‘Doubt Everything’: An Interview on the State of Marxist History with Vijay Prashad and Ewan Gibbs, Part I

Ewan Gibbs (left) and Vijay Prashad (right). Source: Authors

This is the first of a two-part interview with Vijay Prashad and Ewan Gibbs on the state of Marxist history today. The second part, on the role of the Marxist historian and the challenge of post-modernism, will be published next week.

When I planned it initially, this interview was designed to highlight the differences of thought between two Marxist historians, each focused on radically different parts of the world, with one more experienced colleague and one exciting prospect for the future. In effect, I sought to highlight how differences in circumstance might lead to diverging interpretations of theory.

What struck me as I compiled and edited this interview, however, was not divergence, but harmony. Of course, there are differing opinions in the interview which follows, but two shared and salient themes emerge. The first is the desire among Marxist historians to constantly expand our horizons, incorporating new techniques and ideas to strengthen our analysis. The second is more cautionary. It is a profound scepticism of the elimination of meta-narratives from history. While specialisation brings welcome depth to our discipline, it must not do so at the expense of the broader picture.

I am extremely grateful to both Vijay Prashad and Ewan Gibbs for devoting their time to this interview. It was conducted by email over a number of months and their stimulating dialogue challenged many of the presumptions I had when commencing the project. I hope that readers will enjoy the interview and reflect on what it might teach us, not just as Marxists, but as historians more generally. I hope more broadly that readers of the Toynbee Prize Foundation website who may not consider themselves Marxists are able to identify with the themes of this interview: the importance of embracing new methods and ideas; the salience of global histories; the need to challenge institutional assumptions within our discipline.

Vijay Prashad is the Executive Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and Chief Editor of LeftWord Books. He is the author of twenty-five books and the editor of twenty others. His most recent book is Red Star Over the Third World, a study of the impact of the 1917 October Revolution on the anti-colonial movements and on the post-colonial states. He writes regularly for Frontline and The Hindu (India), BirGün (Turkey) and Alternet (USA).

Ewan Gibbs lectures in sociology and social policy at the University of the West of Scotland. He was awarded a PhD in 2016 for a study of deindustrialization in the Scottish coalfields. Ewan has published on the moral economy of Scottish colliery closures,  the poll tax non-payment movement, policy-making and the idea of a Scottish ‘industrial nation’, and on the intellectual origins of ‘left-wing’ Scottish nationalism.

Dexter Govan (University of Cambridge)

DEXTER GOVAN: What is your current area of research and how do you think it’s influenced by Marxist theory?

VIJAY PRASHAD: My research in recent years has gone in two directions. First, towards an exploration of Communist history; second, towards an understanding of the new shape of global accumulation and therefore of contemporary imperialism. As a historian, I found over the years an interesting development in such wide areas of study as labour history and social history. Many scholars came to these fields not from Marxism but with a heavy dose of post-modernism and its ancillary fields. What they brought to labour history and social history in general was certainly an interest in the lives of ordinary people; but what they were not interested in was the question of organisation and organised forms of struggle. So – drawing from the very rich assessments of spontaneity and organisation developed by Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin – I wrote an engaged history of the Indian communist movement (No Free Left: the Futures of Indian Communism) and worked with the LeftWord Communist History Group to produce the first volume of our projected multi-volume work, Communist Histories. In the introduction to the edited book, I spent a great deal of time working on the problem of spontaneity and the implications this has for the present.

The second area of work that I have been involved in has been to understand the long history of the post-colonial predicament, from the end of the old empires (British, French, Dutch and Portuguese) to the entry of Western imperialism at a deeply structural level – now either as neo-colonialism or through the domination of rent-seeking monopoly firms that privilege intellectual property rights in the global commodity chain. Drawing from earlier Marxist thinkers on imperialism – including Ernst Mandel – I studied the demise of the Third World Project’s New International Economic Order, the emergence for a brief moment of the BRICS bloc and the crisis of imperialism today. This was in The Poorer Nations (2013).

I have now left the academy after two decades of teaching to run a research institute (Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research), where we are going to spend a great deal of time trying to understand – based on detailed empirical studies – the structure of contemporary imperialism and the possibilities for the reconstitution of popular movements towards a post-capitalist future. The first Occasional Paper from Tricontinental (in The Ruins of the Present, Working Document #1, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, March 2018) details the unstable structure of contemporary imperialism and the possibilities for the re-composition of global socialism as its antidote.

EWAN GIBBS: My work relates to the Scottish experience of deindustrialization, the declining contribution of industrial activities to economic output and employment. In 2016 I completed a PhD thesis at the University of Glasgow which explored deindustrialization in Lanarkshire, which was Scotland’s largest coalfield upon coal mining’s nationalisation in 1947, between the 1940s and the 1980s. Since then, I have continued my focus on coalfield restructuring and its cultural and political ramifications through researching energy policy’s formulation and application at both the UK and Scottish level.

From a Marxist perspective I am studying the relationship between long-term changes in the means of production to shifts in political consciousness. I am influenced by Eric Hobsbawm’s subtle consideration of such processes, but more specifically by his analysis of nationalisms built on “the assumptions, hopes, needs, longings and interests of ordinary people, which are not necessarily national and still less nationalist.”  This has included an emphasis on the popular customs through which deindustrialiation was contested. It draws on E.P. Thompson’s illumination of the moral economy through which English plebeian consumers imposed cultural norms upon burgeoning agrarian capitalism. Unlike Thompson’s effort to “rescue” the early working class from posterity’s condescension, I have the benefit of talking to former workers directly. Oral history theorists such as Alessandro Portelli have stressed the benefit of a Marxist history which can reconnect individual stories and memories with collective political experiences of major change to give more effective voice to those normally only written of in crowds.

GOVAN: Are we living through a crisis in Marxist historiography?

GIBBS: No. I think we are living through something of a welcome rebirth of Marxist-influenced scholarship, which is attaining far greater popular resonance than was the case in either the 1990s or 2000s. This is unsurprising given that formally dominant ideas are experiencing a profound crisis of legitimacy in the face of both ongoing economic stagnation and a succession of developments that orthodox political scientists ruled impossible. In this environment, it is a welcome development that there has been a growth in creative attempts to interpret Marxist ideas for the present period, and that in some cases these have attained popular acclaim. One of the most high-profile outcomes of this was the publication of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. It not only sold widely, but has reshaped popular discussion of economic inequality and given scholarly credibility to Occupy Wall Street’s demonisation of ‘the 1%’.

It’s also important to be aware that there was never a solid and cohesive body of exclusively Marxist historiography. Thinking as far back as the Frankfurt school and the emergence of a strengthened canon of Marxist historical writing during the 1950s and 1960s, there were evident crossovers with other traditions and new methodological approaches. For instance, in the UK, the Communist Party’s Historians Group was clearly in dialogue with the French Annales school through the development of a longue durée outlook which emphasises the “slow and powerful march of history”. More recent inclusions of discourse analysis or Lacanian psycho-social analysis should also be understood as potentially fruitful tools for developing more profound understandings of historical experiences. I am wary, though, of the danger of analyses tending to downplay the political elements of social experiences, or providing essentially technocratic guides to a socialist future and omitting struggle and the agency of workers in favour of enlightened policy-makers. Historians have a prominent role to play in opposing such perspectives.

PRASHAD: Was there ever a period when there has not been a crisis in Marxist historiography? The debates in Marxism have been and should be rich because we believe that – as Lenin wrote – ‘the most essential thing in Marxism, the living soul of Marxism, is the concrete analysis of concrete conditions’. Dead theory should be nothing for a Marxist. Our Marxism must be creative, must engage with new advances in science and in the world, must be alive to constant debate and development. Marx’s favourite motto was ‘doubt everything’. I take that as an essential point about our framework. So if there is a debate, I welcome it, if there is a crisis, it is an opportunity to develop our theory.

Marxist historiography faces a challenge in the West largely because Marxism has been either treated as illegitimate or it has been domesticated into an apolitical methodology. This surrender did not take place globally. In other parts of the world, the connection of socialist intellectuals with political movements was not broken. From Brazil to India, socialist intellectuals continue to be engaged in leftist movements and often as members of leftist parties. This is very significant for the temper of the work they produce. Post-modernism, with its attendant cynicism, did not appeal to them. Certainly, critiques made by post-modern scholars were of course taken in hand, but not the futile sensibility. That was rejected. These scholars who produce rich historical and sociological work are not often read in the West, and are therefore not seen in the West to define the contours of such a thing as ‘Marxist historiography’. This is part of the old international division of intellectual labour. It will take a great deal of effort to break this barrier and to prevent Western scholarship – with its own parochial manners and context – from posturing as global scholarship.

GOVAN: It seems there’s a reluctance on the part of many social historians to engage with the concept of class, or when they do so, to create new structures of class for contemporary history. Is this approach compatible with Marxism, or are traditional divisions of class universal, and essential, to the practice of history?

PRASHAD: It is true that there is a retreat from class, and has been one for several decades. There are perhaps two reasons for this retreat. First, there has been the emergence of other social categories – ethnicity and race as well as gender and sexuality – as a major focus of historical research. These are important developments and concentration on them has certainly enriched the historical record. But there has been a tendency, for whatever reason, to see these as somehow antithetical to class, as if a class analysis is somehow opposed to an analysis of sexuality or of race. The working-class, for instance, is made up of people with a multitude of social identities. To ignore these identities is to ignore the richness of working-class life.

Second, the collapse of the USSR of course penalized Marxism and made it harder for Marxist scholarship to thrive. A very strange reading of Gramsci emerged to undermine the question of class, where Gramsci’s notion of the ‘subaltern’ was mobilized not only in Indian historiography but elsewhere to concentrate on questions of power to the exclusion of questions of property. This was part of a wider ‘cultural turn’ that began to shy away from a turn to political economy. I think any Marxist historiography must carefully find a way to attend to the question of property (class) as well as power (social identity). These are snakes wrapped around each other. To look at one without the other leaves the historian in danger of being bitten.

GIBBS: At the risk of sounding like an old Soviet textbook, Marxism has an understanding of class as a relationship centred on the means of production and economic exploitation at its heart and draws much of its power from this. But crucially, in my view, this doesn’t preclude an understanding of class which is alert to cultural dimensions. It is also vital that Marxists are sensitive to precision within understandings of class relating to power in the workplace and control over the means of production that disaggregates between sections of the waged workforce. In this sense, as valuable as I think Ellen Meiksins Wood’s defence of class as an analytical category was, Marxist historians also need to start analyses of class within a given dense and complex historical environment. This requires understanding class as a dynamic relationship and using the historical imagination to understand how stratification was internalised within popular consciousness.

A recent example of this with huge merit is Jefferson Cowie’s volume on the American experience of the 1970s, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. Far from arguing that from an objective perspective class was abolished, Cowie instead combines a story of left-wing trade union revival with an analysis of how feminist and civil rights movements challenged the existing ‘new deal’ cultural understanding of class which was exclusive in both race and gender terms. These are weaved through low and high politics and pop culture to understand how the politics of collectivism ultimately atrophied in the late 1970s. Cowie effectively tells a story of the ‘unmaking’ of a working class as a political subject, as opposed to E.P. Thompson’s story of a ‘making’.

There has been much debate over Thompson’s famous contention that class was a ‘happening’ rather than a structure. I think it is most useful for us to conceive of this in terms of class situations being processes. Within British social history, and in much contemporary political discourse, it is usual to consider class as relatively static and marked largely by cultural signifiers of consumption and status. It is vital that Marxists are able to confront that by demonstrating the volatile realities of class as an economic and political experience.

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