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The Historiography of Communism

Michael E. Brown

Publication Year: 2009

In this fresh appraisal of communism and anti-communism, with an emphasis on the American case, respected scholar Michael E. Brown examines the methods, controversies and difficulties involved in writing the history of communism. Arguing that one important way of understanding communism—other than as a concrete political or ideological force—is as an expression of an essentially reflexive aspect of society that typically manifests itself in social movements. In this regard, Brown understands the history of communism as part of the history of society. Examining works by E. P. Thompson, Karl Marx, and Pierre Clastres, Brown develops the idea of history as an immanent feature of human activities. Taken together, the essays in this book—written over a period of 20 years–offer a distinctive approach to the connections between social theory, criticism, and historiography and to what is “social” about “social movements.”

Published by: Temple University Press


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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

I owe a great deal to far more people than I can thank in a short paragraph of acknowledgments. I mention only the few who have been directly connected to the publication of this book and the development of many of the ideas discussed in it. Randy Martin cowrote two of the chapters and, generously, read all the others. My...


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pp. ix

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1. Introduction: Communism, Society, and History

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pp. 1-41

Most of the chapters in this book were originally written as essays in what was to be a monograph on the relevance of historiography to sociological theory and of sociological theory to the humanities. It presupposed a definition of sociology as the study of the social, or collective, aspect of human affairs, where that aspect...

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2. History and History’s Problem

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pp. 42-66

Perhaps no discipline has been more significant in cultural studies than British social history in its present, one might almost say Thompsonian, aspect as “people’s history.” It is, in fact, that aspect which makes original its critique of earlier research that attempted to evaluate the development of “societies.” Peter Burke, for example...

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3. Issues in the Historiography of Communism, Part One—Identifying the Problem

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pp. 67-89

In fact, a great deal of contemporary historical writing is fundamentally sociological. This is perhaps too explicit in George Rude’s early study of The Crowd in History, in which the “riot” was analyzed by a standard “structural-functional” theory of “collective behavior” (1964); less so in E. P. Thompson’s...

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4. Issues in the Historiography of Communism, Part Two: Some Principles of Critical Analysis

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pp. 90-115

The British historian Eric Hobsbawm has attempted to clarify the significance of a radically democratic, or Left, approach to the writing of history by distinguishing between “orthodox history” and something broader in scope and more responsive to the conflictual nature of society (1984). For want of a better word, I will refer to the latter...

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5. Ideology and the Metaphysics of Content

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pp. 116-146

By and large, the key question in the modern study of ideology is “What are the implications of what people read, hear, see, and speak for what they think and do?” The “what” that is read, heard, seen, and spoken may exist on the surface of communication—as speech or message—or in the textured and driven depths of something...

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6. “Society Against the State”: The Fullness of the Primitive

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pp. 147-159

It is clear that modern anthropology is a knowledge-constituting field, and in that sense is scientific whether or not it is classified as a science. Yet, its very subject—the study of “Others”—has nonetheless remained a source of embarrassment coloring the writings of the most important ethnologists (see Geertz 2000, chapter 5). In Tristes Tropiques,...

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7. Left Futures

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pp. 160-182

If it is at all reasonable to speak of “moments” in history, the breakup of the Soviet Union is certainly one if only because its immediate effect was catastrophic for so many nations and so many millions of people. Less dramatically, the breakup has become a force in the critical consciousness of the American Left, and to such a degree...

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8. Rethinking the Crisis of Socialism

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pp. 183-218

This chapter is one of a series of papers originally published in Socialism and Democracy that attempt to rethink the terms by which it has become possible to speak of a “crisis of socialism.” It addresses several features of what has become a complex debate over the significance of the political decline of the Communist parties to the...


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pp. 219-232


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pp. 233-241


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pp. 243-249

E-ISBN-13: 9781592139231
Print-ISBN-13: 9781592139224

Publication Year: 2009