Project Officer: This interview is being conducted for the project ‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’, and the Project Officer Danny Millum will be speaking to Professor Eric Hobsbawm about his experience of, and views on, changes in the discipline and the academic profession of history.
Professor Hobsbawm, may we start with your giving us some brief biographical information?
Eric Hobsbawm: I was born during World War One, in Egypt, which has no relevance to my subsequent life because I left it when I was two. More relevant is that I had my primary and part of my secondary education in Austria, and then for a couple of years in Germany, and came to England (not, I want to say, as a refugee, because my family was British) in 1933, where I finished my secondary schooling and then got a scholarship to Cambridge.
Before I’d had much chance for research the war broke out. After the war I returned briefly to do my research, but almost immediately, in 1947, got a job as a lecturer at Birkbeck, presumably on the basis of my undergraduate career and references. And basically I stayed there until my retirement in 1982, after which I then went on and taught in New York for another 13 years or so. There were intervals of visits, and temporary things which could be combined with staying in London, teaching in various American universities, and in Latin America. And in the 1970s and early 1980s I also taught at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and the College de France.
The intellectual background was peculiar. My father’s family were immigrants from Poland, then Russia, who were actually workers, artisans and woodworkers. Cabinetmaking was the family trade. Until my generation none of them had a fulltime progress to university. So I was the first person to do that, on the strength of a scholarship.
My mother’s side was Viennese assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie or middleclass, with a very strongly developed literary and cultural atmosphere, so these young years in both Austria and Germany were very significant.
After that there was Cambridge. The first thing I published was just a collection of documents, but I first started publishing in journals in this country in 1947 or 1948. My first books were 1959, since which time (you can see the bibliography) I’ve been publishing this, that and the other.
PO: And how did you come to be a historian? What were the factors involved in that?
EH: Well, I became very interested in history in general through becoming a schoolboy Marxist and reading the Communist Manifesto. The history I was taught at that time in Germany was totally uninteresting and traditional, and while at one time I knew the list of names and dates of all the German emperors, I’ve forgotten them all. However, in the immediate short-term I became an academic historian because my history teacher at the British grammar school (St Marylebone Grammar School) thought I was good at it, and decided at a certain stage to put me up.
I was still not fixed on becoming a historian when I went up to Cambridge. I might have done English and I might have done Modern Languages, but it struck me having looked round Cambridge and the literature, that most of what I would I learn in Modern Languages or English Literature, I could do privately by reading, whereas the stuff that was being taught in History I had never been taught before and so it seemed worthwhile to concentrate on that.
PO: What would you say were your influences? I suppose in terms of teachers and in terms of intellectual influences?
EH: At school?
PO: From school, and in terms I suppose of your early career as well.
EH: It’s very difficult to say apart from Karl Marx, who provided the impetus for me to go into history, and also of course, some of my historical interests. As well as being as it were a socialist and leftist who took an interest in popular history, the history of the common people and the workers. Which is not implicit in Marxism – the Marxist message is not necessarily confined to this, but I was.
The intellectual history itself? Certainly at school there was a practical influence of my teacher, the late Llewellyn Smith, who pushed me and in fact leant me his own books, and referred my essays to his father’s friends, like the Webbs. But he was no influence intellectually. In Cambridge the major influence was Munia Postan, who was Professor of Economic History then. Otherwise there weren’t very many Cambridge historians that I was particularly taken with, at least in my field, although I tried a lot of them. Postan’s were the only lectures I really went to systematically.
But as I may have written somewhere else, in Cambridge the great advantage is that good students teach each other, this practice of sticking around and discussing and improving things. It was particularly so in the Socialist Club there, where we set up faculty groups. I should add that we actually being encouraged to be good students by our political mentors.
PO: OK. That’s interesting.
EH: Yes. For instance in France this was not the case. You were supposed to go out and become a militant as soon as you possibly could. Whereas this was not the case in England.
PO: And that was the Communist Party of Great Britain who were instructing you in that way?
EH: That’s right, very strongly. Which I joined in 1936 when I went up to Cambridge.
Otherwise, I mean most of the influences came through reading, though of course there was the influence of people like Marc Bloch, to whom Postan had directed our attention.
PO: And the Annales?
EH: And the Annales.
I was quite impressed for a time with Elie Halévy, the History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, particularly the first volume on England in 1815.
Mostly I would have thought my influences were French. The German influences were not so much historians as social thinkers and sociologists like Max Weber. Possibly France because I was there at the International Congress of Historical Sciences in 1950 (the first post-war Conference). Curiously enough being put up, in spite of my total lack of any kind of experience, as chairman of a session on modern social history. This must have been on the recommendation of Postan, who I think was about the only important British historian who was involved at that time in the international business.
PO: You’ve spoken of the insularity of the English historical profession at that time.
EH: Very much so, very much so. But the Congress was I think very important for me because it put me in contact with the French.
And the other major influence of course was, again in the ten years after the Second World War, the so-called Historians Group of the Communist Party, which contained quite a number of people who later on became quite well known in the field. The discussion within that, the combination of both regular discussion and friendship, was enormously stimulating and helpful and helped us to push forward our own historical development.
PO: You’ve spoken of your experiences before the war, in meeting with other students and discussing history, and then, as you say, you mention the Communist Party Historians Group. Do you think that that is unusual amongst British historians to have those tight-knit groups?
EH: I can’t really judge, I can’t think of any other formal group. The clever or the bright kids always find a way to each other and then informally discuss things during their undergraduate period, sitting in the cafeteria together and talking. I should say that that stopped in those days once you did research.
Being a research student in those days was an activity which was completely isolated. There weren’t any seminars, there was actually very little training for anything, but there was no real attempt to get the postgraduates together. Unlike in the United States as I later on found, where of course there were graduate schools within which you had the same sort of thing developing as we had in the undergraduate field.
PO: That’s interesting. Well, maybe we’ll come back to that, but I wanted to move on and ask you a little bit about – difficult to pigeonhole as it is – your own field of study within history. And I wondered, again looking I suppose across the span of your career, what important figures you might see in the development of the study of labour history, or the use of the Marxist approach to historical study?
EH: Well, as far as labour history is concerned, and of course I did most of my teaching and things within that range, one has to go back I think to the pioneers, which were the Webbs. Not so much the History of Trade Unionism as Industrial Democracy, which is absolutely the best thing written about 19th-century unions. And in fact I spent a good deal of my research on the Webb collection, which they had originally used to do this. And G. D. H. Cole. These were people who we respected. Otherwise there weren’t many young professional historians who went in for labour history until the 1950s or even the 1960s.
When we founded the Society for the Study of Labour History in 1960 we already had a certain number. Of course the Marxist ones were involved, who weren’t necessarily academics, though some of them became academics, people like Edward Thompson. My own angle was in fact not so much the narrative history of the labour movement, which had been the tradition, but the structural history of working-class organisations. What they did, and including to some extent the importance of those that were not organised in labour, but that was a fairly new angle.
I think probably the young Marxists were the main pioneers in the 50s of this, because there were no others. At the same time, to some extent the LSE had plenty of experts in these fields. There was a very influential professor who did a lot of social and labour history, though he never really published very much. Later on we had him as a sort of advisor or associate with the new Society for the Study of Labour History. Somebody like Asa Briggs could probably give you more.
There were other people in labour history, or the history of socialism, but they were not really interested in the working class. I’m thinking of the late Henry Pelling, who was also very much involved in the narrative history of these things.
I mean, there were a number of people who knew their stuff, but didn’t influence I don’tthink the main current of labour history.
PO: Were there any figures subsequent to that, say from the 1960s and 1970s onwards who you think have been significant in this field?
EH: In labour history? Well, I mean the obvious case is Edward Thompson of course. That’s clear.
The older members of my generation or slightly younger went on doing labour history to some extent. Of the younger, there was a bunch of characters who took to labour history under the impact of the radicalisation of the 60s. They were interested in party politics, international socialism, or what they termed various Trotskyist groups, partly because it came from that kind of background.
PO: Do any names stand out there?
EH: One of the names that stands out is one of the guys that I supervised, Chris Wrigley. He has become rather a key figure in the publication and organisation, for a time he was also president of the Historical Association.
And James Hinton in Warwick, a number of those kind of Warwick people. Some of these people of course weren’t historians, but sociologists or something like this.
Of course you’ve found that there is a Labour History Review. When we actually founded the Society we didn’t want a review, we wanted a bulletin, we would have preferred people to publish as part of general history. But eventually it’s turned into a full-scale journal.
PO: So you’d hoped not to develop it as a niche subject, but to-
EH: We had a special Society for the Study of Labour History in order to put the thing on the agenda, and also of course to make it easier to exchange views. But we did not simply want niche publications, so we wrote in the bulletin bibliographical stuff, surveys and critiques, but we hoped general stuff wouldn’t be published there.
The French partly under our influence, developed quite a lot of labour history, around Le Mouvement Social, and some of the major works in this field, the big ones, were French, rather than British, because the British didn’t come out with huge things. This was not yet the period when publishers got onto historians to write big general books, and now the reason why they don’t about labour history is because labour history is no longer as central as it once was.
The Americans became very active in labour history, again mostly the left-wingers, but not only the left-wingers. I think people like David Montgomery and Herbert Gutman were very important in the 1960s and 1970s particularly, and we knew about them. I don’t think we were that much influenced by them, largely because the situation was very different .
PO: And you’ve mentioned individuals there, and you’ve also mentioned the Society for the Study of Labour History. I was wondering, were there any other institutions that you see as having been important in the development of this area of history?
EH: The institutions which have been valuable in the fields that I know about are first of all the big international conferences. The ones in 1950, 1955, 1960 even 1965, were before the huge increase in universities and therefore in the number of people. And so it was very important and young historians could actually make contact with others. Later on they could no longer do so because it was much too big.
PO: Right, the weight of numbers.
EH: The weight of numbers.
Secondly, in Britain the Economic History Society, on the Council of which I was for a bit. This was where we operated. Here again, the reason being not so much that the Economic History Society had a line, but that the field got together, and you knew who everybody was. It had its drawbacks because it meant that any young historian had only a limited number of referees.
Within limits, the Society for the Study of Labour History. I myself was never that influenced by the social history people, Social History Society. I joined it but other people were much more active in it. I maintained my own view that social history should not be a niche subject but should be widened into the history of society, and once wrote a paper on this.
If you talk of journals, obviously the History Workshop Journal has been very significant since the 1970s in this field. But earlier on, you musn’t forget Past and Present, which was set up at a very bad time, but did act in some ways as the equivalent of the Annales, though without the institutional tie-up that Annale eventually acquired. The young, active, anti-traditionalist historians found themselves drawn into this, and it established itself very rapidly indeed.
PO: You mention anti-traditionalists. It brought together both Marxists and non-Marxists who were opposed to the very traditional-
EH: The old conventional history. Dates, cabinets, wars, battles, and to some extent institutions. Very little on the social side, very little on the cultural side, and so on. A few months ago at the centenary Creighton lecture Robert Evans said if you want to compare the changes that have been made look at something like the standard Grant and Temperley textbook of European history, and compare it with my Age and Revolution which in a sense replaced it as the new type of survey of the long period.
The people who went into Past and Present we were all young, but some were even younger like John Elliott. John Elliott had not the faintest ideological interest, but he was quite clear that from the beginning he was interested in the Catalan revolution.
Similarly Lawrence Stone, who belonged more to my generation, and a lot of the other men who came in then. That showed to that extent it had a function. Unlike the Annales it never acquired a centre of its own because we didn’t have any finance.
PO: But you’d see the development whereby John Elliott and Lawrence Stone and others joined around 1958, as a positive move for the journal, that it had expanded…
EH: Well, that was actually their move. They were very keen on the journal, but they wanted something that was less specifically Marxist in its orientation. And since this also fitted into what we had originally planned, we had really planned as it were a popular front of young modernising historians. The main issue was whether we should continue to be called ‘a journal of scientific history’. They didn’t like that, not much was lost by dropping it, and in fact so far as you can see it made no difference to the content. But the interesting thing is that while this was a collective before and after the sort of injection of these other people, at no stage can I remember ideological arguments about articles.
PO: So there wasn’t a split along Marxist and non-Marxist lines?
EH: No. Initially when it was launched, the only people who would do it were the reds. That was the time when the Institute of Historical Research refused to take it.
PO: Ironically given that’s where I’ve come from now to interview you!
EH: Well, they did eventually take it, but it took a few years.
PO: And was this an attempt on behalf of the history establishment to try and isolate declared communists or left-wingers?
EH: I think it was a sort of anti-communist reaction. Initially the bulk of the board and committee were communists. One or two people like Wittkower, the historian of art who wanted to join us had been told specifically ‘It won’t do you any good joining that sort of thing’. So just a few brave old radicals like H. M. Jones (the Classics man from Cambridge) and Betts (from the School of Slavonic Studies) came in as a matter of principle. So at one stage did Geoffrey Barraclough.
EH: Anyway. Initially we had given the non-communist members of the Board virtually a veto. If any of the non-communists said no to an article we wouldn’t print it.
PO: And was that to reassure them that they weren’t going to be co-opted?
EH: That’s right – to make it certain. Later on of course that was no longer necessary.
PO: And the communists on the board would be yourself, Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill?
EH: Certainly those were the three of us. Theoretically I think Maurice Dobb was on the board but never turned up. The archaeologist Gordon Childe was for a while, who incidentally I thought was probably the most original English Marxist writer from the days of my youth.
Anyway, it was Rodney and Christopher and myself, all from the Historians’ Group, and John Morris, of course, who was technically the editor.
PO: Whom you’ve written of in your piece on the beginnings of Past and Present I think.
PO: And what did impact did 1956 have on the Communist Party Historians Group and I suppose also on Past and Present as well?
EH: It had no impact on Past and Present, for the reasons that I’ve just explained. It had a major impact on the Communist Historians because most of the important figures in the Communist Party Historians Group left, or were expelled from, the Communist Party. Although several of them remained, most of them remained on the left and several remained Marxists. And relations between all of us remained friendly and collaborative until the end.
So to that extent the old Communist Group didn’t disintegrate, it went on, but for quite a long time it didn’t really do very much. It still exists as a Socialist History Society somewhere, but not as a major sort of contribution.
PO: Ah, that’s interesting. So it evolved but…the roots of the Socialist History Society are in that original Communist Party Historians Group?
EH: That is a linear descendant. The major period of the group was 1946–56 precisely. After that the number of people who went on with it was much more restricted. I mean I didn’t play any significant part in it after that either, because it was no longer the same sort of thing.
PO: Of course. And I suppose maybe we’ve covered this already, but I was just wondering if we could come back to the major debates and points of contention, again in this area of labour history and Marxist history. What do you see those as being over the time of your career?
EH: Well, I don’t want to single out labour history. In the first place I don’t think there were any specific problems of Marxist history which were not shared by non-Marxists in this period. I must repeat and I’ve said it before that the generation of the 1950s and 1960s, to which I was lucky enough to belong, and which transformed the teaching and research of history, internationally speaking belonged to different ideologies.
For instance there was only one significant Marxist historian there in France. Bloch and the Annales had very different ideological roots. Admittedly some of the Germans were influenced by the British example. The Americans were, and the Germans were. The so-called Historische Gesellschaftswissenschaft (the historical social science) people like Wehler and Kocka at the new university at Bielefeld were in fact influenced by things like Past and Present. However, they were not themselves Marxist in any sense. They tended to be mostly on the left, these people, but not necessarily.
I mean nobody could tell what Braudel was like, politically speaking. I assume he was a republican, but he wasn’t identified, and he was a good enough politician not to let himself be identified with any specific party. The other great and institutionally-based historian, Labrousse, claimed that he was a Marxist, of a fairly economic materialist type. A great historian, and certainly political. He had been Leon Blum’s chef de cabinet.
PO: In the Popular Front government in France?
EH: Yes, when Leon Blum was in government. So – the problems that were then being faced. I think the Marxists specifically tried to face the problem of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, but even the non-Marxists, who didn’t accept this, were apt, particularly if they were social and economic historians, to face the problem of the transition from the Middle Ages to modern.
PO: So different names, but essentially.
EH: In essence, you knew what you were talking about, you see. This was to some extent in my view the by-product of the 1930s period of the Great Depression. We thought in terms of large-scale crises, and growth. As did the Germans. And almost everybody who was involved in economic history (social history had not yet emancipated itself) could see the problem of the contrast between the 14th/15th century on the one hand and the 16th century.
And, a debate developed for instance about the so-called 17th century crisis. I think one originally heard about it from some of the French who had been involved in it. There was a debate on this in Past and Present, there was a book about it, and it continued for a while. Several volumes have been published. The debate was so important that even the people that didn’t agree with it came in on it, like Hugh Trevor-Roper. Although Trevor-Roper in his early days was actually influenced by this sort of Marxist-type approach to the whole business.
So that was one thing, the transition to, if you like, modernity, or modern industrial or commercial society, which concerned us and most other economic historians. They didn’t quite know what to do about the 18th century but thanks to people like Hatcher and others this has since become very much more an active period.
PO: And that was a product you say of to a certain extent of a shared outlook of people who had grown up in the 1930s?
EH: You see the major change was introducing social elements into history. The social sciences – demography, economics, sociology and all that kind of stuff. And so to speak the socialising of history. That was I think behind most of the changes in this generation. They did it in different ways but that’s what they were trying to do.
For instance the French were much more militant against political history than people ever were in England, or in America. So whether you defined it in Marxist terms or in other terms this is the way the whole thing went, and this is why it was comparatively easy for people like us English Marxists to get on the right kind of terms with people like the French, say, the Braudel people. Paradoxically because the French communists were against the Braudel people. But they weren’t interested in professional history, you see.
So there was that. As far as labour history is concerned the big problem which ties up with economic development, was I think the standard of living problem. Which first became explosive if you like in the 50s. That originally goes back to people like the late Professor T. S. Ashton, who took the view that everything was going better and better all the time, if only slowly. Industrialisation automatically brought improvement rather than pressure, whereas here the Marxists and other labour people took the view that the workers were exploited.
Well, the famous exchange between myself and Max Hartwell on the standard of living, in the Economic History Review, was only the beginning. Since that time there have been a large number of developments, mostly on the basis of new sources, such as anthropometric history, and of course the history of consumption, and so on. But most of the running in these things has been made by the Americans; by Fogel (although he collaborated with my former colleague Roderick Floud, who was very much into this field) and Williamson and others.
This has continued quietly among economic historians, but hasn’t really that much affected people since the 1970s.
The other big question as far as labour is concerned is the one if you like raised by Edward Thompson on the nature of class, and class as an activity. But on the whole while there’s been quite a lot of people talking in general about class I don’t think it’s contributed a tremendous amount to the development of the profession.
PO: The debate on class has been conducted by historians who you might see as being influenced by what’s known as the cultural turn. And in the 1970s and 1980s people were looking at the very terminology of the word class, and-
EH: Yes, that’s what I’m saying. It kept on and on this debate. The main thing about the cultural turn is that it’s been an attempt to eliminate the social very largely from history – which I think is bound to fail. The linguistic turn isn’t that new, the linguistic turn is in my view just a reflection of the provincialism of Great Britain. Whereas in almost any German historical seminar they would have been aware of those problems from way back.
PO: So it’s more that the English feel that they’ve suddenly come across them?
EH: Yes, the English suddenly discovered that you might have to investigate the nature of the language and all the rest of it. But the cultural turn is more important. There’s no question that our generation in the 1950s and 1960s, while they didn’t completely neglect culture, did not actually give it sufficient weight in our analyses. I think this must be so.
Yet to show you the width to which this whole movement went, in art history, for instance, the late Francis Haskell (who became the most eminent art historian since Gombrich in this country) published in Past and Present right from the beginning, and as it so happens I know he was a passionate anti-communist. He was passionate about a lot of things, you know. We’re very old friends, but that’s another matter.
The main trouble about the cultural turn is that an awful lot of it tends to move away not merely from the social element in history, but also from the real history. For instance, the enormous range of studies of memory in the 1970s and 1980s which are quite new, which didn’t happen in our day. Well, memory is about today, memory isn’t about what happened, it’s about what people later on think happened.
PO: It’s a completely different sort of source to a primary source from the time, of course?
EH: Either a primary source of even an attempt to reconstruct what really happened on the ground. I mean what people thought afterwards is very important, but it’s important for the period in which they think and not for the period about which they think.
PO: Yes, I see the distinction that you’re making there.
EH: That’s the point. I mean the problem for instance today is the enormous amount about the memory of World War One. The question is, why have we rediscovered World War One, which is a long long time ago, and what does it mean. But whatever’s written about the memory of the Battle of the Somme is not the same as actually-
PO: It actually concerns 21st century Britain more than it does 20th century Britain.
EH: That’s exactly what I was saying, yes.
Well, I could also say that some of the cultural history moves into areas which are very difficult to fit into an evolutionary history. For instance, there is a fashion now for things like the history of sentiments, or the history of bodies, stuff like this. I think this was like many other things pioneered in France – not actually by the Annales people but by one or two people associated. But a subject like the history of masturbation – I think that it has been written – or the history of crying, is obviously very interesting, and if you find somewhere an interesting historical question on which it can throw light fine, but it’s really comparing and contrasting rather than saying how did one thing turn into another.
PO: Again, a different sort of history. I think you’ve said that this has moved history into a realm where no distinction is being made between the significant and the trivial.
EH: Well, that’s one of things that I mean, yes. On the other hand, what is significant depends on what questions you ask about history. When the new people went back to political history, back to narrative history, they were all against asking the big questions. How does one society change into another? How did the Middle Ages change into…? Well if you’re thinking in terms of the big questions, of course if you like you can start with the word go, with human beings leaving Africa and spreading all over the world. How did they get from there to now?
If you don’t ask any of these big questions there remain an enormous number of things which are fascinating, and some of which you may write about because you feel great empathy with them, and you can certainly write about them in a scholarly fashion, but they don’t help to answer the big questions. That is the view that my generation would have taken of it. I mean, that’s to say even the younger people who came up in the 1950s and 1960s.
PO: No, that makes perfect sense. I wanted to move quickly, because I know we’ve spoken for a long time about that, just to look briefly at some questions about the profession itself, and again see to what degree you have an opinion on these. I wanted to begin with asking what you thought about the pressures on academics and how you’d seen that changing over your career or over your lifetime in history.
EH: The pressure that’s been increasing most is the pressure of bureaucracy. Filling in forms, all sorts of things like this. I’ll give you an example. When I first came to Birkbeck, in the early 1950s or thereabouts, the place had about 2500 students. The registry was run part-time by one of my colleagues in the history department with one secretary. There was a finance officer somewhere, there was a general secretary, a clerk. But if you actually looked at the number of people employed in administration – it was ridiculous by modern standards. This pressure, which is probably political as well as bureaucratic, has increased very sharply I think since my retirement.
I mean take the Research Assessment Exercise only, and the amount of things that you have to keep, that somebody wants you to report on - that’s increased.
I don’t think political pressures have particularly increased. I don’t think they were ever very serious, with the exception of a certain amount of anti-communism in the period from 1948 to 1960. Where on the whole communists who had got jobs, which they could do up to 1947 in the universities, didn’t get promotion, and no known communists were being hired. But I mean that was a special case.
PO: And post-1960 that relaxed then?
EH: Yes, I think so.
PO: So that would be the period in your career where being a card-carrying member of the Communist Party meant that you would be denied promotion?
EH: Well, certainly in the early days. I got my chair in, I suppose, 1971 or thereabouts, which was comparatively late, considering that by that time I’d established quite a good reputation in the field. I mean I’d even got to the stage of getting honorary degrees and stuff like that.
But I think that maybe it wasn’t only political. I think it was partly due to the head of my department, who in those days was an unusually conventional medieval historian, who honestly didn’t really believe that anything after 1400 was not journalism. So that was a special case. As soon as he went, there was no problem.
PO: So it’s hard to generalise from that?
EH: I wouldn’t generalise.
Pressures otherwise I couldn’t think of. Financial pressure of course, but I mean financial pressure on the basis of having rather more money in the history departments and universities than we had used to have.
I’m not talking about salaries, though you could say there’s that too, because up to I suppose the early 1970s academic salaries were roughly speaking supposed to keep pace with civil service salaries. So a reader was supposed to have roughly the same as whatever it is, an assistant secretary, or even more. And from the 1970s on that disappeared, and of course that produced economic pressure, which hasn’t really yet been completely removed. Anyway, the comparability has now gone.
PO: That link has broken?
EH: The link, yes.
PO: We were talking earlier, we mentioned the insularity of the British University as you came to it in the 1930s. I wanted to ask you about institutional changes since then and I suppose whether that insularity has dissipated or what other changes you might have seen?
EH: I don’t think the insularity has dissipated because of institutional change. I think institutional change has reflected to some extent the fact that British historians became less insular. I suppose partly because of the experience of my generation, the 1950s/1960s people, who were very much internationally engaged, certainly with the French, but partly also because of the policy of some governments since the war of encouraging research on their field.
For instance the West German Federal government encouraged English historians to study Germany. And several leading English historians of Germany benefited from this. Certainly the number of people who went in for foreign history has increased.
On the hand I think one must put on the debit side the dramatic decline in the knowledge of foreign languages, in general and in universities. When I first wrote Age of Revolution I automatically put in the list for further reading works in French. I can’t remember whether I did so in the mid-1970s for Capital, but I don’t think so. At a certain stage it became quite clear that it was useless. That the people that you’d expect to read it would no longer be able to read, or even make their way through, literature in a foreign language. You might as well give them a reference to Ancient Greek. So that’s the negative side to it.
Otherwise institutionally the major thing of course is the huge expansion of the universities. Since the mid-1960s but even more later on. It wasn’t that much in the mid-1960s, there were four or five new universities – Warwick, York, Sussex, East Anglia and Essex. Certainly part of the expansion was also the expansion of the old relatively small university colleges (which used to work for the London external degrees) into independent universities, with therefore greater ambitions, greater size and all the rest of it. Exeter, Southampton, Hull – those kind of places.
Within that of course there’s the enormous increase in size, obviously, of historians, to which I think we’ve already made some earlier mention. So that, it is no longer possible to say that a young historian could quickly discover everybody in his own field, or for that matter even who the leading historians were in all the universities.
PO: That’s it, the numbers of fellow professionals have depersonalised-
EH: It may not have been depersonalised within an individual university, it simply means that relations across Britain have changed.
The third institutional change which affects this incidentally is (relatively recently, since Thatcher) the decline or abolition of tenure, and therefore the rise of short-term, tempory and part-time teachers. This does affect it because those people are not necessarily integrated in the same way as the older people were. I must give you an example. When I started at Birkbeck there were altogether I would think five people in the history department, we had to teach the whole lot, such as it was. Well I suppose today we’ve got (I can’t remember the exact figure) fifteen, but including part-timers it’d be 20 or 25 people teaching history altogether.
PO: So a four or five-fold expansion?
EH: I think so. It’s a very general trend, at least in a lot of universities. Of course in some universities they didn’t have any at all, so it is arising anew. On the other hand of course there is pressure on these, because history is not necessarily a priority, and increasingly has become less of a priority in universities in which is not already established, such as a lot of the former polytechnics. That is also an institutional change which I think affects us.
I don’t know to what extent the way in which the departments are run has changed. I suppose it’s become slightly more egalitarian. Heads of departments rotate, you know. But I must say by international standards we have always been easy-going and relatively open, if you compare it with the total control of departments by the senior professor that you found in Germany, in France, in Italy, in wherever.
PO: OK, that’s interesting. So compared to the continent-
EH: Compared to the continent we’ve always been more open. I mean, young research students coming over from the continent and finding themselves talking to the big man! You know!
PO: Would be unheard of over there.
EH: It would, it’s much less formal, and the formality indicated centralised power from above.
EH: The other major institutional change is of course the enormous increase in postgraduate work. Taught postgraduate MAs, and of course with the increase in the size of the profession doctoral candidates, and in some instances post-docs. But I retired so long ago that these developments, which became really acute in the 1990s and 2000s I have not much direct experience of.
PO: But you can definitely see how different the situation was to the 1940s?
EH: Oh yes. Completely different. In the 1940s the number of people in the profession was tiny. There is this guy in the University College London who’s done the history of the Economic History Society, which gives you the increase in members and circulation and stuff like that.
PO: Is that Negley Harte?
EH: Negley Harte. Yes.
There are specific problems in places like London University where the all-university faculty has been broken up into separate faculties, and on the examination side, where the standard old-fashioned examination of three hours of essay questions has been broken up either into modules or into undergraduate dissertations. Which lends itself far more to plagiarism, particularly nowadays.
PO: With the internet as well.
EH: I suppose an additional thing is that increasingly universities rely for their prestige on attracting outside funding. History is somewhat less affected by this than other things, but even in history it would be much better for a university to have a particular history thesis funded by the Wellcome Foundation than the guy just going around and producing a PhD afterwards.
PO: Yes, the funding skews priorities to a certain extent.
EH: The funding is a huge priority, and of course that must affect the profession one way or another.
PO: I also wanted to ask you, very quickly, about something else that you’ve mentioned in interviews with you that I’ve read before, about the relationship between academic history and popular history, and again, how you think that that’s changed?
EH: Well, that’s changed dramatically. History sells, in a big way sometimes. In the past some publishers were interested in general history, some had small series, like the Hutchinson university series and others, for small introductions, but on the whole there was not a great demand for history books by serious scholars for general readers. Except conceivably in special fields like classical antiquity or Egyptian, where people were interested in Tutankhamen or Julius Caesar.
Whereas today every publisher would be willing to have, and many of them actually commission, these important books. You know, a book like this for instance, has just come out. Splendid book.
PO: Hitler’s Empire : Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe (Mark Mazower).
EH: I doubt whether it would have been written but for being commissioned by Penguin, who’ve been very good at it.
PO: So the publishers have been driving this development to a certain extent.
EH: The publishers are making the running. They’re very keen to.
On the other hand, the traditional way of publishing, namely the historical monograph, has found it increasingly difficult. Partly because there’s so many more of them, but partly also because in a sense the potential public is relatively limited.
PO: Of course
EH: I mean, we at Past and Present have had a series since 1980 or thereabouts with the Cambridge University Press (I think we’re shifting it over to the OUP or something like that) of either historical monographs or translations. A lot of these books that have been translated simply would not have been published over here. I mean, who the hell wants to know about, would take the risk of a book on royal rituals in Hungary.
PO: It’s not going to be on the bestseller list.
EH: It’s not going to be. In the past a lot of booksellers, bookshops, and publishers were prepared to take heavy stuff and subsidise it if it added to their prestige. Whereas nowadays they’re not, and in fact the classical, basic PhD or similar monograph is having no end of trouble, as witness all the discussions, particularly in America, about on-line publications, and would that be accepted by the authorities.
In that sense, general history is enormously flourishing. I don’t know if you’ve seen, but look at the list of the Wolfson History prize, which has been going since 1972. Which is in a sense serious history, invariably being judged by serious professional historians, but which has been aimed at readers who are not necessarily professional historians. You’ll see that it is a very respectable, very high class series of things. It’s been mostly first-class works, but first-class works that are written for the general public.
There is of course as I pointed out a tradition of writing for the general public, although at one time there was a tendency, like in economics, to say you can’t do this. You’ve either got to do it in equations or you’ve got to do it in a lingo that nobody understands.
But we’ve always had people going back to Trevelyan.
PO: But whereas they might have been isolated cases before, or less frequent, it’s more prevalent now?
EH: I think it covers a wider range of history and covers a broader public. I mean I suppose Trevelyan was one of the very few people who could be relied on to sell widely or to be distributed widely in this country. And there were a few other people, some of them non-professional historians, who did it, mostly on the biographical side. And this kind of thing existed in most most countries, although generally not practiced by professional historians.
Still, history has flourished enormously and so does the public for it, not to mention radio and television and things like that, although the value of some of the television things is not so clear.
PO: I suppose that brings me onto my final question, which when you talk about history flourishing in this way, I was just wondering if you had any other thoughts on the future of the discipline, or indeed of the profession?
EH: Well, we’re certainly not going to run out of subject matter. So to that extent the future of history as a profession is guaranteed. There was a tendency at one time, and still is I suppose, to downgrade it at the at the secondary school level, and that’s a bad thing I think clearly. Because if it’s not taught to some extent at secondary school very few people are likely to go in for it in the same way.
Which doesn’t mean that the subject is going to die. I mean, subjects like anthropology exist which are never taught at secondary school level, but which are much smaller.
I’m inclined to think that at the moment there is no danger of history falling down the plughole because there are so many new countries trying to make, invent or reinterpret their history, and consequently there’s considerable demand for this.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that history is in good shape. In my view for instance Scots history has been very disappointing. Much worse than Welsh history. Welsh historians have it seems to me been onto interesting and important issues. So have Irish historians. Whereas the Scots have a tendency to fit in with, or create, a Scottish national tradition, and with Scots nationalism growing there’s likely to be more of them. As indeed there may be in English history too. Nationalist stuff. That I don’t think is a good idea, since the whole function of history is precisely to be a pain in the arse for national myths.
PO: Yes. Not to buttress it.