Why history must take a stance

Historians are often condemned for acting as judge and jury, but remaining neutral about our ancestors’ behaviour is neither possible, nor desirable. By Professor Donald Bloxham

Black and white image of several African men pushing two French missionaries in a sort of chair with wheels.

In 2013, as preparations to commemorate the First World War centenary picked up pace, Max Hastings trained his sights on the UK government. The popular historian chastised politicians for their reticence on “the virtue of Britain’s cause, or the blame that chiefly attaches to Germany for the catastrophe that overtook Europe”. The government “calls this a ‘non-judgmental’ approach,” Hastings declared. “The rest of us might call it a cop-out.”

Advertisement

Not all historians would have agreed with Hastings’ scathing verdict on the government’s quest for neutrality. In fact, many abhor attributing blame in their work. The famous French historian Marc Bloch declared that “the historian’s sole duty is to understand”, not “pass judgment”. Judgment was akin to a chemist preposterously separating “the bad gases, like chlorine, from the good ones like oxygen”.

More recently, Richard J Evans wrote: “The historian’s job is to explain; it is for others to judge.” As with philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s ban on treating the past as “a field in which we exercise our moral and political opinions, like whippets in a meadow on a Sunday afternoon”, moral judgments seem to have the bad odour of advocacy or propaganda.

In my recent book, History and Morality, I lay out a different position. My argument is that, where it matters, it is impossible to remove judgments from historical accounts. Historians need to recognise this, take responsibility for their judgments, and judge consistently.

In the explanation of human affairs, rather than in the chemistry lab, accounts of how and why something happened can’t easily be separated from notions of responsibility and the existence or otherwise of justification. When explaining the causes of the First World War – as with so many other historical events – whodunit? is a question about cause and guilt together, given the negative attitudes to what followed. But, equally, allocating responsibility for historical events can be a form of praise, as when we talk about “peacemakers”, for example.

It is impossible to remove judgments from historical accounts. Historians need to recognise this, take responsibility for their judgments, and judge consistently

Let’s also consider revolutions, which are surely some of history’s most contested battlegrounds. When we describe these events, we tend to factor in the strength of revolutionary grievances, the regime’s willingness to address these grievances, the proportionality of grievances to the violence of revolutionary action, the nature of revolutionaries’ actions to secure the goals of the revolution, and so on. These discussions are laden with concern about costs and benefits to people and society. And while ideas of what constitutes “acceptable” costs and benefits will vary, this only means that judgments will vary, not that judgments can be removed.

It is, of course, easy to caricature historical evaluations – and some demand caricature. Henry Steele Commager enjoined his fellow historians to “refrain from the folly and vanity of moral righteousness about the past”; Richard J Evans has warned against “denunciations” and “expressions of moral outrage”; while the medievalist David Knowles wrote that the “historian is not a judge, still less a hanging judge”. Some have pictured historians acting like judges or like deities (Bloch mocked them as imitating “Minos or Osiris” behind their desks), working themselves into a lather and shouting words of damnation. But taking a moral stance doesn’t need to be expressed like this.

Moral evaluation can be understated, qualified, or implicit – and positive as well as negative, as with the “peacemakers” I mentioned earlier. Furthermore, rather than occurring summarily at the end of the account, as the jury pronounces, evaluative elements can infuse historical accounts throughout.

The language that historians use to characterise acts, motives, policies, social arrangements etc is often evocative, reflecting or prompting evaluations. Words like “theft”, “uncharitable”, “corrupt”, “brave”, “generous”, “deceitful”, “venal”, “kind” or “racist” at once describe, evoke and evaluate. To describe some text as anti-Semitic is to convey its attitude towards Jews, but no one is neutral in regards to anti-Semitism (anti-Semites included). There are words that can’t be impartial. To describe a state as totalitarian may be empirically justified but the concept of “totalitarianism” is freighted with implications – generally negative – that go beyond the purely analytical. The key question here is not whether the historian’s wording implies or evokes judgment, but whether the wording is a reasonable inference from the evidence available.

And when historians insist on neutrality, what exactly do they mean? To venture into a different arena, is the “neutral” sports fan the one who does not care which team wins, the one who thinks the idea of caring who wins is a mistake, or the one who wants the better team to win based on criteria and evidence of superiority? More to the point, is it even possible to be “neutral” about non-neutral phenomena?

Of course some historical phenomena are morally neutral (by past as well as present standards). If I was researching the statistics of the herring trade in the Hebrides in the 17th century, I could perhaps deal with that in a way that was purely neutral. But it seems impossible, and undesirable, to create a morally neutral history regarding events where people are suffering or inflicting pain on others.

The adoption of neutral terms in these contexts can be deliberately misleading. For example, as the writer Britni Danielle has highlighted, a recent textbook for Texas’s social studies curriculum dubbed enslaved Africans as “workers”, reflecting a tradition in the American south of labelling slavery with euphemisms like “warranteeism” or “patriarchalism”.

Danielle also raises the case of the third US president, Thomas Jefferson, and Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman he owned and with whom he had a longstanding sexual relationship. In this instance, the issue is not pseudo-neutrality but rather the question of positive versus negative evaluations. Hemings is frequently described in romanticising terms as Jefferson’s “mistress”, which obscures the fact that she was his property to do with as he wished, sexually and otherwise.

At the other end of the scale from individual word choices, a work of history gives an overall impression and this can be a moral impression. That can be a product of the explicit argument as, say, when a historian of empire sets out to marshal evidence in support of the case that the project was after all driven by good intentions rather than selfishness. It can also be a product of accumulated descriptions and explanations of historical outcomes, causes, intentions, experiences, and so forth.

The 20th-century British historian Herbert Butterfield once wrote that “historical explaining does not condemn; neither does it excuse… it is neither more nor less than the process of seeing things in their context”. And context is crucial in this discussion. Understanding different circumstances and ways of life is one of the historian’s chief virtues, and a guard against anachronism.

However, all that varies with historical context is the content of standards – not whether they exist or not. The common refrain that we should take historical actors on their own terms is actually imbued with a moral philosophy – call it moral contextualism. The logic of the position is that one judges in accordance with the appropriate standards, not that one does not judge. Concluding that power was wielded legitimately or illegitimately according to the standards of a past time is just to imply a judgment relative to those standards. So long as we understand the different social expectations and values, we are equipped and entitled to describe the Homeric Greek warrior’s shying from battle as “cowardly”, just as we might criticise someone who fails to defend a junior work colleague against a bullying line-manager.

One implication of moral contextualism is that it would be bizarre to criticise people in the past for failing to act in accordance with 21st-century norms. I agree with this. But there is more to say on the matter. Moral contextualism produces a form of “internal” evaluation, working only in relation to the menu of options available to historical actors. However we can also make “external” judgments, which have a different character and focus.

One reason we tend to make external judgments is that, whether we are looking at bygone worlds or the diverse worlds of today, our evaluations are not just linked to actors’ motives and justifications but to outcomes. In the past (as now) those outcomes included harmful or helpful effects on other people – sometimes, of course, people who did not share the values of the actors who caused the effects. So we need to distinguish between the dubious practice of telling dead people that they should have thought differently, and the practice of external judgment, which involves evaluating particular practices in the past and the values that mandated those practices.

Relativism proposes a universal moral standard about the wrongness of judging across group boundaries, while denying the existence of such universal standards

This idea of evaluating practices and values in foreign countries, or ones in the past, also raises the question of moral relativism. But I believe this is a non-problem. Relativisms tend to begin with the claim that value-systems are diverse, being created within different human groups with different ways of justifying the good and the right, rather than being given to all people by a deity or found woven into the objective fabric of the world. One form of relativism goes on to say that it is wrong to judge the values of other groups – but this argument actually undermines itself. It proposes a group-transcending, universal moral standard about the wrongness of judging across group boundaries, while denying the existence of such group-transcending moral standards.

The strongest variety of relativism claims that it is impossible to objectively establish the superiority of one moral system over others. Whatever the strengths of this sort of relativism, it is not relevant to this discussion. It does not constitute a case against judging across the borders of foreign countries – it would only deny that such judgments would be compelling to those whose practices are being judged. And indeed such judgments can be unavoidable.

To dig a little further into this matter, let’s say that in my research I encounter some practice that seems to bring happiness or suffering to some member or members of a past society. My immediate reaction is to think how pleasant or unpleasant it seems. Anyone who tells me I ought not have that initial gut reaction is whistling in the wind.

What if I choose not to make a more careful judgment? In that case my understanding would not be improved by contextualisation of the foreign practice, comprehension of its social function, or the attitudes of various parties to it. My gut reaction will remain, unadulterated. And that gut reaction will continue to shape my opinion of the past practices. It is still a judgment.

But what if I allow myself to think further about it but not make a final evaluation? This will not work either. Even without making a formal verdict, my greater understanding will either reverse, negate, dilute, or reinforce my gut reaction. Crucially, I am still forming a view of the past practice – and that produces a judgment.

In all three scenarios, judgment exists. The question is how I convey this to my audience. And this is where the content and organisation of my historical account is crucial.

Earlier in this piece I mentioned how a historical work can provide an overall moral impression. In their writing, historians regularly “go behind” the outlooks of historical figures, contextualising in ways that might not have been familiar to them, as well as introducing other voices to the scenario being examined. Historians of Hitler, for instance, do not just reproduce, far less adopt, the views expressed in Mein Kampf. Rather, they explain what personal experiences and cultural tendencies led Hitler to hold these views.

Equally, as historians explain the significance or consequences of what people did, they may harness the perspectives of people affected by those actions, or provide additional descriptions of these events. Think how strange it would be to “see” Stalin’s attack on “Kulaks” (the comparatively wealthy peasants who suffered greatly under his rule) solely through his eyes. And there is no reason that these other perspectives would align with the outlook of the people instigating the events – consider the different views and experiences of slaves and slaveholders, for example. If historians’ own accounts of actions and effects do end up reflecting the values of the instigators, that tells us more about the historians than about “proper” historical procedure.

Different works of history will give greater emphasis to this or that element, or exclude certain elements altogether, but the result will be to create differing moral impressions, not to render the impression neutral. It is also no good historians washing their hands and saying readers can make up their own minds about the moral aspect, as if unprompted. Historians need to take responsibility for their prompts – their choices of words, examples, perspectives, and so on – which means in the first instance acknowledging that they are providing these prompts.

When different histories give greater emphasis to this or that element, the result is to create differing moral impressions, not to render the impression neutral

There are some historical evaluations, while intrinsically no more political than others, which have particular political ramifications because of the relationship between the past and the present. If the past is a foreign country, some parts are less foreign than others, as Max Hastings intimated. When criticising the government for its “cop-out” over 1914, Hastings also wrote: “That Britain sacrificed three-quarters of a million lives to prevent the triumph of Germany’s militarists should be a matter of profound pride to those men’s modern descendants.”

Britain, as Hastings puts it, transcends the generations. Our fortunes in the present are influenced by the past and our identity is shaped by how we perceive that past. If we adopt the idea of a national community as an “imagined community”, because most of its members never meet each other across space yet still believe they have something in common, the same can apply across time.

So if pride is considered a reasonable or desirable response to certain episodes in the past, then shame about certain episodes cannot be dismissed as anachronistic; we must be consistent.

We are all familiar with arguments over whether given episodes ought to be a source of pride or shame – empire currently being the most obvious topic of debate in the UK. Whatever historians think about people having these feelings towards their nation’s past, the fact is that such attitudes will continue to exist. Works of history can only influence the choice and strength of these attitudes – they can’t erase them altogether.

Perhaps, then, instead of maintaining a specious neutrality towards the past, historians should pass judgment without fear or favour in the present.

Donald Bloxham is Richard Pares professor of history at the University of Edinburgh. His book History and Morality was published by Oxford University Press in 2020

Advertisement

This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine