Marxist historiography

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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[edit]

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 indicate the Marxist interest in history from below and class analysis, and 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.

Malhotra writes: Mercea Eliade's deconstruction of modern Marxism as Judeo-Christian myth is very interesting: 'Marx enriched the venerable myth by a whole Judeo-Christian messianic ideology: on the one hand, the prophetic role and soteriological function that he attributes to the proletariat; on the other, the final battle between Good and Evil, which is easily comparable to the apocalyptic battle between Christ and Antichrist, followed by the total victory of the former. It is even significant that Marx takes over for his own purpose the Judeo-Christian eschatological hope of an absolute end to history;…' (Eliade 1987: 296-97). Similarly, The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains: 'Marxist Communism, in spite of its explicit atheism and dogmatic materialism, has a markedly messianic structure and message… Some of the analogies between Marxism and traditional Christian eschatology have been described, in a slightly ironical vein, by the English philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who contends that Marx adapted the Jewish messianic pattern of history to socialism in the same way that the philosopher-theologian St. Augustine (ad 354–420) adapted it to Christianity. According to Russell, the materialistic dialectic that governs historical development corresponds – in the Marxist scheme – to the biblical God, the proletariat to the elect, the Communist party to the church, the revolution to the Second Coming, and the Communist Commonwealth to the millennium… The similarities are founded on actual historical contacts… and also on the fact that they are variations of the same social dynamics and of a basic myth…'('Eschatology', 1992).[1]

Marx and Labor[edit]

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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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."[4] 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..." [5] For further, and much more comprehensive, information on this topic, see historical materialism.

In the Soviet Union[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

In India, Marxist historiography was very influential. Its main representatives are Irfan Habib, and K. N. Panikkar. Some recent historians from the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Jamia Milia Islamia, and Delhi University, Satish Chandra, K.M. Shrimali, K.M.Pannikar, R.S. Sharma, D. N. Jha, Gyanendra Pandey, Irfan Habib, Arjun Deva, Musirul Hussain, Harbans Mukhia, and Romila Thapar, are called Marxist historians.

B. N. Datta and D. D. Kosambi are considered the founding fathers of Marxist historiography. Today, the senior-most scholars of Marxist historiography are R. S. Sharma, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar, D. N. Jha and K. N. Panikkar, most of whom are now over 75 years old.[6]

Romila Thapar and R.S. Sharma are quoted at some length as representatives of Indian Marxist thought in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought.[7] Irfan Habib has titled a recent collection of his papers Essays in Indian History. Towards a Marxist Perspective.(Elst 2001, Decolonizing the Hindu Mind, p. 40)

B. R. Ambedkar criticized Marxists, as he deemed them to be unaware or ignorant of the specifics of caste issues.[8] A number of historians have also debated Marxist historians and critically examined their analysis of history of India.[9][10][11][12]

An example of such a critique is Arun Shourie's Eminent Historians (1998).[13] Other critiques were written by Meenakshi Jain and other scholars.

Elst writes: The Marxists don't like to be caught in the searchlight. One of the most respected Marxist scholars, Romila Thapar, chides her critics thus: "Those that question their theories are dismissed as Marxists!" (1996:17) Well, apart from her reliance on a Marxist conceptual framework in her publications, she is also confirmed to be a representative of the Indian Marxist school of historiography in an authoritative Marxist source, the Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Bottomore 1988), under its entry "Hinduism", along with R.S. Sharma. For those still in doubt, Irfan Habib, one of the deans of the Marxist school, has put his cards on the table in a book subtitled "Towards a Marxist Perception" (1995). Among the print media, the one most active in the anti-indigenist crusade is the Chennai-based fortnightly Frontline, a consistent defender of the Cuban and North-Korean regimes and of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. After the mock referendum in Iraq in the autumn of 2002, Frontline displayed its nostalgia for Soviet mock elections by treating Saddam Hussein's 100% approval rate as a genuine democratic endorsement. Judging from its record, we may take the Frontline initiative to prominently feature pro-AIT contributions by Asko Parpola and Michael Witzel, participants in the present JIES debate, to be motivated by something else than a concern for good scholarship. (Elst 2007)

Subaltern Studies[edit]

Rajiv Malhotra has fiercely criticized Subaltern Studies as being hijacked by vested interests with left and far-left leaning as a tool for political gain, spreading communist ideology and, even, diverted to spread neocolonial ideas in India.[14][15][16][17][18].

See also[edit]



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  1. Rajiv Malhotra, Being Different
  2. Andrey Maidansky. “The Logic of Marx’s History,” Russian Studies in Philosophy, vol. 51, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 45.
  3. Ernst Breisach. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, 3rd Ed. (Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pg. 320.
  4. Fritz Stern. The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present. Vintage Books Edition (New York, NY: Random House: 1973), 150.
  5. Fritz Stern. The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present. Vintage Books Edition (New York, NY: Random House: 1973), 156-157.
  6. Bottomore, T. B. 1983. A Dictionary of Marxist thought. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
  7. Tom Bottomore, ed: A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, entry Hinduism, pp. 203-06.
  8. Padovani, Florence. Development-Induced Displacement in India and China: A Comparative Look at the Burdens of Growth. Rowman & Littlefield. Bhimrao Ambedkar himself, who criticized Indian Marxists<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Lal, Kishori Saran. The Legacy of Muslim Rule in India. Aditya Prakashan. p. 67. Marxists who always try to cover up the black spots of Muslim rule with thick coats of whitewash<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Seshadri, K. Indian Politics, Then and Now: Essays in Historical Perspective. Pragatee Prakashan. p. 5. certain attempts made by some ultra-Marxist historians to justify and even whitewash tyrannical emperors of the medieval India<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Gupta, KR. Studies in World Affairs, Volume 1. Atlantic Publisher. p. 249.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Wink, André. Al-Hind the Making of the Indo-Islamic World: The Slave Kings and the Islamic Conquest : 11Th-13th Centuries. BRILL. p. 309. apologists for Islam, as well as some marxist scholars in India have sometimes attempted to reduce Islamic iconoclasm..<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Bryant, E. E. (2014). Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Cary, USA: Oxford University Press, USA.