What is leftist about social history today?
By social history I mean, on the one hand, a sub-field of historical studies which mainly deals with social structures, processes and experiences, for example, with classes and strata, ethnic and religious groups, migrations and families, business structures and entrepreneurship, mobility, gender relations, urbanization, or patterns of rural life. Usually the borderlines vis a vis cultural, economic and political history are not clearly drawn. On the other hand, social history means an approach to general history from a socio-historical point of view. Social history in this sense deals with all domains of historical reality, by relating them to social structures, processes and experiences in different ways. The following remarks are aimed at social history in general, but they come from a European perspective. I teach in a German university and have done most of my work in the field of modern European, particularly Central and West European history.
If there is an affinity between social history and the political Left, it is neither clear cut nor ubiquitous. Modern social history emerged from very different intellectual sources. Certainly, there were strong traditions of social criticism, marxist and otherwise, which influenced social historical thought, most important in the study of workers' and labor history. But social scientists like Durkheim and Max Weber influenced historical sociology and social history as well, in a strictly nonmarxist and nonsocialist way; due to them, theories of modernization and social differentiation became important in the field from the 1950s to the 1980s, and in spite of much criticism directed against them, they continue to play a role still today. In addition, social history had conservative sources. Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, a nineteenth-century German ethnologist with much sympathy for the time-honored customs of peasants, deep respect for the monarchy and distrust of urban liberalism informed an important tradition of Central European conservative social history. In the 1930s and 1940s it took a nationalist turn. Werner Conze, one of the great pioneers of modern German social history, was deeply influenced by this tradition. One of his programmatic articles served as the opening piece of The Journal of Social History in 1967. Probably the conservative critics of social history are not aware of the rather complicated history of the field which contradicts widely held cliches.
It can be argued that topics dear to the Left have been dominant in social history: poverty and discrimination, workers and labor, social protests and social movements, inequality along gender lines, ethnic minorities and their usually difficult relations to the majority. But social historians have dealt with other topics as well. Elite groups have been favorite objects of social historical research, the rich and the powerful, the nobility, business communities and entrepreneurs. In fact the history of entrepreneurship has been one of the testing fields in which the cooperation between social historians and social scientists was tried out, very early, for instance at the Harvard Center for Entrepreneurial History. During the last decade working-class history has lost much of its attraction to social historians. In Central Europe at least, the history of the middle classes or rather of the bourgeoisie has taken its place as a fashionable field of concentration, combining social and cultural approaches in innovative ways. Most social historical topics carry neither leftist or rightist connotations - the social history of the family or of work provides obvious examples. In fact, every topic can be seen and studied from different angles. There are highly critical studies of ruling elites, and there are paternalistic or indifferent treatments of the laboring poor. The researcher dealing with workers is not necessarily a revolutionary, nor do historians of the nobility necessarily share elitist preferences. It may just be the other way around. This is, of course, well known within the profession. It should be possible to convey it to a larger audience as well.
Traditionally, the history of the state and of politics has been seen to be the centerpiece of general history. This legacy of nineteenth-century historical thought informed the writing of history in most European countries still after World War II. It is against this background that the social history of the 1950s and 1960s became an oppositional minority movement which challenged the rigid dominance of political history, frequently "from the left," that is, by stressing the need to study the social conditions and results of political structures and choices as well as the social embeddedness of individual actions in general. The ensuing conflict between revisionist social historians and established practitioners of the history of politics (and ideas) was less heated in the United States, where a narrowly defined political history had never been so clearly in command, than the case in most of Europe. More recently the confrontation between social and political history has lost much of its vigor everywhere. Combination and cross fertilization have become the rule. New fronts have emerged. Revisionist social historians of the sixties are faced by new challenges today. A new generation has emerged which criticizes social historians from a post-structuralist point of view, by emphasizing culture and language, discourse and power, and by trying to deconstruct the analytical concepts of old fashioned social historians. At least some of these challengers perceive themselves to be "on the left" and see the social history they attack as a bit too conservative.
Those conservatives who presently attack social history in the political field and in the general media have not kept up with these changes. They seem to conduct the battles of yesterday and before.
There are, however, situations or constellations in which social historians correctly appear to be and indeed have to be on the left, quite independently of their personal political preferences which, of course, strongly vary.
Most societies seem to need myths, legends and invented traditions in order to maintain collective self-understanding, cohesion and order. In this context, images of the past are important. Such images not only interpret the past, but also tend to beautify or repress parts of the past. There would be many examples, ranging from the use of invented traditions in the rise of European nationalism through regional folklore and the mythical claims of some minority movements to the way in which present-day societies deal with extraordinary moments of their history, e.g., revolutionary acts, celebrated victories, humiliating defeats or barbaric excesses in times of dictatorship. Images of the past greatly matter, and this ultimately explains the outstanding importance of history as a field of mass education and public debate in most modern societies including, of course, the United States.
At the same time, it is a most valuable peculiarity of modern societies, especially in the West, that they permit and require the study of history to be systematically confronted with empirical evidence, to be pursued as a scholarly discipline according to professional rules, to aim at "objectivity" and to be critical of unproven assumptions, unfounded speculations and distortions of the past. This is why our societies maintain a large number of professional historians instead of an army of storytellers or a corps of government-dependent propagandists. Historians strongly contribute to the images a society holds of its past and take important part in the reconstruction and selection of memory, in the production and interpretation of historical meaning. But professional historians are supposed and expected to do this in a professional way, and this implies unbiased search for truth, striving for objectivity and, most important, criticism (although all of this is usually only partially achieved). To be critical of the sources, of one's own assumptions and biases, and of invented tradition, myths and legends - by whomever they might be used and misused - lies at the core of the work of professional historians.
This is why historians sometimes have to be on the left if they want to be good historians. They are obliged to take a critical stance. If those in power use their particular views of history in order to legitimize their positions and their demands, there is a good chance that historians, as long as they take themselves and their work seriously, end up at some critical distance from the centers of power, pointing to unpleasant truths easily neglected or even repressed, and inviting angry attacks by those who have the power to do so, those who control budgets and would like to control the public discourse as well. Fortunately, our societies have installed constitutional and institutional safeguards against such encroachments. But the string of the purse can be very powerful, and the impact of the modern media is changing the equation on which we used to rely.
Such mechanisms are never completely absent. But in some countries and in some periods they are more manifest than in others. They play a particularly visible role in the United States today. The dispute about the proposed Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian was an interesting case in point. In essence, this was a conflict between the understandable demand for undisturbed collective memory fifty years after a terrible war and a celebrated victory which brought it to an end, on the one hand, and the critical insistence on the frightening ambiguity of even such a celebrated event by some professional historians, on the other. In this conflict, social historians were not in the forefront of those who performed what they perceived as their professional obligation. The critical task of historians and the risks it sometimes implies are not specific to social historians, but characteristic of the work of historians in general as soon as they leave their most narrowly defined areas of specialization and engage in problems with more than marginal interest to larger audiences.
But if questions of social and cultural policy, of economic distribution and of political morale become central on the political agenda - as they seem to be now - social historians have a good chance to see their topics and problems move closer to the public arena. In a period of conservative realignment and reconstruction, as in the United States at present, social historians cannot avoid reminding their audiences of problems and mechanisms which do not easily fit into the emerging or dominant interpretation of social reality.
Social historians are trained and inclined to take a close look at the concrete patterns of social inequality, at the conditions under which large groups of people live, at the hopes and fears of ordinary men and women of different class positions and different ethnic affiliations. They cannot help but discover the very prosaic and sometimes depressing, sometimes beautiful and frequently startling aspects of everyday life, the experiences and aspirations, the possibilities and particularly the constraints characteristic of large parts of the population. Social historians have to study the mechanisms which produce and reproduce social inequality as well as the partly successful and partly futile attempts at changing and overcoming it. They are aware of the structural constraints which usually limit the scope of choices and actions available to ordinary people. There can be a pathos of the normal and the average in social history, and sobering realism often results.
This social historical vision of human reality does not necessarily contradict conservative world views, quite on the contrary. One could easily name great conservatives for example, Otto von Bismarck or Jakob Burckhardt in the German speaking world of the nineteenth century - to whom such a view of reality was not at all unfamiliar. But the realism of social history is usually not welcome under highly ideological regimes. Social history, for example, was not well accepted in the East European communist dictatorships which came down in 1989-90. In East Germany social history was not allowed to develop as a separate discipline until the 1970s. Those in power who prevented it expected that it would reveal a reality whose complexity and diversity did not fit the sweeping and undifferentiated ideological interpretations of historical reality so dear to the party in power. This expectation was certainly correct. The small amount of social history produced in the GDR in the eighties was less ideological and schematic than much of what was written in political history or the history of ideas.
Social historical realism also stands against any heroic idealization of history which stresses and over-stresses what has allegedly been achieved by single historical actors, and what can allegedly be done and achieved just by virtue and good will in everyday life apart from and in spite of social relations, collective constraints and the legacies of preceding generations. It cannot help but be critical of those neo-conservative moods and programs whose quasi-Victorian optimism and self-righteousness are paid for by blindly abstracting from the real living conditions of a large part of the population, by consciously neglecting the daily life, the real possibilities and particularly the constraints of the less articulate groups, so numerous in this society and so little visible at the same time. In the last analysis it is the critical realism of social history which places it, not always but under certain conditions, somewhat on the left.
Habelschwerdter Allee 45 D 14195 Berlin-Dahlem Germany
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Special Issue: Social History and the American Political Climate - Problems and Strategies|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Date:||Feb 5, 1996|
|Previous Article:||Everything old is new again: social history, the National History Standards and the crisis in the teaching of high school American history.|
|Next Article:||The lion and the Newt; a British View of American conservatives' fear of social history.|