Early modern history after Hobsbawm

Brodie Waddell

Eric Hobsbawm was not an early modernist. Although he wandered into the seventeenth century every once and awhile, his scholarship was focused on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet it would be unjust to dismiss him as irrelevant. Not only did he come up with some of the key concepts used by early modernists – such as ‘primitive rebels’, ‘invented traditions’ and even ‘the general crisis of the seventeenth century’ – he also very publically wrestled with the problem of politically informed and socially committed history.

The dude abides

The dude abides

Two weeks ago, a truly extraordinary gathering of historians met to explore these issues at the ‘History After Hobsbawm’ conference in London. I don’t exaggerate when I say this was a remarkable group – Sam Wetherell suggested the line-up was ‘like the Glastonbury of modern British history’, which seems about right. The result was a lot of great conversations at the event, online and of course at the pub afterwards. There are a bunch of reports, reviews, podcasts and tweets collected at the conference website.

I wanted to draw attention to a few of those pieces written by early modernists that may be of interest to our readers. If you have any comments or questions I’d encourage you to put them here as there are no comments on the conference blog. I’ll pass comments here on to the authors.

The ‘spectres of Marx’ that haunted many of the conference conservations were very visible in the commentaries from early modernists. Hillary Taylor discussed how Jane Whittle, Andy Wood and Lucy Robinson dealt with issues such as ‘class’ before the industrial revolution and ‘primitive rebels’ outside of formally organised protests. She suggested that some ‘ecumenical sampling’ of Marxist analysis – by both Marx himself as well as less well-known thinkers like Ferruccio Rossi-Landi and Nicos Poulantzas – can still illuminate key aspects of early modern society. Mark Hailwood agreed and suggested that the label ‘post-Marxist’ might be appropriate as such an approach is neither anti-Marxist nor even strictly non-Marxist, but instead ‘picking up some of the pieces’ left behind after the ‘purgatory of the 1990s’. Indeed, he noted that many so-called Marxists – including Hobsbawm – have been doing this all along. Dave Hitchcock looked specifically at Gareth Stedman Jones’s discussion of the supposed ‘paradox’ of ‘good Marxist history’. Jones seemed to claim that Marx was merely a distraction from the strength of the longer tradition of intellectual critique that preceded him. Dave, in contrast, argued strongly that without Marx and successors like Hobsbawm historians would have a much weaker awareness of the history of social experience and of the brutal realities of material existence.

The second major theme to emerge from these discussions was the link between past and present in historical scholarship. This was perhaps most prominent in Lucy Robinson’s talk, summarised by Hillary, as it focused on the ‘history’ of the 2010 Brighton school students protest, in which the ‘historian’ was amongst the crowd! However, it is also very relevant to early modernists. Hillary, Mark and Dave all noted the power of ‘socially committed’ scholars in bringing to light previously neglected topics such as protest and subordination. Moreover, the crushing defeats of organised labour and international communism in the 1980s clearly had an effect on how historians used concepts like ‘class’: the shifting political climate directly influenced academic debates and methodologies. The panellists discussed by Robert Stearn made this very clear in their analysis of the retreat of traditional ‘labour history’ over the last generation. Here, the impact of a changing political situation are plain to see. This final point was driven home for me in the panel I wrote about, in which John Elliot, Geoffrey Parker and Sanjay Subrahmanyham talked about ‘the seventeen-century crisis’. It is not difficult to find some of the momentous events of the twentieth century – namely the Depression, the World Wars, the rise of globalisation and the discovery of climate change – shaping the way scholars conceived of early modern society. It’s often said that we can’t escape the past, but it’s clear that even historians can’t escape the present either.

There are also some earlier thoughts on Hobsbawm from me and (in the comments) Mark, Jonathan, Laura and Newton Key, that might be relevant.


One thought on “Early modern history after Hobsbawm

  1. Pingback: History After Hobsbawm Conference Reports, Reviews and Podcasts | History after Hobsbawm

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