What is History? EH Carr's famous question has been answered by post-modernists who argue that writing history is simply about power, and that all interpretations are equally valid. The post-modernists (and Carr) are wrongby Richard J Evans / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
What is history? How do we know about the past, given that it is no longer directly accessible to our senses? Can historical knowledge be objective, or does it simply reflect the perspective of the individual historian? These are questions that have implications far beyond the discipline of history itself; they touch upon the much bigger problem of how far society can ever attain the kind of objective certainty about the great issues of our time that can serve as a basis for taking vital decisions for our future.
For over three decades now, the answers to these questions have been provided for most students of the past by two celebrated books: EH Carr’s What is History?, published in 1961, and GR Elton’s The Practice of History, written as a riposte to it in 1967. For many decades until his death in 1982, Carr was a distinguished historian of Soviet Russia; Elton, who died in 1996, was an equally eminent specialist on the history of Tudor England. Both taught at Cambridge. But there the similarities end.
Carr was a man of the left. As a leader-writer for The Times during the second world war, he conceived such an admiration for Soviet Russia that he became known as “the red professor of Printing House Square.” For the rest of his life, he believed that human history was moving inexorably towards a future run along the lines of a Soviet-style planned economy. In What is History? he defined an “objective” historian as one who had a vision of the future which could “give him a more profound and more lasting insight into the past than can be attained by those historians whose outlook is entirely bounded by their own immediate situation.” Similarly, Carr approached the problem of causation by dismissing accident and chance not because they were unimportant but because their study “cannot contribute anything to our ability to shape the future.” And although he posed as an advocate of social history, he dismissed as unimportant the history of the great mass of human beings through recorded time, urging instead a concentration on the last two centuries, because it was only in this period that “social, political and historical consciousness has begun to spread to anything like a majority of the population.”
In his 14-volume History of Soviet Russia, he put these precepts into practice by concentrating only on “those events which moulded the main lines of development.” Thus for example he provided a minute analysis of the development of pre-revolutionary Bolshevik theory on the planned economy, while almost completely neglecting the drama of the 1917 revolution itself, the defeat of the opposition to Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the violence of the civil war, the brutal suppression of the opposition, and all aspects of the subject which involved defeated alternatives to the Bolshevik vision of the future.
From the perspective of the late 1990s, these views seem outdated. The Soviet-style planned economy has not turned out to be the future after all. The lesson seems to be that whatever else it is, historical objectivity is not conformity to an imagined future. Carr’s views opened the road to bias, distortion and the suppression of inconvenient facts. And historians have, fortunately, not paid much attention to his prescriptions, least of all to his dismissal of the history of the masses before the 19th century-a subject on which much of the most significant historical scholarship of the past decades has been focused, from Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou to Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre.
Neither, however, have they followed the alternative vision of history held up by GR Elton in The Practice of History. Elton, who came to England as a refugee from the chaos of interwar central Europe in his youth, admired his adopted country not because of its democratic traditions but because of its stability. His career was dominated by a belief in the supremacy of law and a strong and stable state. He prefaced The Tudor Revolution in Government with the claim that “government must be strong to be worth having,” attacked the fact that “our history is still much written by Whigs, the champions of political freedom,” and declared his intention of stressing instead “the need for controlling that freedom.”
These beliefs led Elton to the study of the reign of Henry VIII, during which, he believed, the strong modern English state had been created. But he rejected the idea that his beliefs had any influence on the way he interpreted his chosen subject. In his view, good history could only be written by historians willing to jettison their own beliefs and become the servants of the sources they studied. The truth would emerge by itself from the documents if you looked hard enough. In this way it was possible to write a definitive history of something-for example, governmental reform under Henry VIII-so that no one would ever need to do it again. Thus historical knowledge accumulated and we knew more and more about the past-not for some future project or present ideology, but for its own sake, which was the only proper reason for undertaking the study in the first place.
Elton’s views have had a wider currency than Carr’s. But they too now seem dated. His views on the Tudor period were widely criticised, and it is clear that he did shape his arguments in conformity to his own strongly held political beliefs. Few historians believe that interpretations spring unaided from the sources. Most would accept that they do not just listen to the evidence, they engage in a dialogue with it, actively interrogating it and bringing to bear on it theories and ideas formulated in the present. Not only is it impossible to leave such ideas behind when you go through the archive door, it is also undesirable. What would Keith Thomas’s great work on 17th-century English witchcraft have been without the application of 20th-century anthropological theory, or EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class without Marxism?
At the same time, however, most historians would accept that their dialogue with the sources is a two-way affair. If your documents come up with things that upset your beliefs, then you must be prepared for a rethink. Carr believed this just as much as Elton did. “The historian,” he wrote, “starts with a provisional selection of facts, and a provisional interpretation in the light of which that selection has been made-by others as well as by himself. As he works, both the interpretation and the ordering of facts undergo subtle and perhaps partly unconscious changes through the reciprocal action of one on the other.”
In the last couple of decades, however, this description of how the historian works has come under sustained attack by post-modernist literary theory. Since the end of the 1980s, the attack has grown so pervasive that it has begun to induce a sense of crisis in parts of the historical profession. In one of his last works, Elton himself attacked the “absurd and meaningless virus” of “total relativism” which was infecting a large number of young historians, above all in the US. “We are fighting for the lives of innocent young people beset by devilish tempters who claim to offer higher forms of thought and deeper truths and insights-the intellectual equivalent of crack.”
Nor is this sense of crisis confined to those on the right. The left-liberal Princeton historian Lawrence Stone, for example, has warned that “history might be on the way to becoming an endangered species” if post-modernists gain any more influence. Arthur Marwick, founding professor of history at the Open University, added his voice, declaring post-modernism to be a “menace to serious historical study.”
Taking their cue from linguistic theories which deny any correspondence between words and the things they are said to denote, post-modernists such as Hayden White argue that historians put into the past anything they wish to. What they write, argued Roland Barthes as long ago as 1968, was “an inscription on the past pretending to be a likeness of it.” Quotations, footnotes and the apparatus of scholarship are devices designed to produce a “reality effect.” Historians inject their own meanings into documents, which themselves as texts bear no real relationship to the past to which they are supposed to refer.
What history writing is about, post-modernists argue, is power. There is no single attainable truth about the past, merely the histories which people construct to empower themselves in the present: black history, women’s history, gay history. Each is “true” according to the perspective from which it is written. That truth depends upon a shared experience with the object of study: only a woman can understand what it was like to be a woman in the past, only a gay person what it was like to be gay. It is only the dominant form of history, written by bourgeois white liberal males entrenched in the universities and the media, that claims to be “objective.” Such people advocate the study of history for its own sake because this will stop disempowered groups in society thinking about how they might change things to their own advantage. Their perspective on the past has become the dominant one not because it is right but because they command the institutions (such as universities) which enable their views to be propagated and alternative views to be suppressed.
Supporters of post-modernist theory have thus concluded that “autumn has come to western historiography.” Indeed many of the most recent history primers offered to the student market, from Keith Jenkins’s Re-thinking History to Beverley Southgate’s History: What and Why? and Alun Munslow’s shortly to be published Deconstructing History follow a post-modernist line. Even works written ostensibly as a vindication of the historian’s profession, such as Telling the Truth About History, by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, conclude that while the variety of interpretations historians can advance about the past is not as unlimited as post-modernists claim, the objective limits to which it is subject are imposed not by the reality of the past itself, or the nature of the documents relating to it, but by the existence of a community of scholars with agreed rules about how those documents can be interpreted.
But what if that community of scholars operates a set of rules of the sort advocated by EH Carr? Would we really wish to say that the community of historians working in Stalin’s Russia was objective because it operated an agreed set of rules about dealing with documents? Anyone who thinks that the truth about the past does not matter should take a look at the reaction of people in the Soviet bloc after the fall of communism, and note the feeling of liberation that the truth was at last being told about the past. It is clear that rules about dealing with documents in fact transcend scholarly communities and do not therefore depend on their acceptance: rules such as not altering or suppressing documents, or not omitting material damaging to one’s argument.
Certainly, white males have written the majority of history books published in Europe and the US in the last century or so. But have they all been defending the interests of white males and the bourgeois universities upon which they depend for a living? History is about bridging a gap in experience between the present and the past. Many women have written excellent history books about men, just as blacks have written about white slave owners. No one, surely, would wish to argue that the only people who can understand the white males of the past are the white males of the present. In any case, white male historians have successfully written about many aspects of oppression and exploitation in the past without themselves having been oppressed or exploited.
There is a bigger danger lurking for the unwary post-modernist. For their arguments can apply to the politics of oppression and violence as much as to the politics of empowerment and liberation. No doubt a Bosnian Serb would claim that only another Bosnian Serb can write an objective history of the Bosnian Serbs, but anyone who believes this is a fool. Are post-modernists really saying, one wonders, that Auschwitz is a text? Or that a Nazi perspective on the Holocaust is just as valid as a non-Nazi perspective? Faced with this possibility, Hayden White has recently conceded that the existence of Auschwitz as an objective historical fact imposes limits on what historians can say about it. If the only grounds we have for preferring one vision of the past to another are aesthetic, moral or political, as some post-modernists maintain, if the persuasiveness of a historical interpretation is simply a matter of the power of its advocates, then it does not follow at all that history should necessarily be a democratic, a tolerant or a sceptical enterprise, or that it should in any way favour the politically or culturally disadvantaged.
The logical tangle into which post-modernist positions lead becomes even more obvious when we apply these positions to the writings of the post-modernists themselves. If all interpretations are equally valid, why should we believe a post-modernist interpretation rather than another one? If post-modernists really want to claim that the realist perspective is false, then they must be prepared to admit that there are objective standards by which we can say some perspectives are true and others are not.
These standards in fact are set in the first place, as far as history is concerned, by the remains left to us by the vanished past. These are not only written documents-texts-but many other things too, from archaeological remains to Roman inscriptions, from films and videotapes to maps, charts, paintings and cartoons. Some historical sources, such as memoirs, are written after the events they describe; most, whether they are parish records of marriages or stenographic reports of parliamentary speeches, are not. All of them pose problems of interpretation, have to be checked against the intentions of those who originally produced them and compared with other documents to yield their full meaning and significance. When post-modernists, as they sometimes do, urge historians to read their sources against the grain, or refuse to take them as simple reflections of a past reality, they are just describing what historians have been doing in practice since the development of source criticism by the German historians, led by Leopold von Ranke, in the middle of the 19th century.
What is in a document imposes strict limitations on the way it can be read. If-as happened a few years ago with a young American historian writing about the rise of the Nazis-you quote a German industrialist writing in a private letter in the early 1930s that it was desirable “to crystallise the bourgeois right and the Nazi party into one,” and another historian comes along and discovers that the letter in fact said that it was desirable “not to crystallise the bourgeois right and the Nazi party into one,” it is not possible that these two readings of the same document can be regarded as equally valid. The historian in question had been so convinced of the correctness of his premise that the right-wing industrialists supported the Nazis that he had simply overlooked the word “not.”
So historians cannot put into the past any reading of it that they want to. The usual apparatus of scholarship is not just a cynical device designed to produce a “reality effect,” it really does enable other scholars to check, using standards which transcend all ideologies and scholarly communities, whether or not an argument is supported by the sources it cites.
History is not propaganda. It matters whether or not it is true. An African-American historian writing about the slave trade will, for example, not rest content with putting forward interpretations which will be accepted as objectively true by other African-Americans, but will want them to be accepted as objectively true by white Anglo-Saxons as well. Otherwise why bother to go to all the trouble of researching in the archives, when you can just write a work of fiction instead? It would probably be read by more people, too, just as Alex Haley’s Roots far outsold the serious works of history being published on the slave trade at the same time.
Universities are not, as some post-modernists argue, institutions for producing uncritical bourgeois liberals. On the contrary, they are contested spaces where different ideologies, including the many varieties of post-modernism itself, develop and flourish. Nor does the viability or popularity of a historical interpretation depend on the institutional power of its advocate. GR Elton’s theory of the “Tudor revolution in government” was never very widely accepted by historians, despite the fact that its progenitor was Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, served as president of the Royal Historical Society, and ended his life with a knighthood. On the other hand, EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class proved enormously influential, despite the fact that its author’s one brief period as a university academic ended in chaos as he led a group of radical students in an occupation of the university administration.
History is important because it illuminates the human condition by recreating the thoughts and actions, lives and experiences of other human beings separated from us by time. Historians owe it to the people of the past not to co-opt them in the service of some transient cause, but to try to understand them as they were, to treat them with dignity and circumspection. History can demonstrate parallels with the present; it can help us grasp the nature of problems such as crime, poverty, war and disease; it can inspire us to try to shape the future as well as warning us about what it is not possible or advisable to do.
Historians have to use their imagination, but it is an imagination tightly bound in a web of facts. History is nothing if it is not true. Post-modernism challenges us to rethink issues of truth and fiction, objectivity and partisanship, knowledge and interpretation; in some of its friendlier guises it has indeed helped historians to rethink the way they do things. The sense of crisis it has generated in the historical profession can be turned to good advantage if it leads to a greater self-awareness and a more self-critical attitude to what historical research is about. But autumn has not yet come to western historiography.