Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

On 'History from Below'

Last month, I did a countdown of my top ten works of classic Marxist history, one of which was Edward Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Maps was provoked into the following response:

'I'll just respond to Histomat's characterisation of EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class as an "absolute classic example of the tradition of 'History from Below'". After researching Thompson's life and work a bit, I'm somewhat uncomfortable with the label of 'history from below' [HFB]...I think HFB as a label is essentially honorific and thus glosses over the origins of the school that Thompson et al belonged to. I think the defining characteristics of the 'HFB' school derive not from a new interest in the experience of ordinary people - I think Marxists were always interested in that - but from an agenda set by the turn towards Popular Frontism in the mid-30s. In Britain as elsewhere, the construction of a Popular Front required the rehabilitation of progressive or allegedly progressive aspects of national history and national cultural traditions. The British communists thus began discovering Coleridge as the English dialectician, the English Civil war as the English version of the French revolution, ye olde traditions like the Norman Yoke, and so on, and drawing deeply on a radical liberal intellectual tradition documented in Raymond Williams' 'Culture and Society'. This trend was reinforced by the adoption of the British Road to Socialism programme after the war. I think that Thompson's idealised working class tradition is thus ultimately the expression of a peculiarly British political and intellectual conjuncture, not some simple interest in a hitherto-neglected subject.'

In my opinion it is absolutely right to stress that the whole mental framework of Thompson etc was shaped by their experience in the Communist Party of Great Britain and its turn to the 'Popular Front' in the face of Fascism from about 1935 onwards. The historian Dave Renton has described this turn:

'In 1934, French Communists began to explore the idea of unity with the moderate left. Next this process was expanded to include even right-wing elements, the liberal parties and some conservative forces. Across Europe, the Popular Front was born. The broadest possible alliance was agreed - up to the fringes of fascism itself. For the critics of the Popular Front, the policy was an extraordinary step to the right. George Orwell, for one, condemned 'the nauseous spectacle of bishops, Communists, cocoa-magnates, publishers, duchesses and Labour MPs marching arm in arm to the tune of Rule Britannia'. Yet for its champions, the new line enabled Communists gained from this opportunity to reconnect to pre-Marxist socialist traditions, which had been unduly neglected. In France, the change of policy could be observed - neatly - in the choice of songs played at Communist rallies. The Internationale was now considered unplayable; in its place came the Republican Marseillaise. In Britain, the cultural politics of the Popular Front was expressed in the form of historical pageants. May Day parades were lead off by men and women carrying the symbols of Britain's folk-history - a story which might have had less 'progressive' meaning in other countries such as Ireland. Raphael Samuel reports that Communists 'set about deliberately fostering a sense of democratic heritage, and in these "March of History" pageants which the Party organised in 1936, Cromwell's portrait was borne proudly aloft along with those of John Ball and Wat Tyler.' Such politics continued, with further twists and turns, reaching its high-point in the wartime anti-fascist alliance of 1941-5. For most of the historians, the Second World War was a moment of validation. Previous political choices were proven to be correct. Afterwards, many members of this generation would return to this period, and find in it a set of lessons, which could guide their hand through later turmoil, of personal, political or historical origin. E. P. Thompson, a savage critic of the Communist Party's 'diabolical and hysterical' Marxism, never expressed anything but nostalgia and praise for the wartime conduct of the British Communists:

I recall a resolute and ingenious civilian army, increasingly hostile to the conventional military virtues, which became - far more than any of my younger friends will begin to credit - an anti-fascist and consciously anti-imperialist army. Its members voted Labour back in 1945: knowing why, as did the civilians back home. Many were infused with socialist ideas and expectations wildly in advance of the tepid rhetoric of today's Labour leaders ... Our expectations may have been shallow, but this was because we were overly utopian and ill-prepared for the betrayals at our backs.'

In short, I agree that perhaps 'HFB' does 'gloss over' this Popular Frontism. Yet the more pertinent question is: does this matter? Did this 'Popular Frontist' baggage undermine their historical work - or tarnish it?

In the case of Thompson, Renton seems to agree with 'Maps' that it was a problem, though he admits that 'one problem with marking E. P. Thompson down as a nationalist, is that so much of his politics were expressed in an internationalist form. The obvious example is his campaigning work for the international peace movement. By the mid-1980s, Thompson's preferred instrument was END, the European Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. We could also cite his support for movements of the oppressed in the Third World, including above all India. Thompson was not a British nationalist. His politics were generous, egalitarian and sincere.' Yet as an historian he sees 'hints of a nationalist infection...which emerged because his history was expressed in part on that terrain' - the nation.

For Renton, and others, the Communist and ex-Communist historians like Thompson were involved in a dual project:

'On the one hand, the historians were dedicated to studying the lives of ordinary people. This determination brought them to the study of previous neglected peoples' lives. Yet many of these writers would not raise their heads (intellectually) above the parapets of the nation, and study experiences beyond the borders of their own state. Having limited their interests in this way, the majority of the British Marxist historians then demonstrated a linked tendency to search back into the past - looking for evidence of the continuous march of British labour - and ignoring evidence of social processes pointing towards a different egalitarian outcome, beyond their own time. There were of course, a few exceptions. But in order to understand the politics and the history writing of the British Marxist historians, then it is best to see that many members of the group were trained to believe that there was no contradiction between a socialist and left-wing national politics.'

Yet while there is much truth in this, I think it is not the total truth.

Firstly, the 'few exceptions' in the Communist Party Historians Group to those who 'would not raise their heads (intellectually) above the parapets of the nation, and study experiences beyond the borders of their own state' seem to me to such important exceptions as to almost undermine the whole hypothesis. So Eric Hobsbawm - whatever one thinks of his defence of the 'Popular Front' in Age of Extremes, has surveyed the globe in his historical researches - his great works on 'the long nineteenth century' and the 'short twentieth century' stand out here. To stick with Hobsbawm, he has also tried to rescue from 'the enormous condescension of posterity' (to use Thompson's phrase) various 'bandits' in Latin America and Spain, as well as all manner of Third World 'revolutionaries'. Other Communist historians who have written about the effects of British imperialism internationally include John Saville and Victor Kiernan.

Secondly, the Communist Party historians were always careful to locate each historical struggle in its own context at the time - with an accurate assessment of the class character of revolts and rebels - as opposed to some ahistorical 'march of history' which can slide over into forms of left nationalism.

Finally, 'History from Below' seems to me to be a fundamentally healthy tradition - even if one sticks within the boundaries of the nation state - providing one always takes care to locate the national within the international. Think about AL Morton's A People's History of England (which I am often quoting from on this blog) or even Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States , which in an important sense arguably remain models for historians in other countries to reclaim 'their' national histories against the official interpretations of the past as laid down by their rulers. To those who can only see 'Stalinism', 'Popular Frontism' or 'Left-nationalism' in all this, one can only quote from Frederick Engels, in his The Peasant War in Germany (1850) - arguably his attempt to write part of a real 'People's History of Germany':

'The German people are by no means lacking in revolutionary tradition. There were times when Germany produced characters that could match the best men in the revolutions of other countries; when the German people manifested an endurance and energy which, in a centralised nation, would have brought the most magnificent results; when the German peasants and plebeians were pregnant with ideas and plans which often made their descendants shudder.'

We need more 'History from Below' - not less.

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At 12:53 am, Blogger Rob said...

I think history from below is a necessary corrective to the overly functionalist analyses of some Marxists who see social *struggle* as the mere imposition of the will of the dominant class upon the subalterns.

Of course really what is needed is neither history from above or above but history as struggle and that struggle as constitutive. In this respect I am actually quite drawn to the autonomists.

At 1:05 am, Blogger Snowball said...

'history as struggle and that struggle as constitutive'

Yes - but what arguably is vital to remember is that struggle takes place in a certain context where there are objective limits beyond which some things are not possible.

So however much one might praise the Levellers or say the Paris Communards of the 1790s, the material base for socialism - a working class created and disciplined by capitalist production- was not there and so ultimately 'History' was against them and their struggles - no matter how 'constitutive' it was.

The focus on working class consciousness ('the working class for itself') at the expense of looking objectively at the state of the working class 'in itself' is actually an issue in Thompson's 'The Making' - which is why it is loved by autonomists.

A Marxist conception of 'total history' needs to be our ultimate aim.

At 4:16 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"HFB" is not a concept that Marxists were always comfortable with. It took the Frankfurt School and the poststructuralists to put a human face on Marxist structuralist orthodoxy. Thompson may not have been the first but he was certainly one of the best to humanize the legacy of Marxist historiography.

At 5:06 am, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

Nice work. When will your people's history be in print? You'd be good at writing it.

At 4:56 pm, Blogger Rob said...

Yes - but what arguably is vital to remember is that struggle takes place in a certain context where there are objective limits beyond which some things are not possible.

Of course, I didn't mean to disagree with that. What I did mean is that history from below has to be seen as struggling from above, and accordingly take such a perspective. Total history - yes - but total history doesn't focus on individual classes but how they interact (conditioned by and within the limits of the totality of material/social relations.

What I find useful in the autonomists is their understanding of capitalist social processes as involving an inherent struggle. Thus any 'history' of capital is necessary a history of the working class, and must include them within it (Marx's Capital - apparently the quintessial work on 'capital' is of course brimming with this).

"HFB" is not a concept that Marxists were always comfortable with. It took the Frankfurt School and the poststructuralists to put a human face on Marxist structuralist orthodoxy. Thompson may not have been the first but he was certainly one of the best to humanize the legacy of Marxist historiography.

The Frankfurt school is probably too broad to place in this category. People like Adorno might well see the 'human' but they see struggling classes as passive 'objects' for some overwheening structural 'culture'. Of course there are some who are much better, yet I get the feelng that even they are slightly off.

Which post structuralist Marxists do you refer to?

At 9:22 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Rob - all very good points. Cheers.

I would also like to see a bit of evidence for the idea that it was not until the Frankfurt School that Marxist history was retrieved from the doldrums of economic determinism.

At 10:53 am, Blogger maps said...

Hi Snowball, have made a reply to some of these comments at:


At 8:54 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Thanks - I'll reply when I get a free moment, probably on here.

At 9:42 am, Blogger MALAGMA said...

Roy Bhaskar's Critical Realism gives some light on these grounds relating history and human agency.

I recommend his book on the possibilities of a Social Science (1987) "Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation".

I also point out his first book (1975) "A Realist Theory of Science," London: Verso.

At 2:23 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi all, I don't know too much about thompson so I've a question maybe someone could help me out with. I've started reading some of his essays from his new reasoner days. The similarities with the early Frankfurt school seem evident however I can't really find any evidence to say he'd read any horkheimer or adorno - was it pure coincidence or was thompson influenced by them?


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