For many of us, history is something we are forced to do at school but become more interested in as we get older — whether through popular histories, novels about the Tudors, or genealogies of our own families. But for political leaders, history is a more serious business. In recent weeks, both the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and our own heavy-handed education tsar, Michael Gove, have been demanding government-controlled, nationalistic school history syllabuses; both see history as an essential tool for forging national unity and shaping political attitudes.
David Cannadine’s elegantly written and stimulating book is a useful reminder that some historians have been willing servants to political projects of all kinds. Just as medieval kings had their chronicler-propagandists and African chiefs had their praise-poets, so, in a more democratic age, Gove and Putin have their nationalist historians. And, it must be added, their opponents of all stripes, socialist, feminist and beyond, have also had their bards and academic cheerleaders.
But these are activities of which Cannadine strongly disapproves, arguing that historians have done much to divide humanity into “us and them” — though their particular ideas of who the “us and them” are has changed markedly. From the mid-19th century, nation was the most popular theme, and many historians dedicated themselves to showing how their particular nations were distinct from (and superior to) others. So “Whig” historians insisted on the supposedly ideal development of Britain’s democratic institutions, while their American counterparts celebrated their nation’s unique history of freedom.
By David Cannadine
The rise of European empires, however, brought another category to the fore, namely race, and from the 1880s, histories, bolstered by pseudo-scientific tracts, justified ethnic hierarchies. Yet, the catastrophe of the World War I, with its shattering revelations of European brutality, led historians such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee to question the west’s primacy, and see it as one of several competing “civilizations.” This approach, echoed in Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations of 1993, became a handy weapon in the neo-conservative armory after 9/11, when it was used to justify a Manichean struggle between “Judeo-Christian freedom and democracy on the one side and Islamic despotism and tyranny on the other.”
But Cannadine does not confine his criticisms to those historians who have wielded their pens in service of the mighty. Oppositional historians are castigated, too: both the Marxists of the 1960s and 1970s, and feminist and post-colonial historians in more recent decades, stand accused of peddling exaggerated dichotomies of class, race and gender, and overstating the significance of “difference” and subjugation.
Rather than perpetuating such false consciousness, Cannadine concludes that historians should adopt a self-denying ordinance and abandon their obsessive concern with such categories — whether national, religious, racial, civilizational, gender or class. They should focus not on what divides humanity but what unites it. For “the history of humankind is at least as much about cooperation as it is about conflict, and about kindness to strangers as it is about the obsession with otherness”.
This may seem a well-meaning, if rather pious, sentiment, with which few could disagree. And Cannadine is justified in drawing attention to how dangerously politicized history can become. But his argument has its problems. First, many of the historians and intellectuals Cannadine cites represent only a small, polemical minority, eager to engage in political battles — people like Huntington, Betty Friedan or EP Thompson. In truth, most academic historians writing today are extremely wary of sweeping accounts of nations, classes or genders, stressing, instead, the many ways in which such identities ebbed, flowed, overlapped, were contested, reconstructed and remodeled over time. Indeed the relationship between history writing and politics is generally the opposite of the one Cannadine identifies: most historians are so careful, cautious and scrupulous, they can find it difficult to communicate their fine-grained and sensitively nuanced analyses to the broader public. This, unfortunately, leaves the field clear for the crude simplifiers and polemicists.