The voice of Hobsbawm

by EMILE CHABAL

The Communist Party of India’s Aikyabharatham local committee office. PHOTO/jan Banning/Panos

How the Marxist ideas of a British historian ended up on the bookshelves of Indian civil servants and Brazilian housewives

Almost all Marxists have imagined themselves to be part of a global community. More than perhaps any other modern ideology, Marxism has given its adherents a sense of being connected across regions, countries and continents. The activists, thinkers, politicians, students, workers, guerrilla fighters and party apparatchiks who, throughout the 20th century, claimed Marxist ideals for themselves rarely agreed on what Marxism was or where it was headed. But they knew that they were not alone. At its height, Marxism created a web of interconnected communities at least as powerful as the Muslim ummah, complete with its own heretics, infidels, rogue saviours and clerics.

Historically, the impetus for this came from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels themselves. Many of the concepts they deployed – such as ‘capitalism’ and ‘class’ – were transnational in theory and in practice. Some of their best-known political slogans – above all, the final line of The Communist Manifesto (1848), popularised as ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ – explicitly invoked the global power of their prophesy. Marx and Engels were hardly the only European political thinkers in the 19th century to paint their political aspirations on a global canvas, but their ideas proved to be extraordinarily influential.

In the 150 years following the publication of The Communist Manifesto, generation after generation of activists, intellectuals, and party apparatchiks were inspired by Marx and Engels’s global vision. A huge variety of Marxisms flourished across Europe, and in countries as diverse as Cuba, Vietnam, China, Algeria and Chile. Even today, long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Marxist ideas retain a global reach. Communism might not hold the appeal it once did, but ‘socialism’ remains a perfectly acceptable political label in many parts of the world, and Marxist analyses of the world economy have experienced a revival since the financial crisis of 2008.

For committed Marxists, the explanation for the remarkable reach of Marxist ideas is self-evident: since capitalism is a global phenomenon, so a critique of capitalism must highlight the transnational reality of capitalist domination. For the historian of ideas, however, the creation and persistence of a global language of Marxism is anything but self-evident. There is no obvious reason why, in the 1970s, a Uruguayan trade unionist, a French philosopher and an Indian communist activist should have shared a common set of words, images, ideas and metaphors to describe the world. It is not enough to say that this extraordinary convergence is a consequence of the intrinsic rightness of Marxist explanatory frameworks. It also has to do with how certain ideas travelled across continents, carried along by the writing of Marxist intellectuals and Marxist-inspired political leaders.

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