History of the present

What is involved in writing a history of the present? It’s not quite the oxymoron it may appear to be. It is often enough that we find ourselves in the middle of complicated, confusing, and interwoven events locally, regionally, or globally — events that require much the same sort of conceptual and integrative work that the Manchu conquest of China or the Odessa mutiny requires for the traditional historian. For example, think of the Red Shirt protests in Thailand a few months ago, or the financial crisis in September 2008. And think of the intellectual challenge presented for the observer to try to arrive at a somewhat detailed interpretation of what was occurring. This is an act of “apperception” — taking many separate pieces of evidence and experience and forging them together into a unified representation. And it seems to have a great deal in common with more traditional historical cognition.

There seems to be one specific way in which the task can’t be done at all. When we are in the midst of something big, we may be able to recognize that it is momentous without really being able to say what “it” is. That is because we don’t know how it is going to turn out. Is it a popular revolution of the have-nots against Thailand’s elites, or a short period of unrest? Is it the beginning of another Great Depression, or just a serious episode of financial turbulence? We can’t answer these questions until the events play out.

That point is fair enough, but it doesn’t really close off the discussion. There is still the question, what can contemporary observers do to understand and document an important event as it unfolds? And here the answer is very similar to traditional historical research. Observers can collect and record documents in real time. They can interview participants. They can view and interpret the communications of the powerful and the insurgents. And, on the basis of these kinds of investigations, they can begin to arrive at interpretations of what is occurring, over what terrain, by what actors, in response to what forces and motives. In other words, they can attempt to arrive at an evidence-based integrative narrative of what the processes of the present amount to.

Think, for example, of western academics who found themselves in Shanghai in the late 1930s. They were in a position to talk with ordinary people, Communist activists, and Guomindang officials. They were able to collect the ephemera of the social struggle that was underway. They were able to observe at close range the Japanese assault on the city. And, perhaps, they were forced to join one of the great mass evacuations in history, with tens of thousands of ordinary Chinese people fleeing the city on foot. These observers lived a bit of China’s history; but they were also in a position to write a part of its current history in 1938. One such academic was Professor Theodore Herman, who lived in China during the period and gathered an important collection of political posters and other ephemera (link).

And we can extend these examples indefinitely. Think of the young African-American activists who went south in 1963, who lived and made this piece of American history; and think of the perspective they were able to arrive at in conceptualizing America, 1963. And for some of these men and women, the discovery and writing of the history was itself an important part of the struggle. (Here is an excerpt of an interview with Professor Gloria House that gives a vivid sense of this aspect of historical experience and interpretation (link).)

So a couple of things seem true. One is that there is a form of “historical apperception” that is just as necessary for understanding the present as for understanding the past. A second point is that a given “history of the present” is doubly contestable: the contemporary’s angle of view may be limited enough that future historians will conclude that the apperception was fundamentally flawed; and the processes underway may turn out so differently from what was expected, that the mid-stream apperception may be judged basically misleading when the process is complete.

But a few other things are true as well. The participant has an immediate access to documents, speeches, and events that later historians can only envy; so by recording these observations the participant can lay a good foundation for later interpretations. The participant has often had direct experiences that give him or her a specific understanding of some aspects of the events — for example, the passions and motives associated with the period. And third, the participant’s historical observations may in fact be remarkably acute, taking observations of current activities and constructing them into a historical representation that holds up well. So attempting to write a history of significant events in the present is a valid intellectual goal.

So far I’ve looked at the easy part of the question: historical apperception of specific events and processes. Much harder is the more general question: to what extent is it possible for an observer in 2000 to attempt an interpretation of “fin-de-siècle” America? That is, to what extent is it possible to encapsulate the broad sweep of the present from the perspective of the present? And here we can probably agree with Zhou Enlai in 1989 when asked, “what is the significance of the French Revolution?” — “It is too early to tell.”

Wartime China

Photo: Robert Capa’s photograph of The Boy Soldier, Hankou, China, late March 1938 © Cornell Capa / Magnum International Centre of Photography

China’s experience of World War II (1937-1945) was in some ways as destructive and horrific as that of the Soviet Union. Japan’s occupation of many parts of China was extremely brutal, with terrible massacres in Nanjing and other cities, the use of chemical and biological weapons, and extreme mistreatment of civilians and prisoners of war. And the violence deployed against civilian populations in cities — both air attack and ground forces — produced vast numbers of refugees surging towards safer destinations in the interior of the country. Estimates indicate that tens of millions of Chinese people, perhaps as many as one hundred million people, of all social strata, were forced into painful and dangerous migration. (The photo above suggests the chaos and suffering this implies.) Casualty figures are somewhat imprecise, but estimates range from 10 to 20 million deaths, with the great majority being civilian deaths. (The Wikipedia entry offers a number on the higher end: 3.8 million military and and 16.2 million civilian, for a total of 20 million deaths.) So the experience of war for China’s population must have created a searing, formative experience for the several age cohorts who were caught up in it.

Stephen MacKinnon’s recent book Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China casts a bright light on the great suffering that China experienced during the war years (1937-1945). MacKinnon focuses on the strategically and historically crucial role that Wuhan played in the unfolding of Japan’s war of conquest over China. Wuhan is a tricity on the upper Yangzi, including Hankou, Hanyang, and Wuchang in close proximity at the juncture of the Han and Yangzi rivers. In 1938 it had a combined population of roughly two million, and hundreds of thousands of refugees soon crowded into the city. The location of Wuhan along the Yangzi placed the city in a central position from the point of view of Japanese war planning: capturing Wuhan would leave central China open to rapid conquest.

The story of Wuhan is one of the more positive episodes in China’s military efforts to resist Japanese occupation. After the rapid fall of Shanghai and other coastal cities, it was expected that Wuhan would fall quickly as well. In fact, the defense of Wuhan was much more effective than previous efforts had been, and the Chinese military was successful in delaying Japan’s offensive into the interior by a crucial ten months. When it eventually fell, Republican forces were able to fall back to Chongqing, and though the Japanese subjected the wartime capital to intensive bombing, they did not succeed in capturing the city. So the prolonged defense of Wuhan set the stage for a turning point in the Chinese resistance to Japan.

MacKinnon offers an analogy that was current in 1938: Wuhan is China’s Madrid. The analogy implies several things — a place where republican forces took a major stand against their enemies; a place where there was a flowering of expression, politics, and literature; a place where desperation and hope intermingled to produce courage, resistance, and endurance. Wuhan became a focus for intellectuals, artists, and political activists throughout China and the world in these months. Much as western writers and artists made their way to Madrid in 1936, they also came to Wuhan in 1938. Robert Capa, W. H. Auden, and Christopher Isherwood traveled to Wuhan and added their creative voices to the mix. Auden and Isherwood published many of their observations about China’s experience in Journey to a War, and Robert Capa’s photographs from this period capture much of the pathos and destruction that the city’s defense involved. (MacKinnon reproduces a number of Capa’s photographs in the book.)

MacKinnon’s book provides a schematic military history of the Japanese assault on Wuhan. But the book is not primarily an exercise in military history; instead, MacKinnon also gives focused attention to the civilian part of the story: the burst of journalism and political debate that took place in the city, the great expansion of social services for orphans and displaced persons, and the mobilization of students and other young people in support of the war effort. The cultural experience of Wuhan is as important a part of the story as the military events.

And in fact, MacKinnon thinks that part of the significance of the defense of Wuhan in these months was the flourishing of mobilization of the mass population in social and cultural affairs, as well as in dedicated defense of the city and the war effort. “Wuhan in 1938 became a laboratory for cultural experimentation. The intellectuals who gathered at Wuhan — a group that included the nationally prominent figures in most fields — shared a consensus that their nation needed to turn culture into a potent weapon in the war against the Japanese. They sought to reshape arts and letters to reach the masses — especially the rural masses — and persuade them, at the least, to cease cooperating with Japanese occupying forces” (115). (This is pertinent to the issue of “nationalism” discussed in the mention of Chalmers Johnson’s treatment of the Chinese Revolution in a prior posting.)

The topic of Wuhan and wartime China is inherently interesting and important. But it is also valuable from the point of view of historiography. Consider the choices that an historian must face in setting out to write a history of an event of the scope of Wuhan 1938. This event is more localized and limited than “the French Revolution” or “British colonialism in South Asia.” At the same time, it is far more complex and multi-stranded than events such as “the assassination of President Lincoln” or “MacArthur’s decision to cross the Yalu”. The Wuhan story involves millions of people, military organizations of great complexity, movements of population, rapidly changing political circumstances, the creation of dozens of newspapers, and shifts in popular culture. And the consequences of the Wuhan episode are complex and unexpected as well. So the historian is forced to decide which threads he or she will focus on; what she wants to explain; and how much of the story to attempt to tell.

Consider the wide range of questions that could be posed about this piece of China’s history: What were the actions and deployments of the Japanese and Chinese military forces in the middle Yangzi region during 1938? What was the nature of the human experience of civilians in Wuhan during the period of assault, bombardment, and destruction? How did circumstances of Guomindang leadership and power relationships influence the behavior and deployment of the Chinese military? What role did Communist forces and leaders play in the defense of Wuhan? What influence did the defense of Wuhan have on later events in the conduct of the war? How was the battle of Wuhan captured in popular memory in China? What influence did this historical moment have on future developments of politics or culture?

So one could try to use available historical sources to tell a fairly straightforward factual narrative; one could give an interpretation of the actions and choices of the leaders and generals; one could attempt to reconstruct the experiences and memories of ordinary Chinese people who lived through these events; and one could offer an analysis of historical causation: X led to Y, Y had important consequences Z. The point here is a simple one: each of these approaches is a different kind of historical reasoning and presentation, and each involves a somewhat different kind of historical reconstruction. It is possible to interweave these approaches; but their foundations in evidence and reasoning are fairly distinct.

Wuhan is one episode in a long and painful period of warfare against the Chinese people. But MacKinnon believes that this episode may have had important effects on the political psychology of China as a whole for the decades that followed. He closes his book with these sentences: “Finally, the most important impact of the wartime refugee experience on the history of modern China … may be psychological. The scars on the national psyche are a deeply tragic legacy… In China the Great Anti-Japanese War produced a survivor mentality — a kind of psychic numbness to violence and ability to endure oppression without protest — that continued well after 1945 and possibly laid the groundwork for sullen acceptance of the horrors of the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s” (118).

(Another book worth reading in this general area is Poshek Fu’s Passivity, Resistance, and Collaboration: Intellectual Choices in Occupied Shanghai, 1937-1945.)

Objectivity and bias in complex happenings

Complicated things happen: riots occur, military coups take place, governments collapse. The happenings consist of a myriad of events and actions, many social actors, and a range of political interests and grievances. We want to know what happened; who did what; and who is responsible for the course that events took. It is one of the tasks of journalists, commentators, and historians to arrive at accounts of complicated things that answer many of these questions. And we want those accounts to be objective, truthful, and unbiased. Each account is a creative act of selection and narrative construction; the analyst has to sort out the evidence that is available to him or her and arrive at a chronology and a causal interpretation that makes sense, based on the evidence.

What we want from the historian and the journalist is easily described, though achieved with difficulty. We want an account that provides an accurate and truthful narrative of the events, based on the best available factual and historical information. We want an account that avoids the biases of the actors, including especially those of the most powerful actors who have the greatest capacity to shape the story — the government, the military, and the major parties. We want an investigator who is able to question his/her own initial assumptions — sympathy for the underdog, patient acceptance of the government’s good intentions, or whatever. And we want a narrative that provides a balanced synthesis of the many events of the time period into a storyline with a degree of coherence: what the major events were, what choices were made by the actors, what the motivations of the actors were, and perhaps — who acted responsibly and who acted recklessly or out of narrow self-interest.

It has to be acknowledged at the start that there are often multiple truthful, unbiased narratives that can be told for a complex event. Exactly because many things happened at once, actors’ motives were ambiguous, and the causal connections among events are debatable, it is possible to construct inconsistent narratives that are equally well supported by the evidence. Further, the intellectual interest that different reporters bring to the happening can lead to differences in the narrative: one reporter may be primarily interested in the role that different views of social justice played in the actions of the participants; another may be primarily interested in the role that social networks played, so the narrative is structured around network connections; and a third may be especially interested in the role of charismatic personalities, with a consequent structuring to the narrative. Each of these may be truthful, objective, unbiased — and inconsistent in important ways with the others. So narratives are underdetermined by the facts. And there is no such thing as an exhaustive and comprehensive telling of the story — only various tellings that emphasize one set of themes or another. That said — it is entirely possible that a given event will have provided enough factual data in the form of witness reports, government documents, YouTube videos, etc., that the main sequence of events, cast of actors and responsibility for events are unambiguous.

The example I’m thinking of in particular is the recent period of demonstration and riot in Bangkok involving red shirts, followers of former prime minister Thaksin, and the government and military. (See several other posts here and here.) But other examples are easily found: the taking of the Bastille, the Haymarket Square riot in Chicago (pictured above), the return of Franco to Malaga, or the decision of General MacArthur to cross the Yalu River in Korea. Virtually every historical event is a complex happening; so the problems raised here are endemic to historical interpretation.

One of the important issues being debated right now in Thailand is the question of arriving at a balanced and fact-based judgment of the amount of force that was used by the military in dispersing the crowds of protesters on April 13-14. The government reports that it used minimal force — paper bullets, firm orders to fire above the crowds when using live ammunition, and a very low number of casualties as a result. Critical observers suspect a different story; based on memories of past repression by the military in times of street demonstrations, there is suspicion that the amount of violence was much greater. Some commentators speculate that there may have been many more deaths than have been reported and that the bodies were secretly taken away; ambiguous videos are brought forward as evidence for this possibility. So how are we to sort out the truth of the matter?

We can raise the question of objectivity at two levels: the investigator and the narrative. So let’s begin with the narrative itself — what do we want in a good comprehensive piece of journalism that tells this story accurately and fairly? We want an account that lays out the causes, events, and actions that made up this period of several weeks of protest and reaction. We want to know what organizations and leaders took what actions at what time, to call forth what organized responses. We want to know what key decisions the government made. We want to know how the prime minister and the police and military deliberated about responses to massive demonstrations. We want to know how the several occasions of mob violence against officials and offices transpired. We want to know the crucial details of the final hours of confrontation between the military and the crowd, and the degree of violence that transpired at that point.

And what do we want from the investigator of this complex happening in Bangkok? We want a commitment to arriving at the most truthful account of the story possible; a commitment to considering the full range of empirical and factual evidence available; and an ability to tell the story without regard to one’s antecedent affinities and loyalties. It shouldn’t be a “yellow shirt” or a “red shirt” story; it should be a factual story, based on critical reading and assessment of the available evidence. In order to arrive at such an account, the honest reporter needs to exercise critical good sense about the sources and the interests that the conveyors of the information have: the biases of the government, the press, and the parties as they provide evidence and interpretation of the events. And we want this account to be as free as possible of the interfering influences of bias and political interest. We want an honest and comprehensive synthesis, not a one-sided spin.

The good news is — both goals are possible. The standards and values associated with both good historical writing and good journalism lead at least some investigators to exert their talents and integrity to do the best job they can to use the evidence to discover the details of the story. Not all journalists are equally committed to these standards — that’s why we prefer the I. F. Stones to the Jayson Blairs of the world. But enough are committed that we’ve got a good shot at sorting out the realities and responsibilities of the complex happenings that surround us through their objective, fact-based reporting.

Maps, narratives, and abstraction

It is obvious that maps are selective representations of the world. They represent an abstraction: a representation of a complex, dense reality that signifies some characteristics while deliberately ignoring other aspects. The principles of selection used by the cartographer are highly dependent on the expected interests of the user. Topography will be relevant to the hiker but not the motorist. Location of points of interest will be important to the tourist but not the long-distance trucker. Location of railroad hubs will be valued by the military planner but not the birdwatcher. So there is no such thing as a comprehensive map — one that represents all geographical details; and there is also no such thing as a truly “all-purpose” map — one that includes all the details that any user could want.

We also know that there are different schemes of representation of geography — different projections, different conventions for representing items and relationships, etc. So there is no objectively best map of a given terrain. Rather, comparing maps for adequacy, accuracy, and usefulness requires semantic and pragmatic comparison. (Here the word “semantic” is used in a specialized sense: “having to do with the reference relationship between a sign and the signified.”) Semantically, we are interested in the correspondence between the map and the world. The conventions of a given cartography imply a specific set of statements about the spatial relations that actually exist among places, as well as denoting a variety of characteristics of places. So there is a perfectly natural question to ask of a given map: is it representationally accurate? This sort of assessment leads to judgments like these: This map does a more accurate job of representing driving distances than that one, given the rules of representation that each presupposes. This map errs in representing the relative population sizes of Cleveland and Peoria. These are features that have to do with the accuracy of the correspondence between the map and the world.

The pragmatic considerations have to do with how well the representation or its underlying conventions conform to how various people want to use it. Maps are particularly dependent on pragmatic considerations. We need to assess the value of a map with respect to a set of practical interests. How well does the map convey the information about places and spatial relationships that the user will want to consult? How have the judgments about what to include and what to exclude worked out from the point of view of the user? Pragmatic considerations lead to judgments like these: this mapping convention corresponds better to the needs of the military planner or the public health official than that one. The pragmatic questions about a map have to do with a different kind of fit — fit between the features and design of the map and the practical interests of a particular set of users. Do the conventions of the given cartography correspond well to the interests that specific sets of users have in the map?

Here is the point of this discussion: are there useful analogies between the epistemology of maps and the cognitive situation of other representational constructs — for example, historical narratives and scientific theories? Several points of parallel seem particularly evident. First, narratives and theories are selective too. It is impossible to incorporate every element of a historical event or natural process into a theory or narrative; rather, it is necessary to select a storyline that permits us to provide a partial account of what happened. This is true for the French Revolution; but it is also true for the trajectory of a hockey puck.

Second, there is a parallel point about veridicality that applies to narratives and theories as much as to maps. No map stands as an isolated representation; rather, it is embedded within a set of conventions of representation. We must apply the conventions in order to discover what “assertions” are contained in the representation. So maps are in an important sense “conventional.” However, given the conventions of the map, we can undertake to evaluate its accuracy. And this is true for narratives and theories as well; we can attempt to assess the degree of approximate truth possessed by the construction. Are the statements about the nature of the events and their sequence approximately true? (Given that an account of the French Revolution singles out class interests of parties within the narrative, has the historian correctly described the economic interests of the Jacobins?)

And third, the point about the relevance of users’ interests to assessment of the construction seems pertinent to narratives and theories as well. The civil engineer who is investigating the collapse of a building will probably find a truthful analysis of the thermodynamics of the HVAC system unhelpful, even though it is true. The detective investigating a robbery of a party store will probably become impatient at a narrative that highlights the sequence of street noises that were audible during the heist, rather than the descriptions and actions of the visitors during the relevant time.

When it comes to narratives and theories, there is another value dimension that we want to impose on the construction: the idea of explanatory adequacy. A narrative ought to provide a basis for explaining the “how and why” of historical events; it ought to single out the circumstances and reasoning that help to explain the actions of participants, and it ought to highlight some of the environmental circumstances that influenced the outcome. A scientific theory is intended to identify some of the fundamental causal factors that explain a puzzling phenomenon — the turbulence that occurs in a pot of water as it approaches the boiling point, for example. So when we say that a narrative or a theory is an abstraction, part of what we’re getting at is the idea that the historian or natural scientist has deliberately excluded factors that don’t make a difference, in order to highlight a set of factors that do make a difference.

Narrative history

People sometimes imagine that history is narrative, full stop. This is not the case; there certainly are important forms of historical writing that do not take the form of narrative. But let’s consider some of the logical features of narrative, since there is no disputing that this is one important variety of historical knowledge.

What is a narrative? Most generally, it is an account of how and why a situation or event came to be. A narrative is intended to provide an account of how a complex historical event unfolded and why. We want to understand the event in time. What were the contextual features that were relevant to the outcome — the settings at one or more points in time that played a role? What were the actions and choices that agents performed, and why did they take these actions rather than other possible choices? What causal processes — either social or natural — may have played a role in bringing the world to the outcome of interest? (For example, the Little Ice Age pushed Europe’s population into different patterns of cultivation and fishing, with major consequences for subsequent developments; Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850.)

So a narrative seeks to provide hermeneutic understanding of the outcome — why did actors behave as they did in bringing about the outcome? — and causal explanation — what social and natural processes were acting behind the backs of the actors in bringing about the outcome? And different narratives represent different mixes of hermeneutic and causal factors. Bob Woodward’s narrative of the Bush administration’s decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein is primarily actor-centered and interpretive — who said what, who influenced the decisions, the reasons and motives that ultimately prevailed with the president and top national security officials (Plan of Attack). Juan Cole’s treatment of the same historical moment, on the other hand, gives more emphasis to hidden motives — what the “real” objectives were (see his blog, InformedComment). But both authors aim to clarify the reasoning, motives, and dynamics among decision-makers that led to the outcome.

Narratives about the decision to go to war against Hussein’s Iraq have an important feature on common: they single out a fairly brief historical moment and focus on the proximate actions and causes that created the outcome. This is an instance of “micro-history” — an effort to explain and understand an important but bounded event. Is it possible to construct narratives of more extended historical processes?

Certainly it is. Consider histories of World War II, the Holy Roman Empire, or the Qing Dynasty. These are each large complexes including thousands of events and conditions over an extended period of time. Histories of these topics often take the form of chronologically organized presentations of occurrences and conditions, with a narrative storyline that attempts to hold these events together in a single story. There may also be an effort to break down the history topically or regionally — “War in the Pacific; North Africa; Western Europe” or “Technology; Intelligence; Supply and Industry; Command; Genocide”. But for the history to take the form of a narrative, there needs to be an organized effort to weave the account into a somewhat coherent story; a series of intertwined events and conditions leading eventually to an outcome.

A crucial and unavoidable feature of narrative history is the fact of selectivity. The narrative historian is forced to make choices and selections at every stage: between “significant” and “insignificant”, between “sideshow” and “main event”, and between levels of description. (Is World War II better described at the level of generals and policy-makers or infantrymen and factory workers?)

Another crucial feature of the genre of narrative history is the tension between structure and agency. Historians differ about where to set the balance between constraining structures and choosing agents. Partially this is a difference of opinion about the relative weight of various kinds of historical factors; but it is also a disagreement about what is interesting — choices or background conditions.

What are the criteria of success for a historical narrative? To start, there is the issue of the factual claims included in the account. A narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency that gets the names of the members of his cabinet wrong will not do well in the New York Times Book Review. Second, there is the overall persuasiveness and foundation in evidence of the interpretations of actions that are offered. Third, the causal claims that the account advances will be tested for their empirical and logical foundations. If the claim is made that some aspect of Andrew Jackson’s presidency was influenced by the fragility of current banking institutions, we will want to assess whether this financial feature could be judged to have this result in the circumstances.

These are criteria that relate directly to the epistemic status of the many claims that the narrative advances. In addition, it is plausible that we evaluate narratives according to non-evidentiary criteria: the coherence of the story that is told, the degree of fit between “our” interest in the historical moment and the content of the narrative, and the degree of “lean” comprehensiveness the author provides. Does the author provide enough of the right sorts of details to make the story comprehensible, without overwhelming the reader with a thicket of extraneous facts?

Some of these criteria are clearly epistemic, having to do with evidence and credibility. But others are more aesthetic and interest-based, having to do with how well the account fits our expectations and interests. And this fact seems to set a bound on the degree to which one account is objectively superior to another.

Why does unrest spread?

Why does social unrest occur and spread?

This is a little bit of a trick question. It really implies three questions: What are the circumstances that make unrest in a population possible or likely? What circumstances need to occur in order to precipitate expressions of unrest in particular places? And what circumstances are conducive to spreading (or damping out) these local expressions?

First, how might we define the concept of “unrest”? To my ear the concept involves grievance and activism. Grievance involves the situation where individuals and groups feel that they have been badly treated by someone. Activism implies a disposition to act visibly and politically to protest or alleviate this mistreatment. Grievance can exist without activism, and there are instances of activism that stem from emotions other than grievance. But when these emotional and behavioral states come together we can refer to the resulting stew of behavior as “unrest”.

So let’s start with the causes of grievance. Power relations create the emotions of grievance: excessive conscription or taxation, insufficient attention to the interests of an ethnic minority, abusive and disrespectful treatment by the police. When individuals and groups believe they are being treated in ways that unfairly harm their interests or reduce their dignity, they are likely to feel aggrieved.

Grievance is a propositional emotion; it involves a subject, a harm, and a perpetrator. And this means that grievance is not simply a reaponse to suffering. Take a population that is experiencing dearth in the early stages of famine. Individuals and sub-groups may differ in their experience of grievance; they may hold different social actors responsible for their suffering (landlords, lenders, city people, the military, or the state, for example). And these differences have implications for how and when these groups may be aroused to protest and action.

What about “activism”? What kind of psycho-political state is this? It is a propensity to make the transition from political emotion to action — to go from resentment of the state’s behavior to the choice of joining a street demonstration; to go from anger about conscription to joining an anti-draft organization; to go from frustration about the landlord’s unwillingness to restore the heat to joining with others in a rent strike. “Activism” appears to be a complex characteristic of individuals and groups. For one thing, it seems to have a substantial component of culture and tradition baked into it. Cultures seem to differ in their responses to mistreatment; some communities seem to have resources for activist mobilization that others lack. Second, there appears to be a substantial degree of social learning through imitation involved in becoming “activist.” So it is likely that there is a degree of positive feedback involved in the spread of activist psychology.

So back to the original question: what causes the spread of unrest? There needs to be an issue that creates a grievance in a significant number of people. Something needs to happen to make this issue salient relative to other concerns. There needs to be a critical mass of people who share the grievance and possess the components of the social emotions of activism. And there needs to be a “spark” that allows activists to mobilize others.

Consider a hypothetical example — a company with dozens of factories in different parts of the country that is imposing a unilateral change in its contributions to worker retirement accounts. Suppose each factory has several thousand workers; and suppose that there is a range of responses to the retirement changes in the various factories along these lines:

  • Quiescence and grudging acceptance
  • Widespread grousing but no organized action
  • Wildcat strikes

What factors might account for these different responses to essentially the same event?

Several possible explanations might be considered:

  • The presence/absence of effective rank-and-file leaders
  • The presence/absence of effective local managers’ countermeasures (persuasion, cooptation, threats)
  • Strong/weak traditions of activism in different locations
  • Alternative narratives about what the changes mean (“inevitable in this business climate”, “better this than a lot of layoffs”, “higher management is taking this opportunity to stiff us”, ….)
  • High/low impact of the management changes on the interests of workers in each location
  • Strong/weak channels of communication among workers in different factories

It is, of course, a matter for empirical investigation to determine whether some or all of these factors played a causal role. But we can give good theoretical reasons for thinking that these are socially possible mechanisms that may underlie the observed differences in behavior.

We might speculate, then, that unrest is most likely to occur and spread when there is an abuse that affects a large number of people; there is a generally shared understanding of the nature of the abuse; there are effective local activists capable of arousing the indignation of the rank-and-file; there are accessible communication vehicles permitting the spreading of messages of dissent; the population has a tradition of activism; and the state’s managers are ineffectual in damping down the occurrences of protest. These conditions appear most favorable for the dissemination of unrest.

Marx’s historical thinking

Marx’s theories are deeply historical, in that he wants to explain the dynamics of change of large historical formations such as capitalism or feudalism, and he insists on putting social events into historical context. And, of course, Marx is most celebrated for developing a general approach to historical explanation, the theory of historical materialism. But how does Marx do when he treats concrete historical events? How is Marx as an historian?

There are surprisingly few extended examples of detailed historical analysis in Marx’s writings. There is Marx’s account of “primitive accumulation” in English agrarian history in the 17th and 18th centuries in Capital. There are occasional references to the Roman Empire and classical slavery throughout his work. And there are his important writings about the French urban uprisings during 1848 and its aftermath (The Eighteenth Brumaire and The Civil War in France). These essays include quite a bit of historical detail — personalities, events, parties, speeches. But they are closer to political journalism than to careful historical analysis. They are based primarily upon Marx’s personal contemporary observations — not on the usual historian’s studies in archives and secondary sources. They come closer to personal recollections and observations than to a typical historical research product.

If there is a unifying theme of interpretation in these articles, it is the idea that the parties and factions pursue programs that are based on class interests. The party of order defends property and privilege, and the party of progress expresses and defends the interests of the underclasses — urban workers and artisans. Theorists such as Nicos Poulantzas have used these texts as a basis for propounding theories of political consciousness and action and the “relative autonomy” of politics. The essays illustrate Marxist theories of politics. But considered solely from the point of view of historiography and historical knowledge, the articles aren’t particularly distinguished.

Let’s make an unfair but informative contrast: a comparison between Marx’s writings and those of some of the great twentieth-century historians whom his ideas inspired. I’m thinking of scholars like Albert Soboul, Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, Maurice Dobb, or Gene Genovese. Each of these scholars borrowed deeply from Marx’s social theories — class, power, consciousness, resistance, economic structure, property systems, labor. But each of these historians does something else as well: he digs deeply into the gnarly, special, and resistant reality of historical events and groups — peasant movements, churches and manifestoes, parties and conspiracies, slave quarters. These historians try to discover the particular and peculiar graininess of history; they allow theory to rest lightly on their narratives.

So what does Marx have to teach us about the craft of historical writing and reasoning? I’m inclined to say that Marx uses history but doesn’t really write history. His writings are historically oriented, but they are almost never works of primary historical discovery and explanation. Marx is a theorist of historical processes; but he is not really a working historian, and his writings don’t really offer much by way of innovative historical reasoning. It remained for Marxist historians of the twentieth century to bring together Marx’s theoretical insights with rigorous methods of historical research and discovery.

Turning points

Are there turning points in history? How would we know if we’re in the midst of one? Does the current financial crisis represent a turning point in the development of the US economy? Did the election of Ronald Reagan represent a turning point in American politics and government?

Often what is announced as a turning point eventually seems like a change without a difference — an example of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, of changing drivers but not direction. Nguyen van Thieu takes office in Vietnam in 1967 and a new era is announced; but then the same old policies persist and Vietnam slides ever further towards Communist victory.

A turning point might be defined as an event, action, or choice, that profoundly alters the direction of a whole series of subsequent events. The New Deal is perhaps a candidate in the development of the political-social culture of the United States — a new set of policies, laws, and strategies that set the United States on a new direction and that substantially constrained later choices by government. The notion of a turning point conveys the situation of contingency — up until T things might have continued within the existing pattern P, but after T things shifted to P‘. And it conveys the idea of path dependency as well — now that the turning point has occurred and P’ is embodied, it is much more difficult to return to P. So a turning point results from some contingent event that occurs within a system at a particular time and substantially inflects the future dynamics of development of the system. The idea turns on the background assumption that there are mechanisms or forces that sustain the development of the system, and that contingent events can “push” the system onto a different course for a while.

What sorts of things can have turning points? Can an individual have one? What about a family or a marriage? How about a business or a university? And how about a nation or a civilization? We might say that anything that has a recognizable and somewhat stable pattern of development can display a turning point. So each of these orders of human affairs can do so. An individual may be influenced by a traumatic event or a charismatic person and may change his ways; from that point forward he may behave differently — more honestly, more cautiously, more compassionately. The event was a turning point on his development. A “velvet revolution” may be on a course that gives great importance to non-violent tactics. Then something happens — a violent repression by the state, the emergence of a new clique of leaders more open to violence. The velvet revolution undergoes a turning point and becomes more violent in its strategies.

Schematically, the idea of a turning point involves an ontology something like this: system properties in a state of persistence > singular event > new system properties in a state of persistence.

So how could we know that we’re at a turning point? The answer seems to be: we can’t. Only the larger course of history can indicate whether contemporary changes will be large and persistent, or cosmetic and evanescent.

The idea of a “turning point” is perhaps one of the analytical categories that we use to characterize and analyze the sweep of history. It is a narrative device that highlights persistence, contingency, and direction. And, it would appear, we’ve got to wait until the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings before we can say with confidence when they occur.

History, memory, and narrative

What is the relation between “history”, “memory”, and “narrative”? We might put these concepts into a crude map by saying that “history” is an organized and evidence-based presentation of of the processes and events that have occurred for a people over an extended period of time; “memory” is the personal recollections and representations of individuals who lived through a series of events and processes; and “narratives” are the stories that historians and ordinary people weave together to make sense of the events and happenings through which a people and a person have lived. We use narratives to connect the dots of things that have happened; to identify causes and meanings within this series of events; and to select the “important” events and processes out from the ordinary and inconsequential.

If we think that “history” should be informed by the ways in which historical events were experienced by individuals, then we must also address the question of how to use the evidence of memory as a prism for attributing subjective, lived experience to the people who lived this history. If we are interested in the Great Leap Forward famine years, for example, we need to know more than the timeline of harvest failure or the map of grain distress across China; we need to know how various groups experienced this time of hardship. And for this we need to have access to documents and interviews reporting the experience of individuals in their own words; we need to have access to memory.

A particularly valuable body of work on China’s recent history is currently underway, in the form of careful use of oral histories, memoirs, and other expressions of personal memories of some of China’s most dramatic chapters of national history. C. K. Lee and Guobin Yang have presented some excellent examples of this work in Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memory in Reform China. The book contains chapters that draw out important new insights into the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the changing conditions of women, cinema, the experience of ethnic minorities, and the occurrence of violence and disorder in the past sixty years in China’s history. Every chapter sheds new light on something of interest; the book is an absorbing read. Especially interesting are chapters by Paul Pickowicz and Guobin Yang.

In “Rural Protest Letters: Local Perspectives on the State’s War on Tillers” Paul Pickowicz describes an extensive collection of interviews and private writings of a single Hebei peasant leader, Geng Xiufeng, written between the 1950s and the 1990s. Geng’s writings often take the form of protest letters, addressed to leaders extending from local party officials to Chairman Mao himself. Geng also maintained a journal in which he recorded his observations of the effects of various state-directed reforms of agriculture — and the inimical effects these reforms had on peasant standard of living. Geng was a peasant activist and leader in the 1940s in support of rural cooperatives, as a practical mechanism for improving agriculture and improving local peasants’ standard of living. And he turns out to be an astute and honest observer of the twists and turns of policy disaster (rapid collectivization of agriculture), corruption, and disregard of peasants’ welfare by the CCP. (This latter is the meaning of Pickowicz’s phrase, “the state’s war on tillers.”) Pickowicz had conducted a number of interviews with Geng in the 1970s and 1980s, and was greatly surprised to learn that Geng had written dozens of protest letters and had accumulated a multi-volume memoir that chronicled many of these social observations about change in North China. The content of these writings is fascinating; but even more important is the evidence they offer of the astute abilities possessed by ordinary Chinese people in observing and criticizing the processes of change that enmeshed them. These manuscripts offer Pickowicz — and us — a window into the consciousness of some ordinary rural people as China’s history enveloped them; and they make evident the fact that Chinese peasants were not mere passive instruments, but rather practical, observant, and sometimes wise thinkers about revolution and reform.

Guobin Yang’s article, “‘A Portrait of Martyr Jiang Qing’: The Chinese Cultural Revolution on the Internet” touches the other end of the information spectrum — not handwritten letters and reflections penned in the 1950s, but over 100 contemporary websites devoted to archiving and chronicling the Cultural Revolution. There are widely divergent stories that can be told in defining the Cultural Revolution as an episode of history: an excess of leftism, a deliberate use of power by China’s leaders against each other and against society, a period of social hysteria, or even “still a good idea.” (The latter is the theme taken by the website incorporated into Yang’s title — “A Portrait of Martyr Jiang Qing.” This is one of the few publicly available websites that Yang unearthed that continues to glorify Madame Mao and her fellow radicals.) Yang demonstrates that we can learn a lot about how the current generation views the Cultural Revolution — and the strands of disagreement that continue to divide opinion about its causes and meanings — by examining in detail the editorial judgments and online commentaries that accompany these online “exhibition halls”.

The use of photography and cinema to represent memory — both individual and collective — is an important theme in the volume. The photograph above, representing a “struggle” session against “class enemies,” captures a particular moment in time — two particular men, exposed to a particular crowd. It also emblemizes scenes that were common throughout China during the Cultural Revolution. And, presumably, it triggers very specific personal memories for individual Chinese people who lived through the Cultural Revolution, whether as victims, Red Guards, or bystanders. As David Davies notes in “Visible Zhiqing: The Visual Culture of Nostalgia among China’s Zhiqing Generation”, no photograph stands wholly by itself. But some photos have the directness and honesty needed to stand for a whole dimension of historical experience — in this case, the violence and humiliation perpetrated against teachers, scholars, and officials by zealous mobs of Red Guards and their followers. In this way the photo can faithfully capture one important strand of the history of this period.

One thing I particularly appreciate in the volume is the innovative thinking it provides about the nexus of experience, identity, and history. The editors and contributors are very sensitive to the fact that there is no single “Hebei experience” or “Chinese women’s experience”; instead, the oral history materials permit the contributors to discern both variation and some degree of thematicization of memory and identity.

Another important contribution of the volume is the emphasis it offers to the idea of the agency involved in memory. Memories must be created; agents must find frameworks within which to understand their moments of historical experience. “As people grope for moral and cognitive frameworks to understand, assess, and sometimes resist these momentous changes in their lives, memories of the revolution thrive” (1).

A third and equally important thrust of the volume is the persuasive idea that memories become part of the political mobilization possibilities that exist for a group. Groups find their collective identities through shared understandings of the past; and these shared understandings provide a basis for future collective action. So memory, identity, and mobilization hang together.

Continental philosophy of social science

Making sense of the human world has always been a part of the continental tradition in philosophy. History, justice, and meaning are subjects that have played central roles in continental writings relevant to “understanding society” for three centuries, and dozens of philosophers have focused on these and related topics in deeply fertile ways — Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, Montesquieu, Vico, Herder, Schleiermacher, Fichte, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Dilthey, to name an important dozen. I don’t think it is wrong to say that history and society have been foundational questions in this tradition in ways they have not been in the Anglo-American tradition. So continental philosophy of social science (CPS) has much to draw upon.

Several strands of thinking have been particularly important.

First is the idea that the human world is a world of meanings and relationships. Human action is meaningful for the agent, and it is meaningful for the other humans who are affected or observe it. So an important part of understanding the social world is interpretation of the created meanings of actions, expressions, and artifacts. This line of thought brings us into the hermeneutic tradition, from Dilthey to Ricoeur, and the range of efforts in philosophy, theology, criticism, and psychology to provide a basis for interpretation. (See an earlier posting on this subject.)

A second important idea is the notion that the social world is constituted by relationships, not monads. Hegel’s Phenomenology provides one clear instance of this perspective — think of the logic of defining the subject through interaction with the object, or of the Master-Slave narrative. Marx’s theories of alienation and class likewise place “human beings in relationships” at the ontological center. Nietzsche too places the relational at the center of many of his philosophical theories.

A third pillar of thinking in this tradition is the crucial role of history in human affairs. History matters; it is through history that humanity makes itself, and central social creations are the product of long historical evolution — the state, language, religion. Vico and Herder offer good examples of this approach, and Hegel offers another. The philosophy of history is core to Hegel’s thinking — not only in his lecture notes on the philosophy of history but the Philosophy of Right and the Phenomenology of Spirit as well.

A fourth important theme in CPS is the idea of knowledge through criticism. Feuerbach’s transformative criticism is a case in point; likewise Marx’s method of critique as an intellectual method and a conception of rigor. The phrase “a critique of political economy” recurs in numerous of Marx’s subtitles; Marx’s thought often proceeds through critical rethinking of the works of others. Dialectical thinking is one version of this approach, but there are other species of criticism as well.

A fifth defining characteristic of CPS is the orientation it takes towards causation in the social world. In a nutshell, CPS doesn’t attach much importance to causal relationships in the social world. Causation is a feature of the natural world, but CPS draws a sharp distinction between the natural and human worlds. The “human sciences” have to do with understanding rather than explanation, meanings rather than causes.

So, CPS calls out a number of characteristics of the social — history, meaning, hermeneutics, relationships, criticism, and dialogical thinking, to name several. What this picture does not emphasize is the set of ideas defining scientific rigor for the analytic tradition: an organized conception of theory, a theory of observation and evidence, the idea of the neutrality of scientific knowledge. This is systemic, because CPS is explicitly and implicitly anti-positivist. The implicit part is the more interesting. The continental tradition has a very different philosophical framework for epistemology and knowledge than the empiricist tradition, and a different conception about what constitutes rigorous knowledge. It is more inclined towards philosophical reasoning as a source of knowledge and generally less devoted to empirical inquiry.

We might ask, though, how these themes in the philosophy of society and history help us today in the problem of articulating better and more rationally justified theories or representations of the social world. Does CPS provide any clues about how to configure a better sociology for China or a better theory of social relationships in the Internet age? Does it improve our epistemology of social knowledge? Does it broaden the scope of our historical or sociological imaginations? Does it provide the basis for some salutary critique? Does it deepen needed critiques of positivism and naturalism? (See accursedshare for a current blog that takes this tradition and these questions seriously.)

What seems likely is that both traditions are needed as a foundation for understanding society. They emphasize different but important perspectives on the social world. And further, there are very few flat contradictions between the two traditions. So a fertile collaboration is entirely feasible.

Yvonne Sherratt’s Continental Philosophy of Social Science asks us to initiate this reflection — and she is right. Other titles I have appreciated for their treatment of Hegel’s philosophy of society and history include Shlomo Avineri, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State; Joshua Dienstag, Dancing in Chains: Narrative and Memory in Political Theory, and Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. These books illustrate how continental philosophy makes a substantial contribution to understanding society and history.

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