Harvey Kaye is an American professor of Social Change and Development, an enviable title probably not yet adopted anywhere in conservative Britain. It must come more naturally to the American mind, in a country where things are always changing, even if as a rule circularly. One thing that has changed is that students and other readers are not at present so firmly discouraged from studying Marxism as they used to be. American scholars are making contributions of their own to Marxist theory; Kaye’s book reflects a new current of interest in it. By undertaking a survey of Marxist history-writing in Britain he has done good service to readers on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the foreground he puts a sequence of five noted practitioners:
Many others, Marxist or influenced by Marxism, are given a place, including many Europeans (no Russians) and some Americans, most prominently Genovese. It may seem at times that too many discordant voices are competing for the reader’s ear, but their inclusion is a reminder that the five main figures have been living not in a secluded parish but out in the open, in a region more fertile in historical ideas than any other of our time, or any other time. Among them Hobsbawm stands out as the least distinctively British, and the only one who has ventured far away from the history of England; also the only one of the four still living, as Kaye notes, who has remained a member of the Communist Party, conceivably for related reasons. Kaye himself has been a student of Latin America; he dismisses Gunder Frank’s presentation of it as ‘poor history and equally poor sociology’.
He does not ask why Marxism in Britain has turned so much more decidedly to history than, as in various other lands, to philosophy. He agrees with Genovese’s sturdy commonsense declaration that historians like these Britons have done far more to advance historical theory by their concrete studies than any number of abstract dialectical tomes could do. All that philosophers have discovered since the world began could be written on one sheet of paper—or so one is frequently tempted to conclude. England has always had an active political life and public discussion, and historians have had to be ready to face questions of fact, instead of sitting like Faust in a curtained study, seeking magical responses.
Kaye sees the ‘collective contribution’ of his chosen group as marked by shifts of emphasis, in the direction of ‘broader social analysis’, with cultural life added to economic and political; but he sees besides continuing effort to move on from study of class to study of class struggle, as the key to change. He is at pains to rebut the allegation sometimes made of a ‘theoretical break’ between Dobb, as a Marxist basically concerned with economic forces, and his four successors, all in some sense his pupils; for Richard Johnson, in particular, they have
This loosening up of a muscle-bound orthodoxy must of course be welcomed. There may be more hazards in it than Kaye takes account of. The priority of economic life, even if warnings against one-sided statements of it go all the way back to Engels, was the sheet-anchor of historical Marxism. There is no doubt that the anchor has been dragging. ‘Recomposition’ may do much to revitalize, but it might end in revising out of recognition; just as in the political sphere it is proper for a socialist nowadays to put a distance between himself and Moscow, but not so great a distance that he disappears out of sight altogether. If the ‘base’, or the ‘mode of production’, is enlarged so as to make room for the totality of social life, Marxists may find themselves pronouncing that everything is caused by everything else, which is true but not helpful. Kaye quotes a dictum of Thompson’s that ‘it is impossible to give any theoretical priority’ to the economic or the cultural; a strategic withdrawal, or a flanking movement, but a sweeping one. While the movement towards many-sided explanations that these Marxists have been pioneering must be followed up, and its conclusions refined, it may be prudent to beware of a slide back into the ‘theory of factors’ ridiculed long ago by Plekhanov, the reduction of history to a kaleidoscope of independent variables. The proper safeguard may be to judge every human activity as having some of its roots in the soil of social production, but experiencing its influences directly or indirectly, at one or more remove, each of these imparting to it a quality peculiarly its own.
Dobb was an economic historian, not professing to write ‘total history’, but his ideas are not reducible to ‘technological or economic determinism’: he ‘pushed economic history beyond economics’. Much of Kaye’s second chapter is devoted to the discussion he started, still vigorously alive, about the causes of the transition from medieval to modern, feudal to capitalist. Kaye remarks that Adam Smith was concerned with the emergence as well as the functioning of capitalism, and that Weber too was preoccupied with it. In fact each region undergoing in turn industrialization, or modernization, and its socialists especially, have had to think about it. Japanese Marxists have wrestled with the enigma of whether the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s was a species of bourgeois revolution; development-theorists like Frank have asked whether South America today is feudal or capitalist, and have sometimes been apt to abolish feudalism with a stroke of the pen.
Dobb held that feudalism was disrupted by forces generated within itself, not from outside. Hilton as an advocate of ‘looking from the bottom upwards’ has identified class struggle between lord and peasant as the prime mover and eventual terminator of feudalism. He has gradually expanded his own fief from its original corner of Leicestershire to the whole of medieval England; on the way he has come to credit the peasantry with attaining, at least now and then, true ‘class consciousness’. In the most striking exhibition of this, the English rising of 1381, he points out that other social ingredients played a part as well. This may be true of all large-scale agrarian revolts; it was so regularly in China, where boatmen, craftsmen, poor intellectuals, could provide a catalyst. In modern times the working class has usually had to stand on its own.