Marx for effort

This is just a rapid reflection on the concepts we carry around with us, brought on by what I suppose I can call some recent interdisciplinary conversation with an anthropologist friend.1 When I was teaching in KCL last year, the first thing my students saw me put on a screen was this image:

Karl Marx

It was a lecture about the economy, and I threw him up there because fundamentally the economy in the Middle Ages is best approached from the bottom, with the basis of production. I was claiming that this is one thing that brother Karl got right. (See, I avoid with great difficulty a lame Marx bros. gag. Just.) But I don’t identify as a Marxist, I’ve never read Capital or any other Marx, my main reference to him is the old and revered “proper tea is theft” gag. Even though my erstwhile supervisor has been known to call himself a neo-Marxist, even though my Ph.D. marker and one of my greater influences does identify as a Marxist (only not like those other idiots who have it all wrong), I’m much too interested in micro-history and the capacity of human agency to change things, largely for the worse, to be uplifted by a grand dialectic like the Marxist class-war story.

On the other hand, I do quite happily talk about class, and although I have a badly-formed definition of it that I need to work on, I have at least thought about it; it seems obvious to me that one can explain some social phenomena in terms of a clash of class interests, though I tend to try and reformulate class membership into group membership at that level; and, as I say, analysing the economy in terms of the means of production, and who controls it, makes a lot of sense to me. I’m probably also with Chris Wickham and John Haldon that we need a new mode, that Marx didn’t have, to describe the economy of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, the ‘tributary mode’, but it doesn’t seem useless to me to try and describe it so even though I know full well that the medieval economy was immensely varied. This is the great use of the Marxist view of political economy, is that it can accommodate so many different forms of produce growth under this single analytical umbrella of cui bono. It helps you think.

Now, I recognise that this stuff I use is Marxist, because I have had teachers who consider that an important thing to mark; but I just like it because it seems to work, and I’m not therefore agitating for socialism or trying to breed radical students. It seems to me that some people using these concepts are less self-aware, and don’t realise quite how far we’ve all internalised the useful bits of what brother Karl had to say, while binning the bits that now look like over-cooked preaching of historical inevitability or, worse, Communism… To an extent, I think most of us are part-Marxist by now, and I wonder how many people are happy acknowledging this…


1. That should make one or two people laugh…

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8 responses to “Marx for effort

  1. When I was in London during grad school and attending this, that, or the other thing throughout the UK, I was always startled by how consistently, casually, and un-ironically Marx was evoked. I really don’t see him being deployed that much (at all?) in US Medieval Studies. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, I just remember it being really jarring…

  2. Pingback: The spreading influence of Marx « Horseman, Pass By!

  3. I think there are four ‘bits of Marx’ that a large number of medieval historians have absorbed to a greater or lesser extent (whether directly from the influence of Marxist historians or not):

    1) The exploitation of peasants by lords

    2) False consciousness: that the peasants are being mislead/distracted from this exploitation

    3) Historical materialism/economic determinism (economic developments as driving historical processes), an idea developed by Marxists, even though it’s held by most economists as well.

    4) The interaction of economics and family structures (reproduction as production), (which is technically not Marx, but Engels, ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State’)

    The reason that most historians have absorbed them is that they’re actually pretty hard to deny. You may argue that religion is not always and everywhere the opium of the masses, but you can’t look at what most of the medieval church is saying to the peasants without seeing that it’s being used in that way then. And if you believe that there is a genuine reciprocal relationship between lords and peasants, I have a medieval bridge to sell you. Similarly, to deny the impact of a move to a money economy or the development of proto-capitalism on historical developments is just plain silly. And you can’t realistically consider relations within medieval families without thinking about property rights.

    But I think that to be a Marxist (even just a Marxist historian, ignoring the completely wrong futurology), you have to sign up to the system en masse (or largely en masse). In other words, you have to think that Marx as a historian was right about most things. But I would say his ideas on modes of production are looking increasingly threadbare: for example, it’s debatable how widespread the slave mode of production was actually even during the height of the Roman empire.

    Similarly, purely materialistic accounts of society tend to fall down fairly badly in explaining cultural developments; the Carolingian Renaissance is not just a result of the capture of the Avar treasure. And Engels’ views on the history of the family were based on the most up-to-date research of mid-nineteenth century academics, much of which, inevitably, has subsequently turned out to be wrong.

    The idea of economic class is very useful to economic historians, but much less so to social historians: I do not think I will cease to be middle class if I go and work on the till at Sainsbury’s (as I may well end up doing). When I am looking at early medieval cultural ideas about the nobility, it’s also not very helpful to talk in terms of class, because ‘nobles’ are not simply defined by economic status.

    So I take some useful ideas from Marx and discard the rest, just as I take a few useful ideas from Max Weber without feeling I need to identify myself as a Weberian. I am happy to acknowledge such borrowings if pressed upon it, but Marxist ideas don’t seem enough of my theoretical identity to reference the label normally.

    Matt – I think a lot of English history is impossible to study without coming across important Marxist historians (Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm etc), so that if you do a history degree you will get introduced to Marxist ideas almost automatically. Moreover, undergraduate degrees often (though not invariably) have a course on historiographic approaches, which again, would normally include Marxist ones. Given this background, it would seem slightly abnormal not to have Marx as part of a historian’s cultural baggage, which gets deployed in argument as necessary. Is it different in the US, given the culture wars? Are you allowed to assign Marxist texts to a class or drop Marx’s dicta into a conversation, or would there be a hoo-ha about this?

  4. Magistra as so often asks what I wanted to ask, Matt: how does the US take on medieval history get round Marx? Are these ideas current without attribution? Paul Freedman’s work on peasantry in Catalonia for example seems to me be all about class struggle, Thomas Bisson’s too, and to have many of the ideas that Magistra pinpoints here shot through it; but I guess they wouldn’t want to be identified as Marxists… On the other hand US medieval studies often largely escapes social concerns at times, doesn’t it, except at the level of literate culture?

    Magistra, one nitpick:

    You may argue that religion is not always and everywhere the opium of the masses, but you can’t look at what most of the medieval church is saying to the peasants without seeing that it’s being used in that way then.

    I don’t deny this for a second but religion is also the opium of the nobility, surely, telling them they won’t go to Hell if they give sufficient alms to the poor at the same time as they’re telling the poor that they’re going to Heaven because they share Christ’s suffering… The Church may be an organ of social control, but is it really religion that is the instrument of that control? or is religion more even-handed, and political preaching from the pulpit (Admonitio Generalis style) where the social control really starts?

  5. Is it really religion that is the instrument of that control? or is religion more even-handed, and political preaching from the pulpit (Admonitio Generalis style) where the social control really starts?

    Comforting though it would be for me as a Protestant to blame all the problems on the early medieval period (which technically doesn’t have to count as part of *my* religion), the honest answer is some of it is already there in St Paul (or at least deutero-Paul, if you’re going to say the Pastoral Epistles aren’t his). All that stuff on slaves knowing their place and staying in it, that’s Biblical. And of all the Christian Fathers there’s only Gregory of Nysssa who worries, sometimes, that slavery might not be in accordance with God’s will (at least according to Peter Garnsey). The church gets in bed with social conformity very early on.

  6. I really want to read Marxist History Writing for the 21st Century, but am not near a library that has it until September. I identify with that school of thought pretty heavily, but I’m part-way on my road to being a professional medievalist, if it ever happens. I think that although Lukács was exaggerating for effect when he said (in Chapter 1 of History and Class Consciousness) that even if all Marx’s thought was disproved (which will never happen, as we are all “part-Marx” as you say) the methodology and perspective remain useful, it’s still a good point. Openly modifying and critiquing and dropping conclusions and arguments that Marx and Engels used would be totally appropriate for someone who accepts the label “Marxist”, at least in societies that have some freedom of speech.

    While I agree with Magistra that probably someone who accepts the label should agree with most of what has come to be called Marxism, I think she is incorrect on where Marxism falls down, because of my Lukác-influenced take on what “orthodox Marxism” is. I think there is a subtler relation between base and superstructure in Marxist theory. I also think that class is also a social relation and a generalization of experience. So if Magistra worked as a cashier at Sainsbury’s, her situation would be unusual, based on her middle-class background (although one point to remember, since class rightly becomes associated with culture, particularly in Britain, is that if all you really have to sell is your labour, you are entering a working class relationship to the mode of production despite your middle-class accent and education). Any descendants you had if you, and they, continued on that side of the labour relationship would probably begin to not see themselves as middle-class.

    Per the question of Marxist medieval historiography in the US (I am American in Canada), even though this isn’t a medieval example, the school can have some influence. Eric Foner’s fascinating (albeit dry) work on the Reconstruction period in the US has had a significant effect on how the period is covered in US history textbooks. I only mention it since a UK history degree student sees enough Marxist histories to get a taste (British Marxists have never been as prolific with theory, however) and possibly influence later work. Foner does not mention what he labels himself in his Reconstruction book, though, and I think this extends to a lot of far-left or “Marxian” academics with any influence. Mentioning it will just get you put in a box. You might go so far as to call yourself a “radical” or “on the left” or use certain words that should ping anyone with leftdar, but it shows you’re not an ideologue. I know it doesn’t answer your question, since I can’t say whether or not any of the medievalists you name acknowledge Marx as an influence. My guess would be that it’s less common than in the UK, and that they might name people who themselves were Marx-influenced as their influences. But how many consistently self-described living Marxist medievalists are there in the world, anyway? Wickham and…? How many living Marxist pre-modern Historians? While I hope a “neo-Marxism” returns to the academy, along with a general radicalization of society (haha), it’s not a big academic trend anywhere (unless one somehow thinks the postmodernists are it, and one is also prone to grumbling about “cultural Marxists”), so a larger amount of academics are probably in the same boat regarding acknowledging Marx. “I agree with some of what Marx had to say, but I don’t agree with the whole edifice, and he was wrong about a lot of stuff, and it was an ideological motivator of so many horrors of the 20th century. Anyway, it’s just a distraction to bring him up, despite the radical chic shock I might get from students”

    Sorry for the long and rambling comment (not being modest, since this comment is just not quite coming out the way I’d like, but it’s also just a casual blog comment).

  7. I guess Robert Brenner sort of counts as a living Marxist studying pre-modern history for all his work on that elephant trap (and important question) of Marxism, the “transition debate” (so when and where and how did capitalism come about?)

  8. The radical chic shock is sometimes worth having, though, if only to shake the students who think they have their boxes labelled “safe/radical”, “Protestant/Catholic”, “medieval/modern” all sorted out. Pushing the idea that the categories they’re used to, in which Marx is an outdated fogey famous mainly for his beard, may not work for the Middle Ages, is an exercise worth doing most of the time.

    As for long and rambling comments, it may not be quite what you wanted but it’s still very informative, so thanks for picking up this idle thread!

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