Such was the subject line of an e-mail I received from a dear friend of mine. I’ve been sitting on the question for weeks, and just today sent a reply. Below, you’ll find the e-mail I received and the e-mail I sent. My friend’s e-mail is thought-provoking; my response is less so. Still, it was an interesting exercise.
I just got done with a conversation with my minor adviser. She’s signed off on my minor and so finally, it’s done and all of that is good and well. But she had some serious reservations about elements of my argument which merited a phone call — and in the end I ended up defending the idea of progress, and that I would include discussions of things not so immediately compelling at the time because they ended up being so later. (My minor is early modern Europe by the way, Enlightenment stuff, so just ripe for this kind of debate.) I roughly describe my idea of progress as something that is not some external metaphysical force, but something internal which, despite being fragile, despite requiring certain historical contexts, and despite often being articulated for reasons that have nothing to do with their sentiments, gives an upper hand to good ideas over bad ones, over time. In my mind, the human creature is more or less using his brain, with some setbacks more or less, to figure out his world and society around him, and ultimately some things become clear that weren’t before (despite many many delays, setbacks, and reversals even), and solutions implemented; progress, roughly speaking. For why I think this works we’d go into utilitarianism, but we’ll stash that for now.
Now, my guess is you don’t share this view; at least, not of the ideas. But my guess is you do have the idea of progress, but, driven by something else. Or, that is my guess, but all I remember you commenting on is an approval of Carr in discussions (and yes, totally by the way; go Carr). But at some point My minor advisor took issue with a formulation of mine she found starkly Marxist, and admittedly in this particular instance it was (I find the differing agricultural/economic bases of France and England in the 17th century to be far and away the best explanation for their differing forms of government). But it occurred to me — in a lot of strange ways, I now have more in common with dyed in the wool Marxists than I do most other historians, because of this sticking suspicion I have that you can’t really do history well — or do the type of history I want to do — without an eye to the future and ultimately, without an argument about the way it ought to head and why it ought to head that way. This is why I switched to the twentieth century this year; I’m basically going to be as political as I am academic, and unfortunately I don’t feel I can therefore really write what I want to exclusively within academia, but an emphasis on recent, clearly political history will make that easier.
And I was remembering tonight how once you said in seminar, that you believe that ultimately you have to have a base, a basic idea of what causes what so that you can organize information, and understand anything – and without that you are basically lost. Or at least I think that was the gist of what you said. That has stayed in my head a long time, and I think you are right — and I think therefore, a lot of historians are basically nowhere or, they do nothing of immediate import with their work, because since they are too laden down with postmodernism, they can’t believe they can extend it to anything past the end date on their subtitles. And that is intellectually consistent, but not something I am satisfied with anymore, although I certainly used to be. But so now, to why I am writing you in particular — I’ve always been curious, what is the story that got you to where you are? What informed your thinking then, how has it changed or not? What is your position on the questions I’ve raised here because, I’ve been turning this over in my head like crazy for a year now… I don’t think I am flirting with Marxism as such really, but am realizing I could use some intellectual exchange with someone who has also probably been accused of “teleology” his fair share of times, a criticism that I think has degraded into a straw-man cliche. And I was wondering what that has been like as well; have you ever felt lonely or isolated in your position, and what do you do in times like those?, and what steps do you take to ensure yourself you haven’t been mistaken or, conversely, that your evaluation of things has a value even against those that you much respect basically telling you are digging around in the intellectual dust heap of history?
Anyway, I know that is a lot all of a sudden out of the blue, but as I said, I need to get these questions out of my head and out to others. Because I need to have a clearer idea of what this process looks like, where I stand in the intellectual spectrum and in relations to others, and how to tweak that if I need to. Anyway, thanks for your time in reading this.
And my response:
Sorry to take so long getting back to you. I’ve been mulling this about in my head for the last few weeks, and I’m afraid that any answer I provide to your excellent questions will be unsatisfactory. That said, I’ll give it a shot.
How I became a Marxist: It happened while I was an undergraduate–naturally. I went into college a conservative evangelical Christian and came out co-chair of the Socialist Union. Part of it was rebellion against my parents, of course; I’m a late-bloomer in that respect. But mostly it was political: I was disgusted with Clinton’s half-assed and half-baked liberalism, particularly in regard to “free” trade, which was the hot issue while I was in college: sweat-shops, the WTO, etc. and so forth. I was looking for something more radical: something that recognized how radically unjust the world is, and something that suggested a radical approach. Marxism, as embodied by the Socialist Party, seemed like that thing. And I’ll be honest: one of my favorite professors was the co-chair of the SP, and that played a role in my attraction to the party. In short: a combination of personal attraction and political conviction led me to Marxism as a political philosophy.
Now, as for Marxism as an approach to history, that developed much more slowly and deliberately. After college, I went to a town in the former East Germany, where I did some research on the economic history of an optics company that had been split into two after the war. Anyway, I gave up on German history when I realized that I couldn’t see myself looking into a student’s eyes and being able to convince her that this was actually important to her. This brought me back to the States and I started studying American history. I was drawn to the work of William H. Sewell (UChicago), who’s written some fascinating stuff of structure and agency. It was through his work, and weekly conversations over beer with fellow graduate students (we’d pick something to read–Marx, etc.–and talk about it) that I became more convinced of the importance of understanding the structures in which people act–particularly economic structures, which, more than anything else, determine what opportunities and choices a person has at her/his disposal. And since then, I’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with the forces that structure peoples’ lives and the power that people have over their own lives and the structures in which those lives take place.
The problem, of course, is that Marxism can easily devolve into economic determinism, with the mode of production determining class structure and one’s class position determining one’s actions. And that’s just the beginning of the critiques leveled against Marxism as an approach to history. But it seems to me that most critiques are unsophisticated cheap shots at unsophisticated caricatures of Marxism. And so I continue to develop the sophistication of my own idea of Marxism.
So here’s where I am now: from the macro level, looking at the past in terms of groups and peoples, economic forces are the prime mover of history. By “economic forces” I mean modes of production, how those modes structure class configurations, and how classes interact with each other. This doesn’t necessarily work at the level of the individual: obviously, people make choices for a variety of reasons, sometimes out of economic motivation, sometimes out of ideology, sometimes out of sexual drive (ala Freud), etc. But a person does not have unlimited choices–our options are limited, and they are limited primarily by one’s economic position, which is a product of class, which is a product of the mode of production. In short: be sensitive to the complexity and nuance that is the human individual, but understand the power of economic forces. This would be that method of organizing information that you referred to in your e-mail, the concept that (I hope) keeps me from getting lost as a historian.
As historians, we’re called upon to not just describe what happened, but to explain why it happened. And it seems clear to me that the past as it has unfolded is a product of economic forces more than anything else.
Is this “progress”? If we mean evolution, then yes. I don’t see how it could be otherwise; economic systems and social relations become more complex over time as they build on top of one another. But I make no claims to this being a good or bad thing. One of the problems with Marxism is that people use it to predict the future, to say that history must and will unfold inevitably to socialism and then communism. That’s bullshit. The Communist Manifesto ends with a call to action, not a call to wait and see what happens.
And that’s the key for me: that a Marxist approach ultimately recognizes the biggest forces at play and simultaneously calls us to action against that biggest force. The equation goes something like this:
World = fucked-up injustice.
Economic forces -> World
fucked-up injustice = product of economic forces
Fixing fucked-up injustice = fixing economic forces
That is to say: once you’ve diagnosed the source of injustice, you know what to attack. And my place as a historian, I guess, is helping make that diagnosis to the world’s condition as it has unfolded over time.
Have I been criticized? Sure. I’ve been rightly called out when I make unsophisticated arguments for economic motivation as the sole factor in history. That’s why I remain open to refinement and even massive change in my understanding of the past; that’s also what keeps me from feeling too “isolated,” in the sense that when I put my ideas out there, I try to signal a willingness to adjust as necessary, and that keeps me in the dialogue, rather than cut off from the discussion. Most of the times this works; if I’m dismissed out of hand by someone, that person doesn’t appreciate the point of academic exchange.
What bothers me is when people take digs at me for having an interpretation of the past that quite obviously has relevance for the present and the future. These people fancy themselves as vacuum-sealed objective observers of the past; they argue that any history that points to the present and future must necessarily be skewed. I argue that it’s impossible to write history without reference to the past or future, and that we’re fooling ourselves if we think our observations–and even more so our explanations–are free of our ideas about what the world is and should be. Better to face it up front than to deceive yourself.
I hope this helps; I fear it has not. But I’ve enjoyed it–you asked challenging questions and demanded that I take some serious looks at my approach to the past, and that’s always a good thing. So thank you