14 May 2014

History and the Historians – Parts of a Memoir

Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum. (“The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing” was popularised by Isaiah Berlin, who had taken the saying from Archilocus, the classical Greek poet. It implies that there are two types of individuals, foxes, who seek knowledge in a variety of fields, and hedgehogs, who concentrate on one particular issue.)

The moving finger may have written and, yes, any amount of piety and wit may have been dispensed, yet that which has happened can not be undone. Or so Fitzgerald’s Khayyam would have us believe. I believed this too as a hedgehog. Now, in my vulpine identity, I see that the past is subject to constant reinterpretations, that history – the version of the past that we believe to be history – is hopelessly fluid and, ultimately, subjective.
That fluidity deters no one. The problem is I suspect a broader one. The world, certainly in its European manifestation, evidently believes that there is one history, a single history, which is objective, definitive, attainable and may or may not have a message (the last depends on to whom you listen). Furthermore, a historical fact is just that, a fact, usually, when deployed in this form, an incontrovertible fact. A secondary, but nonetheless important aspect of this is the assertion that the historian is, by his or her training, uniquely fitted to establish the facts, the truth, the light and possibly to decide what the message is. If there is one. So, for me, historians are hopelessly hedgehogs fixated or just hedgehogs born. They think they know one big thing.
To reach this one history, the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, the historian must be equipped to perform certain tasks. Firstly, there is selection by non-explicit criteria. Second is linearity. The kind of history I am talking about is firmly chronological or, at any rate, following the temptation of a simple logic. Then, third, is boundedness. History is about a limited set of events, from which extraneous elements have been shed (see firstly). Fourth, though less stringently, history is national, or at any rate, evidently coloured by the tacit assumptions of the historian, and these are far more national than historians will admit. Think of the very different traditions of history writing in France and in Anglo-Saxony.

Comparing the history of one country with another is not really comme il faut, because it turns into something not quite naturalised, maybe immanent is a better word, but in any case, illuminates the contingency of the (selected national) past, and thereby undermines any easy theory of causation. Indeed, contingency may well be the worst enemy that historians of the hedgehog kind have to contend with. Generally, they don’t bother, they just screen it all out and assume somehow that because things happened in a particular order, they had to happen that way. This might well be called the TINA school of history – TINA, as popularised by Mrs Thatcher, there is no alternative.

The proposition that by following this path the historian will certainly be importing an aetiology into his or her investigation of the past troubles him or her not at all. Post hoc, propter hoc? Just don’t complicate matters, let alone use words like aetiology. After all, the task of the historian is to construct a historical narrative and not concern him/herself with the rest. Once we accept this, we can see that Hayden White was quite right, writing history is not qualitatively different from writing literature, though on hearing this the practitioners of both will certainly cry foul.
Yet some of them, the historians, may have an uneasy feeling that all is not well in the Temple of Clio and that their special space has been usurped by undesirables, like the foxes who smuggle multiple perspectives into their version of the past. The best of them anyway.
The Marxists, who follow the master and insist that history is the class struggle and will find class struggle in the whenever and wherever, are obvious candidates. They may certainly illuminate some aspect of the past that conventional document crunching historians will have overlooked, but that is where their utility ends. Freudians, religious believers, localists, feminists, gender-driven historians all have to struggle to escape the closure that their belief system imposes on them and often they do not succeed. I’ve had my encounters with several of them. I can recall meeting a woman at a conference who insisted that all history is a history of patriarchy and nothing else. It was a short conversation. After she pronounced this sentence, I discovered I had an urgent engagement in another part of the forest.
There is another danger in the world of document crunching, identified by James C. Scott in his Zomia book (p.34), to the effect that the density of evidence is in itself liable to lead historians astray. They find the rubble of the past and unconsciously assume that that’s all the history there is. Quite apart from anything else,this approach to history tends to privilege the state, the ruler and elites. A cache of documents will distort perspective. Thereby they miss those people and phenomena whose texts, written, unwritten, are sparse or absent. The dead hand of positivism may well have moving fingers but whatever it does to set things down, what is written is only ever a partial account. OK, say the readers, but how is one to write history without written evidence? Yes, well, that’s where it’s best to abandon positivism and to apply unorthodox (maybe that should be “unorthodox” from the historians’ perspective) methods to assess the past.
The document obsession basically says that the archive is a sacred depository of the past, and the historian – so delighted by discovering documents, something concrete, written – cannot, will not see that a document is written primarily by one individual (or a team, making it more bland) with normal human characteristics, like being bad tempered or sleepy after a good lunch so that the information is contingent on other factors and is not “The Truth”, quite apart from the fact that it will necessarily omit as much as it contains. The author of a dispatch will assume that his or her correspondent understands the emotional or intellectual context that has come into being between them and will allow meanings to be inferred. Can the archive-delving historian be sure that he/she really has grasped the context, that he/she can fully, objectively mirror the story? I greatly doubt it.
The alternative, to offer a collection of documents to the reader may be more honest, but again its objectivity is confounded by the devil of selection criteria. Why this document and not another? Well, because the historian is trying to make a case, to argue a thesis. An extreme case was that of a doctoral dissertation on the international dimension of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The student in question read documents in a variety of languages, including Russian and Hungarian (hats off), but did little more than reproduce what she had read, expecting that this would prove her thesis, that the intervention by the Kremlin was not inevitable and could have been avoided by moderation on all sides. But she had no idea at all either of the significance of communist ideology as a factor affecting decision making in the Kremlin or of the intolerable tension in Hungary that resulted in a set of decisions that produced the invasion. Indeed, she firmly rejected that the events constituted a revolution and insisted that there was no difference, as far as she was concerned, between a revolution, a revolt and an uprising. I should have asked her if, therefore, she would happily refer to the great French uprising of 1789 or the Russian revolt of 1917. I didn’t, because although weak, the thesis was just about PhD level and I didn’t want to be faced with a rewritten version that would not, in my judgement, have been an improvement.
Then, there are the anecdotalists so much beloved of reviewers, who fight shy of complexity and theory, and generally pour scorn on technicality. They are two of a kind really, the anecdotalists and their reviewers, giving each other succour in a never more complex world, who will readily assert that a good story will tell you more about some particular process or situation or transaction than any amount of analysis. This is nonsense of course. All that an anecdote tells you is a single instance that you extend to a collective phenomenon at your peril. But the insistence on the telling of a story and the preference for writing attractively do strengthen the Hayden White argument that, when push comes to shove, history is just a branch of literature. The hard reality is that if history is about more than the account of a single individual, in which case it is more akin to psychology than anything else, then it has to deal with collective phenomena. These may be a country, a nation, region, a city, a regiment, a trade union, a university or what you will, but they will by definition be about a collective experience.
And once we are in that part of the territory, the social sciences come into play. The intuitive methods of the historians, attractive though they may be to the weaker brethren and sisters, will not produce anything more than literature, sometimes attractive, sometimes not. Much the same as the novel, really. No wonder that historians are deeply suspicious of and, indeed, positively hostile to the pervasive gaze of literary theory and semiotics. Once history writing is subjected to the disciplines of narratology, of genre theory, the claims to some kind of a supratemporal, nay Platonic, objectivity begin to look distinctly threadbare.
There is a good deal to the argument that historians are the captives of linearity. They see that B follows A, and sort of assume, therefore, that there is (must be?) a causal relationship between them (or not as the case may be). They don’t necessarily say this explicitly. But placing the two in conjunction allows the innocent reader to infer causation. Those who take aetiology seriously wince at this point. I would like to believe that those who have moved on from linearity are also prepared to engage seriously with what is certainly the greatest problem in the social sciences, causation that is.
Those who see no reason to think about causation, who vaguely assume that things happen because they happen and the task of the historian is to write about them elegantly (this has been described as the A. J. P. Taylor school of history writing) can easily fall into the trap of historical inevitability, even without being a Marxist, by the way. Other axiologies can do the same and have the same outcome, like a belief in “progress”. The basic assumption is that what happened was the sole option, that counterfactual history is a fraud on the public which should be protected from such counterfeits and that alternatives, chance, accident, bad decision making are irrelevant.
To my knowledge it was only Marxists of the most hardline Soviet kind who ever actually preached that history was law-governed. Zakonomerny was one of the few words of Russian that I picked up over the years. But others, many of them at last count, fall all too easily into the same trap without even being aware of there being a trap at all. They assume that what happened was the sole pattern and will have nothing to do with the alternatives, the might-have-beens. This means that when assessing a decision, they tend to read history backwards and impute a message, a meaning, not to mention a clarity to the past that it does not have as lived present.

This wilful ignoring of human realities results in the historian’s own human reality becoming the determinant, without this ever being acknowledged. When did you last read a historian who freely admitted that he/she might be mistaken?
All this can, and often does, bring into play a dogmatic defence of turf. Well, historians are, after all, human and have their prestige, status and even emoluments to protect. What I find a recurring event is the strong tendency on the part of rather too many historians to take a side-swipe at the social sciences.
To my mind, what the social sciences do at their best is to offer insights into collective human action, but applying the methodologies of the social sciences to the past is deeply disturbing to historians. Doing so challenges their monopoly and, worse, sometimes offers a more cogent view of human motivations in the past than the historians can manage with their methodologies. The bottom line as far as I am concerned is the double hermeneutic and reciprocal potentiation. I have written extensively about these and will not go over the same ground, but if a historian really can’t get his head round the proposition that he too is subject to the ever-present contingency of the world, that he too has baggage, that he too comes to the topic with assumptions of his past, then there is nothing more to be said. Let him write and let what he has written be enjoyed (or not) as literature, but hardly as scientific objectivity.

This takes us nicely to history as autobiography, an account inherently limited to and by one’s experience and perceptions, a first person narrative, but more honest. First person singular descriptions can be vivid and truthful, but will always necessarily be a partial record, so to take the example of Ryszard Kapuściński: he may well have invented elements of his data – to lend verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative – but had he said so and not pretended that he was producing the first, rough draft of history, his record would not now be in question. But because he is pigeonholed as a journalist, his narrative is rejected. Yet his writing reads beautifully, accept it as a part of literature, as (possibly) a consciously hybrid genre, which exists anyway, as “faction” or “fictionalised fact”. It’s just a matter of labelling, at the end of the day.

The Kapuściński story raises yet another issue, one that affects the social sciences too. How important, how significant are the personality and, above all, the political views of the historian? If the person in question held views that are currently despised, does that mean that his/her writing must also be transferred surreptitiously or with great ceremony to the scrapheap of history? Heidegger is most obviously the test case. Is his philosophy inherently “bad”, maybe “Bad”, because he joined the Nazis? There are many who would support this position as self-evident. It is a moral and emotional argument, though, not a rational one.

By the same token, should we reject Kapuściński because he maintained a fairly active relationship with the Polish secret services? Does this mean that his books are less readable, less vivid? My answer is certainly in the negative. But we can take this argument further, into the reductio ad absurdum category. By common consent of his contemporaries, Tolstoy was a tiresome fellow; does that mean that we should regard his novels as equally tiresome? Hardly. Proust was awkward and could be disagreeable, Thomas Mann was stiff and maybe just a bit eccentric sexually. Same question, same answer, no?

In the 1980s, a time when I was beginning to study nations, nationalism and nationhood seriously, a considerable splash was made by Eric Hobsbawm (and his co-editor Terence Ranger) by publishing The Invention of Tradition. For those who have not encountered it, the argument of the book’s contributors is that national traditions are invented, and are, therefore, false, conceivably a false consciousness to use the orthodox Marxist terminology. Hobsbawm, it will be recalled was a lifelong communist and never seemed to have any problem with the mass killing that communism perpetrated, but let that pass. The underlying thinking of the book is not that all history is invented, perish the thought, but that the national past and its rituals, its remembrance, are made up by self-serving elites. The real stuff is class, material conditions and economic relations. Pretty orthodox Marxist stuff, really, but it resonated with the left of the time, struggling as it was to find a way out of the quagmire that the Soviet Union and the other communist states were in, and it was equally popular with the universalists, the single humanity collectivity.

What this tendenance either failed to recognise or just ignored was that all history is subject to “invention” in the sense that it was using it. There is no mention in the book of social construction theory, although Berger and Luckman had published their Social Construction of Reality in 1966 and I have no idea whether any of the contributors to the volume were aware of it. Frankly, I doubt it. Historians steer clear of social theory, not surprisingly, after all the last thing they would want to acknowledge is that what they are doing is just inventing the past, though that happens to be case. But to have accepted the social constructionist argument would have brought into question the entire project and that includes the Marxist version of history, notably that history has a message and a purpose, that there is such a thing as progress (probably “Progress”), that the deity of the left is real.
The interesting aspect of the inventor school is that its members never applied the principle to other areas, only to the national past, which rather gives the game away – it was and remains a political, or at any rate an ideological project. There is nothing wrong with this as long as we come clean about it (as I have tried to do here). Nevertheless, as I noted, invention certainly resonated and generations of my onetime nationalism students were spellbound by it and by the idea of elite manipulation. All this had its charms, of course, they were only graduate students, in the midst of learning, so they could be forgiven some serious flaws. One of those was that neither the historians nor the graduate students could see that they were following a fashion. OK, we all do this from time to time, but rather less pardonable was that if one ackonwledges that elite manipulation took place, the none should also ask the question, why was it that people by the million were ready to respond? Were they just dumb? That seems to me to be as elitist as one can be. The question was seldom answered along the lines that national identities offered people a sense of belonging to a transcendental whole, implying that they accepted national identities as real and not as invented. The cat is making merry among the pigeons.
In truth, all historians are as much in the business of constructing memory regimes, particular ways of recalling the past, as those whom they disdain. It all comes down to accepting one’s contingency, to the impossibility of writing a total past (what a thoroughly abhorrent idea), hence the imperative of selection, which in turn raises the question of selection criteria and there we are, back in the garden of the double hermeneutic. C’est la vie.
My rather negative attitude to historians as sketched in the foregoing is primarily focused on those who see the past as a series of events, corresponding to Braudel’s histoire événementielle, which he (rightly to my mind) criticised as skating on the surface of things.

An incredible number of dice, always rolling, dominate and determine each individual existence: uncertainty, then in the realm of individual history; but in that of collective history … simplicity and consistency. History is indeed ‘a poor little conjectural science’ when it selects individuals as its objects … but much more rational in its procedures and results, when it examines groups and repetitions.”

Braudel is quoted here by Franco Moretti in his Graphs, Maps, Trees. I haven’t checked the original French, but I would hazard a guess that both are using “science” in the sense of knowledge, may be “knowledge rationally pursued”, rather than the English which generally restricts “science” to the natural sciences and thereby focuses the social sciences on a pointless positivism, the realm of the hedgehog.
There is, to be sure, a need for the kind of history that arranges the past in a series, constructs a chronological structure to create clarity in order to allow the individual and collectivity to recognise their pasts. The trouble is that too often history tends to stop there and to ignore the multiple reality of the past, a reality that can only be grasped, albeit partially, by using the manifold intellectual resources through which we try to understand the present.
Here once more I am making a plea for uncovering the past by whatever disciplinary instruments are there, have been created. If we accept that contemporary societies are successfully explored through the application of the insights of sociology and social psychology, then why not do the same with the past? Why not indeed. Surely even the most hard-hat, facts-are-all historian is aware that one of the central driving forces of human activity is the quest and use of power, in which case a theory of power should be an essential part of the historian’s intellectual furniture. It seldom is, though Guglielmo Ferrero must be judged an exception. Similarly, even accepting that the study of documents is the primary legitimate activity of the historian (a big “even” as far as I’m concerned), the historian should be aware of the contingent nature of the document in question and should, at the very least, have some idea of semiotics, of being trained to interrogate a text, including the ability to assess the absence of factors that should be there, but are not. The analogy here is the French concept of en carence, something that should logically be there, but is absent. This multiple approach to interrogating a text further means that as far as possible, the historian should not concern himself with the personality of the writer and not take it for granted that what is written is all there is. The text has to be complemented by the metatext. And finally, the historian has to play fair with the reader and make his or her intellectual provenance clear, like whether he or she has read into the social sciences or not and if not, why not. But all this is crying for the moon.
The past of others, therefore, can often be an even worse example of the way in which historians seek to exercise power over the past. For one, the world abroad is very different, requires a major act of sociological, not just historical imagination and may well be incomprehensible. The translation function of the historian is seldom recognised as such, yet even when he/she is dealing with his/her own history, or with what he/she thinks is his/her own history, he or she runs the risk of deceiving the reader as translations can do, but especially if the historian plays the objectivity card. The past cannot be recovered in full, there will always be selection issues, and will always be seen through a glass darkly; besides, some glasses will be significantly darker than others. The best history is about making the glass as light as is feasible, because by doing so we can glimpse the difference between foxes and hedgehogs, as well as much else of course. But even the wiliest of foxes are unreliable as narrators, whilst the hedgehog won’t even admit that she’s a narrator at all.
It should be clear enough from the above that I am firmly of the view that historians will always have baggage of their own, that this necessarily affects what and how they write about the past and, therefore, they should just forget about objectivity. If only historians were ready to admit that theirs is just one possible version of the past, that it is their construction – theirs and that of the memory regime in which they live, move and have their being, not to mention embarrassing factors like the approval of their colleagues, the need for tenure, the pressure to publish for the sake of research assessors, the better their readers would be served. I also know, however, that the structures of academic life make this plea of mine pretty pointless. Academia is as full of tares as in the Bible and my argument is affected by the reality that I do not have to publish or perish. Too old and out of that particular rat race.
Beyond all the above is the very hard question of what history is actually for. Memory regimes are one thing, fair enough, but what is it that motivates the historian? I don’t for one moment believe that there is such a thing as history as it really was, wie es eigentlich gewesen, to recall von Ranke’s words, for all the reasons adduced here, nor do I seriously think that anything in the universe is sine ire et studio, if we interpret ire as generously as it may be, to include a wide range of emotions, not just anger. Nor is it true, I venture to suggest, that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. It sounds good, Santayana often does, but if we interrogate the quote, does it stand up?

History, yes, actually tells us otherwise. Here is an obvious example. The leadership of the United States knew full well that foreign invasions of Afghanistan invariably fail. The three British–Afghan wars were testimony enough, but the defeat of the Soviet Union was very recent indeed and brought about in part by US help. Yet what does George Bush II do? Invades Afghanistan. It beggars belief, but it happened. Or, another example with greater historical distance. Napoleon invaded Russia and was defeated. The factors are well known – the impossible supply lines, the climate, the Russians’ scorched earth policy. Hitler does the same thing. Learning from history? No way.
So let’s put these three well-worn quotes to one side and ask another question. What is it that makes the European tradition of history writing different? First, it has been separated from a divine purpose, although the Hegelians made a fairly good job of recreating purposiveness by the invention of the spirit of history. The spirit of progress is not far away from purposiveness. I’m deeply sceptical, but then that’s me. Second, it claims to be scientific and objective, evidently a way of differentiating modern history from the pre-modern. Third, the historian is not there to serve a political master (pace research assessment), but is autonomous.

However, if I’m right so far, we can forget the ostensible aims of historians and try to pierce the veil. I would like to suggest the following motives, not by any means conscious ones. Together with all who toil in the vineyard, historians do so because they want to add something to the sum total of human knowledge, which is perfectly respectable as far as I am concerned. Then, historians being human want recognition, again nothing reprehensible in that. Third, they may want simply to entertain their readers – certainly the popular historians disliked by the profession do so. Career reasons come into it as well.

But whatever historians may think about what they are doing, history qua history has to be assessed by deeper criteria. The past may be a storehouse of exemplars to be followed or not à la Santayana, but above all it legitimates the present, it legitimates power, it offers a discourse by which current actions are explained and made acceptable. Historians, by writing a particular version of the past, create the cognitive framework into which these discursive initiatives can be fitted. I’m not suggesting that historians are no more than the handmaidens of power, though there are examples of that too, but every society has to have a sense of its own past (as well as of its future) and that past structures the present.

Conversely, the present structures the way in which we understand the past and imposes obligations on the historian to write about the past in ways that were not regarded as necessary in the past. Think of the way in which the historians have turned towards the marginal, the dispossessed, the oppressed as a means of legitimating their present position in society and/or delegitimating the claims of the majority. The fashion for, the current focus on (take your pick) the history of the Atlantic slave trade is a good illustration. The Arab slaving past in East Africa does not have this attention.
History, therefore, is a very different enterprise from what the historians would have us believe. They need to satisfy their professionalism and, who knows, their sponsors, that they are writing something scientific, objective and sub specie aeternitatis. The possibility that they are only writing to sustain some particular segment of the tribe is too awful to contemplate, even if this is what we – we humans – actually do all the time. There is no central, global, universal history, each of us is a captive of our local, particular, dare I add national, pasts and that is what we conjure up when writing about them. Generally we have a message of some kind, and this is perfectly legitimate as long as we understand that this is what the exercise is about. All humans are normative, involved in value creation, so why not historians? Those who claim that historians are special in their ability to reflect past neutrally are deceiving themselves and their readers. What they can do, do in fact do, is to reflect a particular bit of the past that is thought to be relevant to contemporary issues. Fine, legitimating one’s argument by reference to antiquity, to tradition, to precedent is a standard device in European culture. Note here that if a historian’s argument goes counter to the hegemonic belief system, it will just be screened out, ignored or, at best, regarded as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.
This last can, however, be of enormous significance when it comes to evaluating the different histories of different collectivities. Doing so shows up that the histories of the winners are very different from those of the losers or even that of large states against small states. Norman Davies caused a stir with his The Isles, a history of the British Isles which treated Scottish, Irish and Welsh history as equal to that of the English. Notably, that when the English executed Charles I in 1649, it didn’t seem to occur to them that they were also beheading the King of Scotland. And if we look at the history of the 20th century, the histories of the smaller states are duly ignored. Thus the Portuguese contribution to the First World War is unknown, the German and Austro-Hungarian fighting against Russia, like the siege of Przemyśl and the breakthrough at Gorlice, are unknown to the obsessives of the history of the Western front, seen as the real First World War. Attempts to widen the scope of history beyond the canon are pretty hopeless, because the cognitive framing is well and truly in place and can only be changed over time by considerable effort, energy and money.
Historians will usually deny that there is such a thing as a canon at all, it’s OK in literature, but they are above that sort of thing, because they are in search of the Truth. This may be so, but it’s not truth with a capital, but a particular dimension of their own collective past. All history will reflect the concerns of the present, the legitimation of these concerns and the cohesion of the collectivity by confirming it and/or denying it. All this means is that writing history is about underpinning collective agency and the collective self. This has deeper consequences. If a state or nation can endow itself with a successful past, then it will generally be insensitive to the rather more troubled pasts of others. A large part of the history of the states and nations of Central Europe is about loss of agency, the absolute loss rather too often to be comfortable about the present. In a word, these states have very different pasts and memory regimes when compared with Britain and France. Unless this loss of agency is recognised and accepted by larger actors, then the smaller ones will be constantly uneasy, with elements of ressentiment. Injustice and indeterminacy will keep breaking through, much to the irritation of the larger entities.
None of this should lead to the conclusion that I don’t enjoy reading history, on the contrary. Some historical accounts definitely come into the category of being “a good read”. They add to one’s store of information and may even enlarge one’s cultural capital, or serve as ammunition in debate. Who knows, some history writing may even take its place in the halls of fame as required reading, as part of the local canon, as vital and significant as the novel.

Berger, Peter L. and Thomas Luckman: The Social Construction of Reality: a Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (London: Penguin, 1991).
Davies, Norman: The Isles: a History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Domosławski, Artur: Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life (London: Verso, 2012).
Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger (editors): The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
Kapuściński, Ryszard: The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat (translated by William R. Brand & Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand) (New York: Vintage, 1978).
Kapuściński, Ryszard: The Shah of Shahs (translated by William R. Brand & Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand) (New York: Vintage, 1982).
Moretti, Franco: Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (London: Verso, 2007). Scott, James C.: The Art of Not Being Governed: an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
White, Hayden: Metahistory: the Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore, London: Johns Hopkins Press, 1973).

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