Historiography: Marxist Approach

Marxist history means subjecting the appearance of facts within historical method to a causal system. This is the Marxist view of history, beginning with ancient civilisation, feudalism, capitalism and socialism. There is a law here of technological change, of clashes of social forces that develop opposite forces at each stage, and of the lower force in the social scale becoming able to overthrow the ruling force, until socialism is achieved: a time of productive plenty when there is plenty to go around to fill all our needs without conflict, so long as the system that subjected the mass to exploitation and gave the other excess profit from the mass is gone.
Marxist history then is a perspective over events, understanding them by asking whether they fit into the plan of historical change. There is a double edge to this, in that as well as understanding events it also raises the status of history itself. Doing history is, in this understanding, rather as if doing theology of old. History is the objective truth in its unfolding of collective human forces engaged in social and economic struggle. It is economically deterministic, therefore materialist, and the all-important point is that ideas (including religion and politics) are a subset of the economic changes. The economic base of society shapes and determines the superstructure of politics and ideas. The historian, of course, is bound to study the superstructure and the way that action takes place (events).
The issue regarding ideas becomes one of analysis of events. The ruling class has an ideological hegemony, so the theory goes. This means they can subject the ruled to a false consciousness, for example that they have their fair share of the system, or enjoy its increasing wealth. The ruled, as oppressed, are led to think that they are not (so) oppressed (or that this order is natural) in order to maintain their oppression. The historian will perhaps look for clues that this is happening, at the same time as evidence of real oppression.
The problem is that the theory is not subject to falsifiability. Not reporting or acting on repression supports the theory, as does coming to revolutionary action. It is also strange that whilst people are subject to false consciousness, Marxists seem to have escaped the imposed deception.
Marxist history can be from above or from below, but much of British Marxist history has been from below, looking at what happened to the people in terms of feeling oppressed and otherwise, and action and otherwise. A central question returns again and again about the independence of ideas. The Frankfurt School (social science) legacy is the whole extent of culture, but the more independent ideas become, the more Weberian and less Marxist is any analysis.

Some Personalities

Dates in brackets are some times of impact just in areas mentioned.

Adrian Worsfold



Green, A., Troup, K. (eds) (1999), The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 33-43.