Deciphering the past

Issue: 112

Megan Trudell

A review of Paul Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (Manchester University Press, 2006), £14.99, and Matt Perry, Marxism and History (Palgrave, 2002), £13.99

Why does history matter? Two interconnected reasons present themselves for the serious study of history. The first is that the past is not simply a series of factual events, but is disputed. For ruling classes everywhere, their rule is the natural pinnacle of humanity’s achievements. To portray the past as a seamless march of progress towards this point, and to write out or downgrade class conflict and revolutions, is part of legitimising that rule. Think of the revisionism of Niall Ferguson writing the history of the British Empire as one of a benevolent force, or of Simon Schama and Orlando Figes writing on the French and Russian revolutions respectively in terms which stress the aspects of terror and ignore those of popular democracy—as George Orwell wrote in 1984, cited by Matt Perry, ‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’ (cited in Perry, p22).

But, as importantly, activists today engaged with confronting wars and fighting for an alternative world need to know what forces and processes have shaped the present in order to make sense of what happens around us and draw the correct conclusions to decide on the most effective action. To view the current wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, for example, without an understanding of the development of imperialism, the impact of the Cold War, the foundation of the state of Israel, the historical role of Arab leaders, the economic pressures on the US ruling class and so on, can lead to a range of responses and courses of action that lead away from collective resistance to the system that breeds wars.

If we simply look at a situation at any given moment as a snapshot, the general trends or underlying processes are hidden from us, making political misunderstandings and mistakes more likely. In other words, history matters both in fighting against a suppression of a human past that has developed through struggle and conflict, and in guiding present day activists’ engagement with current struggles.

Historical materialism—Marx’s theory of history—looks at societies as totalities where change happens because of internal contradictions within those societies. Historical ‘truth’ is in the process of change, not in any individual part or event, or even in the end result. The ‘outcome’ of events is not determined in advance, as the distortions of Marxism would have it. The ways in which contradictions in society are resolved open up new possibilities—only constrained by the material capabilities of society at a given historical stage. If real material circumstances change, so must the strategies that people use for further change, and the ideas they hold about the world.

For historians today, who are usually not engaged in present struggles but solely in examination of the past, the hostility to Marxism and a rejection of any such ‘total’ theory of history all too often result in an inability (or unwillingness) to grasp this historical process. Instead a kind of kaleidoscope approach to history—where all aspects of the past, whether political, social, economic, ideological, the voices of all participants, assume an equal weight and are thrown together in confused patterns—is employed, which does more to obscure than it does to shed light on the central dynamics of past movements. This, at least, is the current fashion exerting a pull on many historians.

Given this, the refreshing and very welcome argument from these two books written from the standpoint of Marxist historical materialism is that understanding and implementing the Marxist theory of history represents the best chance for the reinvigoration of history writing today, as well as being indispensable for informing present struggles.

Although covering much of the same ground, the two books are aimed at somewhat different audiences. Matt Perry’s is part of an introductory series from Palgrave on Theory and History and as such is the more accessible of the two for readers new to the subject. He outlines the key concepts as developed by Marx and Engels in admirably clear language, reasserting the dynamic content against the subsequent distortions by Stalinism, before turning to a fascinating examination of their historical writings. Subsequent chapters deal with the contributions of Trotsky, Gramsci and Lukács in history writing and the theoretical development of Marxism; the Communist Party Historians Group and the emergence of ‘history from below’—the work of Christopher Hill on the English Revolution, and E P Thompson, notably in his The Making of the English Working Class.

Perry discusses the debates between Thompson’s ‘history from below’ approach and the structuralist Marxists who emphasised the structures in society that acted as constraints on human action and downplayed the influence of human agency on history. Understandably Thompson et al reacted against the Stalinist impulses they read in the structuralists’ accounts. Perry concludes that their associated rejection of categories like those of base and superstructure weakened historical materialism. Finally, an explanation of postmodernism’s development critiques its internal incoherence and its impact on history writing. There is also a very useful glossary at the back, something that more academic introductions would benefit from.

Paul’s book deals with many of the same questions, although it is organised slightly differently and the discussion is conducted in more complex language which assumes some prior understanding of concepts and historical developments. For those readers seeking a more in-depth (and more recent) discussion of Marxism’s contribution and continuing relevance in historical studies, Reflections is a significant resource. It is a cogent defence of the contribution of Marxist historians to the discipline, from Marx to the present via Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, Geoffrey de St Croix’s Class Struggles in the Ancient World, and the British Marxist historians Hill, Hobsbawm and Thompson. In the face of current academic hostility to theoretical interpretations of historical events it is a powerful argument for historical materialism as a critical tool to interpret the past.

Paul devotes more detailed space to key debates within the Marxist tradition—on the transition between modes of production in society, for example the way in which society moved from feudalism to capitalism (including the contributions of Robert Brenner, who debated with Chris Harman in International Socialism 111), the associated controversy over English historical development and bourgeois revolutions, and the structure and agency debate. He looks in more detail at the various contributions of Marxist writers, both in history writing and in theories of historical development, including contemporary writers.

Both books contextualise the political background to intellectual arguments, helping to explain the debates within British Marxism in the light of the new social movements from the late 1960s and the increasing influence of the right in the late 1970s and 1980s. In both also the interaction of these and other external pressures with intellectual developments within Marxism and those breaking from it—like the work of Michel Foucault—is dealt with in a more sophisticated and nuanced fashion than I can do justice to here.

There is an understandable emphasis in both books on developments in British Marxism. Nonetheless there is also much useful and suggestive material for those working on the history of other countries, where often the influences of Stalinism and posmodernism are even more pronounced.

These books stress the interconnectedness between past and present, expressing the conviction that history is not a separate world but a process we are part of. How people make history, the constraints they live within, and how human agency and societal structures interrelate and pressurise one another are crucial processes for activists, and historians, to study and learn from.

The influence of Stalinism, and its distortion of historical materialism into a determinist mockery with the contradictions and contingencies written out, weighed heavily on history writing. The work of those British historians who remained in the Communist Party after 1956—like Hobsbawm, outstanding though so much of his work is—suffered the closer it came in historical time to the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, while that of many who rejected Stalinism reflected an inadequate explanation for its development and often led to a rejection of Marxism itself as a theoretical tool.

That weight, as both writers point out, has lifted. The result has often been disorientation and accommodation, the attractions of posmodernism and new ‘cultural history’, but the collapse of Stalinism in combination with the rise of the global anti-capitalist movement and its theoretical challenges also opens the possibility for new history writing informed by Marxism from historians and students engaged in the struggles against neo-liberalism and war.

These excellent books offer intellectual support and much valuable theoretical suggestion to those attempting to write Marxist history today as well as illustrating the key concepts, rich tradition and current debates of Marxist history writing for newer readers.