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About this book

Marxism and History examines Marxism's enormous impact on the way historians approach their subject. Tackling current historiographical questions in a lively, jargon-free way, Matt Perry offers a concise introduction to: Marxist views of history; key Marxist historians and thinkers; and the relevance of Marxist theory and history to students' own work.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
‘Who’, asked a BBC poll, ‘is the greatest thinker of the millennium?’ Karl Marx topped the list.2 Another survey, this time of the USA’s Library of Congress — the world’s largest library — found that, with nearly 4000 works, Karl Marx was the sixth most written about individual ever (Jesus Christ came first and Lenin third).3 For all his celebrity, Karl Marx remains an enigma; in the words of Engels’s eulogy, the ‘best hated’ man of his times, and one difficult to overlook: for some a genius, for others a monster. His legacy is an elusive riddle, either an Orwellian nightmare or a world rid of exploitation and oppression; his ideas are either bankrupt or immanently relevant.
Matt Perry

1. The Wide Panorama of Marxist History

Abstract
To survey the Marxist historical writing is to demonstrate the persistence of Marx in twentieth-century historical inquiry. For a school of history so often accused of reductionism and determinism, Marxism more than any other (only the Annales is nearly comparable) embodies a wide range of approaches and subjects. Because the British Marxist historians of the post-Second World War era have been associated with ‘new history’, there is the temptation to think that Marxism rejects traditional forms such as biographical, political, intellectual and narrative history. Marxist historians have excelled at the conventional forms of history as well as the innovative. Isaac Deutscher’s Stalin (1967, 1st edn 1949) and his multi-volume work on Trotsky provide a model for Marxist biographies.2 A host of Marxist biographical portraits could be assembled: Paul Frölich’s Rosa Luxemburg, Tony Cliff’s Lenin, Christopher Hill’s Cromwell or Milton, and Georges Lefebvre’s (1874–1959) Robespierre or Napoleon. In the preface to the final volume of his Trotsky trilogy, Isaac Deutscher explained the interaction between the great events and individuals: ‘It was as if a huge historical conflict had become compressed into a controversy and feud between two men [Trotsky and Stalin].’ Deutscher carefully drew out the tragic story of the persecutions of Trotsky’s family based onthe revolutionary’s letters to his loved ones which ‘added a sombre depth to the drama’.3 Far from Marxism rejecting biography, what distinguishes Marxist biography is a greater theoretical clarity about the role of the individual in history, which always presents the greatest puzzle for every biographer to solve. In fact, the non-Marxist Ian Kershaw borrowed from Marx on the role of the individual in history in writing his biography of Hitler.
Matt Perry

2. Marx and Engels’s Conception of History

Abstract
Harold Wilson, the former Labour Prime Minister, once boasted that he had not got beyond the first page of Capital, implying that Marx was both impenetrable and no longer relevant. The impression that Marx is difficult to read is widespread. However, core propositions of Marxism are reasonably straightforward. After all, they were written for, and assimilated by, millions of working-class people in their most popular form, The Communist Manifesto (1848). This chapter seeks to explain Marx’s conception of history without recourse to unnecessary jargon. At the same time, it addresses the key technical terms which Karl Marx (1818–83) and his life-long collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820–95) themselves employed.
Matt Perry

3. The Historical Writings of Marx and Engels

Abstract
Although neither was a historian in a conventional sense, Marx and Engels’s historical writings constitute a substantial opus.2 Moreover, their work as a whole is suffused with historical analysis. For instance, discussions of the transition from feudalism to capitalism reappeared time and again in their popular works (German Ideology, Communist Manifesto, Socialism: Scientific and Utopian). For them the transition was both an index of historical development of their day and a pointer to subsequent world-historical transitions. Even Capital, which is usually conceived of as a work of dense political economy, periodically turns to historical circumstances to bring its analysis of capitalism to life.
Matt Perry

4. The Second Generation and the Philosophy and Writing of History

Without Abstract
Matt Perry

5. ‘Rescuing the Poor Stockinger’: History from Below

Abstract
Previously Marxist historians had been neither academics nor professional historians; they were revolutionaries with a range of interests which included history. After the Second World War, this was to change. In this period a generation of academic Marxists emerged and matured. Their research was, as a result, more systematically and exclusively oriented towards historical questions. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 provoked the departure of several historians from the Communist Party who had thrived despite the generally stultifying influence of Stalinism. As a consequence, they attempted to shake off the mechanical materialism of Cominform orthodoxy. They squinted at Marx and history with rejuvenated eyes. The result, history from below, ennobled the resistance and non-conformity of bandits, peasants, artisans, industrial workers, poachers, religious millenarians and transportees. E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) acted as a manifesto for this perspective. But the groundwork had been prepared well before this in the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Matt Perry

6. Marxism, Structuralism and Humanism

Abstract
If, for Marxist history, the 1950s and 1960s might be seen as a heroic age of discovery, the 1970s brought more uncertainty and less coherence to the project. Partly, Marxist history had become victim of its own success. Large numbers of academics were drawn under its influence and the tight spirit of comradeship and a common past in the CPHG no longer ensured the cohesion that it formerly did. Events of the late 1960s had radicalised a generation of students who enthusiastically took up history from below but also transcended it. Naturally enough, areas of inquiry widened and history from below helped to spawn new types of history: women’s history, gay history and the history of sexuality, cultural history and historical sociology. In some cases Marxists were at the forefront of these new histories as with Sheila Rowbotham’s Hidden from History (1973), Tim Mason’s work on women in Nazi Germany and Marian Ramelson’s Petticoat Rebellion (1967). In others these developments emerged via a sharp rupture with Marxism: for instance, Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1976). Some of these areas potentially reinforced Marxism but some discarded it, searching for alternative attitudes towards knowledge, social totalities and power. These fragmentary forces grew ever stronger as the character of the New Left — increasingly constituted in the late 1960s by specific social movements (the women’s liberation movement, the gay liberation movement, the black movement and the student movement) — had intellectual consequences. So even before the ideological climate changed in the mid- to late 1970s with the growing confidence of the New Right, Marxist history was facing a serious external challenge.
Matt Perry

7. Marxism and Postmodernism in History

Abstract
Postmodernism provoked talk of crisis in history in the 1990s, particularly in labour and social history. Most major history journals hosted debates about the merits of postmodernism.2 For instance, in 1993 a special supplement of the International Review of Social History asked whether labour history was in its death throes, and Arthur Marwick and Hayden White locked horns in the Journal of Contemporary History.3 Patrick Joyce, Britain’s most noted postmodernist historian, even announced the end of social history in the journal of the same name.4 Postmodernism had been a late arrival to history as it had become widespread in other disciplines in the 1970s. The challenge emanated from multiple sources. Philosophers of history, notably Hayden White and Richard Rorty, subjected historians to the methods of literary criticism. Poststructuralist literary scholars, such as Roland Barthes (1915–80) and Jacques Derrida (1930–), took issue with historians’ purported complacent and naïve realism. Writing histories of madness, sexuality and punishment as socially constructed discourses, Michel Foucault (1926–84) has been highly influential upon postmodernist historians. Through these diverse lineages, a new breed of social historian emerged concerned with discourse, symbols, language, identity and the literary and narrative character of historical writing. Class, the social interpretations of political events, rational and scientific analysis have passed from favour. Significantly these postmodernist revisionists singled out the influence of Marxism on social history for particular criticism.
Matt Perry

Conclusion

Abstract
‘From the end of the 1970s,’ declared Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘the marxist approach to history, which had flourished in Britain and elsewhere for two decades entered a period of abrupt and terminal decline’.1 There is a large measure of exaggeration and a suspicion of wishful thinking in Gareth Stedman Jones’ assessment. Nevertheless, there is also an element of truth. Marxist history did enter an impasse in the late 1970s. Jones explains that this resulted from the challenge of alternative political and historical projects, such as feminism and environmentalism, and the inability of Marxism to theoretically renew its epistemology through Althusser. We might also point to the debilitating effects of the structuralist—humanist schism. This debate was never really resolved but passed over in silence as historians got on with writing history. History from below seemed to have exhausted its new possibilities. Structuralism spawned poststructuralism. Although more than mere symptoms of Marxist history’s impasse, these factors alone cannot explain it. It should be obvious that the 1930s and the 1960s played the pivotal role in the opening-out of an audience for Marxist history. Unearthing the paving stones and erecting barricades in Vienna, Barcelona and Cable Street did for the 1930s generation what those of Watts, Prague, Grosvenor Square and the Sorbonne did for the generation of the 1960s. Like the 1950s, the late 1970s and since have been a period where the intellectual climate seemed closed off to Marxism. The latter were the decades of conservative ascendancy of Reagan and Thatcher when the bastions of working-class industrial strength suffered defeat, and we can add to that the disorientation of many Marxists over the collapse of the Stalinist monolith in 1989–91.
Matt Perry
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