On History

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Overview


Few historians have done more to change the way we see the history of modern times than Eric Hobsbawm. From his early books on the Industrial Revolution and European empires, to his magisterial 1995 study of the "short twentieth century," Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm has become known as one of the finest practitioners of his craft.

On History brings together his brilliant and challenging reflections on the uses, and abuses, of history. Ranging from considerations of "history from below" and the "progress" of history to recent debate on the relevance of studying history and the responsibility of the historian, On History reflects Hobsbawm's lifelong concern with the relations between past, present, and future.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Eric Hobsbawm surveys the writings of modern historians with the magisterial gaze of a man who has seen both the rise of Hitler and the fall of Communism.
THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hobsbawm, now 80 and among the most distinguished of living historians, reprints 21 of his essays and lectures that are frankly Marxist in background and seemingly sermons for the dwindling brethren. Still, there is a challenging if bleak wisdom in all of them that goes beyond what Hobsbawm (The Age of Extremes, 1914- 1991) concedes is a failed political movement but remains, he claims, a valid working tool for historians. Quotable gems leap from his pages: "Arguments about counterfactual alternatives cannot be settled by evidence," he contends, "since evidence is about what happened and hypothetical situations did not happen." A major theme for Hobsbawm is the ideological abuse of history perpetrated by those who blur the borders between recorded reality and fiction, something he deplores also as postmodernist practice. Yet, recognizing that the desire to restore or to pull down a medieval quarter or a Stalin statue may be more symbolic than effective as history, he observes that a facsimile is "a form of magic which, by restoring a small but emotionally charged part of a lost past, somehow restores the whole." History, then, is not merely for the historian: "It takes two to learn the lessons of history or anything else; one to give the information, the other to listen." A Cambridge historian educated in interwar Europe, Hobsbawm has lived his contemporary history and makes an effective case here that it should transcend documented narrative, that eye-witness accounts have immediacy. (Sept.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565844681
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 9/1/1998
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,113,381
  • Product dimensions: 0.67 (w) x 6.14 (h) x 9.21 (d)

Meet the Author


Eric Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria in 1917 and educated in Austria, Germany and England. He taught at Birkbeck College, University of London, and then at the New School for Social Research in New York. In addition to The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and The Age of Extremes, his books include Bandits, Revolutionaries, Uncommon People, and his memoir Interesting Times. Eric Hobsbawm died in 2012.
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Table of Contents

Preface
1 Outside and Inside History 1
2 The Sense of the Past 10
3 What Can History Tell Us about Contemporary Society? 24
4 Looking Forward: History and the Future 37
5 Has History Made Progress? 56
6 From Social History to the History of Society 71
7 Historians and Economists: I 94
8 Historians and Economists: II 109
9 Partisanship 124
10 What Do Historians Owe to Karl Marx? 141
11 Marx and History 157
12 All Peoples Have a History 171
13 British History and the Annales: A Note 178
14 On the Revival of Narrative 186
15 Postmodernism in the Forest 192
16 On History from Below 201
17 The Curious History of Europe 217
18 The Present as History 228
19 Can We Write the History of the Russian Revolution? 241
20 Barbarism: A User's Guide 253
21 Identity History Is Not Enough 266
Notes 278
Index 291
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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

Outside and Inside History

This paper was given as a lecture opening the academic year 1993-4 at the Central European University in Budapest, that is to say it was addressed to a body of students essentially drawn from the formerly communist countries in Europe and the former USSR. It was subsequently published as `The New Threat to History' in the New York Review of Books, 16 December 1992, pp. 62-5, and, in translation, in a number of other countries.

It is an honour to be asked to open this academic year of the Central European University. It is also a curious sensation to do so, since, though I am a second-generation English-born British citizen, I am also a central European. Indeed, as a Jew I am one of the characteristic members of the central European diaspora of peoples. My grandfather came to London from Warsaw. My mother was Viennese, and so is my wife, though she now speaks better Italian than German. My wife's mother still spoke Hungarian as a little girl and her parents, at one stage of their lives in the old monarchy, had a store in Hercegovina. My wife and I once went to Mostar to trace it, in the days when there was still peace in that unhappy part of the Balkans. I have had some connections with Hungarian historians myself in the old days. So I come to you as an outsider who is also, in an oblique way, an insider. What can I say to you?

I want to say three things to you.

The first concerns central and eastern Europe. If you come from there, and I assume that almost all of you do, you are citizens of countries whose status is doubly uncertain. I am not claiming that uncertainty is a monopoly of central and east Europeans. It is probably more universal today than ever. Nevertheless, your horizon is particularly cloudy. In my own lifetime every country in your part of Europe has been overrun by war, conquered, occupied, liberated and reoccupied. Every state in it has a different shape from the one it had when I was born. Only six of the twenty-three states which now fill the map between Trieste and the Urals were in existence at the time of my birth, or would have been if they had not been occupied by some army: Russia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece and Turkey, for neither post-1918 Austria nor post-1918 Hungary is really comparable to Habsburg Hungary and Cisleithania. Several came into existence after the First World War, even more since 1989. They include several countries which had never in history had the status of independent statehood in the modern sense, or which had it briefly--for a year or two, for a decade or two--and then lost it, though some have since regained it: the three little Baltic states, Belarus, Ukraine, Slovakia, Moldova, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, not to go further eastwards. Some were born and died in my lifetime, like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. It is perfectly common for the elderly inhabitant of some central European city to have had, successively, the identity documents of three states. A person of my age from Lemberg or Czernowitz has lived under four states, not counting wartime occupations; a man from Munkacs may well have lived under five, if we count the momentary autonomy of Podkarpatska Rus in 1938. In more civilized times, as in 1919, he or she might have been given the option which new citizenship to choose, but since the Second World War he or she has been more likely to be either forcibly expelled or forcibly integrated into the new state. Where does a central and eastern European belong? Who is he or she? The question has been a real one for great numbers of them, and it still is. In some countries it is a question of life and death, in almost all it affects and sometimes determines their legal status and life-chances.

However, there is another and more collective uncertainty. The bulk of central and eastern Europe belongs to that part of the world for which diplomats and United Nations experts since 1945 have tried to devise polite euphemisms: `under-developed' or `developing', that is to say, relatively or absolutely poor and backward. In some respects there is no sharp line between the two Europes, but rather a slope to the east and to the west of what we might call the main mountain-range or crest of European economic and cultural dynamism, which ran from north Italy across the Alps to northern France and the Low Countries, and was prolonged across the Channel into England. It can be traced in the medieval trade routes and the distribution map of gothic architecture, as well as in the figures for the regional GDP within the European Community. In fact, today this region is still the backbone of the European Community. However, insofar as there is a historical line separating `advanced' from `backward' Europe it ran, roughly, through the middle of the Habsburg Empire. I know that people are sensitive in these matters. Ljubljana thinks of itself as a great deal nearer the centre of civilization than, say, Skopje, and Budapest than Belgrade, and the present government in Prague does not even wish to be called `central-European' for fear of being contaminated by contact with the East. It insists that it belongs exclusively to the West. However, my point is that no country or region in central and eastern Europe thought of itself as being at that centre. All looked somewhere else for a model of how really to be advanced and modern, even, I suspect, the educated middle class of Vienna, Budapest and Prague. They looked to Paris and London, just as the intellectuals of Belgrade and Ruse looked to Vienna--even though by most accepted standards the present Czech Republic and parts of the present Austria formed part of the advanced industrial part of Europe, and culturally Vienna, Budapest and Prague had no reason at all to feel inferior to anyone else.

The history of backward countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is the history of trying to catch up with the more advanced world by imitating it. The nineteenth-century Japanese took Europe as their model, the west Europeans after the Second World War imitated the American economy. The story of central and eastern Europe in the twentieth century is, broadly, that of trying to catch up by following several models one after the other and failing. After 1918, when most of the successor countries were new, the model was Western democracy and economic liberalism. President Wilson--is the main station in Prague named after him again?--was the region's patron saint, except for the Bolsheviks who went their own way. Actually, they too had foreign models: Rathenau and Henry Ford. This did not work. The model broke down politically and economically in the 1920s and 1930s. The Great Depression eventually broke multinational democracy even in Czechoslovakia. A number of these countries then briefly tried or flirted with the fascist model, which looked like the economic and political success story of the 1930s. We are inclined to forget that Nazi Germany was remarkably successful in overcoming the Great Depression. Integration in a Great German economic system did not work either. Germany was defeated.

After 1945 most of these countries chose, or found themselves being made to choose, the Bolshevik model, which was essentially a model for modernizing backward agrarian economies by planned industrial revolution. It was therefore never relevant to what is now the Czech Republic and to what was until 1989 the German Democratic Republic, but it was relevant to most of the region, including the USSR. I do not have to tell you about the economic deficiencies and flaws of the system, which eventually led to its breakdown, and still less about the intolerable, the increasingly intolerable political systems it imposed on central and eastern Europe. Still less do I have to remind you of the incredible sufferings it imposed on the peoples of the former USSR, particularly in the iron age of Joseph Stalin. And yet I must say, although many of you will not welcome my saying so, that up to a point it worked better than anything since the break-up of the monarchies in 1918. For the common citizens of the more backward countries in the region--say Slovakia and much of the Balkan peninsula--it was probably the best period in their history. It broke down because economically the system became increasingly rigid and unworkable, and especially because it proved virtually incapable of generating or making economic use of innovation, quite apart from stifling intellectual originality. Moreover, it became impossible to hide the fact from the local populations that other countries had made far more material progress than the socialist ones. If you prefer putting it another way, it broke down because ordinary citizens were indifferent or hostile, and because the regimes themselves had lost faith in what they were pretending to do. Still, however you look at it, it failed in the most spectacular manner in 1989-91.

And now? There is another model which everyone rushes to follow, parliamentary democracy in politics and the extremes of free-market capitalism in economics. In the present form it is not really a model, but chiefly a reaction against what has gone before. It may settle down to become something more workable--if it is allowed to settle down. However, even if it were to do so, in the light of history since 1918 there is not much likelihood that this region, possibly with marginal exceptions, will succeed in joining the club of the `really' advanced and up-to-date countries. The results of imitating President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher have proved disappointing even in countries which have not been laid waste in civil war, chaos and anarchy. I should add that the results of following the Reagan--Thatcher model in the countries of its origin have not been brilliantly successful either, if you will permit a British understatement.

So, on the whole, the people of central and eastern Europe will go on living in countries disappointed in their past, probably largely disappointed with their present, and uncertain about their future. This is a very dangerous situation. People will look for someone to blame for their failures and insecurities. The movements and ideologies most likely to benefit from this mood are not, at least in this generation, those which want a return to some version of the days before 1989. They are more likely to be movements inspired by xenophobic nationalism and intolerance. The easiest thing is always to blame the strangers.

This brings me to my second and main point, which is much more directly relevant to the work of a university, or at least to that part of the work which concerns me as a historian and university teacher. For history is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies, as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction. The past is an essential element, perhaps the essential element, in these ideologies. If there is no suitable past, it can always be invented. Indeed, in the nature of things there is usually no entirely suitable past, because the phenomenon these ideologies claim to justify is not ancient or eternal but historically novel. This applies both to religious fundamentalism in its current versions--the Ayatollah Khomeini's version of an Islamic state is no older than the early 1970s--and to contemporary nationalism. The past legitimizes. The past gives a more glorious background to a present that doesn't have much to celebrate. I recall seeing somewhere a study of the ancient civilization of the cities of the Indus valley with the title Five Thousand Years of Pakistan. Pakistan was not even thought of before 1932-3, when the name was invented by some student militants. It did not become a serious political demand until 1940. As a state it has existed only since 1947. There is no evidence of any more connection between the civilization of Mohenjo Daro and the current rulers of Islamabad than there is of a connection between the Trojan War and the government in Ankara, which is at present claiming the return, if only for the first public exhibition, of Schliemann's treasure of King Priam of Troy. But 5,000 years of Pakistan somehow sounds better than forty-six years of Pakistan.

In this situation historians find themselves in the unexpected role of political actors. I used to think that the profession of history, unlike that of, say, nuclear physics, could at least do no harm. Now I know it can. Our studies can turn into bomb factories like the workshops in which the IRA has learned to transform chemical fertilizer into an explosive. This state of affairs affects us in two ways. We have a responsibility to historical facts in general, and for criticizing the politico-ideological abuse of history in particular.

I need say little about the first of these responsibilities. I would not have to say anything, but for two developments. One is the current fashion for novelists to base their plots on recorded reality rather than inventing them, thus fudging the border between historical fact and fiction. The other is the rise of `postmodernist' intellectual fashions in Western universities, particularly in departments of literature and anthropology, which imply that all `facts' claiming objective existence are simply intellectual constructions--in short, that there is no clear difference between fact and fiction. But there is, and for historians, even for the most militantly anti-positivist ones among us, the ability to distinguish between the two is absolutely fundamental. We cannot invent our facts. Either Elvis Presley is dead or he isn't. The question can be answered unambiguously on the basis of evidence, insofar as reliable evidence is available, which is sometimes the case. Either the present Turkish government, which denies the attempted genocide of the Armenians in 1915, is right or it is not. Most of us would dismiss any denial of this massacre from serious historical discourse, although there is no equally unambiguous way to choose between different ways of interpreting the phenomenon or fitting it into the wider context of history. Recently Hindu zealots destroyed a mosque in Aodhya, ostensibly on the grounds that the mosque had been imposed by the Muslim Moghul conqueror Babur on the Hindus in a particularly sacred location which marked the birthplace of the god Rama. My colleagues and friends in the Indian universities published a study showing a that nobody until the nineteenth century had suggested that Aodhya was the birthplace of Rama and b that the mosque was almost certainly not built in the time of Babur. I wish I could say that this has had much effect on the rise of the Hindu party which provoked the incident, but at least they did their duty as historians, for the benefit of those who can read and are exposed to the propaganda of intolerance now and in the future. Let us do ours.

Few of the ideologies of intolerance are based on simple lies or fictions for which no evidence exists. After all, there was a battle of Kosovo in 1389, the Serb warriors and their allies were defeated by the Turks, and this did leave deep scars on the popular memory of the Serbs, although it does not follow that this justifies the oppression of the Albanians, who now form 90 per cent of the region's population, or the Serb claim that the land is essentially theirs. Denmark does not claim the large part of eastern England which was settled and ruled by Danes before the eleventh century, which continued to be known as the Danelaw and whose village names are still philologically Danish.

The most usual ideological abuse of history is based on anachronism rather than lies. Greek nationalism refuses Macedonia even the right to its name on the grounds that all Macedonia is essentially Greek and part of a Greek nation-state, presumably ever since the father of Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, become the ruler of the Greek lands on the Balkan peninsula. Like everything about Macedonia, this is a far from a purely academic matter, but it takes a lot of courage for a Greek intellectual to say that, historically speaking, it is nonsense. There was no Greek nation-state or any other single political entity for the Greeks in the fourth century BC, the Macedonian Empire was nothing like a Greek or any other modern nation-state, and in any case it is highly probable that the ancient Greeks regarded the Macedonian rulers, as they did their later Roman rulers, as barbarians and not as Greeks, though they were doubtless too polite or cautious to say so. Moreover, Macedonia is historically such an inextricable mixture of ethnicities--not for nothing has it given its name to French mixed-fruit salads macedoine--that any attempt to identify it with a single nationality cannot be correct. In fairness, the extremes of emigrant Macedonian nationalism should also be dismissed for the same reason, as should all the publications in Croatia which somehow try to turn Zvonimir the Great into the ancestor of President Tudjman. But it is difficult to stand up against the inventors of a national schoolbook history, although there are historians in Zagreb University, whom I am proud to count as friends, who have the courage to do so.

These and many other attempts to replace history by myth and invention are not merely bad intellectual jokes. After all, they can determine what goes into schoolbooks, as the Japanese authorities knew, when they insisted on a sanitized version of the Japanese war in China for use in Japanese classrooms. Myth and invention are essential to the politics of identity by which groups of people today, defining themselves by ethnicity, religion or the past or present borders of states, try to find some certainty in an uncertain and shaking world by saying, `We are different from and better than the Others.' They are our concern in the universities because the people who formulate those myths and inventions are educated people: schoolteachers lay and clerical, professors not many, I hope, journalists, television and radio producers. Today most of them will have gone to some university. Make no mistake about it. History is not ancestral memory or collective tradition. It is what people learned from priests, schoolmasters, the writers of history books and the compilers of magazine articles and television programmes. It is very important for historians to remember their responsibility, which is, above all, to stand aside from the passions of identity politics--even if we feel them also. After all, we are human beings too.

How serious an affair this may be is shown in a recent article by the Israeli writer Amos Elon about the way in which the genocide of the Jews by Hitler has been turned into a legitimizing myth for the existence of the state of Israel. More than this: in the years of right-wing government it was turned into a sort of national ritual assertion of Israeli state identity and superiority and a central item of the official system of national beliefs, alongside God. Elon, who traces the evolution of this transformation of the concept of the `Holocaust' argues, following the recent Minister of Education of the new Israeli Labour government, that history must now be separated from national myth, ritual and politics. As a non-Israeli, though a Jew, I express no views about this. However, as a historian I sadly note one observation by Elon. It is that the leading contributions to the scholarly historiography of the genocide, whether by Jews or non-Jews, were either not translated into Hebrew, like Hilberg's great work, or were translated only with considerable delay, and then sometimes with editorial disclaimers. The serious historiography of the genocide has not made it any less of an unspeakable tragedy. It was merely at variance with the legitimizing myth.

Yet this very story gives us ground for hope. For here we have mythological or nationalist history being criticized from within. I note that the history of the establishment of Israel ceased to be written in Israel essentially as national propaganda or Zionist polemic about forty years after the state came into being. I have noticed the same in Irish history. About half a century after most of Ireland won its independence, Irish historians no longer wrote the history of their island in terms of the mythology of the national liberation movement. Irish history, both in the Republic and in the North, is passing through a period of great brilliance because it has succeeded in so liberating itself. This is still a matter which has political implications and risks. The history that is written today breaks with the old tradition which stretches from the Fenians to the IRA, still fighting in the name of the old myths with guns and bombs. But the fact that a new generation has grown up which can stand back from the passions of the great traumatic and formative moments of their countries' history is a sign of hope for historians.

However, we cannot wait for the generations to pass. We must resist the formation of national, ethnic and other myths, as they are being formed. It will not make us popular. Thomas Masaryk, founder of the Czechoslovak Republic, was not popular when he entered politics as the man who proved, with regret but without hesitation, that the medieval manuscripts on which much of the Czech national myth was based were fakes. But it has to be done, and I hope those of you who are historians will do it.

That is all I wanted to say to you about the duty of historians. However, before I close, I want to remind you of one other thing. You, as students of this university, are privileged people. The odds are that, as alumni of a distinguished and prestigious institute you will, if you choose, have a good status in society, have better careers and earn more than other people, though not so much as successful businessmen. What I want to remind you of is something I was told when I began to teach in a university. `The people for whom you are there', said my own teacher, `are not the brilliant students like yourself. They are the average students with boring minds who get uninteresting degrees in the lower range of the second class, and whose examination scripts all read the same. The first-class people will look after themselves, though you will enjoy teaching them. The others are the ones who need you.'

That applies not only to the university but to the world. Governments, the economy, schools, everything in society, is not for the benefit of the privileged minorities. We can look after ourselves. It is for the benefit of the ordinary run of people, who are not particularly clever or interesting unless, of course, we fall in love with one of them, not highly educated, not successful or destined for success--in fact, are nothing very special. It is for the people who, throughout history, have entered history outside their neighbourhoods as individuals only in the records of their births, marriages and deaths. Any society worth living in is one designed for them, not for the rich, the clever, the exceptional, although any society worth living in must provide room and scope for such minorities. But the world is not made for our personal benefit, nor are we in the world for our personal benefit. A world that claims that this is its purpose is not a good, and ought not to be a lasting, world.

CHAPTER TWO

The Sense of the Past

The following chapters try to sketch the relations of past, present and future, all of which are the historian's concern. The present chapter is based on my introductory paper to the 1970 conference on `The Sense of the Past and History' of the journal Past and Present. It was published in number 55 of that journal May 1972 under the title `The Social Function of the Past: Some Questions'.

All human being are conscious of the past defined as the period before the events directly recorded in any individual's memory by virtue of living with people older than themselves. All societies likely to concern the historian have a past, for even the most innovatory colonies are populated by people who come from some society with an already long history. To be a member of any human community is to situate oneself with regard to one's its past, if only by rejecting it. The past is therefore a permanent dimension of the human consciousness, an inevitable component of the institutions, values and other patterns of human society. The problem for historians is to analyse the nature of this `sense of the past' in society and to trace its changes and transformations.

I

For the greater part of history we deal with societies and communities for which the past is essentially the pattern for the present. Ideally each generation copies and reproduces its predecessor so far as is possible, and considers itself as falling short of it, so far as it fails in this endeavour. Of course a total domination of the past would exclude all legitimate changes and innovations, and it is improbable that there is any human society which recognizes no such innovation. It can take place in two ways. First, what is officially defined as the `past' clearly is and must be a particular selection from the infinity of what is remembered or capable of being remembered. How great the scope of this formalized social past is in any society naturally depends on circumstances. But it will always have interstices, that is matters which form no part of the system of conscious history into which men incorporate, in one way or another, what they consider important about their society. Innovation can occur in these interstices, since it does not automatically affect the system, and therefore does not automatically come up against the barrier: `This is not how things have always been done.' It would be interesting to enquire what kinds of activities tend to be thus left relatively flexible, apart from those which appear to be negligible at one time, but may turn out not to be so at a later date. One may suggest that, other things being equal, technology in the widest sense belongs to the flexible sector, social organization and the ideology or the value system to the inflexible. However, in the absence of comparative historical studies the question must be left open. Certainly there are numerous extremely tradition-bound and ritualized societies which have in the past accepted the relatively sudden introduction of new crops, new means of locomotion such as horses among North American Indians and new weapons, without any sense of disturbing the pattern set by their past. On the other hand there are probably others, insufficiently investigated, which have resisted even such innovation.

The `formalized social past' is clearly more rigid, since it sets the pattern for the present. It tends to be the court of appeal for present disputes and uncertainties: law equals custom, age wisdom in illiterate societies; the documents enshrining this past, and which thereby acquire a certain spiritual authority, do the same in literate or partly literate ones. A community of American Indians may base its claim to communal lands on possession from time immemorial, or on the memory of possession in the past very likely systematically passed on from one generation to the next, or on charters or legal decisions from the colonial era, these being preserved with enormous care: both have value as records of a past which is considered the norm for the present.

This does not exclude a certain flexibility or even de facto innovation, insofar as the new wine can be poured into what are at least in form the old containers. Dealing in second-hand cars appears to be a quite acceptable extension of dealing in horses to gypsies, who still maintain nomadism at least in theory as the only proper mode of life. Students of the process of `modernization' in twentieth-century India have investigated the ways in which powerful and rigid traditional systems can be stretched or modified, either consciously or in practice, without being officially disrupted, that is in which innovation can be reformulated as non-innovation.

In such societies conscious and radical innovation is also possible, but it may be suggested that it can be legitimized in only a few ways. It may be disguised as a return to or rediscovery of, some part of the past which has been mistakenly forgotten or abandoned, or by the invention of an anti-historical principle of superior moral force enjoining the destruction of the present/past, for example a religious revelation or prophecy. It is not clear whether in such conditions even anti-historical principles can lack all appeal to the past, that is whether the `new' principles are normally--or always?--the reassertion of `old' prophecies, or of an `old' genre of prophecy. The historians' and anthropologists' difficulty is that all recorded or observed cases of such primitive legitimization of major social innovations occur, almost be definition, when traditional societies are thrown into a context of more or less drastic social change, that is when the rigid normative framework of the past is strained to breaking-point and may therefore be unable to function `properly'. Though change and innovation which comes by imposition and importation from outside, apparently unconnected with internal social forces, need not in itself affect the system of ideas about novelty held within a community--since the problem whether it is legitimate is solved by force majeure--at such times even the extreme traditionalist society must come to some sort of terms with the surrounding and encroaching innovation. It may of course decide to reject it in toto, and withdraw from it, but this solution is rarely viable for lengthy periods.

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Interviews & Essays

On Thursday, October 23rd, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Eric Hobsbawm to discuss ON HISTORY.


Moderator: Welcome to the barnesandnoble.com auditorium. We are excited to welcome Eric Hobsbawm, who is here to talk about his new book, ON HISTORY. Probably the best-known living British historian, and certainly the one whose work has been translated into the most languages, Professor Hobsbawm will fielding whatever questions you might have. Welcome, Professor Hobsbawm! Thank you for taking the time to join us online this evening to discuss ON HISTORY.

Eric J Hobsbawm: Hello, nice to talk to you, whoever you are, wherever you are. We can't get away from history; the past is always turning into the present. It is important for us, and that is why I wrote this book. We have got to remember, we need to remember the history that is based on knowledge and evidence and logic, and not on the convenient myths which are always being made up about it. That is what I have tried to do with ON HISTORY. So let's here what you think.


Daniel from Indianapolis, IN: Why did you decide to write this book?

Eric J Hobsbawm: Well, I wrote this book partly for the reasons I just explained, and because when you get older, you want to reflect on what you have been doing all your life, especially if you have written about the history of the 20th century, which very largely coincides with your life.


John from New York: In THE AGE OF EXTREMES you stated that the Soviet Union's defeat of Hitler in the Second World War was directly responsible for the dominance of capitalism for the rest of the century. Do you think an American historian would ever have arrived at this conclusion, and if not, why not?

Eric J Hobsbawm: It might have been harder for an American historian to arrive at this conclusion, but I don't see any reason why he or she couldn't. I don't believe that historians of a country are completely limited by the common assumptions of newspaper editors and politicians of that country. The question is, Was I correct in coming to this conclusion? It has been much discussed. I think I was right.


Gregory from Metaire, LA: How do you think historical research has changed over the years?

Eric J Hobsbawm: Well, in the first place, there is more of it, because every year, history gets longer. In the second place, it is extended considerably because the scope of what history is has become much wider. When I started as a student, "real history" was supposed to deal with wars and governments and national/international politics and not much else. There were a few special subjects, but by and large, even those were pretty limited -- mostly limited to Europe and North America. Since that time, and particularly in the past 30 or 40 years, every year has brought an extension of the field. New continents, new classes (for instance women), and new aspects of life. The history of behavior, the history of the body, the history of practically everything you can think of.

The third way it has changed is by technology. This is comparatively recent: In the old days, what mostly happened is you made your notes on filing cards and you played around with those. And you read an enormous amount of manuscripts, of print, of everything. There were no scanners, there was no way of getting at databases -- there were no databases. Anyway, I don't have to draw you a diagram of what you can do now that you couldn't do over 20 years ago. And finally I would say, we have got to think of a lot of new historical material which we previously hadn't thought of. And we can analyze it in different ways, often via scientific means. For instance, the Turin Shroud has been tested with carbon dating in order to find out how old it really is, and it turns out (you can date these things, depending, to within a few decades) that it doesn't date back to Jesus Christ. That sort of technology wasn't available until the 1950s, and so on.


Nelson from Arlington, VA: Comparatively speaking, how profound of an impact has Karl Marx had on the 20th-century historians, and how have your views on Marxism changed since giving such speeches as "What Historians Owe to Karl Marx," which was written in the late 1960s.

Eric J Hobsbawm: That is a big question. Marx has had an enormous impact on the way in which history is written, so big that we can't really remember what it was like before he made his impact. Particularly on the history of the last 200-300 years, since the Industrial Revolution. Because, remember, what Marx spent all his time on was analyzing the period of capitalism; he didn't say much on communism. But this applies also to the general way Marx looked at history, which has had a tremendous affect in all periods. For instance -- to take an example which refers more specifically to the U.S. -- the history of slavery was revolutionized in the 20 to 30 years after World War II.

The other part of the question: I have always tried to apply Marxist ideas and methods to bits of history that Karl Marx didn't write about, so I wouldn't know what he had written about them. I still think it is a good idea -- the idea to begin by studying the way human beings get their living at any time and then to examine what institutions they form around them. In my view, that is the essence of the Marxist approach to history. It is still pretty good, because if you looked at the world today and the world economy today and then you read THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, which Marx and his partner wrote 150 years ago, next year you would be amazed about how he got it right.


Sven from Colchester, England: Hello, Eric, I hope you are well. You have just stated that the history that we write is based on knowledge, evidence, and logic. But would you also agree that it is influenced by the experiences of the historian him- or herself? If so, would you accept that the histories that you have addressed might be interpreted very differently by a historian of a different generation, who, for instance, had not experienced the impact of the Second World War personally?

Eric J Hobsbawm: Hi, Sven. Certainly history reflects the life experience of the historian. I have written a chapter in my new book exactly on this subject and tried to show how this is so in my own personal case. I think this gives the historian certain advantages when they are writing about their own times, but it doesn't necessarily disable someone from a different generation. Each generation has got to make an enormous effort of the imagination to understand those parts of history that they haven't personally experienced. They have to make an effort to understand that the past is another country -- they do things differently there. But making this effort is part of the historian's job.


Keith from Chicago: I seem to remember you writing somewhere that counterfactual history is bad history. I find this quite interesting. When historians try to explain historical phenomena, they must identify certain decisive factors. Does this not imply that the absence of some factors would have led to different possible outcomes, which is quite similar to making counterfactual arguments?

Eric J Hobsbawm: I don't believe that counterfactual history is bad history, and I have never said so. The basic fact about it is that it isn't history at all, because history is what happened, not what could have happened but didn't. But it is entirely possible in certain circumstances to figure out the probabilities, why some things happened and other things didn't, and to that extent, counterfactual history is useful. Where I think it is very useful is in some special fields, like economic history. There it can help you to show that some explanations are invalid and that some things that historians have believed to be true were not true. In fact, when it is practiced mostly in politics, it is generally not much good. A lot of politicians believe that they could make anything happen if they try hard enough or make enough money, but it isn't so.


Paul from Morris Plains, NJ: Do you think there has been a decline in interest in narrative history among historians?

Eric J Hobsbawm: For a while there was a decline. People were interested in long-term trends, in structures -- basically what changed over the long term. They didn't know how to handle short-term history very well analytically, so they left it out. That was very much true in France, where the French historical school was enormously influential internationally. Actually, narrative history never went completely out, because the big events like revolutions -- for instance, the American Revolution, the French and Russian revolutions -- these things demand not only broad analysis but that you follow what happened month by month, often day by day. More recently there has been more of a conservative form to narrative history. There are the people who say, "It's only the big decision-makers who make the decisions. So let's concentrate on the events and how the decisions were made. We don't need any broader explanations." I think we need both the narrative and the broad explanation.


daun from NJ: Do see any lessons learned this century being applied as we head into the turn of the next?

Eric J Hobsbawm: The record of people applying historical lessons is not brilliant. There is a lot we can learn, but as they say, the only thing you can always say about history is that nobody learns anything about it. It is not quite true, but mostly. We could learn lessons, and I could give you some, but that would take us a bit far.


David Anderson from New York, NY: You write, "the computer in our heads has or can have historical experience built into it." How so?

Eric J Hobsbawm: That is because it isn't a computer -- it is more than a computer. In other words, we can learn what we did last time and modify that. I try to give the example of when there was a cold war, and people thought that war might break out any moment. You try to work a program by which, if need be, the nuclear armament would react automatically in certain circumstances. But the point is, there was a moment in the early 1980s when they thought the Russians had launched a missile, and the machinery went into action. But almost any human being would have known that this was not an automatic war crisis. Wars don't start automatically; there is always some kind of preparation, however short. Human beings without computers would recognize that the Cuban Missile Crisis would have been a crisis even though it didn't last very long because they had the experience of how wars can start. In the incident of the 1980s -- which didn't lead to war because they discovered the Russians hadn't sent a missile -- a war might have broken out, but if so, by a technical error. Now, if it had been left purely to human beings, they would have known that this is not a genuine international crisis. Mind you, in those days, even some human beings were so nutty that they actually believed that the Russians were waiting to send of the missiles at any moment, but they were the ones who didn't know any history.


Scott from NY: Eric, a recent article in The New York Times argued that, despite a pervasive feeling that we are currently living in the most rapidly advancing (technologically) society ever, in fact the second half of the 19th century saw even more dramatic and profound advances. Would you agree with that observation? For each era, what do you suppose is the most important advance? What does that choice reflect about society and how it has/has not changed?

Eric J Hobsbawm: I don't agree that in the late 19th century advances were as fast as they are today. I think the technological and scientific revolutions of the past 30 years or so -- that is to say, mainly the information and biological revolutions -- have transformed the economy and our material possibilities far more rapidly and profoundly than anything in the short period of the end of the 19th century. Those, I think, are the main ones. Today, unfortunately, it is a great deal harder to control these advances than it was in the 19th century. For one thing, the impact on the living environment, on the biosphere, is so enormous and increases so fast that it clearly seems at present beyond human control unless we succeed in an agreed world policy, which doesn't seem very likely. So the enormous improvements of our era, which, in fact, deserve the name of progress, have produced equally enormous, possibly bigger problems. And unfortunately, the present ideology of believing in a completely free-market economy makes it harder to solve these problems. In this respect, the 19th century, which didn't believe in total freedom, was more sensible.


Moderator: Thanks so much for inspiring such a fascinating discussion, Professor Hobsbawm. Any final comments?

Eric J Hobsbawm: Writing any book is a bit like the shipwrecked sailor who puts the message in the bottle -- he doesn't know who is going to read it, if anybody is going to read it. It is marvelous for me, as an author, to have had the opportunity to talk directly on the Internet to people who have read ON HISTORY or are thinking about reading the book. I have got a lot out of listening to you all. Thanks for giving me the chance, and good evening.


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