Eric Hobsbawm, Vindicated

Excellent interview with the last of our great Marxist historians — Eric Hobsbawm — in the Guardian a couple days ago. Below the opening shots — you can read the whole thing here.

Tristram Hunt: At the heart of this book, is there a sense of vindication? That even if the solutions once offered by Karl Marx might no longer be relevant, he was asking the right questions about the nature of capitalism and that the capitalism that has emerged over the last 20 years was pretty much what Marx was thinking about in the 1840s?

Eric Hobsbawm: Yes, there certainly is. The rediscovery of Marx in this period of capitalist crisis is because he predicted far more of the modern world than anyone else in 1848. That is, I think, what has drawn the attention of a number of new observers to his work – paradoxically, first among business people and business commentators rather than the left. I remember noticing this just around the time of the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto, when not very many plans were being made for celebrating it on the left. I discovered to my amazement that the editors of the [in-flight] magazine of United Airlines said they wanted to have something about the Manifesto. Then, a bit later on, I was having lunch with [financier] George Soros, who asked: “What do you think of Marx?” Even though we don’t agree on very much, he said to me: “There’s definitely something to this man.”

TH Do you get the sense that what people such as Soros partly liked about Marx was the way he describes so brilliantly the energy, iconoclasm and potential of capitalism? That that’s the part that attracted the CEOs flying United Airlines?

EH I think that it is globalisation, the fact that he predicted globalisation, as one might say a universal globalisation, including the globalisation of tastes and all the rest of it, that impressed them. But I think the more intelligent ones also saw a theory that allowed for a sort of jagged development of crisis. Because the official theory in that period [the late 1990s] theoretically dismissed the possibility of a crisis.

TH And this was the language of “an end to boom and bust” and going beyond the business cycle?

EH Exactly. What happened from the 1970s on, first in the universities, in Chicago and elsewhere and, eventually, from 1980 with Thatcher and Reagan was, I suppose, a pathological deformation of the free-market principle behind capitalism: the pure market economy and rejection of state and public action that I don’t think any economy in the 19th century actually practised, not even the USA. And it was in conflict with, among other things, the way in which capitalism had actually worked in its most successful era, between 1945 and the early 1970s.

TH By “successful”, you mean in terms of raising living standards in the postwar years?

EH Successful in that it both made profits and ensured something like a politically stable and socially relatively contented population. It wasn’t ideal, but it was, shall we say, capitalism with a human face.

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