Old Marxist still sorting global fact from fiction

July 12, 2002

Historian Eric Hobsbawm has seen his subject shed its conservatism. He says history is finally free to examine the totality of man's progression from caveman to controller of the internet age - and regrets, aged 85, being unable to play his part in the future

My first contacts with a professional historian as a schoolboy were unpromising. He was a small, round man who dashed round the classroom of a Berlin Gymnasium pointing a ruler as he asked pupils for the dates of the German emperors. I learnt them by heart but have naturally forgotten all of them. The joke was that this exercise must have bored our teacher as much as us, for, as I now know, he was by far the most distinguished scholar in the school, author of a monograph on the mystery cults of Eleusis and Samothrace, a recognised classical archaeologist and papyrus expert and a contributor to Pauly-Wissowa ( Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft ). Like us, he was a victim of "1066 and all that", the curse of interwar secondary school teaching. It almost turned me off history for good. Fortunately, I discovered the Communist Manifesto in the school library. A little later, in England, I was lucky enough to have a schoolmaster who thought I was good at the subject and told me to read Lord Acton for the Cambridge scholarship. This helped me to get a scholarship, but confirmed my scepticism about conventional Oxbridge history.

Nevertheless, I decided to read history at Cambridge, partly because nothing else was available - except for economics, the social sciences were non-existent - and partly because it was obvious that there was a lot more to history as taught at universities than grammar-school history had prepared me for. With a few exceptions, established historians between the wars did not write for schools, let alone for the broad public. On the contrary, they distrusted those who did. How could one live up to the ideal of a history both unchangeably true, based on a totally exhaustive study of archive sources, definitive, and immune to the criticisms of equally erudite, and often equally costive, colleagues? Necks stuck out were there to be chopped off. One of the major advances since the war, at least in the UK, is the remarkable reduction of this gap between school history and university history, and even more, between academic history and history written by academics for the general public.

Nevertheless, with few exceptions, the Cambridge history faculty was a discouraging spectacle: self-satisfied, insular, culturally provincial, deeply prejudiced against theories, explanations and ideas, and even against too much professionalism - suspicious of anything that came too close to the present.

For most of the hundreds who read history, this did not much matter. But for the relatively few who wanted to become dons themselves it did matter, because in my day what Marc Bloch called "the trade of the historian" was not taught in Britain, either before or - except for some technicalities - after graduation. Fortunately for the young radical history students, there was one teacher at Cambridge whose lectures, though given at 9am, one had to attend regularly.

Mounia Postan lectured on economic history, the only branch of history on the Cambridge syllabus relevant to young Marxists, although the Postan lectures, with their air of intellectual revivalism, attracted anyone with a lively mind. Every one of them an intellectual-rhetorical drama in which a historical thesis was first expounded, then utterly dismantled and finally replaced by the Postan version, was a holiday from British insularity. Who else would have told us to read the Annales , not yet famous even in their own country, and presented Bloch to us, correctly, as the greatest living medievalist? Passionately anti-communist as he was, he was the only man in Cambridge who knew Marx, Weber, Sombart and the rest of the great Russians and central Europeans, and who took their work seriously. He knew very well that he attracted the young Marxists, and, while denouncing their belief in Russian bolshevism, welcomed them as allies in the fight against historical conservatism. During the cold war, when I depended on his references, he also helped to keep me out of jobs. He was our bridge to the wider world of history. And he was certainly the most surprising figure to be found in a senior history chair in Britain between the wars. Like the English historian Lewis Namier, he came from eastern Europe, but unlike him, he was a world figure in a subject dealing with problems regarded as important and relevant in Harvard, Moscow and Tokyo as well as in England.

In some ways, the contrast between Postan's and Namier's subjects symbolised the major conflict that divided historiography and the major tendency of its development from the 1890s to the 1970s. This was the battle between history as narrative and history as analysis and synthesis, between those who thought it impossible or impermissible to generalise about human affairs in the past, and those who thought it essential, between "objectivism" and "the subjective-psychological way of seeing things", between those who rejected any contamination of history by the social or any other sciences, or evolutionary models, and those who were open to them. The battle had opened in Germany in the late 1890s, but in my student days the most prominent champions of historical modernisation, apart from the Marxists, were the Annales group in France. Essentially, for both, the way forward was through economic and social history.

Just before and after the second world war, this was still a small field, measured both by the number of its practitioners and by their output. The enormous expansion of universities, old and new, and the stratospheric rise in "the literature" did not get under way until the 1960s. Even in countries such as Britain and France, or in fairly broad academic fields such as economic history worldwide, virtually everyone knew of, and could get to know, everyone else. The birth of postwar historiography took place at a section on "social history" held at the International Congress of Historical Sciences held in Paris in 1950, the first to be held since the end of the second world war. This was when the field made its first institutional appearance. To my surprise, I found myself nominated as the official chairman of the so-called contemporary session. The odd collection of anomalies and marginals brought together here were soon to make their mark. They included Vicens Vives, a lone voice from Franco's Barcelona looking for intellectual contacts, who was later to inspire the modernisation of Spanish history. There were the historians of socialism and labour, the Marxists and their critics. In short, the face of the historiography of the 1950s and 1960s was becoming visible.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the cold war did not interfere with developments in history, though it did affect the careers of historians. It did, however, keep the politically heterodox largely outside that major innovation of the post-1945 era, scholarly research on actual contemporary history, on the basis of primary sources that became available in the West and its empires, at least selectively. I think the impact on history of the extraordinary degree to which academics were mobilised in Britain and the US for wartime duties has been much underestimated.

Equally surprising, the various platoons of historical modernisers, in spite of patent ideological, political and national differences, knew themselves to be on the same side, and fighting the same adversaries. In Britain, where the Marxists were uniquely prominent, the journal Past & Present , which emerged from the discussions of the Communist Party Historians' Group and became in effect the modernisers' chief medium, acknowledged the inspiration of the Annales in the first paragraph of its first issue. The success of P&P itself proves the point: founded 50 years ago at the very worst moment of the cold war by people known for their Communist Party membership, and systematically blackballed for some years, it made its way because it attracted patently non-Communist and anti-Communist historians as readers, authors and eventually editorial board members.

This raises the interesting question of why, in post-1945 Britain of all places, the Marxists were so much more central to the historical modernisers' project than elsewhere in western Europe. I wish I could answer it. I can only make three passing suggestions. First, that history, being a subject of general rather than specialist university study, was a more obvious option for intellectuals than in other countries. Second, that history as an intellectual discipline filled some of the gap left by the absence of the philosophy classes that were so characteristic of continental Gymnasia or lycées , and by the virtual absence from British intellectual life (outside the London School of Economics) of the sciences of society. Had I completed my secondary education anywhere on the Continent, I very much doubt whether I would have become a professional historian. Finally, credit should be given to the British CP, a body that encouraged academic activities, such as those of its Historians' Group, as politically beneficial, and did not interfere with them so long as they caused no political trouble; which we did not, until 1956.

At this stage, history in the US (as distinct from the US social sciences) still played a relatively minor international role. The subject of the great bulk of generally monoglot US historians was the history of the US, a subject that, as treated by most of them, had little in common with what historians elsewhere were doing. Only slavery was a subject that aroused international interest, but the younger historians of this subject who were to make a mark abroad were atypical of the profession in the 1950s and 1960s.

Curiously enough, this was true even of so patently global a subject as economic history. Stateside historical innovations, though known, found it difficult to cross the Atlantic. This was true in the 1950s of economic history in terms of businessmen ("entrepreneurial" history), and in the 1960s of the much more formidable cliometrics - history as retrospective and often imaginary econometrics - and certainly of the mainly Freudian "psycho-history". Not until 1975 was the quinquennial Congress of Historical Sciences held in the US, presumably for diplomatic reasons, to balance the Moscow session of 1970.

On the whole, in the 30 years after 1945, the historical traditionalists were fighting a rearguard action against the advancing modernists in most western countries where history flourished freely. In 1970, a rather optimistic, not to say triumphalist, meeting was organised by the American journal Daedalus to survey the state of history. It was dominated by the modernisers, who rallied under a common flag: "social history". This vague, sometimes misleading term fitted in with the political radicalisation of the dramatically expanding student population of the 1960s.

However, in one respect the situation in the early 1970s had advanced very little. Academic history in the western sense was still largely confined to the first and second worlds and Japan. With rare exceptions, it was not historians but geographers, anthropologists and linguists, as well as, naturally, imperial administrators, who occupied themselves with non-western affairs. Before the war, extra-European history as such interested few historians except the Marxists (by reason of their anti-imperialism) and, of course, the Japanese, who were then also strongly under Marxist influence.

Extra-European history began to come into its own with the decolonisation of the old empires and the simultaneous rise of the US as a world power, reinforced by the sheer scale of the North American university enterprise. World history as the history of the globe emerged in the 1960s with the obvious progress of globalisation. Historians from the third world began to win worldwide recognition only in the 1990s. The interests of world empire as well as the extraordinary resources of US universities made the US the centre of the new post-Eurocentric history and, incidentally, transformed its history textbooks and journals. However, the histories of Europe, the US and the rest of the world remained and still remain separate, their publics coexisting but barely touching. History still remains, alas, primarily a series of niche markets for both writers and readers. In my generation, only a handful of historians has tried to integrate them into a comprehensive world history. This has been mainly due to the failure, primarily for institutional and linguistic reasons, of history to emancipate itself from the framework of the nation-state. Looking back, this has been probably the major weakness of the subject in my lifetime.

Nevertheless, around 1970 it seemed reasonable to suppose that the war for the modernisation of historiography that had begun in the 1890s had been won. The main railway network along which the trains of historiography would roll had been built. Not that the modernisers were reductionists. Though they believed that history must explain and generalise, they knew it was not like the natural sciences. However, they believed that history had a comprehensive project. Yet within a few years, the scene had changed utterly.

The sense of priorities, the distinction between significance and triviality, which was essential to the old project, had gone. All sorts of corners of the past became interesting to enthusiasts, but there was no sign of wanting to ask questions about them. History as the exploration of an objectively recoverable past had not yet been challenged. That came only with the fashion for postmodernism, a term that was virtually unknown in Britain before the 1980s, and one that, fortunately, has made only marginal inroads into the field of serious historical research. Nevertheless, some time in the early 1970s the historiographical tide turned. Those who thought they had won most of the battles from the 1930s on now found it running against them. "Structure" was on the way down, "culture" was on the way up.

There was, in Lawrence Stone's words, a shift away from historical models or "the large why questions", from economic and social structure to culture, from recovering fact to recovering feeling, from telescope to microscope. I am also struck by a certain flight from the actual past as in the flourishing and fertile field of memory studies that has shot up since about 1980. Here we are concerned not with what was, but with what people think, feel, remember or usually misremember about it. In some ways this can be seen as a development of themes we pioneered, but we explored these things in an utterly different intellectual context. There is nothing in common between our way of writing history, and the more or less sophisticated reductions of history to forms of literary composition. Perhaps there was an element here of that curious distrust for rational analysis and science that has become more fashionable as the century drew to its end.

Has the new turn produced better history than our generation? It has certainly multiplied the journals beyond measure. I refrain from judgement. Since the old are biased, why trust us? It is quite possible that my judgement that the French historical school is no longer what it was in the 1960s is due to mere age and the ignorance it brings of what is really happening in the world.

Nevertheless, since the early 1970s - a watershed in other aspects of history - the tone of historiographical discourse has changed. The reaction has not come primarily from the ideological or political right, but from the academic left of the 1968 generation, who emerged in the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and thus with a different orientation from my generation. If there is an intellectual challenge, it is rooted in a change of mood, as reflected by the History Workshop journal. Its original object was not so much historical discovery, explanation or even exposition, as inspiration, empathy and democratisation. It also reflected the remarkable growth of a mass public interest in the past, which has given history a surprising and welcome prominence in print, on screen and in public exhibition. History workshop meetings, which brought together amateurs and professionals, intellectuals and workers, and vast numbers of the young, resembled radical gospel sessions. It is typical that the first Women's Liberation Conference in Britain grew out of a proposed history workshop, inspired at the end of the 1960s by Sheila Rowbotham, the pioneer author of a book characteristically called Hidden from History . These were people for whom history was not so much a way of interpreting or even changing the world, but a means of collective self-discovery, a way of winning collective recognition. I have a lot of sympathy with some of them.

Nevertheless, the risk inherent in this search for identity and roots is that it leads to in-group history - history fully accessible only to those who share the historical and life experience of its subject, or even the physical configuration of the humans to whom it appeals. It undermines the universality of the universe of discourse that is the essence of history as a scholarly and intellectual discipline. It also undermines what both the ancients and the moderns had in common, namely the belief that historians'

investigations, by means of generally accepted rules of logic and evidence, distinguish between fact and fiction, between what can be established and what cannot, what is the case and what we would like to be so. But this has become increasingly dangerous. Political pressures on history - by old and new states and regimes, identity groups, and forces long concealed under the frozen ice-cap of the cold war - are greater than ever before in my lifetime, and modern media society has given the past unprecedented prominence and marketing potential. More history than ever is today being revised or invented by people who do not want the real past, but only a past that suits their purpose. The defence of history by its professionals is today more urgent than ever. We are needed.

At the same time we are rediscovering what we can and should do. While the daily affairs of humanity are today conducted by the criteria of problem-solving technology, to which history is almost irrelevant, history has become more central to our understanding of the world than ever before. Curiously, while arts faculties argue about the objective existence of the past, historical change has become a central component of the natural sciences. And this has been transforming history itself, though most historians show little awareness of it: through molecular and evolutionary biology, palaeontology and archaeology. History is being reinserted into the framework of global evolution. We are now aware how extraordinarily young Homo sapiens is as a species. If the DNA calculations are right, we left Africa 100,000 years ago. The whole of what can be described as "history" since the invention of agriculture and cities consists of hardly more than 10,000 years or, say, 400 generations. Given the dramatic acceleration of the pace of humanity's control over nature in this period, the development of humanity so far can be seen to be something like an explosion of our species, a sort of bio-social super-nova, into an unknown future. Let us hope it is not a catastrophic one. Within this brief moment of time, the Darwinism of the origin of species, sociobiology and similar reductive models give way to the historians. This is our realm. And, for the first time, we have an adequate framework to study it as genuinely global history, and to study it by our methods - betwixt and between the humanities and the natural and mathematical sciences, belonging to neither, essential to both. Since I think the central question of history is how we got from the palaeolithic to the internet era, I welcome this. If historiography in the 21st century wants a main agenda, here it is. I wish I were young enough to take part in it.

Eric Hobsbawm is professor emeritus of history at Birkbeck College, London. His autobiography, Interesting Times , is published by Allen Lane in September. This is an edited version of a plenary lecture given at the Anglo-American Conference of Historians on July 3.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments