Marxism and Postmodernism in History

  • Matt Perry
Part of the Theory and History book series (THHI)


Postmodernism provoked talk of crisis in history in the 1990s, particularly in labour and social history. Most major history journals hosted debates about the merits of postmodernism.2 For instance, in 1993 a special supplement of the International Review of Social History asked whether labour history was in its death throes, and Arthur Marwick and Hayden White locked horns in the Journal of Contemporary History.3 Patrick Joyce, Britain’s most noted postmodernist historian, even announced the end of social history in the journal of the same name.4 Postmodernism had been a late arrival to history as it had become widespread in other disciplines in the 1970s. The challenge emanated from multiple sources. Philosophers of history, notably Hayden White and Richard Rorty, subjected historians to the methods of literary criticism. Poststructuralist literary scholars, such as Roland Barthes (1915–80) and Jacques Derrida (1930–), took issue with historians’ purported complacent and naïve realism. Writing histories of madness, sexuality and punishment as socially constructed discourses, Michel Foucault (1926–84) has been highly influential upon postmodernist historians. Through these diverse lineages, a new breed of social historian emerged concerned with discourse, symbols, language, identity and the literary and narrative character of historical writing. Class, the social interpretations of political events, rational and scientific analysis have passed from favour. Significantly these postmodernist revisionists singled out the influence of Marxism on social history for particular criticism.


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© Matt Perry 2002

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