[Marxism] Asking the big Why questions - Hobsbawm

Rod Holt rholt at planeteria.net
Thu Dec 16 00:04:21 MST 2004

 Le Monde diplomatique 


   December 2004

                     ASKING THE BIG WHY QUESTIONS

                     History: a new age of reason

   One of our greatest historians argues that it is time to promote
   a revived idea of history and to create a coalition of reason to
   respond to the urgent need for renewed historical research into
          the evolution of human beings and their societies.

                                                   by Eric Hobsbawm

     "The philosophers so far have only interpreted the world: the
     point is to change it." Marxist historiography has developed
     along two parallel lines, corresponding to the two halves of
     Marx' famous Thesis on Feuerbach'. Most intellectuals who
     became Marxists from the 1880s on, including historians, did
     so because they wanted to change the world in association
     with the labour and socialist movements - movements which
     were to become, largely under Marxist inspiration, mass
     political forces. This association naturally led historians
     who wanted to change the world towards certain fields of
     study, notably the history of the common or labouring people.
     Though naturally attractive to people on the left, this
     originally had no specific connexion with Marxist
     interpretation. Conversely, when such intellectuals ceased to
     be social revolutionaries, from the 1890s on, they were also
     likely to stop being Marxists.

     The Soviet revolution of October 1917 revived this incentive.
     However, let us not forget that Marxism was not formally
     abandoned in the major social-democratic parties of Europe
     until the 1950s or later. It also produced what might be
     called obligatory Marxist historiography in the USSR and in
     the states that later fell under communist rule. The era of
     antifascism reinforced the incentive to become Marxist.

     From the 1950s on this motivation weakened in the developed
     countries - though not in the third world - although the huge
     expansion of university education and student unrest produced
     a substantial new academic contingent of world-changers in
     the 1960s. However, although radical, a good number of these
     were no longer clearly, or at all, Marxist.

     This resurgence reached a peak in the 1970s, shortly before a
     massive reaction against Marxism began - again primarily for
     political reasons. Its main effect has been to destroy the
     belief that the success of a particular way of organising
     human societies can be predicted and assisted by historical
     analysis, although this is still believed by liberals.
     History has been severed from teleology (1).

     Given the uncertain prospects of social-democratic and
     social-revolutionary movements, I think it is unlikely that
     there will again be a politically motivated rush to Marxism.
     But here we must avoid too much occidentalo-centrism. If I am
     to judge by the demand for my own history books, I note that
     it expanded in South Korea and Taiwan from the 1980s, in
     Turkey in the 1990s, and there are signs that it is now
     expanding in the Arabic-speaking world.

                   What of interpreting the world'?

     Meanwhile what of "interpreting the world"? Here the story is
     somewhat different but also parallel. It is about the rise of
     what may be called the anti-Rankean (2) reaction in history,
     of which Marxism was an important, but not always fully
     acknowledged, element. Essentially this was a double

     It challenged the positivist belief that the objective
     structure of reality was, as it were, self-explanatory: all
     that was needed was to apply the methodology of science to
     it, explain why things happened the way they did and discover
     "wie es eigentlich gewesen" (how it actually was). For all
     historians, historiography remained, and remains, anchored to
     an objective reality - the reality of what happened in the
     past. But it starts not with facts but with problems, and
     requires us to enquire how and why such problems - paradigms
     and concepts - are formulated in different social/cultural
     environments and historic traditions.

     But at the same time, it was also a movement to bring history
     closer to the social sciences, and therefore to turn it into
     part of a generalising discipline capable of explaining the
     transformations of human society in the course of its past.
     History was to be about what Lawrence Stone (3) called
     "asking the big Why questions". This "social turn" came not
     from within historiography, but from the social sciences,
     some of them in the process of being created, which were
     themselves being set up as evolutionary, that is to say
     historical, disciplines.

     Insofar as Marx may be seen as the father of the sociology of
     knowledge, Marxism certainly contributed to the first of
     these movements - though it has been mistakenly attacked for
     an alleged blind objectivism. On the other hand, the most
     familiar impact of Marxist ideas, the stress on economic and
     social factors, was not specifically Marxist, though it was
     greatly assisted by the impact of Marxist analysis. It was
     part of a general historiographical movement, observable from
     the 1890s on, which was eventually to reach its peak in the
     1950s and 1960s, to the benefit of my own generation of
     historians which had the good luck to become the transformers
     of the discipline.

     This socio-economic current was wider than Marxism.
     Occasionally the initiative in founding the journals and
     institutions of economic/social history came from Marxist
     social-democrats (as in the journal Vierteljahrschrift in
     1893). But this was not the case in Britain, France or the
     United States. And even in Germany the strongly historical
     school of economics was far from Marxian. Only in the third
     world of the 19th century - Russia and the Balkans - as in
     that of the 20th century, did economic history become
     primarily social-revolutionary in orientation, like all
     "social science"and therefore likely to be strongly attracted
     to Marx.

                       Marx's impact on history

     The historical interests of most Marxist historians were not
     so much in the "base" (the economic infrastructure) but in
     the relations of base and superstructure. The number of
     specifically Marxian historians was always relatively small.
     The major impact of Marx on history was through historians
     and social scientists who took up Marx's questions, whether
     or not they gave alternative answers to them. And, in turn,
     Marxist historiography has moved a good way ahead of what it
     was in the days of Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov (4),
     largely owing to fertilisation by other disciplines (notably
     social anthropology) and by Marx-influenced and
     Marx-supplementing thinkers like Max Weber (5).

     I stress the generality of this historiographical current not
     because I want to underestimate the differences within it, or
     within its components, like Marxism. The historical
     modernisers asked the same questions and saw themselves as
     engaged in the same intellectual battles, whether they
     derived their inspiration from human geography, Durkheimian
     sociology (6) and statistics as in France (both the school of
     the Annales and Labrousse), or from Weberian sociology like
     the Historische Sozialwissenschaft in federal Germany, or
     from the Marxism of the Communist party historians who became
     crucial carriers of historical modernisation in Britain, or
     at least founded its main journal.

     These all saw each other as allies against historiographical
     conservatism, even when they represented mutually hostile
     political or ideological positions, like Michael Postan (7)
     and his British Marxist students. The classical expression of
     this coalition of progress is the journal Past & Present,
     founded in 1952, which became influential within the world of
     historians. It succeeded because the young Marxists who
     founded it deliberately refused ideological exclusiveness and
     the young modernisers of other ideological stamps were
     prepared to join with them and, what is more, knew that
     ideological and political differences did not stand in the
     way of collaboration. This front of progress advanced
     dramatically from the end of the second world war to the
     1970s and what Lawrence Stone calls the "broad cluster of
     changes in the nature of historical discourse". This lasted
     until the crisis of 1985, which saw the transition from
     quantitative to qualitative studies, from macro- to
     micro-history, from structural analysis to narrative, from
     the social to the cultural.

     Since that time the modernising coalition has been on the
     defensive - including even the non-Marxist components such as
     economic and social history.

     By the 1970s the mainstream of history had been so
     transformed, not least by the influence of the Marxist way of
     asking the "big questions", that I found myself writing: "It
     is today often impossible to tell whether a work has been
     written by a Marxist or a non-Marxist unless the author
     advertises his or her ideological position...I would like to
     look forward to a time when no one asks whether authors are
     Marxist or not." But, as I also observed, we were far from
     such a utopia. On the contrary. The need to insist on what
     Marxism can bring to historiography has become greater since
     then. Greater than it has been for a long time. That is
     because history needs to be defended against those who deny
     its capacity to help us understand the world, and because new
     developments in the sciences have transformed the
     historiographical agenda.

     Methodologically, the major negative development has been the
     construction of a set of barriers between what happened or
     happens in history and our capacity to observe and understand
     it. It is denied that there is any reality that is
     objectively there and not constructed by the observer for
     different and changing purposes. It is claimed that we can
     never penetrate beyond the limitations of language, ie of the
     concepts which are the only way in which we can talk about
     the world, the past included.

     This vision would eliminate the question of knowing whether
     there are patterns and regularities in the past about which
     historians can make meaningful statements. Meanwhile less
     theoretically minded historians argue that the course of the
     past is too contingent for generalisations or causal
     explanation, because the options in history are endless.
     Pretty well anything could happen or might have happened.
     Implicitly these are arguments against any science. I won't
     bother about the more trivial attempts to return to the past:
     the attempt to hand back its course to high political or
     military decision-makers, or to the omnipotence of ideas or
     "values", or to reduce historical scholarship to the
     important, but by itself insufficient, search for empathy
     with the past.

                    My truth is as valid as yours'

     The major immediate political danger to historiography today
     is "anti-universalism" or "my truth is as valid as yours,
     whatever the evidence." This naturally appeals to various
     forms of identity group history, for which the central issue
     of history is not what happened, but how it concerns the
     members of a particular group. What is important to this kind
     of history is not rational explanation but "meaning", not
     what happened but what members of a collective group defining
     itself against outsiders - religious, ethnic, national, by
     gender, lifestyle or in some other way - feel about it.

     That is the appeal of relativism to identity-group history.
     For various reasons the past 30 years have been a golden age
     for the mass invention of emotionally skewed historical
     untruths and myths. Some of them are a public danger: I am
     thinking of countries like India in the days of the BJP (8),
     the US, Sylvio Berlusconi's Italy, not to mention many of the
     new nationalisms, with or without fundamentalist religious

     This produces endless claptrap and trivia on the further
     fringes of nationalist, feminist, gay, black and other
     in-group histories, but it has also stimulated some extremely
     interesting new historical developments in cultural studies,
     such as the new "memory boom in contemporary historical
     studies" as Jay Winter (9) calls it, of which Les Lieux de
     Mémoire (Places of memory) (10) is a good example.

     It is time to re-establish the coalition of those who want to
     believe in history as a rational enquiry into the course of
     human transformations against those who systematically
     distort history for political purposes - and also, more
     generally, against relativists and postmodernists who deny
     this possibility. Since some of these relativists and
     postmodernists consider themselves on the left, this may
     split historians in politically unexpected ways. I think the
     Marxist approach is a necessary component of this
     reconstruction of the front of reason, as it was in the 1950s
     and 1960s. Indeed the Marxist contribution is probably more
     relevant today since the other components of the coalition,
     for instance the post-Braudelian Annales and those inspired
     by structural-functional social anthropology have rather
     abdicated. Social anthropology as a discipline has been
     particularly affected by the stampede towards postmodern

                 An evolutionary history of humanity

     While postmodernists have denied the possibility of
     historical understanding and historians have barely noticed,
     developments in the natural sciences have put an evolutionary
     history of humanity firmly back on the agenda. They have done
     so in two ways.

     First because the new DNA analysis has established a firmer
     chronology of development since the emergence of homo sapiens
     as a species, and especially for the chronology of the spread
     of the species from its original African origin throughout
     the rest of the world and subsequent developments, before the
     appearance of written sources. This has both established the
     astonishing brevity of human history - by geological and
     palaeontological standards - and eliminated the reductionist
     solution of neo-Darwinian socio-biology (12). The changes in
     human life, collective and individual, in the course of the
     past 10,000 years, let alone in the past 10 generations, are
     too great to be explained by a wholly Darwinian mechanism of
     evolution via genes. They amount to the accelerating
     inheritance of acquired characteristics by cultural and not
     genetic mechanisms - I suppose it is Lamarck's (12) revenge
     on Darwin via human history. And it doesn't really help to
     dress this up in biological metaphors - "memes" (13) and not
     "genes". Cultural and biological inheritance don't work the
     same way.

     In short, the DNA revolution calls for a specific,
     historical, method of studying the evolution of the human
     species. It also provides us with a rational framework for a
     world history. A history that takes the globe in all its
     complexity as the unit of historical studies, and not any
     particular environment or sub-area within it. History is the
     continuance of the biological evolution of homo sapiens by
     other means.

     Second, the new evolutionary biology eliminates the
     hard-and-fast distinction between history and the natural
     sciences, already much weakened by the systematic
     "historisation" of these in the past decades. Luigi
     Cavalli-Sforza, one of the multidisciplinary pioneers of the
     DNA revolution, speaks of "the intellectual pleasure of
     finding so many similarities between disparate fields of
     study, some of which belong traditionally to the two opposite
     sides of culture: science and the humanities". In short, it
     bypasses the bogus debates on whether history is or is not a

     Third, it inevitably returns us to the basic approach to
     human evolution adopted by archaeologists and prehistorians,
     which is to study the modes of interaction between our
     species and its environment and its growing control over it.
     That means asking the questions that Marx asked. "Modes of
     production" (or whatever we want to call them), based on
     major innovations in productive technology, in
     communications, and in social organisation - but also in
     military power - have been central to human evolution. These
     innovations, as Marx was aware, did not and do not make
     themselves. Material and cultural forces and relations of
     production are not separable. They are the activities of men
     and women in historical situations not of their making,
     acting and taking decisions ("making their history"), but not
     in a vacuum- not even a vacuum of imputed rational

     However, the new perspectives on history should also return
     us to that essential, if never quite realisable, objective of
     those who study the past: "total history". Not a "history of
     everything", but history as an indivisible web in which all
     human activities are interconnected. Marxists are not the
     only ones to have had this aim (for instance, Fernand
     Braudel), but they have been its most persistent pursuers, as
     noted by one of them, Pierre Vilar (15). (1)

     Not the least of the theoretical problems for which the
     perspective of history as interaction is essential, is one
     that is crucial for the understanding of the historic
     evolution of homo sapiens. It is the conflict between the
     forces making for the transformation of homo sapiens from
     neolithic to nuclear humanity and the forces whose aim is the
     maintenance of unchanging reproduction and stability in human
     collectivities or social environments. For most of history,
     the forces inhibiting change have usually, though with
     occasional exceptions, effectively counteracted open-ended
     change. Today this balance has been decisively tilted in one
     direction. And the disequilibrium, which may be beyond the
     ability of humans to absorb, is almost certainly beyond the
     ability of human social and political institutions to
     control. Perhaps Marxist historians, who have had occasion to
     reflect on the unintended and unwanted consequences of human
     collective projects in the 20th century, can at least help us
     understand how this came about.

     Eric Hobsbawm is author inter alia of The Age of Extremes:
     The Short 20th Century: 1914-1991, Michael Joseph, London,

     This article is taken from his concluding speech to the
     British Academy Colloquium on Marxist historiography this

     (1) Like Marx, he refused "any firm division or watertight
     separation among the various sectors of history. Analysis, of
     course, remains an essential pat of any investigation and the
     historical profession cannot do without specialization. But
     economics alone can never fully account for all economic
     phenomena, nor political theory for all political phenomena,
     nor the theory of the spiritual for all spiritual phenomena.
     In each concrete instance the problem lies in the interaction
     of all these."

     (1) The doctrine that there is evidence of purpose or design
     in the universe.

     (2) A reaction against Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), seen as
     the father of the dominant school of academic historiography
     before 1914.

     (3) Lawrence Stone (1920-99), one of the most eminent and
     influential social historians, was author of, among other
     works, The Causes of the English Revolution, 1529-1642 (1972)
     and The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (1977).

     (4) Respectively theoreticians of German and Russian social
     democracy at the start of the 20th century.

     (5) The German sociologist (1864-1920)

     (6) After Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), who was one of the
     founding fathers of modern sociology.

     (7) Michael Postan held the chair of economic history at
     Cambridge University from 1937.

     (8) The Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) was in power from 1999
     to May 2004.

     (9) Professor at Yale University, US and a specialist in 20th
     century war history, in particular in the subject of places
     of memory.

     (10) Les lieux de mémoire, Gallimard, Paris, edited by Pierre
     Nora, seven volumes, 1984 -1992.

     (11) After Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the British naturalist
     who was responsible for the theory of the evolution of the
     species on the basis of natural selection.

     (12) Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), the French naturalist
     who was the first to reject the idea of the permanence of the
     species, believed in the heritability of acquired

     (13) Memes, according to Richard Dawkins, a leading
     neo-Darwinist, are basic units of memory, which are supposed
     to be vectors of cultural transmission and survival just as
     genes are vectors of the survival of genetic characteristics.

     (14) Jacques Revel and Lynn Hunt, eds, Histories:French
     Constructions of the Past, The New Press, New York, 1995.


                                          Original text in English


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