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”?