Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The German Ideology and methodology

One of the central concerns here is evidently the need to make our analysis of society in concrete, historical terms. "We know only a single science, the science of history." And it seems important that his presentation of the materialist approach to history takes the form of a narrative, not a set of abstract relationships. As he says, "Viewed apart from real history, these abstractions have in themselves no value whatsoever. They can only serve to facilitate the arrangement of historical material. ... our difficulties [i.e. genuine work] begin only when we set about the observation and arrangement -- the real depiction -- of our historical material, whether of a past epoch or of the present."

I was especially struck by the suggestion that abstract categories "only serve to facilitate the arrangement of historical material" because it suggests that economics and other social sciences need to be thought of as branches of, or approaches to, history, and in particular should be written as history, or as narrative. I'm thinking of something like Robin Blackburn's Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, which, while a deeply theoretically informed book, read almost like conventional narrative history -- the theory was like a scaffolding that was essential to constructing the building but removed or hidden out of sight once it was done. (You could say the same about the work of various other Marxist historians.)

I'm wondering how seriously we should take these injunctions in our own writing -- how much should we strive to make our work take the form of concrete historical narrative? Is there e.g. a place for theories of crisis in general, or do "our difficulties begin only" when we analyze a particular crisis as it unfolded historically?

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