Duncan Hallas

Zero rating

(March 1985)

From Reviews, Socialist Worker Review, No.74, March 1985, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Marxism and Historical Writing
Paul Hirst
Rout/edge & Keegan Paul. £20.00

THIS is a book of rather specialised interest: a collection of essays written from 1975 onwards, and mainly concerned with criticism of the writings of Perry Anderson and E.P. Thompson.

It also, the author tells us, tries ‘to settle accounts justly and honestly with Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas’, and includes two chapters ‘which make my own political concerns clear’.

Hirst is the foremost of that group of British former disciples of Althusser whose ‘theoretical practice’ led them ultimately to reject historical materialism (in any sense I can recognise it), the labour theory of value, and, if the final essays of this book are a fair guide, the class struggle itself.

Now there is nothing remarkable or original in these ideas. They are and have been, since at least, Ramsay MacDonald’s time, the common coin of the Labour right. What is unusual is the route by which Hirst and his associates have arrived at them.

From a ‘Marxist-Leninist, journal’ (Hirst’s description) through an attempt to ‘push forward Althusser’s main lines of theoretical work’ to a position. ‘which shatters much of the substance of Althusser’s theory’ (Hirst again) to political positions entirely acceptable to Roy Hattersley – it is quite an evolution.

Two points of comment. Were all the prolonged and arduous labours of ‘theoretical practice’ really necessary to arrive at such banal right wing conclusions as:

‘Labour should not simply renationalise ... but rethink the economic role of public sector industries ... Likewise the priority cannot be simply to spend more on health, education and welfare but to rethink the ways in which such services are delivered ... A sustained incomes policy ... Incomes policy cannot be a matter of a two or three year wage freeze ... Reflation must be based on an agreement with our partners in the EEC.’

The second point is: was anything of value, in terms of Marxist method or factual results, obtained in the course of the whole long Althusser debate? I have yet to be convinced that it added one jot to the armour of revolutionary Marxism. Others whose opinion’s cannot be dismissed, notably Alex Callinicos, take a different view. One thing is certain. Hirst’s politics are rotten.

But does that entitle us to dismiss his views on historical writing? On his principles, yes. For Hirst says that

‘writing must be governed by considerations of its political value and not its contribution to the “discipline” of history.’

The political value of this volume is zero.


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