on 17 October 2002
Harvey Kaye's work on the British Marxist Historians should be required reading for any kind of advanced study into any kind of history. By looking at several of the 'Marxist' historians that worked in Britain in the post-war period, Kaye reviews the work of several formidable intellectuals. The two most famous are of course Eric Hobsbawm, who continues to write and lecture today, and Edward (or E.P.) Thompson, whose study "The Making of the English Working Class" was a seminal work in British Social History.
The pioneering concept of 'history from below' - the study essentially of the thoughts, actions and impact of the common people, was created by these Historians. It was a revoltionary historiographical tool. Thompson's study of working class radicalism, a classic text using history from below. Whatever the criticisms of this work (and there are many) it remains a pioneering work of history.
Kaye's work on these historians is an assesment of their work, lives and impact. As Marxists, many remained faithful to their original decision to become Communists. Several left the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1956 in protest at the revelations of Stalin's atrocities as well as the invasion of Hungary in November of that year. But their work was deeply influenced by their Marxist outlook, and Kaye examines this in great detail.
An excellent work in historiographical analysis.
The Marxist analysis of history has one major fault. It is incorrect. Marx argued for a social totality in which the relations of production in specific stages of the development of the material forces of production were the major factor in determining the general process of social, political and intellectual life. "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but their social existence that determines their consciousness." This faulty analysis provided the framework within which British Marxist historians sought to re-write history in terms of economic determinism and "history from below", a concept coined by the French historian Georges Lefebvre.
The non Marxist R H Tawney had provided a critique of the Whig approach to history as the inevitable march of progress towards enlightenment, although he too relied on the activities of movers and shakers rather than pure economic forces. In searching for the latter in terms of the class struggle, Marxist historians created the intellectuals' raison d'etre for their own non-productive existence in a mythical world in which the "people" were accorded an importance they did not have. The Whig interpretation of history had its faults but its strength lay in avoiding the lumping to which J H Hexter referred in his famous destruction of Christopher Hill's methods and analysis of the English Civil War.
Hill had argued that the development of ideas by pivotal figures such as Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh and Edward Coke synthesised and systemised conceptions of science, history and law which he characterised as creating a bourgeois revolution. He sought to rewrite the Tawney-Weber theory of the Protestant Ethic by arguing that capital accumulation was the "natural consequence of the religion of the heart in a society where capitalist production was developing." This analysis was not borne out by later events and Hill's writings about post Protectorate history are notably inadequate. Which is sad, for Hill's biography of Oliver Cromwell and his "The World Turned Upside Down" showed excellent data collection.
Rodney Hilton's arguments for feudalism as a mode of production involved intellectual twists worthy of a contortionist. Arguing that peasants were a class whose revolts represented a coherent programme of social change, he sought to identify when the transition from feudalism to capitalism took place. Hilton completely misinterpreted the peasants' own view of themselves by overlaying facts with sociological analysis which they neither understood nor practiced. Not only that but his work spawned wasteful intellectual exercises which sought to apply this non existent material event to other peasant societies at the expense of an understanding of contemporary third world development.
Maurice Dobb's Studies in the Development of Capitalism was a precursor of Hilton's efforts which, according to Kaye, "was an original and significant contribution to the development of theory of class determination". Dobb, however, did not question Marx's analysis, he simply propagated it in accordance with Hobsbawm's statement that the Communist Historians Group, "were as loyal, active and as committed a group of Communists as any, if only because we felt that Marxism implied membership of the Party."
The unforgivable error of these Marxist historians was the subordination of their intellect to the political demands of Stalinism. Even when Khrushchev revealed the extent of Stalin's abuses they lacked the courage to admit Stalin and Marx were false prophets whose analysis had caused misery to the very "peasants" these cosseted intellectuals claimed they were bringing back on to the historical stage. One continually wonders at their intellectual subservience to totalitarian practice.
The answer lies in their arrogance. Just as the dictatorship of the proletariat could not be left to the proletariat but had to be led by Marxist intellectuals so too did this sorry bunch of self-serving propagandists convince themselves that they contributed to an understanding of history. Christopher Hill was hopeful that knowledge of the past would humanise the world. Soviet tanks in both Hungary and Czechoslovakia and Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square proved socialism with a human face cannot succeed within the Marxist fame of reference. By pretending that it does British Marxist historians have cut off the present by mythologising the past and, in so doing, have perpetuated ignorance.
The book is worth four stars because it is relatively easy to read and presents itself in a manner which makes it useful as an introduction to Marxist theory. It also serves as an indictment of a school of historical sociology which appears incapable of critical analysis or intellectual development. On that basis everyone should read it and take heed.