Communing with Clio and laying down rules for mankind, all too many historians appear to think that their views on the past are of direct relevance for the present. The full blast, or possibly dribble, of academic establishment power was directed very clearly during the Brexit debate, and there are instructive signs similarly for the United States. In the former case, articles and letters glittering with potent titles—for example, the President of the Royal Historical Society or a Regius Professor or two—made clear what the past presented and the future should follow. Destiny was decried and declared.
Why then did they get it wrong in misjudging the public mood? Was there more at stake than the expression of a view in public debate and the usual preference of a majority of academics for what are defined as left-wing causes? In fact, the stance publicly taken by so many was an aspect of culture wars and a product of the direction of academic history in recent years.
History as culture wars is not new, indeed far from it, but this context and content have been very much taken forward in recent years and with reference to current as well as past controversies. In its lead editorial on May 23, 2015, the Guardian, the repository of fashionable left-wing opinion in Britain, declared in its headline “Culture wars will be critical in the coming referendum. Historians are in the front line.” It referred in detail to a controversy among historians, attacked what it termed “standard-issue nationalism,” and closed with criticism of historians who supported Brexit: “Historians do a disservice to cast their country as a place apart when it can only prosper as part of a greater whole.”
Brexit and Trump come as part of a sequence.
The subsequent controversy was bitterly waged up until the referendum in June 2016. Historians then played a prominent role in calling for another referendum clearly designed to reverse the result of the first. Meanwhile, other historians made very clear their views on the American election. The Trump victory was condemned on television by Simon Schama, who compared him variously, including to Hitler, and declared him a Chamberlain-like appeaser of Putin. Schama’s tone was completely intemperate and emotional. Other historians reacted with disbelief, shock, despair, anger, or a combination of some or all of these—possibly unsurprisingly so, given the 2008 bumper sticker “Historians for Obama.” Cool academic analysis was sadly lacking.
Why, apart from political partisanship, have these views been taken and pressed, and does it matter? First, very different as they are, Brexit and Trump come as part of a sequence in which left-wing views had been disabused. Eastern Europe, with the collapse of Marxism, the strong evidence of religious commitment, and the resilience of nationalism, was crucial to this process, but so also were the embrace of capitalism in China and Vietnam, the abandonment of Socialism by Labour in Britain as the price for victory in 1997, and a similar range of developments. All of these made the insights, analyses, and prescriptions offered in a number of academic disciplines inaccurate and/or redundant.
The response was a mixture of despising the electorate, which was frequently criticized for that most serious of crimes: “false consciousness,” in other words failing to understand one’s duty in the historical dialectic, or, more simply, just disagreeing with the received wisdom of the angry observer. This, unfortunately, is all too reminiscent of revolutionaries decrying peasant conservatism and superstition and justifying oppression accordingly. Self-styled reformers have also repeatedly followed a similar tendency when ignoring different views. In the case of the E.U. referendum, critics of the result claimed that people were too stupid to have understood the issues or had been duped by simplistic figures or slogans. The fact that such Brexit figures and slogans had been endlessly attacked by Remain spokesmen actually meant that voters would really have had to have been asleep not to have understood the argument against them. Economic fear arguments were particularly to the fore.
There are specific nostrums for academic historians. The idea of false consciousness is more commonly directed by them not at religion but at nationalism, which is presented as an artifact, something imagined, constructed, and then pushed onto the population. This is the theme, for example, of Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983) or of David Cannadine in The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences (2013). In the latter, Cannadine called for the presentation of history “not to assist in constructing the artifice of discrete, self-constrained, self-regarding, and mutually exclusive groups,” but, instead, to focus on “humanity’s essential but under-studied unity.” Anderson’s memoir was entitled A Life Beyond Boundaries (2016).
The focus on the part of many academic historians is on transnationalism, a term often used in book proposals, titles, conferences, course programs, lecture titles, and sales literature. Transnationalism is both a means of analysis and a value system, if not ideology. Transnationalism focuses on international communities, emphasizing supposedly universal values and institutions that are not contained within, or expressed in, national states, as well as on the extent to which communications, culture, trade, and, in particular, migration, all allegedly made and make and will make national criteria invalid.
Transnationalism is read back into the past and also read from the past to the present. It links with the so-called new cultural history, the study of multiple identities grounded in gender or sexuality or ethnicity, but not in nationalism.
Transnationalism is both a means of analysis and a value system.
A political edge is given with a demand for an “end of history” in the shape of removing the oxygen of attention and support from nationalist responses to globalization, responses in practice that are very much grounded in historical senses of identity and interest. Indeed, within the academic profession, and notably among historians, there can be a curious mismatch between the balance of popular views and that of academic preferences. It is certainly fashionable to underplay the degree to which people have generally not responded well to social engineering, to its goals, processes, personnel, costs, and outcomes.
A so-called love of unity and humanity can manifest itself in contempt for the individual and for individuality. Possibly those who are unsuccessful in directing the “project for modernity” have responded with particular anger, if not panic, because they overestimated their own influence and power. What Alan Kors in 2008 referred to as “regnant campus orthodoxies” appear particularly strident in the United States at present, and are clearly getting much worse. This plague is now spreading in Britain.
There are powerful personal and institutional interests and identities bound up in the transnational approach. More particularly, many scholars work in countries other than those of their birth and/or work on histories other than those of the countries in which they live and work. That situation has desirable consequences in terms of breaking down insularity, but also less attractive ones. For example, there can be a serious failure to offer sufficient attention to national history. In Britain, it should not inherently matter that both Regius Professors are Australians working on German history, but such a situation can have unfortunate consequences for the engagement of academics with public history. Indeed, the quality of some of the engagement with national history at the time of the Brexit debate was parlous, which is unsurprising for people living in a bubble. Peter Hennessy, one of the relatively few perceptive public historians, summed up the problem Britain had with the European Union in a bbc Radio Four interview a few days after the vote: “Europe was set up by Catholic, left-wing, intellectual, French bureaucrats. Most Britons have a problem with at least three of those.” The “most,” however, did not include most British historians, nor indeed their American counterparts.
It is, to be sure, ultimately disappointing that many historians, like other commentators, prefer to respond with anger rather than to consider how best to understand the diversity of views and the unpredictability of developments. This too readily looks back to assumptions about a clear path of development and a spirit of the age, assumptions that reduce individuals and their choices to inconsequentiality. Such an approach is seriously mistaken and these responses to the present age cannot invite confidence about explanations of the past.
It ought to be part of the role of historians in an election or referendum, whether after the event or during it, to seek to understand and place in context the reasons people might vote (or have voted) one way or the other. Historians are entitled to disagree with those reasons like anyone else, but their distinctive contribution surely ought to be their understanding of the state of the nation, the attitudes of its constituent parts, and how these might link to the result of the vote. It is clearly a hindrance to their understanding if their cultural and social milieu is so detached from the generality of people that not only do they not share typical attitudes (which is hardly surprising) but that they also are incapable of detecting or comprehending them. When it comes to incomprehension, perhaps both Brexit and Trump (despite their many differences) show that there is no greater gulf than that between, on the one hand, those who identify primarily with their nation, and are concerned at what globalization might be doing to it and to them personally, and, on the other hand, those who identify with wider abstractions and are more concerned with retaining the benefits that globalization has brought them. That most academics instinctively and professionally identify with the latter helps explain why so many are poor guides to understanding developments.