Traversing Marxist tropes in modern historiography

Traversing Marxist tropes in modern historiography

By ANUBHA YADAV | | 12 January, 2013
Historian Irfan Habib
Anubha Yadav talks to historian Irfan Habib about how the Marxist approach to history has evolved over the years and whether it still holds value in contemporary historical research.

Q. Why do some historians prefer to study history from a Marxist Approach?

A. The designation 'Marxist' is shorthand for a particular hypothesis which states that, among other things, much of history has developed around the question of appropriation of surplus production by the working people (slaves, peasants, workers, etc.) and that much of political history is about this surplus. The distinguishing point between the Marxist and the non- Marxist historians is, therefore, this whole question of appropriation of surplus and this also brings in view some basic concepts of Economics.

Q. Marxist Historians have often been accused of being deterministic and trying to study history as a journey towards a classless society. Do you agree?

A. Given the assumption of surplus, it follows that a society will be a just society only when the surplus is distributed equitably amongst all the classes. So, the assumption of a class-less society arises from the very same hypothesis.

Q. Do you think that the unavailability of the research material and sources is a constraint in the field of Marxist Historiography?

A. The literate classes, those who write and contribute to our source material, have always belonged to the higher level of society. Even in modern times, the information we have comes from the literate class. So, unavailability of written record is a natural limitation in reconstructing the past of the non-literate masses. Historians should try to overcome this limitation and retrieve, without use of imagination or fictitious reconstructions, such particulars, as we can derive about how lower classes have worked and suffered, from what the upper classes have left to us in their records. However, even from the Marxist approach, the history of the higher classes is not irrelevant. Conflicts between landlords and peasants, for example, help to explain why landlords were more loyal to British Government than other sections of the population. Conflicts of interest also arise among exploiting classes, such as between landlords and commercial classes in British times.

Q. "Indian Society has no history at all" is a quote from Marx that has attracted a strong reaction from many Marxist Historians. What is your take on it?

A. This particular statement of Marx came from the information he had at his own hand, some of which came from Hegel's remarks on India in his lectures on History. Hegel believed that India was a caste-ridden society and that the caste system prevented change, an idea which Weber also later developed. When Marx said that India had no real history but only history of stagnation, he did not mean political history but social history. Also, one should keep in mind that Marx wrote this statement in a newspaper article and at an age when he was young and sometimes prone to generalise excessively. He did not make such statements subsequently.

The remarkable point is that Marx has been so right in so many ways, be it his characterization of the rebellion of 1857 or the postulate that railways and modern industry will weaken the caste system. It is indeed, difficult to contradict him in any major way on the impact of British rule on India. 

Q. You have often been called an 'Insider Critic' in the sense that you have never attacked Marx but have always contradicted him in some minor ways. Do you agree?

A. One can say that I have interpreted some views of Marx in a way different from others, but I believe that there is little disagreement on his basic premises. The remarkable point is that Marx has been so right in so many ways, be it his characterization of the rebellion of 1857 or the postulate that railways and modern industry will weaken the caste system. It is indeed, difficult to contradict him in any major way on the impact of British rule on India.

Q. While studying the Indian History from the Marxist perspective, what were some of the starkest conclusions that you could draw?

A. There is a puzzle which I have found difficult to solve. In China or in Modern Europe peasant when rebellions - German Peasant War, English Peasant War or the French Revolution- took place, the peasants formed the armed forces. Surprisingly in India, except for one case in Tamil Nadu around 1428, the peasants' demands do not seem to have been explicitly defined or raised by the rebels. What reason can we offer for this absence of explicit formulations of agrarian grievances?

Q. Is it that the peasants did identify with the rebellion or is it that their grievances were not recorded by the ruling classes?

A. Anyone superior literate class hardly ever identified with the grievances of the peasants, though conditions of peasants distress were sometimes recorded by them. It is the peasants whose own voice we seldom hear. In the Jat rebellion, one does not come across a single report or document in which the peasants demand that the tax on them be lowered or forced labour not taken. It often seems that the peasants had begun to accept the ideology of the upper classes, seen especially in the acceptance of caste hierarchy or untouchability or religious separation.

Q. There is a certain section of society which believes that though social engineering will continue to occur on small levels, the possibility of a revolution is absent. Do you think that revolutions are impossible in this age and time?

A. Contrary to what this specific section believes, revolutions have occurred. History itself is against this belief, as one can see from what happened in the twentieth century. Currently, relatively small countries in Latin America are offering examples of successful revolutions, like Venezuela and Bolivia.

Q. What is keeping you involved these days? Can the readers expect another book from you anytime soon?

A. Earlier, I used to write for what may be called as 'academic readers'. However, increasingly, I feel that one should write for all kinds of readers. As of now, I am concentrating mainly on the People's History of India series.

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