In a recent article carried in the Daily Telegraph entitled “ Historians need to have loved and lost to understand the past” the right wing Thatcherite historian David Starkey intimated that the best historians are older as you need to have loved and lost to understand the past. Starkey says “What I have done is used my own experience of mourning and joy,” he said. “You take the dry facts of history, and with memories in your own life, you realise how you should understand them.”
The article was provoked by Starkey’s reminiscing the loss of his long-term partner three years ago. Grief can do strange things to the mind. I have lost my father recently, the loss can lead you to reevaluate many things, however, it did not change my understanding of history nor has it lead to a better understanding of the past. If you did not have that understanding in the first place, then no amount of loss can compensate.
Starkey believes that loss can better understand figures like King Henry VIII. Since the Tudor period is Starkey’s expertise and not mine, I am not about to cross swords with a world-renowned historian on that subject. I will leave that to others far more qualified what I will say is that Starkey is no stranger to controversy and almost seems to thrive on the oxygen of publicity brings.
There are many dangers with Starkey’s crude shotgun approach to historical and political questions that could lead to a lack of understanding of the real issues involved. Like I said Starkey is no stranger to controversy. Many times Starkey’s political views have undermined his evaluation of complex historical events.
It should be said that I am not against political views shaping historical understanding, but when those views are the expression of pure ideology, then we start to have problems. Starkey is not subtle about his politics. He has been accused of being an “aggressive racist” and “sexist” after this quote on a Newsnight programme ““The whites have become black; a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion.”
The same historian went on to say that the proto-fascist Tory politician Enoch Powell was correct when he warned in the 1960s that immigration would lead to civil unrest.
Starkey went on that working class youth “have become black,” taken over by a “black” culture that has “intruded in England,” which is “why so many of us have this sense literally of a foreign country.” As one writer said “though Starkey characteristically uses racial terms to denote the targets of his hatred, he clearly is using the term “black” to denounce all working class youth”.
While Starkey’s political bias is easily opposed, far more complex problems are raised by his politics and historical outlook. Firstly why is such an extremely right-wing historian given such a high profile? Starkey has presented numerous television history programmes. He lectures at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I know of no left wing historian given the same opportunities to present their views to such a large audience.
This is because it has become comfortable for universities to tolerate very conservative historians and their right-wing views with virtual impunity while any views representing a left-wing challenge to the current status quo are marginalised or ostracised.
Given that universities play such an essential role in imparting knowledge about the world we live it is little surprising that given the dominance of an economic system hell-bent on putting profit before people it is little wonder that universities have become little more than corporate appendages.
This, of course, goes hand in hand with an academic assault on Marxism. Young people cannot expect to acquire the necessary knowledge from the capitalist media because it knows full well that experience will be used for its overthrow.
But what about universities asks the Marxist writer David North, “with their many learned professors? Unfortunately, the intellectual environment has been for many decades deeply hostile to genuine socialist theory and politics. Marxist theory—rooted in philosophical materialism—was long ago banished from the major universities.
“Academic discourse is dominated by the Freudian pseudo-science and idealist subjectivism of the Frankfurt School and the irrationalist gibberish of post-modernism. Professors inform their students that the “Grand Narrative” of Marxism is without relevance in the modern world. What they actually mean is that the materialist conception of history, which established the central and decisive revolutionary role of the working class in capitalist society, cannot and should not be the basis of leftwing politics”.
This situation cannot last forever. One small step is to challenge at every level the right wing rantings of professional right-wing historians at every opportunity.