[Marxism] Is History A Coherent Story By Helena Sheehan

Ralph Johansen mdriscollrj at charter.net
Sun Dec 30 11:02:21 MST 2012

Critical Legal Thinking – Law & the Political –
Is History A Coherent Story?
By Helena Sheehan

Professor Helena Sheehan is an academic philosopher, historian of 
science, and writer on communication studies, politics, and 
philosophical (particularly Marxist) subjects. Sheehan teaches as a 
member of the Communications Department at Dublin City University and 
has been a visiting professor at the University of Cape Town.

Is his­tory a coher­ent story? This is not the sort of ques­tion that is 
likely to be either asked or answered in the milieu I nor­mally inhabit. 
In the uni­ver­sit­ies of Europe and North Amer­ica (and much of the 
rest of the world as well), the agenda has veered away from ask­ing such 
big ques­tions. Aca­demic atten­tion is focused on much nar­rower and 
more prac­tical con­cerns in a scen­ario where both teach­ing and 
research are more and more pre­cisely aligned to the demands of the 
mar­ket. Com­mer­cial­isa­tion is the strongest force shap­ing the 
evol­u­tion of uni­ver­sit­ies to dev­ast­at­ing effect. Major aca­demic 
dis­cip­lines, such as his­tory and philo­sophy are being increas­ingly 
mar­gin­al­ised. In some insti­tu­tions it has gone as far as abolition.

In those insti­tu­tions, where his­tory and philo­sophy sur­vive, there 
is not likely to be much atten­tion given to philo­sophy of his­tory 
either. His­tory depart­ments tend toward the small can­vas rather than 
the lar­ger one and his­tori­ography is a minor­ity pur­suit. The 
intel­lec­tual cur­rents dom­in­at­ing philo­sophy depart­ments, 
vari­et­ies of neo­pos­it­iv­ism and post­mod­ern­ism, tend to 
repu­di­ate big ques­tions and his­tor­ical nar­rat­ives, even that of 
the his­tory of philo­sophy. Post­mod­ern­ism, with its pro­clam­a­tion 
of the end of grand nar­rat­ives, has rep­res­en­ted a 
crys­tal­lisa­tion of this tend­ency. How­ever, the pro­hib­i­tion on 
over­arch­ing his­tor­ical schemes has been a fea­ture of most other 
philo­soph­ical cur­rents of the past cen­tury: logical pos­it­iv­ism, 
lin­guistic ana­lysis, prag­mat­ism, exist­en­tial­ism, 
phe­nomen­o­logy, poststructuralism.

Stand­ing opposed have been the sur­viv­ing grand nar­rat­ives of the 
pre­mod­ern era, pre­dom­in­antly those of the great world reli­gions, 
such as chris­tian­ity and islam. There has also been the for­mid­able 
grand nar­rat­ive of the mod­ern era: marx­ism. These have been, not 
only under external attack, but sub­ject to tend­en­cies erod­ing them 
from within, but they still stand and frame the con­cep­tu­al­isa­tion 
of his­tor­ical exper­i­ence for their adherents.

Nev­er­the­less what dom­in­ates the world’s uni­ver­sit­ies is a 
dis­course that is mov­ing from query­ing and under­min­ing large scale 
his­tor­ical nar­rat­ives to pro­ceed­ing with another agenda while 
ignor­ing them. How has this happened?

The rise and fall of grand narratives

Let me retrace my steps. Let me tell the story of how I have related to 
the ques­tion: Is his­tory a coher­ent story? Let me unfold a 
nar­rat­ive of the rise and fall of grand narratives.

I was born into a grand nar­rat­ive, a spec­tac­u­lar one. No one asked 
if his­tory was a coher­ent story in that world, because it was simply 
assumed that it was. It was unthink­able that it wasn’t. God cre­ated 
the world. He made us to know, love and serve him in this world and to 
be happy with him in heaven. Christ died for our sins, even before we 
had time to com­mit them. The Cath­olic Church was the repos­it­ory of 
abso­lute truth. Moreover, we lived in the USA, the greatest coun­try in 
the his­tory of the world. A good cath­olic was a good amer­ican. 
Com­mun­ism was the enemy. Com­mun­ists rejec­ted God and demo­cracy. 
Com­mun­ists were evil, not only in a polit­ical sense, but in a 
cos­mo­lo­gical sense too. They had to be defeated. God was on our side. 
There was no ques­tion­ing, no doubt, about any of this in the world in 
which I grew up. No one I knew thought oth­er­wise. No one I knew raised 
any ques­tion about it.

Then it began to unravel. Crit­ical ques­tion­ing began to under­mine it 
for me. For Goethe, the greatest theme of human his­tory is the 
con­flict of scep­ti­cism with faith. It was not only the tra­ject­ory 
of my own intel­lec­tual devel­op­ment, but, for­tu­nately for me, it 
coin­cided with a surge of crit­ical ques­tion­ing in the wider 
cul­ture. One force was Vat­ican 2 cath­oli­cism, which had the effect 
of relativ­ising what was thought to be abso­lute. I took this pro­cess 
far fur­ther than the church inten­ded, with one doc­trine after another 
fall­ing away, and then I turned to the ques­tion of the exist­ence of 
God. I went through all the argu­ments and struggled to con­tinue to 
believe, until it was no longer pos­sible. This brought my whole world 
view into severe crisis.

It was not only the ortho­dox­ies of the church, but the ortho­dox­ies 
of the state too, that had to ques­tioned. Here my own ques­tion­ing was 
boos­ted by the rise of the new left. The civil rights move­ment at home 
and Viet­nam war abroad set my loy­al­ties off on another course. A new 
vocab­u­lary came to our lips when we spoke of the nation now, words we 
never used when we were grow­ing up, words not spoken in our schools: 
imper­i­al­ism, cap­it­al­ism, racism, sex­ism, patriarchy.

The whole grand nar­rat­ive within which my life had been lived until 
then was shattered. What to do? At first this exper­i­ence was so 
dev­ast­at­ing that I was at a loss. I felt in free fall, deprived of 
all tra­di­tions, devoid of all mean­ing. Exist­en­tial­ism spoke to 
this ali­en­a­tion, this facing into the abyss, and kept me going for a 
time, but I needed some­thing more pos­it­ive, more sys­temic. I did not 
accept the argu­ments against philo­soph­ical sys­tems, against 
his­tor­ical schemas. I could not live my life without a pic­ture of the 
world in which I was liv­ing it, without being able to see my story 
within a lar­ger story. I had to ask, if the world did not come to be in 
the way that I thought, how did it come to be? If my coun­try was not 
what I thought it to be, what was it? What altern­at­ives to it exis­ted 
or could be envis­aged? The answers to these ques­tions were not 
imme­di­ately evid­ent, but thank­fully I lived in a time and place 
where oth­ers too were search­ing. I stud­ied philo­sophy, his­tory, 
polit­ics, soci­ology with extraordin­ary intens­ity and I 
par­ti­cip­ated in the great move­ments of my time with great passion.

Altern­at­ive narratives

It was a time of great fer­ment, a time when hege­monic nar­rat­ives 
were met by counter-narratives. I dis­covered his­tory from below. ‘Who 
built Thebes of the 7 gates? asked Ber­tholt Brecht in his great poem 
Ques­tions from a worker who reads. I looked again at the his­tory we 
had been taught and turned it upside down. I dis­covered the his­tory of 
class struggle from the exper­i­ence of the peas­antry and 
pro­let­ariat, the his­tory of pat­ri­archy from a point of view of 
women, the his­tory of col­on­isa­tion from per­spect­ive of the 
col­on­ised, the his­tory of slavery from the pos­i­tion of slaves, even 
the his­tory of thanks­giv­ing for the indi­ans and even the tur­keys. I 
looked at the whole his­tory of the world from the point of view of 
those who labored from below, as opposed to those who ruled from above.

I needed a new world view, a frame­work for put­ting everything I saw 
into per­spect­ive. I needed a new grand nar­rat­ive, a plot within 
which all sub­plots fell into place. It was not enough for the story to 
be coher­ent. It had to be cred­ible too. Once my inher­ited story came 
into con­tact with altern­at­ive stor­ies, there was a new pro­cess 
under­way. It was so com­plex. Not only did one coher­ent grand 
nar­rat­ive have to weigh up against other coher­ent grand nar­rat­ives, 
but the ques­tion of cri­teria of cred­ib­il­ity came into play. Adding 
to the com­plex­ity were the­or­ies that no his­tor­ical schema could be 
cred­ible, the­or­ies that his­tory was not a coher­ent story, 
the­or­ies that we had come to the end of grand nar­rat­ives. It was 
just ‘one damned thing after another’ with no rhyme or reason. It was ‘a 
tale told by an idiot sig­ni­fy­ing noth­ing’. Para­dox­ic­ally, these 
too were grand narratives.

I could not accept this. I could not live my life without a sense of the 
story with which I was liv­ing it. But what was the story? How did the 
world come to be? How had our spe­cies appeared on the scene? Why did 
human soci­et­ies trans­form them­selves from one era to the next? Were 
there forces of his­tory under­ly­ing all dis­par­ate data of times, 
places and events? Was there a rhythm, a pat­tern, a plot or was it 
really just a sur­real play of par­tic­u­lars? I was search­ing for 
found­a­tions in a milieu hos­tile to found­a­tion­al­ism. I sought the 
ground­ing for a new syn­thesis amidst mul­tiple pres­sures against the 
very idea of a new synthesis.

The sheer com­plex­ity of con­tem­por­ary exper­i­ence has pro­duced a 
pleth­ora of philo­soph­ical move­ments eschew­ing in no uncer­tain 
terms the very idea of such a syn­thesis. I read and con­sidered all 
such argu­ments and argued vig­or­ously against their expo­nents, but I 
did assim­il­ate whatever I believed to be of value in logical 
pos­it­iv­ism, lin­guistic ana­lysis, prag­mat­ism, phe­nomen­o­logy, 
post­mod­ern­ism and refined my own con­cepts in the pro­cess. 
Nev­er­the­less, I believed that any philo­sophy lack­ing the thrust 
toward total­ity ulti­mately became part of the prob­lem rather than its 
solu­tion. Up to a point, such philo­sophies high­lighted the 
com­plex­it­ies and dif­fi­culties in com­ing to terms with the 
intric­a­cies of con­tem­por­ary exper­i­ence, but bey­ond a cer­tain 
point, they obstruc­ted a deeper com­ing to terms and inhib­ited a more 
dar­ing grasp of its meaning.

Marx­ism as philo­sophy of history

What did impress me was marx­ism. What set marx­ism apart from all other 
modes of thought was that it is a com­pre­hens­ive world view groun­ded 
in empir­ical know­ledge and socio-historical pro­cess. His­tory has a 
plot. It is a more or less coher­ent story. All eco­nomic policies, 
polit­ical insti­tu­tions, legal codes, moral norms, sexual roles, 
aes­thetic tastes, thought pat­terns and even what passes as com­mon 
sense, are products of a par­tic­u­lar pat­tern of socio-historical 
devel­op­ment rooted in the trans­form­a­tion of the mode of 
pro­duc­tion. It is not a pre-determined pat­tern or a closed pro­cess. 
Although there is a determ­in­ate pat­tern of inter­con­nec­tions, the 
pre­cise shape of socio-historical devel­op­ment is only dis­cern­ible 
post factum, for his­tory is an open pro­cess, in which there is real 
adven­ture, real risk and real sur­prise, a pro­cess in which there are 
no inev­it­able vic­tor­ies. His­tory is intel­li­gible, but not 


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