History after Hobsbawm: a report

Editors Note: This is an archived blog post from 17/5/2014

History after Hobsbawm

29 April to 1 May 2014

Birkbeck, University of London

Conference report by Hannah Robb & Sarah Wood

 (History, University of Manchester)

In 1962, Eric Hobsbawm obtained funding from the Rockefeller Foundation for a research trip which enabled him to travel – first-class, by plane – to and around South America.  No such luxury for the group of Manchester historians who, in search of Hobsbawm’s legacy, headed down to London this April (cattle-class, on the train).  The late historian’s impact on current practice is considerable; his 1994 work, The Age of Extremes, was translated into at least twenty languages.   The purpose of this conference, organised at Birkbeck, where Hobsbawm spent much of his career, was not only to take stock of this influence; it also – primarily, perhaps – served as a forum for reflection on what it means to be a historian in the 21st century.  Addressing class, empire, capitalism, Marxism and more, speakers reviewed the state of the discipline: where history has been in the century that Hobsbawm’s life almost spanned, and where it is going.


Hobsbawm participating in an anti-nuclear protest in Trafalgar Square (From the Daily Herald of 18 September 1961, reprinted in Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life. London, 2002.)

In the first of an impressive set of plenary lectures, Mark Mazower connected Hobsbawm’s role in the development of global history to his intellectual and geographical trajectories.  Mazower placed Hobsbawm amid the connections forged between the French Annales school and the Past and Present society in Britain, and noted the impact made across the Atlantic, from the 1970s onwards, by some of the protagonists of these European schools of thought.

Day two, and Gareth Stedman Jones set Hobsbawm in an intellectual historical context of socially-engaged European thought stretching back beyond Marx.  At the same time, the author of The Languages of Class made the case for Hobsbawm’s significance in making the interpretation of Marx’s works acceptable in the 1950s academy.  The co-editor of The Invention of Tradition was himself, he suggested, in some sense the inventor of a British Marxist historical tradition.

The plenary speech by Peter Bailey was somewhat leftfield and vastly entertaining.  Bailey not only revealed Hobsbawm’s jazz critic alter ego, “Francis Newton”; he also treated the assembled crowd to live, pianistic renditions of the latter’s trad jazz favourites.  Senate House does not much resemble the smoky jazz dens of Soho that Hobsbawm frequented, but for a brief hour, it did swing.


Peter Bailey

(photograph kindly provided by History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London)

Catherine Hall opened the final day of the conference with a call for the inclusion of gender and race as key analytical tools in the history of slavery. Pointing to Hobsbawm’s own dismissal of the significance of gender as a historical framework, Hall highlighted how a successful peopling of the silences in the history of slavery can offer not just a novel perspective on the complexities of social formations but also a significant insight into the nature of modern capitalism. The legacy of slavery – as opposed to abolition – in the historical consciousness of Britain, seen through the lens of gender and race, would illuminate ‘the past that is not the past, and the present’.

Whilst many of the plenary speakers offered personal reminiscences about Hobsbawm’s life and his political and intellectual engagement, the panels took up where his writings left off, and we heard from contemporary historians who have re-examined ideas about banditry, “Primitive Rebels”, and invented traditions.  In line with Hobsbawm’s interests and connections, France and Italy were important, but Latin America featured more prominently than it might have given its relative absence from his best-known works.  With its guerrillas, its labour movements and its reconfigured fascist regimes, not only did the region appear to the historian as a “laboratory of historical change” but – as Paulo Drinot explained – Hobsbawm had himself experienced Latin America as a laboratory for the writing of history (his visit in the 1960s being a case in point).

This was no uncritical celebration, however, and many speakers pointed out the blind spots in Hobsbawm’s vision of history.  As well as in Hall’s contribution, this was particularly evident in discussions about environmental histories, and about how historians might or might not respond to the oft-cited global challenges of climate change.  If, as Marx claimed, the rule of the capitalist over labour is the rule of the dead over the living, then Hobsbawm, lifelong member of the Communist Party, perhaps missed a trick by not engaging with the environment.  For Joan Martinez Alier, thinking about the historical production of inequalities means bringing “ecological economics” into history.  And, as Paul Warde pointed out, current and future social history depends on the development of concepts of social relations which include non-human “actors” such as climate, flora and fauna.

Insofar as the conference looked to history after Hobsbawm, it also considered the future of Marxist explanations of change in history. In panel discussions on Marxism and post-Marxism, and on economic history and material culture, it was the uneasy relationship between the micro and the macro which took centre stage. Jane Whittle proposed a “manifesto” for the history of everyday life which advocated a holistic approach to narratives of change in which the individual might be ascribed greater agency, and the determinism of Marxism lent a little flexibility. The importance of a successful reconciliation between the micro analysis and the macro explanation was certainly heralded in the discussion of economic history and material culture. Pat Hudson offered a particularly illuminating discussion of the Welsh cloth trade which linked personal objects such as maternity shawls and miners’ underpants to the wider industrial processes of cloth production and the creation of a Welsh national identity through costume. Although the nature of what future Marxist historiography should be remained unclear, the passionate debates across all panels suggested that it would remain essential to historiographical trajectories of change.

The conference closed with Geoff Eley’s reflections on Hobsbawm’s loyalty to the Communist Party and the relationships he forged within its ranks. His exploration of Hobsbawm’s politics was not, however, confined to the factions and dissidence of the left wing and its inter-generational conflicts.  His analysis shone light on the difficulties of applying rigid concepts of class identity onto a population with multiple affiliations and ideals. By questioning the applicability of class as a historical framework for the identification of political agency, his paper spoke to earlier remarks made by Jane Whittle, Renaud Morieux and Antoinette Burton, to name just a few, who all highlighted the complexities of social formations which in reality included a divergence of pressures, including gender, sexuality, national identity and race. Despite his critique of Hobsbawm’s assiduous rejection of popular politics and the cultural turn, Eley commended his dedication to his party and his unwavering loyalty to the Marxist tradition. Giving the final word to Hobsbawm he aptly recalled, ‘the world will not get better on its own. Don’t mourn: organise!’

More information about the panels is available at http://historyafterhobsbawm.wordpress.com.  For snippets from the conference, including Peter Bailey’s jazz renditions, visit http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2014/04/history-after-hobsbawm/  and for the twitter storm that raged see https://storify.com/SSHPBirkbeck/after-hobsbawm or search #afterHobsbawm.


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