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Marxist or historical materialist historiography is a school of historiography influenced by Marxism. The chief tenets of Marxist historiography are the centrality of social class and economic constraints in determining historical outcomes.
Marxist historiography has made contributions to the history of the working class, oppressed nationalities, and the methodology of history from below. The chief problematic aspect of Marxist historiography has been an argument on the nature of history as determined or dialectical; this can also be stated as the relative importance of subjective and objective factors in creating outcomes.
Marxist history is generally deterministic, in that it posits a direction of history, towards an end state of history as classless human society. Marxist historiography, that is, the writing of Marxist history in line with the given historiographical principles, is generally seen as a tool.
Historians who use Marxist methodology, but disagree with the mainstream of Marxism, often describe themselves as marxist historians (with a lowercase M). Methods from Marxist historiography, such as class analysis, can be divorced from the liberatory intent of Marxist historiography; such practitioners often refer to their work as marxian or Marxian.
Marx and Engels
Friedrich Engels' most important historical contribution was Der deutsche Bauernkrieg (The German Peasants' War), which analysed social warfare in early Protestant Germany in terms of emerging capitalist classes. The German Peasants' War is overdetermined and lacks a rigorous engagement with archival sources. It does however indicate the Marxist interest in history from below and class analysis, and it attempts a dialectical analysis.
Engels' short treatise The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (1870s) was salient in creating the socialist impetus in British politics from then on, e.g. the Fabian Society.
Marxist historiography in the Soviet Union
Marxist historiography suffered in the Soviet Union, as the government requested overdetermined historical writing. Soviet historians tended to avoid contemporary history (history after 1905) where possible and effort was predominantly directed at premodern history. As history was considered to be a politicised academic discipline, historians limited their creative output to avoid prosecution.
Notable histories include the Short Course History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik), published in the 1930s, which was written in order to justify the nature of Bolshevik party life under Joseph Stalin.
The Communist Party Historians Group in Britain
A circle of historians inside the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) formed in 1946. They shared a common interest in "history from below" and class structure in early capitalist society. While some members of the group (most notably Christopher Hill and E. P. Thompson) left the CPGB after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the common points of British Marxist historiography continued in their works. They placed a great emphasis on the subjective determination of history. E. P. Thompson famously engaged Althusser in The Poverty of Theory, arguing that Althusser's theory overdetermined history, and left no space for historical revolt by the oppressed.
C. L. R. James was also a great pioneer of the 'history from below' approach. Living in Britain when he wrote his most notable work The Black Jacobins (1938), he was an anti-Stalinist Marxist and so outside of the CPGB.
- Perry Anderson, In the tracks of Historical Materialism
- Paul Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (2006)
- "Deciphering the past" International Socialism 112 (2006)