Polemics

Letter to Janan Ganesh on “Elegant” Theories and the Ukraine crisis

Dear Janan

Given that you are a journalist in Financial Times Global Affairs department, I was a little surprised that you could only find two previously discredited and bankrupt theoreticians, namely Francis Fukayama and Samuel Huntingdon, to prove your assertion that there is no “elegant” theory to explain the “Ukraine Crisis”.Fukayama’s “End of History” hardly prepared him for the Ukraine crisis, and his train wreck of an analysis of the End of the Soviet Union was almost as bad.

An elegant document released at the time by the World Socialist Website provided a superb and, I might add, elegant rebuttal to Fukayama stating “the dissolution of the USSR provoked within the bourgeoisie and its ideological apologists an eruption of euphoric triumphalism. The socialist nemesis had, for once and for all, been laid low! The bourgeois interpretation of the Soviet Union’s demise found its essential expression in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. Employing a potted version of Hegel’s idealist phenomenology, Fukuyama proclaimed that the weary march of history had arrived at its final station—a US-style liberal bourgeois democracy based on the unfettered capitalist market. This was the summit of human civilisation! This theme was elaborated in countless variations by gullible and impressionistic petty-bourgeois academics, always anxious to be on what they take to be, at any given moment, the winning side of history”.[1]  

As a journalist for the Financial Times, you will have access to every global media publication online and in paper form. So it is a little surprising that you ignore the one publication that would refute your premise. That publication is the World Socialist Website (wsws.org). I can only assume that you ignore this publication out of ideological consideration. It is clear from your previous writings that from an ideological standpoint, you are an anti-Marxist. If you were to suspend your ideological prejudice, you would find several articles on their website that would provide an elegant and correct perspective on the Ukraine war.

Please permit me to quote a rather elegant analysis. A letter was sent by WSWS International Editorial Board Chairman David North to a friend who requested his opinion on a recent online discussion held at a US college on the Russia-Ukraine war. David North makes the following point “Momentous events such as wars and revolutions invariably raise complex problems of causation. That is one of the reasons why the study of history is an indispensable foundation of serious political analysis. This general truth acquires exceptional importance in any discussion of Russia. This country was the site of arguably the most significant political event of the twentieth century, the 1917 October Revolution, whose historical, political and intellectual legacy still reverberates in our own time. The study of Soviet history remains critical to understanding the politics and problems of the contemporary world”[2].

Having read your columns on several occasions, I conclude that you have read very little about Russian history, particularly its revolution of 1917. Before writing such a provocative article, you should have brushed up on your history.

In doing so, maybe you would have suspended your anti-Marxism and not written a crass piece of journalism. Lastly, you write that “a strict realist wants you to believe that Putin would now be no trouble if only Nato had not moved east. Holding domestic values cheap, realism cannot explain why the sanctioning countries are almost all democracies. It cannot explain why Ukrainians want to face the west in the first place. When Putin himself cites culture and values, a realist must diagnose him with false consciousness and stress that what moves him is the dry calculation of the chessboard”.[3]

I will call upon the elegant Mr North to refute your argument. North writes, “The examination of the aggressive foreign policy of the United States since the dissolution of the USSR is not only a matter of exposing American hypocrisy. How is it possible to understand Russian policies apart from analysing the global context within which they are formulated? Given that the United States has waged war relentlessly, is it irrational for Putin to view the expansion of NATO with alarm? He and other Russian policymakers are certainly aware of the enormous strategic interest of the United States in the Black Sea region, the Caspian region and, for that matter, the Eurasian landmass. It is not exactly a secret that the late Zbigniew Brzezinski and other leading US geostrategists have long insisted that US dominance of Eurasia—the so-called “World Island”—is a decisive strategic objective”.

This is not to excuse Putin’s actions. I condemn the war in Ukraine, but as the great Spinoza said once, ” I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.[4]

Notes

janan.ganesh@ft.com


[1] The Struggle Against the Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification-www.wsws.org/en/special/library/foundations-us/58.html

[2] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/03/19/cmmf-m19.html

[3] No grand theory can explain the Ukraine crisis- http://www.ft.com/content/881c14dd-08ce-4266-8127-24f3c398e8d3

[4] Baruch Spinoza 1632–77- Tractatus Politicus (1677) ch. 1, sect. 4 

Historians capitulate to war propaganda over Ukraine

David North@davidnorthwsws

Mar. 4 2022

This article was initially posted as a thread on Twitter. It is a guest article by David North. The original article can be seen at www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/03/04/acad-m04.html

The war is having a devastating impact on historians. There are entirely principled and leftwing grounds upon which the Russian invasion of Ukraine should be opposed and which do not require adapting to the US-NATO coverup of fascism in Ukraine’s past and present. But, unfortunately, even historians who have written major works on the fascist Stepan Bandera, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) are renouncing their own scholarship to suit the needs of the US-NATO propaganda campaign.

The “Statement on Ukraine by scholars of genocide, Nazism and WWII” is a disgraceful example of the intellectual and moral capitulation of significant segments of the academic community to the demands for historical falsification.

The statement begins with reference to World War II, bizarrely attacking Putin for being “obsessed with the history of that war,” as if it is abnormal for a Russian president to be “obsessed” with a catastrophe that cost the lives of approximately 30 million Soviet citizens.

One must assume that the statement’s signatories, who have devoted their professional lives to the study of genocide, are also “obsessed with the history of that war,” whose central event was the Holocaust in which Bandera and OUN-B played a critical role. The statement’s signatories declare: “We do not idealize the Ukrainian state and society. Like any other country, it has right-wing extremists and violent xenophobic groups. Ukraine also ought to better confront the darker chapters of its painful and complicated history.”In the context of its history, this statement is indeed an idealization of the Ukrainian state and society. Ukraine is not “like any other country” which has “right-wing extremists and violent xenophobic groups.”

Supporters of far-right parties carry torches and banner with a portrait of Stepan Bandera reads ‘Nothing was stopped the idea when its time comes’ during a rally in Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)As the historians know, despite the horrific genocidal crimes committed by the OUN, under the leadership of their “Providnyk” (fuehrer) Stepan Bandera, the legacy of the fascist nationalists continues to exert an immense political and cultural influence in Ukraine.

Among the statement’s signatories is the historian Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, who is the author of an important 652-page scholarly work, titled Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist—Fascism, Genocide, and Cult. Rossoliński-Liebe’s book, Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist – Fascism, Genocide, and Cult. This book not only documents the crimes committed by Bandera’s movement. Rossoliński-Liebe also examined his cult-like status among broad segments of contemporary Ukrainian society.

In the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR, he writes: “Many monuments devoted to the victims of the Ukrainian nationalists or to heroes of the Soviet Union were replaced with monuments devoted to Bandera and the OUN and UPA’ heroes.'”Bandera and Ukrainian revolutionary nationalists again became important elements of western Ukrainian identity.

“Not only far-right activists but also the mainstream of western Ukrainian society, including high-school teachers and university professors, considered Bandera to be a national hero… whose memory should be honoured for his struggle against the Soviet Union.” Rossoliński-Liebe made the following significant and troubling observation: “The post-Soviet memory politics in Ukraine completely ignored democratic values and did not develop any kind of non-apologetic approach to history.” How is this damning commentary on the post-Soviet intellectual life of Ukraine reconciled with the statement’s cynical and historically apologetic reference to “independent and democratic Ukraine”? Rossoliński-Liebe also called attention to the significant international connections forged by Bandera’s followers with the United States and other imperialist powers during the Cold War.

Iaroslav Stets’ko, who “had written letters to the Fuhrer, the Duce, the Poglavnik [the top Croatian Nazi], and the Caudillo [Franco], asking them to accept the newly proclaimed Ukrainian state, was in 1966 designated an honorary citizen of the Canadian city of Winnipeg.” The historian continues: “In 1983 he was invited to the Capitol and the White House, where George Bush and Ronald Reagan received the ‘last premier of a free Ukrainian state,'” i.e., which had existed under the control of the Third Reich. “On Jul. 11 1982,” recalls Rossoliński-Liebe, “during Captive Nations Week, the red-and-black flag of the OUN-B, introduced at the Second Great Congress of the Ukrainian Nationalists in 1941, flew over the United States Capitol.

“It symbolized freedom and democracy, not ethnic purity and genocidal fascism. Nobody understood that it was the same flag that had flown from the Lviv city hall and other buildings, under which Jewish civilians were mistreated and killed in July 1941…”

Given the history of Ukrainian fascism and its truly sordid contemporary significance, the apologetics in which the historians are engaged is as contemptible as it is cowardly. The Russian government is engaged in its own propaganda-style falsification of history, which must be exposed. Putin—a bitter opponent of the internationalism of the October Revolution—counterpoises Russian nationalism to Ukrainian nationalism. The competing nationalist narratives must be exposed—in the interests of uniting Russian and Ukrainian workers in a common struggle against the US-NATO imperialists, their fascist allies within Ukraine, and corrupt regime of capitalist restoration in Russia.

David North has played a leading role in the international socialist movement for 45 years. He is presently the chairperson of the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site and the national chairperson of the Socialist Equality Party (United States).

The study of history is in decline in Britain:A Reply

One of the most annoying things about the Economist magazine is not having the authors byline on its articles. It seems the only exception to this rule is the articles written by Bagehot who happens to be dead and dead a long time.

A recent article by this author called The study of history is in decline in Britain is a very right-wing evaluation of the state of historical study in this country. The author correctly notes that England is moving through one of its most difficult historical moments. Bagehot bemoans the fact that England “ is losing its skill at interpreting the past”.

I do not agree with Bagehot’s evaluation, which looks likes a ruse to cover the Economist’s increasingly right-wing position over Brexit. While warning against right-wing populism, the Economist’s real fear is that the crisis will provoke a response in the working class. It is also important to challenge his pessimism. A more optimistic evaluation of the state of historical study comes from the mind and pen of Margaret Macmillan in her excellent book The Uses and Abuses of History. For the Macmillan the historian’s role no matter where they are “ must do our best to raise the public awareness of the past in all its richness and complexity”.

The article begins with a political summation of this situation, stating” Whatever you think about recent events in Britain, you cannot deny that they qualify as historic. The country is trying to make a fundamental change in its relationship with the continent. The Conservative Party is in danger of splitting asunder and handing power to a far-left Labour Party. All this is taking place against the backdrop of a fracturing of the Western alliance and a resurgence of authoritarian populism”.

It is true that after two on the and a half years after the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union (EU), the British ruling elite “is mired in crisis”.  However I prefer a more Marxist presentation of what is going on as Chris Marsden points out “The dominant pro-Remain faction is desperately manoeuvring to either overturn the result or at least secure a deal preserving tariff-free access to the Single European Market on which it depends for 40 per cent of trade and London’s role as a centre of financial speculation. The pro-Brexit faction, led by right-wing Tories and the sectarian thugs of the Democratic Unionist Party, resists all entreaties to compromise. They believe the EU can be forced to accept the UK’s terms through an alliance with the Trump administration in Washington. Such an arrangement would free Britain to strike unilateral trade deals internationally and refashion Britain as a Singapore-style free trade zone in Europe based on crushing levels of exploitation. The working class has no interest in backing either right-wing faction.[1]

Bagehot’s somewhat simplistic and right-wing evaluation of the political situation allows the writer to call into question any other study of history that does not deal with the elites of any given century. Bagehot is of the firm opinion that the study of history should be by the elites for the elites. As he states “ A scholarship to read history at one of the ancient universities was both a rite of passage for established members of the elite and a ticket into the elite for clever provincial boys, as Alan Bennett documented so touchingly in his play “The History Boys”. Prominent historians such as A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper were public figures who spoke to the nation about both historical and contemporary events”.

Bagehot makes another point that “ the study of history has shrivelled” and the number reading it at university has declined by about a tenth in the past decade”. Even if you take the figures cited by Bagehot at face value and some have not you have to ask yourself what is the reason. It is not that there is a decline in the interest in history; it is because of the severe difficulty of getting a decent job with a history degree. As Brodie Waddell on his blog[2] states the chance of getting a job in academia with a PhD has become extraordinarily hard. Once in, things are not much better as universities have in many ways become intellectual prisons.

There is one point that I agree with, and that is  Bagehot’s complaint about the over specialisation and that “the historical profession has turned in on itself. Historians spend their lives learning more and more about less and less, producing narrow PhDs and turning them into monographs and academic articles, in the hamster-wheel pursuit of tenure and promotion. The need to fill endless forms to access government funding adds the nightmare of official bureaucracy to the nightmare of hyper-specialisation”.

Much as I would like to blame the government as Bagehot does there is a much more political reason for this slide into obscure historical study. Bagehot would not agree, but this specialisation has occurred because of the turn away from “Grand Narratives” in the study of history. One of the most critical “Grand Narrative” has been the study of history using a historical materialist method or as it is sometimes called the Marxist method. One of the by-products in the decade’s prolonged attack on Marxism has been to move away from any historical study that smacks of Marxism.

Led by a large number of revisionist historians the attack on any Marxist conception has almost become a new genre. Like Bagehot, these revisionists bemoan “History from below” with its studies of the “the marginal”, “the poor” & ” every day”. They believe that history study should be about the haves and not the have nots.

To conclude you have to ask yourself why has the Economist commission this article in the first place. The reason is that there is a real fear now taking place in ruling circles that the growing economic crisis is leading to a growing radicalisation around the world. The universities have always been at the forefront of the attack on Marxism. The Economist article is crude in its attempt to stifle any study of an alternative to capitalism.

[1] The Brexit crisis and the struggle for socialism-By Chris Marsden -23 January 2019- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/01/23/brex-j23.html

[2] https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/

On Empathy and its usage in History

That Empathy has suddenly become a hot topic of discussion with books like the recent The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal, Souvenir Press being seriously touted as a viable means of understanding the past is a retrograde step.

Thankfully the use of Empathy has never really had much of a stronghold on historians in the past certainly before the 1970s. However, today it has started to get a hearing it does not deserve.

That is not to say that historians cannot have empathy the great historian G.E.M. de Ste Croix according to Ann Talbot had a lifelong empathy with the oppressed.

Who the historian is empathetic to does usually reveal their political bias as it should be. As E.H. Carr once said “if, as Collingwood says, the historian must re-enact in thought what has gone on in the mind of his dramatis personae, so the reader in his turn must re-enact what goes on in the mind of the historian. Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude’s, goes round to a friend at St. Jude’s to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf, or your historian is a dull dog”. [1]

The use of empathy has been used in schools the 1980s in schools as a means of teaching children empathy for the study of history.[2] The use of empathy in schools and now in wider academia and society as a semi-viable means of historical study is a by-product of the dominance of postmodernist theories in universities and society in general. The academic architects of postmodernism and identity politics occupy well-paid positions in academia. As a social layer, the theoreticians of postmodernism are some of the wealthiest in society. Their political and philosophical views express their social interests.

The use of empathy as a method of historical inquiry also owes a lot to the growth of the new Social History school of-of Historiography which appeared in the early 1970s. According to some historians, it was perhaps the last major historiography of the 20th century to try and explain a complex historical phenomenon. Before The 1970s, Social History had mostly been limited to a study of everyday life. During the last thirty odd years, the subject has come to prominence because some aspects of it have become the bête noir of some revisionist historians. The most positive side of the new history is that it brought into the public domain the lives of working people or the poor who had been mainly ignored by historians. On the downside this, new history became divorced from any form of economic or materialist explanation of history. The new social history is not that different from its predecessor “old social history”. Described as a “hodgepodge” of disciplines and unlike any other historiography. The English historian G. M. Trevelyan saw it as the link between economic and political history; he stated, “Without social history, economic history is barren and political history unintelligible.”

One of the avenues influential in promoting empathy as a viable historical method of studying the past is the History Today magazine which has a habit of opening up its pages to several historians who have exhibited sympathetic viewpoints towards postmodernist theories. Its recent issue is no exception. Four historians were given space on the issue of empathy in History.

Helen Parr, Professor of History at Keele University and author of Our Boys: The Story of a Paratrooper (Allen Lane, 2018) began the assault with an article called “Empathy can help us understand an uncomfortable culture. She writes “In November 1981, some paratroopers in recruit training gang-raped a 15-year-old girl in an Aldershot barracks. The girl met one of the soldiers in a local pub, who took her to his dormitory. There a group of drunken paratroopers tied her to a bed with elasticated cord, and five or six of them raped her. They kicked her, urinated on her and stole her underwear as a trophy. Two years later – after some of the soldiers had fought in the Falklands – six men were convicted at Winchester Crown Court of rape, indecent assault and common assault. Two of them pleaded guilty. The longest sentence was five years. Empathy – identifying with the paratroopers in that barrack room – can help us to understand this uncomfortable culture and expose the recruits’ vulnerabilities: the unforgiving harshness of some of their early lives, the intense codes of an elite club where loyalty was prized above all and the ways training forged their identities”[3].

To defend herself from accusations of being sympathetic to these psychopaths she states “Understanding this does not exonerate their crime nor suggest more sympathy with them than with their victim”.

This is an unnecessary approach. Given the long history of violence perpetrated by British soldiers over a long period of history an examination of this history would give a much deeper insight into why this crime took place. On this occasion, this historian has to take sides. The first action is not to empathise but to oppose or to be more precise to acquaint these fascist mined paratroopers heads with the pavement.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this type of empathising has been directed towards a study of Nazi Fascism.  In an essay Some Reflections on Empathy in History  Source: Teaching History, No. 55 (April 1989), pp. 13-18 John Cairns writes Sympathy or Empathy? Sympathy is distinguishable from empathy, for in sympathy we are paralleling ourself and someone else. For instance, when we sympathise with a bereaved person, we are telling that individual about our feelings, and offering a symbol of our regard. Whereas when we empathise, we are doing more than this: we are trying to enter into the mind of another person and seeking to try out what we consider to be his or her thought and motivations. It is possible, for example, to empathise with Himmler, without having any sympathy for him. It would be important for a student to see the contradictory aspects of Himmler in order to gain something of his perspective on events. Consider how he sought approval for visiting the sick and showing compassion for others. The same person who consigned thousands to death by a signature, a clerk in a military uniform, was thoroughly squeamish when witnessing an execution he had ordered. Here was a sensitive man enslaved to Hitler’s megalomaniac”.

This nonsense is even more dangerous postmodernist rubbish than Parrs. Cairn’s psychological approach has its roots in the Frankfurt school of anti-Marxism. Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich et al. “The theoreticians of the Frankfurt School expressed the outlook of sections of the German petty bourgeoisie. Moreover, the main representatives of the Frankfurt School showed no interest in, let alone active political support for, Trotsky’s struggle against the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. This is a political fact that is, without question, of great importance in understanding the evolution of the Frankfurt School. However, it would be wrong to neglect consideration of its theoretical-philosophical roots. An examination of the theoretical influences that found expression in the Frankfurt School is necessary, not only to understand this intellectual tendency and its many offshoots but also to identify its essential difference from the Marxism of Bolshevism and the October Revolution”.[4]

In her article entitled The concept that history is something distant is a dangerous one  Hallie Rubenhold, author of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (Doubleday, 2019) make this point  “A certain level of emotional detachment is necessary when examining any historical subject. No historian wants to be accused of failing to apply a critical eye and making hasty, inappropriate judgements. However, it is also possible that complete dispassion can prevent us from recognising the subtler human issues at play. In most cases,it is the smaller human stories that influence, the larger trends: the personal frustrations and private sufferings, often of people who have been written out of the record, that bring down governments, or initiate sweeping social and political change”.

While using the empathetic method for the historical study is fine for retrieving figures from history that have been forgotten such as the victims of Jack the Ripper when a more complex subject matter comes up such as the Russian revolution or the Holocaust the use of empathy is next to useless.

Why because as the great Karl Marx would say “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation, the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the productive social forces and the relations of production”.

Using the method of historical materialism, it is possible to be empathetic but also have a connection with the past that reveals the real voices. Not in a subjective but an objective way. The study of the past becomes scientifically grounded. Does this stop the historian feeling empathy towards their subject as Miri Rubin, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at the Queen Mary University of London writes “It is natural that we should feel empathy with some in the past and abhor the actions of others? I have not lost sympathy for those interrogated by the Inquisition on suspicion of heresy, as in Languedoc or Bavaria in the 1300s, nor has my disgust diminished at the actions of magistrates and judges in the witchcraft trials in Bamberg or Salem in The 1600s. It is a good thing that we feel for the tortured, the abused, the marginalised; victims who can be found both among the elite and the poor. Such empathy, after all, inspired the new histories of women, African-Americans, colonised people, working people, the sick and the disabled since the mid-20th century, leading to lasting changes in history and its possibilities.

The problem with these new histories based on the empathy method is that far from giving us a more scientific understanding of the past it is leading the study of history into a blind alley of gender studies, race studies and ever more obscure specialisation.

The third article in History Today by Patricia Fara, Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge has an air of irrationality and hostility to reason about it she writes “Hiding something unpleasant from view is less effective than exploring its implications. How tempting it is to adopt a stance of intellectual and moral superiority towards the past. However, although human beings have accumulated vast numbers of facts, there is no guarantee that we have become more clever or more virtuous”. People have treated the world and its inhabitants badly – they still do. However, the route to improvement lies through exposure and discussion, not concealment and denial.

While exposure and discussion are necessary, they cannot by themselves explain complex historical phenomena. If something is being hidden in all these articles, it is the mention of class or being more precise social forces. As EH Carr wrote ‘The historian undertakes a twofold operation: to analyse the past in the light of the present and the future which is growing out of it and to cast the beam of the past over the issues which dominate current and future.’ It is, he said, the function of the historian not only to analyse what he or she finds significant in the past, but also ‘to isolate and illuminate the fundamental changes at work in the society in which we live’, which will entail a view ‘of the processes by which the problems set to the present generation by these changes can be resolved’. People are a product of history, their judgements and actions conditioned by the past and the historian should work to make them aware of this, but also to make them aware of the issues and problems of their own time; to break the chain that binds them to the past and present, and so enable them to influence the future”.[5]

To conclude whether the historian is empathetic towards his or her subject is entirely up to them. A historian should be passionate towards the study of history and write from the heart as well as the head, but this must be tempered with an understanding that history should be studied as a science and not the emotions of the historian. When a historian finishes a book, it should not have tear stains on it.

[1]  What is History? (1961)

[2] See Empathy and History – Ann Low-Beer Source: Teaching History, No. 55 (April 1989), pp. 8-12

[3] https://www.historytoday.com/archive/head-head/empathy-aid-or-hindrance-historians

[4] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/03/19/leip-m19.html

[5] E H Carr, The New Society, op cit, chapter 1.

Response to BBC History Magazine’s Ordinary People Tweet

David Musgrove content director of BBC History Magazine and History Extra has responded to criticism of a tweet issued by the BBC History Magazine twitter account. The tweet was “Do we need to consider the lives of ‘ordinary’ people as much as monarchs or leaders when studying #history”?.

Musgrove defensively tied to explain this mildly shocking statement by saying “Hands-up, this was a somewhat clumsy attempt by us to engage with a conversation started on Twitter by the historian Hallie Rubenhold that suggested there is too much focus in public and popular history on great figures (principally men), and by extension the great events they were involved in (wars, acts of parliament etc.) – to the detriment of the presentation of the lives and times of the less exalted people of the past”.However, because of our initial poorly-phrased tweet, we threw ourselves into the fire of Twitter opinion with many historians wryly, drily, or angrily observing that we appeared to have overlooked many decades of deep and detailed work into social history”.

Musgrove while conceding the tweet was wrong went on to defend the magazine’s stance of excluding the working class from its history magazine and blames his working-class readership for their supposed disinterest saying”Right now though, I’m afraid, it’s a much harder task to get the passing reader to pick up a magazine that shouts about the life of a person who has not come into your consciousness at all. I suppose, also, there is the question of consequence; however fascinating the life of an ‘ordinary person’ from the past might have been if that person’s actions didn’t have an impact on wider developments in history, the passing reader seems to be less inclined to want to invest time and money in a magazine in order to find out about them”.

While I am all for the study of working-class people because hopefully, that is what historians like Hallie Rubenhold mean by “ordinary people” however I am against the clumsy and unscientific usage of the term.

Many historians have used the term mainly to blame the working class for various bad things that have happened in history. This term was heavily popularised by the historian Daniel Goldhagen in his wretched book Hitler’s Willing Executioners. His usage of the term “ordinary Germans” was criticised by the Marxist writer David North who wrote

“The methodological flaw of Professor Goldhagen’s book is indicated in its title: Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Let us stop right there: What is meant by “ordinary Germans?” For those of you who would like a textbook example of an “abstract identity,” this is it. This is a category that is so broad, it is capable of including virtually everyone, except, presumably, Germans of Jewish parentage. What, after all, makes any particular German an “ordinary” one? Is it a large girth and a fondness for knockwurst and sauerbraten? Is it blond hair, blue eyes and a penchant for sunbathing in the nude? Is it a talent for abstruse philosophising and a passion for 300-pound Wagnerian sopranos? A concept built upon such foolish and arbitrary stereotypes cannot be of any scientific value in the cognition of objective reality”.[1]

Hallie Rubenhold is a gifted and respected historian her book[2] is selling like hotcakes and has generated a large amount of interest. Unfortunately, this interest far outweighs the importance of the work.

Rubenhold recently said that “I do feel that what our culture recognises as ‘history’ needs some recalibrating. For too long, its focus has been ‘the great deeds of great men’ – monarchs, Generals, politicians, wars, Acts passed by governments. By these standards, the lives of ordinary people are disregarded”[3].

If Rubenhold is talking about writing about the working class, then she should say so why to continue with this “abstract identity”. Another abstract identity favoured by Rubenhold is “peoples history” or “history from below”. Like ordinary people, this phrase removes any class content from the subject being discussed this is a little ironic given that “peoples history” was a type of history produced by the Communist Parties around the world to justify their class collaboration with their respective bourgeois regimes.

As the Marxist writer, Ann Talbot notes “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”.[4]

[1] A critical review of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners- David North- http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1997/04/holo-a17.html

[2] The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper- Houghton Mifflin

[3] https://twitter.com/HallieRubenhold/status/1106166560547356672

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

Lenin, Machiavelli and History Today Magazine

“Some medieval courts not only condemned their worst opponents to death, but they also prescribed a series of extremely cruel and bloody forms of execution to be carried out one after the other. The thirst for revenge and urge to deter others mixed with the fear that those subjected to torture could return and take revenge. The Russian Revolution and its best-known leader, Vladimir Illyich Lenin, have suffered a similar fate over the past 90 years. Up to this day, propagandistic efforts have not ceased to strike dead this most important revolution of the twentieth century”.

While this quote from Peter Schwarz is taken from his article on the German Magazine Der Spiegel[1] the same could be said of the History Today Magazine. It would appear that not a month goes by without an article attacking in some form Marxist conceptions or leading Marxist figures. It would appear that History Today has a particular grievance against Vladimir Lenin.

A simple search of the History Today archive would bring to the attention of the reader over thirty articles, and one must say very few of these are worth the paper they are printed on. The latest one in the  November issue is no exception. Its title Lenin: The Machiavellian Marxist by Graeme Garrard gives its intentions away. It also follows a similar pattern; it is almost like History Today has a template for these kind of articles.

One problem that arises with these type of articles is the choice of writer. Graeme Garrard who is a reader at Cardiff University and is an established historian but like many who write on revolutionary politics has little or no grasp of what life in a revolutionary party today or yesterday was like. It was not always like this.

While Lenin studies are not in a very good place at the moment as the Marxist writer David North points out the situation in Trotsky studies is worse and has “deteriorated in the 1990s. American and British scholarship produced nothing substantial in this field during the entire decade. The only published work that perhaps stands out as an exception, though a minor one, is a single volume of essays, produced by the Edinburgh University Press in 1992 under the title The Trotsky Reappraisal. During this decade, a disturbing trend emerged in Britain, which consisted of recycling and legitimising old anti-Trotsky slanders. This trend was exemplified by the so-called Journal of Trotsky Studies, which was produced at the University of Glasgow. The favourite theme of this journal was that Trotsky’s writings were full of self-serving distortions”.[2]

In many ways, Garrads is characteristic of the approach to historical and political issues taken by other writers. Comparing the revolutionary figures such as Lenin and Trotsky to religious fanatics is not new.

Another distortion peddled is that the October revolution was coup. First, the establishment of the first worker’s state was not a coup carried out by a small group of supporters of Lenin. “The October revolution was the product of the struggle of millions of workers, impoverished peasants and war-weary soldiers, who joined the Bolsheviks because they regarded the party as the most consistent defender of their interests.”

A further point which again is not new is that Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin were only able to live as revolutionaries off the backs of Russian Peasants and English workers. This is a cheap and very right-wing approach to historical questions. , Lenin and Marx lived under capitalism, not socialism.

Garrards use of only one other historian is a little strange. Ullam is a gifted historian but has certain baggage regarding the Russian revolution, and Garrard should have drawn on other sources.

The reference Garrard makes to Lenin being Machiavellian is absurd and would take too long to expose the stupidity of such a comment. Again he is not alone in making this remark, and the company he keeps is not very pleasant.

The last point the author makes is perhaps the most perplexing. Much of the article is given over to what happens to the state under Socialism. Lenin’s and Trotsky position was clear as day it would wither away mankind would live under a society based on need, not profit. His last sentence is strange given that what happened to the Soviet Union after Lenin died is common knowledge. Why did Garrard not mention the betrayal of the Russian revolution by Stalinism?

Why are these articles being written? After all, we have had the “Death of Marxism, “The End of History”, why to bother with figures such as Lenin, Marx, Trotsky. The reason being is that many workers and young people are looking for a socialist alternative. Many are now turning to a systematic study of the October Revolution.

They are being met with a  web of lies and distortions left by bourgeois and Stalinist propaganda. It explains why 90 years on History Today continues to vilify the Russian Revolution and its revolutionaries

[1]Der Spiegel churns out old lies on the October Revolution- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2007/12/spie-d15.html

[2] Leon Trotsky, Soviet Historiography, and the Fate of Classical Marxism

By David North-1 December 2008

On Professor David Starkey

In a recent article carried in the Daily Telegraph entitled “ Historians need to have loved and lost to understand the past” the right-wing Thatcherite historian David Starkey intimated that the best historians are older as you need to have loved and lost to understand the past. Starkey says “What I have done is used my own experience of mourning and joy,” he said. “You take the dry facts of history, and with memories in your own life, you realise how you should understand them.”

Starkey’ was reminiscing about the loss of his long-term partner three years ago. Grief can do strange things to the mind. I have lost my father recently, and the loss can lead you to reevaluate many things; however, it did not change my understanding of history, nor has it lead to a better understanding of the past. If you did not have that understanding in the first place, then no amount of loss can compensate.

Starkey believes that loss can better understand figures like King Henry VIII. Since the Tudor period is Starkey’s expertise and not mine, I am not about to cross swords with a world-renowned historian on that subject. I will leave that to others far more qualified what I will say is that Starkey is no stranger to controversy and almost seems to thrive on the oxygen of publicity brings.

There are many dangers with Starkey’s crude shotgun approach to historical and political questions that could lead to a lack of understanding of the real issues involved. Starkey is no stranger to controversy. Many times Starkey’s political views have undermined his evaluation of complex historical events.

It should be said that I am not against political views shaping historical understanding, but when those views are the expression of pure ideology, then we start to have problems. Starkey is not subtle about his politics. He has been accused of being an “aggressive racist” and “sexist” following this quote on a Newsnight programme “The whites have become black; a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion.”

The same historian went on to say that the proto-fascist Tory politician Enoch Powell was correct when he warned in the 1960s that immigration would lead to civil unrest.

Starkey went on that working-class youth “have become black,” taken over by a “black” culture that has “intruded in England,” which is “why so many of us have this sense literally of a foreign country.”  As one writer said “though Starkey characteristically uses racial terms to denote the targets of his hatred, he is using the term “black” to denounce all working-class youth”.[1]

While Starkey’s political bias is easily recognisable, one question comes to mind why is such an extremely right-wing historian given such a high profile? Starkey has presented numerous television history programmes. He lectures at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I do not know of any left-wing historian given the same opportunities to present their views to such a large audience

It has become comfortable for universities to tolerate very conservative historians and allowed to express their right-wing views with virtual impunity while any views representing a left-wing challenge to the current status quo are marginalised or ostracised.

Universities play such an essential role in imparting knowledge about the world we live it is little surprising that given the dominance of an economic system hell-bent on putting profit before people it is little wonder that universities have become little more than corporate appendages.

This, of course, goes hand in hand with an academic assault on Marxism. Young people cannot expect to acquire the necessary knowledge from the capitalist media because it knows full well that experience will be used for its overthrow.

But what about universities asks the Marxist writer David North, “with their many learned professors? Unfortunately, the intellectual environment has been for many decades deeply hostile to genuine socialist theory and politics. Marxist theory—rooted in philosophical materialism—was long ago banished from the major universities.

“Academic discourse is dominated by the Freudian pseudo-science and idealist subjectivism of the Frankfurt School and the irrationalist gibberish of post-modernism. Professors inform their students that the “Grand Narrative” of Marxism is without relevance in the modern world. What they mean is that the materialist conception of history, which established the central and decisive revolutionary role of the working class in a capitalist society, cannot and should not be the basis of leftwing politics”.[2]

This situation cannot last forever. One small step is to challenge at every level the right-wing rantings of professional right-wing historians at every opportunity.

Niall Ferguson: A Walking Provocation

The fact that the right-wing Professor Niall Ferguson has been caught leading a campaign to attack a left-wing student he disagreed with should come as no surprise.

Ferguson has a record of pursuing a right-wing agenda both inside and outside academia. He is well known for his defence of British Colonialism or colonialism anywhere for that matter

While a lot has been made over the scandal what is being missed is the extent that Ferguson’s political activities are a defence of the process of commercialisation of universities and that anyone who comes into conflict with this state of affairs becomes the target of a witchhunt.

The Standford based historian was joined in his witchhunt by other members of the  Cardinal Conversations, which is a Stanford program run by the conservative Hoover Institution. This group aims to collect the most right-wing people possible and give them a legitimate hearing inside the university.

Standford’s link to the right-wing think tank Hoover Foundation is well known. It has a budget of $50 million and an endowment of more than $450 million.

As one writer put it  “There is no left-wing equivalent — a sizeable ideological think tank that intimately connected to a university — at any school in the United States.

Standford regularly invites, a veritable who’s who of right-wing writers and theorists, including race-and-IQ theorist Charles Murray, tech mogul Peter Thiel, and Christina Hoff Sommers, a prominent critic of modern feminism”.

Ferguson who appeared to be the leader of the group that believed the left wing student Michael Ocon was a danger to the group.

In an email to two other members of the Stanford Republicans, John Rice-Cameron and Max Minshull, he wrote that “some opposition research on Mr O worthwhile.” Minshull stated he would “get on” the dirt-digging.

More comments from this group are of a sinister and provocative nature. They would not look out of place in a Donald Trump Tweet.

Rice-Cameron wrote in one email that “slowly, we will continue to crush the Left’s will to resist, as they will crack under pressure.”

Ferguson wrote in another note, “now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee,” adding that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

While not on the same scale there are striking similarities to the Watergate Scandal in particular how Nixon mobilised the full apparatus of the state against the Democrats.

As one writer correctly stated “The whole saga is bizarre — and revealing. It illustrates a profound double game underpinning much of the so-called “free speech” controversy: a controversy that often isn’t really about freedom and is more concerned with power than with speech”.

While many commentators have concentrated on the danger to free speech within the universities, there has been no attempt to link the right-wing group of academics with the growing commercialisation of universities.

It is becoming clear that far from universities being places of study and research for the common good many are becoming nothing more than appendages to transnational corporations. The fact that universities such as Oxford or Cambridge have vast cash reserves bear witness to this. According to the Guardian newspaper, 36 Oxford colleges have ‘consolidated net assets’ of £5.9 billion, while the University holds a further £3.2 billion.

This process of Privatisation of education has been followed by writer and historian Stefan Collini writing in 20011 Collini criticised both Labour and Conservatives for being complicit in this process.

“Much of our contemporary discourse about universities still draws on, or unwittingly presumes, that pattern of assumptions: the idea that the university is a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals; the belief that, in addition to preparing the young for future employment, the aim of developing analytical and creative human capacities is a worthwhile social purpose; the conviction that the existence of centres of disinterested inquiry and the transmission of a cultural and intellectual inheritance are self-evident public goods; and so on.

While that conception of a university and its purposes is still very much alive and may, I suspect, still be the one held by a great many ‘ordinary’ citizens, we may be nearing the point, at least in Britain, where it is starting to give way to the equivalent of MacIntyre’s barren utilitarianism. If ‘prosperity’ is the overriding value in market democracies, then universities must be repurposed as ‘engines of growth’. The value of research has then to be understood in terms of its contribution to economic innovation, and the value of teaching in terms of preparing people for particular forms of employment. There are tensions and inconsistencies within this newer conception, just as there are in the larger framework of neoliberalism: neoliberal thinking promotes ‘free competition’ in international markets, while the rhetoric of national advantage in the ‘global struggle’ often echoes mercantilist assumptions. But, gradually, what we still call universities are coming to be reshaped as centres of applied expertise and vocational training that are subordinate to a society’s ‘economic strategy”.[1]

This is not the first or the last time Ferguson has mounted what appears to be a considerable provocation aimed at inciting a response from the left to launch a witchhunt against anybody who challenges his right-wing agenda.

In her three-part series called What price an American empire? Reviewing Ferguson’s book  Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, Marxist writer  Ann Talbot exposes Ferguson’s political and historical agenda.

 “All British historians, E.H. Carr once said, are Whigs, even the Tories—but not in Niall Ferguson’s case. He is a Tory formed in the Thatcherite mould, who cut his teeth writing for Conrad Black’s Daily Telegraph while he was a research student in Germany.

[1] Who are the spongers now?-Stefan Collini https://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n02/stefan-collini/who-are-the-spongers-now

Lenin, Machiavelli and History Today Magazine

“Some medieval courts not only condemned their worst opponents to death, but they also prescribed a series of extremely cruel and bloody forms of execution to be carried out one after the other. The thirst for revenge and urge to deter others mixed with the fear that those subjected to torture could return and take revenge. The Russian Revolution and its best-known leader, Vladimir Illyich Lenin, have suffered a similar fate over the past 90 years. Up to this day, propagandistic efforts have not ceased to strike dead this most important revolution of the twentieth century”.

While this quote from Peter Schwarz is taken from his article on the German Magazine Der Spiegel[1] the same could be said of the History Today Magazine. It would appear that not a month goes by without an article attacking in some form Marxist conceptions or leading Marxist figures. It would appear that History Today has a particular grievance against Vladimir Lenin.

A simple search of the History Today archive would bring to the attention of the reader over thirty articles, and one must say very few of these are worth the paper they are printed on. The latest one in the  November issue is no exception. Its title Lenin: The Machiavellian Marxist by Graeme Garrard gives its intentions away. It also follows a similar pattern; it is almost like History Today has a template for these kind of articles.

One problem that arises with these type of articles is the choice of writer. Graeme Garrard who is a reader at Cardiff University and is an established historian but like many who write on revolutionary politics has little or no grasp of what life in a revolutionary party today or yesterday was like. It was not always like this.

While Lenin studies are not in a very good place at the moment as the Marxist writer David North points out the situation in Trotsky studies is worse and has “deteriorated in the 1990s. American and British scholarship produced nothing substantial in this field during the entire decade. The only published work that perhaps stands out as an exception, though a minor one, is a single volume of essays, produced by the Edinburgh University Press in 1992 under the title The Trotsky Reappraisal. During this decade, a disturbing trend emerged in Britain, which consisted of recycling and legitimising old anti-Trotsky slanders. This trend was exemplified by the so-called Journal of Trotsky Studies, which was produced at the University of Glasgow. The favourite theme of this journal was that Trotsky’s writings were full of self-serving distortions”.[2]

In many ways, Garrads is characteristic of the approach to historical and political issues taken by other writers. Comparing the revolutionary figures such as Lenin and Trotsky to religious fanatics is not new.

Another distortion peddled is that the October revolution was coup. First, the establishment of the first worker’s state was not a coup carried out by a small group of supporters of Lenin. “The October revolution was the product of the struggle of millions of workers, impoverished peasants and war-weary soldiers, who joined the Bolsheviks because they regarded the party as the most consistent defender of their interests.”

A further point which again is not new is that Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin were only able to live as revolutionaries off the backs of Russian Peasants and English workers. This is a cheap and very right-wing approach to historical questions. , Lenin and Marx lived under capitalism, not socialism.

Garrards use of only one other historian is a little strange. Ullam is a gifted historian but has certain baggage regarding the Russian revolution, and Garrard should have drawn on other sources.

The reference Garrard makes to Lenin being Machiavellian is absurd and would take too long to expose the stupidity of such a comment. Again he is not alone in making this remark, and the company he keeps is not very pleasant.

The last point the author makes is perhaps the most perplexing. Much of the article is given over to what happens to the state under Socialism. Lenin’s and Trotsky position was clear as day it would wither away mankind would live under a society based on need, not profit. His last sentence is strange given that what happened to the Soviet Union after Lenin died is common knowledge. Why did Garrard not mention the betrayal of the Russian revolution by Stalinism?

Why are these articles being written? After all, we have had the “Death of Marxism, “The End of History”, why to bother with figures such as Lenin, Marx, Trotsky. The reason being is that many workers and young people are looking for a socialist alternative. Many are now turning to a systematic study of the October Revolution.

They are being met with a  web of lies and distortions left by bourgeois and Stalinist propaganda. It explains why 90 years on History Today continues to vilify the Russian Revolution and its revolutionaries

[1]Der Spiegel churns out old lies on the October Revolution- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2007/12/spie-d15.html

[2] Leon Trotsky, Soviet Historiography, and the Fate of Classical Marxism

By David North

1 December 2008

On Professor David Starkey

In a recent article carried in the Daily Telegraph entitled “ Historians need to have loved and lost to understand the past” the right-wing Thatcherite historian David Starkey intimated that the best historians are older as you need to have loved and lost to understand the past. Starkey says “What I have done is used my own experience of mourning and joy,” he said. “You take the dry facts of history, and with memories in your own life, you realise how you should understand them.”

Starkey’ was reminiscing about the loss of his long-term partner three years ago. Grief can do strange things to the mind. I have lost my father recently, and the loss can lead you to reevaluate many things; however, it did not change my understanding of history, nor has it lead to a better understanding of the past. If you did not have that understanding in the first place, then no amount of loss can compensate.

Starkey believes that loss can better understand figures like King Henry VIII. Since the Tudor period is Starkey’s expertise and not mine, I am not about to cross swords with a world-renowned historian on that subject. I will leave that to others far more qualified what I will say is that Starkey is no stranger to controversy and almost seems to thrive on the oxygen of publicity brings.

There are many dangers with Starkey’s crude shotgun approach to historical and political questions that could lead to a lack of understanding of the real issues involved. Starkey is no stranger to controversy. Many times Starkey’s political views have undermined his evaluation of complex historical events.

It should be said that I am not against political views shaping historical understanding, but when those views are the expression of pure ideology, then we start to have problems. Starkey is not subtle about his politics. He has been accused of being an “aggressive racist” and “sexist” following this quote on a Newsnight programme “The whites have become black; a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion.”

The same historian went on to say that the proto-fascist Tory politician Enoch Powell was correct when he warned in the 1960s that immigration would lead to civil unrest.

Starkey went on that working-class youth “have become black,” taken over by a “black” culture that has “intruded in England,” which is “why so many of us have this sense literally of a foreign country.”  As one writer said “though Starkey characteristically uses racial terms to denote the targets of his hatred, he is using the term “black” to denounce all working-class youth”.[1]

While Starkey’s political bias is easily recognisable, one question comes to mind why is such an extremely right-wing historian given such a high profile? Starkey has presented numerous television history programmes. He lectures at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I do not know of any left-wing historian given the same opportunities to present their views to such a large audience

It has become comfortable for universities to tolerate very conservative historians and allowed to express their right-wing views with virtual impunity while any views representing a left-wing challenge to the current status quo are marginalised or ostracised.

Universities play such an essential role in imparting knowledge about the world we live it is little surprising that given the dominance of an economic system hell-bent on putting profit before people it is little wonder that universities have become little more than corporate appendages.

This, of course, goes hand in hand with an academic assault on Marxism. Young people cannot expect to acquire the necessary knowledge from the capitalist media because it knows full well that experience will be used for its overthrow.

But what about universities asks the Marxist writer David North, “with their many learned professors? Unfortunately, the intellectual environment has been for many decades deeply hostile to genuine socialist theory and politics. Marxist theory—rooted in philosophical materialism—was long ago banished from the major universities.

“Academic discourse is dominated by the Freudian pseudo-science and idealist subjectivism of the Frankfurt School and the irrationalist gibberish of post-modernism. Professors inform their students that the “Grand Narrative” of Marxism is without relevance in the modern world. What they mean is that the materialist conception of history, which established the central and decisive revolutionary role of the working class in a capitalist society, cannot and should not be the basis of leftwing politics”.[2]

This situation cannot last forever. One small step is to challenge at every level the right-wing rantings of professional right-wing historians at every opportunity.

[1] The stench of a police state-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2011/08/pers-a17.html

[2] https://preview.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/10/09/codn-o09.html

Niall Ferguson: A Walking Provocation

The fact that the right-wing Professor Niall Ferguson has been caught leading a campaign to attack a left-wing student he disagreed with should come as no surprise.

Ferguson has a record of pursuing a right-wing agenda both inside and outside academia. He is well known for his defence of British Colonialism or colonialism anywhere for that matter

While a lot has been made over the scandal what is being missed is the extent that Ferguson’s political activities are a defence of the process of commercialisation of universities and that anyone who comes into conflict with this state of affairs becomes the target of a witchhunt.

The Standford based historian was joined in his witchhunt by other members of the  Cardinal Conversations, which is a Stanford program run by the conservative Hoover Institution. This group aims to collect the most right-wing people possible and give them a legitimate hearing inside the university.

Standford’s link to the right-wing think tank Hoover Foundation is well known. It has a budget of $50 million and an endowment of more than $450 million.

As one writer put it  “There is no left-wing equivalent — a sizeable ideological think tank that intimately connected to a university — at any school in the United States.

Standford regularly invites, a veritable who’s who of right-wing writers and theorists, including race-and-IQ theorist Charles Murray, tech mogul Peter Thiel, and Christina Hoff Sommers, a prominent critic of modern feminism”.

Ferguson who appeared to be the leader of the group that believed the left wing student Michael Ocon was a danger to the group.

In an email to two other members of the Stanford Republicans, John Rice-Cameron and Max Minshull, he wrote that “some opposition research on Mr O worthwhile.” Minshull stated he would “get on” the dirt-digging.

More comments from this group are of a sinister and provocative nature. They would not look out of place in a Donald Trump Tweet.

Rice-Cameron wrote in one email that “slowly, we will continue to crush the Left’s will to resist, as they will crack under pressure.”

Ferguson wrote in another note, “now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee,” adding that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

While not on the same scale there are striking similarities to the Watergate Scandal in particular how Nixon mobilised the full apparatus of the state against the Democrats.

As one writer correctly stated “The whole saga is bizarre — and revealing. It illustrates a profound double game underpinning much of the so-called “free speech” controversy: a controversy that often isn’t really about freedom and is more concerned with power than with speech”.

While many commentators have concentrated on the danger to free speech within the universities, there has been no attempt to link the right-wing group of academics with the growing commercialisation of universities.

It is becoming clear that far from universities being places of study and research for the common good many are becoming nothing more than appendages to transnational corporations. The fact that universities such as Oxford or Cambridge have vast cash reserves bear witness to this. According to the Guardian newspaper, 36 Oxford colleges have ‘consolidated net assets’ of £5.9 billion, while the University holds a further £3.2 billion.

This process of Privatisation of education has been followed by writer and historian Stefan Collini writing in 20011 Collini criticised both Labour and Conservatives for being complicit in this process.

“Much of our contemporary discourse about universities still draws on, or unwittingly presumes, that pattern of assumptions: the idea that the university is a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals; the belief that, in addition to preparing the young for future employment, the aim of developing analytical and creative human capacities is a worthwhile social purpose; the conviction that the existence of centres of disinterested inquiry and the transmission of a cultural and intellectual inheritance are self-evident public goods; and so on.

While that conception of a university and its purposes is still very much alive and may, I suspect, still be the one held by a great many ‘ordinary’ citizens, we may be nearing the point, at least in Britain, where it is starting to give way to the equivalent of MacIntyre’s barren utilitarianism. If ‘prosperity’ is the overriding value in market democracies, then universities must be repurposed as ‘engines of growth’. The value of research has then to be understood in terms of its contribution to economic innovation, and the value of teaching in terms of preparing people for particular forms of employment. There are tensions and inconsistencies within this newer conception, just as there are in the larger framework of neoliberalism: neoliberal thinking promotes ‘free competition’ in international markets, while the rhetoric of national advantage in the ‘global struggle’ often echoes mercantilist assumptions. But, gradually, what we still call universities are coming to be reshaped as centres of applied expertise and vocational training that are subordinate to a society’s ‘economic strategy”.[1]

This is not the first or the last time Ferguson has mounted what appears to be a considerable provocation aimed at inciting a response from the left to launch a witchhunt against anybody who challenges his right-wing agenda.

In her three-part series called What price an American empire? Reviewing Ferguson’s book  Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, Marxist writer  Ann Talbot exposes Ferguson’s political and historical agenda.

 “All British historians, E.H. Carr once said, are Whigs, even the Tories—but not in Niall Ferguson’s case. He is a Tory formed in the Thatcherite mould, who cut his teeth writing for Conrad Black’s Daily Telegraph while he was a research student in Germany.

[1] Who are the spongers now?-Stefan Collini https://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n02/stefan-collini/who-are-the-spongers-now

A Reply to Suzannah Lipscomb’s article Face to Face with History. 

Suzannah Lipscomb’s article in history Today[1] is an interesting read. She states that historical novels can bring us closer historical truth than academic writing. “If we can trust writers of historical fiction to situate their stories within a framework of accuracy, we can allow their novels to deliver our heart’s desire: a séance with the past, a face to face encounter with the people of history, that we perhaps find lacking in history books”[2].

While a good historical fiction is a pleasure to read and can shed some light on past events, academic historical research and writing should take precedence. I agree with Lipscomb that a historical novelist should strive to be accurate and authentic. It is also acceptable that an author should have an individual artistic license; after all, it is fiction we are talking about and should be treated as such. But artistic license must be situated within the bounds of historical accuracy and truth.

Bad fiction writing can be a very damaging thing. Perhaps these books should be made to carry a public health warning. Bad fiction can severely damage your intellect.But not all fiction is bad, and not all academic history is right. A good historical novel such as David Caute’s Comrade Jacob is enjoyable and can be an excellent way of attracting readers to history.The best historical fiction can shed new light on an already much written about the period. As Paul Lay speaking about the book the Daughter of Time by Josephine Yey states “The historical novel, when it is this good, this thoroughly researched, has become a means of legitimate historical inquiry”.

Writing any kind of history is indeed fraught with danger. But the struggle for objective truth no matter how hard should be part of the fundamental DNA of any historian or historical fiction writer. Lipscomb is right to warn of historians playing fast and loose with the facts. A historical fiction writer should approach their sources with the full rigour of an academic historian.

Lipscomb believes there is a significant amount of bad historical fiction and academic writing. Her article does not examine or account for the growth of bad historical fiction novels or the growth of appalling academic writing and in some cases, outright historical falsification.

Two interrelated trends have brought this about. The growing commercialisation of history is having a serious and adverse impact on history writing. The amount of money that universities are getting from wealthy individuals or corporations is bound to lead to a certain amount of academic prostitution.

Coupled with this has been the growth of postmodernism which has not only manifested itself in academic circles but is found in historical fiction writing.The utter dross that is being produced in the name of historical fiction and the disinterest for any kind of “grand narratives” is a by-product of the postmodernists. Domination of universities. One of its leading members is Jean-François Lyotard and his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Lyotard adopted an “incredulity toward metanarratives,” and said, “The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal”.[3]

The chief characteristic of the postmodernist is the use of debatable philosophy, to blur over the difference between truth and lies, and in doing so, commit a falsification of history. The practice of lying about history has been taken to a new level by the various schools of postmodernism. It would not be an overstatement to say that the impact of this school of history has been as one writer put “nothing short of catastrophic.”Lipscomb is very generous in her praise of Mantel’s work and rightly so. Mantel is one of the most gifted writers around and works hard in the archives and knows her way around the historiography of her given subjects.

Lipscomb seems to lose a little clarity and academic objectivity in her assessment of Mantel. Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell is, of course, a revision of the previous historiography. It should also be noted that Mantel’s portray of Thomas Cromwell pays a little too much debt to the arch-revisionist historian. G R Elton. Elton like Mantel says little about Thomas More’s writing on utopia.4]

According to Professor Mark Horowitz “Elton decidedly positions himself as the master of the manuscripts, in this case, contemporary documents and administrative records from the statutes and the journals of the House of Commons. He comes close to chastising those historians pursuing the history of ideas – he is not a fan – believing that all is for naught unless such ideas can be traced to actions beyond the mental exercise. Indeed, he has little time for More’s Utopia because no proposals were put forth to better the commonwealth, only ‘remedies in the fictional realm of the unattainable.’ Elton’s goal is to demonstrate the translation of ‘aspiration into achievement’ and how ‘thought yielded results indeed’. This, of course, provides a theme and path for his discussion of Thomas Cromwell as the exemplar of a Tudor action hero of sorts, and he takes his readers on a legislative journey portraying a practical minister’s transition into a proficient planner stoked by the reformist fervour of the day”.

It is, therefore, critical to know what is buzzing in a historian or fiction writers head. Mantel clearly as Lipscomb points out does make Cromwell more likeable than history records.So the reader should at least understand the motives or bias of any writer of fiction or nonfiction. Mantel, after all, is heavily critical of the Catholic church. The Catholic Church, she states “is not an institution for respectable people”[5].

While it should be taken for granted that a historian to attempt to recreate the past must have “empathy and imagination,” the historian or fiction writer must study the history with a doggedness and intellectual objectivity. A historian must be disciplined enough not to allow his imagination to run riot. The presentation of facts is not without controversy. It should be noted that “facts” themselves are products of the ideological, social, cultural and political currents of the time.

The historian E.H. Carr was a great believer that the historian had a “dialogue between the past and the present.” While it was the duty of every good historian to present this conversation in a readable form to the history reading public he or she had to be extremely careful and not to fall into the trap of treating his topics of research as if they were organically linked to the present day. It would be entirely wrong to treat figures such as Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte as contemporaries. It should not need to be said that they lived in completely different times to people from the 21st century.

To conclude the French historian of feudal society Marc Bloch said it best when he wrote The Historian’s Craft ” In a word, a historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time. This applies to every evolutionary stage, our own, and all others. As the old Arab proverb has it: ‘Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers”.

[1] http://www.historytoday.com/suzannah-lipscomb/face-face-history#sthash.Iph979ja.dpuf

[2] http://www.historytoday.com/suzannah-lipscomb/face-face-history#sthash.Iph979ja.dpuf

[3] The return of the “grand narrative” 1 June 2016-http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/06/01/pers-j01.html

[4] Wolf Hall-Hilary Mantel-London, Harper Collins, 2009, ISBN: 9780007230181 ; 672pp.; Price: £5.99

[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/9262955/Hilary-Mantel-Catholic-Church-is-not-for-respectable-people.html

The Struggle for Historical Truth

Historians do not work in a vacuum. Each one presents whether consciously or unconsciously a perspective, ideology or at least a moral attitude towards the history they study or put another way “When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone-deaf, or your historian is a dull dog”.[1] Does this moral or ideological entanglement with history rule out the possibility of a struggle for “true objectivity” or historical truth I do not believe so?

An objective attitude towards history has been closely associated with the Marxist movement. It is in the basic DNA of a Marxist Historian to present their work with the understanding that he or she must at all times tell the truth or more importantly understand that their study of history is the reenactment of an “objective process”.

Following on from this, can we then treat the study of history as a science with its laws? It is very difficult to argue if not impossible to say that it is a pure science in the sense of the type of laws uncovered by physicists, chemists and mathematicians. Having said that any professional or amateur historian worth his or her salt should work in the archives or library with the same devotion and accuracy as a chemist or biologists working in the laboratories.

A historian who understands that history has its laws and carries out a systematic and honest study of these laws can not only give us a deeper understanding of past events but can in some way anticipate future historical events.  The use of counterfactual history is a very useful historical genre. Again it should go without saying that the historian must approach their research in archives with honesty and integrity.

While it should be taken for granted that a historian in order to attempt to recreate the past must have “empathy and imagination”, the historian must study the past with a doggedness and intellectual objectivity. Historians are not machines. A famous criticism of the historian Christopher Hill was that he was a Rolodex historian in other words picking pieces of history that fitted his ideology.

I do not believe this was an accurate charge against Hill, but a historian must be disciplined enough not to allow his imagination to run riot. The presentation of facts is not without controversy. It should be noted that “facts” themselves are products of the ideological, social, cultural and political currents of the time.

In seeking a more objective understanding of history, the historian must be disciplined. He or she no matter how talented do not know everything there is to know about their area of expertise. It is not possible to know every fact. The point I am making is that the historian must present an honest piece of work and not let this frustration lead to a short cut in their work or more dangerously lead to outright falsification of history. By doing this, the historian will have a greater understanding of their role in the presentation of facts.

The historian Edward H Carr was a great believer that the historian had a “dialogue between the past and the present”. While it was the duty of every good historian to present this dialogue in a readable form, he or she had to be extremely careful and not to fall into the trap of treating their topics of research as if they were organically linked to the present day. It would be completely wrong to treat figures such as Oliver Cromwell or Napoleon Bonaparte as contemporaries. It should not need to be said that they lived in completely different times to people from the 21st century.

The French historian of feudal society, Marc Bloch, who wrote the book, The Historian’s Craft noted “In a word, a historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time. This is true of every evolutionary stage, our own, and all others. As the old Arab proverb has it: ‘Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers.’

It is one thing to seek to be more objective; it is perhaps another thing to achieve it. In the 20th century, a significant number of historians who have sometimes been mislabeled Marxist had sought to interpret Marxist theory and apply it when studying the past. The historian that has perhaps been most identified with the application of the Marxist method to the study of history certainly as regards the former Soviet Union is Edward Hallett Carr ((1892 –1982). Carr was not a Marxist, although he certainly was not a Stalinist.  Carr, while being a determinist, sought to present a more objective presentation of history. Philosophically he was closer to Hegel than he was to Karl Marx. He was heavily influenced by the English Hegelian philosopher and historian R G Collingwood.

The historian, R.G. Collingwood, said, “the historian must re-enact in thought what has gone on in the mind of his dramatis personae”.[2] Carr’s groundbreaking book What is History was heavily influenced by Collinwood. That a historian should spend so much time propagating the need for a philosophy of history was not a thing that many English historians had felt the need for. It is a bit strange because the book sold in the hundreds of thousands all over the world.

Carr’s book, on the whole, was warmly received amongst the general reading public amongst historians it was another matter it led to a very public and polarized debate. The British historian Richard J. Evans correctly points out that the book provoked a revolutionary change in British historiography. Even amongst its critics, the book was cited by the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, as one of the “most influential books written about historiography, and that very few historians working in the English language since the 1960s had not read it”.

Carr believed that the first obligation of a historian was, to tell the truth. By this, I do not mean that the historian must swear on the bible, but he has a duty not to falsify evidence to fit in with his ideology. When a historian deliberately falsifies history to fit in with his or her ideology, then other historians and political writers must expose it. A recent example of this falsification can be seen in Robert Service’s biography of Leon Trotsky. Service’s book was a collection of distortion, lies and half-truths. Character assassination was dressed up as a biography.[3]

Service would have done well to head the advice of one of the better American historians of the Russian Revolution, Leopold Haimson (1927–2010), when he said “The original source of the significance of any truly original and important historical work is to be traced—first and foremost—to its author’s original selection of primary sources on which he elects to focus attention in his research. To this, I would add that its essential value will ultimately depend on the degree of precision and insight with which these sources are penetrated and analyzed”. I doubt Service has read this book.[4]

Not all historians agree with the premise that historical study would be better served with a more objective understanding of its historical laws.  It would not be an overstatement to say that in defending a more objective attitude towards the study of history, Carr ploughed a very lonely furrow. His book What is History was a response to an attack by Isaiah Berlin.[5] Berlin accused Carr of being a determinist for ruling out the possibility of the accidental or counterfactual history. Berlin correctly chastised Carr for this historical blind spot, but his attack on Carr was more to do with his perceived view that Carr was a Marxist.

Berlin, after all, had a reputation for going after any historian who was left-wing whether or not they were a Marxist. His “historikerstreit” with the historian Isaac Deutscher is one such example of what was a nasty vendetta.

So in researching this essay, it has not been difficult to find historians who in some way, disagree with the premise of historical truth or objectivity. The last three decades have seen an escalation of attacks on the concept of historical objectivity.While the historian G E Elton was seen as a critic of Carr he upheld the view that the historian and his study of history should be separate from the present or put another way – the historian “should not be ‘at the centre of the historical reconstruction’ and should’ escape from his prejudices and preconceptions”.

His 1967 book The Practice of History Elton attacks Carr for being “whimsical” with his divorce of “historical facts” and the “facts of the past”. He stated Carr had “…an extraordinarily arrogant attitude both to the past and to the place of the historian studying it”[6] Hugh Trevor-Roper is another historian who attacked Carr’s philosophy of history.  Roper like Berlin had a habit of attacking left-wing historians so it would probably best to take his criticisms of Carr with a hefty pinch of salt

He was heavily critical of Carr’s dismissal of the “might-have-beens of history”. He believed that Carr had a lack of interest in examining historical causation. He also accused Carr of not looking at all sides in the debate. He believed that Carr’s “winner takes all approach’ to history was the mark of a “bad historian”. While it is important to look back at what historians have said in the past about a subject, it is equally important not to dwell too long to the detriment of what has been written recently or at least in the last few decades.

Certainly, the most damaging attack on the concept of historical truth has come from what I term the post-modernist school of historiography. It would not be an understatement to say that post-modernist historians have been extremely hostile in academia to the concept of historical truth. The last few decades have witnessed the emergence of post-modernism as the dominant force in university life. This philosophical and historical outlook has replaced what passed for Marxism inside universities all over the world.

The chief characteristic of the post-modernists is the use of debatable philosophy, to blur over the difference between truth and lies, and in doing so, commit a falsification of history. The practice of lying about history has been taken to a new level by the various schools of post-modernism. It would not be an overstatement to say that the impact of this school of history has been as David North put it “nothing short of catastrophic”.

There is, of course, a connection between the falsification of history and the attack on the struggle for objective truth. One of the most outlandish post-modernist thinkers and an opponent of objective truth is the German Professor Jorg Baberowski b (1961)[7]. A student of Michel Foucault, Baberowski describes his method of work in his book the (The Meaning of History)

“In reality, the historian has nothing to do with the past, but only with its interpretation. He cannot separate what he calls reality from the utterances of people who lived in the past. For there exists no reality apart from the consciousness that produces it. We must liberate ourselves from the conception that we can understand, through the reconstruction of events transmitted to us through documents, what the Russian Revolution was. There is no reality without its representation. To be a historian means, to use the words of Roger Chartier, to examine the realm of representations”.

This is pretty dangerous stuff from Baberowski. If this methodology becomes the norm in a historical study, it denotes an anything-goes approach that does not require the historian to tell the truth. For that matter, it also means that reality does not exist outside the historian’s head. Therefore, history has no objective basis. He sees history only in terms of his subjectivity. Why bother with a history that tries to show the economic, political or social conditions at the time.

He continues “A history is true if it serves the premises set up by the historian.” It is clear from this statement that he believes that it is all right for a historian to falsify his work in order to best serve the reader of history. This lying about history can bring about a fundamental and dangerous change in the way history is served to the public. The most extreme example of this fraudulent narratives is the lying about the crimes of Nazi Germany.  It is no accident that Baberowski is a leading figure in the attempt to rehabilitate Hitler.

The study of history is a battleground. “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” wrote Marx. According to Baberowski, we cannot learn anything from history. He pours disdain on any approach that seeks to understand the future.  A more objective approach is just a dream. This leading spokesman on the “subjectivist school” states “The fact that we could learn from history is an illusion of days gone by… The claim (of the historian) to show how things were having been proved in reality to be an illusion. What the historian confronts in the sources is not the past… the past is a construction.  Truth is what I and others hold to be true and confirm to each other as truth…. Therefore, we must accept that there are multiple realities; that it depends on who talks to whom about what and with what arguments”.[8]

To conclude If we accept this premise that truth is not objective but relative, it sets a very disturbing precedent. Aside from the moral and intellectual damage, this may do to the individual historian, this kind of false philosophy will poison the well that future young historians and people interested in history have to drink out of.

The logic of this philosophy of history is that truth is whatever goes on in someone’s head.  Smoking is good for you, and hard drugs are not dangerous, Hitler is misunderstood and was a good guy. No person who wants to function and live effectively in the world cannot do without some sense of truth’s objective correspondence to reality. I believe that Objective truth is possible but not without a struggle. The first stage in that struggle is, to tell the truth about history.

[1] What is History E H Carr?

[2] Reading Architectural History-By Dana Arnold

[3] The American Historical Review discredits Robert Service’s biography of Leon Trotsky

[4] Socialism and historical truth- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/17/lect-m17.html

[5] Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic Paperback 2015

by David Caute

[6] The Practice of History, Sir Geoffrey Elton

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%B6rg_Baberowski

[8]Jörg Baberowski, The Meaning of History, Munich 2005,