Monday, 22 November 2010

Whither History

Tristram Hunt makes the following point “This could be no more than a passing literary fad, but it also points to a broader truth about how we now approach the past: less concerned with learning from our forebears and more interested in feeling their pain. Today, we want empathy, not inspiration”.

There appears to be a general theme running through a growing number of articles on history appearing in newspapers recently. A number of well-paid historians such as Nial Ferguson ,Simon Schama and more recently Tristram Hunt to name just a few of the more high profile historians have written articles along similar lines bemoaning the type of history being study in schools and by the general public.

Hunt’s latest article is in many ways typical. Titled “History used to be the study of great men. Now it's of Everyman” he expresses a common trait amongst some academic historians that the study of history should really be the preserve of the selective few and when the public do get involved it should be under strict control of the same academics.

Hunt’s article was a response to a recent spate of articles that have suggested that publishers are no longer interested in serious biographies. One such article appeared in the Observer which reported “that leading biographer Victoria Glendinning was having trouble finding a publisher for her new life of East Indies explorer and Singapore founder, Sir Stamford Raffles. Then came the news that the Costa book awards couldn't fill its biography shortlist”.

There seems to be a touch of historical snobbery involved here. The reading of a great biography such as Christopher Hill’s biography of Oliver Cromwell uncovers a great deal not just about Cromwell but Hill places him firmly in his own time. But to counter pose one form of historical study against what Hunt obviously feels is inferior form of study such as the learning about your family’s place in history is just wrong. People who look for their family history do so not just out interest for their own sake but do so to understand their place in society now.

In what way should we understand the study of the lives of ‘great men’? The Russian Marxist G Plekhanov in his ground breaking essay said “It follows, then, that by virtue of particular traits of their character individuals can influence the fate of society. Sometimes this influence is very considerable; but the possibility of exercising this influence, and its extent, are determined by the form of organization of society, by the relation of forces within it. The character of an individual is a "factor" in social development only where, when, and to the extent that social relations permit it to be such.

We may be told that the extent of personal influence may also be determined by the talents of the individual. We agree. But the individual can display his talents only when he occupies the position in society necessary for this. Why was the fate of France in the hands of a man who lacked totally the ability and desire to serve society? Because such was the form of organization of that society. It is the form of organization that in any given period determines the role and, consequently, the social significance that may fall to the lot of talented or incompetent individuals. But if the role of individuals is determined by the form of organization of society, how can their social influence, which is determined by the role they play, contradict the conception of social development as a process expressing laws? It does not contradict it; on the contrary, it serves as one of its most vivid illustrations “.

In general to back up his arguments Hunt has a habit of quoting Marx. It must be said that Hunt empty’s Marx of his revolutionary content. In this article he quotes Marx from the Communist manifesto "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles, “It is man, real, living man who does all that." And history should be the story of the masses and their record of struggle. As such, it needed to appreciate the economic realities, the social contexts and power relations in which each epoch stood. For: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past."

So Hunt uses twists Marx to justify his point that history should left to historians and the general public should just sit back and watch and more importantly not get involved. In his position as house historian to the Labour Party Hunt is totally opposed to the masses getting involved in history and let alone changing it.

Hunt then goes on to vent his spleen at the fact that “Britain nurtured Christopher Hill, EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. History from below stood alongside biographies of great men. Whole new realms of understanding – from gender to race to cultural studies – were opened up as scholars unpicked the multiplicity of lost societies. And it transformed public history too: downstairs became just as fascinating as upstairs”. Increasingly, the public spurned the lives of great men to trace their personal lineages through local archives, genealogy websites and Who Do You Think You Are? formats. As social class, organised religion and traditional labour markets decline, leaving people devoid of clear identity, history offers relief. In this season's TV hits of The High Street and Edwardian Farm, the people's past has been brought back to life. As historian Jürgen Kocka has put it: "It seems fair to say that a generation ago many people studied history in order to learn from it… nowadays, many people deal with history in order to find out where they come from and who they are or with the aim of discovering and observing alternative ways of life." The quest for identity and empathy has taken over: explanation has become less desirable; understanding has assumed centre-stage.

As regards the historians who wrote about “history from below” as A Talbot said “they were responding not to clamour from the public to express their need for family history they were responding to the needs of the Stalinist bureaucracy to justify the policy of the popular Front. Ann Talbot writes “For the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History”, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr”.

I therefore do not agree with Hunt’s point that “The only problem is that such a retreat into the warm, fuzzy embrace of the past can serve to undermine history as a discipline worthy of proper study. It is history as entertainment, without the capacity to teach about the past or shed light on the present. So perhaps it is no surprise historical biography is on the way out. In its place come ever more volumes of "everyday" letters, journals and diaries. We are no longer interested in the difficult questions of the past and what it poses for the present”.

I do not see the point of counter posing one form of historical debate with another. Under conditions of the enormous collapse of world capitalism system huge historical issues are arising and we will see a return to serious study of history and the various theoretical issues arising from such a study will take different forms. Vive la Difference as the French might say.


This Cosy Portrayal of the Past is no Way to Learn the Lesson of History. T Hunt

Observer 21/11/2010

The role of the individual in History G Plekhanov.

Ideology, Absolutism and the English Revolution David Parker