Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Matt Perry - Marxism and History

This is a useful and readable introduction to the Marxist understanding of history - or Historical Materialism as it is better know. Beginning with a brief explanation of how Marx and Engels understood history and then looking at how they engaged with this in their writing, Matt Perry shows that historical materialism is in no way as complex or difficult as some would argue.

However to put these ideas across, Perry has to take up some of the wider arguments around history and Marxist history in particular. Is history a science is a question that has perplexed many who would call themselves Marxists. Marx and Engels argued it was. But those who perceive science as something that happens in laboratories find this difficult to agree with. Even some of the best historians on the left (such as E P Thompson) disagreed with the founders of scientific socialism on this point. Perry shows how Marxist history as an approach does embody the essence of scientific research within the processes of research, the testing of hypothesises and the evaluation by peers.

I mention E P Thompson, because one of the central aspects to this book is the approach of various historians from the Marxist left and the wider left. Thompson, Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill get detailed analysis, mostly because of their links to the wider left grouping around the Communist Party Historian's Group (1946-1956). This is particularly interesting because this was a really flowering of work and ideas, between members of the CP and much wider layers of writers and researchers. Perry notes that because of their links to the CP, some areas of historical study remained out of bounds (particularly Russian history) and the group collapsed in 1956 as disillusionment following the invasion by Russian forces of Hungary led to some of its mainstays leaving the CP. However the works of many writers that came from the group, laid the foundation for important approaches to history, perhaps best epitomised by Thompson's Making of the English Working Class. The historian's group had a wide impact around the world, but it is perhaps noted most here for its pioneering work around the English Revolution.

Perry also looks at other historians. He starts with the explicitly historic writings of Marx and Engels, including chapters of Capital which are detailed historical accounts, even though there is a perception of it being a dry work of economics. The section on Engels' history of the German Peasant Wars is fascinating - Perry shows how his approach of linking ideological and political ideas as part of a social superstructure influenced, created and also impacting back on an economic base is Marxist history at its best. Perry also looks at what he considers a "historical masterpiece" - Leon Trotsky's monumental History of the Russian Revolution.

I only have time to briefly note the mention here of "base and superstructure". This notion is a critical part of the debates around Marxism and history, and Perry shows how this metaphor of Marx's has been used and abused - or dismissed by many on the left. However he argues that it was a central plank of Marx and Engels' historical approach and puts across one of the most straightforward explanations for the ideas. For those interested in this discussion I recommend these chapters in Perry's book, as well as Chris Harman's essay on the subject.

Finally Perry takes on the question of Postmodernism. Again his summary demolishes these attempts to argue that history has no meaning, or has stopped. Perry puts Postmodernism very much in the context of the post-World War II world. A point when capitalism, seemed to some as triumphant, and discussions about the "end of history" were about an ideological assault that would give the free-market free rein. Perry puts the case that idealistic approaches to history - that ideas are somehow independent of human society are not new, and that Marx himself critiqued this approach.

Perry's defence of the Marxist approach to history is clear and useful, rooting it very much in the real world. Humans must interact with the world around them to provide the necessities of life, as well as constructing and creating a society based on particular economic constructions. However I liked particular a point he develops from the historian John Saville, he argues that many left-historians are linked themselves to attempts to shape the future and change the world through the political organisations, campaigns or trade unions that they are part of. This in itself he argues "allows insights into the historical process with which they themselves were wrestling". I liked this point as it helps demonstrate why some arguments or writings from the postmodernists seems so completely incomprehensible to the rest of us - they are cut off and removed from the real historical processes around them.

Matt Perry's book deserves a wide readership, by students of history and writers of the subject. Its glossary is particularly useful, particularly if you have little or no experience of some of the more unusual academic phrases. I would have liked to read more by Perry on other historians - there are only passing references to Tony Cliff and I would have enjoyed Perry's thoughts on his historical work. But that's a minor criticism, I recommend this book to you.

Related Reviews

Harman - Marxism and History
Hughes - Ecology and Historical Materialism

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