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New Left Review I/143, January-February 1984

Eric Hobsbawm

Marx and History

We are here to discuss themes and problems of the Marxist conception of history a hundred years after the death of Marx. This is not a ritual of centenary celebration, but it is important to begin by reminding ourselves of the unique role of Marx in historiography. I will simply do so by three illustrations. My first is autobiographical. When I was a student in Cambridge in the 1930s, many of the ablest young men and women joined the Communist Party. But as this was a very brilliant era in the history of a very distinguished university, many of them were profoundly influenced by the great names at whose feet we sat. Among the young Communists there we used to joke: the Communist philosophers were Wittgensteinians, the Communist economists were Keynesians, the Communist students of literature were disciples of F. R. Leavis. And the historians? They were Marxists, because there was no historian that we knew of at Cambridge or elsewhere—and we did hear and know of some great ones, such as Marc Bloch—who could compete with Marx as a master and an inspiration. My second illustration is similar. Thirty years later, in 1969, Sir John Hicks, Nobel laureate, published his Theory of Economic History. He wrote: ‘Most of those [who wish to fit into place the general course of history] would use the Marxian categories, or some modified version of them, since there is so little in the way of an alternative version that is available. It does, nevertheless, remain extraordinary that one hundred years after Das Kapital . . . so little else should have emerged.’ [1] J. Hicks, A Theory of Economic History, London 1969, p. 3. My third illustration comes from Fernand Braudel’s splendid Capitalism and Material Life—a work whose very title provides a link with Marx. In that noble work Marx is referred to more often than any other author, even than any French author. Such a tribute from a country not given to underestimate its national thinkers, is impressive in itself.

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