Rescuing history

Issue: 117

Matt Perry

Mike Haynes and Jim Wolfreys (eds), History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism (Verso, 2007), £17.99

Chris Wickham (ed), Marxist History Writing for the 21st Century (Oxford University, 2007), £14.99

These two volumes are timely and complement one another. Both stand as testimony to the continued vitality of Marxist historical writing and formulate an illuminating critique of some of the dominant trends within the writing of history. Having said that, they approach the same problem from different angles. While the volume edited by Chris Wickham is concerned with Marxist history as an evolving body of work, the challenges it faces and the current state of play, History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism focuses upon the turn in historical debates against social explanation of historical change.

Based on a conference assessing Marxism’s contribution to the writing of history, Marxist History Writing draws together both Marxist and non-Marxist scholars and their views vary from those such as Wickham and Alex Callinicos, who work from an avowedly Marxist framework, to those, like W G Runciman, who wish to maintain a dialogue with Marx, who they recognise as a rich and suggestive theorist, though one they ultimately reject. In one way or another, all the participants addressed why Marxism, which had such profound influence on the writing of history during the 1960s and 1970s, has subsequently been in apparent decline.

A preliminary point offered by both Wickham and Eric Hobsbawm is that the idea of decline can mislead. Marxism—alongside other socially-orientated schools of history such as the French Annales school—modernised history in the 20th century. They dragged it away from its traditional obsessions: high political history (kings, queens, politicians and generals), the objective unquestionable nature of the evidence (usually provided by state archives), and the need to avoid the adulteration of history with other intellectual disciplines.

Historians, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, deployed Marx’s “fundamental questions” about human history and its great transformations. Many still draw on this framework in an unacknowledged way. Despite this, Marxism has been on the defensive within history since that time. This results from a trend by some historians to deny any sense of an objective past reality, and substitute explorations of identity and discourse, as well as the connected rise of relativism and the rejection of the Enlightenment principles of universal rights and emancipation.

These tendencies dissolve the very possibility, to paraphrase Hobsbawm, of locating patterns and regularities in the past that historians can meaningfully explain. The upshot is an identity-based history wherein “the past 30 years has been a golden age for the mass invention of emotionally skewed historical untruths and myths” which constitute a “public danger”, for example in the historical writing of the US, Hinduist India and Berlusconi’s Italy.

If “defensive” is more accurate a portrayal of Marxist history than “moribund”, explanations of its current malaise take two forms: conjunctural and internal. For Gareth Steadman Jones the reason is internal: Marx’s inability to provide a convincingly alternative to capitalism, which Jones speculates was what Marx was trying to elaborate in Capital. Jones, however, fails to provide any convincing evidence that this was indeed Marx’s intention. His argument is circular and has neoliberalism in its genetic code. Jones assumes that there is no alternative to the market and, therefore, that Marx intended to but failed to find one.

Conjunctural explanations stress the historical context. But it is too simplistic to point to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fate of Stalinist regimes. As Chris Wickham observes, the process was well under way before 1989. By 1980 the political situation was turning against the post-1968 new left in each of those countries where Marxism had become academically influential; an intellectual rival in the shape of post-structuralism also appeared on the scene.

Several of the contributions provide very useful summaries of the contribution of Marxism to particular historical periods. Andrea Giardina surveys Marxist studies of Roman history. From the 1960s undogmatic Marxist historians and archaeologists opened up new horizons in this field. Marx’s own writings provided a useful starting point, using theory to pose new questions, especially about the political dimension of Roman culture.

Marxists aimed to raise archaeology from a technical to a historical discipline, allowing cross-fertilisations from other disciplines, with a particular affinity with Maurice Godelier’s anthropology. Marxist Roman historians of the Gramsci Institute also used interdisciplinarity and the key Marxist concepts of mode of production, socio-economic formation, class, crisis and transition to provide new insights into their field. Giardina then considers Geoffrey de Ste Croix’s magisterial work on class and class struggle in the ancient world.

Wickham considers the impact of Marxist historians on the study of the medieval period, setting it within the wider comparative study of feudalism. Catherine Hall tries to incorporate Marxist categories into a reading of the crisis moment of 1829-32 for British rule on three continents which is sensitive to race and gender. Her argument is that while Marx did not emphasise these latter elements, this should not be taken as a reason to abandon Marxism in favour of these forms of identity.

Wickham, Giardina, Robert Brenner and Hall all observe that the drift away from engagement with Marxism has impoverished the level of debate in each of their respective fields. Callinicos examines the utility of Marxist historical writing in understanding how the dynamics of capitalism shaped the 20th century through a discussion of Brenner, Harvey, Giovanni Arrighi, Hobsbawm and Perry Anderson. Brenner recasts his views on the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

Mike Haynes and Jim Wolfreys’s collection, History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism, considers the seemingly ubiquitous revisionist trends within the history of revolutions. While historians usually lock themselves into their own period, this volume is based on the observation that common elements can be found in the writing of history of the English, French and Russian revolutions. Just as Wickham’s volume identified the spirit of the times that rendered Marxism unfashionable, so History and Revolution tracks the modish return of totalitarianism as an explanation of revolution and its connection to a complacent liberal acceptance of global capitalism.

In an intellectual climate where the politicians of the political mainstream, left or right, were declaring there was no alternative to the market, and political philosophers that history had ended because capitalism had won the Cold War, revisionist historians have denied the impact of great revolutions upon history, defining them in narrowly political terms and emphasising their irrationality, violence and terror.

Thus François Furet could declare that the French Revolution was over at its bicentenary, meaning that the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity no longer had a place in the world. Haynes and Wolfreys astutely observe the symmetry between the political myopia of the present and the limited horizons of historians: In late 1980s France Furet’s “revolution without revolution went hand in glove with Mitterrand’s socialism without socialism and prime minister Rocard’s reformism without reform.”

Two connected elements are common to the revisionist historiography: first, a displacement of the causes, dynamics and consequences away from long-run and social dimensions, to the short-term, accidental and political; second, the resurgence of totalitarianism as a theoretical framework to understand mass movements, ideologies and revolutions. However, such a project must avoid exaggerating the influence of such revisionist writers or of according them a greater coherence than they in fact possess.

Geoff Kennedy scrutinises the English Revolution of the mid-17th century and assesses the rejection by revisionist historians of its social interpretation. The way that the history of the revolution has been rewritten since the 1970s is to reject the social reductionism ascribing political radicalism to a straightforward rationalisation of material grievances. Yet in its place, we are asked to believe that social power relations play no role in shaping events and political ideas. The revisionists were able to justify this because of the deficiencies of the model of bourgeois revolution, which formed the centrepiece of the social interpretation. He calls for a return to the social interpretation of these events based on a more nuanced understanding of the transition of feudalism to capitalism.

The French Revolution, which began in 1789, is reconsidered in two essays. Jim Wolfreys unpicks François Furet’s polemical reinterpretation of the revolution, which sought to demolish the social interpretation in favour of a political one that identified Jacobinism, a political ideology, with a totalitarian drive to terror. Wolfreys argues for a modified view of bourgeois revolution, seeing it as a great social eruption that creates new legal and constitutional frameworks facilitating the development of capitalism. Florence Gauthier also scrutinises the new political history of the French Revolution through the question of rights of man and the abolition of slavery which took place during the most radical phase of the revolution.

Two chapters consider the Russian Revolution of 1917. Mike Haynes demonstrates that the revisionist histories of Orlando Figes and Richard Pipes present 1917 in a simplistic black and white. Far from simply manipulating events, the Bolsheviks operated within a matrix of rival political parties and forces, each making choices and conditioning the outcome of events. Indeed, the Bolsheviks were more successful than their rivals because they were more democratic and more closely reflected popular radicalisation than their competitors.

Haynes shows that the other left parties’ abandonment after October of the network of councils (soviets) that formed the infrastructure of the Russian revolutionary movement contributed more to the formation of a one-party state than a conscious decision of the Bolsheviks to create one. Lars Lih re-examines Trotsky’s misunderstood policy of the “militarisation of labour” during the civil war. Rather than an ideologically driven flight into communist fantasy, as is asserted by historians, close scrutiny of Trotsky’s speeches shows it to be a sober assessment and pragmatic response to national emergency.

The book also addresses the concept of totalitarianism. These models derived from totalitarianism neglect the questions of class and social structures, providing static rather than dynamic accounts. As Marc Ferro observes in his essay, the totalitarian model establishes a simplistic equation between Stalinism and Nazism, and passes over the latter’s continuities with the practices of European imperialism.

Enzo Traverso details how the resurgence of totalitarian theory has contributed to a new anti-communism. A new pitch in hysteria has been reached in works such as Furet’s Passing of an Illusion or the collection The Black Book of Communism. Geoff Eley’s contribution to History and Revolution argues that, rather than mass movements automatically leading to totalitarianism, they provided the vital pulse of democratisation of Europe in the 20th century.

Daniel Bensaïd’s final chapter and Wolfreys and Haynes’s introduction both observe that revolutions did not just make the world we live in today, but also point beyond it. Many who are drawn into the mass movements against capitalism and war today are rediscovering revolution through great revolutionaries of the past—Gerard Winstanley, Thomas Paine, Karl Marx, Lenin and Che Guevara. Together these two books provide a manifesto for the renewal of Marxist historical writing, an agenda for challenging the commonplace distortions of much of mainstream history, and a guide for writing history that is engaged with the attempt to understand and transform the world we live in.