History After Hobsbawm Conference Reports, Reviews and Podcasts

From 29 April to 1 May 2014, about 300 historians and scholars from around the world assembled at the History After Hobsbawm conference at Senate House in London. It was hosted by Birkbeck, the Institute for Historical Research and Past & Present.

The aim was to explore what we are currently doing as socially-committed historians, where we are headed, and what it means to be an historian in the twenty-first century. Although many at the event celebrated and critiqued the path-breaking work of Eric Hobsbawm, the primary aim was to explore where the study of history is currently heading.

We are extraordinarily pleased with the level of conversation generated by the event, both at the conference itself and well beyond. There has been coverage of the discussion in the press, on twitter and here on the conference blog. We have assembled some of these reports and recordings below.


Conference reports and reviews


Postcasts at Backdoor Broadcasting


Other articles



What happened to class? Sean Brady, Sonya Rose, Marjorie Levine-Clark

Robert Stearn is a PhD candidate in English and Humanities at Birkbeck. He is interested in relations between skill, gender, and forms of writing in late 17th- and early 18th-century Britain and also in the uses of skill in contemporary welfare policy.

Worries about the end of labour history framed this panel, but Brady, Rose, and Levine-Clark were skeptical about the need for them. Their papers explored the kinds of scholarship currently pursuing what might once have been called labour history: increasing in specificity with each speaker –from Brady’s exploration paper of the place of class within historical inquiry, to Rose’s review of the present situation of gender and labour history, to Levine-Clark’s analysis of the interplay of working class masculinities, welfare policy, and cultures of work in the 1920s –each proffered some answers to the question of whether class has disappeared from historians’rubrics (and if so why), or has simply been reconfigured in useful ways and dispersed across new branches of the writing of history.

Sean Brady began on ground also covered by Stedman Jones and Elliot, setting out the fortunes of the British Marxist historians’combination of history and Marxist economics. Their collective efforts, Brady argued, resulted in the production of a new framework for the study of history, with the agency of working people at its centre. But over the last 30 years, the categories that labour history seemed to depend on –labour, class, and work –have undergone development and crises. Historians from the medieval to the modern have questioned whether class ever meant what some of its first investigators thought it meant. The criticisms are well-known: that the coherence imposed by historians of industrialisation on the concept of the working class and the mass of people identified with it reflected a temporarily unifying but falsely homogenising fiction; that women were completely neglected as members of classes, and gender neglected as a category structuring both experience and patterns of exploitation, with the power to disaggregate identities and disrupt gender-blind theories of capitalism and class; that only limited consideration was ever given to the discourses used by groups to map out the common projects that constituted them as classes and mobilised them politically, or by means of which groups excluded from their membership –in the name of a uniform class subject –particular persons or attributes.

So, Brady asked: is this why labour history as a recognisable sub-discipline of historical scholarship seems to be in retreat, at least in Europe and North America?Is labour history insular, ‘flabby’, outmoded by the cultural turn; or are factors external to the discipline more important–like European and North American deindustrialisation and the concomitant decline of organised labour movements? (This interpretation was also offered by Geoff Eley during questions, while Alan Knight pointed to what he saw as the Anglocentric bias of the problems posed by the panel: labour history of Latin America, he said, is a vigorous, discipline –perhaps because there is still a substantial amount of industrial production in many Latin American countries.)

Clark Struggle for the BreechesSonya Rose answered Brady’s question by arguing that in fact, the history of gender and labour flourished in the 1990s –well after the date scholars of gender and sexuality are supposed by some to have abandoned class for intersectionality. She pointed to analysis of the gendering of the labour force, of cultures of work, and of notions of skill and skill levels and the value of labour, to be found in works like Laura Downs’Manufacturing Inequality,or Anna Clark’s The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class(both from 1995). For Rose, these authors’attentiveness to the ways in which labour are class are gendered and racialised –combined with the work of Selina Todd, Caroline Bressey, Carolyn Steedman, and others –collectively suggests two things: first, the centrality of (domestic) service work in working class history; and secondly, that taking the gendered and classed nature of work together allows us to see new ways in which conflict between worker and employer, labour and capital, might be a motor of historical change: both masculinity and femininity are seen to be imbricated with cultures of work (albeit not symmetrically), and to be in need of investigation. In office work, for example: when women enter this route to a particular gendered middle class identity, they are seen as workers whose presence degrades others; they prompt men to professionalise their work (they are clerks not copyists), in order to maintain status, autonomy, and ‘gendered self-respect’.

But is this labour history? Considerable pressure is put on the categories labour, class, and work if we want to say it is, Rose argued. It’s not clear how office work fits in to traditional labour history, unless we want to think about class as a means of access to kinds of economic and social privilege –as ‘structured differences in life chances’that are given particular meanings and offer opportunities for distinction (in Bourdieu’s sense). And if that’s one thing class is, what is work? Rose suggested we ought to adopt a capacious definition: the ‘purposeful application of mental and physical forces to fulfil needs’. (Contrast, for example, AndréGorz’s insistence that work is not the repeated activity people have to do to maintain themselves, their families, or their surroundings, but only ‘an activity in the publicsphere, demanded, defined, and recognised as useful by other people’.[1]) And then what about exploitation? The question was as central to E. P. Thompson’s work as it was to Marx’s, Rose acknowledged, and ended her paper by suggesting that an answer to this question might be found in the profession’s turn to world history (which itself encourages a capacious understanding of what class and work might be). For Rose, the household emerges as the best unit of analysis in global labour history, and an investigation into the survival strategies of those composing it –their struggles for security and autonomy –the best way that historical inquiry might proceed.

Marjorie Levine-Clark concentrated on the connection between ‘structural insecurity’(in Rose’s words) and gender: the undoing of masculinity by unemployment among men who shared constraints and opportunities as a result of their economic situation and the specifics of the poor relief policies that impacted them in late Victorian and early twentieth-century Britain.   Suggesting that her paper be viewed as a contribution to Rose’s suggested new histories of class formation –which ‘would be used to explore the lives of the unorganised, the unemployed, and the underemployed[2]–Levine-Clark began in September 1921, when Labour MP James Wilson addressed a crowd of unemployed men in Dudley, telling them they were ‘not loafers, but men’: men who would demand the removal of their unemployment via ‘useful and productive schemes’. To cherish the feelings of injured manhood that followed their loss of work, Wilson told them, and to let their wives and children go hungry if, out of pride, they refused to ask local authorities for assistance, would make them worse than cowards.

hunger marchFor Wilson, men were people who wanted to work and preferred work to the dole. These men, if unemployed, were the honest poor (‘honest’when applied to women, Levine-Clark pointed out, retained a primarily sexual meaning). They were men who could demonstrate that they possessed the ‘work imperative’(desire to labour) and ‘family liability’: men with wives and children were allowed to work more than men without, and the greater the number of his children, the more work a man was allowed to do; married men would also have an easier time convincing authorities that their search for work was genuine. At the same time, while the system did in principle recognise the possibility of women being unemployed, a women’s wages were not counted in order to disqualify a man from receipt of welfare, although the reverse was the case (this changed with the introduction of means testing in the 1930s).

These methods of allocation were not only, Levine-Clark stressed, a privilege foisted upon working-class men by the dictates of policy: working men’s organisations, she argued, themselves promoted a model of masculinity based upon the household and men’s ability to support a family, so effacing the needs of single men and promoting an unrealistic notion of the family wage. The same organisations cemented the centrality of employment to masculinity when they argued that men’s striking was legitimate because it was an instance of their refusal to work in an environment that unmanned and demeaned them; of their being not loafers but citizens –according to a particular gendered conception –demanding what was their right. Unskilled and unmarried men, then, could not be honestly poor: more than the apparently lesser need they had for relief, their gender nonconformity (lack of family liability) and occupational status made it impossible for them to demonstrate possession of the work imperative and rendered them ineligible. The early national insurance system was in this sense, Levine-Clark concluded, both heteronormative and patriarchal, in a manner specific to the social and economic conditions of the time to which it responded.

Nonetheless, lineaments of these early twentieth-century approaches are visible in contemporary welfare policy. If the late nineteenth century saw the development of arguments that unemployment was a problem for macroeconomics, rather than an individual moral failing, these perspectives were never completely taken up by political elites –as Levine-Clark noted, citing recent comments by Iain Duncan Smith in the UK and Paul Ryan in the US as evidence that the struggle to ‘separate structural and moral’registers of unemployment had not been won. The insecurity of honest poverty (by definition one could never be honestly poor for very long) remains a powerful ground of reactionary appeal even in our present moment, in which, absent a codified separation between paupers and citizens, we ostensibly understand the provision of social security as a right attached to citizenship, rather than an alternative to it.

Perhaps the stubborn retention of these concerns in public policy –the considerable restructuring of the British economy since the 1920s notwithstanding –suggests a new direction for history and politics. As Catherine Hall asked, in reply to Knight and others’questions: ought historians to be so concerned to make subdivisions of history writing live forever, if the concerns that were addressed by labour history are now addressed more capaciously, in concert with diverse modes of inquiry which transform them, by historians in a variety of fields of scholarship with no desire to call themselves labour historians?


[1]AndréGorz, Critique of Economic Reason (London and New York: Verso, 1989), p. 13.

[2] Sonya Rose, ‘Resuscitating Class’, Social Science History, 22.1 (1998), 19-27 (20).

In Search of Post-Marxism

Mark Hailwood is currently a Lecturer in Early Modern British History at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. His first monograph, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England is forthcoming in October 2014, and he is one of the founders of the many-headed monster blog.

Instinctively, the label ‘Post-Marxist’ seems an appropriate one to attach to our current political and intellectual climate. I’ve used it myself. But what precisely does it mean? Attending the ‘History after Hobsbawm’ conference seemed like a good opportunity to try and clarify this in my own mind. Here’s what, if anything, I figured out…

Still dead.

Still dead.

Marx is dead. But we’ve known that since 1883. Class is dead too. Postmodernists and politicians of the 1990s told us as much. Is Marxism dead? If not, perhaps someone should put it out of its misery. As Gareth Stedman Jones told us in his plenary lecture, Marxism is ‘an invented tradition, whose usefulness has long since passed’.

Is that it then? Marxism as a political creed has surely drawn its last breath, but is it also time to lay to rest Marxism as an intellectual tradition? Can scholars extract any further value from this corpus of ideas and theories, or has Marxism been—as Geoff Eley asked of Stedman Jones—one giant ‘distraction’? A ‘dead end’? A waste of time, then and/or now? Is this what Post-Marxism means: that we should accept it was all a big mistake and move on?

My sense was that most of the historians at ‘History after Hobsbawm’ were not yet ready to move into an age of historical analysis that is definitively ‘after Marxism’. There seemed to be a near consensus that scholars still had much to gain from an engagement both with Marx, Marxism and Marxist influenced thinkers and histories. Yes, there were aspects of that tradition that had proved ultimately unhelpful—a crude understanding of the relationship between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ for instance, or a serious failure to engage with the significance of race and gender in shaping historical processes—but that this does not require a wholesale rejection of the tradition. There is much that historians consider worth salvaging: an emphasis on the agency of ordinary people, say, or the insistence that economic relationships are always political, and not simply contracts freely entered into.

There are some conceptual frameworks we have inherited that historians simply could not now live without. One panel asked ‘What Happened to Class?’ The answer: it is back from the dead. As a range of papers across the conference demonstrated, class has been resurrected from a period of purgatory in the 1990s when it endured a wraith-like existence as nothing more than a ‘word’, and is now widely regarded as a useful category of historical analysis at the interface between cultural and social history. It is partly constituted by socio-economic structures and inequalities; partly by discourses and self-consciously constructed identities; and partly by specific moments and events – it is something which ‘happens’. It is also now routinely analysed in conjunction with considerations of gender and race, and as a consequence it often invites us to think about class(es) as more variegated: rarely are ‘the bourgeoisie’ and ‘the proletariat’ now seen as a sufficient list of class categories. In other words, it has become a more complicated but also a more sophisticated historical tool. Can we still call it a Marxist category of historical analysis then?

Or perhaps this kind of modified Marxism is what we should see as characteristic of Post-Marxist scholarship. Another example of an idea we might think of as Post-Marxist in this sense is the notion that economic systems are historically specific. Historians now may not agree with Marxism’s historical determinism that feudalism, capitalism and communism will inevitably follow one another, but many would share Jane Whittle’s eagerness to stress—especially to society at large—that economic systems have histories: they are not fixed, they can and do change. Let’s keep that bit of Marxism, but leave the determinism to rot.

So, we might see historical studies—or at least those in the social history tradition—as entering a Post-Marxist phase. Not one that is anti-Marxist, or has turned its back on Marxism, but rather one that continues to engage with its ideas in a selective and reflective way. Not treating Marxism as a dogma or a creed to be strictly adhered to, but as a rich seam of ideas for those with a continued interest in the historical and contemporary operation of economies, societies and inequalities. Such an approach is undoubtedly—as Hillary Taylor suggests—intellectually liberating, treating the writings of Marx and Marxists not as gospel, but as one strand of intellectual thought in a wider landscape. They do not offer all the answers, but they can still help us to ask better questions. We have had a revisionist phase in which class and Marxism have been hacked to death–now it is time to start picking up some of the pieces.

But maybe this isn’t all that different to pre-death Marxism. Few historians that we might choose to label ‘Marxist’ can be said to have strictly conformed to a universal and rigid creed: each had their own interpretation of what Marxism was. Look no further than the debates between Thompson and Althusser. Or even those between Marx and Engels recounted by Stedman Jones. There was never one singe vision of Marxism, even at the outset. A debate about which aspects of Marxism are helpful, and which are wrong-headed, has always been part of the Marxist intellectual tradition passed down from generation to generation. It is a conversation that shows no sign of dying out, but perhaps historians will feel more comfortable if we now conduct it under the banner of Post-Marxism.

Our seventeenth-century crisis, 1954-2014: John Elliott, Geoffrey Parker and Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Brodie Waddell is a Lecturer in Early Modern History at Birkbeck. He has published on God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life, 1660-1720 and is one of the founders of the many-headed monster blog.

Sixty years ago Eric Hobsbawm published his seminal articles on ‘The General Crisis of the 17th Century’. He argued that commercial collapse and social revolt spread across Europe from the 1620s, bringing in its wake major changes in the continent’s society and economy. Here, according to Hobsbawm, was the series of crucial events that led to ‘the triumph of capitalism’ and seeded ‘the origins of the Industrial Revolution’.

Last week, Birkbeck hosted a panel at which three of the preeminent historians of this period – John Elliot, Geoffrey Parker and Sanjay Subrahmanyam – reflected on the history and historiography of this notorious ‘crisis’. Each of the speakers offered a reading of the seventeenth-century that contrasted with the other panellists and with Hobsbawm’s original interpretation.

Bautzen-nach1620-MerianFor John Elliot, the ‘crisis’ was more political than economic. The wave of revolts and revolutions that swept through Europe in the 1630s and 40s – including rebellions in Britain, France, Iberia, Italy and beyond – were provoked by the increasing fiscal demands of the state. The authorities sought to fund their larger, increasingly professionalised militaries by granting lucrative monopolies or though heavier taxes. It was international conflict and changing conceptions of the role of the state that drove the turmoil and social unrest.

Geoffrey Parker offered quite a different interpretation. Although one might assume that he would emphasise ‘fiscal-military’ causes given his major previous work on the ‘military revolution’ of this period, in fact Parker put climate change at the centre of his interpretation. For him, it was extreme weather and harvest failures associated with the ‘little ice age’ that brought about famine, war and rebellion. Drawing on the work of Julia Adney Thomas, he argued that we ought to see ‘climate as a protagonist in history’, rather than merely the ‘extraneous’ variable which was dismissed by Hobsbawm. Moreover, as Parker’s new book makes clear, he sees this not as a ‘European crisis’ but as a ‘global crisis’.

This global perspective was very evident in Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s talk. He too argued that the ‘crisis’ of this period was not confined to Europe, highlighting the prevalence of ‘decline literature’ in Asia as well as Iberia. However, he cautioned against equating ‘global’ with ‘universal’. Although he noted that there were major problems (or at least perceptions of major problems) in many parts of the world in the mid-17th century, he also argued that there were many places that do not seem to have experienced a ‘crisis’ comparable to Western Europe.

All three speakers offered fascinating windows into the tumultuous world of the seventeenth century, showing how much our viewsParker, Global Crisis of this period have changed since Hobsbawm first popularised the idea of an early modern ‘crisis’. Indeed, the contrasts between these various interpretations may be a useful reminder of how much historical perspectives are shaped by the present. Surely it is no co-incidence that Hobsbawm – who had witnessed the radical political impact of the Great Depression – saw economic crisis at the root of changes in the seventeenth century. It would be equally surprising if the global perspective offered by Parker and Subrahmanyam were not linked to the acceleration of ‘globalisation’ in the late 20th century. And, of course, one doubts whether Parker’s early modern ‘climate crisis’ would have sparked such widespread interest if not for our own growing awareness of the effects of global warming today.

The concerns of the present were therefore very visible in these discussions of the seventeenth century. That is not to say these interpretations are false: the voluminous evidence that these historians have uncovered is extremely impressive and their arguments are persuasive. But they nonetheless serve as a reminder that our thinking about history is itself shaped by our own historical circumstances.

Gareth Stedman Jones’ plenary on Marxism

David Hitchcock is a lecturer in early modern history at Canterbury Christ Church University, He has published on vagrancy and subsistence migration, and is working on a monograph for Bloomsbury entitled ‘Vagrancy in English Culture and Society, 1650-1750’. His only-occasionally academic blog is at Post.Hoc.

In a wide ranging plenary, Gareth Stedman Jones (Professor for the History of Ideas at Queen Mary and a Fellow of Kings, Cambridge) focused on the ‘paradox’ of Eric Hobsbawm’s committed Marxism and his incredible historical talents. Stedman Jones stated that Marxism mixes badly with ‘the writing of good history’, because it is a ‘cluster of dogmatic assumptions’, yet Hobsbawm retained an unapologetically materialist interpretation of historical processes and still managed to write a cracking history: syncretic, incisive monographs read in more languages today than any other modern historical works (at least 20, according to the Le Monde online archives). Stedman Jones therefore asked his audience whether Hobsbawm’s skill as an historian was despite his Marxism, or because of it.

Gareth Stedman Jones began his investigation where many other distinguished presenters at this conference also chose to start: with Hobsbawm’s personal history, his own historical contexts, influences, and composite biography. Born in Egypt 1917, with German as a first language, easily conversant in English, French, and Spanish at the very least, schooled in Berlin until 1933, with a doctorate from Kings, Hobsbawm’s early and committed socialism (he joined a youth communist group as early as 1931 and joined the communist party from 1936, remaining part of it until its 1990s dissolution) and his polyglot, polymathic early heritage occupied Jones’ initial remarks. Jones had much to say about the relative stability of post-war Britain as a perch from which Hobsbawm (and indeed the Communist Party Historians Group) could make the seminal interventions into the practice of professional history with which we are now so familiar. Stedman Jones argued that Eric’s steady commitment to Marxism was political and engaged in the first instance – it was a ‘political pedagogy for activists’. It was less philosophical than it was instrumental, a method of understanding impersonal historical forces (often referred to in Marx’s terms as the means, mode and relationship to anything ‘produced’ by human beings), and how these forces could shape the boundaries of human well-being, inequality, economic and social structures, and many other things besides. Perhaps it is this instrumentalism, or ecumenicism, which permitted Hobsbawm’s histories to be so good despite his Marxism, mused Stedman Jones. Hobsbawm’s views can be called ‘historical materialism’ of course, and apparently it was a view of human history that belonged much more to Freidrich Engels than to Karl Marx in actuality. Was it also a cluster of dogmatic assumptions? (more…)

Marxist and Post-Marxist Social History – Lucy Robinson, Jane Whittle and Andy Wood

Hillary Taylor is a PhD candidate at Yale. She works on language and social relations in early modern England.

The papers in this panel – as its title suggests – reflected on what it means to write Marxist (or Marxisant) social history in our ‘post-Marxist’ political and intellectual historical moment. They also suggested that historians in all subfields would do well to spend more time reflecting on not only the politics of their scholarship, but also the politics of working in academia as it undergoes significant structural change.

Lucy Robinson (Sussex) began the discussion with a paper on the Brighton school students protest 20102010 Brighton school student demonstrations against the removal of the EMA (Educational Maintenance Allowance), a weekly payment that supported 16-18 year olds in education and was credited with encouraging more working-class children to stay on for A levels. This provided an opportunity to consider the relationship between contemporary protest and historical social movements of the sort in which Eric Hobsbawm was interested. The pejorative characterizations of student collective action – as irrational, disorganized and ‘feral’ – that Robinson outlined bear more than a passing resemblance to contemporary assessments of popular protest in other times and places, including early modern England. We would thus do well to be mindful of the fact that there are ways of discrediting popular movements that are at once historically specific and timelessly familiar. Robinson’s work also pointed to the tensions raised by the disjunction between an interest in and sympathy for those forms of protest that are consigned to the past (and therefore capable of being rendered legible and unthreatening) and those are more immediate and do not slot neatly into the preferred categories of organized political action.

As Jane Whittle (Exeter) noted, Hobsbawm did a good deal to imbue popular social movements with a logic and legitimacy that their detractors denied them and to assert the importance of ‘ordinary people as historical actors.’ This reorientation of away from political elites, she argued, ranks among the enduring legacies of Marxist historical scholarship. Yet for all Hobsbawm’s assertions that ‘primitive rebels’ were neither ‘unimportant nor marginal’ to processes of historical change, certain ambiguities and tensions remained present in his thinking on such issues.[1] On the one hand, as Geoff Eley (Michigan) noted in his plenary address on the final day of the conference, these manifested themselves in a certain hostility to the student movements of 1968 as being the politically ineffective agitations born of ‘identity politics.’ On the other, they were evident in his characterization of pre-industrial social movements as the agitations of individuals who were ‘inarticulate,’ ‘blind and groping,’ and who had ‘not yet found…a specific language in which to express their aspirations about the world.’[2]

So what should social historians make of laboring people who did not have a political party to assist them in making sense of their experiences of exploitation? This question becomes all the more salient as the traditional working-class assumes less familiar, more amorphous forms and as its traditional political mouthpieces such as the Labour Party assume less socially responsible, ‘new’ priorities. As Andy Wood (Durham) argued, one way involves historians reasserting that class is a robust and multi-faceted analytical category. Class ‘happens,’ Wood suggested, in the experiences of labor (even in something so mundane as being physically exhausted after a day’s work), of subordination and of powerlessness. This suggests that historians should attend not only to those instances in which the ruling-class brutally reasserted its power, or to those in which lower-classes individuals contested their subordination, but also to the variety of ways in which class presented itself in less sensational, more quotidian forms that are equally – and arguably more – important for a holistic understanding of social relations.

Marxism’s purchase – both politically and intellectually – may well be a shadow of what it once was. But this diminution can – and should – be regarded as liberating for anyone interested in questions of social power and structures (broadly defined). Social historians can resuscitate Marxism and the issues with which it is concerned not by looking without – as if to find untainted theories to dilute a cask-strength Marxist analysis – but rather by looking within. Only those unsympathetic to or unfamiliar with Marxism would maintain that it is anything other than a rich and varied tradition. To this end, as Andy Wood suggested, social historians would benefit from continued engagement with the works of Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams and Valentin Volosinov. One could continue adding names, to taste. If, for instance, one wanted to think more about language and ideology or the nature of the state and its role in structuring experiences of subordination and domination, one might add Ferruccio Rossi-Landi and Nicos Poulantzas, respectively. And so on. Such ecumenical sampling – and the creative thinking which it might occasion – could go some way in restoring not only the vibrancy of Marxisant social history, but also in promoting wider confidence in its ability to provide insights into the structures and dynamics of power in society – both past and present.


[1] Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (New York: Norton, 1959), 2.

[2] Ibid., 2.

Hobsbawm’s contribution to academia celebrated

Matthew Reisz reports on the conference in the Times Higher Education Supplement:

John Arnold, head of the department of history, Classics and archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London, welcomed delegates to the History After Hobsbawm conference, held at Senate House on 29 April to 1 May, and reminded them that the eminent academic had always looked to the future and believed in “dream[ing] forward”.

Subsequent speakers and panellists explored how we can draw on and develop his insights into capitalism and class, protest and property, nationalism and tradition. There was also a “learned entertainment” marking Professor Hobsbawm’s life-long passion for jazz.

Read the whole article here:


How Hobsbawm shaped history

This post was contributed by Guy Collender, Communications Manager at Birkbeck

If evidence were needed of Eric Hobsbawm’s widespread and profound impact upon the study of history, the speakers assembled at the History after Hobsbawm conference provided cast-iron proof.

The gathering of such high-profile historians was testament to Hobsbawm’s influence upon the discipline, particularly his emphasis on the importance of social and economic history. It reiterated his ability to broaden horizons, inspire individuals, and, in some cases, generate dissent.


Professor Mark Mazower, of Columbia University, and Marlene Hobsbawm, Eric Hobsbawm’s widow, at the reception following Mazower’s lecture at the History after Hobsbawm conference.

Professor Mark Mazower, of Columbia University, and Marlene Hobsbawm, Eric Hobsbawm’s widow.

Professor Mark Mazower (Columbia University), author of Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, and one of Hobsbawm’s former colleagues at Birkbeck – delivered the opening lecture at the conference organised by Birkbeck in association with Past & Present. He described Hobsbawm (1917-2012) as an “inspirational figure” who “loved” Birkbeck – an institution committed to adult education without the class snobbery that retarded the development of social history elsewhere.

Mazower charted the progression of Hobsbawm’s career and the simultaneous, and often related, transformation of the discipline of history. He explained how Hobsbawm was one of only four historians when he joined Birkbeck’s History Department in 1947, decades before the discipline became the professionalised and globalised profession it is today.

The audience on 29 April at Senate House heard how Hobsbawm’s participation in the International Congress of Historical Sciences in Paris in 1950 led to long-standing ties with French intellectuals, and subsequent cooperation between two prominent social history journals: Annales and Past & Present. (Hobsbawm was one of the founder members of Past & Present in 1952). Mazower quoted the leader of the Annales School, Fernand Braudel, writing about Hobsbawm in 1968: “In my opinion he is one of the most important historians in the present world.”

Hobsbawm’s emphasis on social and economic history, and his internationalism were mirrored by the expansion of History departments, the increase in social history, and the emergence of world history and area studies in the 1970s and 1980s. Mazower added: “Hobsbawm was, in many ways, at the very centre of some of the critical intellectual and institutional developments of the discipline for several decades.”

Professor John Arnold, Head of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, encouraged the audience to think about current trends in the study of History, and, in Hobsbawm’s words, “dream forward.” He referred to “Eric’s extraordinary impact on the study of history” and encouraged argument, discussion and debate over the next two days of the conference. The conference speakers and delegates certainly rose to the challenge.

Economic History and Material Culture – Margot Finn, John McAleer, Pat Hudson

Stef Eastoe is a third year PhD student in the department of History at Birkbeck, researching the social history of idiots and imbeciles in the long nineteenth century, using Caterham Imbecile Asylum as a case study to explore the voice and experiences of the patients and staff. Alongside Janet Weston, Hazel Croft and Susanna Shapland (fellow PhD students at Birkbeck) Stef is organizing a conference exploring Alternative Psychiatric Narratives, supported by Birkbeck, Society for the Social History of Medicine, and the Wellcome Trust.

Eric Hobsbawn’s Ages series formed the basis of the ‘Economic History and Material Culture’ panel, a session which provided a reassessment of capital, industry and empire through luxury, domestic, collected and proletariat items. In his introduction to the panel chair and convenor Professor Giorgio Riello (Warwick) reminded us that the rise of material culture has revised the picture of the industrial revolution from a wave of gadgets to a wave of consumer goods, with object based analysis providing a wider perspective and landscape which included a broader cast of actors, products and goods.

Professor Margot Finn (UCL) explored the objects and consumers who were absent in The Age of Capital, a book which prioritized the heavy industries of coal, iron, smoke and steam. In his focus on the big industries, the movement of big goods, and the railways Professor Finn argued that Hobsbawm presented not only a disembodied form of human capital, he dismissed the smaller goods, the domestic items that peppered the home, and in turn the producers and consumers of these items. Finn shifted our gaze to the objects on the periphery and asked us to reconsider them in the age of capitalism, how they helped to drive change, to drive production, and drive demand. Who was buying these items, what was the meaning of these items, and what were people doing and expressing when purchasing domestic goods and luxury items.

In asking these questions Professor Finn was able to show how material culture and people’s relationship with objects in a number of contexts, from production, purchase and display, not only could bring women into the picture, but also a group of labourers and producers who were also absent in Age of Capital. It was through the lens of material culture and the focus on objects, items produced by other smaller, non ‘dirty’ industries, that an alternative, wider, and to some degree richer image of capital emerges. It was a picture made up of a variety of pressures, markets, demands, desires, consumers and items, which in various ways stimulated, created and maintained capital.

fig5_sarclarkeIt was to empire that we turned to next, with Dr John McAleer (Southampton) using the biography of objects and their afterlives to (re)consider aspects of empire in the context of exploration, encounters and exchange. Dr McAleer gave a brief but enlightening workshop on how material culture and the reading of objects in a certain context can provide new avenues for discussing empire, how items arrived in museums, why were certain items collected, by whom, and for what purpose were questions used to produce object biographies. Beginning with the Sarcophagus of Nectanebo II, now on display at the British Museum, rather than concentrate on its origins in terms of production and its use to historians of Egypt, Dr McAleer discussed its after life, namely that the Sarcophagus was part of Nelson’s expedition to Egypt, coming to the British Museum in 1802 as a result of the Treaty of Alexandria. This journey of an object, and its biographical information post production and post-original use, draw on themes of empire and how objects can make empires in a number of ways that are not always obvious, and not always part of production and supply.

Mindful that one could never know everything about an object in terms of its production, its original intent or its original reception, Dr McAleer suggested that it was the presence of items produced in other countries that now resided in Britain show a range of exchanges that touch on sophisticated and exciting exchange of ideas, of motifs, of cultural and social information, and of taste, demand and consumer desires. Porcelain bowls decorated with a stylised image of the Thames showed not only that this item was made purely for export, but also hinted at the range of exchange and meetings that were afforded by trade, which in turn formed the building block of empire in a global context. For Dr McAleer it was through objects and their mixing of aesthetics and style that illustrated the meeting of cultures and the economic inter-dependence that was hidden in texts and discussions of heavy industry.

Professor Pat Hudson (Cardiff) used the life of objects to think about industry and empire through the production of woollen items in Wales, a place that Hobsbawm spent many summers, relishing the opportunity to ‘live close to nature’. Focussing on the revived woollen trade of the latter part of the nineteenth century, Professor Hudson used the example of five items to illustrate their significance to the Welsh wool trade, domestic industry, and industry in the empire. Professor Hudson identified two main domestic demands that helped to revive and sustain the Welsh Wool trade, domestic proletariat requirements and an increase of National identity and Welsh National dress. The Welsh Wig, a knitted cap with a long back to keep the neck warm, the Crys Fach, a short fronted metallurgical workers shirt, coal miners underpants, nurses shawl and the bedgown, a flannel open-fronted dress that formed part of the national dress, were all high demand items that stimulated and maintained the growth of the wool trade and industry in latter part of the nineteenth century. In a similar fashion to McAleer, Professor Hudson explored the connections between the items being produced within the woollen industry, who required the items, why they required the items, to ask bigger questions about Welsh industry and its connection to the wider British Empire, and the wider global market.

The Welsh Wig was an excellent example of how a domestic item could take on WelshWig1854numerous meanings, and shed light on a number of social, cultural and economic activities, exchanges and connections that would be hidden in more quantitative economic sources. The Welsh Wig became popular due to a number of factors; namely the demise of the wig, the increase of stagecoaches and travel to a wider range of traveller and the increasing number of explorations taking place across the empire, namely polar expeditions. The Welsh Wig offered excellent protection against the elements, providing a shield against the wind on the back of the neck, giving the wearer not only warmth, but also for men going bald it could, from a distance, be mistaken for a healthy head of hair. The Welsh Wig was approved wear for the military, formed part of the kit list for men in the Crimea, and was a standard feature in the luggage of polar explorers.

This demand stimulated growth in the Welsh woollen trade, and industry which had suffered from decline in the early part of the nineteenth century. The demand of this item, along with the Crys Fach and the miners underpants, two workers items that were desirable and successful as the wool not only gave them protection from fire and flame, it smoulder rather than burst into flame, they were also light and airy to wear. These specifics made them successful, and afforded a major injection and support for the wool trade, as well as illustrating the interconnectedness of other industries could shape and support other trades.

All three papers provided a different set of chronologies of items, goods, markets and trades that were not shaped by the big industries. Returning to Riello’s comment that through material culture we can view industry in terms of waves of goods, items and objects could produce ever increasing ripples, the impact and significance of which could far outlive the splash of the big industries. By using objects, from luxury goods, to imported, collected and displayed objects, to domestically produced items, the range of actors is increased, as is the geography, spaces and landscapes of industry, empire and capital, from the Welsh miner in his underpants, to the small producer creating luxury items for female consumption.

Catherine Hall’s plenary lecture on ‘Gendering Property, Racing Accumulation’

 Janet Weston is a second year PhD student at Birkbeck, researching the history of medical approaches to diagnosing, treating, and curing sexual offenders in mid-twentieth century Britain.

A quotation from Marx provided the leitmotif for this plenary session: ‘capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt’. Professor Catherine Hall’s outstanding lecture addressed the themes of gender and race, now self-evident in their absence in Hobsbawm’s work, demonstrating not only that questions of gender and race address this blood and dirt, but more importantly, that the role of slavery and the plantation in building Britain must be revisited and reintegrated into the history that we do.

Agreeing with Eric Williams’ controversial assertion that slavery played a key role in the growth of capital in Britain, she drew attention to the persistent disavowals that still take place amidst a conviction that slavery simply ‘didn’t happen here’. Citing as one example the recent ‘Georgians Revealed’ exhibition at the British Library, which was silent on the origins of the wealth of the Georgian world, she argued for the absolute necessity of research into slaves and enslavers alike, not simply to fill a lacuna in research, but to build a complete picture of British capitalism, of industrialisation, and of a society in which the beliefs about whiteness, non-whiteness, property, and colonialism that underlay slavery were omnipresent.

Much of the lecture referred back to the project at UCL dedicated to the Legacies of British Slave-ownership, for which Professor Hall is the Principal Investigator. This collaborative endeavour is part of a larger undertaking to study slaves and enslavers alike, providing a British counterpart to the extensive research by Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese on slavery in the American south. Interspersed throughout the lecture were examples of slave-owning families and individuals, their opinions, and sometimes surprising statistical information: 41% of claims for compensation in the Caribbean following the abolition of slavery were made by women, and many of these were women of colour.

Anne Marriott was one such slave owner, whose position highlighted the entanglements of family with industrial capitalism. The illegitimate daughter of Joseph Marriott, a wealthy MP, she inherited little on his death since his estate was largely funnelled into his marital family unit, and avoided marriage herself in order to retain her own wealth within her control. Hall discussed the ways in which familial alliances and gendered perspectives on property and position within the family both bolstered the building up and consolidating of capital, but also led to conflict within families and consternation more widely about the immoral plantation owner and his dilution of the white race, white wealth, and white numbers in the colonies.

Thus, whiteness in the Caribbean was imbued with fear as well as power. Slave owners felt their colonial world to be dangerous, demanding of the infliction of terror on the bodies and minds of the enslaved to maintain order. Their families were denied and destroyed, and Hall ended her lecture with an impassioned plea for us to recognise that the trauma of slavery is not over, mentioning the persistent privileging of whiteness and the persistent poverty of the Caribbean. In rethinking classical accounts of industrial capitalism, previously dominated by the mill and the emaciated body of the factory worker, she insisted that we must look for the ways in which gender and race structured the organisation of property and power, recapturing that which has been forgotten: this process of forgetting took work, and the process of remembering will demand work too.