Academic historians are too uncritically receptive to Utopian thinking. Too many believe in what Kari Mannheim described as the striving for a new world order, an order which “would shatter all existing reality.”
This utopianism should not be identified too closely with historical materialism—or with Marxism, which claims to rest on a materialist foundation. Academic Utopians may invoke Marx, but materialism is not the source of their dreams.
However, it was Marx and his disciples who wedded historical materialism to revolutionary ideology. Furthermore, Marxists obscure historical facts—for example, the brutal imperialism and mass murder practiced by the Soviets—to uphold the reputation of self-proclaimed Marxist governments. Marxist historians have ritualistically exaggerated the evils of the American capitalist economy, and some have manufactured slave revolts in the antebellum South when the party line required it.
There are exceptions. A self-declared Marxist, Eugene Genovese, has produced ground-breaking scholarship on the Southern slave economy. Another Marxist, Christopher Hill, has done monumental work on the puritan revolution, including a magisterial study of Oliver Cromwell. Marx himself wrote with insight as well as passion about the 1848 French revolution. Surveying the changes that had occurred in France since the great revolution in 1789, Marx observed that a centralized bureaucratic state had grown in size while competing sectors of the haute bourgeoisie struggled for social dominance. His descriptions of the etat centralisateur parallel those of Alexis de Tocqueville.
Generally, great histories that combine literary excellence and tragic sensitivity with extensive research are less likely to come out of academic history departments than from men of letters. I’m thinking, for example, of the popular histories of the Civil War by Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote. The reason is not simply the obvious one, that most academic historians write badly. More to the point is that academic historians, with some exceptions, lack historical vision. What they produce is not drama, but clumsy, unintended comedy in the sense in which Northrop Frye defines it: as an “upward movement . . . from threatening complication to a happy ending.” Today’s academic historians present the past and the present as preludes to a socially-reconstructed future.
Their animus against the United States and its commercial republican past makes sense only if we explore this futuristic fantasy. In a recent and exhaustive investigation of social studies textbooks, the NYU psychology professor Paul C. Vitz has found that textbook writers repeatedly reconstruct the past in order to teach ideologically appropriate lessons. Women, Native Americans, Hispanics, and blacks are assigned importance in critical events and movements out of proportion to their actual accomplishments. Religion—more specifically, the Judeo-Christian heritage—is either blamed for perceived injustices or else given short shrift even in discussions of the Middle Ages or colonial New England.
Vitz contends that militant secularism and a rejection of traditional sex roles are characteristic of those multitudinous textbooks, written or updated since the 70’s, that he includes in his study. Other critics of recent historiographical trends complain about the persistent anti-Americanism and implicit sympathy for Stalinist Russia in recent accounts of the Cold War. Such revisionist history is becoming orthodoxy. The American Historical Review published hysterical and irrelevant responses to Robert Maddox’s The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War (Princeton, 1973). Maddox, a Kennedy-Johnson Democrat, examined the sources closely and concluded that Gabriel Kolko, Gar Alperovitz, and other Cold War revisionists had invented historical incidents and doctored incriminating texts. Maddox’s detractors, who were the only respondents the AHR printed, never got beyond name-calling and accusations of “neo-McCarthyism.”
History has been turned into propaganda for a new social agenda. Industrialists and other members of the ruling class are seen as reprobates; those who struggle—or can be made to appear to struggle—on behalf of approved minorities are the designated elect. This method of separating the goats and the sheep can be found in monographs, dissertations, and in social studies textbooks now in use in our schools. The model against which academic historians judge the Western past and, to some extent, the present, defies even common sense. It is unisex, collectivist, secularist, and pacifist—unless faced by the moral duty to overthrow reactionary governments.
Because all known societies that have left written records fall short of the paradigm, academic histories have tried to locate their impossible dream elsewhere. Some even resurrect and refurbish Lewis Morgan’s and Friedrich Engels’ claim (borrowed from the ultraconservative historian Kari von Bachofen) that primitive nomadic society was matriarchal.
A recent attempt to do this (which Kirkus Reviews celebrates in superlatives) is Gerda Lerner’s Women and History, Volume 1: The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford, 1986). Lerner’s only concession to the problem of proving the existence of a primitive matriarchy is to claim to find an equally problematic but today more fashionable equarchy in the pre-Mesopotamian world. According to Lerner, it is possible to infer, from the fact that early Mesopotamians worshiped goddesses before gods, that women had held a higher social position before the rise of military monarchies. Though it is possible (and from Lerner’s point of view desirable) to believe this, there is no good reason why one should. Lerner’s premise is no more provable now than at the time Bachofen first proposed it in the 1830’s. (It is ironic that Bachofen put forth his theory of Mutterrecht not to validate feminism, but to contrast the primitive and crude character of matriarchal society and religion to the later, happier development of Christian patriarchy.) Despite the fact that Lerner was entirely unqualified to undertake such a study—she knew none of the languages—her book has been very generally praised. (However, a few responsible feminists, such as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, have spoken out.)
Lerner, like other feminist historians who follow selectively in Bachofen’s tracks, commits what Michael Levin has referred to as the “Jack and the beanstalk” fallacy. Like someone who unjustifiably infers the existence of Jack and a giant whenever he encounters a beanstalk, Lerner and other feminists who need proof for an unprovable dream assume that female power must have accompanied female gods. A similar association was made for a while between matrilinear succession and matriarchy, until evidence in this case overwhelmed the will to believe. (Male dominance is quite secure in societies that trace inheritance from mother’s brother to nephew.)
Looking for paradise closer to our time, Robert McElvaine in The Great Depression: America 1929-1934 praises the New Deal for the “feminization” of American society. Turning their backs temporarily on a masculine and amoral capitalist culture, Americans of the mid-30’s lived in “a time in which the values of compassion, sharing and social justice became the most dominant that they have ever been in American history.” McElvaine’s New Deal was not simply about reining in big business or redistributing wealth. By striking against the spirit of capitalist enterprise, it worked to advance the goal of a feminist America.
Men—at least men per se—are not the only targets of attack. The animadversion by Michael Rosenthal, a dean at Columbia College, that if “you look at our curriculum, it is probably fair to say that it is massively Euro-centered white male,” reveals more than fashionable self-hatred. Rosenthal is obviously affected by nostalgia for alien cultures viewed as free of the burden of Western (and perhaps all human) history. It is this kind of nostalgia which the English Communist Eric Hobsbawm criticizes as the persistent hunger among some intellectuals for “revolutionary exotica.” In the early 70’s Hobsbawm noted that academic radicals admired communist societies in proportion to their geographical or cultural distance from the Western experience.
A point sometimes heard is that historians used to try for objectivity but no longer do. Though this may be true, there are deeper problems with the current academic historiography. It is tiresome and—to use a still applicable Victorian word—unedifying, because it lacks tragic vision or even gratitude to the civilization that produced it.
This is history lacking, if you will, a sense of history, a sense of belonging to an unfolding civilization. Foreshadowed by Edmund Burke and the early Romantics, this developmental concept fused the notion of history as process with a deep appreciation of the past. Even so thoroughgoing a historical progressive as Hegel denounced political changes aimed at remaking society. A sound constitution, said Hegel, was never “a mere contrivance,” but was the “work of generations.”
Contemporary historiography lacks all reverence for the past. It is guided by a suspicion that treats inherited institutions as mere obstacles to the fulfillment of an imaginary and ahistorical human nature. The past is seen as concealing and distorting instead of revealing our true humanity. It is there to be condemned—or else reshaped in order to arouse and sustain revolutionary consciousness. Mankind, as seen from this perspective, is on the march toward a scientifically-designed millennium that might have been reached earlier but for the machinations of business tycoons, religious evangelists, the American State Department, and anticommunist generals.
This view cannot produce epic historiography. Nor is it capable, in my opinion, of engendering even minimally interesting reading. Academic historians too often have cardboard heroes and stock villains that even a literary genius could not bring to life. For such historians there is nothing insoluble, nothing requiring moral limits, and thus, like Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, they become “unbearable to the crafty child of Ate” by perpetually overreaching. The nemesis of this overreaching in the modern case is not a fall, but silliness aping dramatic gravity.
A work that purports to deal with a tragic aspect of recent history, William Appleman Williams’s Tragedy of American Diplomacy, illustrates my brief. The book is an extended condemnation of American corporate capitalism, which Williams blames for Third World underdevelopment, the Cold War, and the thwarting of socialist revolution. Certainly it is easy to see why it appeals to Cold War revisionists and academic critics of American capitalism, though it is also a book that contains the untragic flaw of never documenting its central thesis. Williams contends that America’s overriding foreign policy goal during the Second World War, which it tried to press on the Russians at the Potsdam Conference, was keeping Central and Eastern Europe open to American capitalist control. As Robert Maddox and others have shown convincingly, not a shred of evidence, save for Williams’s questionable inferential judgments, exists for this argument. But more importantly, Williams—on other occasions an insightful leftist—misunderstands the nature of his own purported theme: tragedy. Williams speaks not of fated suffering, but only of economic forces that appeal to him and others that do not.
By contrast, the tragic imagination, which has produced our best historical and literary drama, grasps what is inherently awful in the human condition. Man is born fatally flawed: “evil from his youth,” as Genesis explains, or “with rash pride begetting an even more disastrous boldness,” in the words of Aeschylus. Yet if man is born to suffer, this inescapable unhappiness befalls the noble as well as the base. Hector and his kinsmen suffer together with their brother after Paris has betrayed the hospitality of the king of Sparta. In no sense does Hector abet Paris in seducing Helen, yet he too must pay the price of an outrageous act, which he does by dying heroically. The suffering of Oedipus and his children, say the Greek tragedians, is retribution for the misdeeds of the descendants of Cadmus. In the opening lines of Sophocles’ Antigone, the protagonist tells her sister that a fratricidal war has just claimed their two brothers; this was Zeus’ punishment for the evils of their father, Oedipus. Though the suffering is divinely destined and in some sense deserved, we are meant to mourn the fall of Oedipus and the anguish he causes to his children. We are also meant to feel sympathy for Oedipus’ daughter, Antigone, who upholds the “law that is everywhere in force” when she buries her rebellious brother, fallen in battle against his native city. Antigone, though acting against the orders of her tyrannical uncle, exemplifies familial piety, and suffers for it. Sophocles’ insistence, as expressed by the chorus, that “there is no release for mortals from allotted suffering,” means that misery is our common destiny.
Francis Cornford argues convincingly that the universe of Greek tragedy provides the ethical and metaphysical context of Thucydides’ great work on the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides, no less than Aeschylus and Sophocles, saw pride and temptation interacting with inexorable necessity in human affairs. He calls our attention to heroic acts as well as folly in a war that he deplored (for he knew it would destroy all Greeks).
Cornford points to an understanding of tragedy that was present in ancient Greek schoolchildren—and, I would add, among those who read popular histories of the American Civil War. Lincoln and Lee, no less than Pericles and the Spartan allies, did their duty as they saw it. Lincoln himself reflected on the fact that the North and the South invoked the same Deity in a struggle in which each side claimed to be worthy of divine favor. Speaking at Washington and Lee University in 1907, Charles Francis Adams Jr., son of the Union’s most brilliant statesman, eulogized Robert E. Lee on the centenary of his birthday. Though his father and Lee had been on opposite sides in the war, Adams believed that both had followed their consciences faithfully: “Every man in the eleven states seceding from the Union had to decide for himself whether to adhere to his state or to his Nation; and I finally assert that whichever way he decided, if only he decided honestly, putting self-interest behind him, he decided right.”
In another expression of the tragic sense, Winston Churchill, in his closing volume on the Second World War, remarks that the cost of ridding Europe of one tyrant was delivering half of the same continent to another. In summing up his theme, Churchill stated that he intended to discuss “how the Great Democracies triumphed and so were able to resume their follies which so nearly cost them their life.”
When tragic history is related to a lost civilization, it celebrates a vanished splendor, while examining the reasons for its loss. Churchill, for example, looked back fondly at the liberal middle-class society of 19th-century Europe, while recording the assaults on it by global wars and radical ideologies. Henry Adams wrote about the American Republic’s founding generation as the representative of a silver age reviewing the achievements of a golden one. A similar nostalgia pervades the introduction of Edward Gibbon’s magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon made no secret of his respect for the Roman Empire at its height under Trajan, and he devoted his magnum opus to discussing the long tortuous descent of the Western Empire and its Byzantine successor down to the sack of Constantinople in 1453.
I would contrast this attitude with the one found in Carl N. Degler’s exhaustive study of women’s history. At Odds, published in 1980. I cite this work because of its author’s scholarship and his reputation as a moderate leftist who tries hard not to tip his hand. After surveying all the achievements of the feminist movement in postwar America, Degler observes without much apparent concern that there now exists “a tension between the family and individual interests of women. Women find realization of themselves as persons impossible to achieve within family situations.” (One might ask which women Degler is referring to. According to Gallup and other polls, well over 80 percent of American women seem to consider their families their primary area of interest.)
Despite such “tensions,” Degler reassures us that “obviously how any individual woman perceives her future is up to her. The family, after all, is at bottom nothing more than a relation between a man and a woman and their offspring.” In most families, there are still other supporting characters, such as siblings and their children, aging parents, or even a maiden aunt who lives with her relatives. In Degler’s world, by contrast, there are only urban yuppies, doing their own thing without extended familial attachments.
It is by means of this privileged model that he points us toward the future: “Will it be possible for women and men to work out some arrangement, call it family or something else, in which these two goals can be realized? Or must the historical drive for women’s individuality stop short of full realization in the name of children, husband and family?” Having brought us this far, Degler now looks across the Jordan River: “Never before has the tension been so evident or the room for maneuver so narrow. After 200 years of development both the future of the family and the fulfillment of women as persons are at odds as never before. Presumably a resolution will come in something less than two centuries.” Need the reader doubt about which side will—and, as viewed by Degler, should—triumph in the fullness of time?
A skeptic might want to raise the question about whether Degler is describing the totality of American society, or merely confining himself to his colleagues at Stanford. But conceding the tension he stressed, why should we assume everyone will be okay in two centuries? Are we to make the improbable assumption that the worsening tension between possessive individualism and social obligation will be resolved within 200 years by affluent couples guided by enlightened self-interest? Professor Degler is of course free to believe anything he likes. Fortunately, the rest of us still have the right to ignore this comedy disguised as history, and to look for the real thing outside the academy.