Dead Men Left

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Hobsbawm's (partial) defence of history

The Guardian yesterday reprinted an extract from Eric Hobsbawm's speech to the British Academy colloqium on Marxist historiography. (I'm told it was a great success, with large numbers being turned away for lack of space: further evidence of Marxism's intellectual revival, perhaps.) It deserves a more thorough comment than I'm providing here, but, whilst Hobsbawm's essential theme is entirely correct - that the writing of history should be treated as a process of rational inquiry - his second is more difficult:

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.

It is odd to assert the past is rationally intelligible, but the present remains beyond our comprehension and "certainly beyond our... ability to control". This is to accept more than half of the irrationalist argument Hobsbawm is otherwise at pains to attack.