Saturday, January 15, 2005

Hobsbawm On History

Today's Guardian carries an essay by Eric Hobsbawm, the grand old man of British Marxist historiography. He's on good form. He rightly highlights Marxism's double contribution to asking the "big why questions": challenging positivism's narrow preoccupation with "scientism" (i.e., the inappropriate transfer of methods from the natural to the social sciences); and drawing history into a fruitful dialogue with the social sciences. But Hobsbawm reserves his most critical comments for those who have retreated into a dangerous, if nebulous, analysis of the world where all is contingent, fragmented and relative. In the face of fatuous postmodern fads he reasserts that
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.
With regard to the postmodern obsession with language games Hobsbawm sets himself against those who
den[y] that there is any reality that is objectively there and not constructed by the observer for different and changing purposes.
And he has this to say about the willful wrongheadedness of the moral relativists:
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.
In the final analysis, Hobsbawm makes a clarion call for a return to the ambition of "total history" - "
not a 'history of everything', but history as an indivisible web in which all human activities are interconnected". Many will scoff and consider this as an unrealisable conceit. But as another great defender of Marxist historiography, Ellen Meiksins Wood, has reminded us, in a world determined by the totalising logic of capital accumulation and market imperatives progressive forces do need an analytical sense of the interconnectedness of life more than ever. Read the rest.

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