Eagleton on Hobsbawn on Marx

The current issue of the London Review of Books features Terry Eagleton reviewing Eric Hobsbawm's How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840-2011. I wish, however, that in referring to Friedrich Engels, he hadn't said he had a mistress in Mary Burns. She was much more than that. She was his partner. His common-law wife. They lived together. She guided him around many of the slum areas that would be included in his work, The Condition of the Working Classes in England in 1844. It never changes, this lazy reference to Mary - the mistress, the illiterate ex-factory girl, the fiery Fenian, etcetera. Eagleton not only corrects some of Hobsbawm, he also challenges some of the author's views, for instance that Gramsci was the best thinker produced by the west since 1917. Eagleton claims that Hobsbawn has omitted the 'Marxist' from thinker and that in any case, it is not Gramsci who should have that title, but Walter Benjamin. He also points out that Marx was at heart an artist. I've always believed this can be seen clearly in Alienated Labour and (A Critique Of) The German Ideology. Marx talks lovingly about the concentrated absorption a worker has with her/his creation when s/he is left to it and not, as became the case, working on a conveyor belt attaching, say, one leg to a chair that would then be passed onto the next worker, leaving the worker at the end of the day with no one completed object that they could take pride in. He also espoused variety - being a literary critic in the evening, a Shepherd in the day etc. Idealistic, perhaps, but a healthy image nonetheless. Whilst Marx was at heart an artist, he was also a worker - even though only at heart, and not in reality; in reality he was a man of ideas and great insight. Eagleton says that Mar was eager to get shot of the 'economic crap' of Capital and to get on with a book he wanted to write on Balzac. Marx would also have written a great book on Shakespeare, such was his in-depth knowledge of him and his works, so much so that he and his family had almost photographic memories of Shakespeare's works; they could recite them to each other at the drop of a hat.

In referring to the renewed enthusiasm and interest in Marx since the 'credit crunch' of 2007 Eagleton rightly says that '
Only recently has Marxism been back on the agenda, placed there, ironically enough, by an ailing capitalism. 'Capitalism in Convulsion', a Financial Times headline read in 2008. When capitalists begin to speak of capitalism, you know the system is in dire trouble'. He is wrong, or simply not up-to-date with the fast moving events in Wisconsin and the Koch brothers backed move to end the collective bargaining abilities of public sector workers there, when he declares that 'they have still not dared to do so in the United States'. In today's Guardian there is coverage entitled 'US left finds its voice over Wisconsin attack on union rights'.  The Guardian piece opens with:

Proudly displayed in a corner window of the Barriques coffee shop, a block from Wisconsin's state capitol building, is a poster advocating Workers of the World Unite – not the kind of sign normally seen in shops in America. But the last fortnight has been unusual. Tens of thousands have been turning out in this normally quiet midwest city for the biggest demonstrations in the US since the Vietnam war, and the state capitol building is under occupation day and night. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/24/wisconsin-union-rights-protest

As can be expected, Hobsbawm is accorded the credit simply his longevity in the Marxim field is due, but more than that his work is admired, yet it won't be the last important book from from the one whom Eagleton calls an 'indomitable spirit'.


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