Friday, March 22, 2024

Limitations of Hobsbawm's historical writing

A defining component of Eric Hobsbawm’s historical writings is the quartet of “Age” books: Age of Revolution, Age of Capital, Age of Empire, and Age of Extremes. These are synthetic works, offering a narrative of the long nineteenth century and the short twentieth century. They give primary attention to developments pertaining to economic, political, and social change in Britain, Europe, and North America, with occasional commentary on the rest of the world (Asia, Africa, and South America). Perhaps the most interesting of these is the first of them, Age of Revolution. Hobsbawm’s central interest – the central story he tries to tell – is the unfolding of the “dual revolutions” – the industrial revolution and the French Revolution – and the consequences these revolutions had for the lives, political identities, and historical agency and activism of working people. These revolutions formed “modernity”, whether in technology, in political forms, or in conditions of material life. And they gave rise to the central social formations (“great classes”) and political ideologies (nationalism, socialism, fascism) that continue to orient our world today.

These books are highly detailed. But we should observe that they are almost entirely grounded in secondary scholarship – Hobsbawm seems to have read almost everything written on this two-century period, and has undertaken to crystallize the main currents of research and interpretation into a reasonably coherent and connected narrative. But very little of the Age of Revolution depends upon Hobsbawm’s own primary research as a social historian. And though the tone of the narrative is even-handed and calm, the impression emerges over the 350-plus pages of the book that it is very deeply informed by the narrative of the Communist ManifestoConditions of the Working Class in England. This is a coherent narrative; but there are other stories that might be told of the nineteenth century, and other organizing themes that might be the hinges of the story.

Hobsbawm’s own primary scholarship focused on “indigenous” class movements and uprising, largely in England. He was a labor historian, and he was interested in uncovering documents and narratives that shed light on the ways that ordinary working people in the 18th and 19th centuries lived, how they conceived of the social relations around them, and how they rebelled. Key works here include Labour’s Turning Point 1880-1900 (1948), Primitive Rebels: Studies in archaic forms of social movements in the 19th and 20th centuries (1959), Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (1964), and Captain Swing (1969; co-authored with George Rudé). The recurring theme of these earlier works was the topic of resistance and popular identities among “working people”. In “Captain Swing: A Retrospect” (link) Adrian Randall describes Hobsbawm’s orientation in these terms:

Hobsbawm’s earlier work, mainly concentrated on the labour history of later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was steeped in the well- established Marxist interpretation of economic and social history which saw the years from the later eighteenth century as marking an industrial revolution which had transformed economic, and thence social and political, relations into a more clearly class-divided form. The displacement of a peasantry and the degradation of agricultural labourers formed part of that narrative. (Randall 2009: 421)

But even here Hobsbawm’s role seems to be synthetic rather than primary. The division of labor in Captain Swing seems to divide sharply between Rudé’s primary scholarship on eighteenth-century uprisings (Randall 2009:421) and Hobsbawm’s synthetic historical imagination, guided by Marx’s conceptualization of history. Here too, then, Hobsbawm works as a theoretically-minded historical narrativist rather than as a primary historical researcher.

Might we say, then, that we need less from a historian than what Hobsbawm gives us? Hobsbawm paints a consistent, detailed picture of the evolution of social unrest. But it is fundamentally just an extensive interpretation based on a reading of secondary sources, and it may even be a caricature – certain features may be over-drawn and others minimized, in order to make the coherent and consistent Marxist story plain. But we don’t want our knowledge of history to be “pre-digested” according to a prior plan; we want a reasonable, evidence-based account that is open to contingency, unexpected developments, and details that do not fit the model.

In my mind I contrast Hobsbawm’s Ages books with Jill Lepore’s These Truths, which provides an account of the history of the United States that is not wedded to any particular trope. Instead, Lepore seeks to document and discuss the many themes that enter into US history, without bending the edges to make the facts fit the frame. And I think of more regional and local historians, such as William Sewell (Work and Revolution in France), whose analysis of the “working-class consciousness” of working people of Marseille breaks many stereotypes of the Marxist hymnal. And Sewell’s work, unlike Hobsbawm’s, is deeply grounded in his own research on primary documents and sources. Here is how Lynn Hunt describes Sewell’s primary research in Work and Revolution (link):

Sewell’s sources are eclectic: they range from a philosophical tract by Diderot to the statutes of mutual-aid societies, from artisanal and working-class newspapers to quasi-official reports on the conditions of the working poor, from intellectual tracts on socialism to workers’ poetry. All these comprise “a set of interrelated texts that demand close reading and careful exegesis” (11-12). Sewell rereads and reinterprets these texts with an eye for their linguistic and historical logic. The “socialist vision of labor” was a logical development of certain fundamental Enlightenment concepts, but that logic was pushed forward not so much by intellectual as by social and political developments, in particular, by the revolutionary “bursts” of 1830-34, 1839-40, and 1848-51 (278). In attempting to explicate this “dialectical logic,” Sewell synthesizes an extensive published literature on French labor, and he effectively underlines the importance of paying very close attention to what people in the past said, sometimes indirectly, about what they were doing.

Perhaps this suggests that we need another category of historical misrepresentation beyond the two offered by Andrus Pork (link). In addition to “direct lies” and “blank-page lies”, we need “interpretations of history cut to order by an antecedent interpretation of history”.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dan, I am not a historian. In that sense, I am not a producer of historical research work, rather I am a consumer of historical writings or what seems to be more like it, I am a consumer of the tropes or narratives proliferated by those most widespread historiographies available at my attention span.

If historiography is about providing an overarching narrative able to accommodate historical facts neatly, then how is it possible to provide a dispassionate account of the facts without having some organizing frame beforehand?

I am not saying that you are supposed to bend facts along the bounds of your grand narrative, but how else is it possible to make sense of data points?

I guess what I am asking is, is there indeed such a thing as an objective historigraphy? Is it possible to provide an account of what has happened without already having a specific intention for the specific research or having general guiding principles that perhaps in some loose sense beg the question?

Thanks, Evan