Review of: On History by Eric Hobsbawm

One who wins, does not learn

On History
by Eric Hobsbawm
The New Press, New York ,1997 Price: $25.00

The book under review is a collection of Eric Hobsbawm’s essays and lectures delivered over the last 3 decades. The range of the topics revolves around, as the title announces, on the theorization of history. Clearly, Hobsbawm is far more scintillating and powerful when actually writing history and the book under review is therefore cannot be classed along with his other works. Partly, the vintage of the papers in not in the favor- most of the issues are quite old and even hackneyed.

And yet, the book makes for a good reading, pepperred as it is with insights, personal anecdotes and the keen sense of observation that Eric Hobsbawm retains about life. Primarily, the collection focuses on a defense of the Marxist method of interpreting history, evident in “Marx and History”, “What do Historians Owe to Karl Marx” and “On History from Below”. It is interesting to know how the first generation of Marxist historians was reared in the 1930s in the universities of England-

When I was a student in Cambridge in Cambridge in the 1930s, many of the ablest young men and women joined the Communist Party. But as this was a very brilliant era in the history of a very distinguished university (Cambridge) many of them were profoundly influenced by the great names at whose feet we sat. Among the young communists there, we used to joke, the communist philosophers were Wittgensteinians, the communist economists were Keynesians, the communist students of literature were the disciples of F.R. Lewis. And the historians ? They were Marxists, because there was no historian we knew of at Cambridge or elsewhere ………thirty years later the economic historian Sir John Hicks was to observe: Most of those (who wish to fit into place the general course of history) would use the Marxian categories, or some modified version of them since there was so little in the way of an alternative version that was available.

Eric Hobsbawm not only played a key role in the writing of history from a Marxist point of view, but in a sense made history by interpreting it. This was all the more notable since Marx’s direct contribution to the writing of history is negligible- most of his comments were only indirect and peripheral to his main works- like the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bounaparte and the footnotes in the “Capital”.

The writer underscores the importance of Marxist historiography in Third World societies where historians have far less sophisticated tools for collecting statistics and facts and therefore find the general methodological approach of Marxism more relevant. He also draws attention specially to the French school of historians (Annales) who prepared the ground for Marxists to make a fuller contribution to it during and after 1950s, when the latter began to occupy seats in academic institutions.

It was the French tradition of histriography as a whole, steeped in the history not of the French ruling class but of the French people, which established most of the themes and even the methods of grassroots history- Marc Bloch as well as Leferbre.

Interestingly, reflecting on Indian historiography since the times of D.D.Kosambi, one is struck by the singular lack of influence, if not ignorance, of the Annales school on the writing of Indian history, profoundly influence though it was by Marxism.

The writer’s observations on the ‘civilizational debate’ that has been triggered off by Samuel Huntington’s “Clash Of Civilizations” are acute and worthy of consideration even though not made in response to Huntington.

As late as the 14th century, the Arabic historian, Ibn Khaldun, showed little interest in Christian Europe: “God alone knows what goes on there”, he observed, two centuries after Said ‘Ibn Akhmad, who was convinced that nothing could be learned from the northern barbarians. They were more like beasts than men. In those centuries the cultural slope ran in the opposite direction. Here precisely, lies the paradox of European history. These very U- turns or interruptions are its specific characteristics. No other civilization except the Roman civilization actually faced permanent destruction, so civilizations like the Chinese or the India never felt a need to “go back” to their classics. Without such a collapse of cultural space, would a need for ‘Renaissance’- the need to back on a forgotten but supposedly superior heritage have arisen ?.

The erroneous conviction of Western philosophers not excluding Marx”, Hobsbawm avers, “that a dynamic of historical development could only be discovered in Europe, but not in Asia or Africa, is due at least in part, to this difference between the continuity of the other literate and urban cultures and the discontinuities in the history of the West.

Not ignoring the fundamental import of the history of Europe in transforming the world after the 15th century and its role in making world history possible at all, this can be a potentially possible area which historians can explore. In the Indian experience, the system of caste, for example, despite all its deformations did provide a stability for a long time. In these times of caste conflagration, it might pay to retrieve those possible aspects of the caste system, while doing away with its more pernicious deformations.

Finally, in the paper on Has Histoy made Progress ? Hobsbawm defends his well- known position on the dicey area of contrafactual studies. However, it is in The Present as History that Hobsbawm is at his best in piquantly delivering the most powerful statement in the book. Interestingly, he quotes another (non- Marxist) historian, Reinhard Kosselck:

The historian on the winning side is easily inclined to interpret short term success in terms of a long- term, ex- port teleology. Not so the defeated. Their primary experience is that everything happened otherwise than hoped or planned.…..they have a greater need to explain why something else occurred and not what they thought would happen. This may stimulate the search for long- term causes which explains….the….surprise…..generating more lasting insights of, consequently, greater explanatory power. In short run, history may be made for the victors.. In the long run the gains in historical understanding have come from the defeated.

Marxist historians, with the fall of Soviet Union behind them, have a future after all.

06 Jan 1998 , NJ
Published: The Tribune ?? 1998


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bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

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