HISTORIANS - TAKING A STRONG STAND - from 'Historians at Work'
Historians at Work
HICKS SMITH & SONS
When the editors of this volume chose me to contribute the chapter on
'Taking a strong stand' they betrayed precisely the kind of bias I
intend to expose. Because I have declared the commitment of my
historical researches to the achievement of a socialist revolution in
It is certainly difficult to find a self-confessed' objective' historian.
Nor does the position change when we examine
contemporaries. In an interview with Hugh Trevor Roper, Ved Mehta asked:
G. R. Elton is very conscious of the problem
of 'objectivity' and of the difficulty in attaining it. In The
Practice of History he argues that Namier's case 'shows the real
place of bias, of the historian's personality, in the business of
writing history. It enables him to look afresh at the facts of the
past.' For, he says, ‘historians like other people, tend to judge the
world from their own experience and practice'. Nonetheless he maintains
Elton's denial that his personality
influenced his analysis is not merely in conflict with his previously
quoted generalisations, it is implicitly contradicted two pages further
on when he says ‘. . . . what we call history is the mess we call life
reduced to some order. . .’ Elton's inability to see the beam in his
own eye is not the most revealing part of his approach to the question
of 'objectivity'. Far more significant is his declaration that
allegations that historians are invariably biased 'are commonplaces,
largely true, which need not be laboured further'.
He does not like to admit
this so he pretends it is old-hat and not worthy of serious
consideration. A neat if
In his lectures printed under the title Attempting
History Sir Keith Hancock begins boldly by asserting that he
'will never admit . . . the inveterate and irremediable subjectivity of
historical investigation and explanation'. But he is quickly reduced to
admitting that 'objectivity' is to be aimed at rather than achieved. He
also suggests that when historians are frank about their bias it is
alright to be biased.
Arthur Marwick concludes his survey of the issue by accepting
that the historian can never be completely 'objective'.
In a more philosophical vein Gordon Leff attempts to lift the burden
from historians' shoulders by redefining 'objectivity, as a coherently
plausible integration of all the known facts.
But this raises more problems than it solves: 'plausible' is no less
troublesome than 'objective'.
Thus we are presented with a real paradox. No
one appears anxious to take the title of 'objective' for himself yet so
many extol it as their, or their colleagues aim. Or conversely they
claim it for themselves but deny it to friend and foe alike. It might be
that we have joined Alvin Gouldner in his search for the Minotaur of a
value-free sociology which Gouldner concludes only manages to exist at
all precisely because it is half man and half bull.
So it is the quest, rather than the grail,
which calls for explanation. What are the social necessities that demand
a constant reiteration of a goal which everyone agrees is unattainable?
How are we to explain this particular piece of middle-class
millenarianism? Obviously I can do no more than sketch out an answer,
but that answer must be that the disparity between theory and practice
is designed to conceal some very real biases in those practices.
'Objectivity' is simultaneously the barricade behind which the defenders
of the status quo conceal their prejudices, and the
challenge they throw at those who overtly reveal certain, and only some,
preferences. It is a shield and a sword for the comfortable and the cosy.
When historians call for 'objectivity' they are in fact calling for a
species of bias.
My contention is that in their daily practice
of writing and teaching, historians adopt methods of research which are
far from neutral in terms of the society in which they live, and that
these techniques appear neutral only because they in no way challenge
the continued existence of capitalism. The bias of 'objectivity' is not
to be found in the conclusions and declared principles of 'objective'
historians. Their bias rests in their methods and particularly in their
deployment of objectivity as a synonym for 'impartial'. In demonstrating
the strong stand taken by 'objective' historians eight different aspects
will be examined - all too briefly.
1. The bias of
Even when the topic is as narrow as the
Second Reform Bill the historian can write a book about the detailed
parliamentary manoeuvrings through which the legislation was beaten into
its final form or he can produce a vast socio-economic study. on this
question of choosing which causes to study take the point made by
William Dray in his Philosophy of History when he cites
Collingwood on the relativity of causes: 'for any given person, the
cause . . . of a given thing is that one of its conditions which he is
able to produce or prevent'. Dray accepts this for the actors in history
but says that it is of little direct help to the historian who 'cannot
sensibly ask himself how he could, have produced or prevented the
defeat of Napoleon.'
On the contrary, Collingwood's point is of
great importance to the historian who must ask himself what kind of
causes his lifestyle has led him to believe he can influence. Historians
are always in danger of preferring an explanation which gives them the
greatest feeling of vicarious power. When weighing up the causes of the
British Public order Bill of 1936 a historian who spends much of his
time on committees and in clubrooms may value a conversation with the
Prime Minister and diminish the importance of street violence to which
the historian objects in principle and in which he has never
participated. And if he does so prefer who will blame him? Conversations
are rational, sensible and objective causes while the acts of the mob
are by definition irrational, emotional and subjective, not to say
The more usual form of bias in the choice of
a topic expresses itself as an omission rather than as a commission.
Frederick Jackson Turner was by no means the last historian to leave the
Negro out of American history while the poorer classes have been given a
bad time by writers who believed that history consisted of 'the
conversation of the people who counted'. Working-class women have been
even lower down the scale: Howard Zinn pointed to the bias involved in
this omission by quoting a 1929 speech of the American congressman
Without even commenting on the virtues of a
Mellon or a Ford or a Morgan the historian who devotes space to their
activities without mentioning the activities of the Bronx housewives is
revealing a clear cut bias about who is important. Similarly a
biographer automatically endorses the importance of the individual in
history in contradistinction to a class analysis. In terms of
'objectivity' there is nothing to choose between them, except that in a
capitalist society biography is acceptable because it conforms to the
dominant ideology of individualism.
2. The bias of
language and style
Sometimes words acquire an emotive
connotation which demands that they be dropped. Seton-Watson feels this
way about 'fascist' which he proposes to replace with 'some neutral
jargon phrase like "non-Marxist totalitarian".
Perhaps he will also start calling Belsen a 'selective population
control centre'. But what is most significant is that Seton-Watson is
obviously unaware of the political bias of his neutral jargon. In the
spirit of his species of neutrality Belsen should be referred to as a
racial decontamination unit. This inability to see the bias of
'objectivity' is almost universal and it helps to make it impossible for
the 'objective' historian to see himself as just another ideologue.
Related to the choice of language is the
choice of style. 'There is,' writes Barrington Moore Jnr, 'a strong
tendency to assume that mild-mannered statements in favour of the status
quo are "objective" and that everything else is
Peter Geyl agreed with the first part of this and pointed out that
Geyl knew this-from personal experience. His
lectures on Napoleon were impeccable for their display of dispassion but
his audiences knew well enough that they were also about Hitler. In
Holland in l940 and later in Buchenwald, Geyl did not need to shout in
order to be heard; like St Thomas More his silences were eloquent in a
time of obvious crisis.
But what of the reverse situation? Is the man
who speaks in a brash and emotive way, and brazenly asserts his
opinions, necessarily precluded from telling the truth? I would argue
that there is a necessary connection between form and content, that each
must be appropriate to the other if truth is to be approached. There are
a superabundance of subjects where the historian will need to employ a
so-called rhetorical tone simply in order to keep faith with Ranke's
call 'to tell it as it really was'. The past has not always been polite
and if it is to be recaptured it must convey the tenor of its action as
well as the 'facts'- surely tone is as much a fact, as much a part of
the past, as is a statistical table?
For example, if we were to write biographies of Deakin and Hughes in
exactly the same prose style, at least one, and possibly both, would be
presented as other than they were. Fitzhardinge's biography of Hughes is
an excellent example of an entirely inappropriate prose style resulting
in a severe distortion of the subject, while Cyril Pearl's Wild
Men of Sydney (Cheshire, Melbourne) is a model of perfection.
The same rule applies to events.
This much might well be accepted by the
'objective' historians. There is a more difficult case for them, namely,
what is the historian who treats a largely unrecognised social problem
to do? Can he afford to be scrupulously genteel? When the historian is
required to speak of a previously inarticulate group he must speak
loudly if he is to be heard. And not just louder but often in a
different tone. Rhetoric, he will find, is not something that can be
avoided because it is not independent of the audience. Rhetoric is any
tone of voice which upsets, which says even implicitly 'This is wrong'
or 'This must not be allowed to continue'.
Whether a historian chooses to employ a
decidedly rhetorical tone of voice will depend upon whom he is
attempting to influence: in other words it will be predicated on his
view of how social change is achieved. It is no more objective to write
a cool article about Aboriginals for Oceania than it is to
write a handbill for passengers waiting at Redfern station. Even if one
does both this merely demonstrates one's commitment to the view that
social change is achieved by a combination of elitist pressure and mass
3. The bias of facts
All of which simply misses Carr's point. We
can see this better by distinguishing, as Carr has done, three levels of
Firstly, there are all the events which have
ever happened; secondly, there are all the events which have ever
happened and of which there is now some kind of record; thirdly, there
are those events which historians select from the second category in
order to write their history books. Carr calls the third category
'historical facts'. Elton says no; it is the second category which are
'historical facts'. The transference of titles can in no way overcome
the problem which Carr is posing: on what criteria do some facts move
from the second category to the third? On this Elton says nothing and so
his reply is a non-starter.
4. The bias of
Related to the problem of sources is a self-confirming prediction about
the availability of new sources. I think we can fairly argue that those
who say that history cannot be about ordinary people because there is no
evidence about them have never tried to find that evidence. The
discovery of new kinds of evidence has been left to historians who, very
often for politically motivated reasons, have deliberately set out to
find it. Edward Thompson's use of the Home Office Records in his Making
of the English Working Class
Not only do historians find the kind of
evidence they look for, but archivists tend to preserve the kind of
evidence which 'objective' historians seek. The Australian National
Library has copies of the Women's Weekly only for the last
seven years; very few libraries purchase or keep Truth or
other scandal sheets. The vulgar and the abrasive, like women, are not
part of the nation's heritage.
5. The bias of 'the
And it is worth considering the response of
historians to the contemporary upheaval as a guide to their ability to
understand the past.
When professors can judge the revolutionary
calibre of students by their dress it makes one wonder what they do with
the cavaliers and the roundheads. It is certainly very difficult to
maintain the aura of objectivity in a crisis. J. M. Keynes declared that
'The class war will find me on the side of the bourgeoisie'.
Of course it already had.
Ranke could barely contain his delight when he learnt that the Paris
Commune had been drowned in blood.
It was partly to overcome this attitude that
the journal Past and Present was founded. But this is a
misnomer. There is no 'Present'. By the time you have finished reading
this sentence it will all be in the past. Why then should the past be
divided up into 'Past' and 'Present', and why should only the more
distant past be a suitable subject for historical investigation?
I would like to suggest two contributing
forces. Firstly, the recent past has not been particularly attractive to
the conservative, and he is afraid that the future might be worse. So he
hopes that by skipping over the bits he does not like the future will be
linked to the bits he does like. Secondly, there is a deeper
methodological reason. History is about the past while the present is
left to the social sciences. Why is this? Historians believe that they
deal with change while social scientists deal with static structures and
fixed formations. If history came right up to this very instant it might
have to keep on going. It would become subversive.
6. The bias of 'the
The advantages which are gained by an acceptor of present reality are
manifold. We can see this by examining the problems faced by someone who
rejects some of the conventional wisdom of a society. For example, if an
atheist wishes to write the history of Europe or any part thereof, he is
at once forced to date his material from the birth of someone whom he
may consider to have never existed. This applies between cultures: the
Spaniard who writes Indian history for Spanish audiences need feel no
ln Steppenwolf Herman Hesse claimed that 'with the
bourgeoisie the opposite of the formula for the great is true. He who is
not against me is with me.' This goes too far - or not far enough. The
partial opponent, the occasional critic is not destructive of a stable
This does not apply in periods of crisis when
each and every demand for change is an act of treason. In times of war
historians have rallied to a variety of causes but they do not
automatically become aware that they are being even less objective than
usual. For example in l9l4 the editors of the leading French historical
journal Revue Historique declared that they intended to
avoid biased statements on the origins of the war. In this spirit they
chastised those German historians who had signed a manifesto declaring
Germany innocent of war guilt. So far, so good. But the French editors
went on to conclude that this was unobjective because the war was
'willed by Germany, prepared by her with a truly amazing perseverance
and absence of scruples.' The French historians who wrote this were
plainly unaware of their own breach of objectivity and believed that
they were still maintaining their declared policy of non-partisanship.
Another example of this unconscious
application of double standards occurred in the evidence which Daniel
Boorstin (author of The Genius of American Politics) gave before
the House Committee on un-American Activities in 1953. Boorstin
explained that since resigning from the Communist Party in 1939 he had
expressed his opposition to Communism by attempting 'to discover and
explain to my students in my teaching and in my writing, the unique
virtues of American democracy'.
In other words, his academic
One of the neatest tricks in the repertoire
of the 'objective' historian is to describe his presuppositions as a
'point of view' and to use 'bias' to describe everyone else's. We see
this in Sir Keith Hancock's lecture on 'Bias':
words which Hancock uses: 'open-minded in our points of view'. Notice
the use of ‘in'. Hancock is perfectly correct although he is not even
faintly aware of what he is admitting. We are all open-minded inside
our points of view - but are we open-minded about our points of
view? There is a world of difference.
7. The bias of
Historians have largely resisted the more
outrageous claims of the calculators and have stuck fast to their
literary narratives. But the commitment to the status quo which is part
and parcel of most quantitative approaches is made clear by the French
social philosopher, Raymond Aron, in his introduction to volume one of Main
Currents of Sociological Thought where he observes that
It would be difficult to invent a more
convincing argument for my position than Aron's analysis of American
sociology: Methods of research, especially the most dehumanized, are not
neutral but are meshed into the ideological requisites of a class
8. The bias of time-scales
One essential of bourgeois history is the
notion of time it employs. Peter Munz has opened the way to the
recognition of this is an article entitled, 'The purity of historical
method: some sceptical reflections on the current enthusiasm for the
history of non-European societies'. Munz's main point is that since
history is predicated on a given unilinear time scale it is totally
inappropriate for studying societies which do not operate on such a time
pattern. If you try to make sense of traditional Indian society by
explaining it within a unilinear time scale you will break Ranke's
command to tell it as it really was: 'The time scheme used, one might
say, is constitutive of a certain kind of history in that it predisposes
one to a certain selectivity.'
This point can be best appreciated by
applying a reverse case. What would we think of a history of twentieth
century Australia which was predicated on a time scale of phases of the
moon, and/or the four seasons? We would feel that our society as a whole
had been seriously misrepresented. Of course, some sections of the
society would come off better than others – farmers for instance.
In presenting this instance I have gone
beyond Munz. If history is inappropriate for some societies may it not
also be inappropriate for some sections of society? Clearly it will not
be of much help in telling us about the world of pre-school children.
Even within the traditional areas of historical research it is possible
that the historical approach distorts reality. Seventeenth century
illiterate agricultural labourers could be a case. Unfortunately the
problem is not as clear cut as this since after 'contact' has been
established the worker or native may well operate on two different time
scales, one public and the other private. In the case of women there may
be as many as four: the historical time scale; the rhythm of
agriculture; the phases of menstruation significantly called periods;
and the recurrence of childbirth. To ignore these various expressions of
time is to distort the lives of most of the world's population.
 Cited in F. Stern (Ed.), The varieties of History. (Meridian Books, Cleveland,1956.),p . 62.
 Ved Mehta, The FIy and the Fly-bottle. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1965.) p. 115.
 G. R. Elton, The,Practice of History. (Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1967.) pp. 104, 13, 94, 96, 103.
Sir Keith Hancock, Attempting History. (Australian National
University, Canberra, 1970.) pp. 43, 47 and 35.
 Arthur Marwick, The Nature of History. (Macmillan, London, 1970.) p. 99.
 Gordon Leff, History and Social Theory. (University of Alabama press, Alabama, 1969.) p. 126.
 Alvin Gouldner, 'Anti-Minotaur: The Myth of a Value-Free Sociology', in I. L. Horowitz (Ed.) , The New Sociology. (Oxford University Press, New York, 1965.) pp. 196-7.
 William H. Dray, Philosophy of History. (Prentice- Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1964.) p. 46.
 Howard Zinn, 'History as Private Enterprise', in K. H. Wolff and B. Moore (Eds), The Critical Spirit. (Beacon, Boston, 1967.) p. 181.
 See Lucien Goldmann, The Hidden God. (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1964.) pp. 15-19.
 Hugh Seton-Watson, 'Fascism, Right and Left'. Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 1 (1966), p. 183. cf. W. N. Medlicott ‘Appeasement should now be added to Imperialism on the list of words no scholar uses'. International Affairs, vol. 39, pp. 84-85.
 Barrington Moore, Jnr, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. (Beacon, Boston, 1966.) p. 522.
 Quoted in Mehta, op. cit. p. 137.
 History, vol. 54 (1969), p. 244.
 Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness. (Merlin Press, London. 1971.) pp. 5-10.
 Elton, op. cit., p. 56.
 Thomas Mann, 'Disorder and Early Sorrow', in Stories of Three Decades (Secker & Warburg, London, 1936.) p. 506.
 J. M. Keynes, 'Am I a Liberal?' in Essays in Persuasion. (Macmillan, London, 1931.) p. 324.
 Allan Mitchell, 'German History in France After 1870'. Journal of Contemporary History. vol. 2 (1967), pp. 95-6.
 Cited in Radical America, vol. 1 (1967).
 Hancock, op. cit., p. 35.
 R. Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought, vol. 1 (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968.) p. 12.
 Peter Munz, 'The Purity of Historical Method'. New Zealand Journal of History, vol. 5 (1971), p.7.