అర్థశతాబ్దిగా కమ్యూనిస్టు స్రవంతులను ప్రభావితం చేసినవాడు ఎరిక్ హాబ్స్వామ్. ప్రపంచవ్యాప్తంగా జరిగిన- జరుగుతున్న పరిణామాలను మార్క్సిస్టు దృక్పథం నుంచి విశ్లేషించడమే కాకుండా తనదైన ఆలోచనలను జోడించే ప్రయత్నం చేసినవాడు. మార్క్సిజం దేశకాల పరిస్థితులకు సృజనాత్మకంగా అన్వయించుకోవాల్సిన అవసరమున్న శాస్ర్తమని నమ్మినవాడు. అందుకు కొన్ని ఉపకరణాలు అందించే ప్రయత్నం చేసినవాడు. అవి ఇంకా ఒక సంపూర్ణరూపం తీసుకోకపోయినప్పటికీ మార్క్సిజానికి సంబంధించి మార్క్సిస్టులు కోరుకునే మార్పుకు సంబంధించి ప్రపంచవ్యాప్తంగా సాగుతున్న అన్వేషణకు ఉపయోగపడే కొన్ని ఆలోచనలైతే ఆయన అందించాడు. ఆయన ఆలోచనలతో ఏకీభవించొచ్చు. విభేదించొచ్చు. కానీ విస్మరించలేం. అక్టోబర్ ఒకటిన మరణించిన ఆ మార్క్సిస్టు మేధావికి నివాళి.
భావం గురించిన అంచనాలున్నాయి. అందరూ ఒకటే అన్న భావన అంతర్గతంగానే మతంలో ఉండడం వల్ల ఇస్లాంను అవలంబించే వారు సమానత్వం కోసం వేరే దిక్కులు చూడాల్సిన అవసరం ఉండదనే అత్యంత సంక్లిష్టమైన వివాదాస్పదమైన భావనలున్నాయి. భారత్లో నెహ్రూ సెక్యులరజం ప్రభావానికి సంబంధించి చర్చనీయాంశమైన వ్యాఖ్యలున్నాయి. బెంగాల్లో వామపక్షాల ఓటమికి సంబంధించి నాబోటివారు ఏ కోశానా అంగీకరించలేని అభిప్రాయాలున్నాయి. ఆసక్తిగలవారు చదవొచ్చు.
Age of Extremes ends in 1991 with a panorama of global landslide—the collapse of Golden Age hopes for world social improvement. What do you see as
the major developments in world history since then?
Isee five main changes. First, the shift of the economic centre of
the world from the North Atlantic to South and East Asia. This was
beginning in Japan in the seventies and eighties, but the rise of
China from the nineties has made a real difference. Secondly, of
course, the worldwide crisis of capitalism, which we had been predicting,
but which nevertheless took a long time to occur. Third, the clamorous
failure of the us attempt at a solo world hegemony after 2001—and it has
very visibly failed. Fourth, the emergence of the new bloc of developing
countries as a political entity—the brics—had not taken place when I
wrote Age of Extremes. And fifth, the erosion and systematic weakening
of the authority of states: of national states within their territories, and in
large parts of the world, of any kind of effective state authority. It might
have been predictable, but it has accelerated to an extent that I would
not have expected.
What else has surprised you since then?
I never cease to be surprised at the sheer lunacy of the neocon project,
which not merely pretended that America was the future, but even
thought it had formulated a strategy and tactics for achieving this end.
As far as I can see, in rational terms, they didn’t have a coherent strategy.
Second—much smaller, but significant—the revival of piracy, which we
had largely forgotten about; that is new. And the third, which is even
more local: the collapse of the cp1(m) in West Bengal, which I really
wouldn’t have expected. Prakash Karat, the cpi(m) general secretary,
recently told me that in West Bengal, they felt themselves beleaguered
and besieged. They look forward to doing very badly against this new
Congress in the local elections. This after governing as a national party,
as it were, for thirty years. The industrialization policy, taking land away
from the peasants, had a very bad effect, and was clearly a mistake. I
can see that, like all such surviving left-wing governments, they had to
accommodate economic development, including private development,
and so it seemed natural for them to develop a strong industrial base.
But it does seem slightly surprising that it should have led to such a
Can you envisage any political recomposition of what was once the
Not in traditional form. Marx was undoubtedly right in predicting the
formation of major class parties at a certain stage of industrialization.
But these parties, if they were successful, were operating not purely as
working-class parties: if they wanted to extend beyond a narrow class, they
did so as people’s parties, structured around an organization invented by
and for the purposes of the working class. Even so, there were limits to
class consciousness. In Britain, the Labour Party never got beyond 50
per cent of the vote. The same is true in Italy, where the pci was much
more of a people’s party. In France, the left was based on a relatively
weak working class, but one which happened to be politically reinforced
by the great revolutionary tradition, of which it managed to make itself
the essential successor—and that gave it and the left far more leverage.
The decline of the manual working class in industry does seem terminal.
There are, or will be, plenty of people left doing manual work, and defence
of their conditions remains a major task for all left governments. But it
can no longer be the principal foundation of their hopes: they no longer
have, even in theory, political potential, because they lack the potential
for organization of the old working class. There have been three other
major negative developments. One is, of course, xenophobia—which,
for most of the working class is, as Bebel once put it, ‘the socialism of
fools’: safeguard my job against people who are competing with me. The
weaker the labour movement is, the more xenophobia appeals. Second,
a lot of manual labour and work in what the British Civil Service used to
call ‘minor and manipulative grades’ is not permanent, it’s temporary:
students or migrants, working in catering, for instance. And therefore
it’s not easy to see it as potentially organizable. The only readily organizable form of that kind of labour is that employed by public authorities,
and this is because those authorities are politically vulnerable.
The third and most important development, in my view, is the growing
divide produced by a new class criterion—namely, passing examinations
in schools and universities as an entry ticket into jobs. This is, if you
like, meritocracy; but it is measured, institutionalized and mediated by
educational systems. What this has done is to divert class consciousness from opposition to employers to opposition to toffs of one kind or
another—intellectuals, liberal elites, people who are putting it over on
us. America is a standard example of this, but it’s not absent in the uk,
if you look at the British press. The fact that, increasingly, getting a PhD
or at least being a postgraduate also gives you a better chance of getting
millions complicates the situation a bit.
Can there be new agencies? It can no longer be in terms of a single class,
but then in my view it never could be. There is a progressive politics of
coalitions, even such relatively permanent coalitions as that between,
say, the educated, Guardian-reading middle class and the intellectuals—
the highly educated, who on the whole tend to be more on the left than
the others—and the mass of the poor and the ignorant. Both groups
are essential to such a movement, but they are perhaps harder to unify
than before. In a sense, it is possible for the poor to identify with multimillionaires, as in the United States, saying, ‘If only I was lucky, I could
become a pop star’. But you can’t say, ‘If only I was lucky, I’d become a
Nobel Prize winner’. This is a real problem in coordinating the politics
of people who objectively might be on the same side.
How would you compare the contemporary crisis to the Great Depression?
Nineteen twenty-nine didn’t start with the banks—they didn’t collapse
until two years later. Rather, the stock exchange set off a production
slump, with far higher unemployment and a greater actual decline in
production than there have ever been since. The current depression had
more preparation than that of 1929, which came almost out of the blue. It
should have been apparent from quite early on that neoliberal fundamentalism produced an enormous instability in the operations of capitalism.
Until 2008 it seemed to affect only the marginal areas—Latin America
in the nineties and earlier 2000s; Southeast Asia; Russia. In the major
countries, all it meant was occasional stock-exchange collapses, which
were then recuperated quite quickly. It seemed to me that the real sign of
something bad happening should have been the collapse of Long-Term
Capital Management in 1998, which proved how wrong the whole growth
model was; but it wasn’t seen as such. Paradoxically, it did get a number of
businessmen and journalists to rediscover Karl Marx, as somebody who
wrote something of interest about a modern, globalized economy; it had
absolutely nothing to do with the former left.
The world economy in 1929 was less global than at present. This, of
course, had some effect—for instance, it would have been a great deal
easier for people who lost their jobs to go back to their villages than
it is today. In 1929, in much of the world outside Europe and North
America, the global parts of the economy were really patches that left
what surrounded them largely unchanged. The existence of the ussr
had no practical effect on the Depression, but it had an enormous ideological effect—there was an alternative. Since the 1990s, we have seen
the rise of China and the emerging economies, which actually has had
a practical effect in the current depression, because they have helped to
keep the world economy on a far more even keel that it would have been
otherwise. In fact, even in the days when neoliberalism claimed that it
was flourishing, the actual growth was very largely occurring in these
newly developing economies—particularly in China. I’m sure that if
China had not been there, the 2008 slump would have been much more
serious. So, for those reasons, I think we are likely to emerge from it
more quickly; though certain countries—notably Britain—will continue
to be fairly depressed for quite some time.
What about the political consequences?
The 1929 Depression led overwhelmingly to a shift to the right, with the
major exception of North America, including Mexico, and Scandinavia.
In France, the Popular Front in 1936 had only 0.5 per cent more votes
than they had had in 1932, so their victory marked a shift in the composition of political alliances rather than anything more profound. In Spain,
despite the quasi- or potentially revolutionary situation, the immediate
effect was also a move to the right, and indeed also the long-term effect.
In most of the other states, particularly in central and eastern Europe,
politics moved very sharply to the right. The effect of the current crisis
is not so clear-cut. One would suspect that the major political changes or
shifts in policy would come not in the United States or in the West, but
almost certainly in China. But one can only speculate about what they’re
likely to be.
Do you see China continuing to resist the downturn?
There’s no particular reason to think that it will suddenly stop growing. The Chinese government has had a bad shock with the depression,
because it brought an awful lot of industries to a stop, temporarily. But
the country is still in the early stages of economic development, and there
is enormous room for expansion. I don’t want to speculate about the
future, but one would imagine China in twenty or thirty years’ time to be
relatively more important than it is today, on the world scale—at least economically and politically; not necessarily in military terms. Of course, it
has enormous problems—there are always people who ask if the country
can hold together. But I think both the real and the ideological reasons for
people wishing for China to be united continue to be very strong.
How would you assess the Obama administration, one year on?
People were so pleased at a man like that being elected, and in a situation
of crisis, that they thought he was bound to be a great reformer, to do
what Roosevelt did. But he didn’t. He started badly. If you compare the
first hundred days of Roosevelt with the first hundred days of Obama,
what leaps out is Roosevelt’s readiness to take on unofficial advisers, to
try something new, compared to Obama’s insistence on staying right
in the centre. I think he’s blown his chance. His real opportunity was
in the first three months, when the other side was totally demoralized, and before it was able to remobilize in Congress—and he didn’t
do it. One might wish him well, but I think the prospects don’t look
Looking at the hottest theatre of international conflict in the world at present,
do you think a two-state solution, as currently envisaged, is a credible prospect
Personally, I doubt whether it’s on at the moment. Whatever the solution is, nothing is going to happen until the Americans decide to change their mind totally, and put pressure on the Israelis. And it doesn’t look as
though this is happening.
Are there any parts of the world in which you think positive, progressive
projects are still alive, or likely to revive?
Certainly in Latin America, politics and general public discourse are still
conducted in the old Enlightenment—liberal, socialist, communist—
terms. Those are the places where you find militarists who talk like
socialists—who are socialists. You find a phenomenon like Lula, based
on a working-class movement, and Morales. Where it’s going to lead
is another matter, but the old language can still be spoken, and the old
modes of politics are still available. I’m not absolutely sure about Central
America, although there are indications of a slight revival of the tradition of the Revolution in Mexico itself; not that this will go very far, since
Mexico has been virtually integrated into the American economy. I think
Latin America benefited from the absence of ethnic-linguistic nationalism, and of religious divisions; that made it a lot easier to maintain the
old discourse. It always struck me that, until quite recently, there were
no signs of ethnic politics. It has appeared among indigenous movements in Mexico and Peru, but not on the scale of anything that there
was in Europe, Asia or Africa.
It’s possible that in India, because of the institutional strength of the
Nehru secular tradition, progressive projects could revive. But this doesn’t
seem to reach very far into the masses, except for some areas where the
Communists have, or had, mass support, such as Bengal and Kerala, and
possibly some groups like the Naxalites or the Maoists in Nepal. Beyond
that, the heritage of the old labour, socialist and communist movements
in Europe remains quite strong. The parties founded under Engels are
still, almost everywhere in Europe, potential parties of government or
the chief parties of opposition. I suspect that at some stage the heritage
of communism, for example in the Balkans and even in parts of Russia,
may come out in ways we can’t predict. What will happen in China, I
don’t know. But there can be no question that they are thinking in different terms, and not in modified Maoist or Marxist terms.
You’ve always been critical of nationalism as a political force, warning the left
against painting it red. But you’ve also come out strongly against violations of
national sovereignty in the name of humanitarian interventions. What kinds
of internationalism, after the demise of those born of the labour movement, are
desirable and feasible today?
First of all, humanitarianism, the imperialism of human rights, doesn’t
have anything much to do with internationalism. It’s an indication either
of a revived imperialism, which finds a suitable excuse for violations of
state sovereignty—they may be perfectly sincere excuses—or else it is,
more dangerously, a reassertion of belief in the permanent superiority
of the area which dominated the globe from the sixteenth until the late
twentieth century. After all, the values which the West seeks to impose are
specifically regional values, not necessarily universal ones. If they were
universal values they would have to be reformulated in different terms. I
don’t think we’re dealing here with something that is in itself national or
international. Nationalism does enter into it, however, because the international order based on nation-states—the Westphalian system—has in
the past been, for good or ill, one of the best safeguards against outsiders
coming into countries. There’s no question that once that is abolished,
the road is open for aggressive and expansionist warfare—indeed, that’s
why the United States has denounced the Westphalian order.
Internationalism, which is the alternative to nationalism, is a tricky
business. It’s either a politically empty slogan, as it was, for practical purposes, in the international labour movement—it didn’t mean anything
specific—or it’s a way of ensuring uniformity for powerful, centralized
organizations like the Roman Catholic Church, or the Comintern.
Internationalism meant that, as a Catholic, you believed in the same
dogmas and took part in the same practices, no matter who you were
and where you were; the same thing was theoretically the case with
Communist parties. To what extent this really happened, and at what
stage it ceased to happen—even in the Catholic Church—is another
matter. This is not really what we meant by ‘internationalism’.
The nation-state was and remains the framework for all political decisions, domestic or foreign. Until quite recently, the activities of labour
movements—in fact, all political activities—were almost entirely conducted within the framework of a state. Even within the eu, politics is still
framed in national terms. In other words, there is no super-national power
to act—only separate states in coalition. It is possible that missionary fundamentalist Islam is an exception here, which spreads across states, but
this hasn’t actually yet been demonstrated. Earlier attempts at pan-Arab
super-states, as between Egypt and Syria, broke down precisely due to
the persistence of the existing state—formerly colonial—frontiers.
Do you therefore see inherent obstacles to any attempts to exceed the boundaries of the nation-state?
Economically and in most other respects—even to some extent
culturally—the revolution of communications has created a genuinely
international world, in which there are powers of decision that go transnational, activities that are transnational, and of course movements of
ideas, communications and people that are far more easily transnational
than they ever were before. Even linguistic cultures are supplemented
now by international communications idioms. But in politics there
has been no sign of this happening at all; and that’s the basic contradiction at the moment. One of the reasons why it hasn’t occurred is
that, in the twentieth century, politics was democratized to a very great
extent—the mass of the ordinary people were involved in it. For them,
the state is essential to normal daily operations and to their life possibilities. Attempts to break up the state internally, by decentralization,
have been undertaken, mostly in the past thirty or forty years, and some
of them not unsuccessfully—certainly in Germany decentralization
has been successful in some respects, and in Italy, regionalization has
actually been beneficial. But the attempt to set up supra-national states
hasn’t worked. The eu is the obvious example. It was to some extent
handicapped by its founders thinking precisely in terms of a super-state
analogous to a national state, only bigger—whereas that wasn’t, I think,
a possibility, and certainly isn’t now. The eu is a specific reaction within
Europe. There were signs, at one time or another, of a super-national
state in the Middle East and elsewhere, but the eu is the only one that
seems to have got anywhere. I don’t believe, for instance, that there’s
much chance of a greater federation arising in South America. I would
bet against it, myself.
The unsolved problem, then, remains this contradiction: on the one
hand, there are transnational entities and practices, which are in the
process of hollowing out the state, perhaps to the point at which it collapses. But if this happens—which isn’t an immediate prospect, not in
developed states—who, then, will undertake the redistributive and other
functions, which so far only the state has undertaken? At the moment,
you have a sort of symbiosis and conflict. This is one of the basic problems of any kind of popular politics today.
Nationalism was clearly one of the great driving political forces in the nineteenth and throughout most of the twentieth century. What’s your reading of
the situation today?
There’s no question that historically, nationalism was, to a great extent,
part of the process of the formation of modern states, which required a
different form of legitimation from the traditional theocratic or dynastic
state. The original idea of nationalism was the creation of larger states,
and it seems to me that this unifying and expanding function was very
important. Typical was the French Revolution, where in 1790 people
appeared saying, ‘We’re no longer Dauphinois, or Southerners, we are
all Frenchmen’. At a later stage, from the 1870s on, you get movements
of groups within these states pushing for their own independent states.
This, of course, produced the Wilsonian moment of self-determination—
although fortunately, in 1918–19, it was still corrected to a certain extent
by something which has since completely disappeared, namely, the
protection of minorities. It was recognized, if not by the nationalists
themselves, that none of these new nation-states were in fact ethnically
or linguistically homogeneous. But after the Second World War, the
weaknesses of the existing arrangements were addressed, not just by
the Reds but by everybody, with the deliberate, forcible creation of ethnic homogeneity. This brought an enormous amount of suffering and cruelty, and in the long run, it didn’t work either. Nevertheless, up to that
period the separatist type of nationalism operated reasonably well. It was
reinforced after the Second World War by decolonization, which by its
nature created more states; and it was bolstered still further at the end of
the century by the collapse of the Soviet empire, which also created new
mini-separate states, including many, as in the colonies, which actually
hadn’t wanted to secede, and which had independence imposed on them
by the force of history.
I can’t help feeling that the function of small, separatist states, which have
multiplied tremendously since 1945, has changed. For one thing, they are
recognized as existing. Before the Second World War, the mini-states,
like Andorra and Luxembourg and all the rest, weren’t even reckoned
as part of the international system, except by stamp collectors. The idea
that everything down to the Vatican City is now a state, and potentially a
member of the United Nations, is new. It’s also quite clear that, in terms
of power, these states are not capable of playing the part of traditional
states—they do not possess the capacity to make war against other states.
They’ve become at best fiscal paradises, or useful sub-bases for transnational deciders. Iceland is a good example; Scotland is not far behind.
The historic function of creating a nation as a nation-state is no longer
the basis of nationalism. It’s no longer, as it were, a very convincing slogan. It may once have been effective as a means of creating communitiesand organizing them against other political or economic units. But today,
the xenophobic element in nationalism is increasingly important. The
more politics was democratized, the more potential there was for it. The
causes of xenophobia are now much greater than they were before. This
is cultural rather than political—look at the rise of English or Scottish
nationalism in recent years—but not the less dangerous for that.
Did fascism not include such forms of xenophobia?
Fascism was still, to some extent, part of the drive to create large nations.
There’s no question that Italian fascism was a great step forward in
turning Calabrians and Umbrians into Italians; and even in Germany
it wasn’t until 1934 that Germans could be defined as Germans, and
not German because they were Swabian, or Frank, or Saxon. Certainly,
German and central and east European fascisms were passionately
against outsiders—largely, but not only, Jews. And of course, fascism
provided less of a guarantee against xenophobic instincts. One of the
enormous advantages of the old labour movements used to be that they
did provide such a guarantee. This was very clear in South Africa: but for
the commitment of traditional left-wing organizations to equality and
non-discrimination, the temptation to exact revenge on the Afrikaners
would have been much harder to resist.
You’ve emphasized the separatist and xenophobic dynamics of nationalism.
Would you see this as something that now operates at the margins of world
politics, rather than in the main theatre of events?
Yes, I think this is probably true—although there are areas in which
it has done an enormous amount of harm, such as south-east Europe.
Of course, it is still the case that nationalism—or patriotism, or identification with a specified people, not necessarily ethnically defined—is an enormous asset for giving legitimacy to governments. It is clearly
the case in China. One of the problems in India is that they don’t have
anything quite like that. The United States obviously can’t be based on
ethnic unity, but it certainly has strong nationalist sentiments. In quite a
lot of the well-functioning states, those sentiments remain. This is why
mass immigration creates more problems today than it did in the past.
How do you foresee the social dynamics of contemporary immigration working out, now that as many newcomers arrive every year in the eu as in the
us? Would you foresee the gradual emergence of another melting pot, not dissimilar to the American, in Europe?
But in the us, the melting pot stopped melting as of the 1960s. Moreover,
at the end of the twentieth century, migration had become really quite
different from that in earlier periods, largely because, by emigrating, one
no longer breaks links with the past to the same extent as before. You
can continue living in two, possibly even three, worlds at the same time,
and identify with two or three different places. You can go on being a
Guatemalan while you’re in the United States. There are also situations
as in the eu where, de facto, immigration does not create the possibility
of assimilation. A Pole who comes to the uk isn’t supposed to be anything except a Pole who comes to work.
This is clearly new, and quite different from the experience of, say, people
of my generation—that of political émigrés, not that I was one of them—
in which one’s family was British, but culturally one never stopped being
Austrian or German; yet nevertheless, one really believed that one ought
to be English. Even when they went back afterwards to their own countries, it wasn’t quite the same—the centre of gravity had shifted. There
are always exceptions: the poet Erich Fried, who lived in Willesden for
fifty years, in fact went on living in Germany. I do believe it is essential
to maintain the basic rules of assimilation—that citizens of a particular country should behave in a certain way and have certain rights, and
that these should define them, and that this should not be weakened by
multicultural arguments. France had, in spite of everything, integrated
about as many of its foreign immigrants as America, relatively speaking, and still the relationship between locals and former immigrants is
almost certainly better there. This is because the values of the French
Republic remain essentially egalitarian, and make no real concession
in public. Whatever you do privately—it was also the case in America in
the nineteenth century—publicly this is a country that speaks French.
The real difficulty is going to be not so much with the immigrants as
with locals. It’s in places like Italy and Scandinavia, which previously
had no xenophobic traditions, where this new immigration has created
Today, the view is widespread that religion—whether in evangelical, Catholic,
Sunni, Shia, neo-Hindu, Buddhist, or other forms—has returned as an
immensely powerful force in one continent after another. Do you regard
this as a fundamental phenomenon, or a more passing one, of surfaces
rather than depths?
It’s clear that religion—as the ritualization of life, the belief in spirits or
non-material entities influencing life, and not least, as a common bond
of communities—is so widespread throughout history that it would be
a mistake to regard it as a superficial phenomenon, or one destined to
disappear, at least among the poor and the weak, who probably have
more need of its consolations, as well as of its potential explanations of
why things are the way they are. There are systems of rule, such as the
Chinese, which for practical purposes lack anything corresponding to
what we would regard as religion. They demonstrate that it is possible, but
I think one of the errors of the traditional socialist and communist movement was to go for violent extirpation of religion at times when it might
well have been better not to do so. One of the major interesting changes
after Mussolini fell in Italy came when Togliatti no longer discriminated
against practising Catholics—and quite rightly. He wouldn’t otherwise
have had 14 per cent of housewives voting Communist in the 1940s.
This changed the character of the Italian Communist Party from being a
Leninist vanguard party to a mass class party or people’s party.
On the other hand, it’s true that religion has ceased to be the universal
language of public discourse; and to this extent, secularization has been
a global phenomenon, even though it has only undercut organized religion severely in some parts of the world. In Europe, it’s still doing so;
why this hasn’t occurred in the United States isn’t so clear, but there’s no
question that secularization has taken hold to a large degree among intellectuals and others who don’t need religion. For people who continue
to be religious, the fact that there are now two languages of discourse
produces a sort of schizophrenia, which you can see quite often, say, in
fundamentalist Jews in the West Bank—they believe in what is patently
baloney, but work as experts in it. The present Islamist movement is
largely composed of young technologists and technicians of this kind.
Religious practices no doubt will change very substantially. Whether that
actually produces a further secularization isn’t clear. For instance, I don’t
know how far the major change in the Catholic religion in the West—
namely, the refusal of women to abide by the sexual rules—has actually
made Catholic women believers to a lesser extent.
The decline of the Enlightenment ideologies, of course, has left far more
political scope for religious politics and religious versions of nationalism. But I don’t think there has been a major rise in all religions. Many
are clearly on the way down. Roman Catholicism is fighting very hard,
even in Latin America, against the rise of evangelical Protestant sects,
and I’m sure it’s only maintaining itself in Africa by concessions to local
habits and customs which I doubt would have been made in the nineteenth century. Evangelical Protestant sects are rising, but to what extent
they are more than a small minority of the upwardly mobile—as nonconformists used to be in England—is not clear. It’s also not apparent that
Jewish fundamentalism, which does such harm in Israel, is a mass phenomenon. The one exception to this trend is Islam, which has continued
to expand without any effective missionary activity over the past few centuries. Within Islam, it’s unclear whether tendencies such as the present
militant movement for restoring the caliphate represent more than an
activist minority. Islam, however, does seem to me to have great assets
for continuing to expand—largely because it gives poor people the sense
that they’re as good as anybody else and that all Muslims are equal.
Couldn’t the same be said of Christianity?
But a Christian doesn’t believe that he’s as good as any other Christian. I
doubt whether Christian blacks believe that they’re as good as Christian
colonizers, whereas Muslim blacks do. The structure of Islam is more
egalitarian and the militant element is rather stronger there. I remember reading that slave-traders in Brazil stopped importing Muslim slaves
because they kept rebelling. From where we stand, there are considerable dangers in this appeal—to some extent Islam makes the poor less
receptive to other appeals for equality. Progressives in the Muslim world
knew from the start that there was no way of shifting the masses away
from Islam; even in Turkey they had to come to some kind of modus
vivendi—probably the only place where this was successfully done.
Elsewhere the rise of religion as an element in politics, in nationalist
politics, has been extremely dangerous. In places like India, it has been
a very strong middle-class phenomenon, and all the more alarming
because linked with militant and quasi-fascist elites and organizations
such as the rss, and therefore more easily mobilized as an anti-Muslim
movement. Fortunately, the upper-class secularization of Indian politics
has so far blocked its advance. Not that India’s elite is anti-religious; but
the basic idea of Nehru was a secular state in which religion is obviously
omnipresent—nobody in India could suppose otherwise, or would necessarily want it to be otherwise—but it is limited by the supremacy of the
values of the secular civil society.
Science formed a central part of the culture of the left before the Second World
War, but over the next two generations it virtually disappeared as a leading
element in Marxist or socialist thinking. Do you think that the growing salience of environmental issues is likely to rejoin science and radical politics?
I’m sure radical movements will be interested in science. The environment and other concerns produce sound reasons for countering the
flight from science, and from the rational approach to problems, which
became fairly widespread from the 70s and 80s. But with regard to the
scientists themselves, I don’t believe it will happen. Unlike social scientists, there is nothing which edges natural scientists towards politics.
Historically speaking, they have in most cases either been non-political
or had the standard politics of their class. There are exceptions—say,
among the young in early nineteenth-century France, and very notably
in the 1930s and 1940s. But these are special cases, due to the recognition by scientists themselves that their work was becoming increasingly
essential to society, but that society didn’t realize it. The crucial work on
this is Bernal’s The Social Function of Science, which had an enormous
effect on other scientists. Of course, Hitler’s deliberate attack on everything that science stood for helped.
In the twentieth century, the physical sciences were the centre of development, whereas in the twenty-first century it’s clearly the biological
sciences which are. Because these are closer to human life, there may be a
greater element of politicization. But there is certainly one counter-factor:
increasingly, scientists have been integrated into the system of capitalism, both as individuals and within scientific organizations. Forty years
ago it would have been unthinkable for somebody to speak of patenting a
gene. Today one patents a gene in hopes of becoming a millionaire, and
that has removed quite a large body of scientists from left politics. The
one thing which may still politicize them is the struggle against dictatorial or authoritarian governments which interfere with their work. One
of the most interesting phenomena in the Soviet Union was that Soviet
scientists were forced to become politicized, because they were given
the privilege of a certain degree of citizen rights and freedoms—so that
people who otherwise had been nothing except loyal manufacturers of
H-bombs became dissident leaders. It is not impossible for this to occur
in other countries, though there aren’t very many at the moment. Of
course, the environment is an issue which may keep a number of scientists mobilized. If there is a massive development of campaigns around
climate change, then clearly the experts will find themselves engaged,
largely against know-nothings and reactionaries. So all is not lost.
Turning to historiographical questions: what originally drew you to the subject-
matter of archaic forms of social movement in Primitive Rebels, and how far
did you plan for it in advance?
It developed out of two things. Travelling around Italy in the 1950s, I
kept discovering these aberrant phenomena—Party branches in the
South electing Jehovah’s Witnesses as Party secretaries, and so on; people who were thinking about modern problems, but not in the terms that
we were used to. Second, particularly after 1956, it expressed a general
dissatisfaction with the simplified version we had of the development
of working-class popular movements. In Primitive Rebels, I was very far
from critical of the standard reading—on the contrary, I pointed out that
these other movements would not get anywhere unless they sooner or
later adopted the modern vocabulary and institutions. But, nonetheless,
it became clear to me that it wasn’t enough simply to neglect these other
phenomena, to say that we know how all these things operate. I produced
a series of illustrations, case studies, of this kind, and said, ‘these don’t
fit’. It led me to think that, even before the invention of modern political
vocabulary, methods and institutions, there were ways in which people
practised politics that encompassed basic ideas about social relations—
not least between the powerful and the weak, rulers and ruled—which
had a certain logic and fitted together. But I didn’t really have a chance
to follow this up any further, although later, reading Barrington Moore’s
Injustice, I found a clue as to how one might be able to get at it. It was
the beginning of something that was never really carried on, and I rather
regret it. I’m still hoping to try and do something about it.
In Interesting Times, you expressed considerable reservations about what
were then recent historical fashions. Do you think the historiographic scene
remains relatively unchanged?
I’m increasingly impressed by the scale of the intellectual shift in history
and the social sciences from the 70s on. My generation of historians, who
on the whole transformed the teaching of history as well as a good deal
else, were essentially trying to establish a permanent liaison, a mutual
fertilization, between history and the social sciences; an effort that dated
back to the 1890s. Economics went down a different road. We took it for
granted that we were talking about something real: objective realities;
even though, ever since Marx and the sociology of knowledge, we knew
that one didn’t simply record the truth as it was. But what was really
interesting were social transformations. The Depression was instrumental in this, because it reintroduced the part played by great crises in
historical transformations—the fourteenth-century crisis, the transition
to capitalism. It wasn’t actually Marxists who introduced this—it was
Wilhelm Abel, in Germany, who first reread the developments of the
Middle Ages in light of the Great Depression of the 1930s. We were a
problem-solving lot, concerned with the big questions. There were other
things we downgraded: we were so against traditionalist, top people’s
history, or for that matter history of ideas, that we rejected all that. It was
not a particularly Marxist position—this was a general approach adopted
by Weberians in Germany; by people in France who had no Marxist background, who came from the Annales school; and, in their own way, by
American social scientists. At some stage in the 70s, there was a sharp change. Past & Present published an exchange between myself and Lawrence Stone in 1979–80
on the ‘revival of narrative’—‘what’s happening to the great why questions?’ Since then, the big, transformative questions have generally been
forgotten by historians. At the same time, there was a huge expansion
of the range of history—you could now write on anything you wanted:
objects, sentiments, practices. Some of this was interesting, but there
was also an enormous increase in what you might call fanzine history,
which groups write in order to feel better about themselves. The intention was trivial; the results were not always trivial. Just the other day
I noticed a new labour history journal which has an article on blacks
in Wales in the eighteenth century. Whatever the importance of this to
blacks in Wales, it is not in itself a particularly central subject. The most
dangerous instance of this, of course, is the rise of national mythology,
a by-product of the multiplication of new states, which had to create
their own national histories. A large element in all this is people saying,
we’re not interested in what happened, but in what makes us feel good.
The classical example is that of the Native Americans who refused to
believe that their ancestors had migrated from Asia, and said, ‘We’ve
always been here’.
A good deal of this shift was in some sense political. The historians who
came out of 68 were no longer interested in the big questions—they
thought they’d all been answered. They were much more interested in
the voluntary or personal aspects. History Workshop was a late development of this kind. I don’t think the new types of history have produced
any dramatic changes. In France, for instance, history post-Braudel is not
a patch on the generation of the 1950s and 1960s. There may be the occasional very good work, but it’s not the same. And I’m inclined to think
the same is true of Britain. There was an element of anti-rationalism and
relativism in this reaction of the 1970s, which on the whole I found was
hostile to history.
On the other hand, there have been some positive developments. The
most positive one was cultural history, which unquestionably we had
all neglected. We didn’t pay enough attention to history as it actually
presents itself to the actors. We had assumed that you could generalize
about actors; but if you go back to saying that men make their history,
how do they make it, in their practices, in their lives? Eric Wolf’s book,
Europe and the People without History, is an example of a good change
in this regard. There has also been an enormous rise in global history. Among non-historians, there has been a great deal of interest in
general history—namely, how the human race started. Thanks to dna
research, we now know a good deal about the settlement of humans
across the globe. In other words, we have a genuine basis for a world
history. Among historians, there has been a break with the Eurocentric
or Occidentalocentric tradition. Another positive development, largely
from the Americans and partly also the postcolonial historians, has
been the reopening of the question of the specificity of European or
Atlantic civilization, and of the rise of capitalism—Pomeranz’s The Great
Divergence and so on. That seems to me very positive, even though there
is no denying that modern capitalism arose in parts of Europe, and not
in India or China.
If you were to pick still unexplored topics or fields presenting major challenges
for future historians, what would they be?
The big problem is a very general one. By palaeontological standards
the human species has transformed its existence at astonishing speed,
but the rate of change has varied enormously. Sometimes it has moved
very slowly, sometimes very fast, sometimes controlled, sometimes not.
Clearly this implies a growing control over nature, but we should not
claim to know whither this is leading us. Marxists have rightly focused
on changes in the mode of production and their social relations as
the generators of historical change. However, if we think in terms of
how ‘men make their own history’, the great question is this: historically, communities and social systems have aimed at stabilization and
reproduction, creating mechanisms to keep at bay disturbing leaps into
the unknown. Resistance to the imposition of change from outside is
still a major factor in world politics today. How is it, then, that humans
and societies structured to resist dynamic development come to terms
with a mode of production whose essence is endless and unpredictable
dynamic development? Marxist historians might profitably investigate
the operations of this basic contradiction between the mechanisms
bringing about change and those geared to resist it.