Reflections on the Thoughts that Revolutionized the World

How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism

Author: Eric Hobsbawm

Price: RMB 88 (hardback)

Published by Central Compilation & Translation Press in March 2014, Beijing



British historian Eric Hobsbawm has become synonymous with serious historiography. But in 2014, he became a hit in China’s literary circles. The scholar’s sudden popularity began with the publication of the first Chinese edition of How to Change the World. In less than a month, the first run of 3,000 copies was sold out, and a second run was hastily printed. For an academic book priced at RMB 88, the market was unexpectedly eager.

Hobsbawm was born in Egypt in 1917. At two years old, he was brought to Vienna and soon to Berlin. In 1933 when Hitler took charge of the government, Hobsbawm went to Britain to attend middle school. He read history at Cambridge. Having lived under Hitler’s rule, Hobsbawm became interested in Marxism. During his Cambridge years, he was active in the Communist Party of Britain, and remained in the party until it dissolved in 1991.

Politics was an obstacle to his teaching career, but also gave him opportunities to make broader contacts and conduct extensive research around the world. He established a solid academic reputation and published 14 monographs; the most famous, The Age of Extremes, takes a bird’s eye view of the 20th century. It has been translated into more than 40 languages and sold over five million copies. The Guardian listed it among “the 100 greatest non-fiction books.”

How to Change the World, which he finished at the age of 94, is Hobsbawm’s last monograph. The subtitle, Tales of Marx and Marxism, implies that it is a summary of the author’s life-long research into industrial capitalism, socialism and nationalism. This book explores Hobsbawm’s multiple and often conflicting identities – theorist, skeptic and believer. It also shows his profound knowledge and convictions as well as a sense of reality and compassion.

In the preface to the Chinese version “Seeking the Contemporary Meaning of Marxism,” Yu Wujin, professor at the School of Philosophy, Fudan University, wrote; “It is the generalization and summary of the historical concept on which the author had insisted all his life, and also the review and exploration of the contemporary meaning of Marxism – his guiding thought on historical research. In fact, the book unfolds the thinking of a man nearly a century old on the historical fate and future trajectory of Marxism. It is worth serious reading.”

The first part of the book reviews the works of Marx and Engels. The second part is more weighty, depicting Marxism in practice, or “how to change the world.” The book elaborates on the struggles and splits of left-wing parties, of various workers’ movements, and the rise and fall of social democratic parties in the world. Hobsbawm’s knowledge is exhaustive, even down to minutia such as how many Indian, Bengali and Marathi versions there were of Das Kapital in the 1950s and 1960s.

Marxism is important, not for its inherent qualities, but because of the complex social reforms and changes it stirred over the century after Marx died. It has become one of the most important elements to understanding the 20th century. There are two attitudes towards the works of Karl Marx: some revere them as scripture, to follow loyally without deviation; others respect them along with those of Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger, as a theory rather than a covenant.

Hobsbawm rejected the first attitude and emphasized that Marxism is not a religion. He argued that we should face the complex problems of putting the words of Marxism into deeds – from “understanding the world” to “changing the world.” In the preface he wrote: “For the past 130 years it has been a major theme in the intellectual music of the modern world, and through its capacity to mobilize social forces a crucial, at some periods a decisive presence in the history of the 20th century. I hope that my book will help readers to reflect on the question of what its and humanity’s future will be in the 21st century.”

Hobsbawm favors the second view, but is much more upbeat about the prospects of Marxism. After Karl Marx died, he said, the “crisis of capitalism” came to the constant attention of politicians, scholars and the literate public. For this reason alone, Marxism will not die.

It is also evident in the book’s warm reception. Although How to Change the World was intended for an audience of experts, scholars and researchers, it has also been applauded by businesspeople. This welcome was a surpise, even for the publishers. But against the backdrop of the world financial crisis, Marxism was a recurring topic, so this might be expected.

“Once again the time has to come to take Marx seriously,” reads the last sentence in the book. In a changing era featuring informatization, fragmentation, diversity and entertainment, we should start reading Marx seriously again, and think about the thought that caused such colossal social changes in the last century.


ZHANG LETIAN is an independent journalist and book reviewer; HOU TIANBAO is an editor at the Central Compilation & Translation Press.