Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Historians and Their Theories/Methodologies

Randall Stephens

Theories/methodologies come and go. Take a look at the history profession over the last half century to see how that works out. Where are the pyschohistorians? The social historians armed with computer punch cards and prosopographic reports? The consensus historians clutching well-worn copies of Adorno's Authoritarian Personality? The world systems historians of international affairs? And the Marxist historians? (I'm not pointing this out in some neanderthal effort to convince historians to ditch theory. Far from it. If anything, thinking about how things fade and move on might make us a little more humble.)

In this vein Terry Eagleton reviews Eric Hobsbawm's How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840-2011 in the March 2011 LRB. Eagleton is, for me, always a pleasure to read. He begins:

In 1976, a good many people in the West thought that Marxism had a reasonable case to argue. By 1986, most of them no longer felt that way. What had happened in the meanwhile? Were these people now buried under a pile of toddlers? Had Marxism been unmasked as bogus by some world-shaking new research? Had someone stumbled on a lost manuscript by Marx confessing that it was all a joke?

We are speaking, note, about 1986, a few years before the Soviet bloc crumbled. As Eric Hobsbawm points out in this collection of essays, that wasn’t what caused so many erstwhile believers to bin their Guevara posters. Marxism was already in dire straits some years before the Berlin Wall came down. One reason given was that the traditional agent of Marxist revolution, the working class, had been wiped out by changes to the capitalist system – or at least was no longer in a majority. It is true that the industrial proletariat had dwindled, but Marx himself did not think that the working class was confined to this group.>>>

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