“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.
It is clear from the outset that this book is aimed at those who already have a wider understanding of some of the broad debates within the historical community, though at the same time that is not to say it is written with an air of exclusivity. I say understanding for if you already have opinions on how and why history should be conducted, particularly as a subject for academic study, then it will assist greatly in deciding whether or not you agree with the opinions offered by Hobsbawm. One of the most notable scholars of our age, he again asserts his importance within the historical community and demonstrates his skill at appreciating exactly what it is to study history in theory and in practice, and how it is still, ever important and indeed, relevant to the modern world. Covering a variety of topics through essay format, the roles of such subjects as social history, Marx, and the Annales school as well as economic history and even modern day barbarism all help the student, the established academic and the amateur historian alike to appreciate for themselves the complexities of our subject. This is not a light read, nor is it something that one will instantly understand and many will fail to concur with the books central arguments and views, but such is the nature of history. Hobsbawm provides us with one of the most thought provoking works of recent years and reminds us that debate among the historical community with regard to the way it is conducted in general, not just in terms of particular periods and issues, is far from dead. A high recommendation from this student of history to any other.
Eric Hobsbawm, now well into his 80s, continues to write excellent history. On History is a series of essays and lectures which attempt to give students of history a philosophical and theoretical basis with which to continue their studies. He looks at concepts such as progress and history, economics and history, Marxism and history, and History from Below. Anyone studying the subject now owes a great debt to Eric Hobsbawm, and every student should read this book.
I read this looking for intelligent historiographical reflection on the problem of reconciling a Marxist perspective with (a specifically economic) historical analysis. I usually enjoy reading historians and economists beating each other up, and learn a lot from the results, because I find that the two disciplines suffer from balancing deformations professionelle. This book is an unfortunate exception. Since Hobsbawm does not accept that there might be anything questionable about the internal coherence of Marx's economics, or even its plausibility, he cannot even see that such an discussion might be worth developing. In fact he does not even demonstrate that he has much understanding of what economists, as opposed to marxist historians, even mean by economics. Marx, for him is a god who has never failed, with the result that his historography is feeble theology.