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Marxist historiography

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Title: Marxist historiography  
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Subject: Historiography, Annales School, Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi, Historian, Schools of history
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Marxist historiography

Marxist or historical materialist historiography is a school of historiography influenced by Marxism. The chief tenets of Marxist historiography are the centrality of social class and economic constraints in determining historical outcomes.

Marxist historiography has made contributions to the history of the working class, oppressed nationalities, and the methodology of history from below. The chief problematic aspect of Marxist historiography has been an argument on the nature of history as determined or dialectical; this can also be stated as the relative importance of subjective and objective factors in creating outcomes.

Marxist history is generally deterministic, in that it posits a direction of history, towards an end state of history as classless human society. Marxist historiography, that is, the writing of Marxist history in line with the given historiographical principles, is generally seen as a tool. Its aim is to bring those oppressed by history to self-consciousness, and to arm them with tactics and strategies from history: it is both a historical and a liberatory project.

Historians who use Marxist methodology, but disagree with the mainstream of Marxism, often describe themselves as marxist historians (with a lowercase M). Methods from Marxist historiography, such as class analysis, can be divorced from the liberatory intent of Marxist historiography; such practitioners often refer to their work as marxian or Marxian.

Marx and Engels

Friedrich Engels' most important historical contribution was Der deutsche Bauernkrieg (The German Peasants' War), which analysed social warfare in early Protestant Germany in terms of emerging capitalist classes. The German Peasants' War is overdetermined and lacks a rigorous engagement with archival sources . It does however indicate the Marxist interest in history from below and class analysis, and it attempts a dialectical analysis.

Marx's most important works on social and political history include The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, The Communist Manifesto, The German Ideology, and those chapters of Das Kapital dealing with the historical emergence of capitalists and proletarians from pre-industrial English society.

Engels' short treatise The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (1870s) was salient in creating the socialist impetus in British politics.

Marx and Labor

Key to understanding Marxist historiography is his view of labor. For Marx “historical reality is none other than objectified labor, and all conditions of labor given by nature, including the organic bodies of people, are merely preconditions and ‘disappearing moments’ of the labor process.”[1] This emphasis on the physical as the determining factor in history represents a break from virtually all previous historians. Until Marx developed his theory of historical materialism, the overarching determining factor in the direction of history was some sort of divine agency. In Marx’s view of history “God became a mere projection of human imagination” and more importantly “a tool of oppression.”[2] There was no more sense of divine direction to be seen. History moved by the sheer force of human labor, and all theories of divine nature were a concoction of the ruling powers to keep the working people in check. For Marx, "The first historical act is... the production of material life itself."[3] As one might expect, Marxist history not only begins with labor, it ends in production: "history does not end by being resolved into “self-consciousness” as “spirit of the spirit,” but that in it at each stage there is found a material result: a sum of productive forces, a historically created relation of individuals to nature and to one another, which is handed down to each generation from its predecessor..." [4] For further, and much more comprehensive, information on this topic, see historical materialism.

In the Soviet Union

Marxist historiography suffered in the Soviet Union, as the government requested overdetermined historical writing. Soviet historians tended to avoid contemporary history (history after 1905) where possible and effort was predominantly directed at premodern history. As history was considered to be a politicised academic discipline, historians limited their creative output to avoid prosecution.

Notable histories include the Short Course History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik), published in the 1930s, which was written in order to justify the nature of Bolshevik party life under Joseph Stalin.

The Communist Party Historians Group in Britain

A circle of historians inside the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) formed in 1946. They shared a common interest in "history from below" and class structure in early capitalist society. While some members of the group (most notably Christopher Hill and E. P. Thompson) left the CPGB after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the common points of British Marxist historiography continued in their works. They placed a great emphasis on the subjective determination of history. E. P. Thompson famously engaged Althusser in The Poverty of Theory, arguing that Althusser's theory overdetermined history, and left no space for historical revolt by the oppressed.

Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class is one of the works commonly associated with this group. Eric Hobsbawm's Bandits is another example of this group's work.

C. L. R. James was also a great pioneer of the 'history from below' approach. Living in Britain when he wrote his most notable work The Black Jacobins (1938), he was an anti-Stalinist Marxist and so outside of the CPGB.

In India

In India, the main representatives of Marxist historiography are R. S. Sharma, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar, D. N. Jha and K. N. Panikkar.[5]

One debate in Indian history that relates to a historical materialist schema is on the nature of feudalism in India. D. D. Kosambi in the 1960s outlined the idea of "feudalism from below and feudalism from above". This element of his feudalism thesis was rejected by R. S. Sharma in his monograph Indian Feudalism (2005).[6]

See also


  1. ^ Andrey Maidansky. “The Logic of Marx’s History,” Russian Studies in Philosophy, vol. 51, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 45.
  2. ^ Ernst Breisach. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, 3rd Ed. (Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pg. 320.
  3. ^ Fritz Stern. The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present. Vintage Books Edition (New York, NY: Random House: 1973), 150.
  4. ^ Fritz Stern. The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present. Vintage Books Edition (New York, NY: Random House: 1973), 156-157.
  5. ^ Bottomore, T. B. 1983. A Dictionary of Marxist thought. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
  6. ^ Purohit, Vinayak. 1988. Arts of transitional India twentieth century. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.
  • Perry Anderson, In the tracks of Historical Materialism
  • Paul Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (2006)
  • "Deciphering the past" International Socialism 112 (2006)
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