Monday, 27 January 2020

Ian Birchall on In Defence of History by Richard Evans (1998)

Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (Granta Books, London, 1997)
Written By: Ian Birchall
Date: April 1998
Published In LSHG Newsletter: Issue 3: Summer 1998  

For some on the left postmodernism is the overriding enemy, so that we should, in Trotsky’s words, unite with “the devil and his grandam” to combat it. Evans is not the devil, but he might be one of his elderly relatives (the picture on the dust-jacket supports this hypothesis).

Evans has written a useful account of historical method and of current debates; there is a valuable if intimidating bibliography. But for Evans “history” means what goes on in Higher Education History departments. Important historians like Isaac Deutscher or CLR James, who worked outside the university system, do not merit a mention. However, he gives some graphic examples of stupidity, incompetence and narrow-mindedness of “professional” historians - for example, the delicious quote from Lawrence Stone [122]: “When you work in the archives.. you’re bored, you’re in a hurry… You’re bound to make mistakes.”

In his Introduction, seeking to reclaim ground from specialised philosophers of history, Evans writes [14]: “The theory of history is too important a matter to be left to the theoreticians.” The more general corollary eludes him: history - the past and future of us all - is much too important a matter to be left to the historians.

On Evans’ account it isn’t clear why we study history. He admonishes us [134]: “If your main aim is to shape the future, then it is not a good idea to devote your life to studying history.” He warns against prediction [62]: “life, unlike science, is simply too full of surprises.” Apparently, historians observe life from outside. But even Birkbeck College, where Evans used to head the History Department, isn’t outside life.

Evans forgets Vico’s remark that human history differs from natural history because we have made the former, but not the latter. Since Evans never confronts the relation of theory to practice, he ends up with some ponderous and not very original considerations on science, causation and prediction. Hence all that he can offer against the postmodernists is the sound but unoriginal advice that facts exist, and historians should check their sources and not quote out of context. An evening with the Theses on Feuerbach would help him enormously.

Evans rightly insists on the objective reality of the Holocaust. But Holocaust deniers, in Woody Allen’s words, need not refutation but baseball bats. There is more to studying the Holocaust than knowing it happened. Evans writes [124] “Auschwitz was indeed inherently a tragedy”. “Tragedies” are inevitable; Auschwitz sprang from defeat. Genuinely objective history understands that Auschwitz did happen, could have been avoided and must not happen again. Because Evans cannot grasp that, he cannot fight the postmodernists.

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