History's men at war

May 23, 1997

TWO comments, one question, a task, and a moral (sounds like a good movie - I hope Hugh Grant is free!) relating to Harriet Swain's excellent discussion of the postmodernist critique of history (THES, May 16).

First, the "democratisation of history", quite illegitimately claimed by the postmodernists, goes back far beyond the birth of postmodernism, to E. P. Thompson, E. J. Hobsbawm, Olwen Hufton, my own studies of the effects of war on ordinary people, etc, etc, etc.

Second, the divide between non-metaphysical history and the speculations of Hayden White and his acolytes is not a generational one. White is older than me; Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, as well as E.H. Carr and G. R. Elton, are, as we say in my native patois, a deid. I, however, am very much alive, and will soon publish a massive study of the involvement of the ordinary people of France, Italy, the United States and Britain in the transformation of the 1960s.

The question. The logic of the postmodernist attack on the history historians produce and teach, and students, on all the evidence, want to study, is that this history should be consigned to the dustbin of cultural practices. Is this really what White, Alun Munslow and Keith Jenkins want? Societies need history, as individuals need memory. What would it be like if no one knew any history? The mind boggles. But history is not something we are born with; it is the product of the labours of countless thousands of professional historians.

And, of course, without history, there would be nothing for people like White, Munslow and Jenkins to live off.

The task: list just one substantial and significant contribution to historical knowledge made by any one of the above, "democratic" or not. The moral: if you can't do it, don't pontificate about it.

Arthur Marwick, The Open University

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