‘From the end of the 1970s,’ declared Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘the marxist approach to history, which had flourished in Britain and elsewhere for two decades entered a period of abrupt and terminal decline’.1 There is a large measure of exaggeration and a suspicion of wishful thinking in Gareth Stedman Jones’ assessment. Nevertheless, there is also an element of truth. Marxist history did enter an impasse in the late 1970s. Jones explains that this resulted from the challenge of alternative political and historical projects, such as feminism and environmentalism, and the inability of Marxism to theoretically renew its epistemology through Althusser. We might also point to the debilitating effects of the structuralist—humanist schism. This debate was never really resolved but passed over in silence as historians got on with writing history. History from below seemed to have exhausted its new possibilities. Structuralism spawned poststructuralism. Although more than mere symptoms of Marxist history’s impasse, these factors alone cannot explain it. It should be obvious that the 1930s and the 1960s played the pivotal role in the opening-out of an audience for Marxist history. Unearthing the paving stones and erecting barricades in Vienna, Barcelona and Cable Street did for the 1930s generation what those of Watts, Prague, Grosvenor Square and the Sorbonne did for the generation of the 1960s. Like the 1950s, the late 1970s and since have been a period where the intellectual climate seemed closed off to Marxism. The latter were the decades of conservative ascendancy of Reagan and Thatcher when the bastions of working-class industrial strength suffered defeat, and we can add to that the disorientation of many Marxists over the collapse of the Stalinist monolith in 1989–91.
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- 1.G.S. Jones, ‘The determinist fix: some obstacles to the further development of the linguistic approach to history in the 1990s’, History Workshop Journal, 42 (1996), p. 18.Google Scholar
- 2.G. Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old (Cambridge, MA, 1987), p. 93. The French ex-Marxists she refers to include, amongst others, François Furet, the revisionist historian of the French Revolution and author of a number of anticommunist works.Google Scholar
- See F. Furet, The Passing of an Illusion: the Idea of Communism in The Twentieth Century (Chicago, IL, 1999). In other words, Furet is the kind of former Marxist an American conservative can admire.Google Scholar
- 3.P. Linebaugh and M. Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000), p. 353.Google Scholar
- 4.A. Sokal, ‘Transgressing the boundaries: toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity’, Social Text, 14 (1 and 2 ) (spring–summer 1996).Google Scholar
- Alex Callinicos also makes this point in his final chapter of Social Theory: A Historical Introduction (Cambridge, 1999 ).Google Scholar