2011/12/05

How to change the world

How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and MarxismHow to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism 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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2011/12/04

The longest dynasty

Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman EmpireOsman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire by Caroline Finkel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Covers the entire Ottoman dynasty from the original Osman (14th century) to the last sultan (exiled in 1922). Focus is narrowly on the reigns of all of them, some brilliant (Mehmet the Conqueror, Suleyman the Magnificent), others bumbling and at least one of them mad. Probably because a full accounting of all the intrigues involving the sultans requires so much space, Finkel offers only scant contextual information, for example on how the society and the many cultures gathered into the Ottoman empire were evolving (Anatolian Muslims, Balkan Christians and Muslims, Greek and Armenian Christians, Kurdish Muslims, Arabs and others in Syria, Egypt, etc.). This makes the book dense with data that seem disconnected and hard to follow — for example we read that a certain Sheikislam (highest religious authority) or upstart Janissary officer conspired in a certain way, but what drove that action and what did it mean to others (besides the sultan) in that time? Reading it straight through is probably not the best approach; it will be an invaluable reference source for anyone investigating particular aspects or episodes in this very long history.



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