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:
- 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.
- A focus on how economic factors can drive history.
- 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!