Merridale proposes historian as outsider in Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture 2017

This article was written by Jack Watling, a Hobsbawm scholar studying for his PhD at Birkbeck

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Professor Eric Hobsbawm

What is the duty of the historian to society? That was the question taken up by Catherine Merridale in her Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture, held at Senate House, on Monday 22 May.

In answer Merridale reached into her own past, as a pioneering oral historian of the Soviet Union, its collapse, and the emergence of the new Russia. “This evening,” she said, “I appear before you in the guise of a witness.”

Merridale arrived in Russia in 1982, and entered an exciting and vibrant world in which she was unmistakably an outsider. Amidst the archives and late night arguments over art, literature, and politics, Merridale described the USSR as “red and brown.” Red pervaded public space, the ever-present colour of communist ideology; “brown was the stuff that leaked out when the snow thawed.”

Eventually the brown, oozing through the cracks of failing industries, the rot in the Moscow food warehouses, the bodies bearing testament to past atrocities, would see the whole edifice crumble, and fall away. In the heady days of the 1990s liberation was not conducive to reflection. “Everyone went shopping.” Merridale recalled a friend demanding to know “Ideology! What good is that? We are sick of it. We want a society like yours without an ideology.”

The idea that British society lacked ideology was not just wrong, but dangerous, Merridale argued, the assuredness of western economists who flooded into Russia in the 1990s was misplaced. They believed they had an answer to a country whose problems they barely attempted to understand. “Their intervention was a disaster.” What were they but ideological, working from assumptions? To be blind to one’s biases is invariably to fall victim to them.

It was a highly suitable subject for a lecture commemorating the late Eric Hobsbawm, described by Birkbeck’s Professor Joanna Bourke as one of “the most exciting and influential historians of the Twentieth Century.” Hobsbawm’s magisterial historical quartet, running from the French Revolution to the Cold War, set a benchmark for the integration of cultural, economic, and political history.  Yet Hobsbawm’s work was also an internal struggle between ideology and intellectual rigor. Hobsbawm was a dedicated Communist, and remained so long after it was fashionable. He was a true believer.

There can be no doubt that his political outlook shaped his work, and in a few cases confounded Hobsbawm’s commitment to the historical method. But Hobsbawm was both aware, and consciously challenged himself to confront his own assumptions. I saw this personally as an undergraduate when I was given his copy of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a book banned in the Soviet Union, in which the renowned Soviet journalist contended that there was really very little to distinguish Communism from Fascism.

Merridale contends that today society is “drowning in the twittering present,” our communications rarely archived, our historical memory diminishing. We live in a society “that does not force us to confront ideas we find uncomfortable.” The historian then, who always stands as an outsider, peering into the past, ought similarly to force society to confront its own assumptions; to be aware of its ideological tendencies, and to struggle with them. History ought to make society self-conscious.

It was a compelling mission statement, which Merridale entrusted to the new generation of historians that the Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture aims to inspire. Associated with the lecture is the Hobsbawm Memorial Fund, which provides scholarships to support both Masters and PhD students.

Speaking for myself, such funds are transformative. When I finished my degree I was not in a financial position to fund a Master’s, and yet an MA was a prerequisite for a PhD. There is little government support for Master’s students. The Hobsbawm scholarship was therefore pivotal in my entering the academy. I am now two years into my PhD.

And I am not alone. “Honestly, it’s the only way,” said Sean, an aspiring early modernist who attended the lecture, and is hoping to apply to the Hobsbawm Memorial Fund to support a Master’s.

With Brexit on the horizon it is vital that Britain remains historically conscious. Russia, Merridale explained, has resurrected the Romanov’s, retreating into costume dramas to avoid confronting the contradictions that remain unresolved in Russia’s past. “They failed their own society at its crucial turning point.”

But far from suggesting a complacent superiority Merridale noted that “we Russians and Brits were trapped under the landslide of our victories” in the wake of the Second World War, and here in Britain there is also the tendency to seek comfort in a romantic fantasy of Kings and Queens, that never challenge us to ask who we are, or who we ought to be.

“It is the job of the outsider to be shocked,” Merridale said, as they explore, and like Socrates’ horsefly, to shock others.

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Ideology Now – part 3

This post was contributed by Nick Pearce, Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Is there a distinct social democratic ideology which has political relevance in the 21st century? Patently not, if you think that social democracy was the product of a particular moment in European history that has now passed. This view, exemplified by John Gray’s After Social Democracy, holds that social democracy was a geo-political response to the Cold War, a class compromise to build a democratic, social market alternative to Soviet Communism and US capitalism, which lasted nearly forty years, until a combination of neo-liberalism and the collapse of the Berlin Wall administered its last rites. 

Ironically, this perspective is obliquely endorsed even by self-professed social democrats. In Ill Fares the Land, the late Tony Judt lamented the passing of the post-war European order but did so in terms that conceded the depth of social democracy’s political defeat and offered little hope of its resurrection.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that Third Way revisionists seeking to revive the fortunes of the democratic left in the 1990s recoiled from professing an ideological position. Anthony Giddens gave the subtitle The Renewal of Social Democracy to his book The Third Way but “what matters is what works, not ideology” was more often the lodestar of New Labour. In the pre-crash period of steady, continuous economic growth – or so-called Great Moderation – a distinct political ideology came to be seen as a little outré.

The political terrain of post-crash politics is more rugged. But as European voters splinter off the mainstream political parties, there is no guarantee that social democracy will furnish the ideological or political tools for a new generation to bring it back to power. Indeed, even contemporary Labour theorists like Maurice Glasman who are critical of the New Labour record disdain the term social democracy, preferring to nourish themselves on European Christian Democracy, Catholic social movements, and the guild traditions of British socialism.

Yet for all that, the social democratic tradition is a remarkably resilient and versatile one. It defeated its main rivals, Marxism and Fascism, in the 20th century. It fed off a productive intellectual and political relationship with liberalism, the other great winner of the last century, and built institutions for the common good, as well as individual liberty, that have endured successfully in European countries. It was pragmatic, recognising the necessity of building cross-class alliances, and drew political success, as well as ideological flexibility from that pragmatism. But it held fast to core beliefs, chief amongst them the universality of citizenship, a claim which it embodied in institutions of the welfare state, like the National Health Service, through which social democratic values live and breathe, assumed and unspoken, today. And it renewed its political appeal despite the passing into history of the Cold War era and the organised industrial working class which had done so much to shape it. Its most successful Nordic bastions remain beacons of social justice, human flourishing and the pursuit of a decent common life.

If social democratic ideology has continued relevance today, it is because it asserts the “primacy of politics” in Sheri Berman’s felicitous phrase. It insists on the importance of active democratic citizenship and the primacy of politics over economics. As Europe seeks to emerge from the wreckage of the global financial crisis, it will need a new political economy. A new generation of social democrats are likely to be at the heart of that endeavour, even if in partnership with other political movements, and actors, as they have been for most of their history.

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Ideology Now – part 2

This post was contributed by Nina Power, from the Department of Philosophy at Roehampton University.

What do we mean by “ideology” today? Is it possible to identify forms of contemporary ideology, or is the very discourse of ideology itself an ideological remnant of an earlier period? In the latter instance, we might talk about ideologies, plural, indicating perhaps a clash of grand narratives, communism v capitalism in the context of the Cold War perhaps being the most historically obvious: here “ideology” comes to stand in for something like a rigid set of beliefs about the way the world ought to work, which usually incorporates some kind of folded-in theory of human nature (capitalism’s idea that people are ‘naturally selfish’, for example, and that ‘markets’ are the best way of managing this ‘fact’). This understanding of ideology is frequently argued to be over, and we are imagined to now be living in an uncertain post-ideological period, where competing fragmentary ideas jostle amongst each other for perhaps temporary precedence.

Against this familiar story, we could return to the image Louis Althusser picks up from Pascal – the idea that belief is not something that pre-exists action, but something that follows from it: not believe and you will be a good Christian, but rather kneel in prayer enough times and then you will believe. Here ideology is conceived as a material practice, reinforced by repetition and a context in which that repetition has a framework to support it. Spinoza poses the problem in a slightly different way in his theory of knowledge: here ideology is something like a way of understanding the world that ‘works’ but is false – not an illusion exactly, which is sometimes where discussions of ideology end up, but a way of structuring what happens in such a way as to make it seem superficially plausible (thinking that the legal system is ‘fair’ for example, because you agree with its verdict most of the time, while not stopping to ask larger questions about who benefits, the plausibility and nature of the laws themselves, or the likely outcomes for those accused of ‘breaking’ them).

In my paper on the ideology of law and order I picked up a slightly different idea: that ideology is perhaps rather not thinking about something really, really hard, in such a way that it doesn’t come into vision at all, except for if and when it directly affects you. Here it seems to me that the law is precisely this kind of gigantic purloined letter, indirectly conditioning what we do (or really what we don’t do), but not being visible for the most part (the same of course goes for its agents, the police and its buildings, prisons). So while we might know on one level that the police are rarely, if ever, held accountable for the people who die in their custody, for example, the idea that this might be because of a combination of police violence and corruption, racism and legal unaccountability is pushed behind the idea of individuals – the rotten apple police officer, the hint of suspicion that the victim was most likely up to no good, and so on. Otherwise the whole edifice – state ‘protection’, ‘justice’ ‘equality before the law’ – starts to look shaky…it seems to me that the law and its enforcement is most definitely hidden in plain sight, and just as following the economic crash, all the mystified terms of economic skill were revealed to be little more than a pile of Ponzi schemes with some computers attached, the law, used ever-increasingly against those who are protesting against the effects of the austerity measures imposed as a result of the crash, and always used against those the police deem to be ‘pre-criminal’ in one way or another is a form of contemporary ideology we would do well to pay much closer attention to…

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Ideology Now – part 1

This post was contributed by Eliane Glaser, Honorary Research Fellow in Birkbecks Department of English and Humanities.

On Saturday 28 April a diverse group of academics, journalists, commentators and students gathered in Gordon Square to explore the role of ideology today. The premise of the conference was the strange death of ideology within political discourse. When politicians use the word ‘ideology’ now, it’s invariably an insult. Politics is supposed to be pragmatic, consensus-building, about doing ‘what works’.

But is the narrative of the death of ideology itself an ideological move? Are ideologies and agendas still in operation, just under cover? Is ideology today primarily a covert force, creating a topsy-turvy world in which appearance is the very opposite of reality? In my book Get Real I lament the fact that Conservatives boast that they are the party of the poor, BP petrol stations are coloured an environmentally-friendly shade of green, and our TV screens are filled with celebrity chefs baking sourdough as sales of ready meals soar.

Is it time to revive ideology critique, both inside and outside the academy? And is it time to restore overt ideologies to our political culture? Since the financial crash, the Occupy movement has revitalised citizen activism. But would that movement be more effective if it embraced overt objectives and ideals?

These are some of the questions I set out in my introductory remarks, before handing over to Esther Leslie, professor in political aesthetics at Birkbeck. Esther gave a wonderfully rich and provocative talk in which she simultaneously illustrated the workings of ideology in culture today and also critiqued the very notion of ideology, arguing for a version of the term that is more rooted in social being and action. Matthew Beaumont, who teaches English at UCL, then did a fascinating reading of disaster films such as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, arguing that at a time in which capitalism is in crisis, these films enact Fredric Jameson’s observation that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.  

Two former heads of policy at Number 10 reflected on ideology in political culture. Ferdinand Mount, author of the newly published The New Few, was head of policy under Margaret Thatcher, and he argued for a post-ideological liberal democracy which allows for a diversity of positions. Nick Pearce, director of the IPPR and head of policy under Gordon Brown, made the case for a single ideology: social democracy.

After lunch, author and Guardian columnist Steven Poole exposed the financial metaphors that pervade everyday speech – with philosophy lecturer and activist Nina Power pointing out during questions that, conversely, capitalism is often clothed in humanising language. Author Dan Hind described how the ‘end of ideology’ thesis has obscured the rise of a single ideology, market capitalism, and pointed to new, non-hierarchical forms of public discussion and protest as the way forward.

We had two highly stimulating papers on ideology in architecture and theatre by writer Owen Hatherley and lecturer in theatre and performance at Birkbeck Louise Owen. While Owen Hatherley identified the ideologies embedded in a whole range of architectural styles, Louise Owen detected ideologies lurking beneath what passes as theatrical realism today.

In the final session, a lively and politically-engaged talk by Nina Power linked Althusser’s theory of interpolation to the current behaviour of the police and judiciary in ‘public order’ cases, and argued that protesters attempting to defend the public good are being penalised in the name of an imaginary ‘good’ public. And Renata Salecl, professor of law at Ljubljana University ended the conference with a brilliant and entertaining puncturing of contemporary assumptions about reality and wellbeing. 

What I loved about the conference was the way in which the papers linked theoretical analysis with urgent issues in today’s politics and culture. The perspectives were unusually broad for an academic conference, and the discussions over coffee, lunch, drinks and dinner were engaged and convivial. I was left with the positive sense that there is a great deal more to say on this subject; that in the contemporary world, reports of ideology’s demise are both symptomatic and premature.

All the papers are available to listen to online via the Backdoor Broadcasting Company.

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