Historians of Past and Present


image: “Historians of Past and Present,” National Portrait Gallery, London


A recent article on J. H. Elliott in the New York Review of Books includes a very striking portrait of the founders of the British history journal, Past and Present. The painting includes Eric Hobsbawm, Rodney Hilton, Lawrence Stone, and Keith Thomas (standing); and Christopher Hill, J. H. Elliott, and Joan Thirst (seated). The journal has been an incredibly important platform for some of the best social history being written from its founding in 1952 through the present, and it is very striking to see these pathbreaking historians all depicted together.

The journal was founded post-war by a group of historians who were Marxist and often members of the British Communist Party; but the journal itself maintained an intellectual independence from doctrine and party that allowed it to cultivate genuinely important historical research. As Hill, Hilton, and Hobsbawm put the point in the 1983 essay mentioned below, “In our dealings with Party or Group we were quite explicit in establishing that the journal was independent, and would accept no policy instructions” (5).

There is one element of this piece of intellectual history that I continue to find particularly intriguing. This has to do with the relationship between intellectual honesty and political conviction.  How is an historian’s work (or the work of a social scientist or philosopher) affected by his or her political convictions? Intellectual honesty seems like a straightforward thing: we want scholars to pursue their findings as the facts and inferences guide them. We want them to help us understand how the world works, based on their best reading of the evidence. We don’t want them to “spin” events or processes into alignment with their political ideologies or commitments. So how did this work for the historians of Past and Present and for Communist historians who were not part of the journal like E. P. Thompson? 
One part of the answer seems clear: these historians chose their topics for research based on their intuitions about the drivers of history, and these intuitions were certainly bound up in their political commitments and passions. So when Hobsbawm focuses on “Machine Breakers” (1952) or Soboul on “Robespierre and the Popular Movement of 1793-4” (1954) or Rodney Hilton on “Freedom and Villeinage in England” (1965) or E. P. Thompson on “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd” (1971), the topics they study have an obvious relevance to their political passions. But what about their findings? Are they able to see the aspects of their stories that are unexpected from a classical Marxist point of view? Is history “gnarly” and unpredictable for them? And are they honest in laying out the facts as they found them? Having read each of Hobsbawm, Soboul, Hilton, and Thompson with a certain degree of care over the years, my belief is that they meet this test. Certainly this is true for Thompson; the originality of his classic book, The Making of the English Working Class, is precisely to be found in the fact that it is not a cookie-cutter theory of class. Instead, Thompson goes into great detail, based on a rich variety of primary sources, about the sources of identity that working people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created for themselves. These historians are not doctrinaire in their findings, and they honestly confront the historical realities that they find.

One way of getting a feeling for the journal is to look at its contents. The topics included in the first ten years of publication of Past and Present cover a broad range of historical subjects. Here are some exemplars from the first decade:

Out of this list a number of themes recur: for example, underclass life, revolution, class, and economic history. These topics reflect the theoretical and political interests of the founders and the editors of the journal, and they served to encourage a substantial volume of additional research along these lines in the years that followed. Many of these essays have proven to be a classics in their genres.

Two interesting articles were published in the journal in 1983 about its own history (link). The first was by three of the founding editors of the journal, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, and Eric Hobsbawm. And the other was by Jacques Le Goff, the then-editor of the equally important French history journal, Annales.  These two essays offer very interesting snapshots into the role that the journal played in British history through the mid 1980s.

Hill, Hilton, and Hobsbawm emphasize the intellectual independence of the journal from its inception. This independence derived from the commitment of the board of editors: “It has been the collegiality of the Board which enabled us to know each other, to formulate a consensus about the sort of history we wanted to encourage — irrespective of ideological or other divergences within the Board — to establish policies and perspectives for the journal, however tacitly and empirically, and to establish a flexible continuity of policy” (12).

Jacques Le Goff also addresses the Marxist orientation of the journal in his 1983 contribution in these terms:

Never having had any prejudice against Marxism, provided it was open and undogmatic, I was totally able to accept a publication in which there was certainly an element of Marxism but which gave no impression of being subject to a dogma, still less to a party. (14)

Le Goff emphasizes the importance of the intellectual impetus that Past and Present created for historians everywhere. He draws attention to the annual conferences that the Past and Present Society organized, and the importance of many of these discussions for further developments in historical research.

Past and Present has been a leading forum for a particularly dynamic field of historiography in its six decades of publication. Its pages have highlighted the importance of social and economic history; the concrete history of social classes; the dynamics of revolution; the role that technology played in ordinary life in medieval and modern times; the key roles that agriculture and rural life played in early modern history; and underclass social life. These are themes that have a great deal of salience for a Marxist interpretation of history.  But what is displayed in its pages, from beginning to the present, is rigorous, critical history — not Marxist dogmas about the working class, the peasantry, or the inevitability of social revolution.

(Here is a rational discussion of Hobsbawm’s political affiliations in the Guardianlink. And here is a diatribe against Hobsbawm’s insufficient commitment to Marxism in the International Marxist Tendencylink. This lengthy piece presents an alternative interpretation of Hobsbawm’s life and work. Harvey Kaye provides extensive discussion of these figures in The British Marxist Historians. Also interesting is Michael Scott Christofferson’s French Intellectuals Against the Left: The Anti-totalitarian Moment of the 1970s.)

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.

Objectivity in the social sciences

What is objectivity in social science? What might be meant by the claim that a given theory represents an objective scientific analysis of a range of social phenomena? Debate over the objectivity of social science has often combined a variety of separate theses:

  1. There are social facts that are independent of the concepts and theories of the scientist which the theory is intended to uncover–that is, that there is an objective social world. (ontological objectivity)
  2. It is possible for a theory of a given range of social facts to be well-grounded on the basis of the right sorts of reasons (empirical and theoretical adequacy). (epistemic objectivity)
  3. Social facts are independent of the states of consciousness of participants.
  4. Scientific inquiry can be value-free and interest-neutral.
  5. Scientific inquiry tends to converge around a consensus among all researchers over the properties of the world as a result of further empirical and theoretical research.

Thesis (1) contradicts conceptual relativism. Thesis (2) contradicts a family of underdetermination arguments within the philosophy of science. Thesis (3) divides materialist social science from interpretation theory and verstehen sociology. Thesis (4) upholds the position that it is possible to exclude value commitments from the conduct of science. And thesis (5) asserts that science progresses towards a higher degree of agreement among researchers.

We may dispense quickly with (4). It is unquestionably true that scientific research is interest-relative: what particular features of the social system, what aspects of action, and what causal processes, are selected for scrutiny and explanation, are dependent on the interests–both intellectual and moral–of the investigator. Further, it is plain that scientific reasoning presupposes a set of normative commitments–for example, to the primacy of empirical evidence over religious authority. But Weber’s treatment of this issue is convincing; these points do not diminish the objectivity of science in “‘Objectivity’ in Social Science” (The Methodology Of The Social Sciences). Once having defined the program of research, it is still possible to arrive at an objective analysis of the subject matter.

Thesis (1) represents a general metaphysical view of the social world, in that it asserts the mind-independence of various kinds of social processes, structures, etc. Scientific researc attempts to identify underlying processes, structures, mechanisms, and the like, whose properties explain the observable data. This goal presupposes that social phenomena are the result of a set of causally ordered, objective social processes which the social scientist can discover and map out. (Call this the realism component.) (It might be noted that (1) does not commit one to methodological holism. The objective social facts referred to may well supervene upon facts about individual actions.)

Thesis (2) represents the view that scientific theories are put forward as being justified on the basis of a “scientific method” and not simply personal advocacy, political bias, or one’s value perspective. There need to be objective procedures in terms of which to compare competing theories and to provide empirical and logical arguments favoring one such theory over its competitors. (Call this the justification component.)

Thesis (5) represents the view that scientific inquiry progresses towards consensus among members of a given research community, and that this consensus is best explained on the hypothesis that the consensus theory is true, and has been arrived at through reliable procedures of scientific inquiry. (Bernard Williams describes this view briefly in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, chapter 8.)

Various combinations of these components of objectivity in social science are possible. For example, Weber appears to affirm (1) and hold that there are social facts; he denies (3), asserting that these facts are “subjective” in the sense that they depend essentially on the states of mind of the persons whose meaningful behavior constitutes them; and he accepts (2), holding that it is possible to offer theoretically and empirically well-grounded descriptions of these facts (Weber, Methodology, chapter 2). Nelson Goodman appears to contradict (1), maintaining that there are as many social worlds as there are schemes of concepts in terms of which to organize and describe experience (Ways of Worldmaking). Such a view is forced to reject (2) as well, since it maintains that there is no uniquely best theory of the world. It would be possible to reject (1) while maintaining (2)–that is, to hold that there is a best social scientific theory of a given range of social phenomena, but deny that such a theory describes an independently existing set of social facts. (For example, Hilary Putnam’s anti-realist arguments might illustrate this combination.)

The form of objectivity of social science that I want to defend affirms (1) and (2). Concerning thesis (3), I hold that there is no need to choose between “material” and “subjective” features of the social world. Some social facts may be constituted by the meanings attributed to them by participants, while others may be meaning-independent. And finally, I maintain that the procedures internal to various social science disciplines are sufficient to produce the sort of convergence of theoretical beliefs described in thesis (5) in most concrete historical and social science debates.

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