Monday, 28 February 2011

'The Lumpenproletariat Make Marvellous Music' Eric Hobsbawm Talk, London 25/02/2011

Well just as those elections were going on I had the opportunity to see Eric Hobsbawm, the most famous Marxist historian of our age, deliver an increasingly rare talk in London's wonderful Bishopsgate Library. Given Hobsbawm's age I was lucky to have this opportunity to hear him speak considering that his talks are likely to become fewer. About 150-200 attended, a mix of the old London Socialist Historian stalwarts and quite a few young people, to hear him promote his new book: 'How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism' (reviewed over on Cedar Lounge.) My notes are, er, patchy at best but I tried to summarise the talk as best I could. The whole thing was only about an hour long and stuck to a format where a theme would be mentioned to which Hobsbawm responded, followed by questions from the audience. Themes and audience questions are in bold while summaries of his responses follow. Any comments of my own are in italics.

Interpreting the world and changing it.

When I last spoke to Dotty Thompson she mentioned that 'an awful thing about getting old is that people don't listen to you. They merely regard you as an historic source.' The majority of Marxists become so because of political engagement. The same is true of anti-marxists. The fortunes of Marxism have always depended on people's real situation. When capitalism finds itself in trouble, a critique and a guide to action become vital. This was true of Russia in 1890s, Europe in the 1930s and with the rise of mass working-class parties from the 1880s onwards. When Marxism doesn't seem directly relevant to people's lives, as in the last two decades, it goes into decline.

This period coincided with a decline in the working-class and saw the parties derived from Marxism, Social Democratic and Communist alike, either abandon their traditional politics or enter into decline. This situation has changed though and only an analysis of where we are going and what sections of society are capable of being agents of change can provide a path forward for the socialist project.

I disagree with Hobsbawm's interpretation regarding the working-class. His definition of what a worker is is, to my mind, far too narrow and indeed, much narrower than Marx's own view. The working-class has changed considerably and its political and industrial representation has declined, as has class consciousness more generally, but the working-class remain the most important force in society in terms of enacting change. He is correct about employing a Marxist analysis to see what other sections of society can also perform a progressive or even transformative role though.

Marxists in the 20th century had to 'make it up as they went along.' This is applicable both to social-democratic parties and the old communist states. Marx wrote little about building a socialist economy or society due to the fact that he and Engels took a pragmatic, political approach, focusing on a critique of capitalism and politically organising the working-class as a transformative force. Even the Gotha programme doesn't get you far in enacting fundamental socialist change. 20th c. Marxists couldn't go back to the classic texts but make it up as they went along.

However, they did have some guidance in the form of state and municipal enterprises under capitalism. There was also the experience of the first world war economies, which were planned and managed in order to prosecute the war. Lenin was influenced ny the Russian electrical industry where he had some supporters. Because of this you can't blame Marx or Engels for 20th century developments. When Lenin faced issues that other Marxists hadn't, he didn't return to the texts but analysed the concrete situation. Imperialism for example has very few quotations from any of the classic Marxist texts and quite a great deal of new research.

Changing the world in the 21st century / The Revolutions in the Arab World / Experience of the last 100 years / Can History be changed in a conscious direction?

Marx was not a voluntarist. He didn't believe change could be willed but that people, classes and even organisations could intervene meaningfully into historical events and processes. Problems could not be solved simply by historical process but by human action.

The terrible consequences of the October revolution was that of a mass Marxist party coming to power in a country not yet ready for socialist revolution and the failure of this to spark successful revolutions in those countries that were capable of doing so. The problem after the end of the post-war revolutionary wave was that of 'Storming Heaven', creating the conditions for socialism to flourish by will alone. This was wrong and flew in the face of Marx's ideas and analysis.

Human intervention is key to historical development. Building railways and continental cables were actions undertaken by human beings that caused massive historical changes. Political action hasn't been that effective, but it has been powerful. Revolutions have been effective in the short-term and powerful in the long term.

The current situation in the Arab world brings me back to the my youth, with masses of ordinary people organising to effect profound political change. It is, to my mind, to the modern Arab world what the revolutions of 1848 were to Europe, events that irrevocably changed European politics forever.
This is an interesting comparision. It would have been great if he had expanded on this.

Environmental Catastrophe

Capitalism is utterly incapable of solving the modern environmental crisis. It is a problem that cannot be solved by entrepeunerial actions or be growth. Indeed the opposite is the case. It can only be solved by public and global action. The environmental situation is so grave for countries and for people (possible agents of change) that change must be achieved to prevent catastrophe. To do this requires global action.

The audience were now given the opportunity to ask questions

Why has Marxist economics been so marginalised?

Marxist economics' marginal status cannot simply be attributed to suppresion or anti-communism. As economics established itself in academia, dissident economists of all stripes, not just Marxists, were cut out and limited from becoming part of this process. Marxism and socially engaged economic theories were marginalised by those based primarily on mathematical technique, which could be employed instrumentally by states and by businesses. Marx did not think of economics as a tool for running enterprises but as something much broader.

However Marxist economics went wrong by ignoring real changes in the social economy. This started after the war when effective analysis declined in favour of quotations. In the 50s and 60s a new type of social economy was recognised by dissident social democrats, but not by Marxists.

The official economic theories that have dominated academia for the last few decades have, basically, refused to recognise the existence of crises. They simply didn't fit in with the orthodoxy. With the current global crisis, the more technical side of Marxism should become more relevant.

A return of fascism?

Fascism was a uniquely 20th century phenomenon, as indeed was Russian style communism. However, the possibility of reactionary demagogic regimes is very much on the cards. We have cause for optimism but also for caution, particularly due to the weakening of the left as a mobiliser of rebellion.

The USA has massive power but doesn't know what to with it. Elaborate.

The U.S power bloc was designed to keep another power bloc at bay. This is not the situation today. For example, what good are nukes in Iraq or Afghanisatan? The U.S.A is in decline both as a state and a world power. It's high technology base doesn't help it when it is not the number one hegemonic force.

Has the role of the lumpenproletariat been neglected in Marxist analysis?

The lumpenproletariat produces marvellous music but is not an agent of change. For example the youth in France in 1968. They didn't lead a revolution but pretended they were.
Note: There seemed to be some confusion between the audience member who posed this and Eric himself over the definition of 'lumpenproletariat', which has always been hazy at best. Eric took this to mean bohemians while the audience member seemed to be using the term in the Frantz Fanon sense. However, the claim that the mass rising of 1968 was simply students and bohemians pretending to have a revolution is deeply insulting and, quite simply, wrong. Were the people left permanently blinded by tear gas cannisters thrown into crowded spaces in Paris just having a laugh? Were the occupations of workplaces across the country just pretend? As much as I enjoy Eric Hobsbawm's work, his politics are still deeply defined by his experience in the Communist party and it is far easier to denigrate the '68 revolutionaries then face up to their betrayal by the Communist Party.

20th Century Communism. What should we take from it and what should be abandoned and left die?

The spirit hasn't died. The dream of liberating the world through liberating the working-class and the dream of a better world remain very much alive. What also remains is the materialist conception of history, the best way of understanding the world. The other legacy we have inherited is the Marxist critique of capitalism and the discovery that capitalism isn't permanent but is a particular historical phenomenon. This is absolutely essential. Finally, we have still with us today the hatred of injustice, the anger that a small minority have wealth beyond contemplation while billions live in poverty, and most of all, the desire to change this.

Standing Ovation

So yeah, it was an interesting talk all in all and, significantly, one with a far more optimistic tone than Hobsbawm's work in the last two decades. He seemed particularly inspired by the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia etc. and when talking about these events seemed to have the spirit and hope of a much younger man. I'm glad I was able to attend this, even though it meant missing election day (living in Cork East meant I would probably have simply spoiled my vote though.) Speaking of elections, it goes without saying that I'm delighted by the performance of the ULA and left-independents and by Labour's decision to expose its bankrupcy by entering office. Expect a post later in the week on that.

1 comment:

  1. the youth in France in 1968. They didn't lead a revolution but pretended they were.

    Wow. Le chienlit c'est f**king lui.