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What is history?: Marxist history writing

Updated Thursday, 1st September 2005

How does a Marxist approach the study of history?

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Karl Marx: Image copyright Mary Evans Picture Library Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Mary Evans Picture Library


Marxist history writing, like all good history writing, is about questions more than predetermined answers. Here is Bertolt Brecht, one of the great dramatists and poets of the twentieth century and a committed Communist, asking some of the most resonant ones:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did kings haul up the lumps of rock?
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?
So many accounts.
So many questions.

Bertolt Brecht, Poems, edited by J. Willett and R. Mannheim, published by Methuen, 1976 - translation slightly modified

Workers as Protagonists

What Brecht is doing, of course, is to say: standard accounts of the past only tell us about leaders, but the people who actually did the work - a building, a battle, a factory - were the most important protagonists.

A group of workers might, some might say, have sometimes needed a leader or ruler or employer to achieve anything, but the leader certainly could never have accomplished anything without that workforce.

This is a core Marxist concern: to look at the people who did the work, not those who took the credit or the profit; or, better, to understand that the second group could not exist without the first, and to see the whole of history as an interaction, a struggle, between the two.


Take Renaissance and Baroque Venice, as in the programme Venice - a second-hand city? We admire the tranquillity of the city today, its art and architecture, the relationship between the buildings and the water.

But Venice was above all about money; it was one of the largest and richest ports in the world in the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries, and its major buildings could only exist because of the wealth of their builders.

Any economic historian would argue that one has to understand where Venice got its money from and when, if one is to understand how the city developed - money from trade, from empire, and then, surprisingly early (already by 1600), from tourism.

A Marxist historian would also stress how the great buildings were representations of the power that that wealth created for a few Venetian leaders, and he or she would then look for who actually built the buildings or the ships, and where and how they lived (essentially, in slums, though even they look picturesque to us now), and at how their work relationships changed as Venice's economy changed.

One does not have to be a Marxist to think that these questions are interesting ones, but they were questions first posed by Marxist and other left-wing historians.


Marxism takes its name from Karl Marx (died 1881), the great economic analyst and critic of nineteenth-century capitalism, and one of half a dozen founders of modern social science, along with Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Emil Durkheim, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud.

Marxism has always been the most challenging of the social theories associated with such writers, because it has always been actively critical of the political, social and economic order of modern Western society (as well as, less fortunately, giving its name to what amounted to the state religion of the Soviet Union in 1917-91).

Good Marxist history writing has always been inspired by the critique Marx gave of capitalist economic structures and the justifications of their propagandists, while not restricting itself to Marx's own interests and knowledge - well over a century old by now, of course. I would argue that such history has two basic tenets:

History seen from below

History should be seen from below, from the standpoint of the men and women who actually did the work in any given society, not from that of politicians, landowners or business leaders, who have never been more than a tiny minority of the human race.

So: we should look at the construction-workers of Venice, not the politicians; at factory-workers in the Industrial Revolution, not at factory-owners; for that matter, at soldiers and peasants in the Russian Revolution and at their hopes and assumptions, not (or not only) at Lenin.

These people were history; political leaders were only froth on the surface of the vast sea of human reality. These people had their own roles as historical protagonists; they were not simply the victims of the actions of the powerful.

Economic Structures

Economic structures come first in the sense that they are the first thing one needs to know about, before anything else can be understood.

People have to eat, to be clad, to have a roof over their head, or else they die; how they get their food, clothing, housing is thus the first question, even if any given historian is only interested in their literature or their buildings or their political history.

A Marxist would also argue that the exact way in which the work of the vast majority of society - the economic classes of the peasantry, the craft workers of ancient, medieval and early modern towns, and the modern industrial working class - benefits the small number of the rich and powerful who dominate is crucial: crucial for understanding what is possible and what is not in any given society.

What does this last point actually mean in practice? Let us look at an example.

Can Marxism Explain the 'Genius' of Picasso?

This is the sort of question that has always been thrown at Marxist historians, and is intended to imply that Marxist history is obsessed with rigid economic causes, and cannot cope with real people.

A Marxist historian would usually reply 'no' to the question, in the sense that individuals are all different and always have been; it is out of date to argue that people were simply created by their environments, as many theorists (from both the left and the right) argued in the first half of the twentieth century.

Picasso had his own special talent as a painter which would have been his in any century, although the way he saw and developed painting came out of his particular training and experience in the 1900s and onwards - his painting would certainly have looked very different in 1500 or 1700. But the way Picasso lived as a painter can indeed be explained in Marxist terms, for he could not have lived like that in 1500 or 1700.

Picasso was in a sense made possible by an art market; he sold his paintings to dealers and collectors all over the world, who valued his skills, and also his frequent changes of style, much like the buyers of the ever-changing high fashions in clothes do.

In 1500 or 1700, painters could not afford to do this; they were artisans, not the romantically independent artists of the last couple of centuries; they were employed directly by patrons, who sometimes paid them by the yard. They produced what patrons wanted, and nothing else; they often spent their lives as the direct dependents of a single employer, or else moved uneasily from one to another.

Innovation in this world was possible, but risky, and was as a result slow. This sort of relationship was the relationship of any craftsman to the rich, aristocratic, usually landowning (in Venice, ship owning) leaders of society in the pre-capitalist period.

Any craftsman who relied on just selling in the open market would remain poor and unknown, for that market was very restricted, where it existed at all. Only the development of a wider middle class in the nineteenth-century West, in the wake of industrialisation, created a buying public that was large and anonymous enough to buy art in the marketplace.

Only then could painters (and composers and novelists) create first, and sell only afterwards, thus making our idea of 'the artist' possible, and thus making Picasso possible.

Actually, the independence of 'the artist' has always been a bit of a myth. Even Picasso had his important patrons, whom he sought to please, and so did all his successors.

But the kernel of truth to it can be explained by economic, not just cultural, historians. Picasso could be so innovative, so often, because people who never met him, who lived thousands of miles away, could buy his paintings. Leonardo or Titian or Van Dyck could never have dreamt of this, and painted differently as a result.

These are the sorts of ways Marxist historians deal with the past. Rather than being interested in the Picassos of this world they are interested in 'ordinary' people, without being nostalgic or patronising - what E.P. Thompson called the 'enormous condescension of posterity'.

They aim to locate such people in the framework of their own aspirations, not simply those we think they ought to have had. Marxists are also interested in the basic economic structures that enclosed, and in many ways created, the experiences of the people of the past: in the ways that these structures made some aspirations possible, and others inconceivable.

Further reading:

Bond Men Made Free
R. H. Hilton (London, Methuen 1977)
- the classic work on medieval peasant revolts
The Making Of The English Working Class
E. P. Thompson, (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1968)
- the major panorama of early 19th century working-class activism
The Age of Extremes
E. J. Hobsbawm, (London, Abacus, 1995)
- the best overview of 20th century world history
Industry and Empire
-E. J. Hobsbawm, (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1969)
- the best economic history of modern Britain from a Marxist perspective




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