August 09, 2009

Historical Truth

A couple of years ago, teaching a class of Cambridge undergraduates about philosophies of history, I remember asking them in order to provoke whether the job of a historian was to be a propagandist in the name of good causes. Truth didn't matter, the only issue, I briefly argued, was to consider what the right politics were and then what the right history to support that politics was. This argument is one that I disagree with fundementally but it is an important one- history is used to form political identities and cultural norms. False historical assertions such as the 'fact' that the Scottish tartan is traditional (it isn't) can form the basis for modern nationalist movements- at its most trivial this leads to Americans wearing kilts in Edinburgh, at its most serious to some of the nastier nationalist movements of the 20th Century whether motivated by a mistaken identity with barbarian tribes of the 5th Century or anti-Islamic armies of the 15th. Laura Miller in a review of Margerate Macmillan's latest book suggests various other examples where a false historical imagination can cause political disaster.

Central to Macmillan's argument is the idea that good history will provide good lessons. As Miller suggests that is not neccessarily true- good history can provide bad lessons. The problem is when to apply history and how to apply it. When Anthony Eden compared himself to Chamberlaine and Nasser to Mussolini, he mistook both his own power and also the danger of the Egyptian leader to world peace. Eden's mistake was understandable and did not proceed from a failure to understand previous history but from a failure to apply it to the present day in the correct way- his failure was one of political judgement. Good history therefore does not neccessarily make for good policy- because political judgement is needed to suggest how to apply historical lessons to the present day. Neither does the converse hold true: bad history does not make for bad policy. Churchill was a poor historian by modern standards- a Whig who believed that the Anglo-Saxon peoples had grown inevitably over the centuries into further freedoms. But that conviction enabled him to hold his nerve in the drama of the second world war, to believe in some sense he was acting out the destiny of his country. Poor history supplied him with the conviction and the rhetoric to stand up against Hitler- one of the best political judgements in the whole of British history.

So if bad history and good history can both lead to good and bad outcomes politically- am I saying that I was right in proposing to my students that history should serve the purposes of politics. The answer to that question is undoubtedly no. I think there are two things that have to be said here though to describe why that is so. Political arguments should be evaluated on their political merits- just because something worked in the past does not mean it will work in the future. David Hume explained that about three hundred years ago and his arguments against the laws of induction remain true. Good history though contributes to politics in two important respects: in neither of them through knowledge, in both through the method it encourages, rather than through its findings. One way it does so is through encouraging scepticism: the good historian is a professional sceptic both of his sources and of her own ideas. You learn through history to distrust what the sources tells you (who, whom is a great historical question from Lenin) and also to distrust your own temptation to overarching explanation. The second thing that you learn that is crucial to writing and thinking about good history is some sort of sympathy or empathy with those that you are writing about. History, C.S. Lewis argued, was a pilgrim who had been through many lands and times and saw that they did things differently elsewhere. Parochialism is not a good thing in politics and historians, history, particularly of other societies, can help us learn that lesson.

The issue I have with Macmillan's work is that she imagines that there are direct lessons to be learnt from history for politics- if there are such lessons I would argue that they are contingent upon a good political judgement. Rather than focus on that, historians should remember that through teaching, engaging with the public, and inculcating historical method they can teach a habit of mind that is useful to the world of statecraft. If this is a plea though it is a dual one- because it is a reminder to the world of history that it has a pedagogic as well as a research function, and to the world of politics that hinterlands and scholarship are important both for politicians and for public servants.


Daniela Major said...

So you are saying that Politics can´t directly learn from History. With History we can´t prevent what´s going to happen next. But can we take any lessons from History?

And about the question in the beggining of your text..I really think that History should tell the truth, no matter ugly or how bad it is.

And there´s something I didn´t understand. Should a historian feel any simpathy for the character he is studying?

Gracchi said...

Not neccesarily that politics cannot learn anything from history but that the lessons of history are complicated.

I agree entirely with that statement- I asked that question provocatively but I think its one that is worth asking and thinking about. If history is a source of exempla then is history good so long as it provides good examples?

I think your last question is interesting- I would argue yes in the sense that the historian's duty is to try and recover why something happened and enter into the minds of those who did it. You may condemn them morally but the historian's role is to understand what they did and why they did it and that involves some sympathy or empathy.

James Higham said...

Am I saying that I was right in proposing to my students that history should serve the purposes of politics?

The Left has shown that to be so - the brainwashing in education is amazing, over three generations.

Gracchi said...

I'll leave the left and brainwashing out of it James! But I think you are right to teach your students history of course- and right to tell them to use it to inform their politics. I just don't think there is this neat world of historical lessons out there- it takes good political judgement to extract the right historical lesson for this moment. Rather I think there are good reasons to use historical method and the historical understanding of hte world in politics.

James Higham said...

This is, in fact, what I urged in understanding our financial woes - just look at U.S. history and the things which repeat themselves, deal with primary sources as far as possible, don't join the dots oneself but let the dots connect themselves.

Gracchi said...

James I do not know enough about the history of the central banks and currencies you attack to critique your theory so I will leave that to others.

I agree that the sources ought to connect themselves but I think its always worth testing them sceptically and testing each source and each interpretation fo that source on its individual merits before you accept the chain completely. I agree with you that an understanding of a historical situation is key to understanding politics- often because people's ideas about their situation are part of that situation and those ideas are founded on history. And because various structures and institutions have histories which go back to their foundation and explain their existance if not their present state. Furthermore some belief systems have a historical component- like religions or even political faiths (Marxism and even your own ideas have a historical component)- so history becomes important in evaluating them as models.

But I'm opposed to any easy parallels- 2009 is not 1929 for example nor was 2003 1939 or 1945- its not that there are not simularities but they must be drawn on with care and considered with care to.

Ultimately I am a sceptic James and that is something I owe to my historical training.

Gracchi said...

That should have been to attack or critique- not to attack to critique- apologies.

Rumbold said...

Yes, as Gracchi says the danger is always that we try and draw parallels from historical events/processes, without understanding that every event has had so many factors affecting it. Take the Iraq/Vietnam comparison which was fashionable a few years ago.

Dave Cole said...

I rather think we need both. This is a similar line to that taken by Robert Fisk regarding journalism; you can't be objective, so you shouldn't try to be. I think there is a place for reporting and a place for propaganda, just so long as it's kept clear which is which. My problem with Fisk is that he presents what could be good correspondence as news-gathering when, clearly, it is not.


edmund said...

i agree strongly with Gracchi's orginal post and Dave Cole. U thiunk t he actual book is a bit more nuanced-she's an impressive women.

Incidenta i do think that the Eden analogy is not the best example of this.Leaving aside the rights and wrongs with Suez and to what degree it is Eden's fault rather than the americans etc -his obsess9ion with Mussolini and his obsession

Daniela the way i'd put it (which i suspect Gracchi would agree with) is it reques sympathy 9in the old sense of the term (understanding)but not necessarily in the more updated sense.