Friday, 22 January 2016

At the Raphael Samuel Archive

I must admit it was by complete chance that I discovered not only the Raphael Samuel archive but now the New Left Review archive at the Bishopsgate Institute. I must say upfront the archive at Bishopsgate is a wonderful resource.

Head of the Archive Stefan Dickers and his staff make the archive a very good place to study. I will use the archive at least up until my dissertation on Samuel’s time at Universities and New Left is written. I must admit with such a good resource it is mightily tempting to do a biography of him. There is a complete dearth of biographies of the Communist Party historians.

The first few files of the archive concentrate on the early days of University and New Left (ULR). Samuel it would have seem spent most of his time sending begging letters to everyone under the sun for money and articles for the new project.

The letter to Michael Foot the then Labour MP is indicative of the fact the new journal still wanted to remain tied in some way to the coattails of the Labour Party. Samuel I believed after 1956 joined the Labour Party.

While working at the archive sometimes the best moments are meeting other people who are working on the Samuel archive. A special mention goes to Florence who is working on a documentary on East End lives.

Finally, while talking to Stefan he told me of a very disturbing matter. According to Historical Association “Archive material dating back to the first decades of the twentieth century of the internationally renowned labour movement college, Ruskin College, Oxford has been destroyed and material constituting its radical history has been dispersed. The integrity of the material in the college as an archive of working class history no longer exists. Sadly, this process of destruction and dispersal has not finished”[1]


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?

An objective attitude towards history has been closely 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 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 has its 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 counterfactual history is a 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. A famous criticism of the historian Christopher Hill was that he was a Rolodex historian in other words picking pieces of history that fitted his ideology.

I do not believe this was an accurate charge against Hill, but 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 do 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 lead to outright falsification of history. By doing this, the historian will have a greater understanding of their role in the presentation of facts.

The historian Edward 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, he or she had to be extremely careful and not to fall into the trap of treating their 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 or 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, who wrote the book, The Historian's Craft noted "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 to seek 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 had sought to 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, although 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".[2] Carr's groundbreaking 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 a thing that many English historians had felt the need for. It is a bit strange because the book sold in the hundreds of thousands all over the world.

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 other historians and political writers must 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 a biography.[3]

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.[4]

Not all historians agree with the premise that historical study would be better served with a more objective understanding of 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.[5] Berlin accused Carr of being a determinist for ruling out the possibility of the accidental or counterfactual history. 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 was left-wing whether or not they were a Marxist. His "historikerstreit" with the historian Isaac Deutscher is one such example of what was a nasty vendetta.

So in researching this essay, it has not been difficult to find historians who in some way, disagree with the premise of historical truth or objectivity. The last three decades have seen an escalation of attacks on the concept of historical objectivity.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".

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 " extraordinarily arrogant attitude both to the past and to the place of the historian studying it"[6] Hugh Trevor-Roper is another historian who attacked Carr's philosophy of history.  Roper like Berlin had a habit of 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 all over the world.

The chief characteristic of the post-modernists 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 post-modernism. It would not be an overstatement to say that the impact of this school of history has been as David North put it "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)[7]. 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 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 is pretty dangerous stuff from Baberowski. If this methodology becomes the norm in a 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 subjectivity. Why bother with a 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 all right 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 no 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 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".[8]

To conclude 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 in 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, and hard drugs are not dangerous, Hitler is misunderstood and was a good guy. No 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] Reading Architectural History-By Dana Arnold
[3] The American Historical Review discredits Robert Service's biography of Leon Trotsky
[4] Socialism and historical truth-
[5] Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic Paperback 2015
by David Caute
[6] The Practice of History, Sir Geoffrey Elton
[8]Jörg Baberowski, The Meaning of History, Munich 2005,