Rediscovering Marx

Two of the leading thinkers of our time put forward the idea of a collective
leadership that allows the rich diversity of radical and socialist traditions

From Marxism to Post-Marxism?
By Goran Therborn. 
Verso, London. Pages 194. £14.99.

How to Change the World
By Eric Hobsbawm.
Little, Brown, London. Pages 470. £25.

Reviewed by Shelley Walia

THE insistence that the egalitarian project of the Left was a product of a specific historical epoch and that it now has no place in a "post-socialist" world is a serious allegation. There are adherents to the idea of the end of history among thinkers of the Right and the Left who pin their hopes on the nation or the proletariat in different ways, and conflate the apparent collapse of a particular historical project with the collapse of history itself. The intellectual elites after their disappointment maintained a distance from the masses and endeavoured to project their experiences in a single universal narrative. What they forgot was the creed of a democratic history from below. Questions of the holocaust, of the nuclear war, or the material development in the advanced industrial world which is blind to the fate of the underprivileged third world, seem to have been overlooked. With almost 10 million non-white people in the EU, the rising number of impoverished masses in Brazil, or in South Asia, as well as the problems of health and illiteracy, the Left has a formidable task before it; issues concerning economic deprivation, the brutalisation of workers, increasing spendings on nuclear enhancement and the need for all ethnic minorities to explicitly feature in a pluralistic vision need to be the foundation of any new story that we need to tell about Marxism. This is the story that Hobsbawm very provocatively narrates in his book How to Change the World, with the emphasis on the idea that "Karl Marx is a as much a thinker for our century as he was for the preceding two".

Taking into consideration the underlying arguments in the Quaker movement, in the origins of the French Revolution and in the works of Engels and Gramsci, Hobsbawm puts across a scathing critique of capitalism and its fallout over the last couple of decades, underscoring the reversal of Marxismís fortunes in recent times.

The question posed by Eric Hobsbawm is, can liberal democracies produce a stable society and social solidarity? An ever-expanding capitalism finds it difficult to cope with environmental limits in terms of the earthís resources. Democracy, on the other hand, is ill-equipped to meet the demands of a reflexive citizenry in an increasingly globalising world. The bourgeois media has always succeeded in finding areas of employment for the active work force in order to control the energy of protest, impoverish it, and thus forestall the revolutionary process. Here lies the dialectics of progress and destruction. Marx explains this by arguing: "The more a country like the USA, for example, bases its development on heavy industry, the quicker will be this process of destruction. Capitalist production accordingly develops the technology and combination of social production process only at the same time that it undermines the well-springs of all wealth: the earth and the workers." This indicates the challenges of green politics to the unfettered market economy or the excesses of capitalism.

It is clear that within the context of the structural transformation of capitalism that has led to the decline of the classical working class and the generation of new forms of social protest, the Left has moved towards a radical and new identity, so visible in the Communist comeback in Russia, in France, and now in Latin America. This has motivated the Left and spurred socialist programmes as an opposition to the environment of absolute subservience and uncritical acceptance of global capitalism and its onslaught on third world economies.

Therbornís view in his book, From Marxism to Postmarxism, takes one to the post-Marxist scenario, where the orthodox Marxist school is replaced by a more human model, which takes into consideration the value of human choice and various radical movements such as feminism, lesgay, the environmental or the anti-racist which tend to now supercede the role of the proletariat that has failed to bring about a revolution. Reality in the post-Marxian sense is therefore constituted by the individual as much as the individual is constituted by the state. Therborn takes a panoramic view of Marxism and critical theory in the last hundred years, examining radical thought as it appears at the turn of the century in the works of Zizek, Negri and Badieu, especially within the changing intellectual and political-economic context.

The long drawn-out economic and political tensions in most parts of the world have moved Eric Hobsbawm and Goren Therborn to suggest an international agenda for social reconstruction within which socialism does not need to be replaced but must be put forward as a programme to salvage a world from inequality, exploitation, hunger and the abuse of power, especially the hegemony of capitalism. They have both in their own impeccable scholarly overview of Marxism put forward the idea of a collective leadership that allows the rich diversity of radical and socialist traditions as well as democratically decided policies that would restore faith in Marxism.

With the ravages of industrialism and overproduction of objects and ideologies, the question of prime importance before them is: what do we do now? Not by "simulating liberation" to use Jean Baudrillardís expression, but by coming to grips with the crises of over development, one could perhaps steer through the mental landscape of contemporary free market economy when over-fed first world nations dictate the very language that poor societies must think in, apart from swallowing up all that their economic and political power enables them to. Indeed, the two books are deeply insightful and imaginatively lively by two of the leading thinkers of our time.