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seeking to understand what the study of history means and involves
on 11 June 2016
“On History” is a collection of essays by Eric Hobsbawn. The book comprises of 21 short pieces of writing (initially given as lectures, or appearing in academic journals; as well as including six new articles). These pieces were written during a 30 year period, from the late 1960’s through to the late 1990’s, and they reflect the breadth of Hobsbawn's interest in history. The author seeks to explore and understand the study of history, and he does so by both engaging in theoretical issues and drawing on the social sciences. Hobsbawn is particularly concerned with modern history – with the rise and development of capitalist society, both in Europe and globally. What makes his approach rather distinct is that he grounds his analysis in Marx’s materialist conception of history (and, as such, is at odds with many mainstream historians).
The essays that comprise this book are well written, clearly argued, and highly fascinating. While Hobsbawn does engage with historical events, this book is more concerned with the critique of historical analysis and methodology. He persuasively makes the point that history is ‘real’ (not a social construct, as post-modernists claim), that it can be understood, and that it needs to be understood – so as not to be repeated. Hobsbawn is interested in explaining how history ought to be studied – through engagement with the broader study of society (and, especially, economic circumstances). He rejects the notion that history is defined by kings, treaties and battles. Rather, actual history concerns the lives – and living conditions – of ordinary people, and is essentially a history ‘from below’. Taking this further, Hobsbawn seeks to emphasise how history is characterised by the succession of socio-economic formations, and how class struggles are a crucial mechanism of transition. Yet he is not someone who blindly follows some vulgar Marxist doctrine – and he rejects the notion of inevitability. As such, Hobsbawn advances a sophisticated variant of Marxist analysis and critique.
Overall, this is an important contribution to the study of history by a world-renowned historian. I found the whole book to be of interest. It’s presented in a manner that allows for popular readership – and is not a ‘dry’ academic text. If the subject of ‘what history means and involves’ is something you’re fascinated by, then I fully recommend this book.