Do the teachings of Marx matter once again in relation to historiography?

With the supposed revival of labour history in British academia, and the renewed interest in the writings of E.P. Thompson and other Marxist historians, has Marx become relevant once again in the post-financial crash West?

First, please tell us more about E.P. Thompson, and about the revival of labour history in British academia.


Marxism has two aspects: Descriptive and prescriptive. The latter is now irrelevant simply because a prescriptive idea gets nowhere unless people believe in it, and few people believe, any more, that proletarian revolution as Marx envisioned it is a desirable thing. However, allowing for the fact that he was writing in and of a different century, some of his descriptive insights still hold good. Certainly it seems to be true that technological change drives historical change more than anything else does; and that impersonal economic forces can influence and even shape things apparently independent of them, such as religion, culture, philosophy, political systems, and individual human personalities.

I am pretty sure Marxism has never ceased to be relevant in historiogaphy. It is one of the most influential of all historiographial frameworks, has strongly influenced historical thought even amongst people who are in no way politically sympathetic to Communism, and even people who firmly reject Marxist historiograpy will generally largely define their own historiographical views through their contrast to Marxism.

At the beginner level, Marx is the basis of all modern economics. Modern economics is split between Keynesians and the rest, and what they have in common is classical economics up to and including Marx.

That doesn’t make him a historical subject though. Just the most important economist of the mid 19th century.

On the other hand, he is an important historical subject: that’s related to his failed synthesis, not his successful analysis.

But I have no idea what exactly “in relation to historiography” means… and it’s killing me. Somebody like to volunteer a brief explanation?

What I meant by my enquiry into Marx’s revival in historiography was that eminent historians in the post-war years, such as EP Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, etc. saw history in Marxian terms, whereby the journey of mankind was shaped by class and class conflict. With the post-structuralist/post-modernist turn, identity politics and rise of the New Left in the 1970s, Marxist or labour history fell out of favour by the time when neoliberalism ascended to the accepted orthodoxy in the 1980/90s. However, Marxist history has had a noticeable rebirth in British academia, as well as in France, Germany and the Netherlands since the Crash of 2008.

I don’t think there is ever an invalid side to historical interpretation, so if there’s a resurgence in Marxist (or Marxian) interpretation of 20th century history, fine. Profs gotta eat.

Whether or not every approach to historical interpretation is useful… I’d rank the Marxian approach down there with temperance leagues.

At the beginner level as it’s actually taught, it’s Marshall’s metaphors we still use, and his diagrams that still go on the blackboard. I think Pareto was the first to draw indifference curves, and like Marshall he was building off the marginalists.

Marx’s ideas don’t show up in standard advanced theory today. He’s a footnote if he manages to be mentioned at all. I’m not sure how anyone would argue Marx is the basis of beginner stuff either, although I’d be interested to hear an argument for that position. I know I never once mentioned Marx when teaching an intro class, and tracking back the ideas from the classroom, they go back to Marshall and Pareto, and then to the marginalists. And the marginalists weren’t influenced by Marx in their most influential ideas. They were contemporaries, with the first marginalist texts written before Marx’s opus. Speaking of influence within the field, the chain of inspiration for the biggest ideas of the century jumps right over that particular bearded German.

If we’re still talking about the basis of all modern economics, then Marx isn’t even close to the most important economist of the mid 19th century. It’s still the marginalists, Walras über alles with shout-outs to Jevons and Menger. We could and should put him next, but only with the caveat that there’s a notable gap between those three and him.

If you’re talking influence on the world, then yeah, we can point to the tremors that followed his ideas which changed the course of huge nations and murdered tens of millions. That would bump him to most important. (I’m not saying this was his fault. I’m just saying you can clearly track the influence.) But as far as economics itself goes, there’s a reason Samuelson joked that Marx was a minor post-Ricardian. It’s an exaggeration, of course, but given the progression of the field it’s easy to see what he’s saying.

Marx arguably deserves a spot at around position 10 on the all-time list, for the inspiration he gave to people like the neo-Ricardian Sraffa, and especially for Sraffa’s subsequent attempts to dislodge neoclassical thought as it was being built. But Sraffa failed. Even when his attacks were technically accurate – like the reswitching problem – they still haven’t made a dent. He’s ignored as thoroughly as Marx is. (Not to mention that we refer to him as a neo-Ricardian, not a neo-Marxist.) This is not exactly to the credit of modern economists, but that’s the way it is. Other heterodox thinkers are still chugging away, but they remain a tiny minority whose existence is almost totally ignored by the largely ahistorical majority. That could change in the future, I guess. But as for now, his influence on the modern field is at the periphery, not at the core.

Please tell us more about that. A lot more.

Draw your attention to a number of the British academic journals based in labour history, and read the scholarship being produced lately. And while you’re at it, read the latest edition of History Workshop Journal. Note the amount of attention being directed to the works of earlier labour historians. Peruse the website of the Society for the Study of Labour History and read about their increase in membership since the Crash of 2008…

Never mind historians, what is the consensus of sociologists regarding class conflict, class struggle, etc.? Is the process, if it exists, anything like Marx envisioned it? Sociologists should know.

Never mind historians? That’s what my question is about. Mind you, I’d be curious what historians have to say on the topic, but regarding this specific question I was more interested in discussing the resurgence in labour history, directly, and perhaps class consiousness, indirectly. Five years ago most historians, including some labour historians, were ready to write labour history off as irrelevant in the modern age of neoliberalism. Funny how an economic depression and the rightful vilification of a pack of crooked bankers alters what’s trendy and what’s not in the academy.

Funny, but no surprise to a Marxist.

There is. For example, historical determinism (of which Marx offers a prime example) is always wrong.

But by the time it proves wrong you’ll be dead, so don’t let that stop you! :wink:

I can see BrainGlutton you are a classical liberal with an affinity for the the teachings of Karl Popper. Let me begin by saying that in my view problems with Popper’s falsification criterion becomes apparent when you see that what he says about historical materialism also applies to theory of evolution. He belongs in my opinion to same group of anticommunists as Hayek - their criticism within the limits of their argument may be logically sound, but their premises themselves are false. Both Popper and Hayek set up a vulgar idealistic model of Marxist thought and counterpose to it idealistic liberal-capitalistic counterargument, neither of which has anything to do with actually existing world. Indeed, many Marxists, such as EP Thompson for example, do not bind themselves into the dictates of a strict interpretation of historical determinism, and that humans - even the exploited classes - do exercise agency in their decisions. It is their mutual sense of exploitation and alienation which drives them to instigate changes in that arrangement. A class consciousness instigated these changes, not the invention of the power loom.

Care to expand on this. Because I can’t see it.


No, I’m a progressive/social democrat with democratic-socialist leanings, and I only know Popper from RationalWiki articles. The argument that history is unpredictable because technological change is unpredictable is one I came up with myself, BTW, and then learned Popper had ninja’d me.

Only if one were claiming to be able to predict the course of evolution.

Well, Popper’s right about one thing: If it ain’t falsifiable, it ain’t scientific. What’s falsifiable about the above?

Of course, it need not be scientific to be true, either.

Cool…I like it.