Marxist Historians Map Out an Agenda for Today

December 12, 2011 12:53 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

If the evidence of the successes of recent events is anything to go by, interest in the socialist approach to history is on the increase, which is probably no surprise given the turbulent and uncertain times in which we currently live.

The launch of the political biography of Bert Ramelson, Revolutionary Communist at Work, at the London offices of the trade union Unite on December 8 was an inspiring occasion; there was a receptive and large audience for the message delivered by the speakers who were all agreed on the urgency and relevance of the struggles and campaigns that Ramelson, the late industrial organiser of the Communist Party, had dealt with during his lifetime for the politics of today.

It is not only that history is all around us and we cannot escape it if we tried; we are faced with a deeply sectarian view of British history insidiously promoted by Education Secretary Michael Gove as part of his nationalistic ideological crusade to revamp the popular image British Empire; which indicates the importance that the ruling class attaches to getting history taught the right way for its own narrow interests.

History, as we know, is a battleground and knowledge of what actually happened in the past gives us guidance on how to respond to the vital issues of concern to workers and the labour movement today.

The new biography of Ramelson,who was born in the Ukraine but spent most of his adult life in Britain, mainly in Yorkshire, is a model is this respect and the authors Tom Sibley and Roger Seifert can be congratulated for producing what should prove to be an important guide for modern trade union activists.

Attendance at the annual Historical Materialism conferences has expanded continuously over successive years and this represents another indication of the widespread and growing interest in Marxist studies and history in particular.

It was also greatly encouraging that a seminar on the Marxist view of history held during a two-day conference on 21st Century Marxism at the Bishopsgate Institute recently attracted a large number of people of various ages all keenly aware of the need to know the history of the left and the labour movement.

There was great interest in the works of the Communist Party historians such as Christopher Hill, George Rude, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm and others, as well as in the materialist interpretation of history developed by Marx and Engels.
In this regard, a new study of the contributions of Christopher Hill, Maurice Dobb and George Thomson published by the Socialist History Society and written by Willie Thompson is extremely timely.

In Setting An Agenda, Thompson re-examines three path-breaking works by these historians, namely Studies in the Development of Capitalism (by Dobb), The English Revolution 1940 (Hill) and Aeschylus and Athens (Thomson), in order to assess the continued readability and relevance of these classic works for the understanding of history.

Thompson reminds his readers of the major contribution to historical studies made by this relatively small group of scholars who were all exceptionally talented and highly motivated. Their membership of the Communist Party was perhaps the single most significant factor of their formative development as professional historians.

That they produced such important works while they were active as Communists is an important point that Thompson’s study stresses as it is sometimes erroneously alleged that they only produced scholarship of lasting worth once they had left the Party as several of them of course later did. Setting An Agenda shows conclusively, however, that it was their encounter with Marxism that was their principle inspiration and that this was a fundamental position from which they never departed.

Setting An Agenda, the latest in the Socialist History Society’s Occasional Publications series, is well worth reading as an introduction to these still highly relevant historians and it could inspire further research and discussion on historical issues that remain urgently topical.

The SHS has been publishing original pieces of historical research for nearly twenty years now; the very first Occasional Paper was Ben Bradley: Fighter for India’s Freedom by Jean Jones, which concerned the career of the British Communist trade unionist who went to help organise workers in India.

Setting An Agenda is issue number 29 and follows an interesting study of the rivalry between Karl Marx and the Secularist leader Charles Bradlaugh in Deborah Lavin’s Bradlaugh Contra Marx: Radicalism versus Socialism in the First International.

A key aim of the SHS’s publications is to popularise aspects of socialist and labour history and to achieve this the papers are always written in a clear and readable style avoiding academic jargon, which makes them particularly attractive for a wider non-academic readership. I think these titles should be more widely known.


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This post was written by David Morgan

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