Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Classic Marxist Historiography

Brothers, sisters, friends and comrades - I profusely apologise but I am really busy at the moment. So rather than me bore you by doing the talking, I thought I would allow readers to discuss what they think are the greatest works of Marxist history ever written. There have been some outstanding Marxist historians - who have produced some outstanding work - but to create controversy and discussion I have selected a 'top ten' - restricting myself from using the same person twice. This list is about classic works - and one work that will doubtless become a classic - and so perhaps some 'one hit wonders' take precedence here over more deserving cases (the notable example here is Eric Hobsbawm, who I admire greatly, and many others from the Communist Party Historian's Group of 1946-1956). And how can anyone really quantify this stuff anyway? Nevertheless, I produced this list precisely so people feel duty bound to tear into it. However, if you haven't read any of the following, I highly recommend you do - and if you know a lot more about Marxism and History than me then please inform the rest of us about what we should be reading. Apologies for not explaining more about my choices - but perhaps at a later date... And, before anyone points it out - I know Women's history remains rather neglected at the moment on this blog - it is something I will try and rectify in future - feel free to throw links and recommendations at me for women's history... Finally, if you are thinking about buying any of the books mentioned, remember use a pro-trade union bookshop like this lot rather than corporate bastards like Amazon, Borders, et al.

Ten: Chris Harman - A People's History of the World (1999)
- Does what it says in the title. An excellent introduction full of tips for further reading. As a nice bonus, it is online here. A controversial choice for a top ten - but hey, I'm a controversial kind of guy.

Nine: G.E.M. de Ste Croix - The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981) Guardian obituary of de Ste Croix here - he often gets unfairly forgotten in such lists.

Eight: Frederick Engels -The Peasant War In Germany (1850)
One of the first, if not the first, work of 'Marxist history' - as such it deserves a place in here. It showed that in 'religious wars', there are not only bloody battles - economics and politics are never far from the surface either...
Online here

Seven: Christopher Hill - The English Revolution 1640 (1940). Online here. Yeah, Hill's later work is probably better, but it ain't online so... Mention should be made here of Brian Manning, one of Hill's students, who wrote the underrated The English People and the English Revolution.

Six:Isaac Deutscher - Trotsky(3 Vols - 1954-64) Wonderful Marxist biography. Neil Davidson has an interesting article on Deutscher here

Five: Mike Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts; El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (2001)

How British imperialism, economic crisis and the environment combined to create famines which murdered 12-29 million Indians during the high period of the Raj. See a recent article by Monbiot, 'How Britain denies its holocausts' and a review here. A model for Marxist writing today.

Four: E.P. Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class(1963)

A Class book, and also an absolute classic example of the tradition of 'History from Below' by a brilliant historian

Three: C.L.R James - The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938)

A grand narrative of a victorious slave revolt in Haiti- indeed 'the only successful slave revolt in history' - that was intrinsically intertwined with the Great French Revolution. Apparently a film of the Haitian Revolution should be coming out at some point - see this blog - which is excellent news.

Two:Karl Marx - The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851)

Online here, this little book will show you why Marxist history is the complete opposite from everything your teachers ever told you it is - and from the great man himself. It don't get much better than this...

One:Leon Trotsky - The History of the Russian Revolution (1930)

...only it did, once. Online here, just as Marx's 18th Brumaire was written after 1848, this was also written in the aftermath of a revolution. Things always seem a lot clearer after such events, for some reason:

"The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny."

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At 3:09 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am wading in a little over my head here but isn't the great thing about 18th Brumaire that it brings in other themes as well as class struggle in an analysis of French history such as the cult of personality (the two Napoleons) and the idea that events are echoed throughout history in an almost cyclical fashion.

I'm going to have to read it again now but am I right in saying it reappraises previous Marxist on the French revolution and suggests that France suffered one giant and highly distructive revolution from 1789 to 1871 and only after that date does a truly bourgeois France emerge ? Or have I just made that bit up ?

At 3:11 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hang on, it can't do, it was published in 1851. Well maybe he was thinking along those lines anyway. The dictatorship of Louis Napoleon was in some way a true expression of French bourgeois aspirations or something like that, oh bollocks I don't know......

At 5:31 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Hmm...now I will have to go and read it again. Damn you!

At 2:39 am, Blogger maps said...

Have done a quick response to this at:


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