Alan Knight

Readers of this blog should be aware that I’ve written about the so-called “Brenner Debate”, which is an interrogation and furthering of the Marxist theory of history and historical change. Beginning a study on the Mexican Revolution of 1910 I acquired a small collection of recommended books that would guide me through this fascinating (but understudied by Americans) episode: Womack’s classic Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, which is delightfully inscribed in my paperback copy:

“Dear Mary, This to prevent you from becoming “narrow” and “exclusive” when you go to Rutgers. Love, Barbara”

Aldolpho Gilly’s The Mexican Revolution, which Gilly (an Argentinian) wrote in the infamous Lecumburri prison–I have only dipped a single toe into Gilly’s book, but I can’t say his statistical analysis on the growth of Mexico’s industrial proletariat at the end of the 19th century impressed me too much. I detect a whiff of “doth-protest-too-much” in his trying to keep his story sufficiently “Marxist” (perhaps one could say a naive “Capital Volume 1-Marxist” in the over-emphasis of industrial labor?), when clearly the main story in Mexico is the agrarian transformation.

This then leads us to Alan Knight (with whom I was completely unfamiliar I’ll just admit) and whose 1986 2-volume The Mexican Revolution published by Cambridge is the classic study of the conflict, with v.1 subtitled Porfirians, Liberals and Peasants, v.2 Counter-revolution and Reconstruction. Since 1986 Knight has written many other studies of different aspects of Mexico and more recently Cambridge has commissioned him to write a three-volume history of Mexico, two of which volumes are complete: Mexico: from the Beginning to the Spanish Conquest (Cambridge 2002) and Mexico: The Colonial Era (Cambridge, 2002).

I am of course far from familiar with every history book written in a Marxist vein that is published recently, but I was shocked (in a good way!) to read in Alan Knight’s work a commitment to engage with the major (as I see them) historiographic disputes. One should keep in mind that the volume I’m currently reading (Mexico: The Colonial Era) is I believe intended for a more general audience, but Knight knows and makes clear that theoretical visions of history, theories of history, are of decisive importance. Knight footnotes Robert Brenner’s classic 1976 Past and Present article on page 66 and 199 of this volume and far from needing to endorse uncritically Brenner’s controversial thesis to elicit a incredulous smile from me, a mere engagement with the debate, a knowledge of the stakes of historical change as defined by this debate is enough to make my heart beat faster. I am aware that these sort of debates take place with much more frequency in journals such as Historical Materialism, New Left Review and others that have devoted considerable time to the possibilities and problems of writing history “after” Marx. That I would encounter these debates in a seriously academic, but still “general” history of Mexico is something I guess I would not have expected. History makes sense to me and even gains a dramatic element of a sporting event, say, when there is something fundamental at stake. But I should just quote Knight to give you a flavor of his learned style.

The concluding part of the first part of this Colonial Mexico volume Knight titles “Theoretical Reprise” and begins with this footnote (please enjoy, more Knight analysis to come soon, hopefully!)

And before entering the ‘theoretical reprise’ a brief health warning may be in order. Some students of history – readers or practitioners – dislike all theory on principle: they ‘do not recognize the need to construct a model and every attempt in such a direction….calls forth their indignation’ (Kula, Economic Theory of the Feudal System, p. 19). In practice, however, such theoretical know-nothings, in order to remain afloat in the swirling maelstrom of history, usually clutch at tacit assumptions if not arrant prejudices (‘common sense’ and ‘human nature’ are two favourites). Clearly, it is better that historians explicitly define their working theories (or models, or ‘organizing concepts’), thus making them clear and, perhaps, facilitating debate and comparison. Recently, however, even historians of supposedly theoretical bet have tended to abandon models derived from political economy (especially Marxist grand theory) in favour of the new Foucaultian, postmodern persuasion, which, despite its strident theoretical claims, is notable for its vagueness and vacuity, hence, precisely for its inability to define, clarify and compare. The objections to be made to a marxistant, mod-of-production analysis are several (Patch, Maya and Spaniard…offers a perceptive critique). However, there are also several defences, which should be borne in mind as this ‘theoretical reprise’ proceeds: (i) a political economy – or mode of production – approach does not claim to embrace the totality of human experience, simply a large chunk (see Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, pp. 401-2); (ii) different modes of production can coexist in a given ‘social formation’; (iii) modes do not unfold according to a strict teleological pattern (hence ‘marxisant’ may be a more accurate description of this approach than ‘Marxist’); (iv) this approach dos not imply a top-down imposition by masterful European elites on passive Indian subalterns; (v) the fact that Marx was a European does not necessarily mean that the approach is hopelessly Eurocentric (Patch, p.2 rightly questions the ‘unabashedly Eurocentric’ views of Braudel; but Braudel is no Marxist, and not much of a systematic model-builder either); (vi) even if political-economy concepts are deficient, they are better than the available alternatives (Divine Providence, the Hegelian Wold Spirit, modernization theory, neoclassical economics); and (vii) such concepts get us somewhere along the path of historical understanding – they are, in other words, organizing, rather than disorganizing concepts. I would finally add (viii) that the kind of diluted, politico-economic, marixisant-but-not-teleologically-Marxist approach which I am defending has a long lineage by no means all of it Marxist (e.g., Tawney, Pirenne, Sir James Harrington: see H.R. Trevor-Roper, ‘Karl Marx and the Study of History’…) At the end of the day, of course, these theoretical arguments usually depends for the appeal on individual intellectual inclination (and intellectual fashion?) as much as empirical demonstration; and a good deal of history can be usefully studied without recourse to grand theory. (Mexico: The Colonial Era, p. 185-186)


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