Matthew Hilton, ‘Whose manifesto?’

Matthew Hilton

Matthew Hilton

Guldi and Armitage have provided the academy with yet another instance of historians’ predilection for self-flagellation. Writing in the self-referential language of the senior common room, they urge their colleagues to get out of that very same senior common room and take the lead in the public discussion of the issues of the day. Things ain’t what they used to be and historians no longer seek to influence the world around them like they once did.

I don’t agree with this description of how things are. For historians working in UK universities at least, for better or for worse the REF has imposed an ‘impact’ agenda on the profession. Disregarding the pros and cons of this initiative, what it has done is force many a historian to write up as case studies the influence his or her research has had beyond the university. When these are published in early 2015 it is highly likely that, collectively, they will attest to the myriad ways in which historians are engaged with the wider public.

It is also likely that the nature of that engagement will be far more imaginative than on the deliberate influence on public policy initiatives which Guldi and Armitage think is the be all and end all of history’s usefulness. Historians everywhere are engaged with the cultural sector, the creative economy, the voluntary sector, the media in all its forms, other education providers and the direct lives of various individuals and communities who turn to history for any number of reasons to improve their wellbeing and enrich their lives. Arguably, the role of history in the wider world is exactly the opposite of the depiction provided by Guldi and Armitage: history is in demand and it flourishes.

Many of the historiographical trends they outline are hard to disagree with. Time frames have been reduced, there has been increasing specialisation and the ‘big picture’ is not always apparent. Yet their diagnosis of these ills is inaccurate. It cannot be attributed solely to the abandonment of the longue durée. Indeed, the longue durée approach was not the only means to get at the big picture. It can be reached as much through the details of  the Balinese cock-fight as through the lengthy trawl of statistics on demographic change over several centuries.

Our understanding of capitalism and the industrial revolution owes as much to how we interpret the references to a mythical guiding general by a small group of machine breakers in the north of England in the 1810s as it does to how we analyse statistics on production, consumption and living standards. The examples are deliberate since one of the historians frequently cited by Guldi and Armitage, Eric Hobsbawm, was aware of the need for both, but in the Manifesto he is held up as the advocate only of the longue durée approach. Instead, in an unnecessarily churlish (in fact, just unnecessary) chapter two, all non- longue durée approaches are dubiously dismissed as micro-history.

A better case might have been made for the absence of the big picture approach if it had been argued there has been a decline in direct political engagement by historians. I’d be more persuaded by such a line of reasoning, though here the condition of the historian is no different from that of the humanities generally. But politics takes place through many channels and it is clear that historians are engaging directly with the themes that dominate the world around us. They might not have direct policy relevance but there is clearly a desire by historians to contribute to a debate about the broad issues that dominate our lives in these neoliberal times.

In chapter three, Guldi and Armitage welcome a whole host of historians they admire into the long duree club. But many would not perceive themselves as such and they – along with  so many others – might be better regarded as seeking a broad engagement with the wider world that we inhabit. This is not only on issues about inequality and climate change, that the Manifesto rightly highlights, but on imperialism and globalisation, on the movement of peoples both free and forced, on new forms of activism, solidarity and cohesion, on forms of human agency not captured by economic models, on our relationship with the material world, on governance, expertise and forms of rule, on capitalism and cultures of democracy and the still relevant discriminations and exclusions that take place on the basis of class, race, gender, belief, ability and sexuality. The list goes on. The point is we still want to make these interventions and it is not always the historian’s fault they are not heard or listened to.

These historians are not taking the path of predicting the future, prescribing policy interventions or engaging in counterfactuals as Guldi and Armitage would like.. They are doing what historians always do: getting at the big picture by unsettling our current world views, taking us along alternative paths and even casting light on brief utopian cul-de-sacs. They do not serve a direct policy service, but they can help transform the entire debate within which a policy is set. The prescription set by Guldi and Armitage is to return to the long duree and to embrace ‘big data’. I have no objections to such an approach, and believe it could be particularly fruitful. But it should be clear that this is a manifesto for their own research rather than for the profession as a whole.

It may well be that the real difference between the public standing of history today compared to a few decades ago is that it arguably does not provide as much intellectual leadership when the humanities as a whole were engaging with debates about social theory in which historical change – materialist or otherwise – was given a central role. Outside of the academy, we do not all contribute equally to public debate, and much of this is because of the quality of underlying work, but this is not the same as saying that we have all given up on the attempt. No doubt some of us will continue to have an influence beyond the discipline and beyond the academy (just as we remember the best of those of previous generations) and the manifesto writers of 2044 will remember our efforts amidst their own troubles of ever greater specialisation and the perceived lack of political engagement.



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