The Spectre of Marxism (cont.)

So it was quickly clear that my students had had no formal introduction to Marxism in high school.  What has become quite clear over the course of the school year, however, is the more subtle role that Marxism plays in shaping the overall paradigm of the high school history curriculum here.  In many respects, the high school history curriculum here has all of the standard qualities of straight-up vulgar Marxism (I will attempt to continue this post without too much digression into the details of Marxist philosophy).  The progression of history is divided into a series of discrete developmental stages: the stage of the “slave economy” gives way to “feudalism,” which then gives way to “capitalism,” and then, theoretically, the communist revolution.  Each of these stages are neatly separated from one another by some fundamental historical shift.  In this model, for example, the shift from “feudalism” to “capitalism” is supposed to be marked most clearly by the French Revolution, when the bourgeoisie class which had slowly grown at the end of the feudal stage rose up to foment revolution against the landed nobility and seized the reins of power from them.

Likewise, the vulgar Marxist view of history requires that populations be split into neat, discrete social classes, and that all changes and social behavior be described by class.  One of the more interesting answers I got on a response paper explained that the Renaissance was an artistic and intellectual movement fomented by the bourgeoisie against the Catholic Church, which promoted individualism and humanism as a resistance to the Church’s continued attempts to stifle capitalism.  This of course requires that one ignore both the leading, if not completely dominating, role played by aristocratic intellectuals in the Renaissance,  not to mention the leading, if not overwhelming, role that religious themes played in Renaissance art.

As someone who feels that materialism should still play a role in the way we understand history, and someone who’s trying not to ruffle too many feathers with this class, I’m reluctant to uniformly or directly denounce any of the Marxism that I come across in their response papers or essays.  But I’ll admit that one of my secret goals with this class is to at least poke a few holes in a history education which I think is dangerously simplistic.  I’ve been doing my best to call into question some of the things they previously learned through counter-examples, such as the example above by which I tried to pick apart their previous view of the Renaissance.  And it’s always exciting to see when one of the students tells me about how they’ve come to question something they learned in high school.  For example, in an exercise this semester I asked them to compare the relative impact of grassroots political revolution in 19th-century Europe to top-down political reform.  The goal was to show how centrally-directed political change, such as German and Italian unification, had by the end of the century had a much more fundamental impact on European politics than had actual “revolutions,” such as the revolutions of 1848.  In office hours, though, I had a student explain how this idea directly contradicted what her high school teacher had taught her.  She had been taught resolutely that “自上而下” (top-down) political change is never as effective as “自下而上” (bottom-up, or “grassroots”) political change and revolution, because only “bottom-up” revolution can remove all of the lingering traces of feudalism in a society and further the progress of history–a view that would work well to support the legitimacy of a regime founded on a peasant revolution.

What’s interesting is that many of my students seem to recognize the rather limited scope of this kind of history education, but they are still struggling to acquire the tools to overcome it.  I had a student once complain to me in office hours that he knew how one-sided his high school history classes were, but that he lacked the vocabulary to explain history in any other way.  History had been taught to him as an unbroken procession of various Marxist stages—“slave” to “feudal” to “capitalist” to, theoretically, communist.  Historical actors had been resolutely divided into 资产阶级 (bourgeoisie) and 无产阶级 (proletariat), or perhaps into “landlords” 地主 and commoners.  Because these terms formed the entire vocabulary with which he had learned to conceptualize history, it would be an uphill battle to learn how to describe history in a more nuanced way.

Not that anyone reading this should get the idea that I’m a lone voice for post-Marxist history swimming against a stream of party hacks.  I have discussed the role of Marxism in my students’ education with both the professor who hired me and with my teaching assistant last semester.  They both revealed their own frustration with the one-dimensional view of their students’ knowledge of history coming into college, and revealed that it was a gradual process over several years by which their students learned more sophisticated approaches.  So in the end it’s not really all that different from the difference between high school and college history in the United States.  I know that my high school history classes, while certainly not quite as one-sided as it sounds like Chinese high school history classes are, were nonetheless less diverse in the range of historical viewpoints that they presented, and that I really only learned to conceptualize the study of history as a dialogue between different arguments after several classes in college.

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