Social Scientist. v 16, no. 187 (Dec 1988) p. 3.


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IRFAN HABIB*

Problems of Marxist Historiography

In one of his theses Marx said: 'Philosophers have so far interpreted the world. The point is to change it.' Marxism sees an innate unity between perception of the past and present practice. This unity implies continuous interaction: as time passes and history (human experience) lengthens, we draw greater lessons from it for the present; and as our present experience tells us more about the possibilities and limitations of social action, we turn to the past and obtain new comprehensions of it. Consider Marc Bloc's understanding of the French Revolution as representing continuity and not a break in French agrarian history, reached after the Soviet Revolution of 1917; similarly our new perception of the limitations of Soviet peasant mobilisation that followed the success of the Chinese Revolution, a massive 'peasant revolution' (1949). It is inherent in the unity of past and present that Marxist historiography must continuously turn to fresh aspects to explore and re-explore and fresh questions to answer. Nothing is more illustrative of this need than the history of Socialist societies, since 1917. That history cannot be meaningfully studied only from what the classics tell us Socialism should be. The lengthening, complex history of Socialism is of great significance not only for the peoples of Socialist countries, but also for all those who aspire for Socialism in their own countries.

There are other factors too which must cause continuous reconsiderations of positions previously taken. Research expands and exposes facts we did not know of before: without undue modesty, we can say we know more about India's past than Marx did. Can his statements on India be accepted as the last word, even when we recognise that his information was limited? Naturally, extended knowledge imposes on us the task of testing our older interpretations against our information as it now stands. It has to be an unceasing process.

More: Marxism, as the ideology of the working class, does not exist alone and in isolation. There are rival interpretations arising all the time. The authors of these interpretations might not accept the basic premises of a class-approach; and, therefore, for us to dismiss them as

^Professor of History, Ahgarh Muslim University, Aligarh



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