Interviews June 13, 2018

'Doubt Everything': An Interview on the State of Marxist History with Vijay Prashad and Ewan Gibbs, Part II

This is the second part of an interview with Vijay Prashad and Ewan Gibbs on the state of Marxist history in 2018. The first part of the interview is available here


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

GOVAN: It's striking that in your previous answers you both emphasised the important role that Marxist historians have in influencing economies and society. Do you think there's a hypocrisy to this given the majority of the intellectual product of Marxist historians is inaccessible to the public? In escaping the academic bubble, is it important that we attempt to produce freely accessible content?

GIBBS: I think that we have to be aware of the political obligations that Marxists have to reach audiences beyond the academy and to try where possible to shape public debates. But I think that should be tempered by both realism in terms of the limitations we face as individuals and a commitment to teaching. I raise the latter because, especially in a UK context, the stereotype of inaccessible academics in ivory towers has been massively internally challenged by the massification and neoliberalisation of universities. Ensuring a place for Marxist-influenced accounts of history within the curriculum is an important commitment. As we increasingly face utilitarian pressures to justify the value of history it is vital that we are able to demonstrate that, in a period of economic, social and environmental crises, Marxism is of immense use to understanding the world, but that we also protect the value of studying history for its own sake too.

In terms of publications, very few academics are making significant sums of money from publishing their research, at least outside of their overall salary. Journals certainly don't pay for articles and earnings from typical academic books are minimal. More importantly, most of us would bite your hand off for opportunities to reach significant audiences through our work. There have been trends towards academics being more media aware, penning articles for newspapers and blogs which have far wider circulation than journals, and Twitter has also been a medium that has been used for academic contribution to public discussions.

PRASHAD: There are many different kinds of audiences for the work that an intellectual does, including a socialist intellectual. There is the work of trying to come to an understanding – at the theoretical level – of the concepts that are necessary to understand the motion in a society at a particular time. This work is often quite abstract and written in a kind of shorthand. There is nothing untoward about that, since this is to help a socialist intellectual work out problems that are not easily done in transparent language. Then there is the work that is produced for the militants, who are often at a different level of literacy than the academic and of the masses in the key classes (the workers, peasants and unemployed). Militants have experience through party schools and party journals in the language of Marxism and of socialist praxis. Finally, there are texts produced for workers, peasants and the unemployed which have to be produced to be received by these key classes. This is not to say that these texts must not be complex and must be written in a simplistic style. Not at all, since these texts must carry the precise complexness of the system as worked out by the socialist intellectual at the highest level of abstraction. This is how intellectual work is done in the communist world to which I belong, and it is a model for how to produce socialist ideas.

It should be said that in many countries of the West – as I noted previously – the linkage between socialist intellectuals and the mass movements is broken. This means that many socialist intellectuals are unmoored from the necessary linkage to workers, peasants and the unemployed. But this does not exhaust the possibilities of Marxism in the West. There remain important political forces of the Left, many of them in need of a theory that will provide clarity in complex times. A vague tendency to the Left is not sufficient, for the drift into the shoals of compromise with the present is a reality. One hopes that more and more intellectuals in the West and elsewhere find their feet in the social and political movements, anchor ourselves in these movements, try to learn from them and to teach them, to become part of them.

GOVAN: Have Marxist historians done enough to address the challenges raised by post-modernist thought?'

PRASHAD: I think there has been a great deal written from a Marxist standpoint to clarify the situation of postmodernism. Aijaz Ahmad's essays are by far the most important contribution in this vein. His essays in The Marxist (2011) and in the volume for Irfan Habib (2002) are by far the most comprehensive studies on the emergence of postmodernism, its context and its fallacies. This is not a knee-jerk dismissal of postmodernism. Ahmad spends a great deal of time understanding the work of Lyotard and Derrida, offering his views of what - from a Marxist standpoint - is valuable and what is intellectually and politically infeasible. One of the most important points raised by Ahmad is the absence - in this literature - of any consideration of imperialism. In Foucault's narrative of the 'Modern Age' the role of imperialism, of the theft of wealth and of ideas is similarly absent. The world outside Europe simply does not exist for the postmodern thinkers. For those who worry about the lack of attention to social identities, many influenced by Foucault, this significant lacunae in Foucault's work has not been sufficiently attended to.

Certainly, many of the themes in the better works of postmodernism are not unfamiliar to the Marxist tradition, though there is this great difference between the two traditions which has not been sufficiently underlined: that postmodernism cynically surrenders to power, whereas the Marxist tradition holds fast to the idea of human emancipation. This is a political judgment, but it has implications for how one writes history and how one understands social consciousness and social praxis. I'd say we Marxists should be a little less forgiving of the deep cynicism at the root of postmodern thought.

GIBBS: Post-modernism and post-structuralism have presented both huge challenges to the core contentions of Marxism while also suggesting fruitful lines of inquiry for developing future research agendas. The biggest single threat post-modernism presented to Marxist historians, and perhaps to all historians, was the rejection of metanarratives. As Eric Hobsbawm contended in On History, the value of history, and especially accounts influenced by Marxism, lies in the explanation of at least part of how human beings have gone from living in caves to inhabiting a world connected by the internet and globalised trade. A hegemonic contention that history is not in fact a series of linked ruptures and transformations buttressed by the claim that history itself had ended, results in major introspections. My biggest concern in that respect is a serious weakening of the will to advance claims of world-historic significance. It might not be a coincidence that it was a journalist, Paul Mason, who published an influential global labour history, Live Working or Die Fighting (2008) that dared make the claim that there were huge parallels between the experiences of class formation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and our own period.

Post-structuralism's biggest threat lay in the deconstruction of agents and consciousness as remotely coherent entities. I am less convinced that line of argument has quite so deeply embedded itself. This is especially visible in the development of oral history. Although it has been strongly influenced by post-modern thoughts on the self, it also requires a view of cohesive experience and understanding with at least the potential for counter-hegemonic narratives. Where historians influenced by Marxism have been confident enough to answer the challenges these agendas pose, such as in relation to the body, health and employment, they have provided the basis for strong lines of inquiry and sophisticated analyses that do not overlook factors relating to economic and political power and agency. Looking forward, we will perhaps be best served through a willingness to be both receptive to the areas of research that post-structuralism opens without allowing analyses of narrative construction to overwhelm considerations relating to popular experience of employment and social reproduction.

GOVAN: It's been incredibly interesting comparing your views on the state of Marxist history in 2018, but as we look forward, what would you like to see in the next five years from Marxist historians?

GIBBS: I'm wary of prescribing a particular area or method of research to colleagues developing a plethora of interesting critical studies. One case I would make is for Marxist historians not to lose sight of the vitality of economic history or for the canon as a whole to lose sight of the centrality of labour relations, both domestic and industrial, to the development of history. These matters are often far from the forefront of formal politics or the events that tend towards being understood as having determined the unravelling of history, but are usually fundamental in determining the longer-run flow of events and changes in social relations that affect the mass of 'ordinary' people's lives.

More broadly, it is vital that Marxists continue to contest and defend some form of metanarrative history. The single biggest impact that post-modernism had in corroding the power of Marxists was contesting the notion that history has broad sweep explanators. Marxism requires a defence of the centrality of class struggles across human history, 'from above' as much as 'from below', including where they were not overly referred to in a class-conscious terminology. Marxist historians must also continue to analyse the historical specificity of the social relations, crises and forms of consciousness associated with capitalism. Essentially, whilst it is vital that Marxist-inspired historical analysis is not reduced to Soviet hagiography or a tautology that enshrines the inevitable coming of socialism, it is also crucial that its practitioners realise its power to explain our present juncture. In this they owe an obligation, if they are claiming to write as Marxists, to understanding the continued political relevance of history and to in some way contribute to the development of counter-narratives and counter-hegemonies to prevalent versions of the past that tend to bolster the already powerful. I'm inherently cautious about being bombastic or overly directional there—I don't think that obligation extends to subscribing to a very particular reading of Marxism or Leninist activism. But it does have to mean some sort of dialogue with political struggle and people who are engaged with collectively representing the interests of workers or oppressed groups.

PRASHAD: This is a difficult question because of the sheer diversity of interests of Marxist historians and scholars. I would like to see a range of work emerge out of the Marxist analytic and out of an interest in left politics. I think we need to see a great deal of innovation and creativity in the way in which the analytic is developed.

I'd like to see much more robust engagement with praxis. This is a real problem in contemporary left scholarly traditions: a withdrawal into theoretical assessments that are often somewhat too specialized and removed from the struggles in our world. I am reminded of the concern of Karl Korsch from the early 1920s in his book Marxism and Philosophy (1923), where Korsch worried that Marxism in the West had forgotten that it was to be a guide to political struggle. It was viewed, he wrote, as 'a set of purely scientific observations', detached from class struggle. It is often forgotten that our tradition is to seek a living totality, that it emerges out of a theory towards socialist revolution. So it is this ethical standpoint towards the world that I hope will reveal itself in the work of Marxist historians and Marxist scholars.

This should not be misunderstood. I am not saying that scholars should be propagandists. Far from it. Scholars need to use our skills, the fruit of social labour, to understand the nature of the class struggle in our time—a struggle cut through with the efflorescence of social identities and through various forms of class aspiration—and to develop a sense of the history of this struggle. Such a glance at the past and of the present will allow us to understand the conditions for transcendence of this particular, historically-contingent system that we live with. We are almost embarrassed to take this kind of attitude to scholarship. There is a sense that we should as part of the professional character of our disciplines keep a detached mood from the world. I believe that this 'embarrassment' is part of a class attack on the possibility of producing knowledge for the working-class, the peasantry and the socially oppressed sections towards their liberation from hierarchies of property and power.

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