Judt on “A Clown in Regal Purple”

There is an intriguing paragraph in Tony Judt and Tim Snyder’s Thinking the Twentieth Century that made me curious. Judt says to Snyder:

My own tenure case at Berkeley proceeded under the shadow cast by a long article I published in 1979 criticizing popular trends in social history, under the title “A Clown in Regal Purple.” Various colleagues in the history department pompously advised me that, on account of this notorious essay, they would have to vote against me. As one of them explained it to me, this was not because of the essay’s controversial content, but rather because it had “named names.” In particular, William Sewell, one of those whom I had listed as a perpetrator of the more misguided sort of social history, was a Berkeley graduate. For a young assistant professor like myself to dismiss the work of his colleagues’ students was lèse-institution, and unforgivable. Lacking both institutional loyalty and prudential instincts, I of course had never understood the extent of my offense. Thanks to that essay, the tenure vote in my department was split, albeit with a positive majority. Whatever my long-term prospects, the atmosphere felt poisoned. (157)

What was this “Clown in Regal Purple” (link) that stirred up such passions when it was published in 1979? And why would one gifted historian (Judt) take such animus to another gifted historian (Sewell)? The article is worth reading, but frankly — not to Judt’s credit.

The article begins ominously: “This is a bad time to be a social historian.” Surprising — many might say rather that the 1970s and 80s were a particular good time for social history. And Judt’s answer to his own question is also surprising: “Social history is suffering a sever case of pollution.” The pollution in question? It is the intrusion of several pernicious influences into the field: feminism, ethnography, sociological theory, and Chuck Tilly. Ha! Here is Judt’s diagnosis:

Why, it may be asked, do we need a critique of modern social history? The response is that a whole discipline is being degraded and abused; a few more years of the work currently published in certain European and American journals, and social history will have lost all touch with the study of the past. Certain areas of historical investigation, notably the history of women, of revolutions, of industrialisation and its impact, have proved especially vulnerable. (67)

Who does Judt have in mind with his critique of “social history”? He names names — many, many names — which seems to be what particularly annoyed his Berkeley colleagues. But he also paints in broad strokes about the discipline as a whole. In a footnote to this passage he writes:

I have in mind in particular the following: Annales Economies-Societes-Civilisations (cited here as Annales ESC); Comparative Studies in Society and History (cited as CSSH); Journal of Interdisciplinary History (JIH); Journal of Social History (JSH); and, occasionally, Past and Present. (90)

Judt is generally dismissive of the research, rigor, intelligence, historical acumen, and general competence of the social historians whom he considers. The overall impression that he gives — they are self-inflated dunderheads.

The obsession with structures and demography, with what people ate and how many chairs they owned, is a feature of the pages of Annales, much altered since the halcyon days of Bloch and Febvre. Similar ‘static’ obsessions inform the pages of certain English-speaking journals as well. Such concerns are not laudable in themselves. They represent the mindless scraping of the historical dustbin, with no question or problematic behind them. (72)

Mindless scraping of the historical dustbin — what hubris!

Judt has particular scorn for Chuck Tilly:

Here, as elsewhere in his work, one must choose between a megahistorical theory without explanatory value, and a re-description in pretentious terms of a particular process which could better be described in its empirical detail. The model offered is simultaneously overblown and redundant. (69) 

Tilly divides protest into pre-modern and modern, Sewell divides artisans from proletarians on pre-selected criteria of adaptability to bourgeois attitudes, and so forth. This is rubbish — the changing character of rural protest in late nineteenth-century France has nothing to do with definitions of modernity, any more than we have any reason to expect workers in Marseilles to desire upward mobility. (70)

One key thread of Judt’s screed is his view that social history has forgotten about politics — “the means and purposes by which civil society is organised and governed” (68). This is an odd claim in two ways. First, I don’t think that politics is absent in the writings of Sewell or Tilly, so it is an unfair caricature of their work to suggest that it is. But more important — the claim is categorical: “History is about politics”. But surely history is about many things, not just politics. Judt’s own work illustrates the point: in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 he gives much attention to film, consumer habits, the educational system, the automobiles people drive, and many other interesting topics that reflect the multidimensionality and heterogeneity of “history”. And, on the other hand, Judt can be faulted for giving little attention to the details of ordinary life in France, Romania, or the USSR — a key topic of concern for the social historians of the 1970s and 1980s. Judt shows in Postwar that he is very aware of the importance of ordinary culture and social roles in historical settings — and these topics are complementary to issues of “politics” rather than subordinate.

It is very interesting that Judt’s diatribe coincides roughly with the point in time at which the Social Science History Association was founded in 1976. The association was founded to create an alternative voice within the history profession, and to serve as a venue for multi-disciplinary approaches to research and explanation in history. It is very interesting that many of the earliest advocates for this new intellectual configuration — including some of the founders of the association — continued their involvement for decades. Chuck Tilly, Bill Sewell, Andrew Abbott, Myron Gutmann, and Julia Adams all illustrate the importance of interdisciplinary work in their own research and writing, and these social researchers have all brought important innovations into the evolving task of understanding the social world. Here is the SSHA mission statement:

The Social Science History Association is an interdisciplinary group of scholars that shares interests in social life and theory; historiography, and historical and social-scientific methodologies. SSHA might be best seen as a coalition of distinctive scholarly communities. Our substantive intellectual work ranges from everyday life in the medieval world – and sometimes earlier — to contemporary global politics, but we are united in our historicized approach to understanding human events, explaining social processes, and developing innovative theory.

The term “social science history” has meant different things to different academic generations. In the 1970s, when the SSHA’s first meetings were held, the founding generation of scholars took it to reflect their concern to address pressing questions by combining social-science method and new forms of historical evidence. Quantitative approaches were especially favored by the association’s historical demographers, as well as some of the economic, social and women’s historians of the time. By the 1980s and 1990s, other waves of scholars – including culturally-oriented historians and anthropologists, geographers, political theorists, and comparative-historical social scientists — had joined the conversation.

In my view these impulses have been enormously valuable for the writing of social history in North America and Europe, and increasingly influential in Asia. And yet it seems entirely clear from the Purple Clown essay that Judt would have fully rejected both the premise of the organization and its work.

What is Judt’s summary judgment about social history as a discipline in the 1970s? It is glum:

One should not be over-sanguine. A return to the study of politics and ideology, a willingness to criticise and condemn where appropriate, an improvement in the level of scholarship and literacy are none of them very likely in the near future. Newcomers (the history of women, the history of the family) might yet force some rethinking on the profession, in order to avoid being stillborn. But that, too, is unlikely. The pessimistic prognosis is much the more realistic. We are witnessing the slow strangulation of social history, watching while a high fever is diagnosed as blooming good health. If the deity who watches over the profession did indeed desire the death of the past, what better way than to drive its high priests mad? It is quite disconcerting to be associated with this scene of progressive dementia. Now is truly a bad time to be a social historian. (89)

This is certainly not a fair, balanced, or intellectually generous assessment of the research of hundreds of young scholars at work in the 1970s and 1980s. The tone of the article from beginning to end is needlessly polemical and disrespectful — editors “pontificate”, social historians show “their inability to write the English language”, the historians are “academic juveniles”, their arguments are “ludicrous”, they place their “ignorance on display”. The only unambiguously positive remark that comes to mind is about Lefebvre and Soboul on the French Revolution (87) — and actually, Lefebvre and Soboul can only be loosely classified as “social historians”.

What is fundamentally disappointing about Judt’s article is not that it is devoid of legitimate intellectual criticism. It is rather that Judt has adopted such an aggressive, combative, and derogatory tone that it is impossible to take seriously the weightier criticisms that are embedded. The article gives the impression of an extremely dogmatic thinker who is unable to see the purpose or value of the other person’s work. It is a bridge-burning manifesto. In an odd way it finds echoes in comments that Judt makes in Thinking the Twentieth Century about his one-time colleagues at Emory University, whom he described as “rather dowdy”, “mediocre”, and “unforgiving” about his end-run to the dean over a hiring decision. (His comments about his several wives are sometimes just as derogatory.) So maybe the Berkeley faculty members made the right call after all — Judt’s collegiality quotient was low enough to suggest that he was likely to harm the intellectual culture of the department.

Is there a better way of doing “critique” of a whole field? There is. For example, Peter Perdue is an accomplished historian of China who recently wrote a valuable and penetrating assessment on the achievements of the Social Science History Assocation and its journal, Social Science History, over several decades, “From the Outside Looking In: The Annales School, the Non-Western World, and Social Science History” (link). Perdue’s assessment is measured and critical, and it is a valuable contribution to scholars interested in contributing to future research in the field. Perdue’s essay presents a superb point of contrast with Judt’s article. It is critical but not polemical, and it leaves plenty of room for scholars from various points of view to learn and improve their understandings of the challenges facing social history. Significantly, Perdue dismisses Judt’s “vitriolic diatribe” against the Tilly school in a single sentence. Perdue attests to the importance of Tilly’s work in shaping Perdue’s own approach to understanding Chinese social and economic history, including especially China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, and notes the important and constructive influence that Tilly’s writings have had in the China field more broadly. (Here is an appreciation of Tilly’s contributions to the China field; link.) Perdue offers a number of criticisms of the way that research within this community has unfolded over the forty years since 1976. He finds that the Annales school had surprisingly little influence within the SSHA research community. He is disappointed to find that environmental history did not find a secure foothold in SSHA or Social Science History. And he finds that SSHA has a relatively poor record of dealing with transnational and non-European history, including Asian historical topics. These are fair comments, and can serve as valuable navigation points for editors of Social Science History and program organizers of the SSHA. This is useful and constructive commentary and can lead to better and more insightful research in the future. In all these ways Perdue’s critique is fundamentally different from Judt’s “diatribe”: it provides helpful guidance for future directions in the research field.

(Here is an insightful assessment of Judt’s intellectual character in StrangeHistory; link.)

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