U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Hobsbawm on the Challenges for Future Historians



The current edition of the New Left Review, serving as the journal’s 50-year anniversary issue, presents over 200 pages of fascinating historical, political, and theoretical analysis, from some of its more famous regular contributors, including: Mike Davis, Perry Anderson, Stuart Hall, Robin Blackburn, Tariq Ali, and Susan Watkins. Of interest to readers of this blog is a retrospective critique of Reinhold Neibuhr’s The Irony of American History, by Gopal Balakrishnan–a review that certainly merits a post of its own.

But for now I would like to briefly call attention to an interview with the unparalleled historian Eric Hobsbawm. The interview includes his thoughts on historiographic trajectories, past, present, and future.

The concluding question is as follows: “If you were to pick still unexplored topics or fields presenting major challenges for future historians, what would they be?”

Hobsbawm’s answer is worthy of sustained thought: “The big problem is a very general one. By palaeontological standards the human species has transformed its existence at astonishing speed, but the rate of change has varied enormously. Sometimes it has moved very slowly, sometimes very fast, sometimes controlled, sometimes not. Clearly this implies a growing control over nature, but we should not claim to know whither this is leading us. Marxists have rightly focused on changes in the mode of production and their social relations as the generators of historical change. However, if we think in terms of how ‘men make their own history’, the great question is this: historically, communities and social systems have aimed at stabilization and reproduction, creating mechanisms to keep at bay disturbing leaps into the unknown. Resistance to the imposition of change from outside is still a major factor in world politics today. How is it, then, that humans and societies structured to resist dynamic development come to terms with a mode of production whose essence is endless and unpredictable dynamic development? Marxist historians might profitably investigate the operations of this basic contradiction between the mechanisms bringing about change and those geared to resist it.”

I post this passage in full more to pose questions than answers. Is this especially relevant to U.S. historians, in the sense that all of U.S. History is the history of how people have accommodated to rapid changes brought on by the mechanisms of capitalism? Are intellectual historians particularly geared to seek answers to Hobsbawm’s challenge, in that U.S. intellectual history is broadly about how people thought about change, whether in terms of adjustment, resistance, or advancement?

In a different vein entirely, earlier in the interview Hobsbawm discussed changing class consciousness as a consequence of postindustrialism, and said the following that I find applicable to my studies of the culture wars in the U.S. His observation is not all that original, but it’s nicely phrased all the same. He writes of the”the growing divide produced by a new class criterion—namely, passing examinations in schools and universities as an entry ticket into jobs. This is, if you like, meritocracy; but it is measured, institutionalized and mediated by educational systems. What this has done is to divert class consciousness from opposition to employers to opposition to toffs of one kind or another—intellectuals, liberal elites, people who are putting it over on us. America is a standard example of this…”

Do you think of yourselves as “toffs”?

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m not sure I’d be able to define ‘toff’ without the contextual help of this quote. The third definition from the *real* repository of the living language, Urban Dictionary: “Eton crew, and thouse who think you know where they come from becuse they named thier bording school, and think second hand books are ‘disgusting'”

    As for the larger issue Hobsbawm raises, isn’t this really just another way of saying that people should be doing more Marxist-oriented-but-culturally-sensitive history? That is, that we should have more people like E.P. Thompson? Not that it wouldn’t be a good thing.

  2. Eric: More historians like E. P. Thompson would be just fine with me. I think you’re right, in a larger sense, about Hobsbawm calling for the need for more culturally-sensitive Marxist history, which is also what he’s been doing for over 50 years. THE AGE OF EXTREMES, for example, impresses me not only for its grand periodization and analysis of larger structural shifts, but also for its sensitivity to cultural change, whether intellectual, music, the arts, etc.

    But I think Hobsbawm’s call is more specific than that. He’s interested in how society’s organize, culturally speaking, in opposition to the grand structural changes that seem a constant product of the engine of capitalism. I’m wracking my brain trying to think about historical monographs that take on this task explicitly. There are theoretical-historical analyses, even some quite old, for example, Karl Polanyi’s GREAT TRANSFORMATION.

  3. Do I think of myself as a “toff”? Well, sometimes. While between instructors and students there are facts to relay, and there is cultural literacy to be obtained, we still incorporate a subjective element in our courses (e.g. perspectival critical thinking). So in that way I (as a professor) am holding, or pretending to hold, valuable nuggets of knowledge and ways of thinking, and I will be judging you (the learner) on whether you have obtained them. But whenever I’m tempted to think this is elitist, then I remember vacuity in some of the discussion I hear between students in and out of class. I could be persuaded at times that this is harmless small talk, but then you see it even towards the end of a term when people have gotten to know each other. And then I also remember how I was in the 17–20 age range. I needed to be challenged. In sum, we’re not toffs insofar as we’re doing the legit check-and-balance work of a meritocratic academia (i.e. teaching, reviewing scholarship, adding to scholarship).

    Sadly, however, scholar “elites” undermine this legitimate relationship when they (1) engage in excessive partisanship or uncritical favoritism as public intellectuals (e.g. too much culture wars in professorial roles), (2) plagiarize, (3) accept blatant instructor pay/privilege inequality (e.g. long leaves, too many adjuncts, too many visiting slots), and (4) abuse perspective in the classroom by engaging in excessive subjectivity or blatant illogic. When we do those things, we’re being Hobsbawmian Toffs. – TL

  4. Tim: Like you, I’m fine with being considered intellectually elitist in the context of the over-utilitarian, over-technical university and society. But I still take REAL categories of class seriously, and since I live paycheck to paycheck, like most assistant professors in the humanities (and I’m one of the lucky ones who has a tenure-track job), I can’t abide by the “new class” category as legitimate, at least as applied to me and my kind. I can intellectualize it and historicize it, but I can’t abide by it.

    As to your latter points about how intellectuals need to be responsible, like Stanley Fish, I think you give too much ground when you talk of “partisanship” and “perspective.” This feeds into misconceptions about “that noble dream” of objectivity. Cheers.

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