Before he died in London in 1883, Karl Marx was despairing about what he had achieved. "What works?" he retorted to a visitor. Yet 100 years later, Marx had become one of the greatest intellectual presences in world culture. But as Eric Hobsbawm ruefully notes, the publication of the final volume of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels in 2004 was greeted by silence. In the previous 20 years there had been a dramatic collapse in the standing of Marx and of marxism.
Hobsbawm's book is not a comprehensive history of marxism, but it provides many of the elements of one. It also shines new light on Hobsbawm's own personal understanding of marxism. His interpretation is predominantly historical rather than theoretical. His Marx cannot be categorised in terms of modern disciplinary boundaries, and does not provide a set of definitive texts but a process of developing thought.
Hobsbawm shows how different the context was in which Marx and Engels wrote compared to later generations of marxists, leading to endless distorted accounts of what Marx really meant, both from followers and critics.
For Hobsbawm what is most important about Marx is that he thought historically, teaching us to see capitalism as a historical and temporary mode of human economy. Capitalism is a phase of history, not the end of history, and it has to be studied historically in order to grasp how it has come to dominate human life, and yet is still subject to periodic crises. Hobsbawm is generally pessimistic about the future, seeing no new agency of transformation. This has not changed his view of the intellectual greatness of Marx, or of what he can contribute to our understanding of contemporary politics.
The 2008 financial crash was a reminder of how capitalism continues to generate system-threatening crises. Marx's own millenarian hopes about the creation of a classless society beyond conflict may have proved illusory. But Marx as the shrewd analyst of the realities which continue to determine the way economy, politics and society operate under capitalism remains indispensable.