Gareth Stedman Jones’ plenary on Marxism

David Hitchcock is a lecturer in early modern history at Canterbury Christ Church University, He has published on vagrancy and subsistence migration, and is working on a monograph for Bloomsbury entitled ‘Vagrancy in English Culture and Society, 1650-1750’. His only-occasionally academic blog is at Post.Hoc.

In a wide ranging plenary, Gareth Stedman Jones (Professor for the History of Ideas at Queen Mary and a Fellow of Kings, Cambridge) focused on the ‘paradox’ of Eric Hobsbawm’s committed Marxism and his incredible historical talents. Stedman Jones stated that Marxism mixes badly with ‘the writing of good history’, because it is a ‘cluster of dogmatic assumptions’, yet Hobsbawm retained an unapologetically materialist interpretation of historical processes and still managed to write a cracking history: syncretic, incisive monographs read in more languages today than any other modern historical works (at least 20, according to the Le Monde online archives). Stedman Jones therefore asked his audience whether Hobsbawm’s skill as an historian was despite his Marxism, or because of it.

Gareth Stedman Jones began his investigation where many other distinguished presenters at this conference also chose to start: with Hobsbawm’s personal history, his own historical contexts, influences, and composite biography. Born in Egypt 1917, with German as a first language, easily conversant in English, French, and Spanish at the very least, schooled in Berlin until 1933, with a doctorate from Kings, Hobsbawm’s early and committed socialism (he joined a youth communist group as early as 1931 and joined the communist party from 1936, remaining part of it until its 1990s dissolution) and his polyglot, polymathic early heritage occupied Jones’ initial remarks. Jones had much to say about the relative stability of post-war Britain as a perch from which Hobsbawm (and indeed the Communist Party Historians Group) could make the seminal interventions into the practice of professional history with which we are now so familiar. Stedman Jones argued that Eric’s steady commitment to Marxism was political and engaged in the first instance – it was a ‘political pedagogy for activists’. It was less philosophical than it was instrumental, a method of understanding impersonal historical forces (often referred to in Marx’s terms as the means, mode and relationship to anything ‘produced’ by human beings), and how these forces could shape the boundaries of human well-being, inequality, economic and social structures, and many other things besides. Perhaps it is this instrumentalism, or ecumenicism, which permitted Hobsbawm’s histories to be so good despite his Marxism, mused Stedman Jones. Hobsbawm’s views can be called ‘historical materialism’ of course, and apparently it was a view of human history that belonged much more to Freidrich Engels than to Karl Marx in actuality. Was it also a cluster of dogmatic assumptions?

marxFriedrich Engels, it seems, had a rather selective memory, especially when it came to his early meetings with Karl Marx in the 1840s and the formation of the single most famous philosophical partnership (and indeed corpus of philosophical work), probably ever. It was a late 19th century preoccupation of Engels, who of course outlived Marx by twelve years, to reconcile, perhaps even reconfigure, early disagreements between the two men regarding the staging of human economic modes of production and the most useful way to interpret the historical ‘transitions’ between those stages. To use very extensive short-hand, Marx remained by and large (I can see one of my undergraduate philosophy professors, who taught me Hegel, nodding) a Hegelian dialectical thinker, who saw the theses, anti-theses and eventual synthesis of human history as determined by economic forces and the human being’s varying relationship to them, more Theses of Fuerbach (1845) or critiques of abstraction in the Poverty of Philosophy (and of Proudhon’s anarchism) than Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) or the German Idealism. Engels, on the other hand, was more activist historian and party organiser, and thus more in line with Eric Hobsbawm’s own Marxism. Jones cited several early editorial comments by Hobsbawm in the 1965 series of essays by Karl Marx called Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations in support of this interpretation.

At risk of going too far into weeds which interest me but not necessarily anyone else, I will skip over the detailed interplay in Stedman Jones’ plenary between the different interpretations of a ‘materialist conception of history’, marxism-as-philosophy, and marxism-as-political-activism. Though I am afraid we must return to these again because the elision of precisely what qualifies as a ‘materialist’ reading of anything was a major problem (to my mind) with Stedman Jones’ plenary address. One of Jones’ central points was that there is no agreement that Marx himself ever was much of a materialist, it is much more likely that he was attempting to reconcile idealism (Hegel) and materialism (Engels, et al). All philosophical abstraction demanded critique, and all economic categories were ‘contingent’, with those who work essentially producing those categories in the first instance via their relationship to forms of property, economic exchange, and the resulting inequalities. If that sounds slightly more like Adam Smith in Moral Economy or David Hume’s economic thought to you, then you will agree with what Jones concluded about Marx, that he belongs in a continuous tradition of ‘natural law’ inquiry stretching back well past Enlightenment thinkers, and that by that metric much of what we deploy in as Marxism or a material analysis of the past is actually fairly commonsensical. Karl Marx was never ‘sui generis’, his thought came from a long line of rationalist social thinkers, Hobsbawm’s own communism sidled much closer to the historian-activist dichotomy of Engels, and Marxism as we historians presently understand it was (quoting Jones) ‘an invented tradition, whose usefulness is long since passed.’

Whoa, wait a second. Sitting in the audience, my first reaction to Stedman Jones’ parting shot (which borrows one of Hobsbawm’s key terms no less) was ‘which Marxism does he mean? The one he just outlined, which fits neatly into a longer tradition of rationalists, or the Engels variety, or does he mean 20th century political Marxism…’ and so on. So in questions, I had to ask Stedman Jones exactly that, but I also was not alone in that concern. As I suspect will always be the case in terms of erudition, Geoff Eley, Distinguished Professor of contemporary history at the University of Michigan, inquired after a much wider ranging and elegant formulation of similar concerns to my own. Eley offered Stedman Jones a dichotomy: was Marxism a ‘distraction’ to the historical profession as an analytical calculus, or was it simply ‘misinterpreted’? Was he calling for the abandonment wholesale of historical materialism, or was he saying that we need to ‘creatively re-read’ Marx’s corpus? Stedman Jones had responded to my question by answering the affirmative, that materialist readings of the relationship between economic conditions and human social structures were common sense, and that we can find these readings in thinkers well before Marx. I agree with that answer and with the reading of Marx it implies (I also agree that Marxist philosophy is a ‘critical form of natural law’ theory, which Jones stated). But Stedman Jones responded to Eley’s question by appearing to select option one: Marxism is a distraction. I remain unable to reconcile those two answers at all. ‘Whatever is wrong with capitalism the alternatives were worse’ said Jones. Most people who spend time thinking about Marxism and its political children in the 20th century will probably agree in principle (think of the blat market for medicine and what it says about 1970s USSR healthcare) but they would probably also not label the USSR or North Korea or modern China as simply Marxist, and we must distinguish between philosophy and political formulations and between wide-ranging geopolitical specificity and sweeping theoretical conception, much like Stedman Jones’ plenary had done when discussing Engels’ differences from Marx himself.

In a sense I should not be all that surprised. Languages of Class (Jones’ most critical scholarly intervention) is not itself particularly ‘Marxist’ nor materialist (as the title honestly indicates), and Jones also came under fire in the pages of History Workshop in the latter 1990s, after publishing a piece entitled ‘The Determinist Fix: Some Obstacles to the Further Development of Linguistic Approaches to History.'[1] The French historian Roger Chartier (whose own work is criticised in Jones’ piece) responded by open letter in the pages of the journal several issues later.[2] Chartier was not impressed by Jones’ recommendations in 1996, which is instructive when one considers that Chartier’s seminal publication bears the title The Culture of Print, which hardly begins from an unreconstructed materialist determination of human agency. He goes after the particular approach with which Jones was then associated: ‘linguistic history’. Chartier writes that Stedman Jones’ approach leads to ‘confusions and dead ends’, for ‘how is it possible to understand the production of discourses without relating them to the position of those who speak them?’ Discourse (and its dependants text, language, etc) is ‘always itself socially rooted and constrained.'[3] ‘Moreover’, he continued, ‘the logic at work in discourse should not be confused with the logic which drives practice. Abolishing that distinction necessarily reduces all social practices to “texts”.’ Amusingly, that last quote from Chartier very aptly summarises many of the central historiographical concerns of the 90s; surely not everything was a ‘text’ which exists to be ‘read’ by the scholar. For one thing that orientation privileges literate and educated culture over non-literate and oral culture, in earlier times just as it would now.

Its position as antidotal counterpoint and rigorous, internally consistent analytical framework, is of course the value of ‘Marxism’, or ‘materialism’, which itself clearly is not a singular philosophical orientation. Marxism(s), like most anything else of any intellectual density or value, is much easier to deride or caricature than it is to understand. ‘Materialist’ readings of the historical past are by and large responsible for the multifaceted, incredibly fertile re-orientation of the discipline of history after World War II, a re-orientation towards the social, the experience of just living, the everyday, the half-remembered. Very few historians of any persuasion wish to give up this profound rebalancing of our concerns. I assure you that very few historians shall. The conviction and passion of the earliest social historians carved out new pathways and lines of inquiry, new methods by which to recover neglected histories. Whether or not I am quite as committed to a singularly materialist reading of the past as might be believed of me is immaterial (I am not), and frankly I am not nearly as committed to marches, barricades, and Internationals as Eric Hobsbawm was either, but my own variety of history only possible because men and women like him wrote socially conscious, and conscientious, histories of previous days. Which flavour of Marxism animated this scholarship seems to me at most a faded corollary to that bigger story. The ‘paradox’ of Eric Hobsawm’s Marxism seems, on review, to be no paradox at all.


[1] Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘The Determinist Fix: Some Obstacles to the Further Development of Linguistic Approaches to History.’ History Workshop Journal, 42 (Autumn 1996); pp. 19-35.

[2] Roger Chartier, ‘LETTER: Why the Linguistic Approach can be an obstacle to the further development of historical knowledge. A Reply to Gareth Stedman Jones’, History Workshop Journal, 46 (Autumn 1998); pp. 271-272.

[3]Chartier, ‘LETTER: Why the Linguistic Approach can be an obstacle to the further development of historical knowledge’, p. 271.