Obits

Two recent obituaries illustrate things to avoid when practicing history:

1. David Greenberg on Howard Zinn:

[W]hen it comes to Zinn’s demand for history to be judged for its political utility, Duberman is finally too indulgent. He can never bring himself to say that the fatal flaw of Zinn’s historical work is the shallowness, indeed the fallaciousness, of his critique of scholarly detachment. Zinn rests satisfied with what strikes him as the scandalous revelation that claims of objectivity often mask ideological predilections. Imagine! And on the basis of this sophomoric insight, he renounces the ideals of objectivity and empirical responsibility, and makes the dubious leap to the notion that a historian need only lay his ideological cards on the table and tell whatever history he chooses. He aligns himself with the famous line from the British historian James Anthony Froude, who asked rhetorically if history “was like a child’s box of letters, with which we can spell any word we please. We have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.” Froude made this observation in the middle of the nineteenth century.

2. Keith Windshuttle on Eric Hobsbawm:

The chief problem for all of Hobsbawm’s history was that his primary aim was to verify the theories of Karl Marx. Despite claims by his obituary writers that he was never a slave to Marxist doctrine, or that his work was “always nuanced” and “elegant”, the opposite was true. As a Festschrift to him in 1972 argued, and as his much-cited essay “Karl Marx’s Contribution to Historiography” of the same year confirms, he subscribed to the orthodox base/superstructure model, in which the economy or “the relations of production” comprise the social base which in turn determines the superstructure, or the ideas and culture of a society. Their position as wage earners purportedly determines how workers think, what they value and the kind of institutions they create; and their position as capitalists determines how employers think, what they value and the very different institutions they create. The notion that ideas might be autonomous, or even historically causative, is simply bourgeois naivety. Meanwhile, capitalist growth produces periodic crises and generates class conflicts that cripple the entire system.

Once an historian adopts a model like this, his task is not all that difficult. He goes hunting for evidence to support the conclusion he has already decided. In newspapers and secondary sources he finds incidents and social trends, and interprets them within the same framework, thereby “verifying” his model. Hobsbawm was able to write his “great tetralogy” of European history because Marx had already given him its framework. He never had to study everything available on a topic and then comprehend it all within an original narrative. He simply took the theoretical colouring book provided by Marx, and filled it in. This is not how you should do history, and it is certainly not how you produce great history.