The study of Karl Marx and his philosophies has fascinated political, social and economic historians for most of the past century. Hundreds, if not thousands, of scholars have dedicated their professional life to understanding Marx and Marxism. Over the years, there have been periods of continuity and periods of discontinuity, peaks and valleys of interest and hundreds of viewpoints as to the meaning and importance of Marxist thought at the any given time. While it may not seem like modern conditions provide a fertile environment for the continued study of Marxist thought, the study of Marx is considered as important today as any time in its illustrious historiography.
Any Marxist historiography must begin with Eric Hobsbawm, who is considered the "the premier Marxist historian working today" (Matthews 88). Hobsbawm's work on Marx amounts to an impressive inter-disciplinary, inter-generational synthesis which combines history and theory to weave together Marx's impact on the social, political, and economic history of the twentieth century (Ibid). Further, Hobsbawm's work has required other historians to focus closely on the meaning and implications of nationalism and national identity on the study socialist politics. As a result, the study of class-consciousness has been replaced as the dominant focus of political economic modern history.
According to Kevin Murphy, one area of Marxist historiography that has been altogether under developed, even by liberal historians like Hobsbawm, is the relative favorable reaction to the Russian Revolution in 1917, including some very sympathetic reactions in the United States (10). While some historians are willing to concede this point as it relates to minor details on these issues, there is still appears to be an ideological resistance to the notion that early Soviet society was fundamentally different from later Stalinism, and therefore praised around the world, if not actually virtuous (Murphy 10).
In fact, Western historians are still attempting to equate the Revolution of 1917 with the Stalinism that emerged years later (Murphy 11). Whereas history used to be a left-dominated discipline and the earlier liberal historians failed to develop the Marxist ideology of the Revolution, the more recent right oriented historians will only move the ideological focus even further away from what should be the mainstream. Although the size of the field is small in terms of the number of modern day Marxist historians, there is still a need to be aware of and challenge the prevailing trends in the field, especially when they reveal a weakness, as it does here (Ibid).
Another preeminent Marx scholar is E.P. Thompson. Thompson's classic work, The Making of the English Working Class, was published in the early 1960s, "when history writing was still a favorite vehicle for left intellectuals" (Wood). This book was recognized as a landmark volume in Marxist history when it was released. Thompson believed that ordinary people were mired "the enormous condescension of posterity" and needed to be rescued from it accordingly (Wood). At the heart of this comment was Thompson's wish to see historians help the working class shape its own history and to bring about its own emancipation from the class struggle. The concepts of class and class struggle are different today as socialism and communism are challenged even by the far left. Also, historians have not with answered Thompson's call to develop "the historian's craft as a political project" (Wood).
Thompson's work helped develop history as a critique to expose and challenge the ideological presuppositions of Marxism. In this regard Thompson helped bring the historical study of Marxist thought into the age of postmodernism, along with its "rejection of grand narratives, totalizing knowledge, even conceptions of causality, and so on" (Wood). The conquest of capitalism over socialism and Marxism has made the postmodern critical "discourse" obsolete among modern day Marxist historians.
As of the early 1990s, capitalism was becoming universally transcendent which sharply curtailed the fashionable study of Marx and socialism. Among an ever growing body of right wing historians, who were only too happy to extol the virtues of capitalism, and a retreating body of leftist historians, realizing with bitter certainty and finality that socialism was a dying- if not dead- system, a sharp vacuum of Marxist history developed. In fact, the triumph of capitalism was so universally acknowledged that it too was brought to the brink of extinction.
If Marxist study ever were to become irrelevant, it would have happened at this point in the apex of capitalism in the middle of the 1990s. The study of Marx was spared extinction due to the work and legacy of Thompson, according to historian Ellen Wood. Thompson "more than any other historian, or maybe even any other scholar or writer of any kind, brought to life the specificity, historicity, and contestability of capitalism as an economic, social, and moral system" (Wood).
While capitalism may never be supplanted as the political-economic system of the world, it is not a perfect system and therefore, its nature, including its weaknesses must be identified and examined. Therefore, it follows that the study of non-capitalism alternatives becomes important so that capitalism is better understood (Wood). As Thompson himself said, "We shall not ever return to pre-capitalist human nature…[but] a reminder of its alternative needs, expectations, and codes may renew our sense of our nature's range of possibilities."
In addition, Hobsbawm believed that rapid and drastic changes in the world fueled the public's appetite for history (Wasserman 273). He contends that is axiomatic of human nature that as a generation's world is transformed into something that does not resemble the world they were born into, that living memory of the forgotten world fascinates and the thirst for knowledge of it becomes insatiable (Ibid.). Thus, the present day relevance of Marxist historical scholarship will continue at least for the next few decades. While the number of people who can recall the days of the Russian Revolution continue to dwindle, Marx and Marxist socialism left enough legacies through the 1950s and 1960s to ensure that the interest level of the subject for years to come.
Christopher Hill was the third in a defining triumvirate of Marxist historians who have contributed greatly to the field and the discipline. Hill was originally renowned for essays which examined the political and religious radicals in English history (Morrill). His transformation to social historian was slow and arduous, as his first extended work on Marxist theory (Reformation to Industrial Revolution: a social and economic history (1967)), was considered a failure by his peers. Although Hill wanted to celebrate Revolution, he felt that very revolution created the world he lived in that harbored so many injustices, injustices created by Capitalism. He took years to understand his own feelings towards revolution and capitalism.
It is not surprising that Hill developed his niche in writing Marxist history after years of honing his craft at writing about political and religious radicals. He wrote three landmark books which helped to define revolution as social and economic phenomenon, not as a function of the pursuit of political and religious freedom. It follows, that in order to master the former field, he had to understand the limitations of the latter as the only source of explanation for revolution. Hill's enormous popularity is partially a result of his mastering the craft of Marxist writing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when student radicalism was at all time high.
Hill's first book which was, and still is, widely hailed, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (1964). This work theorized that the Puritan movement was a necessary response to the decay of feudal institutions and the emergence of capitalist ones. He was the first historian to look at the Puritans as anything but a religious entity. Hill, like Thompson, was the product of the postmodern intellectualism which re-defined how facts were interpreted (using a much wider lens and over a broader period in time). The postmodern school of historians eventually developed into the new historicists, who encapsulate the virtue of examining historical issues from holistic view, incorporating political, economic, cultural and social histories.
Hill's second landmark book, The World Turned Upside Down (1972), "destroyed forever the idea of a Revolution to be understood in terms of its constitutional indiscretions and immature anticipation of liberal democracy" (Morrill). As with his third significant book late in his career, The English Bible in the Seventeenth Century (1988), Hill masterfully examined how the impetus for economic change was an all encompassing theme in history from the beginning of the industrial revolution through the end of the Russian Revolution (and beyond).
As historians continue to broaden their interest to include those particular parts of the world with lesser developed histories, the discipline produces more "area specialists'
(Sinologists, Japanologists, etc.) who happened to focus on the past" (Wasserman 276). Furthermore, whereas the methodology used to favor the study of the past that concerned only particular areas that best studied on their own terms, this has changed considerably over the last twenty years. As a result, the historical study of Latin…