinarily from labour history, through peasant studies, to world history. However, the media reception of his recent writings - once the obligatory humanising mention of his lifelong enthusiasm for jazz is out of the way - often revolves around his failure to leave the Communist Party, especially after 1956/57 (when almost everyone else in the Party Historian's Group left). How to Change the World has provided commentators with yet another opportunity to muse on the author's growing status as recalcitrant national treasure, and to ponder his reluctance to repent on the scale and with the degree of remorse that they would like. I...