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Eric Hobsbawm

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"The philosophers so far have only interpreted the world: the point is to change it." Marxist history has developed along parallel lines, corresponding to the two halves of Marx's famous thesis. 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. This motivation remained strong until the 1970s, before a massive political and ideological reaction against Marxism began. 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.

Meanwhile what of "interpreting the world"? Here the story is about a double movement. This challenged the positivist belief that the objective structure of reality was self-explanatory - all that was needed was to apply the methodology of science to it. At the same time, it was a movement to bring history closer to the social sciences, and turn it into part of a generalising discipline capable of explaining the transformations of human society. History was to be about "asking the big 'why' questions".

Marxism contributed to both these movements - though it has been mistakenly attacked for an alleged blind objectivism. But the most familiar impact of Marxist ideas, the stress on economic and social factors, was not specifically Marxist; it was part of a general historiographical movement which was to reach its peak in the 1950s and 1960s.

The historical interests of most Marxist historians were not so much in the base - the economic infrastructure - as in the relations of base and superstructure. This socio-economic current was wider than Marxism. These historical modernisers asked the same questions and saw themselves as engaged in the same intellectual battles, whether inspired by human geography, Weberian sociology or the Marxism of the communist historians who became carriers of historical modernisation in Britain.

They all saw each other as allies against historiographical conservatism, even when they represented mutually hostile positions. This front of progress advanced from the second world war to the 1970s. There followed a 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. And yet the need to insist on what Marxism can bring to historiography is greater than for a long time. 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 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.

Meanwhile, less theoretically minded historians argue that the course of the past is too contingent for 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 search for empathy with the past.

The major immediate political danger to historiography today is "anti-universalism" or "my truth is as valid as yours, whatever the evidence". This 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, or lifestyle - feel about it.

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 under the BJP, the US, Silvio Berlusconi's Italy, not to mention many of the new nationalisms, with or without fundamentalist religious reinforcement.

This produces endless claptrap on the fringes of nationalist, feminist, gay, black and other in-group histories, but it has also stimulated interesting new historical developments in cultural studies, such as what has been called the "memory boom" in history.

It is time to re-establish the coalition of those who believe in history as a rational inquiry into the course of human transformations, against those who distort history for political purposes - and more generally, against relativists and postmodernists who deny this possibility. Since some of the latter see themselves as being on the left, this may split historians in politically unexpected ways.

The Marxist approach is a necessary component of this reconstruction of the front of reason. While postmodernists have denied the possibility of historical understanding, developments in the natural sciences have put an evolutionary history of humanity firmly back on the agenda.

Firstly, DNA analysis has established a firmer chronology of the spread of the species from its original African origin throughout the world, before the appearance of written sources. This has both established the astonishing brevity of human history and eliminated the reductionist solution of neo-Darwinian socio-biology.

The changes in human life in past 10,000 years, let alone 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.

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. History is the continuance of the biological evolution of homo sapiens by other means.

Secondly, the new evolutionary biology eliminates the distinction between history and the natural sciences and bypasses the bogus debates on whether history is or is not a science.

Thirdly, it returns us to the basic approach to human evolution adopted by 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", 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, but not in a vacuum.

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, but they have been its most persistent pursuers.

Not the least of the 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 social environments. For most of history, the forces inhibiting change have usually effectively counteracted open-ended change.

Today this balance has been decisively tilted in one direction. And the disequilibrium 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.


Edited by Eric Hobsbawm
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Some replies to Eric Hobsbawm's article:

What do Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and conservative Daily Mail commentator Melanie Phillips have in common? Both attack the "straw man" of postmodern relativism on the grounds it holds, in Hobsbawm's words, that "my truth is as valid as yours, whatever the evidence".

As usual with straw men, no names are attached to this position, the reason being that no credible social commentator holds such a view. Not Jacques Derrida, not Richard Rorty, not Michel Foucault. But it allows Marxists and conservatives alike to portray themselves as defenders of the truth in a world of postmodern subjectivism.

However, it is just such an approach to the truth that modernists and postmodernists alike reject as authoritarian, who argue that valid truths only emerge from free, fair and open discussion.

But instead of entering into a rational dialogue with his detractors, Hobsbawm demonises them as enemies of reason, truth and science. The groups he denounces are those that have traditionally been excluded from historical analysis. But "total history", as Hobsbawm calls its, cannot be imposed upon humanity (in a top-down fashion) by experts. It must be created (from the bottom up) by allowing the disparate voices of humans to participate as equals in a common historical project.

Bob Cannon

Senior lecturer, University of East London

Eric Hobsbawm is right to call for a "total history" that seeks to understand the development of human history in its entirety rather than partial views of it. Marxism may not be particularly trendy, but as the convenor of socialist history at the Institute of Historical Research I find no shortage of young researchers, working within the broad Marxist tradition, who are keen to give papers.

Keith Flett

London Socialist Historians Group

Eric Hobsbawm's confidence in the "DNA revolution" providing a "rational framework for world history" is more than a little optimistic. This is because biology is in a crisis of its own, in part because of an adherence to a reductionist dogma. The DNA revolution has yielded the "vocabulary" but not yet the "grammar" that gives the DNA sequence meaning.

The problem is that epigenetic information cannot be decoded easily and the relative contributions of genetic and epigenetic information are not clear, so any attempt to use DNA sequences from the past to assist in shedding light on history will be shrouded in uncertainty until the role of epigenetic information is much better understood. Understanding humanity (at any level) is an issue of extreme complexity that is most unlikely to yield to a reductionist approach.

Keith Baverstock

Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Kuopio, Finland

Eric Hobsbawm omits the historical truth that many Marxist intellectuals and socialist movements took on a paternalistic role in the belief that workers could not by their own efforts achieve revolutionary consciousness. When the going got rough, the upshot was Trotsky, Stalin and Mao. But there was always a submerged and more democratic current which took seriously Marx's insistence that if working people were to escape from their burdens they would have to do it for themselves.

In an age when people's trust in the ability of political leaders to deliver has never been lower, don't bet too heavily against this submerged current having more influence in the 21st century than it did in the 20th.

Prof Keith Graham


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  • 3 years later...

History Herstory Their Story Our Story My story. Which represents the truth?

Lacking the appropriate nomenclature, I'll choose for now to call it by two opposites: Centric or Wholistic History. Please correct me re terms.

Centric History could be dsecribed by a personal experience from my youth when a friend from another country told me he was amazed to see that a copy of The Times he read in Australia was not the same as the issue he had read at home. The issue he had read 'in the old country' had been significantly redacted.

Similarly various societies struggle with education issues around such things as war crimes. History is often slightly de-emphisised or emphasised or even excised. It appears emprical and thus fragmented

Wholistic History seeks to take all events impartially with no agenda. This appears to be dialectic and thesis-antithesis, cause and effect in a constant play of forces.

When this is done as fully as possible then the picture that emerges often is rejected according to various pre-judices.

My feeling is that the Wholistic Human Story is much neglected.

If so, why? Are there significant consequences of 'Wholistic' being dominant globally?


What is "Marxism"? Are we in this context talking about Dialectical Materialism as opposed to Hegelian Dialectics and Empiricism?

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