Chapter Eight

History and social theory

What role should theory play in the work of a historian? Some approach history from a Marxist point of view and find that the application of social theory helps to make sense of a past that might otherwise defy analysis. However, others see such theorizing as dangerous, twisting the facts to fit the theory. This chapter considers the relationship between history and different social theories. It suggests that Marxism in particular might have rather more to offer the historian than its detractors have allowed for.

Isuggested in the previous chapter that one of the ways in which historians can guard against unconsciously assimilating their interpretations of the past to their own bias is by formulating hypotheses to be tested against the available evidence. Such a hypothesis may be no more than a provisional explanation suggested to the historian by a reading of the relevant secondary authorities and exclusive to the historical problem in hand. But a closer inspection often reveals a more elevated parentage. A hypothesis is not just a preliminary assessment of a particular historical conjuncture in its own terms; it usually reflects certain assumptions about the nature of society and the nature of culture; in other words, historical hypotheses amount to an application of theory. In many disciplines ‘theory’ represents the abstracting of generalizations (sometimes laws) from an accumulation of research findings. Historians hardly ever use the term in this sense. Theory for them usually means the framework of interpretation that gives impetus to an enquiry and influences its outcome. Historians sharply differ about the legitimacy of this procedure. Some are strongly committed to a particular theoretical orientation; some acknowledge the stimulus that a theoretical point of departure can offer, while resisting any imposition of theory on the historical evidence; others regard any use of theory as an insidious encroachment on the autonomy of history as a discipline.

The current practice of history is strongly influenced by two quite distinct bodies of theory. The more recent addresses the problem of meaning and representation. Traditionally historians have relied on their techniques of source criticism in order to capture the meanings that people in the past have given to their experience. Yet the more remote and alienating the experience, the more inadequate that methodology becomes. As the scope of cultural history has broadened, historians have increasingly acknowledged the insights of other disciplines – psychoanalysis, literary theory and above all cultural anthropology. Chapter 9 will examine more fully the problems of interpreting cultural meaning and the debt that many historians now acknowledge towards these disciplines. The second body of theory seeks to understand whole societies: how they hold together, and how they change over time (or not, as the case may be). It comprises an extraordinarily rich intellectual tradition, going back at least to the Enlightenment. In practice no historian seeking to understand the major changes in the pre-modern and modern world can afford to ignore social theory. That is the main reason why Marxism has been so influential, and why it continues to be so despite its collapse as a political programme. In this chapter I first review the general debate about the merits and demerits of social theory; I then examine Marxism and its application in some detail.

cultural anthropology

The study of the cultural meanings by which people live in society (usually small-scale societies).


The need for abstract theory

Broadly speaking, social theories arise from the problems presented by three aspects of historical explanation. There is first the difficulty of grasping the inter-relatedness of every dimension of human experience at a given time. For most historians up to the end of the nineteenth century this was not in practice a major problem, since their interest tended to be confined to political and constitutional history; accordingly some notion of the body politic was all the conceptual equipment they required. But during the twentieth century the enlargement in the scope of historical enquiry and in the volume of evidence, together with the pressures towards thematic specialization, demanded an ever greater capacity to think in terms of abstractions. We saw in Chapter 3 how easily historians fall into the trap of seeing the past as compartmentalized into ‘political’, ‘economic’, ‘intellectual’ and ‘social’ history, and how the idea of ‘total history’ arose as a corrective (see p. 83). But total history is unattainable without some concept of how the component aspects of human experience are linked together to form a whole – some theory of the structure of human society in its widest sense. Most concepts of this kind depend heavily on analogies with the physical world. Society has been variously conceived as an organism, a mechanism and a structure. Each of these metaphors represents an attempt to go beyond the crude notion that any one sphere determines the rest, and to express the reciprocal or mutually reinforcing relationship between the main categories of human action and thought.

Identifying the motor of historical change

The second problem that invites the application of theory is that of historical change. Historians spend most of their time explaining change – or its absence. This dominant preoccupation inevitably raises the question of whether the major transitions in history display common characteristics. Is historical change driven by a motor, and if so what does the motor consist of? More specifically, does industrialization require adherence to one particular path of economic development? Can one identify in history the essential components of a revolutionary situation? In framing their hypotheses in particular instances historians are often influenced by the attractions of this kind of theory – for example the idea that demography holds the key1 or that the most durable changes in society arise from the gradualist reforms conceded by paternalistic ruling classes rather than from revolutionary demands articulated from below.2


The study of the growth and development of population.


Proceeding slowly, making very gradual progress.


Instituting changes and reforms from ‘on high’, i.e. carried out by those in authority for those below them, rather than introduced by the beneficiaries themselves.

Seeking the meaning of history

Third, and most ambitiously, there are the theories that seek to explain not merely how historical change takes place but the direction in which all change is moving; these theories are concerned to interpret human destiny by ascribing a meaning to history. Medieval writers conceived history as a linear transition from the Creation to the Last Judgement, controlled by Divine Providence. By the eighteenth century that view had been secularized as the idea of progress: history was interpreted as a story of material and intellectual improvement whose outcome in the future would be the triumph of reason and human happiness. Modified versions of that outlook continued to have a powerful hold in the nineteenth century: on the European continent history meant the rise of national identities and their political expression in the nation-state; for the Whig historians of England it meant the growth of constitutional liberties. Full-blown professions of faith in progress may be rare today,3 given the trail of destruction that marked the history of the twentieth century; but theories of progressive change still underpin many historical interpretations in the economic and social sphere, as is shown by the frequency with which historians reach for such words as ‘industrialization’ and ‘modernization’.

The rejection of theory

Although these three types of historical theory are analytically distinct, they all share an interest in moving from the particular to the general in an effort to make sense of the subject as a whole. It might be supposed that this is a natural progression, shared by all branches of knowledge. A great many historians, however, reject the use of theory completely. They see two possible grounds for doing so. The first argument concedes that there may be patterns and regularities in history but maintains that they are not accessible to disciplined enquiry. It is hard enough to provide an entirely convincing explanation of any one event in history, but to link them in a series or within an overarching category places the enquirer at an intolerable distance from the verifiable facts. As Peter Mathias (here acting as devil’s advocate) concedes:

The bounty of the past provides individual instances in plenty to support virtually any general proposition. It is only too easy to beat history over the head with the blunt instrument of a hypothesis and leave an impression.4

On this view, theoretical history is speculative history and should be left to philosophers and prophets.5

devil’s advocate

One who deliberately sets out to put the opposite case for the purposes of debate. The term comes from the process whereby the Vatican used to decide on proposals for creating a new saint, where the devil’s advocate presented the case against the candidate.

The possibility that theory will ‘take over’ from the facts is certainly not to be made light of. The gaps in the surviving historical record, and especially the lack of clinching evidence in matters of causation, leave a great deal of scope for mere supposition and wishful thinking. At the same time, the range of evidence bearing on many historical problems is so large that selection is unavoidable – and the principles governing that selection may prejudice the result of the enquiry. The record of recent centuries is so voluminous and varied that contradictory results can be obtained simply by asking different questions. In the context of American history, Aileen Kraditor puts this point as follows:

If one historian asks, ‘Do the sources provide evidence of militant struggles among workers and slaves?’ the sources will reply, ‘Certainly’. And if another asks, ‘Do the sources provide evidence of widespread acquiescence in the established order among the American population throughout the past two centuries?’ the sources will reply, ‘Of course’.6

Almost any theory can be ‘proved’ by marshalling an impressive collection of individual instances to fit the desired pattern.



Safeguards against excessive theorizing

Theory-oriented history is certainly prone to these dangers – but so too, it must be recognized, is the work of many historians who reject theory and remain blissfully unaware of the assumptions and values that inform their own selection and interpretation of evidence. The way forward is not to retreat into an untenable empiricism but to apply much higher standards to the testing of theory. Wishful thinking is more likely to be controlled by historians who approach their enquiries with explicit hypotheses than by those who try to follow where the sources lead. When selection of the evidence cannot be avoided, it must be a representative selection which will reveal both contrary and supporting indicators. A given theory may account for part of the evidence relating to the problem in hand, but that is not enough; it must be compatible with the weight of the evidence overall. In Kraditor’s words, ‘the data omitted must not be essential to the understanding of the data included’.7 All this assumes a certain detachment on the part of historians towards their theories, and a readiness to change tack because of the lack of evidence. But where these controls are neglected, the profession as a whole is vigilant in their defence. Historians are seldom happier than when citing contrary evidence and alternative interpretations to cast doubt on the work of their colleagues – especially those who seem to have a bee in their bonnet. Moreover, a great deal of historical synthesis consists of comparing the merits of competing theories in order to determine which, if any, illuminates the problem under discussion. The speculative tendencies in theoretical history do not go unchecked for long.


Is theory relevant to historical enquiry?

The second and more challenging line of attack questions the legitimacy of theory-making in history on the grounds that it denies the very essence of the discipline. Human culture, the argument goes, is so richly diverse that we can only understand man in specific epochs and locations: ‘He remains an irreducible subject, the one non-object in the world’.8 Models of human behaviour are therefore a delusion. The business of the historian is to reconstruct events and situations in their unique individuality, and on their own terms; their interpretations apply only to particular sets of circumstances. Nothing is to be gained from comparing historical situations separated by time or space – indeed a great deal will be lost, since the result can only be to obscure the essentials of each. In David Thomson’s words, ‘The historical attitude, by definition, is hostile to system-making’.9 This view has a distinguished pedigree. It captures the essence of historicism as expounded in the nineteenth century. Ranke’s injunction that historians should study the past ‘to show how things actually were’ was intended primarily as an antidote to the great evolutionary schemes of the Enlightenment historians and the followers of Hegel. Ranke’s narrative style was hostile to abstraction and generalization and well suited to conveying the particularity of events. The classical historicist position is inimical both to comprehensive theories of social structure and to theories of social change, while its demand that every age should be evaluated in its own terms is difficult to reconcile with any view of history as progress towards a desirable goal.

The dangers of determinism

These grounds for rejecting theories of history are closely related to another argument which has often been given heavy emphasis: that theory denies not only the ‘uniqueness’ of events but also the dignity of the individual and the power of human agency. Traditional narrative shorn of any explanatory framework gives maximum scope to the play of personality, whereas a concern with recurrent or typical aspects of social structure and social change elevates abstraction at the expense of real living individuals. Worst of all from this viewpoint are theories of the third kind, whose insidious effect is to confer an inevitability on the historical process which individuals are powerless to change, now or in the future; all theories of history, the argument goes, have determinist elements, and determinism is a denial of human freedom.10 The polar opposite of determinism is the rejection of any meaning in history beyond the play of the contingent and the unforeseen – a view held by many historians in the mainstream of the discipline. A.J.P. Taylor delighted in informing his readers that the only lesson taught by the study of the past is the incoherence and unpredictability of human affairs: history is a chapter of accidents and blunders.11

Lastly, the traditionalists recoil from one of the main practical consequences of writing theory-oriented history, which is to place history in a dependent relationship with the social sciences. Theory-minded historians, they maintain, do not develop their own models but apply the theoretical findings of sociology, social anthropology and economics – disciplines whose focus is on the present not the past, and who are interested in history only as a testing ground for their own theories. Theoretical historians simply play into their hands and undermine the autonomy of their own discipline. Historians ought to be vigilant about threats to the distinctiveness of their calling, whether from within or without.12

The conservatism of historians

The views of the traditionalists – sometimes expressed intemperately – suggests one explanation as to why the historical profession has been so strongly averse to theory, and that is its conservatism.13 The study of history has attracted more than its fair share of conservatives concerned to invoke the sanction of the past in defence of institutions threatened by radical reform, or quite simply to find a mental escape from the disorienting impact of rapid social change around them. The true conservative, lacking a vision of progress, distrusts theories of the meaning of history as the rhetoric of the Utopian Left and is alarmed by the notion of a general model of social change which might be employed to push through undesirable projects of social engineering in the future. But the research methods of historians themselves have also acted as a strong antidote to theory. As M.M. Postan put it, the

critical attitude to minutiae has become in the end a powerful agent of selection. It now attracts to history persons of a cautious and painstaking disposition, not necessarily endowed with any aptitude for theoretical synthesis.14

In fact a great deal of the opposition to theory is born of prejudice. The negative tendencies that the traditionalists have identified are certainly there and if allowed free rein would lead to the damaging consequences that alarm them so much; but as any examination of the better examples of theoretical history will show, these tendencies do not go unchecked, and the outcome is an enrichment rather than an impoverishment of historical understanding.


Unrealistically idealistic. The term comes from Sir Thomas More’s book Utopia, which imagines a perfect but unattainable society. ‘Utopia’, derived from the Greek u-topos, means ‘no such place’.


Very small details.

The need to generalize

Consider, first of all, the contention that theory detracts from the uniqueness of historical events. Historians have in fact never written of events as though they were entirely unique, because it is impossible to do so. The very language that historians employ imposes a classification on their material and implies comparisons beyond their immediate field of interest. The only reason why scholars can use the phrase ‘feudal tenure’ of a particular relationship between lord and tenant, or the word ‘revolution’ of a major political upheaval, is because they share with their readers a common notion of what those words mean, based on a recognition that the world would be incomprehensible if we did not all the time subsume particular instances into general categories. The point was clearly made by E.E. Evans-Pritchard, the leading figure in the last generation of British social anthropologists, who advocated a cordial relationship between history and the social sciences:

Events lose much, even all, of their meaning if they are not seen as having some degree of regularity and constancy, as belonging to a certain type of event, all instances of which have many features in common. King John’s struggle with his barons is meaningful only when the relations of the barons to Henry I, Stephen, Henry II, and Richard are also known; and also when the relations between the kings and barons in other countries with feudal institutions are known; in other words, where the struggle is seen as a phenomenon typical of, or common to, societies of a certain kind.15

But if the use of generalizing concepts alerts us to regularities in the material, it also exposes those aspects that resist categorization and which give the event or situation its unique qualities. The contention of the theoretical historian is that if these comparisons are implicit in any historical analysis worth the name, then there is everything to be gained in clarity of thought by making them explicit – by constructing, for example, a model of feudal society or of revolutionary change.

Is history concerned with individuals?

Equally, the claim that history is the rightful province of the individual looks dangerously misleading on closer inspection. Historians are compelled at every turn to classify people into groups, whether by nationality, religion, occupation or class. This is because it is these larger identities that confer significance on them as social beings. And what these groups have in common is a tendency to think and act in certain ways, to the point where their response can be predicted. No two individuals are ever entirely alike, but how they behave in certain roles (e.g. as consumers of foodstuffs or as adherents of a particular creed) may follow a highly regular pattern. The emphasis that historians place on group activity is not, therefore, a denial of human individuality but simply a recognition that what the individual does in common with others usually has far greater impact, historically, than anything else he or she does. Furthermore, the cumulative effect of the actions that a particular group takes in pursuit of its objectives is toinstitutionalize that behaviour – that is, to entrench it in such a way that the options open to individuals thereafter are constrained or (to use a useful sociological term) structured. This is not the same as saying that people’s actions are determined: certain patterns of behaviour may be strongly indicated, but they can be rejected or modified by the resolve of a new generation to break out of the mould. No one has expressed the tension between human agency and social structuring more lucidly than Philip Abrams, who significantly combined the professions of historian and sociologist:

When we refer to the two-sidedness of society we are referring to the ways in which, in time, actions become institutions and institutions are in turn changed by action. Taking and selling prisoners becomes the institution of slavery. Offering one’s services to a soldier in return for his protection becomes feudalism. Organizing the control of an enlarged labour force on the basis of standardized rules becomes bureaucracy. And slavery, feudalism and bureaucracy become the fixed, external settings in which struggles for prosperity or survival or freedom are then pursued. By substituting cash payments for labour services the lord and peasant jointly embark on the dismantling of the feudal order their great-grandparents had constructed.16

The best theories – and I will argue shortly that Marxism is one of these – owe their appeal precisely to the fact that they acknowledge and seek to elucidate the reciprocal relationship of action and structure. Theory does not devalue the individual; it seeks rather to explain the constraints that limit people’s freedom and frustrate their intentions, and in doing so it uncovers patterns in history. By contrast, the historian who maintains an exclusive focus on the thoughts and actions of individuals (as diplomatic historians all too often do) is likely to find no shape and to see instead only a chaotic sequence of accident and blunder.

Lessons from social science

As for the threatened submergence of history by the social sciences, there are strong reasons why historians should – in the first instance at least – avail themselves of imported theory. The social sciences are by definition concerned with what people do in aggregates rather than as individuals; and since their range embraces entire societies, social scientists have from the outset needed theory in order to engage with their subject matter at all. Economists since Adam Smith in the late eighteenth century and sociologists since Auguste Comte in the mid-nineteenth century have regarded explicit theory as a prerequisite for interpreting their data, and as a result a body of sophisticated theoretical knowledge has been built up in both disciplines, and latterly in social anthropology too. The use made by historians of these theories is simply an acknowledgement that the social sciences have a head start. In fact history has always been influenced by theorists from without, Smith and Comte being cases in point. But it is only in the past fifty years that historians have begun to take the measure of the full range and versatility of social science theory.

Adam Smith (1723–90)

Scottish economist. Smith is the most important of the eighteenth-century neo-classical school of economic theory; his 1776 work The Wealth of Nations is generally credited with having invented the modern study of economics. Smith held that economies are governed by a ‘hidden hand’ of market forces and therefore thrive best when government regulation and interference are kept to a minimum.

Auguste Comte (1798–1857)

French political philosopher and founder of the positivist school. Positivism aims to integrate the different branches of knowledge into a coherent whole.

There are two real problems here. One is that much social science theory, especially in economics, is intended to explain quite restricted fields of activity, often in a somewhat artificially detached way, and the result of applying this theory to historical work may be to intensify the ‘tunnel vision’ to which historians specializing in a particular branch are anyway so prone. An extreme case was the use of statistical economic models in economic history. Known as ‘Cliometrics’, high hopes were expressed for this approach in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Cliometrics was based on the belief that a national economy is a closed system, entirely explicable in terms of statistical models, and that the same laws that appear to explain economic change in the present applied in the past also. The main drawback to this approach was that it started from the premise that human beings in seeking to fulfil their material needs are governed by motives of a ‘rational’ profit-maximizing, cost-cutting kind. Yet often this is exactly what needs to be demonstrated, not assumed, since economic activity may be influenced by non-economic factors. The limitations of Cliometrics were sharply exposed when it was applied to the slave system of the American South in R.W. Fogel and S.L. Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974).17 A theory that explains human behaviour in ‘ideal’ conditions is unlikely to do so when confronted by the social and cultural factors that obtain in a historically specific situation, and historians who insist on using such a theory on the grounds that they are interested in purely technical problems are afflicted by a particularly disabling form of ‘tunnel vision’.

The other problem concerns the alleged indifference to history of the social sciences. This charge is not without foundation. Many theories, for example that of the free-market economy, are based on the premise of equilibrium, which strikes historians as a profoundly ahistorical way of conceiving society – a denial of the trajectories of change and adjustment that are present in every case; and other theories (such as the modernization theory so prevalent in American sociology) which purport to embrace a historical dimension are based on a naïve antithesis between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’, which is at odds with any sense of process in history. Certainly much of the borrowing by historians from the social sciences has been shallow and uncritical, and it has too readily assumed that theory is somehow value-free and objective, whereas it is the subject of sharp ideological differences among social scientists themselves.18


In breach of the rules of the historical discipline, e.g. by dealing with historical events out of context, or even in the wrong context.

John Lilburne, political agitator and English leader of the Levellers in the 1640s. Here, he appeals to a crowd as he stands at a pillory. (Mary Evans Picture Library)

Neither of these objections is a reason for avoiding theory; they suggest only that historians should be discriminating about what they take on board. In fact the theories whose influence on recent historians has been particularly pervasive are those that seek to encompass social structure or social change as a whole, and of these theories the most influential are derived from the great social thinkers of the nineteenth century, who had a profound sense of history – Max Weber and above all Karl Marx. But the real answer to the traditionalists’ fear of absorption by the social sciences is that these theories are not tablets from heaven to be inscribed on the historical record. They should be seen rather as a point of departure. The result of historical work will be to modify them, probably quite drastically, and to erect in their place theories that represent a genuine cross-fertilization between history and social science. Both sides can only benefit from that outcome.


The case against Marxist history

The way is now open for a discussion in which the Marxist interpretation of history can be assessed in the context of the dangers and opportunities that attend any venture in theoretical history. The dangers in this case are familiar enough: Marx’s detractors have made such play with some of the less attractive tendencies in his thought that, to all except the fairly restricted number of people who have read Marx himself or academic commentaries on his writings, he is associated with a bleak determinism and an utter cynicism about human nature. On this reading, the central tenets of Marxism go something like this. ‘History is subject to the inexorable control of economic forces, which move all human societies along the road to socialism through the same stages, capitalism being the stage currently occupied by most of humankind. At all times material self-interest has been the mainspring of human behaviour, regardless of the motives people have actually professed. Classes represent the collective expression of this self-interest, and all history is therefore nothing more than the history of class conflict. Ideology, art and culture are merely a mirror of this fundamental identification, having no historical dynamic of their own. The individual is the product of his or her own age and class, and however talented and forceful is powerless to affect the course of history; it is the masses who make history, but even they only do so according to a predetermined pattern.’ At one time or another in the hundred years or so that have elapsed since Marx’s death, each of these propositions has been subscribed to by Marxists, but all of them represent a crude simplification of what he actually wrote. Marx’s thought was developed over some thirty years of research and reflection, and the resulting corpus of theory is far more complex and subtle than the shibboleths of ‘vulgar’ Marxism allow.


(Hebrew) A derogatory term for a slogan or catchphrase.

The basis of Marxist theory

Marx began with the fundamental premise that what distinguishes people from animals is their ability to produce their means of subsistence. In the struggle to satisfy their physiological and material needs, men and women have developed progressively more efficient means of exploiting their environment (or mastering nature, as Marx would have put it). To the question ‘What is history about?’ Marx answered that it was about the growth of human productive power, and he looked forward to the time when the basic needs of all people would be amply satisfied: only then would humanity find self-fulfilment and achieve its full potential in every sphere. In maintaining that the only true, objective view of the historical process was rooted in the material conditions of life, Marx sharply distinguished himself from the main currents of nineteenth-century historiography with their choice of nationalism, freedom or religion as the defining themes of history. It is entirely appropriate that Marx’s view should be referred to as ‘historical materialism’, a term coined by his lifelong collaborator and intellectual heir, Friedrich Engels. From this basic perspective, first sketched in The German Ideology (1846), Marx never wavered. For the rest of his life much of his effort was devoted to working out its implications for the interpretation of social structure, the stages of social evolution, and the nature of social change.

Marx’s analysis of society

Marx conceived of society as comprising three constituent levels. Underlying all else are the forces of production (or productive forces): that is, the tools, techniques and raw materials together with the labour power that realizes their productive potential. The forces of production have certain implications for the relations of production (or productive relations), by which Marx meant the division of labour and the forms of cooperation and subordination required to sustain production – in other words the economic structure of society. This structure in turn forms a base or foundation on which is built the superstructure, composed of legal and political institutions and their supporting ideology. The most succinct summary of Marx’s view of social structure appears in the preface to his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.19

A determinist model?

However, this is not the crudely deterministic model that it has so often been taken to be. First, the forces of production are by no means confined to the instruments of production and the brawn of the workers. Technical ingenuity and scientific knowledge (on which the further development of the forces of production so clearly depended by Marx’s day) are also included: full allowance is made for human creativity, without which we would remain slaves of the natural world around us. Second, although it clearly follows from Marx’s view that politics and ideology – the traditional preoccupations of the historian – can only be understood in relation to the economic base, Marx also allowed for influences in the reverse direction. For example, no system of economic relations can become established without a prior framework of property rights and legal obligations; that is to say, the superstructure does not just reflect the relations of production but has an enabling function as well. The three-tier model thus allows for reciprocal influences.20And third, Marx did not suggest that all non-economic activities were determined by the base. It is arguable whether artistic creation should be included in the superstructure at all. But even those spheres that belong unequivocally to the superstructure are notexclusively determined by the base. Both political institutions and religion have their own dynamic, as Marx and Engels acknowledged in their own historical writings, and in the short term especially economic factors may be of subsidiary importance in accounting for events; as Braudel observes, Marx was essentially a theorist of la longue durée (see p. 164).21

It is probably closer to the spirit of Marx’s thought to see the economic structure as setting limiting conditions rather than determining the elements of the superstructure in all their particularity. Engels was most emphatic on this point. As he wrote to a correspondent some years after Marx’s death:

According to the materialistic conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life.

More than this neither Marx nor I has ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure … also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.22

Clearly the base/superstructure metaphor lends itself to a deterministic interpretation, and several of Marx’s utterances can be so interpreted, but his oeuvre as a whole does not suggest that he saw it in such stark terms.


(French) An author’s complete works.

Marx’s analysis of history

One of the best-known features of Marx’s thought is his periodization of history. He distinguished three historical epochs down to his own day, each moulded by a progressively more advanced mode of production. These were Ancient Society (Greece and Rome), Feudal Society, which emerged after the fall of the Roman Empire, and Capitalist (or ‘modern bourgeois’) Society, which had first come into being in England in the seventeenth century and had since triumphed elsewhere in Europe, particularly as a consequence of the French Revolution. What gave political edge to the periodization was Marx’s conviction that Capitalist Society must in due course give way to Socialist Society and the complete self-fulfilment of humankind; indeed when he first sketched the scheme in 1846 he believed the advent of socialism to be imminent. Marx maintained that his periodization was the outcome of his historical enquiries rather than of dogmatic theorizing, and that is borne out by the changes and qualifications he made in the light of fuller research. He later posited an additional mode of production in the form of Germanic Society, contemporaneous with Ancient Society and one of the sources of Feudal Society.23 Marx reproved those critics who

must metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historic-philosophic theory of the general path every people is fated to tread, whatever the historical circumstances in which it finds itself.24

In short, Marx did not lay down a single evolutionary path which all human societies are predetermined to follow exactly.

Dialectic in production as the motor of social change

Such a rigid periodization would have ill consorted with Marx’s view of social change, the richest and most suggestive part of his theory of history. Marx summed up his interpretation in the passage that immediately follows the extract from the 1859 preface quoted earlier:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.25

Marx believed that the contradiction or dialectic between the forces of production and the relations of production was the principal determinant of long-term historical change: each mode of production contains within it the seeds of its successor. Thus, to take an example on which he held emphatic views, the English Revolution of the seventeenth century occurred because the forces of production characteristic of capitalism had reached the point where their further development was held back by the feudal property relations sanctioned by the early Stuart monarchy; the outcome of the Revolution was a remodelling of the relations of production, which cleared the way for the Industrial Revolution a hundred years later.

Class conflict

This rather abstract conception of historical change is made visible in the form of class conflict. Marx identified classes not according to wealth, status or education – the usual criteria employed in his day – but quite specifically in terms of their role in the productive process. The division of labour that has characterized every mode of production since Ancient Society results in the creation of classes whose true interests are mutually antagonistic. Each successive stage has had its dominant class and has also harboured the class destined to overthrow it. Thus Marx ascribed the English Revolution to the urban bourgeoisie, who were developing the new capitalist forces of production, just as he expected socialism to be achieved in his own day by the new factoryproletariat spawned by industrial capitalism. It is class conflict expressing the contradictions within society that drives history in a forward direction. This is not to say that the masses are the makers of history. Although Marx believed that humanity’s prospects for a better future lay in the hands of the proletariat, his interpretation confined the masses to an ancillary role in earlier history; he was only too well aware that the world in which he lived was essentially the creation of the bourgeoisie, whom Marx both admired and reviled for what they had achieved.


The industrial working class. The term passed into general use after it was popularized in the writings of Karl Marx.


Secondary, subordinate.

Marx’s conception of class is the point at which his view of the role of human agency in history can be assessed. Class is defined in structural terms according to its relation to the means of production, but Marx knew that for a class to be effective politically requires a consciousness of their class in its members. The long-term trajectory of change may be determined by the dialectic between the forces and relations of production, but the timing and the precise form of the transition from one stage to the next depend on the awareness and capacity for action of real human beings. Indeed, Marx’s entire career was devoted to equipping the proletariat of his time with an understanding of the material forces at work in their own society so that they would know when and how to act against the capitalist system. People are the victims of material forces, but in the right conditions they have the opportunity to be agents of historical change. That paradox lies at the centre of Marx’s view of history. As he wrote in his finest piece of contemporary history, ‘The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ (1852):

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.26

How Marx understood the reciprocal relationship of action and circumstances is never made clear, but what he claimed to have done was to reveal the long-term structural factors that render certain historical developments inevitable in the long run. These are, so to speak, the defining limits within which the actions of men and women, whether as individuals or as groups, have their scope.


Marx’s critique of historians

What were the implications of Marx’s theories for the actual writing of history? As we have seen, these theories lend themselves to a simplified rigid schema, and this was the form in which they were expounded by many of the first Marxists, whose primary interest was in the political struggle and who were content with an unequivocal determinism which pointed towards a proletarian revolution in the near future. But Marx himself was emphatic that his theory was a guide to study, not a substitute for it:

Viewed apart from real history, these abstractions have in themselves no value whatsoever. They can only serve to facilitate the arrangement of historical material, to indicate the sequence of its separate strata. But they by no means afford a recipe or schema, as does philosophy, for neatly trimming the epochs of history. On the contrary, our difficulties begin only when we set about the observation and the arrangement – the real depiction – of our historical material, whether of a past epoch or of the present.27

What Marx rejected was not historical study as such but the method employed by the leading historians of his day. Their error, he maintained, lay in taking at face value what the historical actors said about their motives and aspirations; in so doing, Ranke and his imitators imprisoned themselves within the dominant ideology of the age in question, which was merely a cloak for the real material interests of the dominant class. ‘Objective’ history – that is, the dialectic of forces and relations of production – was accessible through research into the economic structure of past societies without reference to the subjective utterances of historical personalities. At the same time, Marx never developed a clear methodology of history. His own historical writings veered from the compelling political narrative of ‘The eighteenth Brumaire’ (1852) to the abstract economic analysis of the first volume of Capital (1867). And there remain ambiguities in his conception of both the forces and the relations of production, as well as the connection between base and superstructure. So historians working within the Marxist tradition have had plenty of interpretative work to do.


Marx’s major work of economic analysis, first published in 1867. It was originally intended to be a three-part work, but only the first part was ever published in full. It contains Marx’s analysis of the development of capitalism out of the feudal and primitive economies that had preceded it, and his argument that capitalism, as an inherently exploitative system, would inevitably implode, leading to the establishment of a socialist system.

The impact of Marxism

During the generation after Marx’s death in 1883, historical materialism began to have a pervasive though somewhat blurred effect on the climate of intellectual opinion, as his major writings were translated into other European languages and socialist parties of a Marxist persuasion sprang up. Marxism was certainly one of the main currents contributing to the emergence of economic history as a distinct field of enquiry. As J.H. Clapham – no friend of socialism – conceded in 1929, ‘Marxism, by attraction and repulsion, has perhaps done more to make men think about economic history and inquire into it than any other teaching’.28 But the content and method of the Marxist interpretation took longer to make an impact. It first affected the practice of professional historians on a significant scale in the Soviet Union, where, from the Bolshevik takeover until Stalin’s clampdown in 1931–2, historical research and debate within a Marxist framework were very lively.29 The subjection of historical work to a strict party line in Russia coincided with the emergence of Marxism as a powerful intellectual stimulus in the West. This was prompted by the obvious crisis in capitalism as a result of the Great Crash of 1929 and the apparent bankruptcy of liberal democracy in the face of Fascism. But although important pioneer work in Marxist history was done in Britain and elsewhere during the 1930s, it was mostly achieved by active members of the Communist Party, who were viewed with suspicion by most historians and received little academic preferment. Since the 1950s, however, Marxist approaches to history have been much more widely influential – and with historians who have no connection with the Communist Party and in many cases are not politically active at all. Many of the acknowledged leaders of the profession, such as Christopher Hill and E.J. Hobsbawm, have written from a Marxist perspective.

Great Crash of 1929

The disastrous fall in prices on the New York Stock Exchange on 24 October 1929, which ended the prosperity of the 1920s and ushered in the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s. Also known as the Wall Street Crash.

Why is it that a historical interpretation that originated as a revolutionary critique of contemporary society and which is open to dogmatic abuse commands so much attention among scholars? The reason can hardly be any longer the central role accorded by Marxism to economic history, since the majority of economic historians (particularly in Britain and the United States) are non-Marxist. Nor can the appeal of Marxism be attributed to the attractions of an ‘underdog’ view of history: although the Marxist approach gives great weight to the role of the masses at certain historical conjunctures, it does not offer a worm’s-eye view of history, nor is it concerned to celebrate the heroism of earlier generations of proletarians. The real reason for Marxism’s strong appeal is that it answers so well to the historian’s need for theory – and in all three of the areas where theory is least dispensable.

The usefulness of Marxist social analysis

Through the base/superstructure model Marxism offers a particularly useful way of conceiving the totality of social relations in any given society. It is not just that the political, social, economic and technological all have their place; in a full-scale Marxist analysis these familiar distinctions lose their force. Social and economic history become inseparable, and the study of politics is saved from becoming the minute reconstruction of the antics of professional politicians in their own arena, to which it can so easily be restricted by the specialist. The appeal of ‘total history’ as practised by the Annales school also rests on its opposition to compartmentalization, but Braudel and his followers have conspicuously failed to develop a satisfactory model for integrating political history with the environmental and demographic studies that provide the backbone of their work. In this respect at least, it must be counted as inferior to Marxist history with its emphasis on the reciprocal interaction between the productive forces, the relations of production and the superstructure. It is no accident that Hobsbawm, one of the finest writers of the broad historical survey today, is a Marxist with a profound grasp of the master’s own writings.30

It is the same reciprocal interaction that saves Marxism from the ahistorical error so common in other theories, of regarding social equilibrium as the norm. Marxist historians hold as a fundamental premise that all societies contain both stabilizing elements and disruptive elements (or contradictions), and that historical change occurs when the latter burst out of the existing social framework and through a process of struggle achieve a new order. Historians have found the notion of the dialectic to be an invaluable tool in analysing social change of varying intensity, from the barely perceptible movement within a stable social formation to periods of revolutionary ferment.

Divisions within Marxism: culturalism v. economism

Response to the strong pull exerted by Marxism’s theoretical range does not, however, mean that historians practising in the Marxist tradition are confined within an orthodoxy. What is striking about the growth of Marxist historiography during the past forty years or so, especially in Britain, is its diversity. As familiarity with Marx’s writing has spread, so historians have responded to the different and quite contradictory strands in his oeuvre, reflected in a major divide in recent Marxist scholarship between what insiders call ‘culturalism’ and ‘economism’. This divide is best illustrated by reaction to the most widely read work of Marxist history ever written in Britain – E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (see p. 73). The central theme of the book is how, in reaction to proletarianization and political repression, the English labouring classes developed a new consciousness so that by 1830 they had achieved a collective identity as a working class and the capacity for collective political action: that consciousness was not the automatic by-product of the factory system but was the outcome of reflection on experience in the light of a vigorous native radical tradition. The book is thus ‘a study in an active process, which owes as much to agency as to conditioning’.31 Thompson himself maintained that his book was true to Marx’s recognition that men do, in some measure, ‘make their own history’. His critics argued that Thompson underestimated the force of the qualification added by Marx to that statement. They pointed out that in omitting any detailed discussion of the transition from one mode of production to another, Thompson failed to acknowledge the rootedness of class in economic relations and therefore exaggerated the role of collective agency; because Thompson was lax in his theory, he became trapped within the subjective experience of his protagonists.32 Thompson was unrepentant; he reaffirmed the need to hold theory and experience in some kind of balance and to interpret Marxism as an evolving and flexible tradition rather than a closed system.33

The working class and Marxist theory

The Making of the English Working Class expresses another marked tendency within British Marxist historiography, and that is its interest in the history of popular movements, almost regardless of their efficacy. One of the criticisms that can be made of Marxism, as of other goal-oriented interpretations of history, is that it distorts our understanding of the past by concentrating unduly on those people and movements that were on the side of ‘progress’. But Thompson’s emphasis falls less on the new factory workforce, which was the nucleus of the organized working class of the future, than on the casualties of the Industrial Revolution – people such as the handloom weavers, whose means of livelihood was destroyed by the factory system. At the same time, it would be a mistake to assume from this ‘underdog’ perspective that Marxist history is merely ‘history from below’. Struggles between classes are ultimately resolved at the political level, and it is through control of the state that new dispositions of class power are sustained. In fact it can be argued, though it is not very fashionable to do so, that ‘history from above’ is just as important a perspective for Marxist historians.

handloom weavers

Those who wove cloth on individual looms usually operated within the worker’s home under the old ‘domestic’ system of textile production, which preceded the introduction of factory production. Handloom weavers were eventually forced out of the market by competition from factories, so they are often used by historians as an indication of the impact of the new methods of production in the early nineteenth century.

Finally, Thompson is a striking illustration of the tendency among British Marxist historians to engage in constructive dialogue with historians of other persuasions. In Thompson’s case the dialogue was pursued with vehement polemic, which sometimes belied the convergence between scholars from different camps. Marxist history may have begun as a barely tolerated subversion, but by the 1960s it was securely established in the universities and its practitioners were fully integrated in the historical profession – as is made abundantly clear by Hobsbawm’s autobiography, Interesting Times (2002).


Marxism and the fall of communism

The extended treatment I have given to the Marxist theory of history may seem to some readers like a self-indulgent surrender to an outmoded radicalism. Has not Marxism now been placed on the scrap-heap with the reduction of the world’s Marxist governments to a tiny rump and the collapse of international communism since 1989? Are not Marxist historians now trapped in a time-warp? Like other scholars, historians would not be human if they were unaffected by the political atmosphere in which they work. The circumstances in which a Marxist scholar can work today are far less propitious than they were forty years ago. For that reason alone, there are many fewer historians who accept the label. Most of the towering achievements of Marxist history were made between the 1960s and 1980s – by Thompson, Hobsbawm and Hill in Britain, as well as a galaxy of foreign scholars which included Georges Lefebvre in France and Eugene Genovese in the United States. Marxist history is unlikely to enjoy such a high profile in the future.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, popular insurrection overturned communist governments across Eastern Europe. Some held that Marxism itself had been discredited; graffiti on this statue of Marx and Engels in Dresden, in East Germany, has them declaring ‘We are not guilty’, a view shared by many who saw the Soviet dictatorship as a perversion of Marxism. Not everyone agreed, however, and many statues of Marx and Engels, like those of Lenin, were overturned and smashed. (Alamy/ICP)

But for as long as historians recognize the need for a theoretical orientation which addresses both social structure and social change, Marxism will be relevant. They may not be Marxists in the sense of working within Marx’s system of thought, but they will draw on the concepts and categories of the Marxist tradition. Medieval English history is a case in point. To argue that the relation between lords and peasants was one of class conflict, and that this tension was the main driver of social change in the Middle Ages, is clearly a Marxist position. It was closely associated with Rodney Hilton, a prominent member of the Communist Party Historians’ Group. Yet this interpretation remains very much in contention, as a commemorative conference on Hilton’s work established. As Chris Wickham remarks, ‘far from Marxist ideas being dead or moribund, they are everywhere. But they have been normalized’.34 The same can be said of modern history. Peter Clarke, a distinguished political historian who admits to being a ‘wishy-washy Cambridge liberal’, concedes that ‘Marxism as history [as distinct from prediction] can still be made to yield insights for us’.35 Marxist history has come into its own in the highly stratified societies of the Third World. In South Africa, for example, it was critical in showing how segregation and apartheid – often dismissed as an irrational aberration – in fact served the interests of capitalism by guaranteeing a supply of cheap labour to the white economy.36 Marxism can certainly not be written off as a museum-piece.

Objection might also be made to the priority accorded to Marxism in a chapter on historians and social theory. Marxism was surely not the only theoretical game in town, and is not its decline testimony to the superior attractions of other bodies of theory? It is true that even in it heyday Marxism faced competition, particularly in the United States where liberal modernization theory was much used as a means of accounting for the transition from traditional to modern industrial society with much less revolutionary upheaval and more benign effects than are allowed within Marxism.37 More recently, feminists have developed theories of gender that explain social structure in comparatively novel terms of sexual difference, the divide between public and private spheres, and patriarchal power (see Chapter 10). On top of that, when historians issue calls to embrace theory – as they increasingly do – what they usually have in mind is not social theory, but cultural theories which tackle questions of meaning and representation (seeChapter 9). This most recent trend exposes one of the principal weaknesses of Marxism, namely its tendency to see culture as secondary: neither nationality nor religion receive their due from Marxist historiography. During the 1990s theories that treat culture as an autonomous dimension of society had all the excitement of novelty, against which Marxism inevitably seemed staid and dated. The conflict between social and cultural approaches was played out in the journals (notably Social History between 1992 and 1996), and Marxism was generally reckoned to have lost out.

Yet, as this chapter has demonstrated, Marxist theory has had a unique place in the explanatory resources of history. No other theory offers such a comprehensive model of social structure, or such a dynamic theory of social and political change. That Marxism has been a living theoretical tradition for more than 150 years is only partly due to its origins as a political weapon. It is also because historians and social theorists have recognized its capacity for continuing development. There are already signs that the cultural tide may be retreating. As it does, the merits of a theoretical approach that is rooted in the material realities of human life, which recognizes the centrality of productive relations, and which highlights the tension between collective agency and social determination, will once more be recognized.

Social theory and the ‘big questions’ of history

As we have seen, academic opinion is divided about the merits of theory. But all historians, unless they are diehard traditionalists, concede that theory has been very productive of stimulating hypotheses. Its value, they claim, lies not in its explanatory power but in its capacity to raise interesting questions and to alert scholars to fresh source material – in a word, it has merit as a heuristic device. Historical research usually demonstrates that a given theory does not hold when confronted by the richness of actual experience, but in the process a new area of historical enquiry may be opened up. From this angle Marxist theory has a very good track record as a source of ‘fertile error’:38 whatever its failings it has generated a great deal of historical knowledge about the connections between political process and the socio-economic structure. Equally it might be argued that the attempt to write comparative history has proved its worth less in revealing common patterns than in sharpening our awareness of the fundamental differences between the periods or places under discussion.


Learning from discovery and experiment.

This might be termed the minimalist justification of the use of theory by historians. What it overlooks is that historical knowledge consists of more than specific conjunctures and processes in the past. Historians with their professional commitment to primary research all too easily forget that there are large-scale problems of historical interpretation which cry out for treatment: how to explain long-term processes such as the growth of industrialization or bureaucracy, and the recurrence of institutions such as feudalism or plantation slavery in widely separated societies. The broader the scope of the enquiry, the greater the need for theory that does not simply alert the historian to fresh evidence, but which actually attempts to explain the process or pattern in question. Marxist historiography, if it has done nothing else, has at least brought some of the ‘big questions’ of history more insistently to the centre of the scholarly arena, and has served to expose to scrutiny the unconscious models that so often inform the work of historians most vehement in their rejection of theory.

The conscious application of social theory by historians to these broad questions has given rise to a great deal of reductionist history by second-rate scholars anxious to prove their theoretical credentials. But in the hands of the best historians – and it is by their efforts that the enterprise should surely be judged – the awareness of context and the command of the sources ensure a proper relationship between theory and evidence. As Thompson put it, historical understanding advances by means of ‘a delicate equilibrium between the synthesising and the empiric modes, a quarrel between the model and the actuality’.39 It is to be expected that, submitted to this discipline, social theories should be tried and found wanting, but that is no reason for renouncing their use. The business of historians is to apply theory, to refine it, and to develop new theory, always in the light of the evidence most broadly conceived. And they do so not in pursuit of the ultimate theory or ‘law’ which will ‘solve’ this or that problem of explanation, but because without theory they cannot come to grips with the really significant questions in history.


The prior selection of one level of reality as fundamental, and the interpretation of everything else in terms of that one level.

Theorists and the ‘English Civil War’

Marxist history has made a particularly important contribution to the historiography of the English Civil Wars of 1642–9. In his book The World Turned Upside Down, the British historian Christopher Hill broke with orthodox analysis, which had concentrated on the constitutional arguments between Parliament and the Crown, to look at the explosion of radical political and religious groups the period also witnessed, such as the Levellers and Gerrard Winstanley’s Diggers. Hill was not merely putting forward a version of ‘history from below’; he was presenting the period as one in which constitutional and religious arguments were essentially conduits for a more fundamental conflict between classes. Other historians have responded to the relentlessly secular terms of Marxist analysis by stressing the roots of the conflict in actual religious belief, rather than viewing religion as a vehicle for non-religious issues of class control. The growth of nationalist movements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has led to a separate reappraisal of the period in British terms, in which the conflict between Crown and Parliament is seen as part of a much broader interplay of religious and constitutional issues in Ireland and Scotland, as well as England. Where the period used to be referred to simply as ‘the English Civil War’, it is now common to hear reference made, according to the standpoint of the speaker, to ‘the English Revolution’ or ‘the British Civil Wars’.

E.P. Thompson and The Making of the English Working Class

E.P. Thompson’s 1963 The Making of the English Working Class won a wide popular readership for the way it brought the experiences of ordinary people to the historical forefront. It was the first systematic attempt to provide the working class as a whole, as opposed to the trade unions or the co-operative movement, with a heritage and a sense of collective identity. Thompson’s book remains popular, particularly among those on the political Left, though it is admired across the political divide for the clarity of its style and for the humanity of its judgements. Thompson himself went on to become a leading figure in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels (1820–95) was the son of a prosperous German cotton manufacturer. He acted as his father’s agent in Manchester, then the centre of European cotton manufacture, and was thus able to gain a detailed understanding of the workings of the British economy and to observe at close hand the lives of the working classes, which he described in his 1844 exposé, The Condition of the Working Classes in England. He met Marx the same year, and the two men produced The Communist Manifesto in 1848, laying out the basic theory of communism and calling on working men of all lands to unite to free themselves from oppression. After the failure of the European revolutions of 1848–9, Marx joined Engels in England and began the mammoth task of research in the British Museum Reading Room, which was to result in 1867 in his detailed critique of the capitalist system Das Kapital (Capital). Marx took a leading role in the First International, an international workers’ association which, he hoped, would precipitate proletarian revolution and establish the communist order, but he was unable to prevent it from splitting into Marxist and anarchist factions. Marx died in poverty in 1883 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery in London, where his tomb is still a place of pilgrimage for socialists and communists. Engels devoted the rest of his life to translating and editing Marx’s works in order to bring them to a wider readership.

‘The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808–73) was the third son of Napoleon I’s brother Louis. He became head of the Bonaparte dynasty in 1832 on the death of Napoleon I’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt. Napoleon I had come to power by means of a military coup staged on 9 November 1799, or 18th Brumaire Year X in the revolutionary calendar then in use. Louis Napoleon sought to emulate him in two abortive coup attempts in 1836 and 1840, after the second of which he was imprisoned for life. He escaped to England but returned to France after the Revolution of 1848 established a republic. He was elected to the new constituent assembly as a representative of the Parisian working class, and won the presidential elections of December 1848 with a huge majority. However, he soon fell into conflict with the elected assembly and resorted to ever more autocratic measures. On 2 December 1851 he sent troops to close the assembly, declared the constitution dissolved and ordered widespread arrests. A year later he declared a Second Empire with himself as the Emperor Napoleon III (‘Napoleon II’ having been the Duke of Reichstadt). Marx seized on this betrayal of working-class aspirations in his sardonic essay ‘The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, in which he coined the famous aphorism that when history repeats itself it does so ‘the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’. Napoleon III’s subsequent career bore out Marx’s cynicism: after a string of diplomatic and military failures he was overthrown after the disastrous war with Prussia of 1870–1 and ended his days as a political refugee and asylum seeker in England.

Further reading

Mary Fulbrook, Historical Theory, Routledge, 2002.

Peter Burke, History and Social Theory, Polity Press, 1995.

L.S. Feuer (ed.), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, Fontana, 1969.

Matt Perry, Marxism and History, Palgrave, 2002.

Eric Hobsbawm, On History, Abacus, 1997.

E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory, Merlin Press, 1978.

Harvey J. Kaye, The British Marxist Historians, Polity Press, 1984.

S.H. Rigby, Marxism and History: A Critical Introduction, Manchester University Press, 1987.


  1  See Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Mind and the Method of the Historian, Harvester, 1981, ch. 1.

  2  Some such theory evidently underlies much of G.R. Elton’s work, and also the ‘high politics’ school of historiography, discussed above, pp. 65–6.

  3  A major exception is E.H. Carr, What is History? Penguin, 1961.

  4  Peter Mathias, ‘Living with the neighbours: the role of economic history’, 1970, reprinted in N.B. Harte (ed.), The Study of Economic History, Cass, 1971, p. 380.

  5  For this view, see Jacques Barzun, Clio and the Doctors, Chicago University Press, 1974.

  6  Aileen S. Kraditor, ‘American radical historians on their heritage’, Past and Present, LVI, 1972, p. 137.

  7  Ibid., p. 137.

  8  Paul K. Conkin, ‘Intellectual history’, in Charles F. Delzell (ed.), The Future of History, Vanderbilt University Press, 1977, pp. 129–30.

  9  David Thomson, The Aims of History, Thames & Hudson, 1969, p. 105.

10  Isaiah Berlin, ‘Historical inevitability’, 1954, reprinted in Patrick Gardiner (ed.), The Philosophy of History, Oxford University Press, 1974.

11  Comments in this vein recur in A.J.P. Taylor’s Bismarck, Hamish Hamilton, 1955, and in his The Origins of the Second World War, Penguin, 1964.

12  G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, Fontana, 1969, pp. 55–6.

13  G.R. Elton, Return to Essentials (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 13–15, 27; Arthur Marwick, ‘“A fetishism of documents?” The salience of source-based history’, in Henry Kozicki (ed.), Developments in Modern Historiography, Macmillan, 1993, pp. 110–11.

14  M.M. Postan, Fact and Relevance, Cambridge University Press, 1971, p. 16.

15  E.E. Evans-Pritchard, ‘Anthropology and history’, 1961, reprinted in his Essays in Social Anthropology, Faber, 1962, p. 49.

16  Philip Abrams, Historical Sociology, Open Books, 1982, pp. 2–3.

17  For critical responses to Time on the Cross, see Paul David et al., Reckoning with Slavery, Oxford University Press, 1976.

18  See the criticism of Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘From historical sociology to theoretical history’, British Journal of Sociology, XXVII, 1976, pp. 295–305, and Tony Judt, ‘A clown in regal purple: social history and the historians’, History Workshop Journal, VII, 1979, pp. 66–94.

19  Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Lawrence & Wishart, 1971, pp. 20–1.

20  This interpretation is convincingly argued in Melvin Rader, Marx’s Interpretation of History, Oxford University Press, 1979. For a contrary view, see G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, Oxford University Press, 1978.

21  Fernand Braudel, ‘History and the social sciences: la longue durée’, 1958, reprinted in his On History, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980, p. 51.

22  Engels to J. Bloch, 21 September 1980, reprinted in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. L.S. Feuer, Fontana, 1969, pp. 436–7.

23  Karl Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, Lawrence & Wishart, 1964, especially Introduction by E.J. Hobsbawm.

24  Marx to the editorial board of Otechestvennive Zapiski, November 1877, reprinted in Marx and Engels, Basic Writings, p. 478.

25  Marx, A Contribution, p. 21.

26  Marx, ‘The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, 1852, reprinted in Marx and Engels, Basic Writings, p. 360.

27  Marx and Engels, ‘The German ideology’, 1846, in Basic Writings, p. 289.

28  J.H. Clapham, ‘The study of economic history’, 1929, reprinted in Harte, Study of Economic History, pp. 64–5.

29  John Barber, Soviet Historians in Crisis, 1928–30, Macmillan, 1981.

30  See his Age of Revolution, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962, and his Age of Capital, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976.

31  E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, 1968, p. 9.

32  See Richard Johnson, ‘Thompson, Genovese and socialist-humanist history’, History Workshop Journal, VI, 1978, pp. 79–100, and Perry Anderson, Arguments within English Marxism, Verso, 1980.

33  E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory, Merlin Press, 1978, especially pp. 110–19.

34  Christopher Dyer et al. (eds), Rodney Hilton’s Middle Ages, Oxford University Press, 2007; Chris Wickham, ‘Memories of underdevelopment: what has Marxism done for Medieval history, and what can it still do?’, in C. Wickham (ed.), Marxist History-Writing in the Twenty-first Century, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 35.

35  Peter Clarke, ‘The century of the hedgehog: the demise of political ideologies in the twentieth century’, in Peter Martland (ed.), The Future of the Past: Big Questions in History, Pimlico, 2002, p. 125.

36  Shula Marks and Richard Rathbone (eds), Industrialisation and Social Change in South Africa, Longman, 1982.

37  Wolfgang Knöbl, ‘“Theories that won’t pass away”: the never-ending story of modernization theory’, in Gerard Delanty and Engin F. Isin (eds), Handbook of Historical Sociology, Sage, 2003, pp. 96–107.

38  H.R. Trevor-Roper, ‘History: professional and lay’ (1957), reprinted in H.L. Lloyd-Jones, V. Pearl and B. Worden (eds), History and Imagination, Duckworth, 1981, p. 13.

39  Thompson, The Poverty of Theory, p. 78.

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