[Marxism] Niall Ferguson and the Tories' war on history

Scott Hamilton shamresearch at yahoo.co.nz
Thu Jul 8 07:20:56 MDT 2010

Hi Sebastian,
thanks for those interesting comments. There has been a bit of a debate under my blog post, with some lefties arguing that students should be encouraged first and foremost to challenge dominant interpretations of the past and others suggesting that it is more important to create a sophisticated but sweeping progressive narrative of history. I think there are dangers in taking either approach too far. It's interesting that a vigorous debate between a narrative-focused approach to history and a more intellectual, discontinuous method occurred in the Soviet Union, especially in the late '20s and early '30s, when the shadow of Stalin was lengthening (Ian Barber's book Soviet Historians in Crisis describes this debate). Stalin was keen on dumbed-down narratives full of stirring heroes and defeated villains - the historiographical version of socialist realist art, I suppose - and in my opinion his influence can be felt in some of the pioneering popular
 histories written by Western Marxists, like AL Morton's A People's History of England, a work which in turn influenced texts like Zinn's People's History of the United States. While this sort of stuff is well-intentioned, I think it has as little to do with the real pattern of the past as the works of right-wing populists (I'll probably get in trouble for saying that!). 
Like you, I'm a huge fan of Britain's Communist Party Historians Group generation, and I think that they achieved so much because they broke with the simplistic narrative approach and embraced other influences outside what was then mainstream Marxism. Thompson, for instance, was hugely influenced by the English tradition of literary criticism as social commentary which gave the world the likes of Coleridge, Leavis, and Raymond Williams. (Thompson, with his close readings of primary texts, often worked like a literary scholar.) John Saville embraced oral history and economic history. Eric Hobsbawm was keen on the Annales school. It's quite notable that historians like Thompson often spurn narrative - The Making of the English Working Class and Customs in Common, which are probably Thompson's two most important histories, are both collections of thematically connected studies. The sheer weight of Thompson's research and the subtlelty of his arguments
 probably makes the sort of smooth narrative favoured by populist historians like Morton and Zinn impossible. 


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