How to write history

Reflections on Marx's Theory of History

The ongoing economic crisis is having an impact on all areas of American social, cultural, and intellectual life. With the prevailing elite consensus unable to explain why capitalism went into crisis in 2008, many American scholars and intellectuals have begun to reconsider the value of Marxist theory as a method for understanding the world. In this context, Paul Blackledge’s Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History is an important recent work. Published in 2006, the book provides a clear and concise synthesis of the best Marxist historical writing of the last 150 years.

Blackledge centers his argument on the misconception that the Marxist theory of history is the “archetypal form of economic reductionism.” He shows that the best practitioners of historical materialism, from Marx and Engels themselves to modern historians such as Perry Anderson and Neil Davidson, have developed a much more sophisticated and flexible method for investigating the past.

Blackledge makes his point through a number of case studies. Early chapters examine the historical writings of Marx and Engels and show how socialist intellectuals from the Second and Third Internationals built on and developed Marx’s historical method. In the second half of the book, Blackledge looks at some of the most interesting and important debates in post-1945 Marxist historiography. In this context, he assesses the controversies over, for example, the origins of capitalism in England and the nature of bourgeois revolutions, and wades into more recent debates on the role of human agency in history.

While Blackledge’s work can certainly be approached as a series of discrete essays, a single major theme runs through the whole book: the relationship between structure and agency in Marxist historical theory. In this sense, and like so many radical historians before him, Blackledge is wrestling with Marx’s claim that “men make history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”

The challenge for historians following Marx has been to determine the correct balance between the ability of individuals and social groups to change history, and the ways in which they are constrained by the existing structures of society.

First and foremost, as Blackledge clearly demonstrates, Marxism is a theory of human liberation. It is a method for understanding the world in order to change it. In this sense the charge of “economic determinism” so often leveled against Marxist historical writing makes little sense: why would Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and others have spent their lives as organizers if social change was an inevitable process with predetermined results?

On the contrary, the best Marxist historical writing has shown that the structures of a given society present individuals and social groups with numerous choices and avenues for political action. Particularly at moments of acute social crisis, the actions of even a single individual can have profound consequences for the course of history.

Blackledge does an admirable job of finding examples of this method in the most diverse works of Marxist historical writing. In chapter three, for example, he discusses some of the best works of historical materialism from the period of the Second International. While many commentators have written off the Marxism of this period as fatalistic and deterministic, Blackledge shows that the work of Labriola, Plekhanov, and Kautsky actually contains much that is valuable today.

This ability to find the kernel of insight in an otherwise flawed tradition is a particular strength of Blackledge’s work. Thus, while he criticizes the concept of “people’s history” as an imprecise and unscientific product of the Stalinist Popular Front, Blackledge simultaneously uncovers much that is useful in the works of its practitioners. He points to the work of Christopher Hill on the English Revolution and E. P. Thompson on the English working class as providing particularly inspiring accounts of the ways in which ordinary people have made history.

Ultimately, Blackledge finds the most satisfying synthesis of structure and agency in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Alex Callinicos. Blackledge notes that Callinicos in particular has been able to “outline a…model of historical materialism that escapes…fatalism, without succumbing to methodological individualism”—the view that the whole story behind a historical process can be reduced to the freely chosen actions of individuals.

If there is a weakness in Blackledge’s book it is a slight narrowness of vision in the later chapters. He tends to focus very closely on debates within British Marxism without always considering the contributions of other international writers. An assessment of the ways in which, for example, W. E. B. Du Bois and C. L. R. James used Marxism to understand Black history would have provided another rich case study for this work.

But this is a minor quibble. Blackledge’s book is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in using Marxism to understand history. For a work of theory it is remarkably concise and readable. Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History therefore has tremendous value not just for historians, but also for anyone who thinks the study of the past should inform our struggles to shape the future.


Issue #90

july 2013

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Mass struggles in an age of social media
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