Donald Trump demonstrated his almost non-existent understanding of history throughout his presidency, and yet he managed to turn “History” into the central battleground in today’s culture wars. One of his final acts as president was to release a study of America’s founding which the head of the American Historical Association described as weaving “a narrative and an argument that few respectable professional historians, even across a wide interpretive spectrum, would consider plausible.”
The prominence of the past in current US political debates – indeed, across the West – makes it essential to examine how history is produced – and, perhaps more important, how it is taught. We must now take a fresh stab at answering the question posed decades ago by the British diplomat-cum-historian Edward Hallett Carr: What is history?
History can certainly arouse strong passions. Since 2015, for example, statue iconoclasm has swept the Western world, largely inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Statues and monuments associated with colonialism and slavery have been removed, beheaded, defaced, or threatened in the United States, Europe, and South Africa. In former slave-owning and Jim Crow US states, monuments to civilian and military leaders of the Confederacy have been removed. Trump described such monuments as “beautiful statues,” and ordered federal forces to protect them against “mob rule.”
Most people in Britain became aware of the historical dimension of this increasingly incendiary culture war when Black Lives Matter protesters tore down a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in June 2020. But that episode had been preceded by another important one in 2016, when students demanded that a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes be removed from outside Oriel College, Oxford.
The May 2020 police killing of George Floyd in the US reinvigorated the anti-Rhodes protests. The statue still stands, but a commission of enquiry will report on its future. And some are now demanding that the statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson – a stout defender of slavery – be removed from London’s Trafalgar Square.
Both Colston and Rhodes were also prominent philanthropists. Rhodes set up a trust to give scholarships to students from around the world to study at Oxford. Should that be weighed in the balance? Sir Roy Strong, a former director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, put the matter more starkly. “Once you start rewriting history on that scale, there won’t be a statue or a historic house standing,” he commented. “The past is the past.”
INTERROGATING THE PAST
Both sides in these debates accuse the other of trying to “hide history.” But the crucial questions are, “Whose past?” and “What history?”
These questions would have made no sense to a previous generation of historians. Leopold von Ranke, a nineteenth-century founder of “scientific” history, argued that history was simply what happened, and the historian’s task was to “tell it as it was.” Ranke called for evidence-based history. The Rankean method was to seek out alleged facts, interrogate the documents, and write a history based on the most reliable sources. Historians should then apply this method to traditional accounts, sifting truth from falsehood. Writing history was thus akin to examining witnesses in court.
The forensic nature of Rankean-style history was a powerful weapon against the accretions of mythology attached to the past. But it had two weaknesses.
The first concerned significance. Ranke believed that the facts, once established, would speak for themselves. But they never do, not least because there are too many of them. The historian must judge not only the reliability of the evidence, but also its relevance. This involves arguments about cause and effect, and about immediate and remoter causes. (What caused World War I? Were economic factors partly responsible?) Such questions offer massive scope for disagreement, resulting in an interminable debate.
An even bigger problem is that the historian must decide which story to tell. To Ranke and his successors, this did not appear to be much of a problem. Their main focus was the rise of Europe (and particularly of Germany within it) to a position of world dominance. They fixed their gaze firmly on the wars, diplomacy, and calculations of rulers, and on the religious, cultural, and racial qualities that had brought about what they thought was a progressive movement of the human spirit.
There was inevitably something triumphalist about the accounts that they wrote. Anything else that had happened was not history, or amounted only to minor sub-plots. School and university curricula were set, and students taught, in this light.
HISTORY FOR WINNERS
History has traditionally been the story told by victors, as exemplified by one of British history’s most durable conceits, the “Whig narrative.” The historian Herbert Butterfield, who coined the term and attacked the conceit, summarized it as “the tendency […] to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”
The “losers” in the Whig narrative of progress toward liberalism and democracy were Catholics and Tories. In fact, they barely featured; the Whig interpretation of history cannot avoid abridging or marginalizing their role.
The timing of Butterfield’s attack was significant. His book The Whig Interpretation of History was first published in 1931, by which time WWI and the Great Depression had dimmed support for the bourgeois interpretation of history. Not by coincidence, conservative history made a massive comeback around this time, led by the Oxford historian Lewis Namier. The periods and topics Namier chose to write about lent themselves to anti-Whiggish treatment. For example, his 1929 book The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III captured a moment in time before the grand narrative of progress had become ingrained.
In another book, 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals (1944), Namier focused on the failed 1848 revolutions in Central Europe, rather than the many revolutions, starting with the French, which had succeeded. Much of this kind of history described the skill of the ruling classes in diluting and blocking the forces of progress.
The other inheritor of the fading Whig interpretation was socialist history. With the Labour Party supplanting the Liberals as the dominant force on the left in the United Kingdom after WWI, the people’s voice started to be heard more insistently. That led to the emergence of leftist history, which regarded democracy as an achievement of popular mobilization and protest rather than a gift from the ruling class.
These shifts demonstrate that what was is never permanent. Butterfield attacked history that sought to achieve moral clarity by interpreting past actions and events in the light of current politics and values. The past, he argued, must be allowed to speak for itself. This at least keeps the historical door open to changes of values in the future.
Each generation rewrites history in the shadow of its own preoccupations: the only reliable history in the Rankean sense is that which we no longer care about. No one today argues about the morality of Roman slavery, for example, because we no longer feel personally implicated in it.
With the rise of democracy and feminism, changes in Western populations’ ethnic and religious composition, and the relative decline of the West and the rise of Asia, previously excluded groups and countries started to clamor for recognition as both victims and historical actors in their own right. A different set of facts, which had always been available, entered history for the first time. Political history gave way to social history, and the story of the “white man’s burden” became one of the “white man’s oppression.”
Historians did not abandon the Rankean method, of course, but they no longer used it to tell only one story. The victors of Ranke’s history were losing the historical battle long before their statues began to be toppled. The new story to be told concerned the harms they had inflicted, not the glorious deeds they had wrought or the benefits they had delivered.
This, in the broadest terms, is what seems to have happened to the writing and teaching of Western history in the past century. And, generally speaking, Marxism has spearheaded the shift. Karl Marx was the original begetter of “history from below,” when he first identified class struggle as the engine of history, and capitalism as the bourgeois stage of historical development that would be followed by the triumph of the proletariat.
Historical and literary studies ever since have been footnotes to the basic Marxist scheme. Vanquished politically, Marxism has triumphed culturally. In contemporary parlance, we have become “woke” to the truth of our situation.
The treatment of imperialism has been central to this shift in perspective. To be sure, modern imperialism was always a contested concept. It could hardly fail to be, because it contradicted the republican ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity proclaimed by the French Revolution.
But, interestingly, the earliest modern critics of empire focused on the harms it caused to the great powers themselves, rather than on the harms it caused to their imperial subjects. Adam Smith summed up much of the anti-imperialism of his day when he called Britain’s American colonies “millstones round our necks.” Smith argued that Britain could obtain all the economic benefits supposedly conferred by imperial monopolies much more cheaply by free trade. This perspective on empire persists even today, with economic historians arguing about whether the British Empire was a net burden or benefit to the mother country.
Marx, surprisingly, was not a critic of the British Empire, believing that British rule in India would awaken that sleeping giant from its pre-capitalist slumber. And his followers, such as Lenin, did not emphasize the damage that empire inflicted on colonial subjects, but instead focused squarely on the problems that it caused the imperial powers. They believed that the division of the world into empires would inevitably bring about a struggle between the imperial powers for its redivision, which, Lenin hoped, would usher in the final crisis of capitalism.
Historians started paying closer attention to the harm that European empires had caused their non-white subjects only in the 1960s, by which time the empires themselves had collapsed. I remember, in the early 1980s, flicking through my ten-year-old son’s school history textbook, which stated matter-of-factly that the peoples of the then “Third World” were poor because they had been exploited. I complained that this was a contested opinion, not a statement of fact. But by that time, such a view was already orthodox.
FACTS AND FEELINGS
This debate continues among specialized enclaves of economic historians. Some ask an interesting counterfactual question: what would have happened to the economies of the indigenous inhabitants of India, China, Africa, and the Americas had Europeans not intruded into their affairs?
Economic historians like Kenneth Pomeranz and Thomas Piketty claim that, until about 1800, China and Western Europe were roughly on a par economically. They argue that European, and especially British, intrusion in China in the nineteenth century (for example, in the Opium Wars and the conclusion of unequal trade treaties) caused the country’s subsequent divergence and decline.
On the other hand, Angus Maddison, Stephen Broadberry, Joel Mokyr, and others have argued that China’s economic development had fallen behind Western Europe long before 1800. China was not weak because it was colonized; it was colonized because it was weak.
Many current historical arguments have little to do with facts, and much more to do with perception and sentiment. Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism was a watershed in this regard. Said argued that Western scholars of imperialism were culturally conditioned by their own countries’ imperial past to view subject peoples as inferior, much as the Romans had regarded their conquests as affirming their superiority to the conquered slave populations.
Supposedly hard-headed Rankean arguments thus morph into moral and psychological stories about how white racism has subjected, and continues to subject, people of color to prejudice, discrimination, and insult, resulting in socioeconomic inequality and physical and psychological harm. In response, Western universities have started “decolonizing” their curricula and appointing “racial equality monitors.” This, along with many other signs of “wokism,” is where we find ourselves today.
A WARNING FOR THE WEST
The violent mob assault on the US Capitol is perhaps the clearest evidence yet that the ongoing culture war has been blown out of proportion. History has always been a mixture of fact and value, and the interpretation of the past has always shifted in line with present preoccupations. But the kaleidoscope of interpretation, with some pure fantasy, reveals a constant feature: all who have engaged in canceling one culture and replacing it with another have believed that their culture is superior. Even those who interpret the canceling as the liquidation of all culture believe, like the Romantics, that a world freed from the prison of culture would be a hitherto dreamt-of, but unachieved, realm of liberty and authenticity.
But the current struggle to secure ownership of the past has two disturbing features. First, the debate has been greatly amplified and accelerated by social media, which puts continuous pressure on historians to rewrite their texts and use language in a new way. The minority pressure to change culture has far outrun the majority’s ability to adapt to “woke” ways of seeing things. This threatens violent backlashes.
Second, although optimists might claim that the West’s current history-fueled culture war reflects (at least on the part of some) an enlightened moral sensibility, it also reflects the dramatic power shift from Western to non-Western civilizations. Yesterday’s victors have lost their beliefs, while former losers are full of passionate convictions about their history.
A century ago, another German philosopher-historian, Oswald Spengler, argued that Western civilization was in irreversible and terminal decline. Does being “woke” imply a different outcome?
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