[OPE-L] ASKING THE BIG WHY QUESTIONS History: a new age of reason by Eric Hobsbawm

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Thu Dec 16 2004 - 15:36:39 EST

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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