Chris Harman


Subjects and objects

(January 1998)

Reviews, Socialist Review, No.215, January 1998.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In Defence of History
Richard J. Evans
Granta £15.99

’The convincing answer to postmodernist attacks on history.’ Such has been the response of reviewers to this book in the posh newspapers. Richard Evans does indeed take on and destroy a number of the popular postmodernist arguments that have been used to terrorise students in innumerable university departments into submission to their lecturers’ dogmas. He also points to the inadequacies of much of the traditional history writing which concentrated on the action of kings and ministers while ignoring virtually everyone else. But he does not, at the end of the day, provide a coherent alternative view of history.

The postmodernists insist on two linked sets of ideas. The first is that we can never have access to any facts about the past. All we possess are documents or sometimes spoken memories, and these ‘texts’ merely express opinions that can never be authenticated. And we can never get behind such ‘signifiers’ to some realm of underlying reality.

Second, there can never be a single, correct explanation of what has happened. A historian can only provide a personal account of what may have happened. This can in no way be objective. It depends purely on how the historian selects and interprets the ‘texts’, which in turn depends on his or her cultural framework (or ‘discourse’). Postmodernists conclude from this that any interpretation is as valid as any other, and that any attempt to win adherence to a total view of history (a ‘grand narrative’) is simply an expression of the drive for power by those who back it.

Evans dismantles the first set of arguments very effectively. He points to the effort which historians of all schools put into checking the authenticity of documents and then in comparing them with other documents of all sorts (lists of goods sold, registers of births and deaths, wills, court testimony) and with material remains (artefacts, tools, graveyards, tombs, domestic debris). Of course, the evidence is often incomplete and ambiguous. And people approaching it from different standpoints will try to interpret it in different ways. This leads to repeated, and sometimes interminable, arguments about exactly what did happen in the past. But it does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid. Historians are, in principle if not always in practice, able to excavate facts that substantiate one line of argument and destroy another. Those who refuse to accept such criteria for trying to arrive at truth are not historians at all but fiction writers – and often of the worst and most dangerous kinds.

Evans absolutely correctly points out how enormously important this is in dealing with those who would try to cover up for the most horrific forms of barbarity.

‘There is a massive, carefully empirical literature on the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Clearly, to regard it as fictional, unreal, or no nearer to historical reality than the work of the “revisionists” who deny that Auschwitz ever happened at all, is simply wrong. Here is an issue where the evidence really counts, and can be used to establish the essential facts. Auschwitz was not a discourse. It trivialises mass murder to see it as a text ... And if this is true of Auschwitz, then it must be true at least to some degree of other past happenings, events, institutions, people as well.’

Evans is much weaker in his arguments when it comes to the second contention of postmodernism, that there are different, equally valid ways of interpreting the past and that it is wrong to aspire to a total view. He attacks postmodernists for suggesting that only women can write about women in past societies or blacks about the slave trade, but he then goes on to praise them because

‘they have opened up possibilities for self renewal for the historical discipline, suggesting a way out of the impasse into which social determinism, above all in its Marxist variants, had run by the beginning of the 1990s.’

He continues by accepting much of the postmodernist case that it is language and ‘self identity’ that structure social being, rather than the other way round. He claims, for instance, that nationalism has to be understood in terms of ‘changing senses and meanings of social identity’.

From this, it is only a short step to him praising Simon Shama’s pro-royalist diatribe against the French Revolution and Orlando Figes’ somewhat similar diatribe against Bolshevism. He says they are ‘brilliantly written narratives’. Yet he admits they both rely on ‘detailed subplots and biographies whose selection is self confessedly personal and arbitrary’ and that, in Shama’s case, ‘the economic and social misery of the masses, an essential driving force behind their involvement in the revolutionary events, is barely mentioned’.

If that’s true, surely what we have are not real histories at all, but arbitrary constructions, fictions designed make an ideological point. Such backsliding towards postmodernism is a product of Evans’s dismissal of ‘determinism’ and ‘Marxism’.

Marx provides a general approach to history which is materialist and unitary without eliminating the role of human action and ideological conflict. This is because it starts with material circumstances of human beings, seeing that the separate aspects of human relationships usually described as ‘political’, ‘economic’, ‘religious’ or ‘sexual’ all have their ultimate origins in forms of the cooperation which develop as they try carve a livelihood for themselves out of nature.

But it does not stop there. It sees cooperation at a certain stage in the development of production as giving rise to class society and with it various ‘superstructures’ that try to freeze social relations – states, organised religions, ideological edifices, sanctified family forms. It also sees clashes within and between states as changes in production lead to the social forces which undermine old superstructures – clashes whose resolution depends in the end on the ability of human beings to reshape their view of the world, to organise into parties and armies and to overthrow those who defend the old ways.

This is not a finished account of all human history. But it is a general view of how society develops, a ‘materialist conception’ of history which provides a framework within which knowledge of the past can be put into a coherent form and provide us with an understanding of where the present comes from. Without this, you begin to fall back on the arbitrary storytelling of the postmodernists – which is precisely what happens to Evans.

Last updated on 21 December 2009