Putting the social back into history

Issue: 118
Posted: 31 March 08

Mark O'Brien

Geoff Eley and Keith Nield, The Future of Class in History: What’s Left of the Social? (University of Michigan, 2007), £15.95

Geoff Eley, A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (University of Michigan, 2006), £14.50

For anyone with an interest in Marxist history writing or in social history writing more generally, both these books are worth reading. The Future of Class in History offers an account of the conceptual shifts that have impacted upon the field. A Crooked Line is a more personal reflection on the experience of working as a social historian.

There have been two great shifts in academic history writing since the 1960s. The first was connected to one crucial work, The Making of the English Working Class by Edward Thompson, which sought to rescue the ordinary men and women who had created history from “the enormous condescension of posterity”. This shift towards what the new social historians of the 1960s called the “worm’s-eye” view of history was liberating to a generation frustrated by the hidebound “histories of the elites”.

Women’s history, black history, gay history, the histories of colonised peoples and, not least, working class histories focusing on particular localities, occupations and movements were in the ascendant in university history departments across much of the world over the course of the next 20 years.

The new social historians, explicitly or implicitly, took Thompson’s book as their theoretical touchstone. The underlying philosophical assumption was that “the social” realm, the lived, daily experience of ordinary people, provided the route to historical truths and, ultimately, to what Eric Hobsbawm was to call a “total” history of any given epoch. Other realms—politics, religion, identities, etc—were seen as having their roots in social experience.

Many of the leading historians who followed this path were either Marxists or, at the very least, saw themselves as being allied to Marxism to some degrees. The notion of doing history “from below” was associated with the Communist Party Historians Group, which was, in turn, connected to the British Communist Party.

By the mid-1980s social history was being called into question. Important questions in historiography began to test its general underpinnings. Questions about the precise relationship between “the social” and other realms of human experience and activity were proving difficult to answer, leading to the second great shift in history writing.

There were questions, for instance, about the ways in which the interactions between social and cultural identity were articulated within social experience. Oppressed identities, especially those in the areas of ethnicity and race, posed a special challenge. Crucial also were questions about the ways in which political identities—indeed politics itself—were linked to social experience.

Throughout this period a growing interest, across a number of disciplines, in the role of language in cultural processes and identity formation was creating waves that were lapping at the door of the social historians. The implication was that since “history”—that is, the methods, evidence and exposition of historical scholarship—was essentially linguistic (or, more precisely, “textual”), our access to historical truth was framed, and ultimately constrained, by the linguistic modes through which history was conducted.

Not only did figures from the past leave their traces in the representations that they left behind, but our interpretations were themselves filters through which historians deciphered their meaning. Historical “facts”, then, became laden with meanings that rendered them not facts at all, but rather artefacts for which there could be no objective claims outside the ways in which they were constructed.

Ely and Nield pick through this debate, acknowledging the contributions of both sides, but ultimately attempting to salvage social history for a new generation. Whilst seeking to rescue Marxism from what they see as the ruins of the encounter between social history and the postmodernists (the “culture wars”), these authors are also critically approving of what they see as the contributions of the new cultural history to historiography. The approving tone of much of Ely’s and Neild’s discussion of the cultural historians reveals a weakness in the way that they attempt to win back ground for the positions of social history. As they say themselves, their aim is one of achieving a new methodological pluralism for historical work.

Eley and Nield correctly argue that the collapse of social history reflected the failing political confidence of the left during the 1980s. However, more needs to be said here. In reality the postmodernists were hitting at weak foundations. A good deal of ground had already been conceded to the positions later defined as post-modernist by those working within the social history paradigm.

A common feature of much social history writing was the rejection of “base and superstructure” (Karl Marx’s metaphor describing the relationship between the economic “base” of society and the legal and political “superstructure” built upon it). Class was understood as an economic reality, and placed at the centre of the their work, but the social historians were wary of any suggestion that political outlooks, beliefs and cultural identities could be understood in terms of, and as resulting from, economic processes.

This ambivalence is also discernable in Eley and Nield’s discussion. They seem to ignore the gaps in and limitations of Thompsonian historiography. Indeed Eley describes what he calls the “totalising” ambitions of the social history of the 1960s and 1970s as working through an “insistence that all aspects of human life be situated in relation to social determinations, whether politics, thought and the exchange of ideas, sexuality and intimate relations, cultural meanings, the interior dynamics of institutions, economic processes, the international relations among state, or whatever”.

These authors are sensitive to charges of “vulgar Marxism” and reductionist approaches and this raises the question of how Marxism itself is to be understood for the writing of history.

In truth, the most noteworthy Marxist historical works have not conformed to the reductionist stereotype. Marx himself provides a good example in his writings on France in 1848. While ever-mindful of the class interests that motivate and explain the actions of the various parties and protagonists, Marx follows the political twists and turns of real events. We can make similar observations about Leon Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution. Another example is CLR James’s Black Jacobins.

More importantly, however, in Eley’s and Neild’s defence of class based and Marxist approaches in the writing of social history there are some major theoretical omissions. There is no reference, for example, to Lenin’s reworking of his account of the relationship between economic location and consciousness in his Philosophical Notebooks of 1916. This dialectical rendering of the relationship between being and consciousness allows for a nuanced and mediated account of the ways in which the relationship between class interests and politics is played out in real historical events.

Moreover, within the broad span of Marxism there lies a wealth of theoretical categories that connect class and consciousness: alienation and the importance that this has for understanding religious and other forms of identity; commodity fetishism and its centrality for Marxist analysis of the rise of mass consumerism in the 20th century; reification and the insights it can provide into the role of institutions in social psychology and the perpetuation of ideologies of oppression; and even mediation itself, understood as a category that has its roots in the work of Hegel and its later elaboration by Marx.

On the subject of language Marxism also has far more to offer the historian than Eley and Nield recognise. The bodies of work produced by the experimental psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the philosopher and philologist Mikhail Bakhtin, for instance, contain insights that are yet to be fully appreciated and utilised for the purposes of historical analysis.

While Thompson was right to despair at abstract and technicist historical formulations in which real men and women disappear, it is equally true that history writing without theory becomes a mere reportage of diaries, letters and newspaper cuttings. History is not just the “what happened then” but also the “what it means for now”. For that, theory is essential. It is this that Marxism provides and that postmodernism and the “cultural turn” self-avowedly does not.

These two books are worthwhile and enjoyable reads. From the point of view of the defence of Marxism for historical work, however, they are weak. Presenting a theoretically fuller Marxism would have allowed them to mount a more robust rebuttal of the incursions of post-modernism. A more trenchant reassertion of Marxism for history writing will be needed for “class” to return to the centre stage of historical work that it once enjoyed.