Historiography 13.10.11 — Marxism

I find Marxism a rather fascinating histioriographical topic to study, which yes, makes me weird I know. Part of this may stem from the fact that Marx was not a historian, yet he theorized about history and profoundly influenced the entire historical community, and quite frankly, in some very needed ways. Yet, conversely, his ideas, some would argue, have clearly fallen apart. For the American reader, this might be a challenging topic because ‘Marxism’ generally equates to a dirty word in American society. Cold War, anyone?

I think Marxism has influenced history in three main areas:

  1. History from the ‘below’. History, prior to Marx, has looked primarily at the elite members of society. History from below considers the ‘ordinary’ person, the working class.
  2. A focus on how economic factors can drive history.
  3. History as distinct epochs. Marx argued that history was moving through distinct phases that would eventually culminate in world-wide communism.

One interesting question to consider is whether you can be a Marxist historian without being a Marxist too. I think the answer is, in theory, yes. Certainly, at least, one could examine history through economic factors and ‘from the bottom up’, and perhaps even view history through the lens of epochs, without also politically and economically advocating for communism or even socialism. Yet, at the same time, I think it might be practically difficult to separate the two.

In class, we focused specifically on British Marxist, who interestingly enough, arguably may not have been Marxists. One of the main figures we looked at was E. P. Thompson, who was a particular champion of ‘history from below’ and whose work still is revered in academic circles today. Some consider him a Marxist historian, and others consider him a cultural historian. Both sides have good evidence. While he and other British Marxists were politically active for a while, most of them eventually left the Communist party. They also were willing to work with other, non-Marxist, historians. Thompson’s book The Making of the English Working Class is seen as the start of the ‘cultural history’ field. Yet he called himself a ‘qualified Marxist’. So, I suppose the simplest summary of the British Marxist historians is that they are a complicated and paradoxical group.

This is a part of my History at Queens series. I am writing on what I’m learning in my modules and as a part of my own research. Hope you enjoy!

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7 thoughts on “Historiography 13.10.11 — Marxism

  1. So interesting. I sometimes wish I had taken Posey’s seminar class. I also agree that one doesn’t have to be a Marxist in order to look at history from a Marxiist perspective. But I think it stays in theory unless you commit to the ideology. But, I am glad that he started to revolution of historical thought because some of those “bottom-up” history moments are wonderful things to study. Plus, he gave us more things to research in our field. P.S. if you get a chance, Jordan has been reading this book about JFK and it sounds super interesting. And it makes me miss our history chats about this sort of thing!

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    • Yes, you did miss out on a good class there. 🙂 Great thoughts, I would definitely agree. History as a field has become far more interesting now that we study everyone.

      Do you know the name of the book? I would love to check it out. I too miss the history chats. Such fun!

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  2. I only ever had the most cursory of exposures to Marxism in college, so I hesitate to say anything about it. I loved the way Le Guin explored its tenets in “The Dispossessed,” but novels … aren’t always the best place to read up on ideologies.

    That being said, I wonder if Marxism is as much a “dirty word” to our generation as it was to our parents’ … and if our children will be more open to living it. I mean, hey, everyone’s complaining that Obama has made us a socialist nation … why not communist? 🙂

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    • Actually, I disagree. Reading theory for theory is perhaps one of the dullest forms of reading known to man. I only labour through it because I think it is important to understand the theories. So if you can find a novel that expresses an idea, all the better. I should check out said novel…

      Good point. I suppose, as with anything, it would depend a lot. I think there may be a resurgence of Marxist ideology what with the present economic woes around the world. Marx believed history was linear. I believe, to the contrary, that much of history really does repeat itself in some form or another, so I would not be at all surprised if Marxism–or something like it–resurges down the road. And it too may fall to some other grand economic theory. So, as a side note, I know everyone in the US is complaining about Obama making the place more socialist, as though socialism is also a dirty word. Here, however, it is (not surprisingly) not so. It is rather strange to see that word be used in a generally positive light by most people, regardless of their political affiliation.

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      • Hence why there are almost no books of “theory” on my GoodReads shelf. I really should teach myself patience with less-creative material.

        Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” is interesting for a number of reasons. I think I wrote an epically long blog post about it, if you are interested in doing more background-checking on it.

        People in other countries (in my limited experience) use “socialism” much like any other label–without all the baggage. Americans fear decline and diminishing power as a country, and so everything–including these labels–becomes a touchstone of these fears. I think, deep down, the average American knows he or she is privileged, and is terrified of losing that.

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  3. I’d love to take credit for teaching you how to write….reminiscing about the The Home’s Cool Newsletter days…. But I have a feeling you already knew how. I am enjoying your posts. Thanks!

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