Book Reviews: “Hobsbawm”, “Ending the Crisis of Capitalism or Ending Capitalism?”, “Help!”

Pity about the politics

Hobsbawm: History and Politics. Gregory Elliott,
Pluto Press, 2010

Once upon a time, the teaching of history in Britain was a fantasy world in which the emphasis was on the doings of kings and queens, statesmen and Prime Ministers, the role of Empire and ‘facts’ to be learned by rote. About 60 years ago this began to change and to some extent this can be attributed to the thinking of Karl Marx and his insistence that history had to be understood in its material contexts – that is, how wealth was produced, the parts played by social classes and the technology they used.

E.J. Hobsbawm along with other notable historians of this period such as E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton produced works informed by Marx’s theory of history. Hobsbawm gained critical and commercial success with The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848, (1962), The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 (1975), The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (1987) and The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (1994). These and other works of Hobsbawm have been reprinted many times and have gained him a reputation as probably Britain’s best known historian and Marxist.

However, when it comes to Hobsbawm’s politics a very different picture emerges.  Hobsbawm, Thompson, Hill and Hilton were at one time all members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). But whereas Thompson, Hill, Hilton and many others saw the error of their ways – especially after the suppression of the uprising in Hungary by Russian military in 1956 – and resigned, Hobsbawm remained in the CPGB until its dissolution in 1991. As a cheerleader for the CPGB and the Russian empire, Hobsbawm defended the leading role of the party advocated by Lenin, and dismissed the view that the emancipation of the working class had to be the work of the working class itself – the cornerstone of any Marxian politics. Even now, aged 93, he is still unapologetic about his political beliefs. Hobsbawm the historian had some interesting things to say, but his politics remain anti-Marxist.


World capitalism

Ending the Crisis of Capitalism or Ending Capitalism? Samir Amin. Pambazuka Press. 2011

Samir Amin was one of the pioneers of “dependency theory” in the 1970s. Its exponents regarded capitalism as a single world system divided into a centre which exploited the “periphery”. They challenged the conventional view, held also by those Amin here calls “historical Marxists” (which would include us), that the sort of capitalism that exists at the centre could develop in the periphery. This was impossible, they claimed, as, to continue to exist, the centre needed a dependant periphery to exploit for what Amin calls “monopoly rent” (and Lenin called “super-profits”).

This led Amin to Maoism and its modification of the famous slogan at the end of the Communist Manifesto into “Workers and Oppressed Peoples of All Lands Unite”. He still stands by this slogan and is still sympathetic to Maoism.

In this book he argues that capitalism developed in the centre by dispossessing those who worked on the land. In the 19th century these dispossessed were able to emigrate, in particular to the US where capital accumulation in search of labour-power was expanding. Capitalism, he says, is still developing by dispossessing the peasantry, this time in the South, but this time there is nowhere for the dispossessed to migrate to. So, they are condemned to vegetate in dire poverty. Pauperisation is still inherent in capitalist development.

He sees world socialism as the only way out but envisages it as coming into being just as capitalism did over centuries, with the countries of the South breaking the link to the centre (now merged into a single imperialism of the US, Europe and Japan which he calls the “Triad”) and developing on a non-capitalist basis.

While we do not share this perspective (there can be no non-capitalist development within world capitalism), or the view that the centre depends on “monopoly rent” from the South (they are just ordinary profits) we can credit the dependency theorists with bringing out the fact that capitalism is a single world system, not just a collection of national capitalisms, real or potential.


Help yourselves

Help! Oliver Burkeman. Canonsgate. £12.99

Subtitled ‘How to Become Slightly Happier and Get A Bit More Done’ this is a well written and amusing romp through one of capitalism’s biggest growth industries: self help books and ideas. Readers of The Guardian will know Burkeman as the author of the ironically titled ‘This Column Will Change Your Life’ feature, and here he tackles everything from numerology to leadership systems and Scientology.  

Burkeman is an expert spotter of flummery and exaggeration and the world of self-help and personal growth literature has more than its fair share of both:

“If you want to get really stressed out…you could do worse than read Change Your Life in 30 Days, a bestselling book by the American TV life coach Rhonda Britten… [but] 30 days looks relaxed compared to Change Almost Anything in 21 Days, Change Your Life in 7 Days, Shape Shifter: Transform Your Life in One Day, and my favourite, Transform Your Life in 90 Minutes… As a sucker for quick fixes, it took me a long time to realise the problem. Deadlines induce stress and worry.”

In truth, a book knocking some of the worst excesses of this genre is easy enough to concoct, but Burkeman has also accessed a good deal of the research to make a case for what does work (usually with modest effect) compared with what manifestly doesn’t. Among the interesting findings are that the act of giving has more lasting, positive psychological effects than receiving, about why Sunday is the most depressing day of the week, and of the reasons why having experiences tends to be more fulfilling than acquiring possessions.

Burkeman is clear that one of the problems with the self-help approach is that it systematically over-estimates individual willpower and under-estimates environmental factors in making us what we are. His book is unlikely to fundamentally change many lives (and thankfully doesn’t promise to) but it manages to be alternately amusing and sobering about what is possible and impossible within the confines of the society we live in.


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