Sunday, 7 May 2017

Hobsbawm: Dr. Marx and the Critics.

Say what you will about Eric Hobsbawm, he was an intelligent and well-read man. In "Dr. Marx and the Victorian Critics" (The New Reasoner, Summer 1957, number 1) Hobsbawm replies to Hugh Trevor-Roper, some kind of a British bourgeois scribbler, or something.

Hobsbawm general approach is to contrast earlier Marx critics with more modern ones, like Trevor-Roper. It's an eye-opening exercise.

He starts by pointing that:
"Since the appearance of Marxism as an intellectual force hardly a year --  in the Anglo-Saxon world since 1945 hardly a week -- has passed without some attempt to refute it."
That endless examination and re-examination of a single body of work necessarily leads to repetitions: however extensive, Marx's opus is finite. There's no scope for originality: everything that could be criticised has been criticised; every criticism has been defended. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

Boring as revisiting those debates might be, if one looks close enough one can still find interesting things in them.

Hobsbawm takes Trevor-Roper's claim that "disproved by all intellectual tests, the Marxist interpretation of history is sustained and irrationally justified by Soviet power alone." Hobsbawm astutely notes that that claim, with different wording, has been parroted to no end by other "experts", before and after Trevor-Roper:
"The number of commentators who purport to be quite unable to understand how any person of balanced mind and normal intelligence can be a Marxist is nowadays considerable."
An example to prove that. Over twenty years before Trevor-Roper came up with that, Keynes wrote this:
"But Marxian socialism must always remain a portent to the historians of opinion—how a doctrine so illogical and so dull can have exercised so powerful and enduring an influence over the minds of men and, through them, the events of history".
The general idea is the same. There's no originality. The only difference is style: Keynes was a master of pompous verbosity; Trevor-Roper settles for the prosaic.

Next Hobsbawn presents a rather large number of early critics, from the time when Marx and Engels were unknown and had not yet managed to articulate a political movement around their ideas.

Surprisingly to us, used to "experts" like Trevor-Roper or Keynes, mainstream 19th century critics would freely admit Marx's intellectual stature:
"Balfour in 1885 thought it absurd to compare Henry George's ideas with his [Marx's] 'either in respect of (their) intellectual force, (their) consistency (their) command of reasoning in general or of (their) economic reasoning in particular' ('Report of the Industrial Remuneration Conference,' 1885, p. 344)".
Marx's historical materialism and his merits as historian of capitalism were widely recognised by his contemporaries:
"Even the most extended and hostile British critique of his thought -- Flint's 'Socialism,' 1895 (written mainly in 1890-1) -- admits:
'Where alone Marx did memorable work as a historical theorist, was in his analysis and interpretation of the capitalist era, and here he must be admitted to have rendered eminent service, even by those who think his analysis more subtle than accurate, and his interpretations more ingenious than true' (p. 138) ."
When parts of Marxism were criticised, critics were quick to add that Marx had a good deal to contribute!

"Indeed, so anxious were some commentators to avoid a total rejection of Marx, that William Smart wrote his 1887 review of 'Capital' (quoted above) specifically to encourage readers who might have been put off by the critique of the value theory to study the book, which contained much 'of very great value both to the historian and the economist'."
Why so much generosity?

"This chorus of praise is less surprising when we recall that the early commentators were far from wishing to reject Marx in toto. Partly because some of them found him a useful ally in their fight against laissez-faire theory, partly because they did not appreciate (as Mr. Trevor-Roper does) the revolutionary implications of all this theory, partly because, being tranquil, they were genuinely prepared to look at him on his merits, they were even prepared, in principle, to learn from him."
As Marxism became a mass movement, however, that rather civilised attitude changed. Hobsbawm:
"Was the modern tone of hysterical anxiety completely absent from the early bourgeois criticism of Marx? No. From the moment that a Marxist-inspired Socialist movement appeared in Britain, Marx-criticism of the modern stamp, seeking to discredit and refute to the exclusion of understanding, also begins to appear, notably from the mid-80's."
Thus, in Hobsbawm's opinion, the hysterical anxiety to reject Marx in toto.


Critical reasoning, however, demands some scepticism before accepting Hobsbawm's explanation. After all, maybe that was just him falling for self-flattery. Intellectuals often seem susceptible to that, particularly British ones.

Let's consider an alternative explanation, then: maybe more modern Marx critics, unlike their predecessors, really don't understand Marxism. There's nothing deeper behind their "hysterical anxiety": it's just a reflection of our bad-mannered times.

Modern critics, in other words, are stupider and ruder than their Victorian brothers in arms. That's what this alternative explanation boils down to.

Take your pick. But, given some critics we've dealt with in this blog, I wouldn't be quick to dismiss the second hypothesis.

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