Is Marxism still relevant to history?

By Aleysha Shergill - History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford

The use of Marxist approaches for a study of the past have been discredited by revisionist critics influenced by the ‘cultural turn’ in the 1970s, which holds that no experience can exist except in relation to the way language constructs it. Importantly, this left historians without a material base to understand class consciousness and its ability to motivate social action. However, historians since have continued to reinstate the importance of Marxist approaches to class and their ability to unmask reasons for historical change and points of commonality throughout history. The recent financial crash of 2008 also highlighted for historians the importance of poverty as a lived experience and the persistence of high levels of economic inequality in society. This article will explore the way historians have continued to use Marxist approaches to study class in twentieth century Britain.

First and foremost, Marxist approaches to class prioritise economic categorisation in society because economic circumstances give rise to political consciousness. This creates a community with its own political organisations in opposition to other classes. E.P. Thompson, writing in the 1960s, is an example of a social historian who has helped to correct some of Marxist theory’s methodological shortcomings in his study of class formation in England in the period 1780-1832. He prefers to think of class as an experience, as he reinstates the importance of political activism in creating class consciousness. For example, trade unions and local newspapers were an important part of this process, creating a distinct working-class culture. Importantly, it is this ‘Thompsonian’ approach to class that has been used by several historians of twentieth century Britain.

Historians who use Marxist approaches are interested in the connection between social structure and social change, using history to demonstrate the way in which people’s economic conditions have given rise to social action and resistance in the past. Britain provides fertile ground for this study with its strong history of trade unionism. Selina Todd is an example of a historian of modern Britain who recognises the importance of Marxist approaches to class and uses them to explain the actions of historical agents from the beginning of the twentieth century. A crucially important event in her analysis is the 1926 General Strike, as well as the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 at the other end of the century. Marxist theory, as outlined above, enables us to understand why these two events are connected. For Selina Todd, both these events represent common experiences of insecurity and unemployment, disaffection with work and the desire for autonomy. It is this connection between economic conditions and social action within Marxist theory which is particularly useful to the historian.

There are, however, other important approaches to class, which do not prioritise economic categorisation and its role in the formation of class consciousness. Sociologist Max Weber, for example, developed his own theories of class towards the end of the nineteenth century. His theory of class prioritises culture and the importance of lifestyle and status for dividing society into ‘status groups’. Crucially, his model considers those who might lack wealth but enjoy a high status in society nonetheless. Historians have used this approach for understanding class in the twentieth century; notably, Ross McKibbin focuses on culture, including family life, school, and religion in England in the years 1918-1951.

What historians of class have ultimately recognised, however, is that these approaches to class are both at their strongest when used together and that it is only when combined that we might begin to fully understand the complexity of class formation in the past.

Further reading:

  1. John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: ‘History and social theory’ (Chapter 8)

  2. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, ‘Preface’ to 1968 and subsequent editions.

  3. S. Todd, ‘Class, experience and Britain’s twentieth century’, Social History, 2014

  4. S. Todd, ‘Domestic Service and Class Relations in Britain’, Past and Present, 2009

  5. ‘Marx’, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, podcast: