Monday, August 14, 2023

Marxism and British historiography

It is noteworthy that some of the very best historical research and writing of the 1930s through 1970s in Britain was carried out by a group of Marxist historians, including E.P. Thompson, Maurice Dobb, Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and a few others. Many belonged to the British Communist Party and were committed to the idea that only sweeping revolution of economy and politics could bring to an end the exploitation and misery of nineteenth- and twentieth-century capitalism. These historians did not align with the democratic socialists of the Fabian and Labour varieties (link), and the chief demarcation line had to do with the feasibility of gradual reform of advanced market economies. These were gifted and rigorous historians with a particular set of ideological commitments (link).

All of these historians researched some aspect or other of the history of "capitalism", an effort that required dispassionate and objective inquiry and assessment of the facts. Equally, all of them embraced a view of capitalism and a stylized history of capitalism that derived from Marx's writings -- especially Capital and the scattered writings defining the theory of historical materialism. Third, all of them had an ideological apple to peel (as a Dutch friend of mine used to say): they took the view that exploitation and misery were so intimately bound up in the defining institutions of capitalism that only wholesale revolution could root them out. And finally, most of them were politically committed to a party and a movement -- the Communist Party -- which itself made harsh demands on the thinking and writing of its adherents. The "party line" was not merely a form of discipline, it was an expression of loyalty to the cause of communism. And since Soviet communism dominated throughout the period from the 1920s to the 1970s, the party line was almost always "Stalinist" in the most dogmatic sense of the term. So the difficult question arises: how is it possible to reconcile a commitment to "honest history" with a commitment to Marxism and revolution?

Harvey Kaye's British Marxist Historians provides a detailed treatment of many of these historians, including Dobb, Hilton, Hill, Thompson, and Hobsbawm. Kaye fully recognizes the dual nature of the thinking of these historians: "I consider their work to be of scholarly and political consequence" (x). Kaye evidently believes that the scholarly and political commitments of these historians are in no way in conflict. But this is an assumption that must be examined carefully.

Kaye's book can be read as an effort to establish a careful geography of Marxist theoretical ideas about the development of capitalism and how those ideas were both used and transformed in the hands of these historians. His account of Dobb offers a detailed account of Dobb's view of a "non-economistic" historical treatment of capitalism, and he expends a great deal of effort towards identifying the key criticisms offered of Dobb's views by Paul Sweezy, Rodney Hilton, Robert Brenner, Perry Anderson, and others. The chapter can be read as a meticulous dissection of the definition of key ideas ("mode of production", "relations of production", "feudalism", "class conflict", ...) and the theoretical use that these various Marx-inspired historians make of these ideas to explicate "capitalist development" and the notion of "transition from feudalism" in its various historical settings. Most compelling is Kaye's treatment of E.P. Thompson's historical and theoretical writings. He makes it clear that Thompson provides a highly original contribution to the idea of "class determination" through his insistence on the dynamic nature of the formation of consciousness and experience in the men and women of the British laboring classes.

Kaye makes clear in his treatment of each of these historians that their research never took the form of a dogmatic spelling-out of ideas presented in Marx's writings, but rather a much more rigorous effort to make sense of the historical record of feudalism, the English Revolution, the early development of capitalist property relations, and the like. These were not Comintern hacks; they did not treat Marxism as a more-or-less complete theory of history, but rather as a set of promising insights and suggestions about historical processes that demand detailed investigation and analysis. And none of the books of these historians that Kaye discusses can be described as "orthodox Comintern interpretations" of historical circumstances. Kaye quotes Christopher Hill (102): "A great deal of Marxist discussion went on in Oxford in the early thirties. Marxism seemed to me (and many others) to make better sense of the world situation than anything else, just as it seemed to make better sense of seventeenth-century English history." And later in this chapter he quotes Hobsbawm (129): "An advantage of our Marxism -- we owe it largely to Hill ... was never to reduce history to a simple economic or 'class interest' determinism, or to devalue politics and ideology." These comments seem to point the way to partial resolution of the apparent conflict between political commitments and historical integrity: Marx's writings about capitalism, class, and historical materialism constitute something like a research programme or analytical framework for these historians, without eliminating the need for historical rigor and objectivity in searching out evidence concerning the details of historical development (in England, in France, or in Japan). 

If we wanted to assess the possible distortions of historical selection and analysis created by party commitments with regard to historical writing and inference, one natural place to look would be at the selection of topics for research. Are there topics in British history that are especially relevant to the ideological concerns of the Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s, and did the British Marxist historians stay away from those topics? Kaye remarks on Hobsbawm's own assessment of the role the party line played in defining issues and positions for the British Marxist historians: very little, according to Hobsbawm (15). He quotes Hobsbawm: "There was no 'party line' on most of British history,' at least as far as they were aware at the time." So we can reasonably ask: when these historians treat "politically sensitive" topics, do the analyses they offer seem to reflect ideological distortions? 

Kaye notes that one topic that should be of interest to Marxist historians is the history of the labor movement in Britain. "The 'modern' historians of the Group were naturally most anxious to pursue and make known the history of the British labour movement and, no doubt, were encouraged in their efforts by the British Communist Party. And yet this was the one field in which constraint was felt in relation to the Party. As Hobsbawm has stated on a number of occasions, there were problems in pursuing twentieth-century labour history because it necessarily involved critical consideration of the Party's own activities" (12). Kaye also quotes from an interview Hobsbawm offered in 1978:

[Hobsbawm] acknowledges that he took up nineteenth-century history because when "I became a labour historian you couldn't really be an orthodox Communist and write publicly about, say, the period when the Communist Party was active because there was an orthodox belief that everything had changed in 1920 with the foundation of the C. P. Well I didn't believe it had, but it would have been impolite, as well as probably unwise, to say so in public". (134)

This passage makes it clear that Hobsbawm avoided twentieth-century British labor history precisely because the party line was in conflict with the historical realities as Hobsbawm saw them. So Hobsbawm refrained from writing about this period.

So a preliminary assessment is perhaps possible. When these Marxist historians went to work on a given historical topic, they exercised rigor and care in their assessments of the past; they enacted fidelity to the standards of honesty we would wish that historians universally embrace. And indeed, the historical work done by these historians does indeed conform to high standards of honesty and independence of mind -- even as the research focus on "capitalism" is framed in terms of Marxist concepts. But the example of Hobsbawm's statements about twentieth-century labor history imply that certain topics were taboo, precisely because independence of analysis would run counter to the party line. (Kaye also suggests that Hobsbawm's continuing adherence to the 'base-superstructure' model derived from his deference to the orthodox Party line on the nature of the mode of production; 135.)

But we can also ask an even more fundamental question: did the historians of this group take any public notice of the crimes of Stalinist USSR -- the Holodomor, the terror, the show trials, the Gulag? Or was explicit condemnation of systemic actions like the Holodomor or the Gulag too much of a repudiation of the Communist Party for these historians to accept? Should they have made public mention and condemnation of these occurrences? Does their silence cast doubt on their honesty as historians? To this question Kaye's book provides no clear basis for an answer.

It is intriguing to ask about Harvey Kaye's own ideological orientation. He makes it clear in the Preface that his book is a sympathetic treatment of the circle of British Marxist historians, and in fact he acknowledges feedback and comments from several of these authors. His later book, The Education of Desire: Marxists and the Writing of History, is likewise committed to defending the insights offered by Western Marxist historians. So his is something of an insider's account of the Historians' Group. We can ask, then, whether Kaye's own sympathies have colored his assessment of the objectivity and rigor of the historians in this group. Does he bring the necessary critical edge that we would expect from an historiographic assessment of a group of historians? (I should confess too that the historians that Kaye studies are also among my list of favorites as well. I would add Marc Bloch and a few others from French and German history, but the broad framework of historical narrative and analysis developed by Dobb, Hilton, Thompson, and Hobsbawm is one that has been powerful for me as well.) 

My own assessment is that Kaye's sympathies do not distort his interpretations of these historians. Rather, he offers a careful, reflective, and knowledgeable analysis of the development of their historical ideas and the relations that emerged among them, and he documents the willingness of these historians to avoid the dogmas of CP-driven "party lines" about history. For example, Kaye's critique of Hobsbawm's continuing use of the base-superstructure model illustrates Kaye's willingness to apply a critical eye to these historians (154 ff.). Only obliquely does he address the hardest question, however: did these historians speak out about the atrocities and crimes of Stalinism? Many of these figures (not including Hobsbawm or Dobb) rejected Stalinism through their decision to leave the British Communist Party after the Soviet brutal use of force against Hungary in 1956. But this is still less than forthright recognition of the horrendous crimes of the Soviet dictatorship throughout the 1930s and 1940s, extending through the death of Stalin and beyond.

The penultimate paragraph of the book appears to encapsulate Kaye's own perspective as well as the collective view he attributes to the group of Marxist historians he considers:

In other words, they [British Marxist historians] have accepted that the making of a truly democratic socialism -- or libertarian communism, requires more than 'necessity' -- the determined struggle against exploitation and oppression -- and more than organization. It also requires the desire to create an alternative social order. And yet, even that is not enough. There must be a 'prior education of desire' for, as William Morris has warned: 'If the present state of society merely breaks up without a conscious effort at transformation, the end, the fall of Europe, may be long in coming, but when it does, it will be far more terrible, far more confused and full of suffering than the period of the fall of Rome.'

And this passage perhaps expresses an appealing resolution as well to the question of how to reconcile political commitment with historical objectivity.

(Ronald Grigor Suny has written quite a bit of interesting material on the falsifications offered by "Stalinist history". A few snapshots of his views can be found here: "Stalin, Falsifier in Chief: E. H. Carr and the Perils of Historical Research Introduction" and "The Left Side of History: The Embattled Pasts of Communism in the Twentieth Century".)

1 comment:

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I will proffer this much towards peeling the apple, conceding that I am no authority on Marx, Stalin or Communism. There is evidence, I think, that ideologies, including both religious and non-religious ones, are often afflicted with tunnel vision. It is a fairly common feature, born of the sense that the ideology's way is the best way, the only way, to save civilization and the World. This is why ideologies compete for hearts and minds. There is more than a little smoke and mirror activity going on. And, more than a little arrogance, ignorance and pride. All of these, attributes and axle grease alike, have been in the human psyche, since before bicameral mind evolved into responsive consciousness. It is no mystery. It is, uh, history. Or better, historiography.