Are historians to be trusted?

Historical Controversies and Historians

September 18, 1998

This collection of essays, by historians at the University of Sussex who teach a course on historical controversies, attempts to bridge the gap between the unequivocal "national curriculum" history which used to be taught in the Soviet Union, and history as we actually experience it: mediated by previous histories, cultural bias and the peculiarities of historians themselves.

The essays cover such touchy subjects as the role of "ordinary" Germans in the holocaust; the true nature of the French resistance to the Nazis; the development of race theory in South Africa; and how American history has changed in the past ten years from being "white", a history of European settlers, to being a history of the interaction between three groups: the Europeans, the Native Americans and the Africans who arrived as slaves.

An almost unintentional theme appears of the historian cast in a heroic mould, actively changing society by the interpretation of the past. This power to shape the present world which historians award themselves in many of these essays is not always benign. In a sharp essay, "Agrarian histories and agricultural revolutions", Alun Howkins questions whether the "English road" to industrialisation has been accurately described by historians - that peasant farmers were swept away in a brutal but essentially necessary process of collectivisation of landholdings and deployment of new techniques. Howkins asks how new these techniques really were ("Turnip" Townshend was a boy when turnips were first grown on his land; Jethro Tull did not create the first seed drill) and claims that every agricultural disaster since has been the result of a faulty interpretation of the English agrarian revolution.

The collectivisation of the peasantry in the Soviet Union in the 1920s derived directly from a reading of Marx's Capital with its insistence on the destruction of the peasantry as a precursor to industrial growth. The growing of specialist crops like mange tout or baby sweet corn in the South for export to the North in the 1990s proceeds from the essentially identical views of the International Monetary Fund, as does the Common Agricultural Policy's use of subsidies to destroy small-scale farming in Europe. So historians carry a weighty responsibility in Howkins's world.

In the more comfortable role of interpreter, Pat Thane describes how the welfare state which was seen as a paternalistic boon for the poor in the vigorous postwar world, came to be seen in the uncertain 1970s as a means of "social control". Historians extended this to assert that social policies had always been calculated to regulate the lives of the poor. The early history of the welfare state was now mined for material which would support this quasi-Marxist view, and that which was sought was found: poor relief under the Poor Laws had been generally paid on condition of respectable behaviour; the first old-age pensions paid in 1908 excluded people with a record of drunkenness, criminality or "habitual failure to work". These facts were available to earlier historians, but were simply not emphasised by them. The 1980s saw a shift of historical research away from the state, following the shift in emphasis of government spending, and work was done on the history of the non-statutory provision of welfare, "welfare systems" rather than "welfare states". More polemically Correlli Barnett actually blamed Britain's economic decline on the cost of the welfare state, making him Margaret Thatcher's favourite historian. Thus the earlier, pedestrian administrative histories had been supplanted by histories which were part of the social dynamic.

The second half of the book moves from the controversies to historians themselves, with their unfortunate propensity for having their theories revised. As R. H. Tawney said, "all flesh is grass, and historians, poor things, wither more quickly than most." The remark is repeated in an article about him with a subtitled quotation, "Who did not write a single work which can be trusted".

In another essay Michael Hawkins describes how Lawrence Stone's interdisciplinary approach can be seen to have derived directly from error. In an early essay on the Elizabethan and Jacobean gentry Stone notoriously misunderstood a term. He mistook bonds entered into by aristocratic debtors as equalling their capital debt. This had the effect of doubling aristocratic indebtedness, and a seriously distorted view was given of aristocratic difficulties. Spurred by the vituperative nature of the attack on him by H. R. Trevor-Roper (who later incorrectly validated the "Hitler diaries"), Stone's research bloomed into a major work, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641, in which he expanded his approach from mere indebtedness to arguing that the aristocracy underwent a general social, military, political, economic, ideological and moral crisis.

Among other historians treated here are Bernard Bailyn, Jacob Burckhardt, E. P. Thompson, and Max Weber. Oral history and sports history find a place here but, despite its emphasis on the cutting edge, the book has a curiously old-fashioned approach. Foucault and his followers may give a bucket of verbiage for a spoonful of insight but there is no denying their influence, and to give them not a single mention seems perverse. It is also surprisingly weak on gender history which an article on "women's history" with its distinction between (politicised) feminist and (descriptive) women's history does not redress. Once women had "become visible" in history a range of other issues were illuminated, as such historians of masculinity as John Tosh, Michael Roper, Joanna Bourke and John MacKenzie can attest.

Deficiencies aside, Historical Controversies and Historians is a lucid and challenging book for undergraduates and those who teach them. It is also salutary to be reminded by William Lamont of the education secretary John MacGregor's answer when asked during the national curriculum debate what historical facts constituted essential knowledge. Quick as a flash he came back with: "The Battle of Trafalgar in 1815."

Jad Adams is the author (with Phillip Whithead) of The Dynasty: The Nehru-Gandhi Story.

Historical Controversies and Historians

Editor - William Lamont
ISBN - 1 85728 739 8 and 740 1
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £40.00 and £12.95
Pages - 242

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