U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Rethinking History

Dear colleagues:

I suspect some of you may have some answers to the following query.

I’m thinking of proposing an essay for an upcoming CFP for the journal Rethinking History.

CFP: http://www.h-net.org/announce/show.cgi?ID=155651

Journa: http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/13642529.asp

The CFP is very much attuned to intellectual history. The journal, in the words of the editors, is “invit[ing] proposals for a themed issue entitled ‘Liberalism, Conservatism, Radicalism, and Historical Materialism.’ The purpose of this issue is to reconsider the relationship between political ideas and historical practice. We seek essays representing a variety of approaches and disciplines.”

I might propose an essay that seeks to compare and contrast recent leftist historical interpretations in relation to conservative historiography. My presupposition is that historians with overt political bents must reckon with political appropriations of the past. For instance, leftist historians have been forced to reexamine their broad historical theories to account for the failure of socialism to lay deep roots in most societies, especially in the US. I think this has led to some very creative and innovative interpretations. In the realm of intellectual and cultural history I might examine the work of Michael Denning, Perry Anderson, Mike Davis. I might also examine the work of Gabriel Kolko in diplomatic history. His work represents an innovative break with more traditional Marxist approaches to foreign relations.

I harbor doubts that conservative historians have had such a renaissance based on the fact that history has supposedly confirmed their worldviews. This does not mean that political conservatives have not written interesting and lasting work. But the trajectory of the conservative oeuvre has not been forced to reckon with failure to the same degree, and has thus not been as theoretically innovative. Am I crazy here?

My question to all of you: Who would you consider to be equivalent of these leftist historians? I was thinking of comparing John Lewis Gaddis to Kolko for diplomatic history. But in terms of intellectual/cultural history, who do you consider to be the most important historians working from a clearly conservative perspective? I’m considering writing about John Patrick Diggans, although Diggans considers himself a centrist liberal. Maybe Paul Johnson? My colleague and fellow student of conservative thought Chris Hickman (who, by the way, has voiced interest in joining the USIH collective) suggests that I examine the work of James Wilson and perhaps Richard Posner. Any thoughts?

I look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Andrew Hartman

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. You might consider John Lukacs, conservative, prolific, and attuned to theoretical issues. Also, there may be students of Leo Strauss who write history. The name Thomas Pangle pops into my mind, but I am not sure he fits. Forrest McDonald was famously conservative. There is also the Cold War post-revisionist Robert Maddox (I think). And the neocon Niall Ferguson.

  2. Andrew, Paul, & Others:

    This is clearly an intriguing CFP. It brought up a number of issues for me.

    Based on received knowledge and popular perception, Diggins would certainly be a popular choice for a “conservative” historian. Many also now view Eugene Genovese and his recently departed partner, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, in a conservative light. I’ve also seen Posner’s name thrown into this group, although I personally wouldn’t label him an historian – and I don’t think he sees himself as a history professional. I could be wrong.

    But beyond these examples a lot this depends, of course, on how ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ (as well as “radicalism” and “materialism”) are defined. The fierce independent – as well as contrarian – in me rejects those two labels in particular as the simplistic shorthand of the hoi polloi (and I also consider myself a fierce small-‘d’, democrat!). So, while the Rethinking History issue on the subject will create a buzz for the journal, I might have intellectual problems with the project. Are the journal’s editors basing these labels in the CFP on the populace’s perception of these historians, or on real issues in their thinking? I absolutely understand the former, but have issues with the latter.

    For instance, if a historian is overtly limiting his or her conclusions based on present political thinking, then that historian’s work in the profession is disingenuous at best. Of course I understand the current paradigm of our field – namely that no work of history is “apolitical.” But we can actively work to limit our known commitments, yes? Especially if we know our commitments are closing off other reasonable conclusions.

    I guess what I’m saying is this: Depending on how the declared politics affect a work in question, isn’t it possible that the historian’s politics could put him or her in ethical jeopardy? Does this not range beyond a mere subjective interpretation? What if you know your conclusions should range beyond your political thesis or commitments, but you neglect to include that personally “unsavory” conclusion in your narrative? Are you not committing an injustice?

    To me, a history professional’s political commitments might spice up his or her writing, resulting in a creative interpretation, but those commitments shouldn’t massively affect one’s acknowledgment of other legitimate perspectives. Otherwise one may simply be setting his or her self up to be dismissed, by the populace and the field, as a mere ideologue.

    I guess my reservations and thinking here go back to old questions raised in Novick’s That Noble Dream: How do one’s politics interfere with or empower one’s writing and thinking? Can politics be separated somewhat from objectivity?

    Back to the CFP, I wonder what Rethinking History hopes to show with this issue, if anything?

    – TL

  3. Paul, Tim, and others:

    Thanks for your suggestions Paul. I forgot about Lukacs and think he might work nicely.

    I’m rethinking how exactly I should organize my proposal. Perhaps something like this: how historians have framed the role of the US in the world and the concomitant decline of the left is inextricably formed by their political and ideological commitments.

    Tim, I guess this style of analysis runs counter to your critique of the CFP. I happen to think that political spectrum-type terms can be defined with just enough precision to make their use worthwhile.

    I also happen to believe that historical analysis is more authoritative — not to mention more interesting — when a historian is open and honest about his or her commitments. I’m unsure how it could be otherwise?

    Tim, this might mean being open and honest about being an independent committed to a truth higher than politics. But I maintain a rather pedestrian hope that my work will matter politically — in a spectrum defined by terms such as radical, liberal, and conservative.

    This does not entail that I ignore counter-factual evidence, as you suggest would be the possible result of such a stance. But my political commitments do shape the type of historical questions I ask — the type of projects I invest time and energy in.

    I take the cue of E.H. Carr on the question of objectivity. He argued that the futures we imagine necessarily shape our historical work. If this isn’t commitment, I don’t know what is.


  4. I only know about Forrest McDonald through cursory readings on historians and the explicit ranking of US presidents. (Such rankings, in my opinion, are silly and an awful means to reach the public.) He is consistently a participant in those rankings compiled to combat the putative liberal/left rankings. He is a worthy contributor to conservatism from the academy. Check out this speech from McDonald. (I think the story is he delivered this at some retirement event but not sure.) Many of the comments would fit comfortably within the pages of Human Events from fifty years ago. http://www.as.ua.edu/history/new/html/faculty/THE%20SPEECH.pdf

  5. I just got done reading the recent Hofstadter biography by David Brown, and its positioning of the historian’s (and by implication, the nation’s) liberalism as a constant struggle against socialist and New Left radicalism suggests that the term “conservative” needs to be defined. Turner and Beard became conservative when Hofstadter’s generation decided that they paid too little attention to the experience of the eastern working class, and then later historians found his own work (as well as that of Schlesinger and others) lacking because it didn’t acknowledge the racial and cultural diversity in American life. As long as that story keeps repeating itself, most historians over a generation old would qualify as “conservative.” My personal favorites in that vein would be Henry Adams and Daniel Boorstin.

    But these are not “movement” or political conservatives. I would tend to agree with Andrew’s original assessment that there just aren’t that many of those.

    In my opinion, the main reason for this is that favorite conservative canard: the liberal academy. Methinks that liberals generally protest too much on this point: given the race, class, gender interests of almost every single professor or student that I know, the idea that the Liberal Arts are not dominated by a liberal or even leftist outlook is downright silly. (Whether colleges are actually run by liberals is an entirely separate question, of which I am much less certain of the answer.) In the long run, I would think, talented and thoughtful young men and women of a conservative bent probably don’t feel nearly as welcome in the humanities as they might in law, business, or even the sciences.

    Hmmm…I seem to have gone a bit off topic here. I guess that’s a good time to stop.

  6. Mike, I’d have to agree with Tim that a definition of the terms “Conservative” and “Liberal” would be a precedent to a conversation about the academy’s widely seen “liberal” turn. If these terms were stable we could make such claims. Time was — in the not too distant past — when “conservative” did NOT mean you have taken a particular stance on unjust, unprovoked, illconsidered, and unwarranted foreign wars. “Liberals” did not have to have a plank in their agenda against state organized torture. And the “conservatives” were the ones who cried out to balance the budget. Ah, the good old days!
    So perhaps it is not the fact that “the more you educate someone the more liberal they become,” which is the other logical explanation for the trend in the academy, but perhaps the terms have changed their meanings, shall we say, more recently.
    And I hardly think that the outcome of the cold war either proved or disproved the doctrinal foundations of either the “left” or the “right,” any more than WWII discredited right wing economics. So don’t throw away your copies of _The New Industrial State_ quite yet. Perhaps a system with broader access to the profit motive has an inate ability to generate long term profitability (and therefore higher tax revenues which in turn can fund a bigger pile of WMD.) If the decision of the cold war were between some idealological choice between the left and the right, maybe we could celebrate, or turn ourselves in for re-education. But the demonstration was between centrally planned, ethnically imperialist pseudo-democracy against a largely centrally planned, increasingly populist nation with individual and ethnic liberties protected (for the most part). If ever there were a race between the Lenin and Al Capone, THEN we would know which set of college textbooks to keep!

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