From Wed Dec 15 18:15:06 2004
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: History: a new age of reason
Date: Wed, 15 Dec 2004 23:33:24 +0100 (CET)

Asking the big why questions: History: a new age of reason

By Eric Hobsbawm, Le Monde diplomatique, December 2004

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.

“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 movement.

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 reinforcement.

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 subjectivity.

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 science.

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 calculation.

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.


(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 characteristics.

(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.