Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Struggle for Historical Truth

Historians do not work in a vacuum. Each one presents whether consciously or unconsciously a perspective, ideology or at least a moral attitude towards the history they study or put another way “When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog”[1]. Does this moral or ideological entanglement with history rule out the possibility of a struggle for “true objectivity” or historical truth I do not believe so?

For better or worse the more objective attitude towards history has been associated with the Marxist movement. It is in the basic DNA of a Marxist Historian to present their work with the understanding that he or she must at all times tell the truth or more importantly understand that their study of history is the reenactment of an “objective process”.

Following on from this can we then treat the study of history as a science with its own laws? It is very difficult to argue if not impossible to say that it is a pure science in the sense of the type of laws uncovered by physicists, chemists and mathematicians. Having said that any professional or amateur historian worth his or her salt should work in the archives or library with the same devotion and accuracy as a chemist or biologists working in the laboratories.

A historian who understands that history does have its own laws and carries out a systematic and honest study of these laws can not only give us a deeper understanding of past events but can in some way anticipate future historical events.  The use of counter factual history is very useful historical genre. Again it should go without saying that the historian must approach their research in archives with honesty and integrity.

While it should be taken for granted that a historian in order to attempt to recreate the past must have “empathy and imagination”, the historian must study the past with a doggedness and intellectual objectivity. Historians are not machines although that has not stop historians labelling others as such. A famous criticism of the historian Christopher Hill was that he was a rolodex historian in other words picking pieces of history that methodically find deterministically fitted his ideology.

 I do not believe this to be true but having said that a historian must be disciplined enough not to allow his imagination to run riot. The presentation of facts is not without controversy. It should be noted that “facts” themselves are products of the ideological, social, cultural and political currents of the time.

In seeking a more objective understanding of history the historian must be disciplined. He or she no matter how talented does not know everything there is to know about their area of expertise. It is not possible to know every fact. The point I am making is that the historian must present an honest piece of work and not let this frustration lead to a short cut in their work or more dangerously an outright falsification of history. By doing this the historian will have a greater understanding of their role in the presentation of facts.

The great historian E H Carr was a great believer that the historian had a “dialogue between the past and the present”. While it was the duty of every good historian to present this dialogue in a readable form to the history reading public he or she had to be extremely careful and not to fall into the trap of treating his topics of research as if they were organically linked to the present day. It would be completely wrong to treat figures such as Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte as contemporaries. It should not need to be said that they lived in completely different times to people from the 21st century.

The French historian of feudal society, Marc Bloch, wrote in his book, The Historian’s Craft was clear on this “In a word, a historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time. This is true of every evolutionary stage, our own, and all others. As the old Arab proverb has it: ‘Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers.’

It is one thing seeking to be more objective it is perhaps another thing to achieve it. In the 20th century a significant number of historians who have sometimes been mislabeled Marxist have sought interpret Marxist theory and apply it when studying the past. The historian that has perhaps been most identified with the application of the Marxist method to the study of history certainly as regards the former Soviet Union is Edward Hallett Carr ((1892 –1982). Carr was not a Marxist and he certainly was not a Stalinist.  Carr while being a determinist sought to present a more objective presentation of history. Philosophically he was closer to Hegel than he was to Karl Marx. He was heavily influenced by the English Hegelian philosopher and historian R G Collingwood.

The historian R.G. Collingwood, said “the historian must re-enact in thought what has gone on in the mind of his dramatis personae…”. Carr’s ground breaking book What is History was heavily influenced by Collinwood. That a historian should spend so much time propagating the need for a philosophy of history was not really a thing that many English historians had felt the need for. This is a bit strange because the book sold in the hundreds of thousands all over the world. So the general public felt there was a need

Carr’s book on the whole was warmly received amongst the general reading public amongst historians it was another matter it led to a very public and polarized debate. The British historian Richard J. Evans correctly points out that the book provoked a revolutionary change in British historiography. Even amongst its critics the book was cited by the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, as one of the “most influential books written about historiography, and that very few historians working in the English language since the 1960s had not read it”.

Carr believed that the first obligation of a historian was to tell the truth. By this I do not mean that the historian must swear on the bible but he has a duty not to falsify evidence to fit in with his ideology. When a historian deliberately falsifies history to fit in with his or her ideology then it is the duty of other historians and political writers to expose it. A recent example of this falsification can be seen in Robert Service’s biography of Leon Trotsky. Service’s book was a collection of distortion, lies and half-truths. Character assassination was dressed up as biography.[2]

Service would have done well to head the advice of one of the better American historians of the Russian Revolution, Leopold Haimson (1927–2010), when he said “The original source of the significance of any truly original and important historical work is to be traced—first and foremost—to its author’s original selection of primary sources on which he elects to focus attention in his research. To this I would add that its essential value will ultimately depend on the degree of precision and insight with which these sources are penetrated and analyzed”. I doubt Service has read this book.[3]

Counter view

It goes without saying that not all historians agree with the premise that historical study would be better served with a more objective understanding of the its historical laws.  It would not be an overstatement to say that in defending a more objective attitude towards the study of history Carr ploughed a very lonely furrow. His book What is History was a response to an attack by Isaiah Berlin[4]. Berlin accused Carr of being a determinist for ruling out the possibility of the accidental or counterfactual history[5]. Berlin correctly chastised Carr for this historical blind spot but his attack on Carr was more to do with his perceived view that Carr was a Marxist.

Berlin after all had a reputation for going after any historian who had left wing proclivities whether or not they were actually a Marxist. His “historikerstreit” with the historian Isaac Deutscher is one such example of what really was a nasty vendetta.[6]
So in carrying out research for this essay it has not been difficult to find historians who in some way disagree with the premise of historical truth or objectivity. Most of the attacks on this conception have come in the last three decades. It is also pretty safe to say that this debate is one of a left versus right variety.

                While the historian G E Elton was seen as a critic of Carr he upheld the view that the historian and his study of history should be separate from the present or put another way – the historian “should not be ‘at the centre of the historical reconstruction’ and should ‘escape from his prejudices and preconceptions”. I do find Elton’s attack on Carr somewhat contradictory. While he concedes the historian should try for some kind of subjectivity, he believes their work is carried out by both mind and pen which means some form of objectivity is needed.

His 1967 book The Practice of History Elton attacks Carr for being "whimsical" with his divorce of “historical facts" and the "facts of the past". He stated Carr had “...an extraordinarily arrogant attitude both to the past and to the place of the historian studying it"[7] Hugh Trevor-Roper is another historian who attacked Carr’s philosophy of history.  Roper like Berlin had a penchant for attacking left wing historians so it would probably best to take his criticisms of Carr with a hefty pinch of salt

He was heavily critical of Carr’s dismissal of the "might-have-beens of history”. He believed that Carr had a lack of interest in examining historical causation. He also accused Carr of not looking at all sides in the debate. He believed that Carr’s ‘‘winner takes all approach’ to history was the mark of a "bad historian". While it is important to look back at what historians have said in the past about a subject it is equally important not to dwell too long to the detriment of what has been written recently or at least in the last few decades.

Certainly the most damaging attack on the concept of historical truth has come from what I term the post-modernist school of historiography. It would not be an understatement to say that post-modernist historians have been extremely hostile in academia to the concept of historical truth. The last few decades have witnessed the emergence of post-modernism as the dominant force in university life. This philosophical and historical outlook has replaced what passed for Marxism inside universities the world over as the dominant tendency in intellectual life.

The chief characteristic of the post-modernist’s is the use of debatable philosophy, to blur over the difference between truth and lies, and in doing so commit a falsification of history. The practice of lying about history has been taken to a new level by the various schools of postmodernism. It would not be an overstatement to say that the impact of this school of history has been as one writer put “nothing short of catastrophic”.

There is of course a connection between the falsification of history and the attack on the struggle for objective truth. One of the most outlandish post-modernist thinkers and an opponent of objective truth is the German Professor Jorg Baberowski b (1961)[8] a student of Michel Foucault. Baberowski describes his method of work in his book the (The Meaning of History)

“In reality the historian has nothing to do with the past, but only with its interpretation. He cannot separate what he calls reality from the utterances of people who lived in the past. For there exists no reality apart from the consciousness that produces it. We must liberate ourselves from the conception that we can understand, through the reconstruction of events transmitted to us through documents, what the Russian Revolution really was. There is no reality without its representation. To be a historian means, to use the words of Roger Chartier, to examine the realm of representations”.

This really is pretty dangerous stuff from Baberowski. If this methodology becomes the norm in historical study it denotes an anything goes approach that does not require the historian to tell the truth. For that matter it also means that reality does not exist outside the historian’s head. Therefore, history has no objective basis. He sees history only in terms of his own subjectivity. Why bother with history that tries to show the economic, political or social conditions at the time.

He continues “A history is true, if it serves the premises set up by the historian.” It is clear from this statement that he believes that it is alright for a historian to falsify his work in order to best serve the reader of history. This lying about history can bring about a fundamental and dangerous change in the way history is served to the public. The most extreme example of this fraudulent narratives is the lying about the crimes of Nazi Germany.  It is not accident that Baberowski is a leading figure in the attempt to rehabilitate Hitler.

The study of history is a battleground. “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” wrote Marx. According to Baberowski, we cannot learn anything from history. He pours disdain on any approach that seeks to understand the future.  a more objective approach is just a dream. This leading spokesman on the “subjectivist school” states “The fact that we could learn from history is an illusion of days gone by… The claim (of the historian) to show how things actually were having been proved in reality to be an illusion. What the historian confronts in the sources is not the past… the past is a construction.  Truth is what I and others hold to be true and confirm to each other as truth.... Therefore, we must accept that there are multiple realities; that it depends on who talks to whom about what and with what arguments.” [9]

Conclusion

If we accept this premise that truth is not objective but relative it sets a very disturbing precedent. Aside from the moral and intellectual damage this may do to the individual historian this kind of false philosophy will poison the well that future young historians and people interested history have to drink out of.

The logic of this philosophy of history is that truth is whatever goes on in someone’s head.  Smoking is good for you, hard drugs are not dangerous, Hitler really is misunderstood and was really a good guy. As one writer said “a person who wants to function and live effectively in the world cannot do without some sense of truth’s objective correspondence to reality. I believe that Objective truth is possible but not without a struggle. The first stage in that struggle is to tell the truth about history.

[1] What is History E H Carr?
[2] The American Historical Review discredits Robert Service’s biography of Leon Trotsky
[3] Russia’s Revolutionary Experience, 1905–1917:
[4] I Berlin-Historical Inevitability
[5] See A Talbot Chance and necessity in history: E.H. Carr and
Leon Trotsky compared
[6] Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War 2015 by David Caute
[7] The Practice of History, Sir Geoffrey Elton
[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%B6rg_Baberowski

[9] 2) Jörg Baberowski, The Meaning of History, Munich 2005,