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Hobsbawm and the History of Emotion August 12, 2009

Posted by Garibaldy in History.

I’ve been thinking about doing a post on this review by Eric Hobsbawm of Richard Overy’s new book The Morbid Age: Britain between the Wars for a few days, and have been spurred into action by the discussion of his and other historians’ works on the G A Cohen thread. Overy’s book is an examination of the fear in British intellectual life that the end of civilization was nigh. As Hobsbawm puts it, it is part of a trend towards cultural history that is shifting the way in which historians write about the past.

There is a major difference between the traditional scholar’s questions about the past – ‘What happened in history, when and why?’ – and the question that has, in the last 40 years or so, come to inspire a growing body of historical research: namely, ‘How do or did people feel about it?’ The first oral history societies were founded in the late 1960s. Since then the number of institutions and works devoted to ‘heritage’ and historical memory – notably about the great 20th-century wars – has grown explosively. Studies of historical memory are essentially not about the past, but about the retrospect to it of some subsequent present. Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age demonstrates another, and less indirect, approach to the emotional texture of the past: the difficult excavation of contemporary popular reactions to what was happening in and around people’s lives – one might call it the mood music of history.

Hobsbawm, whose On History saw him tackle a range of challenges faced by historians by fields such as cliometrics, points to the problems the attempt to write the history of emotion poses.

What does it mean to describe an emotion as characteristic of a country or era; what is the significance of a socially widespread emotion, even one plainly related to dramatic historical events? How and how far do we measure its prevalence? … Emotions in history are neither chronologically stable nor socially homogeneous, even in the moments when they are universally felt, as in London under the German air-raids, and their intellectual representations even less so. How can they be compared or contrasted? In short, what are historians to make of the new field?

He is asking then, whether the sources used by historians of emotion can be taken as representative of the public as a whole. If they can’t, if they can be proven to reflect only the attitudes of individuals or small groups, then the whole enterprise must be viewed with some scepticism. This is the key issue in Hobsbawm’s eyes. The pioneering work in the history of the emotion of fear, Jean Delumeau’s La Peur en Occident covered the 14th to the 18th centuries, and Hobsbawm argues that the fact that the Catholic clergy of this period had both intellectual and practical authority means that their material can be taken as representative. He is more sceptical, however, of the idea that the fearful intellectuals of interwar Britain can be taken as representative of the population as a whole due to their lack of practical authority.

Unless clearly backed by an important publishing house or journal, as with Victor Gollancz or Kingsley Martin’s New Statesman, or an actual mass organisation like Lord Robert Cecil’s League of Nations Union or Canon Sheppard’s pacifist Peace Pledge Union, they had the word, but little else. As in the 19th century they had a good chance of being talked about and influencing politics and administration within the enclosure of the established elite, if they belonged to it by origin or had been recognised by it, especially if they belonged to the networks of Noel Annan’s ‘intellectual aristocracy’, as several of the announcers of doom did. But how far did their ideas shape the ‘public opinion’ which lay outside the range of the writers and readers of letters to the Times and the New Statesman?
There is little evidence in the culture and way of life of the interwar working and lower middle classes, which this book does not investigate, that it did.

Hobsbawm believes the book was the most effective form of intellectual diffusion, but he reckons the likely potential audience of the educated and the politically-conscious was two and a half out of thirty million. In other words, a small proportion. And when added to the fact that 50,000 sales would be a bestseller, then we can see the reasons for his scepticism. However, Hobsbawm does deal, albeit briefly, with the vital point that the concepts contained in important books spread far beyond those who have actually read them, and he gives examples drawn from Darwin, Marx and Freud.

Only where public opinion spontaneously shared the fears and reactions of elite intellectuals can their writings serve as expressions of a general British mood.

The implication being that the idea of the survival of the fittest or of class warfare or the unconscious spoke to people’s everyday reality, and thus was something they could identify with. In the case of the interwar years, the connection came in the fear of war, and in discussions of the economy. However, he warns that the fears felt by people can be misinterpreted.

To expect to die in the next war, as my contemporaries not unreasonably did in 1939 – Overy quotes my own memories to this effect – did not stop us from thinking that war would have to be fought, would be won and could lead to a better society.

Hobsbawm argues that people always find a way to get on with life, no matter what the circumstances, explaining he says the failure of the bombing campaigns of World War II to stop the war. He warns against the danger of hindsight, making the point that Jewish people in Germany who sent their children to live abroad were aware that they were in some danger, but that the holocaust itself was literally inconceivable to them. So while praising the book, Hobsbawm stresses the limits of the history of emotion.

Looking for a central ‘mood’ as the keynote of an era does not get us closer to reconstructing the past than ‘national character’ or ‘Christian/Islamic/Confucian values’. They tell us too little too vaguely. Historians should take such concepts seriously, but not as a basis for analysis or the structure of narrative.

He does not dismiss the history of emotion, but rather regards it as an adjunct to more traditional history. And I have to say I agree. And I don’t think that these are issues without relevance to politics. The left everywhere has struggled and is struggling with the fact there has been no simple mechanical link between economic interest and political action. Nowhere is this more true than in the North. The clearer an understanding we get of what shapes people’s thinking and beliefs, the better we will be able to explain what went wrong in the past, and how we might connect with workers better in the future. To give one very oversimplified example, I believe that fear of the west played an enormous role in the economic choices made by the eastern bloc, i.e. to prioritise military spending at the expense of consumer goods. The collapse of the eastern bloc was caused primarily by its economic failings, but those failings were greatly exaggerated by a pervasive sense of fear. So too much of US foreign policy in the last 60 years. Those of us on the left need a better understanding of how a society’s ideology is produced, but at the same time we must keep a firm focus on the material realities of the situation. In the twenty first century, the Marxist historian who can do this will prove a worthy successor to Hobsbawm.


1. The History of Emotion « Garibaldy Blog - August 12, 2009

[…] History of Emotion By Garibaldy I’ve just put up a post on Cedar Lounge Revolution discussing some thoughts by Eric Hobsbawm on writing the history of emotion should anyone be […]


2. Starkadder - August 13, 2009

A link between emotion and political actions? Didn’t some of the
Frankfurt School try to study this, albeit in the context of political
science rather than history?


3. economic history - March 8, 2010

economic history…

Your topic MediaStorm ” Blog Archive ” MediaStorm and Council on Foreign … was interesting when I found it on Monday searching for economic history…


4. Starkadder - May 11, 2011

On the subject of the Peace Pledge Union…
the PPU launched the pacifist magazine,
“Peace News”, which has published Mohandas Gandhi, Bayard Rustin, Theodore Roszak, Gene Sharp, Maya Evans and many others.
PN is celebrating its 75 birthday today. Congratulations!



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