Marxist Historiography Throughout the 20th Century

By Charlotte Kelsted

Karl Marx believed that the history of human society was best understood through the concept of historical materialism (although Marx himself never used this term). This is the theory that political systems, institutions and culture (the ‘superstructure’ of society) have always been, and always will be, determined by the relationship between man and his means of production (the ‘base’ of society).[1]

Marx identified five successive stages in the history of human society: the primitive-communal stage, characterised by hunter-gatherer communities; the ancient stage, where slaves had neither property nor rights and were subject to the will of their masters; the feudal stage, in which peasants worked on the land for their masters; the capitalist stage, characterised by a system of wage labour; and eventually the socialist stage, initiating the rule of the proletariat and paving the way for the long-awaited and ideal stage of communism.[2]

Throughout the twentieth century, Marx’s theory of historical materialism was both amended and extended by a series of historians known collectively as the neo-Marxists. The first of these was the Italian theorist and politician Antonio Gramsci, who argued that it was vitally important to amend Marx’s theory of historical materialism in order to take into account the role of culture in shaping society. This “cultural ground” that Gramsci had “opened to view” was examined further by the British Marxist historians between the 1940s and 1970s, a particularly famous example of which is Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, published in 1963.[3] The British Marxist historians were largely responsible for laying the foundations of both social history and the history from below approach, their influence described by Geoff Eley as “comparable to that of the Annales school in France”.[4] From the 1980s onwards, however, neo-Marxist approaches to historiography experienced a decline in the Western world. Not only did historians become less interested in the history of class and more concerned with issues of gender, race and ethnicity, but Peter Claus and John Marriott have argued also that Marx’s theory of historical materialism was “fatally damaged” by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.[5] In Asia, Africa and Latin America, however, neo-Marxist approaches to historiography went from strength to strength in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Postcolonial historians used a neo-Marxist framework to explain the West’s historic and ongoing exploitation of the Global South, and the Subaltern Studies Group sought to extend Marx’s notion of the proletariat to include those who had previously been absent from histories of India’s independence movement.

Despite these changing definitions of neo-Marxist history, the ultimate purpose of a neo-Marxist approach has remained consistent throughout the twentieth century: to encourage resistance to exploitation. Just as Karl Marx believed that an improved understanding of the historic exploitation of the proletariat would encourage revolution in the nineteenth century, the British Marxist historians hoped that their histories would “contribute to class consciousness” and inspire a working-class uprising in Britain.[6] Postcolonial historians have similarly hoped that their histories will “enable successful resistance” to ongoing Western domination in the Global South.[7] This article seeks to trace and explain these neo-Marxist approaches to historiography of the twentieth century. In order to examine these approaches in adequate depth, certain schools of neo-Marxist thought, such as Jacques Derrida and the French cultural theorists, will not be explored.

An examination of the definition and usage of neo-Marxist approaches to historiography throughout the twentieth century must begin with the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, recently described by Walter Adamson as “one of the most imaginative developers of Marxist theory”.[8] Imprisoned by Benito Mussolini in November 1926, Gramsci wrote his largely influential Quaderni del carcere, known in English as the Prison Notebooks, during his eleven years in confinement.[9] According to Joseph Buttigieg, “few twentieth century works have elicited as much widespread interest or have had as great an impact on so many diverse fields of study” as Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.[10] It was here that Gramsci convincingly argued for an alteration to Marx’s theory of historical materialism. This alteration was born of a crucial difference that Gramsci observed between the legitimation of state authority in Russia and its counterpart in Western Europe.[11] In Russia, Gramsci noted that the state was “not supported by, or interconnected with, the vast array of cultural organizations, ideologies, beliefs and social and political rituals” of the people.[12] In Western Europe, however, it was precisely the state’s support from – and interconnection with – these aspects of civil society that granted its legitimacy. Gramsci used the term “cultural hegemony” to describe this phenomenon, realising that for revolutionary parties to achieve success in Western Europe, it was crucial for them to construct a “cultural fabric of values, practices, institutions and symbols with which the popular masses identified”.[13] Gramsci thus argued that in order to fully comprehend human thought and action in the past, present and future, one must examine the “cultural fabric” of the working class.[14] Marx’s interpretation of history had failed to grant any agency to working class culture, recognising only the relations of production as an agent of change. Gramsci’s alteration to Marx’s theory of historical materialism came to shape the work of all subsequent neo-Marxists, starting with the British Marxist historians.

In 1946 the Communist Party Historians’ Group was founded in Great Britain, many of whom had taken part in the anti-fascist campaigns in Britain in the late 1930s.[15] Adamson describes this group as less interested in the role of economic structure and economic relations in shaping the past and instead keen to explore the role of “cultural relations and practices” that Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks had “opened to view”.[16] Adam Budd has described this as a “refreshingly human approach” at a time when many of the more traditional Marxists were dismissing the history of the “traditions, value systems, ideas and institutional forms” of the working class.[17] The British Marxist historians reached the height of their influence between the 1940s and 1970s, with Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class a particularly notable example of their work.[18] Published in 1963, Thompson’s study traced the growing class consciousness among the English working class between 1780 and 1832, arguing that it was during this period that “most English working people came to feel an identity of interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs”.[19] Although Thompson’s focus was still on the working class and class struggle, his work represented the shift away from traditional Marxist interpretations of the past that had been initiated by Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks. Marx had believed that the economy was the only agent of change in human society, showing little awareness of how culture – an aspect of the ‘superstructure’ of society – could also shape history. Ludmilla Jordanova confirms that Thompson’s work marked a shift away from “relations of production as determining social relations”, towards “class consciousness as a special phenomenon”.[20] Indeed, The Making of the English Working Class has been praised by Adamson for being an “enormously influential example of how to study emerging class consciousness in relation to its basis in a cultural community rather than as any sort of simple reflection of economic circumstances”.[21]

Another important example of the work of the British Marxist historians is Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, published in 1972.[22] Claus and Marriott describe how Hill’s focus on the “fascinating flood of radical ideas” from groups such as the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters during the English Revolution reveal the Revolution to have been “cultural at every turn”.[23] The work of Eric Hobsbawm is similarly focussed on working class culture, with his 1960 article ‘Custom, Wages and Work-Load in Nineteenth Century Industry’ paying equal attention to “custom and tradition” and “existing technology and economic requirements” in nineteenth century industry.[24] Harvey Kaye has described Hobsbawm as “critical of both (vulgar) Marxist and ‘bourgeois’ historians who might seek to reduce the historical process to economic explanations” and Hobsbawm himself said in 1962 that “history is the struggle of men for ideas, as well as a reflection of their material environments”.[25] Other notable work by Hobsbawm during this period include: ‘The Machine Breakers’ of 1952; Primitive Rebels of 1965; and Captain Swing, co-authored with George Rude in 1968.[26] Another influential British Marxist historian during this period was Rodney Hilton, who argued in 1952 that “neither feudalism nor capitalism are understandable simply as phases in economic history. Society and its movement must be examined in their totality”.[27]

It is important to note that the British Marxist historians’ focus on working class culture laid the foundations for both social history and the history from below approach: Eley has described the long term significance of this group as “comparable to that of the Annales school in France”.[28] Prior to the 1940s, historians had focused exclusively on political and economic change, “from the perspective (and to serve the interests) of ruling-class elites”.[29] But the British Marxist historians dramatically altered this. Their focus on the lived experiences of people in the past, from the perspective of society’s non-elites, led to the rise of social history and history from below, in Britain and further afield. Eley has described the British Marxist  historians as having “shaped the contours of social history in Britain” and Budd points out that the term ‘history from below’ only entered common parlance among historians after the publication of Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class in 1963, which sought to “rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan… from the enormous condescension of posterity”.[30]

Although there was certainly a shift from Marx’s purely economic interpretation of the past to Gramsci and the British Marxist historians’ focus on class culture as an agent of change, the ultimate purpose of these approaches remained largely consistent with that of Karl Marx himself. Marx had hoped that his theory of historical materialism would “inform, incite, and empower workers towards realizing their communist destiny” and a similar sentiment was shared by many of the British Marxist historians.[31] Budd has pointed out that although “all historians hope to provide a measure of understanding to those who read them”, the British Marxist historians took this a step further by “making political empowerment and social consciousness a central aim of their work”.[32] For the centenary of Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto in February 1948, the Communist Party Historians’ Group (to which many British Marxist historians initially belonged) organised a dramatized version of the political pamphlet at the Royal Albert Hall in London.[33] The group also organised for translations of the work of “Marx and Engels, Lenin and Stalin, as well as latter-day Marxist luminaries such as Antonio Gramsci”.[34] The group were additionally behind the journal Past and Present, founded in 1952, whose first editor aspired for “a vast public of ordinary readers in their tens of thousands, thirsting to understand the past and to learn its lessons for the present”.[35] Not only did the British Marxist historians believe it was their duty to “raise awareness of oppressive economic systems”, but to also encourage revolution by “contributing to class consciousness through scholarship and discussion, recovering the substance of experience that will inspire readers to envision an alternative social and economic reality”.[36] Pat Hudson notes that “bolstered by the political climate and youth culture” of the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of copies of these historians’ work, most notably Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, sold “outside the realm of academe”.[37]

From the 1980s onwards, however, there was a decline in neo-Marxist approaches to historiography in the Western world, with “many fewer historians now describing themselves as Marxist” and “few attempts to develop Marxist historiography further”.[38] There were three reasons for this decline. First, Jordanova has noted that by the 1980s historians had incorporated “the key elements of Marxist interpretations of history… where they were useful”.[39] Historians no longer focused exclusively on political and economic change in the past, nor were histories only written “from the perspective (and to serve the interests) of ruling-class elites”.[40] Class had also been widely accepted by historians as an important category of analysis by the 1980s, with Claus and Marriott describing a “consensus among most historians” that “class and class struggle are important and so is their analysis”.[41] The second reason for this decline is that from the 1980s onwards, historians were “less interested in class struggle and the nature of production” and instead concerned with the “competing identities associated with gender, race, sexuality and national and local belonging”, including “the historical plight of women and the sexually excluded”.[42] For these fields, a Marxist interpretation of history was simply not appropriate. Catherine Hall notes that “the attempt to analyse the sexual division of labour and patterns of reproduction through Marxist categories sent us down many blind alleys” while Robert Young explains in White Mythologies that because Marxist interpretations of history only allow for one ‘Other’ (the proletariat), issues of gender, race and ethnicity were either neglected in Marxist interpretations of the past or manipulated to fit into the Marxist narrative of progress: Marxist interpretations of history could thus “no longer claim to subsume all processes of change”.[43] The third reason for the decline of neo-Marxist approaches to historiography in the Western world was the “failure of Marx’s practical policies”.[44] Adamson points out that the hope that “revolutions would prove emancipatory” was “soured” by the experiences of the twentieth century, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 further “discredited” Marxism as a force in world politics.[45] Adamson additionally notes that the decline of Marxist history writing was compounded by the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 and its “abject failure … as a carrier of Marxist hopes”.[46]

In the Global South, however, the importance of neo-Marxist approaches to historiography in the last two decades of the twentieth century is evident from the rise of postcolonialism. Indeed, Young has confirmed that postcolonial histories “operate within the framework of Marxist critiques”.[47] Two key features of postcolonial history (also known as tricontinentialism) expose it as a form of neo-Marxism. Firstly, postcolonial historians have drawn similarities between the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and the West and the Global South today. As Young explains in Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction, postcolonialists believe that it was the “globalisation of Western imperial power” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that led to the “fusing together” of many different societies across the world “into following the same economic path”.[48] This has led to the entire world now operating “within an economic system primarily developed and controlled by the West”.[49] Postcolonial historians believe that this globalisation of Western imperial power brought with it the West’s exploitation of the Global South, and that this exploitation has not yet ended. They blame this for the continuing “deprivation” in Asia, Africa and Latin America, describing how “disempowered peoples and societies remain subjected”.[50] Just as Marx believed that at each of the five stages of human development one group exploits another, postcolonialists believe that since the dawn of imperialism, the West has consistently exploited the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America.[51] The second facet of postcolonialism that exposes it as a form of neo-Marxism is its focus on an improved understanding of the exploitation of the past as a means to encourage resistance to exploitation in the present. Postcolonialists believe that by “investigating the practice of colonization” in the past as well as “the means and causes of … international deprivation and exploitation” in the present, their histories will “enable successful resistance” to such exploitation.[52] This ambition is not dissimilar to that of Marx himself, who hoped that his theory of historical materialism would “inform, incite, and empower workers towards realizing their communist destiny”.[53] It is also comparable to the aspirations of the British Marxist historians, who hoped that their work on the history of the English working class would “raise awareness of oppressive economic systems”, “contribute to class consciousness” and subsequently “inspire readers to envision an alternative social and economic reality”.[54]

The continued relevance of neo-Marxist approaches to historiography in the non-Western world at the end of the twentieth century is also evident from the success of the Subaltern Studies Group. Founded in 1982 and characterised by the work of Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gyan Prakash, Sumit Sarkar, Gayatri Spivak and Ranajit Guha among others, the Subaltern Studies approach to history writing has been described by Young as a form of “tricontinental Marxist revisionism”.[55] Prakash has similarly noted that the Subaltern Studies Collective has been both inspired by and critical of Marxist interpretations of history, and Bart Moore-Gilbert has pointed out that the group have only adopted the useful aspects of classical Marxist analysis.[56] As a branch of postcolonialism, the Subaltern Studies Group has remained within postcolonialism’s neo-Marxist framework, comparing the relationship between the imperial West and the Global South to that of the bourgeoisie and proletariat. But scholars of this group have additionally sought to amend Marx’s theory of historical materialism by extending the category of the proletariat to include the ‘subalterns’ who, by definition, were previously “ignored by Marxist historians”.[57] The term ‘subaltern’ originates from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, where he used the term to describe those who were marginalised from the urban working class in Italy during the early twentieth century, namely those in non-industrial, rural areas.[58] The Subaltern Studies Group have sought to recover the perspective and experiences of comparable individuals in colonial India, who have hitherto remained absent from the historical narrative. As Guha outlined in the inaugural edition of the journal Subaltern Studies in 1982, “the historiography of Indian nationalism has for a long time been dominated by elitism – colonialist elitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism”, with little attention paid to “the contribution made by the people, on their own, that is, independently of the elite to the making and development of this nationalism”.[59] Echoing postcolonial historians, the Subaltern Studies Group have therefore operated within a neo-Marxist framework, with the West as the contemporary bourgeoisie, and the Global South as the proletariat. But they have also extended the Marxist interpretation of history to include those who had previously been neglected in histories of colonial India. The work of the Subaltern Studies Group was not only influential in South Asia, but also came to influence the writing of history in other parts of the Global South. In 1992, John Beverley founded the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group and the group’s founding statement once again emphasised “the limits of elite historiography in relation to the subaltern”. [60]

It is somewhat ironic, however, that historians of the Global South have used neo-Marxist frameworks to critique Western imperialism. As Tom Kemp points out, Marx himself viewed imperialism as a necessary evil, an unavoidable stage in the history of human development that would inevitably lead to revolution and the establishment of a society based on communism.[61] Therefore when historians of the Global South use a neo-Marxist framework to critique Western imperialism, they are using the framework of an individual who regarded imperialism as a mandatory stage in the development of any human society.

In conclusion, whilst the definition of neo-Marxist history has certainly changed during the twentieth century, the ultimate aim of neo-Marxist historians has remained consistent throughout. Marx believed that all historical change could be explained in terms of the relationship between man and his means of production, that all aspects of society – even non-economic aspects, such as political systems, institutions and culture – were fundamentally shaped by economic circumstances. The first scholar to successfully challenge this interpretation of history was Antonio Gramsci, who used a comparison of Russia and the states of Western Europe to show that the history of human society could not be understood without attributing agency to culture. Gramsci thus proposed an amendment to Marx’s interpretation of the past, arguing that culture must additionally be recognised as an impetus to historical change. Between the 1940s and 1970s, a collection of Marxist historians in Britain applied Gramsci’s notion of culture as an agent of historical change to the working class, laying the foundations of both social history and history from below. From the 1980s onwards, however, there was a decline in neo-Marxist interpretations of history in the West. Not only had the most useful aspects of Marxist analysis been largely accepted by historians, but scholars were increasingly interested in the categories of gender, race and ethnicity, for which a neo-Marxist interpretation of history was inadequate. This decline was consolidated by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But the last two decades of the twentieth century saw a rise of neo-Marxism in the Global South. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, neo-Marxist history took the form of postcolonialism and Subaltern Studies. Both schools of thought applied the Marxist framework of the bourgeoisie and proletariat to the West and Global South, but the Subaltern Studies Collective additionally sought to extend Marx’s category of the proletariat to include those who had previously been neglected in the historical narrative of India’s independence movement. However, despite these changes, the ultimate aim of neo-Marxist histories has remained consistent throughout the twentieth century. Karl Marx believed that by exposing the historic relationship between the exploiter and the exploited, his work would encourage revolution. The British Marxist historians hoped that by bringing to light the historic oppression of the working class in Britain, their histories would encourage a workers’ revolution. In a similar vein, postcolonial scholars and historians of the Subaltern Studies School have sought to liberate the peoples of the Global South by exposing both the historic and ongoing injustices perpetrated by the West. What remains to be seen is whether or not historians of the Global South will similarly dispose of neo-Marxist frameworks once they have extracted and internalised their most useful elements.

[1] K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, trans. and ed. by N. Stone (Nabu, 2010).

[2] Ibid.

[3] W. Adamson, ‘Marxism and Historical Thought’ in L. Kramer and S. Maza (eds.), A Companion to Western Historical Thought (Malden, 2002), p. 217; E. Thompson, The Making of The English Working Class (Harmondsworth, 1980).

[4] G. Eley, ‘Marxist Historiography’ in S. H. Berger, H. Feldner and K. Passmore (eds.), Writing History: Theory and Practice (London, 2003), p. 71.

[5] P. Claus and J. Marriott, History: An Introduction to Theory, Method and Practice (Harlow, 2012), p. 82.

[6] A. Budd (ed.), The Modern Historiography Reader (London, 2008), p. 269.

[7] R. Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford, 2001), p. 69.

[8] Adamson, ‘Marxism and Historical Thought’, p. 216.

[9] J. Buttigieg, ‘Philology and Politics: Returning to the Text of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks’ Boundary 2 21 (1994), 99; A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (London, 1971).

[10] Buttigieg, ‘Philology and Politics’, 99.

[11] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks.

[12] Adamson, ‘Marxism and Historical Thought’, p. 216.

[13] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks; Adamson, ‘Marxism and Historical Thought’, p. 216.

[14] Adamson, ‘Marxism and Historical Thought’, p. 216.

[15] Eley, ‘Marxist Historiography’, p. 71.

[16] Adamson, ‘Marxism and Historical Thought’, p. 217.

[17] Budd (ed.), The Modern Historiography Reader, p. 270.

[18] Thompson, The Making of The English Working Class.

[19] Ibid, p. 12.

[20] L. Jordanova, History in Practice (London, 2006), p. 68.

[21] Adamson, ‘Marxism and Historical Thought’, p. 217.

[22] C. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (London, 1972).

[23] Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, p. 15; Claus and Marriott, History: An Introduction, p. 189.

[24] E. Hobsbawm, ‘Custom, Wages and Work-Load in Nineteenth Century Industry’ in A. Briggs and J. Saville (eds.), Essays in Labour History in Memory of G. D. H. Cole, 25 September 1889 – 14 January 1959 (London, 1967).

[25] H. Kaye, The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis (Basingstoke, 1995), p. 154; Hobsbawm, ‘Progress in History’ Marxism Today (February 1962), pp. 44-8.

[26] Hobsbawm, ‘The Machine Breakers’ Past and Present 1 (1952), 57-70; Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th Century of 1965 (New York, 1965); Hobsbawm and G. Rude, Captain Swing: A Social History of the Great English Agricultural Uprising of 1830 (Harmondsworth, 1968).

[27] R. Hilton, ‘Capitalism: What’s in a Name?’ Past and Present 1 (1952), 42.

[28] Eley, ‘Marxist Historiography’, p. 71.

[29] Budd (ed.), The Modern Historiography Reader, p. 270.

[30] Eley, ‘Marxist Historiography’, p. 71; Budd (ed.), The Modern Historiography Reader, p. 515; Thompson, The Making of The English Working Class, p. 12.

[31] Budd (ed.), The Modern Historiography Reader, p. 269.

[32] Ibid.

[33] G. Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old: Critical Essays and Reappraisals (Cambridge, 2004), p. 72.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Budd (ed.), The Modern Historiography Reader, p. 269.

[36] Ibid.

[37] P. Hudson, ‘Economic History’ in S. H. Berger, H. Feldner and K. Passmore (eds.), Writing History: Theory and Practice (London, 2003), p. 225.

[38] Claus and Marriott, History: An Introduction, p. 77; Jordanova, History in Practice, p. 56.

[39] Jordanova, History in Practice, p. 56.

[40] Budd (ed.), The Modern Historiography Reader, p. 270.

[41] Claus and Marriott, History: An Introduction, p. 82.

[42] Ibid, p. 80.

[43] C. Hall, ‘Marxism and its Others’ in C. Wickham (ed.), Marxist History-Writing for the Twenty-First Century (Oxford, 2007), p. 112; R. Young, White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (London, 1990), pp. 35-36.

[44] Claus and Marriott, History: An Introduction, p. 82.

[45] Adamson, ‘Marxism and Historical Thought’, p. 218.

[46] Ibid, p. 217.

[47] Young, Postcolonialism, p. 6.

[48] Ibid, p. 5.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid, p. 69.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Budd (ed.), The Modern Historiography Reader, p. 269.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Young, Postcolonialism, p. 355.

[56] Prakash, ‘Subaltern Studies as Postcolonial Critique’ 1475; B. Moore-Gilbert, Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics (London, 1997), p. 80.

[57] Young, White Mythologies, p. 354.

[58] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks.

[59] R. Guha, ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’ Subaltern Studies 1 (1982), 1; Ibid, 3.

[60] Latin American Subaltern Studies Group ‘Founding Statement’ Boundary 2 20 (1993), 112.

[61] T. Kemp, ‘The Marxist Theory of Imperialism’ in R. Owen and B. Sutcliffe (eds.), Studies in the Theory of Imperialism (London, 1972), pp. 13-33.

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