What History’s “Cultural Turn” Got Wrong — and Right

Neoliberalism’s rise engendered a pessimism about historical progress. Geoff Eley’s History Made Conscious shows how cultural history flourished in this era of diminished class politics, while nonetheless continuing to pose valuable questions to the Left.

Study from the 1941 Automobile Industry mural in the Detroit Post Office by William Gropper. (Smithsonian American Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons)

History is hot right now. From the op-ed pages of major newspapers to the board meetings of public schools across the country, a fierce battle is raging over America’s past. On the liberal left, the New York Times has given voice and platform to the 1619 Project, which argues that race and slavery have, by and large, determined the course of US history. Any attempt to grapple with the problems of the present must, partisans argue, begin by acknowledging these sins of the past. Informed by such a bold vision of the uses of history for public life, the originally journalistic 1619 project has given rise to a book, a school curriculum, and a Hulu docuseries, alongside a wider mainstream liberal tendency to make frequent political reference to a necessary “racial reckoning” with the past and, with it, a vituperative right-wing response to worries about liberal cultural hegemony.

First came the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, which aimed to “enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States” by peddling a particularly patriotic and self-flattering account of the American past. The outgrowths of this top-down effort include attacks on educators, whom right-wingers have accused of teaching “critical race theory.” The boldest of these attacks has come from Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who has sought to undermine — and ultimately reshape — public school curricula in a reactionary mold.

Granted, critics of the 1619 Project — and the strain of liberal racial politics it epitomizes — are not all on the Right. Dissenting voices from across the political spectrum have taken the stance of defending truth against spin. The 1776 Project PAC, motivated by its own rival right-wing grand narrative of American history, accuses liberal opponents of believing that wielding “political power [is] more important than facts.” The well-known letter to the New York Times from several prominent progressive historians registering their discontent with 1619 specifically disputed “matters of verifiable fact” (of all the fact-disputers, these distinguished scholars have the most serious claim). Meanwhile, the sectarian Trotskyist World Socialist Web Site, often hysterical in its condemnations of this very publication, has expounded at length about what it sees as tendencies toward “falsification” prominent in 1619-inspired writing.

Less fringe quarters of the Left are in a bind here. On the one hand, aspects of the 1619 Project and similar efforts absolutely warrant criticism, not merely in terms of potentially pedantic factual correction, but also in terms of theoretical narrative: a vision of racial oppression’s immutability denies the progressive process of materialist history. On the other hand, we hardly identify with — and must fight against — the most vocal right-wing critics, who themselves seek to prevent any progress in the present. After all, we on the Left at least agree with 1619 partisans on the need to address historical inequalities in the United States. The problem is thus: how to successfully integrate, in leftist historical study, expressions of oppression that do not appear to manifest as materially or class-based, without abandoning a core commitment to a materialist, class-based understanding of historical progress.

The circumstances of this quite knotty historical-theoretical question are today unusually public-facing. But what many interlocutors may not realize is that the misleadingly clear-cut terms of debate set by many of 1619’s critics — an empirical, fact-based, and/or materialist history fighting against some kind of ideology- or theory-based imposition from beyond — have already played out before, but in the more obscure realm of academia.

Some forty-five years ago, professional historical study in the Anglophone world underwent a shift as certain modes of thought — linguistic, feminist, literary, and French poststructuralist theory, alongside a politicization of discursive and cultural analysis — came into the discipline. Over the following decade or so, conservative historians wrung their empiricist hands over newcomers asking them to think about gender and race, and bellyached over the perceived demise of objectivity in history.

More significantly for the Left, this “cultural turn” also provoked worry from an old guard of Marxist historians who had made strides in social history emphasizing the lives and experiences of working-class people, rooted in a commitment to materialist class analysis. What could be lost — not just in history writing, but also in present politics — in a study of the past that jettisoned class analysis for a focus on discourse, culture, and identity?

Enter Geoff Eley, a historian of twentieth-century Germany and the European left, and the author, most recently, of History Made Conscious: Politics of Knowledge, Politics of the Past, a book that wades into these muddy waters. Eley, who came of age as a Marxist academic in the midst of the cultural turn in British universities, spent most of his career in the United States. Compiled in this collection are essays spanning over three decades. They provide a career-long retrospective of Eley’s evolving thought on the relationship between Marxist history and the cultural turn.

What emerges in the essays is a sober, humble assessment of the intellectual-historical conditions of this turn, which may provide today’s left with some helpful direction in orienting itself within the current American history wars. In his discussions of the cultural turn’s impact on the British academy and German historiography, Eley brings American readers beyond the navel-gazing of our nation’s cultural politics. Throughout, he maintains an admirable refusal to abandon class as a framework through which to interpret history, while ecumenically embracing aspects of culturalist analysis.

Explaining Away Defeat

Eley’s efforts to reconcile social and cultural history are grounded in a historicization — and complication — of the transition from one to the other. Even as contemporary historians drew lines in the sand, Eley insists on a degree of porosity between the two subdisciplines.

In one essay charting the course of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), a key node of the subdiscipline in the 1970s and 1980s, Eley notes that its members took inspiration from the scholarly ground broken by the likes of E. P. Thompson, a Marxist historian of England who dedicated much of his life to campaigning for nuclear disarmament and authored The Making of the English Working Class (1963), a classic social-historical study of its subject. Thompson’s social histories, Eley writes, were “always already cultural,” bringing notions of the “political” out from formal institutions and into the realm of working-class life. It was, Eley shows, social historians like Thompson who, by pursuing a bottom-up history of the working class, opened the door for cultural historians’ explorations of everyday popular practice.

This latter move provoked hostility from some social historians, worried that such a reorientation of their discipline risked making its insights trivial. In a 1976 article that Eley describes as a key “stock-taking” essay of the second wave of social history by then-Marxist historians of slavery Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese (the two would eventually move to the right), the authors denigrate the “bourgeois” and “liberal” strands of social history that simply recount, in celebratory fashion, “previous working-class patterns of life,” radically glorifying private, popular activities so as to “redress the political impotence of the public.” Missed in this focus on the quotidian realities of working-class life were, Fox-Genovese and Genovese argued, the material conditions and structural forces impacting the lives of the oppressed — and thus also the kind of class-power-attuned politics, beyond modes of everyday resistance, necessary to break that oppression. In diagnosing historians’ turn to politicizing everyday life in response to the public’s “political impotence,” this critique anticipated the conditions that proved fertile for cultural studies’ rise.

After the Left’s militant high points in the 1970s, Eley explains, the onslaught of the 1980s and 1990s — Thatcher and Reagan, deindustrialization, globalization, neoliberalism, and, crucially, the collapse of socialist states — put radical scholarship in an unmoored, defensive position. That worker militancy was overcome by the structural transformation of the economy “severely damaged the persuasiveness and viability of the classical materialist analytics of both Marxist and non-Marxist sociologies.” The irony was that

At the time Marxist thought was consigned so effectively to the dumpster, the forms of capitalist power in the world were coming closer than ever to vindicating a powerful feature of classical Marxist critique.

Capitalism’s apparent triumph had seemingly discredited Marxist thought just when the world needed it most. What filled the theoretical gap for some radical scholars in their attempt to explain the current impasse was a turn away from Marxist aims to grasp “society as whole” and a turn toward the contingency of cultural formation, the “experience of localism, fragmentation, and loss of coherence” that seemed at hand.

Accompanying this embrace of contingency was a loss of history as a process of progressive movement: “cultural historians seem uninterested in shaping their projects according to any radically transformative image of a future that lies anywhere beyond the current hegemonies.” Fox-Genovese and Genovese were again bitingly prescient: in the skepticism toward progress, the past itself became “static,” with quarters of academic history becoming a “neoantiquarian swamp presided over by liberal ideologues” (that is, a grouping of faux radicals who proclaimed themselves to be doing something other than studying the past for its own sake). For instance, in discussing the historiography of German imperialism, cultural histories of this topic, Eley observes, tended to trade a study of the concrete origins of empire — “conflicts and pressures coming from inside the German state” — for its more diffuse, all-encompassing expressions, such as popular culture and national self-image. What was lost in this descriptive shift was an analysis of the historical causations of social phenomena.

In this vision, historical elements appear to merely sit side by side (indeed, appear contingent); one could easily risk conflating the causes and consequences of historical events. Change could appear unexplainable: in producing a rather static image of history, an immovable continuity of elements between past and present, the new focus on the contingent was ironically in peril of sprouting a new form of determinism. Observing a version of this trend in the American context, historian and Jacobin contributor Matt Karp has offered an understanding of current uses of American history that posit specific histories of slavery and racism as totalizing explainers of both past and present. A loss of “faith in the future” by the late twentieth-century left, Karp argues, has led to its replacement with an “intense focus on the past.” But the orientation to history that this focus on the past inspires is not, as was the case in classical left-wing visions of the discipline, an attempt to discover whether some progressive pattern of struggle can be found, but instead a call to moral introspection, a demand that we atone for the sins of our forebears.

This denial of material progress, Karp notes, has been welcomed by the powerful; journalists insisting on the United States’ “original sin” of racism sit, unlike older radical writers, “not at the margins but near the core of the American cultural elite.” This diagnosis is an updated, more broadly social version of an early criticism of the cultural turn evinced by the historian Bryan D. Palmer (quoted by Eley): its content was fit not for radical politics but for “the most self-promotionally avant-garde enclaves of that bastion of protectionism, the University.”

Saving the Baby From the Culturalist Bathwater

It would seem, then, from a perspective interested in a retrieval of materialist history and advancing a critique of the causes of exploitation, that the cultural turn belongs in history’s dustbin. Not so fast, though, says Eley: even if the turn away from Marxism was a real loss, the turn toward culture “enabled some real gains and solutions.”

This sympathetic impulse comes partially out of Eley’s historical vantage point. With the dust settled, we can return to the political origins of cultural studies in the 1970s without dismissing them. Marxists cannot undo the cultural turn; channeling Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire, Eley writes, “If we write our own histories . . . then we do so with theoretical approaches, types of methodology, and general historiographical supports not always of our own choosing.” The best we can do now is engage in a “critically observed pluralism” of method; we must engage in “openness and seriousness in the exchange,” the conflict therewithin producing “polemical clarification.”

Eley engages in this project of “polemical clarification” throughout a number of wide-ranging essays. In one, Stuart Hall — a founding figure in the field of cultural studies and sometime director of the CCCS — receives a touching obituary, in which he is portrayed as a consummate socialist intellectual. In others, Eley’s treatment of (previously Marxist-adjacent) philosopher Jürgen Habermas resists outright dismissal: Habermas’s notion of the “public sphere” of rational political discourse is, Eley insists, fruitful, but it must not be separated from the violent material emergence of the bourgeois state which was its precondition, while also being extended beyond its usual middle-class representatives. In an essay on the Alltagsgeschichte (“history of everyday life”) movement of German historians, Eley praises their tying the specificities of German workers’ lives to political and social formation, thus affirming that the “‘social’ versus the ‘cultural’ was always a false categorical separation.”

Elsewhere Eley offers suggestions from which the Left, in today’s history wars, might productively learn. He hints that materialist history does not do itself justice if it does not acknowledge the importance of ideas in motivating people’s actions. No materialist theory, however hard going, can ignore that irresolvable fact that people do things for certain reasons, and that such reasons are only articulable as a result of their social, discursive meaning. In the post–Cold War discourse of globalization, Eley notes how so many historians pettily took issue with the term by pointing out the historical fact that previous societies have also been globally integrated. This position, though, gets one nowhere:

[I]n a public environment . . . in which [talk of globalization] is so completely embedded in an expanding repertoire of process and policy, it becomes naive and ineffectual to continue insisting primarily on the historical imprecisions of the term itself.

Likewise today: insisting upon the “facts” of history, however true they are, in response to the 1619 Project or the 1776 Commission is a necessary start. But it only gets one so far. The real question must be: What crisis has inspired a national political mood so fraught with anxiety that thinkers on both the Right and the Left are caught in a project of soul-searching about their national narrative?

If It Ain’t Broke . . .

There are limits to Eley’s project of conciliation. Armed with a notion of “class” as a conceptual category as much as a material relation, he suggests reorienting our understanding of present capitalism around informal or unwaged work. His aim is to build upon a reevaluated history that puts this kind of work — whether as domestic labor or mass enslavement — at the center of capitalist political economy.

This is a provocative and, in some ways, helpful suggestion to rethink the ever-changing understandings and definitions of labor. But in displacing “the centrality of waged labor” and industrial production — even if these labor regimes often constitute a technical minority of producers — one taking Eley’s perspective runs the risk of losing sight of how these forms of labor and their accompanying logics are what make capitalism distinctive. This is also the shortcoming of a number of essays in the 1619 Project that misleadingly put racial slavery at the center of American economic development.

However, this does not mean that we must reject Eley’s chief claim, which is that Marxist, class-based historical analysis can be honed and enriched by engagements with its challengers. Something similar might be said in situating the Left within today’s history wars. The bloviating of the 1776ers, of course, should be fought head on, but the intensity of public historical consciousness brought forth by 1619 should be something that forces materialist historians to consider “broader contextual fields,” per Eley’s terms. In this sense, the wrinkles posed by 1619 should not be dismissed or vilified but sympathetically embraced as a challenge to work out, in good-faith public debate, historical questions pertinent to the current left political project: this is an opportunity to define, clearly and convincingly, what makes wage labor and slavery distinct; what makes American notions of race unique; and how and why capitalism is, inherently, the exploitative system that it is, without recourse to a mystifying national-racial etiology.

With history on so many people’s minds, socialists have the opportunity to put their commitment to both the progress and complexity of history in the realm of popular consciousness. This time, the stakes go far beyond the cloisters of the academy. As Eley writes, “History is simply unavoidable.”