History for Pragmatists
I am not a historian. I did not study History as an undergraduate or at Master’s degree level. I personally have no particular interest in history for its own sake. And I still do not fully understand why some historians (including friends I know and love) choose to study certain bizarre and obscure aspects of the distant past with a barely tangible connection to the present. Surely a contribution to current social and political debate is of more interest and pressing importance than, say, trying to piece together the decrepit records of medieval monks from some particularly unknown monastery in the Sicilian hills?
A crash course in historical theory has revealed how deeply naïve and impatient such a heavy-handed dismissal is. One could write an entire volume on the reasons why. This article, however, is concerned with highlighting the specific value of the historical approach applied in political or ideological debate. The most important point is this: accurate and informed historical understanding is a central pillar of intelligent socio-political discussion. There can be no sensible debate in politics or, for that matter, of anything at all, if one does not know the history of the subject at hand.
Allow me to back this up slightly and rephrase the above into a central question: What does the historical approach offer to someone attempting to make a political or ideological contribution in a particular debate? The idea of using a historical perspective to promote a deliberately partisan agenda might seem oxymoronic. Making historical research as neutral and objective as possible is something of a categorical imperative for the historian’s craft . However, it is clear that any aspiring politician, political commentator, pub-philosopher or radical activist could also benefit from incorporating aspects of the historical approach into their intellectual arsenal.
A historical narrative can come from a more or less explicitly partisan perspective. However, the merits of the account are judged, not on its ideological position, but on the reliability of the historical evidence and interpretation. Excessive ideological bias, leading to unreasonable or unlikely conclusions being drawn from the evidence, can negatively affect the value of the historical account. The fact that the criteria for judging the authority of a historical narrative do not take account of day-to-day political or ideological divides makes historical knowledge extremely valuable in political debate as the authority of historical knowledge is not challengeable on political grounds. If something happened, it happened, regardless of how political affiliation would interpret it.
As such, reference to historical authority, as a complement to moral or ideological discussion, can greatly aid a political argument. For example, in order more strongly denounce ‘proposed policy X’, one can reference its similarity to the ‘historically disastrous and rigorously analysed policy Y’. Arguments about why policy Y was bad can be made on a moral or ideological level, but accurate history is needed in order to make reliable comparisons.
In other words, the idea of not ‘repeating the same mistakes’ hinges on knowing what those mistakes were. When adverse historical outcomes of particular policies are rigorously investigated and defined, repeating such a policy becomes a self-evidently undesirable course of action and much more difficult to defend. The reverse is also true for cases where political decisions have worked well, i.e. the more positive outcomes are documented in authoritative and reliable historical accounts, the more easily repeat policies can be justified and the more difficult the political case against them becomes.
How accurate historical practice can benefit political argument is fairly self-evident, however the issue is not wholly straightforward. The idea that a historical ‘fact’ can be strictly and objectively ‘true’ – and therefore referred to with total confidence in debate – is an extensively contested topic of historical theory. Such epistemological uncertainties are present in the self-reflexive theoretical debates of practically every discipline on the academic spectrum. A final verdict on the objectivity/subjectivity divide eventually comes down to which side of the epistemological fence one prefers. Is there an objective, external world that can be ‘known’, or does reality consist of shifting meanings and interpretation? In writing history – from epistemological positions as varied as radical skepticism , to the most strident foundationalist , to the abstract post-modern literary theory – the common aim of each camp is simply to navigate these philosophical uncertainties as coherently as possible and provide the most reasonable historical account of the topic being investigated.
To summarise, I come from an intellectual background where one is always looking to ‘win an argument’ on the basis that ‘my position is stronger than yours’. As such, the historical approach never appealed because of its lack of focus on present issues and purported non-engagement with important moral or philosophical dimensions to debate. However, a naïve dismissal vastly undervalues the practices and conventions of academic historical research. Many people (though I still do not count myself as one of them) find history interesting for its own sake. However, the historical approach should be considered an invaluable cornerstone for any serious socio-political argument. The recent 2015 election circus in the UK highlighted that accurate historical knowledge, as well as the accompanying scrutiny of ideology posing as historical authority, is perhaps not as present in our day-to-day politics as might be desired. One conclusion that could be drawn for any aspiring politicians, activists or political commentators is: be pragmatic – become a historian.