Recoiling from the revolting

Why Do Ruling Classes Fear History? And Other Questions
August 2, 1996

This is a compelling book. Harvey Kaye, an American historian who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, is a dedicated radical who has long been interested in the role of the public intellectual in American life. In a series of penetrating essays, published previously but now collected together, he argues that academics and other intellectuals on the left need to play a more active part in resisting the onslaught of the New Right. In the words of Kaye's hero Tom Paine in his powerful pamphlet Common Sense: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again".

Some of Kaye's essays are gems. I particularly like a number of pieces originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the US equivalent of The THES. "Preparing the next generation of public intellectuals", for example, is an eloquent plea to teachers and scholars in which Kaye argues that we ought to be cultivating in our students the perspectives, voices, and practices that will enable them to pursue social and political criticism and to engage effectively extra-academic audiences in the process. This essay, he notes in a postscript, attracted more correspondence, most of it sympathetic, than anything else he has written, a good indication that he succeeded in his task.

Kaye is an extraordinarily versatile scholar, and his wide-reaching breadth is visible here. Some of his earlier work dealt with British Marxists, and his affectionate portrait of E. P. Thompson, written as a tribute soon after Thompson died, is a delight to read. Weaving together Thompson's own story, anecdotes about Kaye's interaction with the English academic and an analysis of Thompson's work, Kaye persuades us that Edward Thompson's career should be a model to us all.

I was equally taken with the biographical essay on Tom Paine that Kaye first published in The American Radical that he edited with Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle. Kaye relates how his grandfather, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, had passed on the writings of Paine to him when he was a boy. The energy and enthusiasm that Paine mobilised 200 years ago is reflected in Kaye's own passionate work.

Then there is the title essay, "Why do ruling classes fear history?" first presented as the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Lecture at the London School of Economics in 1994. Here Kaye sums up the theme that echoes throughout his book. He quotes Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who once declared, "Historians are dangerous people, capable of turning everything topsy-turvy. They have to be watched." He tangles with Francis Fukuyama, who claimed several years ago that with the end of the cold war and the demise of communism, history had come to an end. No, Kaye says, "History and its progressive possibilities are not resolved."

I must admit that I was less engaged with some of Kaye's reviews. These are sharp critiques of a number of important books, and I enjoyed reading them in the past. But in this volume, set against other pieces where Kaye allows himself to generalise and spread his net even wider, his close analysis seems less appropriate.

Still, Why Do Ruling Classes Fear History? And Other Questions is a powerful book that should be read - and heeded - by us all.

Allan M. Winkler is professor of history, Miami University, Ohio.

Why Do Ruling Classes Fear History? And Other Questions

Author - Harvey J. Kaye
ISBN - 0 333 66637 2
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £16.00
Pages - 0

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