Eric Hobsbawm: The Great Need Now for Marxist Interpretations of History

Roundup: Talking About History

Eric Hobsbawm, in the Guardian (1-15-05):

"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.

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