Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Vol. 10, No. 2; Summer 2004

Can History Do Without Theory?

The New History and the Old: Critical Essays and Reappraisals—Revised ed. By Gertrude Himmelfarb. Harvard University Press, 2004. viii + 266 pgs.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is an intellectual historian of great distinction. She has specialized in British nineteenth-century history; and her book on Lord Acton, her study of nineteenth-century thought on poverty, and her collection Victorian Minds have had a deserved influence. Perhaps her most influential essay analyzed, to devastating effect, Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon; her most neglected work is her outstanding Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution.

At times in her work, though, a weakness is apparent. Though she writes about ideas, she often does not enter closely into the philosophical arguments that bear on her subjects. Thus, in her On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (New York, 1974), she contrasts what she deems the overly simple doctrine of On Liberty with several of Mill’s essays that she deems more nuanced. Her hasty dismissal of Mill’s alleged extremism in On Liberty almost completely ignores the philosophical literature on Mill’s ethics.

The New History and the Old manifests this weakness, along with her very considerable strengths. The book is a revised and expanded edition of a collection of essays that first appeared in 1987. Himmelfarb writes as a defender of the old history, which stresses politics as the core of the discipline. To her the actions of great men, and the ideas of the great thinkers who influenced them, lie at the center of historical study.

By contrast, the new history, her principal target in the book, shifts attention elsewhere. Social structures and class assume prime importance. To the great French historian Fernand Braudel, "the ‘inanimate’ forces of geography, demography, and economy were the ‘deeper realities’ of history, compared with which the passions of Philip II and the idea of the Renaissance were ‘cockleshells’ tossed on the waters of history" (p. 12). Other exponents of the new history did not go so far. Marxists often write about the events of politics, but economic forces determine what is "really" at stake in these events.

To combat these two varieties of new history is a formidable undertaking; but since the original appearance of Himmelfarb’s book, a new enemy has come to prominence. What our author terms the "new new history" denies that history is an objective discipline. Such modish figures as Hayden White do not propose to subordinate politics to class; rather, they break down the distinction between history and fiction. Leopold von Ranke claimed to describe the past "as it actually happened;" but the new view seeks relief from the "fetish of facts" (p. 23).1

In her campaign against these views, Himmelfarb shows herself a brilliant tactician, but she cannot carry through the battle to final victory. She can make her opponents look silly, but she fails to demonstrate that their theories are false.

The most striking example of what I have in mind occurs in "The Historian as Marxist: The ‘Group’." Himmelfarb shows that the British Communist Party developed an influential interpretation of English history. Such eminent figures as Maurice Dobb, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and E.P. Thompson were not only Marxists but also strictly observant party members. According to Hobsbawm, "Our work as historians was therefore embedded in our work as Marxists, which we believed to imply membership in the Communist Party. . . . We were as loyal, active and committed a group of Communists as any" (p. 91, quoting Hobsbawm).

For once, a Communist told the truth. The Historians Group developed interpretations of English history in strict accord with Marxist dogma. Feudalism, according to the main English Marxist theoretician Maurice Dobb, principally concerned relations between lord and peasant, not lord and vassal. In good Marxist fashion, Dobb argued that "the dissolution of feudalism resulted from the internal contradictions of the social relations of production" (p. 93). The Group was anxious to combat another analysis of the feudal crisis, advanced by Paul Sweezy, a Marxist but not a member of the Party. The correct line must at all costs be preserved.

The English Civil War attracted even more devoted attention from the Historians Group. Here Christopher Hill led the way; a pamphlet that portrayed the war as a bourgeois revolution laid down the correct line. "Hill’s studies in the Soviet Union had focused on Soviet interpretations of the English Civil War, and his first important essay, "The English Revolution," was written under the influence of the Russian historian E.A. Kosminsky. . . . For Hill the Civil War was a ‘class war’ between a despotic king representing the ‘reactionary forces’ of landlords and the Church, and Parliament representing the commercial and industrial classes in the towns, the yeomanry and ‘progressive gentry’ in the countryside, and the enlightened elements among the masses" (p. 96).

Of course no good Marxist could let the Industrial Revolution pass by unremarked. According to E.P. Thompson, the author of The Making of the English Working Class, "still the most influential book produced by any member of the Group" (p. 102), resistance to capitalism produced a revolutionary working class. "[I]t maintains that by 1832 . . . England had witnessed the emergence of a single ‘working class’ . . . a class that was fully developed, fully conscious of its class identity and class interests, consciously committed to the class struggle, politically organized to carry out that struggle, and ideologically receptive to an alternative economic and social system" (p. 102).

Himmelfarb has given us a painstaking account of an important episode in English historiography, and those of us not attracted to the science of Marxism-Leninism must view the interpretations of the Group with caution. But has she shown to be false any of the Marxist interpretations she has discussed?

She thinks that she has fatally wounded the views of the Group, but I venture to suggest that she has not done so. She rightly notes that the Marxists came to the historical facts with their theory readymade: what they discovered was forced to fit preconceived categories. "The Marxist . . . is so assured of the truth of his thesis—its political as well as historical truth—that the temptation, as Hobsbawm says, is to invoke arguments ‘designed a posteriori to confirm what we already knew to be necessarily "correct"’" (p. 107).

But suppose that Marxism is true: would anything be strange in expecting that the historical record would confirm it? To counter the Group, Himmelfarb needs to show that Marxism is false, not just that the members of the Group dogmatically embraced it. To do so, she would need to address on their own terms the central contentions of the Marxist account, a task she never attempts. (The best analysis of the Marxist theory of history, to my mind, is found in Mises’s Theory and History.)

  A like problem arises in her account of another influential theory of history. Like Himmelfarb, devotees of psychohistory accent the role of the individual. But they fall short, our author contends, because they reduce conscious action to unconscious motives.

Himmelfarb displays remarkable skill as a close reader, and she readily shows some psychohistorians guilty of strained reasoning. She tells us that Isaac Kramnick contends that Edmund Burke hungered after his father’s love and affection: as proof, he tells us that Burke "named his first son (and the only one to survive) with his father’s name, Richard" (p. 117, quoting Kramnick). On this Himmelfarb comments with appropriate severity: "The familiar psychoanalytic fallacy—attributing great psychological significance to a commonplace convention (the naming of one’s son after one’s father)—is compounded by the parenthetical phrase that seems to reinforce that psychological significance, as if Burke foresaw that this would be the only son to survive" (p. 117).

Himmelfarb’s discussion of this point could hardly be bettered, but once more she has not pursued matters to the foundation. To refute psychohistory, it is necessary to show that Freudian psychoanalysis is a mistaken theory. Himmelfarb may demolish a few lines of Kramnick; she may mock Rudolph Binion’s claim that Hitler’s anti-Semitism stems from a botched cancer operation on his mother by a Jewish doctor; and she may protest Erik Erikson’s bizarre choice of sources and "methodological audacity" (p. 56); but until she confronts psychoanalysis directly, she has left her opponent in the ring.2

Even when Himmelfarb faces an easier target, her discussion falls short for a now familiar reason. She reacts with appropriate outrage to the excesses of postmodernism. "For the postmodernist, there is no truth to be derived from the past because the past is only a ‘social construct’ devised by the historian. The events of the past are ‘texts,’ much as poems are, and the historian has the same authority over the past as the literary critic has over the poem" (p. 21).

Nor is postmodernism merely idle speculation, ignored when historians cease to play philosopher and write history. Such distinguished historians as Simon Schama and Natalie Zemon Davis introduce fiction into their works—"not historical fiction à la Walter Scott, but fictionalized history, which is quite another thing" (p. 23). Himmelfarb contrasts with this her own rigorous training in historical method: have not these new historians betrayed their calling?

Our author neglects to mention that both Schama and Davis have produced works of outstanding scholarship; but on her main point she is clearly right. It is indeed nonsensical to think that the historical past is not discovered by the historian, but constructed by him.  But Himmelfarb fails to confront the arguments of her adversaries. She mentions in passing Derrida and Rorty, dismissing them as absurd; but she declines to pursue the philosophical issues that they have raised. I do not object to ridicule—I would be out of business without it—but more is needed.

Himmelfarb’s defense of her own conception of history is no more successful in taking matters to the foundations. Against a social historian who appealed to Aristotle, "translated as he understood it: ‘Man is by nature a social animal’," Himmelfarb is adamant: "What Aristotle said, of course, is ‘Man is by nature a political animal’. . . . What [non-human animals] do not have is a polity, a government of laws and institutions by means of which, Aristotle believed—man consciously, rationally tries to establish a just regime and pursue the good life. The social historian, rejecting any such ‘elitist’ idea as the good life . . . denies that man is the distinctive, indeed unique animal Aristotle thought him to be—a rational animal, which is to say, a political animal" (pp. 43–44).

Why does Himmelfarb assume that man’s distinctively rational activity takes place principally in politics? What happened to religion, philosophy, the arts, and literature? Would not her criterion eliminate her own historical work as distinctively rational? (She would probably respond that the rationality of her historical work derives from the rationality of the politics she discusses.) Such objections are obvious, but Himmelfarb never thinks to address them. Instead, she fobs us off with a quotation from Aristotle.

But have we not been too harsh on Himmelfarb? She wishes historians to concentrate on the actions of individuals, instead of vague social trends. Is she not here in perfect accord with Misesian teaching? Methodological individualism is after all a key tenet of Human Action. Should we not praise Himmelfarb for her insight?

The objection is in part well taken, but Himmelfarb’s individualism differs greatly from the sort that Mises and Rothbard favor. The difference lies not only in her unexamined premise that politics is the supreme occasion for rational action. Historical understanding, as Mises teaches, endeavors to reconstruct the thinking behind individual actions. By no means, though, does Mises contend that individuals are the best interpreters of their actions’ significance or the historical movements in which their actions take place. The explanation that a historian, informed by praxeology, will offer for the decline of Rome will hardly be identical with the views on politics of the Romans themselves.

Himmelfarb at least sometimes accepts the fallacious position just adumbrated. Thus, she contrasts the spurious precision of a model of class in early nineteenth-century England presented by R.S. Neale, a social historian, with the superior wisdom of Thomas Carlyle. He was an influential contemporary observer of the growth of capitalism: does this not suffice to rank his insights above those of a mere social historian?  She finds great merit in Carlyle’s attack on capitalism in his discussion of the "condition-of-England" question. Apparently, Carlyle’s insight was to see that the struggle between rich and poor should not be seen as a purely economic question. We must not surrender to the "cash nexus." The true division lies not between those with a great deal of money and those with less, but rather between "‘toiling classes’ and the ‘untoiling.’ It was here that the two classes, so far from being simple descriptive terms, became morally charged" (p. 77).

Himmelfarb may like Carlyle’s rhetorical flights of fancy and idiosyncratic appeals to morality; but these are no substitute for sound economic analysis. Had Himmelfarb paid the slightest attention to economic theory, she would have surely mentioned that Carlyle’s account of the working classes grossly distorted the facts.3

Himmelfarb’s disdain for theory makes her the prisoner of an unexamined apriorism of her own devising. This emerges most clearly in her discussion of A.J.P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War. In this highly controversial book, Taylor argued that Hitler did not by deliberate intention bring about world war in September 1939. Quite the contrary, Taylor claimed that the Polish crisis eventuated in war owing to diplomatic miscalculation. For Taylor, Hitler was a traditional German statesman: though "in wicked acts he outdid them all," Hitler’s diplomatic aims were the same as those of his predecessors. Hitler operated by taking advantage of the immediate situation, not by following a plan for world conquest laid down long in advance.

To say that this account is controversial is a mild understatement, and Himmelfarb joins with many others in rejecting it. I do not propose to examine here the merits of Taylor’s thesis; what concerns me instead is another issue. Himmelfarb does not herself consider the diplomatic history of the late 1930s, showing in what ways Taylor has misread the documents. Rather, she deduces a priori that Hitler caused the war.

Since he was a bad man, he must have done so: "Diplomacy-as-usual works only with statesmen as usual, not with ‘world-historical individuals’ like Napoleon and Hitler, who do not abide by the rules of the game—who change not only the rules but the game itself . . . the precise timetable for war[was] not known in advance; Hitler himself did not know [it]. But that there would be a war if he were opposed abroad . . . was hardly in doubt" (p. 193). An important thesis, if true; but Himmelfarb gives us no reason to accept it. To prove it, she would need to refer to the actual events of 1939, or at least refer us to an account more adequate than Taylor’s. That Himmelfarb fails to see the need to do so reflects her sometimes inadequate grasp of historical argument.

1Himmelfarb mentions, but has little to say about, the early twentieth-century variety of new history developed by James Harvey Robinson. On this, see D.L. Hoggan, The Myth of the New History (Craig Press, 1965).

2For an excellent criticism of psychoanalysis, see Frank Cioffi, Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience (Open Court, 1998). See my review in the Mises Review, Fall 2000.

3For a valuable account of Carlyle, showing that his social thought rested on the acceptance of slavery, see David M. Levy, How the Dismal Science Got Its Name (University of Michigan Press, 2001). The chapter on Carlyle in Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State (Yale University Press, [1946] 1961) should also be consulted.


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