The latest edition of the New Statesman includes an article by David Priestland on the state of popular history in Britain. He argues that, increasingly, television series presented by the likes of Andrew Marr as well as popular science, economics, and history books – particularly those written by right-wing historians, most notably Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson – are grounded in a Whiggish belief in the inevitably of the triumph of liberalism. (We take the term ‘Whiggish’ from Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) which argues against writing history as a glorification of the present, and as a slow, progressive evolution towards parliamentary democracy.) Priestland writes:
Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) tells an optimistic story of the defeat of warrior values by a peaceable liberalism. More forthright is Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (2010). Yoking Darwinism to free market economics, it casts merchants as the main agents of progress in human history.
Ridley’s analysis is a cruder version of a fashionable ‘big history’ that combines the insights of evolutionary science with praise for economic globalisation (though it tends to be much more pessimistic about its environmental consequences than Ridley is). In his History of the World, Marr has whipped up all these trends into a tasty dish, mixing evolutionary history with Whiggish enthusiasms about global trade and warnings about ‘utopian’ ideologies, though marinated in a conservative pessimism about human nature and political improvement.
There are several problems with understanding history as a relentless march towards liberal perfection, not least because it’s wrong. Historians are interested in accounting for change over time and we recognise that change itself simply happens: it’s neither objectively good, nor bad. This Whiggery attaches a moral value to change, and simplifies its causes:
Marr’s series is expertly crafted and stimulating; but it rests on an unexamined assumption common to much popular history today: it assumes, as Margaret Thatcher once put it, that ‘there is no such thing as society’. Marr gives us evolutionary imperatives, economic forces, ideologies and great (or evil) men.
Priestland lays the blame for the ‘complacent liberalism’ of popular history firmly at historians’ feet. He suggests that because academic historians have largely abandoned the writing of history on a grand scale – the best example of which is Eric Hobsbawm’s series on the history of the modern world – choosing, rather, to specialise in fairly narrow areas of expertise, they ‘have ceded the political high ground.’ Right-wing historians and journalists have stepped into the space left by the guild.
I do have a few reservations about Priestland’s argument (although I do urge you to read the full article, as I’ve oversimplified it a little here). He fails to take into account academic historians’ growing interest in global history, as well as the motivations and aims of the BBC and other organisations which commission public history. (Do they really want academic historians to present television series, when Andrew Marr is guaranteed to draw a crowd?) But I agree with his point that historians should do more to engage with the public.
While historians and academics in the UK, US, and elsewhere are – increasingly – working harder to make those outside of academia aware of their research, this impulse has not really been felt to any great extent in South Africa. It’s certainly true that a few history departments and historians have worked with communities to write local histories – like the University of Johannesburg’s Sophiatown Project – but these are not enough. The School of Advanced Study at the University of London has put all of the papers presented at the Societies of Southern Africa in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century seminar series, online. But this, also, isn’t enough.
When not suggesting that criticism of President Zuma be made illegal, Blade Nzimande, the Minister of Higher Education, turns his mind to historians and the writing of history. Speaking at the announcement of the SA History Online student internship programme last month, the Minister commented:
Large swathes of this history have been left untold – or told in a very one-sided manner – and neglected by much history need has been neglected or altogether ignored by decades, indeed centuries, of foreign and minority domination of the means of intellectual production. The history of SA not only has to be rewritten – that is reinterpreted – but must also be researched and written up in the first place.
I agree that much of South Africa’s past remains to be researched, but the Minister ignores the vast and really brilliant scholarship produced by historians of South Africa since, at least, the 1970s, which focuses precisely on histories of colonisation, segregation, apartheid, shifting attitudes towards race and gender, labour, industrialisation, nationalisms, and anti-government protest.
Later on in the speech, Nzimande does mention the revisionist historians – people like Shula Marks, Stanley Trapido, Belinda Bozzoli, Martin Legassick, and Charles van Onselen – who helped to transform the profession in the 1970s and 1980s. I don’t understand, then, why he seems to believe that historians are producing a kind of conservative interpretation of the past which ignores the experience of the majority of South Africans. They really, really are not.
He does, though, make one important point:
it is important that historians give plenty of attention to the way that history is understood by ordinary people. This means that historians must pay attention not only to academic research but also to popular forms such as TV, radio, the internet, newspapers and magazines, and school textbooks.
South Africans are astonishingly ignorant about their country’s history – and this includes well educated South Africans too. Earlier this year, Peter Bruce, then editor of Business Day, wrote an unbelievably ill-informed column in which he complained that South African historians had entirely ignored ‘black history’. A couple of weeks ago, the Mail and Guardian published an opinion piece that alleged that South Africa’s ‘past has until recently, been the subject of very few and dominant narratives told from the perspective of the proverbial victors even if theirs was a guise of colonialism and apartheid.’ This just isn’t true. (I’m also not entirely sure what it means.)
This lack of knowledge is partly the fault of our failing education system. Books in South Africa are ruinously expensive. The first volume of the new Cambridge history of South Africa costs £84 – more than R1,000. South Africa also lacks the platforms to allow historians and academics to communicate with the public. There is no South African History & Policy. We have no version of the Guardian – which has created blogs for historians to write about histories of science of technology, for instance. Our disastrous public broadcaster has no equivalent of In Our Time, the incredibly popular Radio 4 series which focusses on the history of ideas.
And academics here – as abroad – are unbelievably busy, over-worked, and very badly paid. But historians should take some of the blame for the fact that even fairly well educated South Africans have such little understanding of the vast scholarship on South African history. I didn’t spot a single angry op-ed by any senior historian attacking Nzimande’s speech in October. (But please tell me if I’m being unfair – who knows what I may have missed.) I – a very junior academic – took Peter Bruce to task, but no one else did.
So why should we care? Firstly, governments construct versions of the past to justify their policies in the present. In order for South Africans to function effectively as citizens, they need to be able to evaluate and criticise the government’s use of the past. As Priestland make the point, if we don’t talk to the public, others – less qualified and with potentially damaging agendas – will.
Secondly, the narratives we create to understand the past influence how we respond to crises in the present. Writing about the unexamined liberal politics of British popular history, Priestland explains:
We are so used to thinking of history as a process of gradual improvement that we find it difficult to remember how suddenly world orders break down – as they did in 1918, the 1930s or the 1970s – and how radically our ideas have to change in response. Whig gradualism simply cannot prepare us for the very serious challenges ahead.
By far the best analysis of the current crisis in South Africa’s mining industry which I read was the brilliant Keith Breckenridge’s post on History Workshop Online. But where are the articles which unpack Mac Maharaj’s bizarre views on the term ‘compound’? Where are the histories of farm work in the Cape, in the light of the strike now occurring in the fruit and wine industries? Indeed, I’m not the only one who’s calling for this. As my friend and colleague Stephen Sparks notes, Breckenridge has called on policymakers to speak to historians – and a recent workshop at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research floated the idea of a South African version of History & Policy.
Finally, as Nzimande admitted in his speech, the South African state does not view the funding of the humanities as a priority. We know that humanities departments are often the first to go when academic funding is cut. As the crisis in our national archives – the memory of the nation – demonstrates, the current government’s interest in history is pretty minimal.
So if you’re wondering when I’m going to mention cupcakes in this post, I’m writing this to point out to my fellow historians that unless we make the case for having a thorough, nuanced understanding of South Africa’s past, no one else will. Writing a blog really isn’t difficult, people. It doesn’t solve anything, but it’s a beginning.
Postscript: Andrew MacDonald’s astonishingly wonderful review of the new Cambridge History of South Africa appeared in this week’s Mail and Guardian. As an overview of the development of the discipline in South Africa, it is unparalleled.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.