Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Book Review: Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History by Paul Blackledge

If there is one thing that any student of History is taught today, it is that Marxist interpretations of the past are now 'dead' or 'outmoded'. As a first year undergraduate, I remember returning from the token lecture on 'Marxist history' (given by the department's token Marxist historian) and our tutor - a right-wing military historian - asking our class if it wasn't now time to consign Marxism 'to the dustbin of history'? When I made a feeble attempt to defend the continuing relevance of the work of Marxist historians, my tutor's immediate response to me was short but memorable. 'In ten years you will have grown out of it', he declared with a self-satisfied arrogance - and that was the end of that conversation. (Incidently, he may still be right - though if I am still a Marxist when the ten year milestone is reached, I look forward to passing him on the good news).

Over the last twenty or so years, postmodernism has swept over the historical profession, declaring that 'real' events cannot be known outside written sources, and so as part of this 'cultural turn', a literary obsession with texts has replaced any sort of attempt to systematically and theoretically try and understand historical contexts. Karl Marx's insistence that all history was 'the history of class struggles' is therefore just another 'grand narrative', as outdated as the Whig historians of Victorian Britain faith in the steady march of 'Progress'. There is no universal 'History' any more, just lots of 'histories' with each little narrative as equally relevant and important as any other narrative. Relativism rules and anything is as open to study as anything else (apparently, someone recently did a History PhD on the changes in 'matchbox design in England in the nineteenth century').

What is 'good' history now is being able to tell a good story - so as long as you a good storyteller then you will do well as an postmodernist historian. Works like Simon Schama's history of the French Revolution, Citizens and Orlando Figes's A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution are lauded for describing the revolution through telling the stories of individual lives of people and how it effected them as they experienced the revolution. As a result their works are able to avoid thinking about the wider causes and consequences of the revolutions as historical movements, but instead revel in the drama as if they were writing a historical novel. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm describes Schama's Citizens as merely the latest version of a pornography of the Terror stretching back to Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities or Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, and notes Sharma's 'choice of narrative focused on particular people and incidents' and so 'neatly sidestepped the problems of perspective and generalisation'.

There is actually at last a bit of a backlash now against postmodernism in History - at least among the more brighter of the historical profession - as the postmodern interpretation of History is unable to effectively combat 'historians' with racist or fascist agendas who are quite happy to lie in order to tell pernicious stories about the past. Most worryingly there was the case of David Irving and the issue of Holocaust Denial - which those with an extreme postmodern relativist view where 'there is nothing [real] outside the text' were unable to combat theoretically. Indeed postmodernism taken to its logical conclusion, for all its talk of challenging power through studying how power operates through discourse, actually is a kind of historical perspective which would be very well suited to any sort of totalitarian state. In Orwell's 1984 it notes: 'The mutability of the past is the central tenet of Ingsoc. Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon.' The idea that past events 'have no objective existence' may appeal to postmodernists, but even if there are few if any written records directly linking Hitler to the Holocaust, and even when the last survivor of the camps die and with them dies the living human memory of the Holocaust, the murder of millions of Jews at the hands of the Nazis remains a fact. Past events do have an 'objective existence'.

The question therefore is should historians just abandon postmodernist relativism and return to some kind of empiricist bliss, where as Leopold Von Ranke put it, historians should just 'tell things as they are' with reference to 'the Facts'. Yet letting 'the Facts' speak for themselves is no real help either - as 'the Facts' tell us nothing in themselves - every historian needs some sort of framework to sort out which 'facts' matter and which do not. Otherwise the existence of 'Google' would mean that there is no longer any need for anyone to ever write any more History - since every 'fact' worth knowing is apparently widely available in seconds. But Google might tell us what happened say at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513 - it cannot tell us whyit happened that the English routed the Scots. That depends on analysis and analysing the different sources available to come to a judgement and conflicting interpretations inevitably arise.

If it is agreed we therefore need a theory to understand the past, what theory is therefore best? In his new book Reflections on the Marxist theory of History, Paul Blackledge defends the relevance of Marxism - albeit a classical Marxism that has nothing whatsoever in common with the Stalinist caricature of 'historical materialism'. As he puts it:

'Marx and, later, Marxists offer three key contributions to historiography through which we might develop a sophisticated answer to the historical relativism associated with post-modernism, without collapsing into the naive empiricism of traditional history. First, Marxists have elaborated an anthropology and a corresponding theory of language through which we might grasp, contra the post-modernists, the nature of the real world. Second, Marxists have developed a scientific method through which we might enquire into the nature of the world beyond language. Third, Marxists have developed a series of concepts through which this scientific enquiry could adequately be realised.'

This is not the place to go through all of the arguments Blackledge makes here, which range from the development of historical materialism from Marx and Engels through the Second and Third Internationals, to debates over modes of production and structure and agency, but I just want to pick up on his insistence that Marxists have a theory of language that better grasps the nature of the real world. Blackledge notes that it is not the case that Marxists have not been interested in discussion of language and the meaning of words in their own right. It is that Marx and Engels showed in The German Ideology not only how humans distinguished themselves from animals through reason and langauge, but that the reason humans invented language had to do with changes in humans activity - in particular the moment they began to 'produce their means of subsistence' - which made language necessary in the first place. As they put it 'the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life...Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence'. Blackledge then outlines the contributions to developing a Marxist interpretation of language made by Voloshinov in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Blackledge quotes Christopher Hill on how the word 'revolution' went from meaning a simple 360 degree rotation (revolving) to turning 'the world upside down' as a result of a revolution in the real world - the English Civil War. As Hill noted, 'things precede words...new words were needed because new things happened...men groped for new words to describe what they were experiencing.'

Blackledge's book has many, many strengths, and it is full of discussion of different Marxists and their contribution to the theory of history, from Lukacs to the [British] Communist Party Historians Group. There are little facinating portraits of Marxist historians, which will tell even the most seasoned Marxist something new. For example, I for one had no idea that Geoffrey de Ste Croix, author of The Class Struggle in the Ancient World in 1929 played tennis on the centre court of Wimbledon, beating the great Fred Perry in the process!

If there are any quibbles to be had, they are that the discussion of debates among Marxist historians are generally Euro-centric and perhaps even Anglocentric. It is a bit rich for me to be making such a complaint on my blog I know, but for example it is noticeable there is little discussion on say, Marxist debates on slavery in the US or the contribution of Marxist historians like Genovese, Aptheker or Rawick. Perhaps this is inevitable in any such work - and in any case it is true that British Marxist historians have made a notable contribution to Marxist historiography more generally. It is also true that to ask for a book which goes through all the controversies among Marxist historians, or all the contributions of Marxist historians throughout history, would be rather a tall order...

The other perhaps slightly disappointing thing is that there is no 'Marxist' analysis of how Marx and Engels arrived at historical materialism (in particular the influence on them of French historians writing between 1815 and the 1840s), which would have showed how working Marxist historians since Marx have always been reliant and have always tried to build on the best of bourgeois historical thought. As Kautsky noted, by the 1840s 'all the essential elements of the materialist conception of history had been supplied' and were just waiting for a genius like Marx to fuse them all together. However, the book is titled 'Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History' so it is perhaps unfair to pick Blackledge up for not discussing bourgeois historians like Thierry, Guizot or Michelet.

Overall, this is not only an excellent introduction to the Marxist theory of History which would be of use to any student of the subject as well as the general reader, but also an important defence of the usefulness of Marxism to historians at a time when bourgeois historical thought is in something of an ideological crisis as a result of the growing reaction against postmodernism within the profession.

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At 2:44 pm, Blogger Doug Nesbitt said...

Sounds like a great book - the title itself is reason enough to buy it.

I always thought the best way to counter postmodernism was giving their proponents a good punch in the face. This simple experiment should first be approved by the ethics committee.

I was wondering if Blackledge goes into the common claim that Marxist history is teleological. Such criticisms are warranted in many cases, though is this yet another unfortunate left over of Stalinism? Or is it in fact a pitfall common to all Marxist historians - a temptation caused by carelessness and a lack of theoretical rigour?

I find that in the end, most Marxist history is either teleological or in the case of Marxian social and labour history, fatally Thompsonian. I suppose the various errors found in Marxist history is understandable when the approach is so misrepresented and "discredited" in the academy, particularly in lectures and seminars.

At 7:20 pm, Blogger Rob said...

Surely there is a pretty strong link between postmodernism as described here and the Marxist 'history from below' pioneered by Thompson and his ilk?

At 7:56 pm, Blogger Doug Nesbitt said...

Postmodernism and Thompson's view of history are both in reaction to Stalinism, though I would argue that Thompson's view remains within the Marxist tradition to some extent while postmodernism rejects Marxism in its entirety.

Thompson still gives agency to the working class, and thus credits the working class with the ability to change the world. There is at least an admission of a material reality. However, rejects the classic Marxist dichotomy of a class in itself and a class for itself. This is problematic because he equates class solely with experience, instead seeing class as economically defined and class consciousness as shaped by material and social conditions.

In terms of historical research, this then favours the agency of the class over the capitalist structure. One example of this logic is David Roediger's theory of "Whiteness" whereby anti-Black racism in America can be traced to the creation of "whiteness" by the white American working class during its formative decades in the mid/late 19th century. Thus, the white American working class is to blame for racism, not the capitalist system (to terribly simplify the issue).

At 11:16 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Doug and Rob - cheers for comments and questions.

Doug - you were 'wondering if Blackledge goes into the common claim that Marxist history is teleological' - well yes - most of the book is precisely about the question of how much freedom human beings have to be agents of their own destiny and how much is limited by objective structural factors - and what Marx and his successors said about the issue. The crude Stalinist notion of economic determinism is rejected but also is the notion embraced by the likes of Sartre (and perhaps to some extent EP Thompson) that individuals are 'transhistorical subjects of history'.

After looking at things like the influence of Darwinism on Marxism, Blackledge goes through Thompson vs Althusser on this, then looks at Perry Anderson's attempt (via GA Cohen) to come to a synthesis - before arguing that Anderson's synthesis is flawed and the insights of Alasdair MacIntyre and Callinicos (in his 1987 book Making History)offer the best way of thinking about this question. The end result looks something like this:

'while human agents continue to make history in circumstances not of their own choosing, those circumstances can aid, as well as hinder, the attempts made by agents to realise their goals. Thus concieved, the level of the development of the forces of production sets the parameters of that which is possible in a positive as well as a negative sense.' There is a lot more that is said, but you'll have to buy the book to get it.

At 11:43 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Rob - you are right that the likes of Hill and Thompson ('history from below') were well ahead of the postmodernists in discussing cultural history - and perhaps Thompson's conception of class consciousness in MEWC opens the door to postmodernists - but as Doug notes this does not make them postmodernists themselves.

It is an obvious point, but you have to view Thompson and the postmodernists historically - Thompson in the 1960s was trying to restore 'the ingredient of humanity' to a Marxism in the doldrums of Stalinism - the postmodernists in the 1980s were abandoning Marxism altogether after the defeat of the movements in 1968 to break the dead hand of Stalinism and social democracy over the western working class.

At 6:23 pm, Blogger paddington said...

The 20th century was the century of the self - socialism failed on its own terms, while capitalism succeeded in slaying all that came before it. The consequence of this is that universal narratives are now discredited and have been replaced by the cult of the self. Globalisation – especially the inter-connectedness and mass communication of the world – is also bound to highlight the individual rather than the mass group.

The main problem with postmodernism is that if you suspect the legitimacy of “the historical era”, it is very difficult to talk about causes and effects. The classic case in point is Israel / Palestine . The usual right-of-centre argument is that Israel has a right to defend its borders against terrorists, and that peace can only be achieved if Arab militants disarm and recognise Israel . If you counter this argument by claiming that, for the most part, Palestinians are merely trying to regain territory lost in previous conflicts, the response is, “Well if you want to take that line, you could go back to Biblical times” – as if referring to the Six-Day War or the invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s means harking back to an entirely different epoch. This refusal to recognise historical trends means that one is forced to analyse world affairs purely on the basis of current events, or at the most, short periods of time. (Of course, occasionally it suits politicians and their supporters to reach back a little further – we see this in our government’s announcements that terrorists were active long before the invasion of Iraq, and that that war was therefore not the reason for the heightened terrorist risk – but this is always to defend bad policy, rather than to analyse an historical trend)

However, it strikes me that there are aspects of postmodernism we can draw on, and which are relevant to us. Firstly, there is an inherent paradox to any grand Marxist narrative, which is that any dialectical materialist reading of history must recognise that there is a constant shifting of shapes. Class may remain the basis for variances and tensions within society, but the nature of class will change all the time. Class consciousness in the 21st century is profoundly different to the 19th century, or even the middle of the 20th. This is why the language of the SWP and most other Marxist groups sounds so out of kilter to many people – it is not that Marx is irrelevant (far from it), but that the presentation and development of his ideas must change to address the fact that difference is not simply a product of labour relations. Subjectivity, a product or partner of postmodernism, means that identity is created by a far broader and more complex web of aspects. Secondly, this links to one of postmodernism’s great insights: the relationship between essence and appearance, and the fact that what often appears as superficial is actually the crux of the matter, whereas essence is a secondary product used to “explain” what is on the surface (I have discussed some of this on a recent post on my blog).

Postmodernism is no less a product of capitalism than unemployment and inflation – you can’t attack it without attacking its root cause. (Interestingly, it is also an inevitable product of the Enlightenment philosophies which it purports to contradict.) But you are right when you allude to the fact that Marxist historians “have always tried to build on the best of bourgeois political thought.” For precisely this reason, Marxists should be prepared to engage with postmodernism, use the bits that are useful, and pull no punches in twisting its own logic against itself.

At 1:20 am, Blogger Doug Nesbitt said...

Paddington - that's a great example re: Palestine/Israel. I've run into it many times. The point is not to retreat in the face of people who can't think beyond four weeks ago (as Galloway recently noted) and concede a historically framed debate in favour of an ahistorical debate oriented around what's "pragmatic" and what's "achievable". This is the first mistake of many on the left. If we eject history from debate, nobody will win it, thus leading to a victory for the status quo. That's precisely the failure postmodernism - it's inability to act as any sort of theoretical guide to action without collapsing back into liberal moralism, or worse yet, nihilism.

"Class consciousness in the 21st century is profoundly different to the 19th century, or even the middle of the 20th. This is why the language of the SWP and most other Marxist groups sounds so out of kilter to many people..."

Yet, as much as the language of Marxism may seem awkward to many people, the language of postmodernism is horribly imprecise, blurry and sloppy, not to mention equally if not more alienating than the thickest of Marxist terminology. I've met many Marxists who can talk Marxism but get their message across to anybody, and with conviction. I've never met a postmodernist who could explain anything in lay terms in the span of three pints.

...it is not that Marx is irrelevant (far from it), but that the presentation and development of his ideas must change to address the fact that difference is not simply a product of labour relations. Subjectivity, a product or partner of postmodernism, means that identity is created by a far broader and more complex web of aspects."

I don't know exactly what you're saying here. If you're rejecting a direct relationship between class (relationship to the means of production) and class consciousness, I totally agree. But I don't think we need postmodernism to tell us this, or to tell us how wide a range of factors shape consciousness. Plenty of Marxists have dealt with this question with great insight, Gramsci most famously (who the postmodernists love to co-opt and never realize was a leader of the PCI).

If we must draw from postermodernism it is to expand and deepen the breadth of Marxist analysis, particularly where Marxism as an analytical tool is underutilized. As China Mieville notes in this talk, in the theory of international law, postmodern approaches must be analyzed but only because there has been no attempt by Marxists to tackle the topic. But when it comes to the study of history, Marxism is second to none in power and scope and needs no help from postmodernism.

At 9:34 am, Blogger maps said...

Interesting discussion and good bait for the book. Surely the crude dismissal of postmodernism is out of order, though? Postmodernism is only an extreme manifestation of tensions that beset all worthwhile Marxist work -
the tension between particularity and generality, for instance.

The work of the best postwar Marxist thinkers - Althusser and Thompson, for instances - is an attempt to do away with the rigidities of Kautskyan and Stalinist determinism and admit more dissonance into Marxism. (I argue that Thompson and Alhusser are not so different:

Althusser's work is hard to understand, and best approached through commentaries, but it succeeds superbly in restoring to Marxist concepts some of the complexity and fluidity that they had before Kautsky, Plekhanov, and later Stalin entombed them.

The trouble with the work of Foucault, Derrida et al is not that it folows Althusser in doing away with the absurdity of appeals to an absolute 'objective truth', or hard and fast positivistic bourgeois 'definitions' of concepts that were always for Marx contingent dialectical abstractions, but rather that it loses the dialectic Althusser maintained between dissonance and coherence, and thus lapses into epistemological nihilism, which is a very different thing to epistemological relativism.

Much the same thing can be said about second wave feminism and the work of scholars of ethnicity captivated by identity politics. It's not that these postmodernists were wrong to attack the Eurocentrism and scientism of much 'Marxism', and of bourgeois social science as well - where they went wrong was in throwing the baby out with the bathwater and rejecting any notion of cross-contextual generalisation.

Marxism is beginning a revival, after being pronounced dead in the 80s and 90s, but this revival is full of dangers. On the one hand, the ideologists of the ruling class are suddenly very critical of 'multiculturalism' and 'relativism', as they rush to justify the depredations of the Bush regime as some sort of war for the Enlightenment. A faction of these ideologists - think Geras, Hitchens, Wheen - are ready to press Marx into action as a shock trooper for 'science', 'objectivity', and the supposed virtues of imperialism, aka globalisation, over Third World 'backwardness'.
If I were you Snowball I'd be more careful about quoting the first section of The Communist Manifesto: Geras et al got their first:

On the other hand we have a new generation of politicised activists and scholars who can see that the worldview and politics of postmodernism are totally incapable of dealing with the post-9/11 world. The danger is that these folk will revert to a crude caricature of Marxism in their eagerness to reassert the importance of concepts like class and imperialism. Many of them seem to share a crude empiricist epistemology with faux-Marxists like Geras and Wheen - I think of Richard Seymour of Lenin's Tomb, who is obviously a tremendously intelligent and energetic bloke, yet can't understand what use dialectics is to a Marxist!

In this sort of atmosphere I think it's important to highlight the work of Althusser who decisively rejected the crude determinism and teleology that disfigured mid-century Marxism. I've argued that the publication of the first English translation of Althusser's late work gives us an opportunity to reassess him:

At 3:17 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

A nice spirited defence of Althusser, Maps, along side some other good points. Cheers. I suspect I too am more than guilty of 'a crude empiricist epistemology' and a slight distrust of the utility of the dialectic (Seymour can defend himself - and incidently I don't think Geras and Wheen even call themselves Marxists - and I haven't seen them use Marx's notion of 'class struggle' to advocate imperialist war - yet).

Yet are we really talking about the importance of 'thinking dialectically' when it comes to analysing postmodernism as Marxists? Surely one does not need to return to Althussers anti-humanist philosophy and the abstract debates it through up to ensure we have a more nuanced grasp of how factors like class, race and gender etc shape real events in the past and present today than the Second or Third International had? I am afraid I am still rather closer to Thompson's humanism (and historicism?) than I am to Althusser - though I will certainly try to make time to properly go through the arguments on your blog and get back to you properly at some point.


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