What is History, Now? by Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb

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“Great history is written precisely when the historian’s vision is illuminated by insights into the problems of the present.”

E.H. Carr, What is History? p. 37

“It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context.”

― Edward Hallett Carr

Facts … are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.

E.H. Carr, What is History?

“every sociological definition is at the bottom a historical prognosis.”

Leon Trotsky

You can never judge a history book by its cover. But you can judge a book by the blurb on the back cover, especially when the historians praising the book are broadly conservative ones.

While this new collection of articles contain E.H. Carr’s original title of his world-famous book, I somehow doubt that he would favour the type of gender, racial or culturally-based historiography presented in this book.

The central theme of Carr’s book was how to connect the writing of history with contemporary social, political and economic problems. As the historian, R.G. Collingwood, said: “the historian must re-enact in thought what has gone on in the mind of his dramatis personae.”[1]

While the introduction to this new collection of essays is adequate, it leaves out the context and point of Carr’s book, which was to answer an attack on him by the writer and philosopher Isaiah Berlin.[2] As Ann Talbot writes out, “The book was in large measure a reply to Berlin’s essay Historical Inevitability, in which he had criticised those who believed in the “vast impersonal forces” of history rather than giving priority to the role of the individual and the accidental. (Berlin 1997) Berlin maintained that those who regarded history as a determined causal chain, in the manner of Hegel or Marx, denied the role of free will and the individual responsibility of history’s tyrants for the crimes they committed. Both Carr and Berlin wrote with sparkling wit.

What was at issue was Britain’s attitude to the Soviet Union and its place in a putative nuclear war. The counterfactuals that Carr had in mind were those that suggested that some other outcome had been possible in Russia, that the 1917 Revolution was not inevitable, that the Bolsheviks might not have come to power and that instead, the Provisional Government might have succeeded in maintaining its grip on events and managed to establish a parliamentary system. An ideological dispute of this kind is so very un-British that there is not even a satisfactory English word for it, so I will use the German word. What we have here is a very British Historikerstreit.

It was a dispute conducted in the most gentlemanly, oblique and mediated of terms, and both sides were more likely to appeal to the commonsense of the average Times reader than high theory, but a Historikerstreit it was nonetheless. The national peculiarities of the time and class should not lead us to suppose that theoretical questions were not involved any more than we should suppose that political questions were not involved simply because they remained, for the most part, unstated”.[3]This kind of dispute, however gentlemanly, is a very rare occurrence in today’s heavily sanitised academic world.

Despite being called a diverse set of essayists, what these historians write about has a common thread: they reflect a modern-day preoccupation with gender, race, and sexuality. Titles such as “Can and should we queer the past?”, “How can we write the history of empire?” and “Can we recover the lost lives of women?” and a debate over the removal of statues set the tone for the rest of the book.

If the debate over removing a few reactionary statues were all there was, then that would be fine. The middle-class layer behind the removal of revolutionary figures has a far more right-wing and sinister agenda. In some cases, the demand and removal of progressive and revolutionary figures such as Abraham Lincoln are deeply reactionary and troubling.

There is nothing progressive in the destruction of statues and monuments that memorialise the American Revolution and the Civil War leaders such as Lincoln. As Leon Trotsky wrote, “for argument’s sake, let us grant that all previous revolutionary history and, if you please, all history, in general, is nothing but a chain of mistakes. But what to do about present-day reality? What about the colossal army of permanently unemployed, the pauperised farmers, the general decline of economic levels, the approaching war? The sceptical wiseacres promise us that sometime in the future, they will catalogue all the banana peels on which the great revolutionary movements of the past have slipped. But will these gentlemen tell us what to do today, right now”?[4]

As Trotsky said, the study of history is important to make sense of the world. Although Carr was not a Marxist historian, he knew enough about Marx to know that people do not make history as they please. According to Marx, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under the circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis, they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language”.[5]

The first chapter by Peter Frankopan titled Why global history matters while not breaking any new ground is hard not to disagree with. Alex Von Tunzelmann’s chapter is a little more contentious, examining history at the movies. I am afraid I have to disagree with Katrina Gulliver[6] when she says, “Tunzelmann takes the optimistic view that even inaccurate history might pique people’s interest and lead them to engage with more meaningful sources”.Bad history is what it is and should be opposed in both movies and academia.

It should be said upfront that I love historical movies. It would be hard to find a person that does not. It must also be said that most historical movies are simply misleading, lazy and, in many cases, an outright and deliberate falsification of history. Many historical dramas today are made by a  self-obsessed middle-class layer who, instead of wanting to change the social conditions for the bulk of the population, want to change the historical facts to suit their ideological prejudices. The result, in many cases, is dreadful movies that make them a pile of money.

One film mentioned by Tunzelmann is James Cameron’s Titanic. By any stretch of the imagination, this is an extremely bad film. Titanic made close to one billion dollars and was lauded as a great film. As David Walsh wrote, “The response to Titanic is so great and so out of proportion to the quality of the film itself that one is forced to view its success as a social phenomenon worthy of analysis. This is not simply a film—it is virtually a cause. Its admirers defend it with fervour and admit no challenges and no criticisms—it is not simply a ‘good’ film or a ‘wonderful’ film. It must be acknowledged as ‘the greatest film of all time.’[7]

It is hard to know where to start with Justin Bengry’s essay, Can and should we queer the past?. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, there is either bad history or good history but no queer history. If only Bengry were talking about the study of homosexuality through the ages, this would be a legitimate field of study, but unfortunately, there is an agenda here. The promotion of so-called gender, race and sexuality is being pushed out not by the working class but by a self-obsessed section of the middle class. This is not about social equality or democratic rights. It is about money and power.

This modern-day campaign for want of a better word has nothing to do with left-wing politics and certainly has nothing to do with Marxism. It is the product of decades of ideological and political reaction. It has more to do with the politics of envy than it does with socialism.

Helen Carr’s piece on the history of emotions promotes the “Cultural Turn” genre. Carr’s use of this genre has more in common with writer and historian Stuart Hall than with her great grandfather. As Paul Bond perceptively writes in his obituary of Hall,” Stuart Hall, who died in London February 10 at the age of 82, was the academic figure most closely identified with the growth of Cultural Studies in British universities. His obituaries have been fulsome. Cultural Studies originated as part of an attack on revolutionary Marxism, directed above all against its contemporary expression, Trotskyism. The academic field sought to shift the focus of social criticism away from class and onto other social formations, thus promoting the development of identity politics. Its establishment, in the final analysis, was a hostile response to the gains made by the Trotskyist movement in Britain from the 1950s onwards.[8]

Another genre covered in the book is ‘history from below’ –popularised by E. P Thompson and other leading historians in the Communist Party Historians Group. Lucien Febvre originally used the phrase in 1932, ‘Histoire vue d’en bas et non d’en haut’ roughly translated by Google as ‘history seen from below and not from above. Perhaps the most famous book produced by this genre was E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Despite containing some valuable insights, Thompson saw the development of the English working class from a purely nationalist perspective.

He also played down the deeply right-wing nature of the History from Below genre. As Ann Talbot writes, “The Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History”, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr”.[9]

When there are many essays in a book, there is usually a conclusion where the editors usually sum up what has been written by all the essayists. For some reason, this has not been done by these editors. Maybe there is confusion over what the hell to do with a rather large number of very conservative pieces of history.

So what is the general reader to make of this book. It is clear that it is a very conservative piece of work and that the essayists were carefully chosen to put forward complacent and largely reactionary historiography. If this is Edward Hallett Carr’s legacy, I am not sure he would be too happy about it. Perhaps we should leave the last word to the great historian “the facts of history never come to us “pure”, since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. It follows that when we take up a work of history, our first concern should not be with the facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it.”


[1] What is History? (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 23 [back]

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaiah_Berlin

[3] Chance and Necessity in History: E.H. Carr and Leon Trotsky Compared

Author(s): Ann Talbot: Historical Social Research , 2009, Vol. 34, No. 2

[4] Once Again on the “Crisis of Marxism” https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/03/marxism.htm

[5] The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Karl Marx 1852- https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm

[6] https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/don-t-ask-a-historian-what-history-is

[7] Titanic as a social phenomenon.www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/11/29/phen-n29.html

[8] Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014): A political career dedicated to opposing Marxism-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/03/05/hall-m05.html

[9] “These the times … this the man”: an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html

eidenfeld & Nicolson, 352pp, £20

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