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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Reflecting on History by Jonathan Strauss

Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History
By Paul Blackledge
Manchester University Press, 2006
218pages, $24.95
“The History Question: Who Owns the Past?”
By Inga Clendinnen
Quarterly Essay, issue 23, 2006
72pages, $14.95

[“Well said, old mole! Canst work I' th' earth so fast? A worthy pioneer.” Marx, of course, was referring to spectres rather than ghosts, but that's an indication of how much of Shakespeare's Hamlet has become part of our everyday language. Togs]

The ideas that might help us understand history are the concern of both Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History by Paul Blackledge, and the latest Quarterly Essay long essay, “The History Question: Who Owns the Past?” by Inga Clendinnen.

Blackledge surveys many contributions to Marxist historiography. Still, his survey is largely confined to European writers and, for the period after the Second World War, almost entirely to those from Britain, France and English-speaking North America.

In considering the work of Marx and Engels, Blackledge identifies and exemplifies the centrality of production as a social, political and historical process in the Marxist theory of history. He also discusses the interpretations of the theorists of the Second and Third Internationals, culminating in the study The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia by the Soviet scholar Boris Hessen, and the development of the school of “people’s history” by British communist historians.

The debates among Marxists about the character of modes of production and the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and about the roles of social structure and human agency in making history, as well as Marxist historical theory’s relationship to postmodernity, are the topics that carry the book through to today.

Blackledge’s reflections are a readable and very competent introduction to these ideas. However, his presentation of the Marxist historical debates becomes somewhat bogged down in point and counter-point. The bones of contention about the transition from feudalism to capitalism, he argues, are about whether the feudal class struggle between lords and serfs; or the rise of trade, including the Atlantic slave trade, and the development of towns, drove the transition. Also, whether the revolutions related to the development of capitalism were “bourgeois” because of their outcomes, or that the term “bourgeois revolution” should be rejected because the revolutions did not involve confrontations of nobility and bourgeoisie, but were fought out primarily within a capitalistic-aristocrat class.

Blackledge offers no definite conclusion — and most likely is unable to since he relies on the example of the English transition to capitalism and its Civil War almost exclusively. However, these social transitions considered as a whole, show that there were bourgeois revolutions against feudalism and that the results of these were the encouragement of capitalist-commodity production where large-scale commodity producers were ultimately victorious over small-scale ones.

Thus the transitions from feudalism to capitalism depended on the peasants and the “middling sort” to end feudal relations of production and the political privileges of feudalism. But they also needed trade and other accumulations of wealth to provide the basis for the accumulation of capital, which was used to spark generalised commodity production. Among the work of the historians of the English transition from feudalism to capitalism, that of Maurice Dobb and Brian Manning seems most suggestive of this outlook.

With regard to structure and agency in history, Blackledge in the end plumps for Alex Callinicos’s argument that “the class struggle is the central mediating ‘bridge’ between long-term historical tendencies and short-term revolutionary upsurges”. In this, “proletarian self-awareness” is what is required for the working class to realise its political potential in collective action and revolutionary class consciousness.
A revolutionary working class, however, must be aware not only of itself in society but of all social relations, and this consciousness can’t come from the class’s own experience alone.

The ideological struggle against capitalism can only be won in conjunction with the practical work of social transformation through a mass revolutionary movement. Short of this, revolutionary theory must be developed and propagated by its advocates in the working class movement without losing contact with working people and their experience.

Clendinnen’s essay is, in contrast to Blackledge’s work, a polemic. Its stance is tenacious, progressive-liberal historiography.

The historian, Clendinnen argues, must recognise the distinction between dynamic potency of stories — constituting memory — and the critical evaluation that telling history requires. Unlike the fiction writer or politician, the historian should resist opportunistic appropriations of their material or the concoction of large inspiring narratives because that would manipulate the truth.

Clendinnen does not call simply for objectivity and the application of the rules of the discipline in research, however. She says the energy to do history comes from what historians most care about and “the most assured historians reveal their moral vision in everything they do”. Her exemplars are the Australian historian Henry Reynolds, who declared “history should not only be relevant but politically utilitarian … It should aim to right old injustices to discriminate in favour of the oppressed, to actively rally to the cause of liberation”, and E.P. Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class.

In this way, Clendinnen allows us to discover a deep-set liberal prejudice. “Who owns the past?”, she asks and answers: “In a free society, everyone.” Perhaps she means no more than that all may tell “a powerful story [which] might elicit remorse in a dominant group, and even stimulate the desire to recompense injury”. What she considers worth discussing, however, is how “to create and nurture new nation-unifying experiences” that will lead to “informed patriotism”. Clendinnen’s nationalism distorts her critical outlook. Thus, the irresponsibility about the past she decries becomes her fate.

For example, in discussing the poster of (John) Simpson (Kirkpatrick) placed in schools in 2005 to celebrate the so-called ANZAC spirit, she asks “is there a better legend for primary-school kids than [someone] who insisted on practising civilian virtues in the middle of a battlefield?” But perhaps Simpson’s virtues were rather those of his non-conformism and socialism instead?

All this is underpinned by Clendinnen’s view that the nation is an entity outside history. She says, for example, that several dates she could suggest for the formation of the Australian nation would all be arbitrary. For Marxists however, the rise of nations is intimately associated with the rise of capitalism, with all the injustice and oppression that dictates. For Clendinnen, the nation can be what she wants it to be, and, thus, necessarily, Australia is “a fine country” nevertheless.


From: Cultural Dissent, Green Left Weekly issue #694 17 January 2007.

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