History For a Revolutionary Audience
We hail from all corners of the country and have joined together for a common revolutionary objective. And we need the vast majority of the people with us on the road to this objective.
–Mao Zedong, “Serve the People”
One of the virtues of the academy is that everyone in the community is presumed to have a minimum standard of education. Unlike a commercial filmmaker––independent or within a large studio system––the presumed audience of an academic writer is a limited and highly interested segment of the population. People within your field are assumed to be both capable of reading your work and interested in it, assuming that it reaches a certain level of quality. Unfortunately, this virtue has an unintended vice attached. Academic audiences are in some ways less demanding of a writer since disciplinary terminology has become self-evident to them and shorthand and inference can save space and time. Writing for the masses, in particular a Marxist writing for the working class and revolutionaries, requires a different set of priorities and stylistic elements. In brief: the proletariat is not interested in history for its own sake. Baroque discussions of historical minutiae do not animate revolutionaries; intellectual weaponry does.
Marxist historians should, because of their political positions, produce writing for non-academic audiences. Abandoning the academy might not be possible for most intellectual workers, but the fact remains that historians can never change the world without engaging that world. Even if you are working within the academy, institutional concerns should not dominate your work; politics should. At no point, however, should this appeal to the masses entail an abandonment of scholarly principles. Nor should intellectual production ever be purely instrumental or polemical. History without factual foundation and correct theoretical explanation are useless to the proletariat, which can only overturn capitalism armed not only with physical weapons but with an accurate understanding of their situation. Nonetheless, that truth has to be made comprehensible to people without graduate educations and relevant to their political needs. These connections have to be drawn out explicitly in historical writing, meaning that Marxists shed any hesitations about using fiery or explicit language in criticizing capitalism.
There is another point worth exploring, which I have never seen addressed in my readings of Marxist historians: the question of political organizations. Should historians work not only from the academy but also from communist parties and mass fronts? I believe that, for some historians, the answer is yes. Obviously this presumes that the parties in question have a healthy respect for fierce debate within a democratic centralist framework, but I think that being engaged in concrete political work will have a leavening effect on historians’ usual aridity. Documents and other sources might be the lifeblood of historical analysis, but a writer without a real sense of the stakes of their political, economic, or cultural histories will be more susceptible to the allures of idle speculation or lazy apathy. On the other hand, romantic dreams of revolutionary glory are not helpful either. The reality of political work is largely its drudgery and the painstaking work of self-education. Anchoring oneself in a political organization dedicated to the change you are advocating appears as a fantastic solution to historical timidity. This is not to prescribe party membership as a panacea for the problems of Marxist political or historical thought: most of our problems have to be resolved through our own labour. Still, the greatest fear I have about entering a full-time academic career is that this will be politically sterilizing. The academy is hungry for commitment and it tends to brook no competition.
These problems are worth engaging because the historian’s audience will determine to an extent what subjects they write about, what priorities they take in their research, and the amount of effort they put into writing in a lucid fashion. It’s not “condescension” to write for large audiences, and writing a book meant for workers is not equivalent to putting out another pop-history that flatters petty bourgeois vanity. Obviously, detailed historical problems can require fairly dense treatments because of the complexity involved, but unless we take what we learn in our scholarly work and put it in the service of the masses, what use are our social criticisms and clarion calls?