A decade before his assassination at the hands of a nationalist in 1914, French socialist Jean Jaurès completed a historical work that radically changed the study of the French Revolution. Where others had focused on disputes over politics and political ideology, Jaurès’s four-volume Histoire socialiste de la Révolution française took as its subject the transformations wrought by an emergent capitalism, foregrounding irruptions within the French economy. Through a Marxist lens, Jaurès emphasized the conflict between the ancien régime and the newly empowered bourgeoisie and excavated from the archives of the revolution the struggles of French workers and peasants.
Though discounted by later scholars anxious to distance themselves from Jaurès’s Marxism, the Histoire socialiste was history “from below” avant la lettre. Its analytical concerns also anticipated those of a historical subfield—the history of capitalism—now taking off on this side of the Atlantic. An energetic startup within the U.S. historical profession, the history of capitalism has grown rapidly over the past few years and won media attention most academics only dream of. Its popularity was sparked in part by the 2008 financial crisis, which renewed doubt about capitalism’s promises, and it emerges in the long wake of the demise of identity politics and the cultural turn within U.S. scholarship. It looks beyond supposedly narrow, sectarian concerns with particular groups left out of mainstream history—women and workers, peasants and slaves, blacks and gays. Some scholars have indeed argued for the capacious, democratic, and inclusive capabilities of this new field; others have been at pains to demonstrate that it is not a recapitulation of social history centered on the white male worker or business history fetishizing the white male capitalist. Even so, its institutional and ideological biases often shine through in its favored subjects and its anointed practitioners.
Jaurès’s vision of economic questions as the primary engine of social and political change, his linking of capitalism with modernity, his casting of elites as historical actors—all these concerns resurface in recent histories of capitalism. But perhaps most striking about the field is the way it both rehashes and disavows the radical intellectual tradition to which Jaurès belongs, one that derives historical questions as much from political commitments as from academic concerns. Jaurès shared this tradition with black writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois and the Trinidadian theorist and historian C. L. R. James, who wrote from within what Cedric Robinson has called the “black radical tradition.” Their interest in capitalism’s history was not merely academic: it was an integral part of the modern project of emancipation. Therein, perhaps, lies the problem. How does scholarship suffer when it disowns the radical origins—and uses—of its inquiries?
The new history of capitalism’s disavowal of radical scholarship is clearest in its treatments of slavery, which, for more than a century, has been a principal concern of scholars within the radical tradition. Jaurès, for instance, drew a line connecting the profits from the slave trade to the growth of the industries and ideologies of capitalism.