English Marxists in dispute

Roy Porter

  • Arguments within English Marxism by Perry Anderson
    New Left Books, 218 pp, £3.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 86091 727 4
  • Capitalism, State Formation and Marxist Theory edited by Philip Corrigan
    Quartet, 232 pp, £4.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 7043 2241 2
  • Writing by Candlelight by E.P. Thompson
    Merlin, 286 pp, £2.70, May 1980, ISBN 0 85036 257 1

The Englishness of English historians lies in their eclecticism. Few would admit to being unswerving Marxists, Freudians, Structuralists, Cliometricians, Namierites, or even Whigs. Most believe that blooms come best in mixed bunches. They may allow themselves some guarded asides on the psychology of chiliasm, but would reject Norman Cohn’s full-frontal psychopathology of anti-semitism. They probably accept, as true for that decade, Sir Lewis Namier’s vision of the politics of the 1760s as dominated by clique and pique rather than by constitutional principle, but would hesitate about his overarching behavioural conservatism. Call this open-mindedness, pussy-footing or Vicar of Bravery, it has been saluted as part of the historian’s craft by many different figures from Karl Popper to Arthur Marwick.

Yet in this matter as in others the English are not as tolerant as they would like to be thought. Marxist blooms in particular have been summarily attacked as weeds. The hot temper of so many responses to Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) indicates that many scholars, herbicide to hand, regard Marxist historiography as a menace. Professor J.H. Hexter’s recent ad hominem assault on Christopher Hill’s scholarly integrity seems to reveal the same crusading zeal on the other side of the Atlantic. Furthermore, in a cunning jest of History, some Marxist philosophers have latterly enlisted in the armies of the Right in denying Lebensraum to Marxist history. In France, Louis Althusser and his disciples, and in England followers such as Paul Q. Hirst and Barry Hindess, have argued that the business of Marxist intellectuals is to construct not history but theory (e.g. a rationally water tight account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, not one purportedly told from the ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’). History is irremediably empirical, and empiricism is a mode of bourgeois false-consciousness. In his ‘The Poverty of Theory’, Edward Thompson pilloried this stance as being neither materialist nor Marxist, but an epitome of the most arrogant and authoritarian (‘Stalinist’) degenerations of the New Left. Perry Anderson’s book defends the New Left from such charges.

Certain Marxist blooms adorn most scholars’ studies. True, a few academic-historians have tried to keep out all blossoms with even a whiff of Marxist scent. T.S. Ashton notoriously wrote his great history of the 18th-century English economy without mentioning the word ‘capitalism’. But few fear contagion so badly. Most economic historians, explaining entrepreneurs’ pursuit of profit, are de facto as much economic determinists as any Marxist. Marxist contributions, such as those concerned with the structural contradictions of slave economies, or the de-skilling of proletarian labour as ‘hands’ within machinofacture, are, though not uncontroversial, widely accepted by non-Marxists. This infiltration is possible because much of the Marxist meta-history so closely resembles (superficially at least) the gospel according to many Whig, Liberal, Positivist and progressive historians over the last century: a story of man’s increasing dominion over nature and necessity through science and technology, the victory of the middle classes over absolutism and aristocracy, capitalism’s triumph over feudalism, religion yielding to secularism, and so forth. A historian such as Asa Briggs can write The Age of Improvement, chronicling the First Industrial Revolution and the maturing of the bourgeoisie that accompanied it, without any accusations of Marxisant tendencies.

It has been particularly easy for English non-Marxist scholars to give their blessing to historical-materialist insights because Marxist history has always accorded pride of place to England itself. It was England’s peasants who conspicuously revolted in 1381 against feudalism. England staged the first successful ‘bourgeois’ revolution in 1642, England the first Industrial Revolution, spawning the first proletariat. In the middle of the last century, the history and prospects of England looked to Marx and Engels to be a likely blueprint for global political developments.

In many areas of English history, Marxism has yielded rich harvests. Christopher Hill’s Marxism has allowed him to grasp the union of Puritan faith and political activism amongst the ‘industrious sort of people’ in the 17th century. It was his Marxist materialism that enabled Francis Klingender to write what still remains a classic of art history: Art and the Industrial Revolution (1947). But until recently Marxist historians have hardly illuminated the workings of the state. This is partly because they have rightly been indignant about its victims – peasants, hand-loom weavers, slaves – and more interested in the resistance to it – from bandits, millennarians etc. Perhaps there is also a fear of being drowned in the quicksands of conventional political and constitutional history (‘How many boroughs did the Duke of Newcastle monger?’). Nevertheless, the absence is disturbing.

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