Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Edward Thompson and Marxist history

Edward Thompson made a considerable impact on my first year at university largely because I had the daunting task of reading his The Making of the English Working Class in a week.  Published in 1963, it is the work for which he is still best remembered and, as I quickly found, a work of rare elegance, an exercise as much in literary as historical writing.  E. P. Thompson (1924-1993) was one of the most prominent British historians of the twentieth century. Not only was he a historian but a communist activist, and his insights into the nature and function of history provide interesting answers to some of the most fundamental questions of the discipline. Should one study history solely for its own sake or for its practical use? If one studies history for its present use, how truthfully can one recover the past? Every historian is inevitably biased, but to what extent do they impose their own values and writing styles into the meaning of history?

An insight into Thompson’s early life reveals that he was, first and foremost, a leftist and an activist. He was born in England in 1924 to ardent critics of British imperialism. Thompson followed in his parents’ footsteps[1], joining the British Communist Party in 1942 while a student at Cambridge. Later, he fought in the World War II to fight Fascism in Europe. After the war, Thompson married Dorothy Towers in 1948, also a devoted communist, who was his political and intellectual equal. The Thompsons lived a fulfilling but financially constrained early married life in Halifax, England. Both Edward and Dorothy worked part-time jobs and relied extensively on family to help support their children. Edward worked as a professor in adult education at the University of Leeds, hoping to convert them into socialists. This teaching post was more than a job to Edward; it was another way to transform society. The Thompsons used almost all of their extra money to finance communist activities with which they were both heavily involved. In the 1950s, he was head of the Halifax Peace Committee, editor of Region of Peace (a local leftist journal) and participated in grass-roots activities, such as collaborating with the local working class movement[2]. Miraculously, the Thompsons’ idealism would never fade, even with their subsequent break with the British Communist Party. In fact, the years only seemed to increase their dedication to the movement. In 1956, Edward and Dorothy Thompson resigned from the British Communist Party. Increasingly, they increasingly had become disgruntled by the Communist Party’s attempts to exert their influence among people who were not affiliated with the Party. However, the biggest disappointments came after the February 1956 announcements of the atrocities under Stalin’s regime and the subsequent suppression of the anti-Stalinist activities of the Hungarian working class. By the end of that year, little hope remained for widespread support of the British Communist Party. The Thompsons and seven thousand other members would resign from the British Communist Party in 1956. A few years later Edward Thompson and John Seville published The New Reasoner, a journal for disgruntled communists[3].

Thompson’s departure from British Communist Party politics and its brand of Marxist orthodoxy led him to socialist humanism as a counter to Stalinism that he had come to regard as theory that denied the creative agency of human labour and the values of the individual as an agent in historical process. Stalinism, which was allegedly Marxist theory in practice, failed to implement the ideology’s inherent humanity. Stalinism eliminated values from the political sphere and feared independent thought. Through Stalinist practices, Marxism became an ideology that led to suffering, death, and destruction. The Thompsons eventually joined the mainstream Labour Party in the 1960s and allied themselves with some of the more radical factions. Although the Thompsons remained radicals and not Labour reformists, joining the Labour Party entailed no contradiction. The Thompsons, who abhorred violence, espoused a peaceful revolution within the system and through the ballot box. Unlike some of his contemporaries who changed ideologically to embrace capitalism, Thompson would later speak out against both superpowers during the height of the arms race.

Approaches to History

There is little to distinguish Thompson’s views as an activist from his views as a historian. Just as Thompson realised the need to modify the strict Stalinist interpretation of communism, Thompson also understood the need to reinterpret Marxism on a theoretical level for the purposes of historical writing. Thompson rejected the notion that history must conform to theory. For Thompson, being a Marxist historian simply meant relying on a loose body of theory, which could be modified and reinterpreted. History must not be studied to uphold overarching philosophies. Thompson says that

History is not a factory for the manufacturer of Grand Theory…Its business is to recover, to explain and to understand its object—real history.’[4]

Nevertheless, he had faith in historical materialism as an ‘interpretive historical category.’[5] Thompson believed that Marx and Engels had not originally intended for their theories to seem so static, but they were so caught up in developing their ideas that Marxism eventually seemed necessarily inert[6].

Thompson thought that it was best to overcome these synchronic portrayals society by presenting the complexity of human interactions and relationships. He was quite critical of disciplines such as anthropology, which attempt to study human development through a ‘series of stills…each of which shows us a moment of social time transfixed into a single eternal pose.’[7] Instead, Thompson proposed that one should study each second of humanity as though it were ‘...not only a moment of being but also a moment of becoming…Not only is each present moment intricately and necessarily linked to the past and future—a single still could never capture the complex dynamics of human relations and conditions.’[8] It is most important to acknowledge that a historical moment is comprised of an innumerable amount of diverse conflicts, interests, and persuasions. One cannot completely and accurately convey every aspect of even a single historical moment.

Thompson did not believe that Marxist theory was ‘true’ or ‘complete’ in itself but that the ideas derived from this school of thought explain history better than other ideological schools; he felt as though Marxist theory was the closest approximation to the truth[9]. Thompson embraced Engels’ view that theories, understood as only approximation of reality, are not necessarily false when they fail to encompass the complete truth. Theories simply help to make sense of reality, and they should not be discarded, only adjusted and amended to fit historical evidence[10]. In his preface to The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson suggests that there are definite parallels or a unifying ‘logic’ among different social movements, but since nothing ever happens in exactly the same way, there can be no law[11]. In the constructions of historical concepts, it is often hard to generalize. Historians must form ‘expectations’ rather than strict ‘models,’ and they must always allow great flexibility for irregularities, for there are always exceptions to the rule. Despite Thompson’s elasticity in theoretical matters, he did not seek to eliminate theory so much as postmodernists would suggest and only believed in modification of theories rather than a complete obliteration of them. Also, Thompson failed to tackle such issues as linguistic turn or the Derridean ‘metaphysics of presence,’ and his works would never satisfy a postmodernist critique. In response to such challenges, Thompson maintained that ‘the appeal is not (or is rarely) to a choice of values, but to the logic of the discipline. But if we deny the determinate properties of the object, then no discipline remains.’[12]

As a historian, Thompson was an empiricist believing in the ability of historians to reveal the past if they were honest about their motivations and intentions. Thompson thought that the past was subject to an infinite multitude of variables; the historian should attempt to piece these variables together into a collective whole. He was often defensive about the perceived inadequacies of history as a discipline, and in his article ‘Historical Logic,’ Thompson said, ‘Our knowledge may not satisfy some philosophers, but it is enough to keep us occupied.’[13] Thompson argued that history could not be held to the same standards as the sciences. Further Thompson stated

History never afford the conditions for identical experiments; and while, by comparative procedure, we may observe somewhat similar experiments in different laboratories (the rise of the nation-state and industry), we can never reach back into those laboratories and impose our own conditions, and run the experiment through once again. [14]

History, therefore, necessitates its own logic and criteria to be evaluated. The human condition is impossible to generalize, and it is always in flux with contradictions existing in every second. In Thompson’s own notion of ‘historical logic,’ a historian could attain relatively objective knowledge by undergoing an ‘arduous preparation’ and research to arrive at a ‘dialogue’ between successive hypotheses and historical evidence. Thus, information is deemed to be ‘true’ via historical logic if nothing proves it false. A hypothesis is true if it works well enough with the historical evidence to ‘prove’ the outcome at hand. After the historian arrives at this ‘objective knowledge,’ then the second part of this process is for the historian to assign the information a special significance. However, Thompson stresses that it was essential for historians to uncover the truth (though it will inevitably be incomplete) to the very best of one’s ability first. Any new and contradictory piece of data must be taken into account. Bess says about Thompson, ‘He saw no reason why rival explanations could not be fruitfully compared with each other, with an eye both to the internal coherence and to the way in which they confronted ‘fresh and inconvenient evidence.’’ The more accounts and interpretation the historian has, the better he or she can come to a fuller understanding of the subject. After the historian feels comfortable and confident in his or her discoveries, only then should the historian impose his or her own meaning and importance to the matter[15].

Likewise, in evaluating historical knowledge, there are also two levels of contemplation. The first phase is the ‘listening’ phase, in which the historian attempts to understand the situation as objectively as possible. Most importantly, the historian must try to comprehend the events in terms of the subject. In the preface to The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson says about potential criticisms of the subjects, ‘But they lived through these times of acute social disturbances and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experiences; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned, in their own lives, as casualties.’ However, to be made useful to the present, the historian should review the circumstances and then evaluate them in terms of his or her own standards. The lessons from the past are still often relevant today. Thompson says that the West often touts its own values and ideals but forget about the social evils that were never remedied. Moreover, peoples in other areas of the world may successfully prevail over the challenges that the West failed to overcome. The coexistence of these two kinds of aims—accuracy and advocacy—did not trouble Thompson, for he believed that a conscientious writer could distinguish the two and assign each to its own appropriate moment.

[1] On Thompson’s father see, Mary Lago ‘India’s Prisoner’: A Biography of Edward John Thompson 1886-1946, (University of Missouri Press), 2001. Edward John Thompson, novelist, poet, journalist, and historian of India, was a liberal advocate for Indian culture and political self-determination at a time when Indian affairs were of little general interest in England. As a friend of Nehru, Gandhi, and other Congress Party leaders, Thompson had contacts that many English officials did not have and did not know how to get. Thus, he was an excellent channel for interpreting India to England and England to India. Thompson first went to India in 1910 as a Methodist missionary to teach English literature at Bankura Wesleyan College. It was there that he cultivated the literary circle of Rabindranath Tagore, as yet little known in England, and there Thompson learned of the political contradictions and deficiencies of India’s educational system. His major conflict, personal and professional, was the lingering influence of Victorian Wesleyanism. In 1923, Thompson resigned and returned to teach at Oxford. Interest in South Asia studies was minimal at Oxford, and Thompson turned increasingly to writing Indian history. That work, and his unique account of his experiences in the Mesopotamian campaign in World War I, supply a viewpoint found nowhere else, as well as personal views of literary figures such as Robert Graves and Robert Bridges. Thompson was also a major influence on the work of his son.

[2] Bryan D. Palmer, Objections and Oppositions, (Verso), 1994, pp. 50-65.

[3] Ibid, Bryan D. Palmer, Objections and Oppositions, pp. 72-73.

[4] E. P. Thompson, ‘Historical Logic,’ in The Essential E. P. Thompson, edited Dorothy Thompson, (New Press), 1993, p. 454.

[5] Ibid, p. 458.

[6] Ibid, pp. 464-467.

[7] Ibid, p. 455.

[8] Ibid, p. 455.

[9] Ibid, p. 452.

[10] E. P. Thompson, ‘Marxism and History,’ in The Essential E. P. Thompson, p. 461.

[11] E. P. Thompson, ‘Preface from The Making of the English Working Class’ in The Essential E.P. Thompson, pp. 4-7

[12] E. P. Thompson, ‘Historical Logic,’ in The Essential E. P. Thompson, p. 449.

[13] Ibid, p. 458.

[14] Ibid, p. 455.

[15] Ibid, pp. 447-450.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Is Britishness anything more than a construct?

I was born and spent my early years in the Fens now seen as part of East Anglia, something many people born there still resent.  Like many other areas in the country the Fens are a distinctive area with its own culture and history.  Two stories illustrate what was its character forty years ago.  During the war when road signs were removed, a Yorkshire man was travelling through the Fens and in its horizontal landscape lost his way.  Seeing a local farmer, he asked for directions which the farmer freely gave.  Twenty minutes later, the Yorkshire man arrived back at the same place and found himself facing the farmer and his shotgun.  When asked why he’d given the wrong instructions, the farmer retorted that he thought the man’s accent was German and that he was a spy.  Whether the tale is true or, as I suspect, apocryphal (could anyone be quite that stupid!), it illustrates the isolation and parochialism of the Fens at this time.  The second story is certainly true as it involved my father.  He was born in London but although he lived in the Fens for over forty years he was still regarded as an outsider.  There was a harvest dance, held annually and regarded as the height of the social calendar but my father always had to go into the dance via the back door as only those born in the Fens could come in the front..local custom it may have been but incredibly insulting to someone who, in every other respect, was highly regarded in the area.  Today all of this has changed but for many born in the Fens, they still see themselves as Fenmen or women first and then grudgingly English but rarely as British.

With the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence and the debate over what sort of History should be taught in schools, Britishness is again a matter for national discussion.  The problem is that what Britishness actually means is unclear and calls for a stronger sense of our British identity are often met with some hostility; it is seen as very ‘un-British’!  As David Cameron said, somewhat dismissively on one occasion, that unlike the Americans we ‘don‘t do flags on the lawn’.  Jana Ganesh of The Economist may be right to suggest that ‘What Englishness can't do that Britishness can do is appeal unambiguously to people of different ethnic origins’, but this does not resolve the problem of definition other than the vague and inherently contested notions of toleration, freedom and individual liberty.  The problem is that Britain is a geographical terms on to which has been foisted the political concept of the United Kingdom, itself a recognition that there are political different parts in Britain and that Anglicisation was a fundamental part of that process of unification.  One approach advocated by the education right is for a return to traditional teaching of British history.  No one could deny that it is important for people to know about their history and across the world this is a central feature of the school curriculum but traditional British history is rarely British in nature but centres on ‘top-down’ story of monarchs and parliaments.  What happened outside England was, and this was evident in my school experience, only ever taught when it impinged on England.  So my experience of Welsh history was confined to Edward I and castle-building; the Potato Famine for Ireland; and, Bannockburn, Mary Queen of Scots and the Jacobite Rebellions for Scotland.  No Black or Asian history and the British Empire as a beacon of civilisation rather than a violent, destructive and economic multinational company.  The traditional history curriculum reinforced a sense of English superiority not Britishness. 

Britishness was an expression of English superiority and for some the two terms were synonymous.  But Scotland, Wales and Ireland have their own history that is separate from what occurred in England.  In fact, studying history suggests strongly that what makes Britain is an amalgam of different and often conflicting histories and it is through this diversity that Britishness, if it exists at all beyond its sense of a social construct, needs to be addressed.  In fact Britishness is meaningless without this and a recognition that the British Isles are and always have been a cultural melting-pot in which different peoples have come for vastly different reasons: conquest, settlement, economic immigration, political asylum…..  Britishness reflects how and why those groups have eventually integrated even if they retained, at least initially, their own cultural identities and is a common feature across the United Kingdoms.  How we see ourselves is the result of where we were born, where our parents and grandparents were born, where we live now and the cultural values we inherit from the past and those cultural values are diverse.  The strength of Britishness lies in its inherent vagueness and ambiguity and attempting to define it more precisely will destroy what is its most positive expression: British diversity allows for different levels of Britishness and cultural integration and values it.  The advantage of a social construct like Britishness is that it cannot be defined or expressed in definitive terms; to do so would eradicate its annoying but essential inconsistencies and ambiguities, prevent people from buying into some but not necessarily all of its characteristics and result in a culturally poorer society. 

Monday, 15 October 2012

Elton and the practice of history

My links with Sir Geoffrey Elton were slight but memorable.  I had attended some of his lecture on the Tudors while I was in the sixth form and had dinner with him following a Historical Association conference in Cambridge where I had given a paper on the industrial revolution that he said he enjoyed.  The dinner proved to be an edifying experience during which Elton demonstrated all the qualities that I had heard about from his students and had culled from other historians.  I found that he was pugnacious in his response, devouring arguments and expressing himself with a combination of wit, sarcasm and certitude, a heady mix of relevant and irreverent comment that combined charm and a certain rudeness.  This, I was later told, was not usual as he drew out his sparring partners with a mix of often outrageous and frequently indefensible statements and blunt responses.    Nonetheless it proved to be a memorable evening as he talked about history and what was wrong with it and politics and what was wrong with that as well and responded with barbed words that slurped on into the early hours. 
When Elton died in late 1994, the obituaries inevitably focused on his contribution to the history of Tudor England. His name will forever be identified with the Tudors though even before he died revisionist historians were beginning to chip away at many of his conclusions.[1] This process continues and a cursory glance to bibliographies on Tudor England for current students makes little mention of his work and then critically.  But Elton left another, equally important, legacy: a vigorous defence of traditional, narrative history, history as the reconstruction and telling of tales about past human experiences, actions and thoughts. Elton’s first and most famous foray into the philosophy of history was The Practice of History (1967), a manifesto, he said, setting out his experience of studying, writing and teaching history. This was followed by Political History: Principles and Practice (1970) in which he argued for the centrality and importance of political action in the study of the past and further developed his views on the nature of historical explanation. In Which Road to the Past? (1983), he debated the merits of ‘traditional’ versus ‘scientific’ history with Robert Fogel, the American economic historian and, finally, Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study (1991), a restatement of his faith in those ‘old-fashioned convictions and practices’ that informed his work.

Elton presented his writings on the nature and methods of history not as philosophy, but as a pragmatic account of what working historians like himself did. But to make such an account convincing, it was necessary to explain and defend the fundamental assumptions underpinning the discipline’s traditional practices. The  result was a sustained defence of a human action account of the past, that history was not the result of social structures, objective forces or linguistic discourses, but of autonomous human agents and that to explain and comprehend the past, historians must provide an account of those agents’ actions in their own terms, as they were lived and played out at the time as far as the available sources allowed. The assertion of the role of reason in human affairs was also at the heart of Elton’s conception of the purpose of studying history. The study of history is an exercise in reason whose purpose is to enlarge the area of individual experience by teaching about human behaviour. Elton wrote in Return to Essentials

History provides the laboratory in which human experience is analysed, distilled and bottled for use. The so-called lessons of history do not teach you to do this or that now; they teach you to think more deeply, more completely, and on the basis of an enormously enlarged experience, about what it may be possible or desirable to do now ... By enormously enlarging personal experience, history can help us to grow up--to resist those who, with good will or ill, would force us all into the straitjackets of their supposed answers to the problems of existence. [2]

Elton started from the view that in the past there were people like us, with thoughts, feelings, ambitions, concerns and problems. These people lived and made choices and what they did produced the events, effects, creations and results which is history. When people acted in the past, exercised their will and made choices they made their futures and created our present. History for Elton was explicable, but the varieties, complexities and vagaries of human reasoning and thinking in diverse situations made it unpredictable. This led him to assert that those who study the past have a responsibility to acknowledge its humanity:

The recognition that at every moment in the past the future was essentially unpredictable and subject to human choice lies at the heart of a study which respects the past and allows it a life of its own. If men (and women) are treated as devoid of choice, their reason is demolished; the product is a history which dehumanises mankind.

In this perspective, there was little place for the large-scale forces, trends, structures, and patterns beloved by social scientists. Everything in history, the events of the past, happens to and through people. Sociological categories may be useful descriptive short-hands of movements and outcomes over the long-run, but they remained abstractions unable to explain specific actions and events, the details and particularities of past happenings created by real people doing something. ‘History’ Elton argued, ‘deals with the activities of men, not abstractions’.  He nonetheless recognised that all events happen in a context, in particular conditions and circumstances of thought and action but, he maintained, this contest represented a set of influences and constraints on action, not a transcendent force directing or determining action.  Elton developed his account of causation in history in Political History: Principles and Practice. The task of historians, he argued, was to explain the events of the past. They did this by working backwards from known effects to their causes. By ‘causes’ he meant those ‘antecedent events, actions, thoughts and situations’ relevant to the explanation of the event to be explained. Such causes he divided into two types: situational or contextual causes and direct causes.  It is the latter that are decisive: while situational causes (which are anyway largely human creations themselves) produce contexts, it is direct causes--the exercise of human will--which make history.

Direct causes explain why the event actually happened; situational causes explain why direct causes proved effective.

Elton illustrated his point with reference to the type of explanation he proposed in Reformation Europe, 1517-1559 (1963). Situational causes such as the state of the church, nationalist resentment of Italian popes, spiritual dissatisfaction, the growth of humanism and the desire for ecclesiastical wealth allowed or encouraged a particular historical result, the split in the Church of Rome. But that outcome was actually brought about by actions such as those of Luther and other reformers, the separatist moves by the German princes, Henry VIII’s divorce petition and Thomas Cromwell’s programme for a political break with Rome.

Elton claimed that what distinguished history from other approaches to the study of human affairs was the role of evidence in generating and limiting, as well as validating, the statements and conclusions of historians.  His historical method consisted of the critical examination of this evidence to reconstruct the causes of historical events. Elton called his approach to evidence the ‘empirical or thesis-free’ method, meaning that historians must be committed to allowing interpretations of the past to emerge from the evidence not the other way round.  In arguing for the primacy of evidence in historical work, Elton had to deal with how far human subjectivity in the interpretation and selection of the `facts’ intruded into what were claimed to be ‘true’ accounts of the past. Historians are human and there is biased and subjective history as well as balanced and objective history. Furthermore, argued Elton, the process of historical research should not be a matter of selecting facts to prove a thesis or an argument (bad history) but the reconstruction of a real past peopled by real individuals who did things that actually happened (good history) and the veracity of such reconstructions should be assessed and judged against all the known evidence, not just that which is presented in a particular account.  He recognised the difficulty with his ‘practice’ and in The Practice of History, commented:

All assessment of evidence must be the work of the intellect, of the reasoning faculty. The historian cannot but work on the assumption that whatever happened is capable of rational explanation and that evidence is the product of an act discoverable by reason. And yet we all know that this is not quite true; that we act, react and reflect from motives which have little to do with reason and under influences--such as ill-health, a quarrel with people not involved in the transaction, whim and lack of thought--that can but rarely appear in the…evidence. [3]

Elton favoured the writing of history in the form of ‘narratives thickened by analysis’, stories of human action and reaction over time punctuated by in-depth discussions and explanations of direct and situational causes. But no narrative, of necessity composed of a linear sequence of sentences, could adequately capture the simultaneity of thoughts and actions, the complexity and multiplicity of causes, and the interconnectedness of events. Life was a mess on which historians imposed order, shape, pattern, meaning and intelligibility. Elton concluded that ‘In a very real sense history cannot be correctly written’.

How historians conducted this exercise in reason was, for Elton, crucial. Historians’ rejection of all paradigms except the assumption of reason and human choice secured their freedom from all authorities except that of evidence. In preserving their intellectual freedom to insist on the primacy of evidence and simply to state what happened and why, historians contribute to freedom of thought and action for all. On one occasion Elton wrote: ‘history is an unending search for the truth, with the only certainty at each man’s end that there will be more to be said and that, before long, other’s will say it’. In the case of Elton’s ‘philosophy’, much of what he said was often said better by others such as Isaiah Berlin, Carl Becker, R. G. Collingwood, Pieter Geyl, even Jack Hexter. But as one of the greatest practitioners of his craft and as one of the few outright defenders of what he saw as the ‘beleaguered bastion of empiricist and non-ideological history’, Elton deserves more than most to be read and listened to.

[1] Elton’s publications included The Tudor Revolution in Government (1953); England under the Tudors (1955), The Tudor Constitution (1960), Reformation Europe (1963), Reform and Renewal (1973), Reform and Reformation: England 1509-1558 (1977), The Parliament of England 1559-1581 (1986), and The English (1992). .
[2] G.R. Elton Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 72-73.
[3] G.R. Elton The Practice of History, Fontana, 1969, p. 64.

Friday, 12 October 2012

The Craft of History

I have several connections with Marc Bloch, the French historian who was shot in 1944 for being in the Resistance during the war.  My great-uncle studied briefly with him in Paris in 1938 just after Bloch moved from to the capital from his position as Professor of Medieval History at the University of Strasbourg and who always proclaimed he was the ‘best’ historian he’d ever worked with.  His La Societe feodale was one of the first books I read at university in the late-60s though in a translation that betrayed the elegance of the original and several years ago I acquired a copy of a book on medieval France that Bloch had signed and which, presumably came from his own library.  Although medieval history had come a long way in the past seventy years, Bloch remains an important historian who is still worth reading even if some of his conclusions are now open to question.  Very few academics revolutionise the way in which History is studied, but Bloch did that, helping to create the hugely influential Annales school, which argued compellingly in favour of the study of ‘history from below’—of everyday life, that is, studied in the context of geography and the social environment and over la longue durée, the long term: typically a thousand years or more.


His Apologie pour l’histoire ou métier d’historien was first published in England as The Historian’s Craft in 1954, an American edition had appeared the previous year.  Written between 1941 and 1943 ‘as a simple antidote by which, amid sorrows and anxieties, both personal and collective’, it was never completed and was ‘reconstructed’ from three draft copies by his friend Lucien Febvre.  It lacks any references –Bloch intended to add these later—and whether what we have is what Bloch would have ultimately published is debatable.  It was a work in progress but despite this it has proved a popular and widely read study that has been translated into eight languages.  In 1952, Italian and Spanish translations appeared,  soon followed in 1953 by an English translation. Other translations have appeared: in Germany, Estonia, Hungary, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Czechoslovakia and the USSR. The total circulation of the book is over 450,000 copies worldwide.

The Historian’s Craft  was a response to Bloch’s son’s question ‘What is the use of history?’ and is divided into an introduction and five chapters: the past and history, evidence, historical criticism, historical analysis and causation.  For Bloch, history is the science of men in time.  Time is a continuum and the past can only be explained in terms of the present and the present in terms of the past.  This was echoed several decades later by Arthur Marwick when he called history ‘a social necessity’.  The reciprocal relationship between past and present, Bloch argued, can be penetrated by the use of tools of the historical dialectic such as observation, criticism, analysis and the concept of causation.  Observation was a complex search for ‘tracks’ often partially obliterated or wholly destroyed while evidence changes its character and meaning and can only be interpreted by rigorous criticism.  Perhaps the most important chapter is on historical analysis.  For Bloch, if historians are to fulfil their real function, they must be able to see what is behind the record, to fathom what is never recorded in so many words.  There must be a victory of mind over material.

Bloch’s focus is on professional practice based on a division of labour and specialisation and cooperation of all those who practice’ .  The originality of the work lies in the consideration of the new developments in the history of epistemology and philosophy of science. Bloch placed considerable emphasis on communication issues: communication with the community of historians demanding a common language and communication with the public through a language accessible to everyone. Bloch was convinced that the historian’s function was to strive to enrich the collective memory, not simply in the service of a country and that historians alone were willing to serve all humanity. 

Thursday, 11 October 2012

What are turning points in history?

Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, the Renaissance, the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Waterloo a decade later, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914….are all regarded by historians (well at least some of them) as ‘turning points’ in history. But what does this actually mean?  In Martin Luther’s case, his actions precipitated the Reformation; the Renaissance marked the divide between medievalism and modernism; Trafalgar and Waterloo were landmark battles that marked Napoleon’s final defeat on sea and land; while the First World War marked the end of autocratic regimes and the beginnings of European-wide democratic systems of government.  But this is a retrospective judgement, a construct historians use to delineate the distinction between events and those events that have a retrospective significance.  Take, for instance, Luther’s action.  There had been criticism of the Papacy almost since it was established a thousand years earlier: it was too worldly, too corrupt, too concerned with economic and political aggrandisement than spiritual purity.  In nailing his list of criticisms to the cathedral door, Luther was doing what others had done in the past and would do so in the future: he was suggesting that some reform of the Church was necessary to make in more spiritual and concerned with the spiritual needs of the people.  It was a petition seeking support, comment and debate.  Luther may have been seeking a re-formation of the Church as an institution but only later did he seek a doctrinal reformation.  Had Luther’s criticism been addressed by the Church would there have been a Reformation at all?  Possibly but equally possibly not.

So what is a turning point in history?  If one accepts that the past is a linear progression from A to B (and it’s a pretty messy linear progression anyway), then a turning point marks the point at which individuals, groups, nations or states move in a radically different direction.  It’s a bit like going up the M1 and intending to come off at junction 25 but deciding, for whatever reason, to leave at junction 23.  You may not have planned it -- and turning points are almost always not planned – but it seemed a good idea at the time.  Only later do you realise that it literally marked a turning point.  Life, now as then, is made up of choices and possibilities and we all have pasts that could have led to different presents.  Individuals in the past had myriad possibilities just as we do and it is historians who judge whether decision C marked a turning point or not and inevitably historians disagree over this and there is further confusion since what are turning points change over time.  Take, for instance, the Suffragette movement.  The early historiography of the movement established a linear connection between its growing militancy and women (some at least) obtaining the vote in 1918.  More recently historians have suggested that militancy far from helping this process of voting changes possibly delayed it and that the role of non-militant suffragists was far more important in persuading male politicians that giving women the vote did not threaten Britain’s emerging democracy.  So which was the turning point, the formation of the Nation Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1897 or the formation of the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union six years later?  The significance of particular events in the Second World War also illustrates the problem of defining turning points.  Which of the following marked a turning point? The defeat of the U-boat threat in the Atlantic, the Battle of Britain, Pear Harbor, El Alamein and D-Day.  All? Some? None? Or were they simply part of the process that led to the real turning point: the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945? 

The use of turning points is a historiographical short-hand for something of significance, a point where things change irremediably. But it is always a matter of debate and argument.  If there ever was a collective noun for historians, it would be a disagreement.

Some further ideas on E. H. Carr

John Tosh, in the most recent edition of The Pursuit of History describes Carr’s book as ‘still unsurpassed as a stimulating and provocative statement by a radically inclined scholar’[1]. Keith Jenkins, much less inclined to view Carr as a radical scholar, nevertheless confirms the importance of What is History? suggesting that, along with Geoffrey Elton’s The Practice of History both texts are still popularly seen as ‘‘essential introductions’ to the ‘history question’’[2]. Jenkins concludes both Carr and Elton ‘have long set the agenda for much if not all of the crucially important preliminary thinking about the question of what is history’.[3]   So, according to Tosh and Jenkins, there remains, in Britain at least, in a lively dialogue with What is History?. Why is this the case? The reason lies in the position Carr took on the nature of historical knowledge, a position that brought him into a long conflict with, among others, the Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton. John Tosh commented further that ‘The controversy between Carr and Elton is the best starting-point for the debate about the standing of historical knowledge’.[4] Until Jenkins’ re-appraisal of Carr’s philosophy of history, Carr had been viewed almost universally among British historians as standing for a very distinctive relativist, if not indeed a sceptical conception of the functioning of the historian.

Explaining Carr’s ‘radicalism’, Michael Stanford has claimed Carr ‘insisted that the historian cannot divorce himself from the outlook and interests of his age’.[5] Stanford quotes Carr’s own claim that the historian ‘is part of history’ with a particular ‘angle of vision over the past’.[6] As Stanford points out, Carr’s ‘first the question What is History? is that it is a continuous ‘process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past’. While this was not a fresh insight with Carr, it still established him out for a number of years as someone with a novel stance. However, over time, the effect of his argument was to increasingly balance the excesses of the hard core empiricists. In What is History?, Carr propelled British historiography that pivoted on a new epistemological certitude.

The claim to epistemological radicalism on behalf of Carr does not seem especially convincing. Why? Today, more and more history writing is based on the assumption that we can know nothing genuinely truthful about the reality of the past. It would be tempting, but wholly incorrect, to say that history’s pendulum has swung far more to the notion of history as a construction or fabrication of the historian. Rather, what has happened is that the contemporary conditions of existence have created a much deeper uncertainty about the nature of knowledge-creation and its uses in the humanities. It is not about swings in intellectual fashion.

It follows, a growing number of historians believe that we do not ‘discover’ patterns in apparently contingent events because, instead, we unavoidably impose our own hierarchies of significance on them. Few historians today are naive realists and accept there must be given meaning in the evidence. While we may all agree at the level of the event that something happened at a particular time and place in the past, its significance is provided by the historian. Meaning is not immanent in the event itself. Moreover, the challenge to the distinction of fact and fiction as historians configure their historical narratives, and further acknowledgments of the cognitive power of rhetoric, style and trope (metaphors are arguments and explanations) provide not only a formal challenge to traditional empiricism, but forces them to acknowledge that as historians we are making moral choices as we describe past reality.

Does all this add up to a more fundamental criticism of historical knowing than Carr imagined in What is History?? I think so. If this catalogue is what historical relativism means today, it provides a much larger agenda for the contemporary historian than Carr’s acceptance that the historian is in a dialogue with the facts or that sources only become evidence when used by the historian. As Jenkins has pointed out at some length, Carr ultimately accepts the epistemological model of historical explanation as the definitive mode for generating historical understanding and meaning[7]. This fundamentally devalues the currency of what he has to say, as it does of all reconstructionist empiricists who followed his lead. This judgment is not, of course, widely shared by them. For illustration, it is the claim of the historian of Latin America Alan Knight that Carr remains significant today precisely because of his warning a generation ago to historians to ‘interrogate documents and to display a due scepticism as regards their writer’s motives’[8]. To maintain, as Knight does, that Carr is thus in some way pre-empting the post-modern challenge to historical knowing is unhelpful to those who would seriously wish to establish Carr’s contribution in What is History?. It would be an act of substantial historical imagination to proclaim Carr as a precursor of post-modernist history.

Carr is also not forgotten by political philosopher and critic of post-modernist history Alex Callinicos, who deploys him somewhat differently. In his defence of Marxist theory of interpretation, Callinicos begins with the contribution of a variety of so called relativist historians of which Carr is one (others include Croce, Collingwood, Becker and Beard). Acknowledging the ‘discursive character of historical facts’[9], Callinicos quotes Carr’s opinion (following Collingwood) that the facts of history never come to us pure, but are always refracted through the mind of the historian. For Callinicos this insight signals the problem of the subjectivity of the historian, but does not diminish the role of empirically derived evidence in the process of historical study.

Of course, Carr tried to fix the status of evidence with his own objections to what he understood to be the logic of Collingwood’s sceptical position. Collingwood’s logic could, claims Carr, lead to the dangerous idea that there is no certainty in historical meaning. There are only the discourses of historians, a situation that Carr refers to as ‘total scepticism’, a situation where history ends up as ‘something spun out of the human brain’ suggesting there can be no ‘objective historical truth’.[10] Carr’s objectivist anchor is dropped here. He explicitly rejected Nietzsche’s notion that historical truth is effectively defined by fitness for purpose, and the basis for Carr’s opinion was his belief in the power of empiricism to deliver the truth, whether it fits or not.[11] Historians ultimately serve the evidence, not vice versa. This guiding precept excludes the possibility that ‘one interpretation is as good as another’ even when we cannot guarantee ‘objective or truthful interpretation’.

[1] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, London, Longman, 1991, p. 234.

[2] Keith Jenkins, On ‘What is History?’, London, Routledge, 1995, pp. 1-2.

[3]Ibid, Keith Jenkins, On ‘What is History?’ p. 3.

[4] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, London, Longman, 1991, p. 236.

[5] Michael Stanford, A Companion to the Study of History, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1994, p. 86.

[6] Ibid, Michael Stanford, A Companion to the Study of History, p. 86.

[7] Keith Jenkins, On ‘What is History?’, London, Routledge, 1995, pp. 1-6, 43-63.

[8] Alan Knight, ‘Latin America’ in Michael Bentley, (ed.), Companion to Historiography, London, Routledge, 1997, p. 747.

[9] Alex Callinicos, Theories and Narratives: Reflections on the Philosophy of History, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1995, p. 76.

[10] E.H. Carr, What is History? London, Penguin, 1961, p. 26

[11] Ibid, E.H. Carr, What is History? p. 27.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Debt-write off plan for teachers

Things have come a long way since I first trained to be a teacher.  The course I did lasted a year and though thoroughly enjoyable did little to prepare me for what life was like day after day in the classroom.  I learned a lot about the history of education (for me very interesting but for my science colleagues of no interest at all), the philosophy, sociology and psychology of education but it was really the term I spent on work experience that was of greatest value.  I’m not sure the school felt the same.  My head of department visited my class once and my tutor twice but I still ended up with a distinction…I still wonder why.  I had one class on Monday afternoon, all day Tuesday and Wednesday and one class first thing on Thursday morning and when I asked what I should do for the remainder of the time was told to go home…so a very long weekend.  Having mentored trainee teachers over a twenty year period myself, what is now offered as training is infinitely superior though undoubtedly less enjoyable.  Does it produce better teachers, since many in the Labour Party and the current Minister (if not the head of Ofsted) appear to think that we now have the best teachers ever?  I’m not convinced.  Certainly teachers are now better at planning learning and lessons…no longer a back of the envelop job or as a colleague of mine once said, I planned my lessons in my first year of teaching and twenty years later I’m still using them.  But, and I’ve observed this, there is then an almost determinist process of getting through the plan even when it is evident that the plan is not working or when the students have engaged with the lesson and want to explore things not on the plan and are disappointed because the teacher intends to follow the plan at all costs.  You may think, and probably correctly, that this is evidence of a teacher insufficiently confident in their own ability and unwilling to tear up the plan.  Perhaps I was lucky when doing a lesson during Ofsted on the poor in the sixteenth century and students turned the lesson into a comparison with how the poor were dealt with then and now and my plan went out of the window that the inspector (about my age and with similar experiences I suspect) really enjoyed it and graded it outstanding…planning is essential for good learning but in itself it will not necessarily lead to good learning.  Students enjoy spontaneity, anecdotes, red herrings (they’re always good at finding them) and getting you off the point (ditto), but that’s what education is about…it isn’t neat, determinist or inflexible.

So should we be aiming for teaching, in the words of Stephen Twigg, to be ‘an elite profession of top graduates’?   Well yes, if that means that teachers will again become a respected profession.  But, just because you’re a top graduate, will not necessarily make you a competent let alone a good teacher.  To be a good teacher you need three things: a willingness to learn along with your students, a personality that is open and accessible to students and, and I’ve always believed that this is essential, the ability to recognise that although you will get through to many even most of your students, in some cases you won’t and it doesn’t matter what you do; all you can hope is that another teacher will.  Now that is not something that automatically comes from a high-level or a lower level degree , it’s not something that can really be taught (though training can refine it) and is ultimately something that you either have (in which case teaching is for you) or not (don’t touch it with a barge-pole as you’ll suffer and more importantly so will your kids).  Having a National College for Teaching Excellence and using a debt write-off plan to bribe people to enter it (a bit harsh perhaps) will certainly encourage good candidates for teaching but there is one big problem.  As soon as you establish any College for Excellence, the tendency is for its trainees to go into the profession and rapidly gain promotion and in teaching that means promotion out of the classroom.  Yes you monitor the teaching of others and provide advice to improve it but the impact of your specific skills on students inevitably diminishes.  As a teacher you might be in the classroom twenty hours a week, as a head of department fifteen and so on and like everyone you are promoted to your level of incompetence (that is, unless you decide to stop seeking advancement and do what you enjoy and are good at).  When I became a teacher I did so because I wanted to get students to enjoy my subject and enjoy learning about it and I spent many enjoyable years successfully doing that.  Today, teaching has lost that simplicity (you may think rightly) and, to my mind, students have lost out as a consequence.  Yes we should always strive to improve the quality of teachers and Stephen Twigg is right when he says that ‘Our education system is only as good as its staff’ but unless what is being taught and how its is being taught addresses the needs and interests of students, it doesn't matter whether the teachers are top graduates or not, they won’t learn effectively.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Too clever by half: intellectuals and politics

Although the definition of politics as the ‘art of the possible’ was attributed to RAB Butler in 1971, it was in fact originally made by Otto von Bismarck in 1867.  Yet it and Harold Wilson’s much vaunted aphorism that ‘ a week is a long time in politics’ in many ways characterise the ways in which politicians construe politics in Britain.  Walter Bagehot in his essay on Sir Robert Peel published in 1856 was more explicit in his view of politicians: ‘a constitutional statesman is in general a man of common opinions and uncommon abilities….[with] the powers of a first-rate man and the creed of a second-rate man…His intellect, admirable in administrative routines…was not of the class which creates, or which readily even believes an absolutely new idea…’   Scepticism towards intellectuals and ideas in politics has a long pedigree and there is a certain irony in the fact that Arthur Balfour, arguably Britain’s only intellectual as prime minister, wrote on the question of philosophical scepticism. 

The English view of intellectuals in politics, the view of very different in Scotland where Enlightenment ideas established a long tradition of the intellectual in politics, is far different from perspectives on the Continent and, to some degree, in the United States where being called an intellectual is seen less as a term of derision than a recognition of the political ideas individuals express.  In France, it can even be a career choice.  This is not to say that English politicians do not have ideas, and on occasions original ones but reflects that very English trait that intellectuals are ‘too clever by half’, a sort of inverse intellectual snobbery.  While we value wit and satire, we do not have a real affinity for intellectuals; they are regarded as aloof, impractical and often politically naive.  Politics is about being pragmatic and politicians with intellectual aspirations save them for their autobiographies and even there they often have little significance.  Politicians enter politics for different reasons but a common theme is a desire to make society ‘better’ (no politician would want to make it worse), though there is rarely any attempt to define what ‘better’ actually means.  What the public crave is a politics that delivers what they want, whether that be economic prosperity, political stability or in the past the vote, and they are little interested in the philosophical route politicians take to reach those ends.  The intellectual divide separating conservatism, liberalism and socialism that resulted in vibrant debates not simply about means but ends has been gradually eroded in the past three decades to such an extent that all three major political parties can now be seen as supporting the idea of social democracy, though again without really defining what social democracy actually means, and seeking electoral control of the increasingly unintellectual ‘middle ground’ leaving debates about ideas to the extremes on left and right.  Vision is something politicians talk about when they are in opposition but once in power vision is rarely seen as having any real resonance in the need to find practical and pragmatic solutions to political problems in a 24/7 media age.  Reacting to circumstances has always been an important feature of any form of politics but reacting to situations in an intellectual vacuum makes politics less the art of the possible and more the craft of the administrative detail.