Monday, December 20, 2004

Historians in tweed sports jackets

Ed Rooksby has been having trouble with historians in tweed sports jackets:

I'm steaming at the moment. I went to a conference this morning on 18th Century revolutions, (it was free so I thought I might as well) organised by York History Department and left half way through...I knew beforehand that it wasn't going to be radical history and it was clear from the moment I arrived from the preponderance of yellow Pringle sweaters, side partings and white haired gents in tweed sports jackets amongst the delegates that the Centre for 18th Century Studies was not exactly a hotbed of leftism.

...The incident occured after I had sat through a paper on the Brabant Revolution in Belgium.
It wasn't particularly interesting, but I thought I'd have a go at asking a question anyway, since I hadn't said anything about the previous papers on the French Revolution. I asked what the speaker could say about the class base of the Belgian Revolution - it seemed to me that while the driving force behind 1789 in France could be said to have been the sans cullottes and petit-bourgeoisie, the Belgian Revolution was very much a process of manouevring amongst social elites. A reasonable enough question you might have thought.

The speaker didn't have to agree with the premises of the question and I suppose I might as well have been holding a big sign above my head saying 'Marxist!', but it didn't seem a particularly silly question. I distinctly remember the sight and sound of several sports jacket wearing historians in the audience rolling their eyes and sighing dramatically. The paper giver (a woman from Belgium) looked at me for a second as if I had just fallen out of a space-ship and then replied that 'Well, actually, elites always do intitiate and drive historical change in these situations' (or something similar) and proceeded to give me an account of how the French and Belgian revolutionary elites had merely sought to secure popular assent for their actions and that this was about as far as popular class involvement in history goes.

I didn't reply. I wish I did. I should have said to the paper giver and to the wise, tweedy head nodders in the audience that if you made the sweeping normative assertion that it was self-evident that elites intitiate and drive historical change in a seminar in the philosophy or political philosophy departments, you would at the very least be greeted with amazed incredulity and, possibly, you'd be laughed out of the room. I'm not annoyed so much that I was confronted with conservative history - but that the conservativeness of this history seemed unacknowledged. It was presented as common sense and as self-evident. How on earth academics can get away with such bold assertions containing implicit normative assumptions so large that you can see them a mile off is beyond me. Maybe 18th Century historians tend to be like that.

Doesn't sound like much fun, does it? EP Thompson spent a lot of the second half of his career as a historian tackling the 18th century, and he found that a lot of specialists in the period were fairly conservative. Perhaps British radical historians would be more likely to gravitate toward the more dramatic 17th (Hill) or 19th (EPT himself, plus plenty of others) or 20th (Carr, Hobsbawm) centuries?

Thompson decided that he had to beat the bourgeois academics at their own game, and ended up spending a long time in the archives. Defending the 'academic' look of the first half of his book Whigs and Hunters, Thompson said something like 'You have to fight the enemy with some firepower - you cannot destroy a frigate with a few musket shots from a canoe'. In other words, radical social scientists have to be able to defeat bourgeois social scientists where the latter are strongest - on the ground of empirical evidence. Thompson had to prove he was as knowledgable as his foes about the minutae of 18th century life, and the voluminous historiography of the 18th century, before he could hope to challenge their interpretations of the broad outlines of 18th century history.

I learned a similar lesson at a recent sociology conference in Wellington. A bunch of warmed-over Blairite policy analysts turned up to a session on social policy, where two Marxist friends of mine delivered research which suggested very strongly that the policy prgramme of the Labour government here was basically continuous with the classical neoliberalism of the late 80s and early 90s, and had failed to ameliorate the poverty caused by those policies. The comrades' arguments were so slick and so well-buttressed by fact that the Blairites ended up sitting and simmering and not even daring to denounce them. Great stuff, and potentially an important resource for the left-wingers in trade unions and NGOs who want to challenge the support of their leaders for Labour in the years to come.

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