Thursday, January 20, 2005

Hobsbawm: "In defence of History"

Eric Hobsbawm states "it is fashionble to say 'my truth is as valid as yours. But it's not true."
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. . .

This produces endless claptrap on the fringes of nationalist, feminist, gay, black and other in-group histories, but it has also stimulated interesting new historical developments in cultural studies, such as what has been called the "memory boom" in history.

It is time to re-establish the coalition of those who believe in history as a rational inquiry into the course of human transformations, against those who distort history for political purposes - and more generally, against relativists and postmodernists who deny this possibility. Since some of the latter see themselves as being on the left, this may split historians in politically unexpected ways.

The Marxist approach is a necessary component of this reconstruction of the front of reason. While postmodernists have denied the possibility of historical understanding, developments in the natural sciences have put an evolutionary history of humanity firmly back on the agenda. . .

However, the new perspectives on history should also return us to that essential, if never quite realisable, objective of those who study the past: "total history". Not a "history of everything", but history as an indivisible web in which all human activities are interconnected. Marxists are not the only ones to have had this aim, but they have been its most persistent pursuers.

Not the least of the problems for which the perspective of history as interaction is essential, is one that is crucial for the understanding of the historic evolution of homo sapiens. It is the conflict between the forces making for the transformation of homo sapiens from neolithic to nuclear humanity and the forces whose aim is the maintenance of unchanging reproduction and stability in human social environments. For most of history, the forces inhibiting change have usually effectively counteracted open-ended change.

Today this balance has been decisively tilted in one direction. And the disequilibrium is almost certainly beyond the ability of human social and political institutions to control. Perhaps Marxist historians, who have had occasion to reflect on the unintended and unwanted consequences of human collective projects in the 20th century, can at least help us understand how this came about.

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