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The Ends of History

Ciaran Brady

Cold War culture: intellectuals, the media and the practice of history, by Jim Smyth, IB Tauris, 256 pp, £69.00, ISBN: 978-1784531126

“Historiography”, a word not easy on the eye or the tongue, can also be a confused and confusing idea. At its simplest, and least interesting, it can connote those dreary but apparently mandatory reviews “of the literature” which must precede the substance of graduate dissertations and published academic monographs. The format of such exercises will be familiar – and not only to students of history. They begin by rehearsing previous views of the topic under examination, usually by organising them, for the convenience of the reader but more especially for the writer, into distinctive interpretative camps (usually overstated) within which A and the followers of A (figures to a greater and sometimes lesser extent conscious of their adherence) on the topic of X are contrasted with the followers of B (with similar attachments) whose research findings seem to suggest X1, X 2 or even, and this is a risky move, Y. This done, the authors of the “historiographical” review can proceed to “locate” their present work, usually between both (presumed) polarities, while affirming its signal importance as a significant act of transcendence of these crude oppositions, and while also, with the modesty appropriate to such exercises, conceding that much work still needs to be done in the as yet underresearched areas of blah and blah.

At an altogether different level “historiography” is a term sometimes adopted by those who are engaged in what may be described as the study of the poetics of history writing, that is the analysis of the generic presentations, formal structures, plots, figures of speech and modes of authorial expression. Practised in the past mostly (not exclusively) by figures who had done no historical research or writing at all (RG Collingwood and Hayden White are splendid exceptions) this is a dimension of thought with which increasingly more reflective historians have begun to engage over the past thirty years. Historians’ greater self-reflexivity about the nature of their work has been an almost unadulterated boon, though reactionary fears that it might also induce a relativism and an indulgence in personal or sectoral subjectivism have not been without foundation.

But between these entirely legitimate forms of current practice, there has been another, and an altogether older understanding of historiography. This is the study of the way in which history writing, both in terms of the forces which prompted its production and the forces which determined its reception, reflected the cultural and intellectual life of the society in which it appeared. Of this form of historiography, there is a lengthy and broad intellectual tradition across Western culture. Friedrich Meinecke’s study of German historism, Lionel Gossman’s and Ann Rigney’s penetrating studies of France’s changing modes of historical writing, John Burrow’s marvellous interrogation of the Victorian historians, Peter Novick’s monumental survey of the role of the American historical profession, and, of course, Hayden White’s Metahistory: the Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe are classic examples (but only a representative sample) of this kind of exercise. And it is into this august company that Jim Smyth has intervened with a provocative and richly informative essay on the predominant currents of postwar intellectual culture, and the specific place occupied by historians and historical writing within them.

Freed from the oppressive comprehensiveness of the literature review, and also of the potentially vertiginous challenges of epistemological scepticism, this kind of historiography – historiography as a contribution to intellectual and cultural history ‑ has its own singular attractions. But it is not without considerable challenges. When focused on a period when history enjoyed a generally acknowledged dominant place within intellectual and political discourse the task of its students has been – in its starting premises at least – a relatively straightforward one. This has been the case for some of the most excellent performances in the genre such as Mark Salber Phillips, Society and Sentiment: the Genres of Historical Writing in Britain 1740-1820, Burrow’s A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past and, even though it operates on at least two levels of historiographical analysis, White’s Metahistory. To say that the initial starting point of these studies was relatively solid is in no way to diminish their intellectual sophistication and the significance of their findings. It is to indicate rather that the cultural assumptions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which despite their often radical differences, continued to acknowledge the importance of historical thinking and writing, were themselves historically limited. Already, by the closing decades of the nineteenth century, such assumptions had begun to falter, and by the beginning of the following century they were visibly crumbling.

Behind this diminution of the place of historical writing within the broad spectrum of public discourse there lay not one cause, but several. The first and perhaps most obvious was the division that appeared within the writers of history themselves. Frequently described as the shift “from amateur to professional”, the process is more accurately to be defined as a widening separation between the historian as public intellectual and the historian as specialist academic scholar. The character of this shift has often been explained by historians, in a somewhat self-congratulatory way, as the result of great strides in archival studies, more systematic disciplinary procedures and more sharply defined interpretative concepts. But more negative forces were also at play. Claims emerging from within cognate disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology and the new science of politics that they had developed new, objective and scientific methodologies presented a challenge to the old-fashioned individualist, impressionistic and rhetorical modes of expression within which historical writing had been conventionally couched. And historical study was also facing a powerful challenge in the form of the direct attack on historicist ways of viewing the world being launched contemporaneously by positive sociology, experimental psychology and the bracingly austere philosophy of logical positivism.

Unsettling in themselves to those historians who cared to reflect on them, such intellectual forebodings were dwarfed by the overwhelming trauma of the Great War. Sweeping aside as so much hypocrisy and cant the pieties of English liberal-nationalist history (now to be identified as “Whig history”), those in reaction to the murderously false certitudes of the pre-war period not only openly rejected traditional public history, but also, though more obliquely, laid a charge against the specialists and professionals who while loftily distinguishing themselves from the fiery rhetoric and bombast of the Victorian imperialist historians had, for all their supposed scientific objectivity, proved no less susceptible to the temptations of writing polemical nationalist history. This revulsion against received historical pieties was expressed in several registers and in several genres – in music hall monologues such as “The Lion and Albert”, in the debunking historical works of Lytton Strachey, in Sellar and Yeatman’s deathless 1066 and All That, in DH Lawrence’s subtle revival of cyclical history in his Movements of European History, and perhaps most famously in Herbert Butterfield’s extended polemical essay The Whig Interpretation of History.

But among the professionals themselves – that is those who had accepted the terms and conditions of researching and publishing under required academic forms – there were some who made their own contribution to this movement. RH Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, and his several studies surrounding the economic and social consequences of the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries, was an instance of this kind of reaction; so also was CS Lewis’s powerful assertions of the vitality of the English middle ages against the celebrants of the English renaissance and GM Young’s dense, complex and paradoxical reinterpretation of Victorian England in his Portrait of an Age (1936). It was in this atmosphere also that there appeared in 1927 Lewis Namier’s first major monograph, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III.

Though it was in large part positively reviewed by fellow professionals on its first appearance, Namier’s book was a slow burner in terms of influence, in good part because of the almost exclusively analytical and anti-narration character of its method. But it was in the atmosphere of the second great European conflict that Namier’s reputation soared, that he became , in GR Elton’s curious term, “panjandrumized”, and that his influence spread rapidly across the historical community , attracting a large number of students eager to emulate the great man’s analytical methods and to apply them across a range of historical (though mostly English historical) subjects and periods. The deferred but suddenly pervasive nature of Namier’s rise to influence had much to do with the quite specific character of his rejection of Whiggism.

Whereas the other writers noted above had been more or less explicit in their attack on Whig pieties, Namier had disdained overt polemics, preferring instead to damn Whiggish high-flown talk about political and moral principles by quietly but systematically revealing, on the basis of impeccable empirical research, the more material factors, such as the pursuit of office, profit, career and investment opportunity, which underlay the conduct of those active in British high politics in the mid-eighteenth century. In contrast to the other critics, Namier’s assault was not on the specifically Whig pretensions of belief and principle, but on all such pretensions to political and moral principle. It was this radical refusal of ideology as a genuine motivation of political action that made Namier so attractive to those intellectuals and scholars jaded by the intensive ideological squabbles of the 1930s and profoundly disillusioned by the appalling consequences of those struggles in the terrible war that followed.

It is for this reason that Jim Smyth has chosen to put the figure of Namier at the centre of his entertaining and hugely informative study of intellectuals and of practising historians, (not always a synonymous set) in the post-1945 atmosphere of the Cold War. Himself an expert on eighteenth century British and Irish politics and ideology in the eighteenth century, and part of a generation which has long since moved beyond the anti-ideological austerities of the 1950s, Smyth is particularly equipped for such an investigation. His exposition of the techniques and underlying methodological assumptions of the Namier school as it developed in the 1950s is lucid , objective and succinct and remarkably successful in conveying to those who may never have read Namier or his acolytes the essential characteristics of this once uncritically accepted and now rather discounted historical practice. (From some time in the 1990s, the use of the term “Namierite” was a shorthand in certain historical circles for an attitude that was now passé, naive and redundant, much as the term “metaphysical” was employed dismissively by Anglo-American philosophers in the 1950s in regard to philosophical historicism.) Smyth’s case that the vigorously anti-ideological suppositions of “Namierism” were themselves ideological is, moreover, deftly affirmed by his association of this form of historical method with the attitudes and practices of more overt preachers of “the end of ideology” in the cognate disciplines of sociology, political science, philosophy and psychology. And it should be said in passing that Smyth’s discussion of this large and complex topic is as assured and economical as his presentation of the Namierite method.

But why, even Smyth’s most engaged and sympathetic readers may be tempted to ask, focus on Namier, his followers and critics rather than on other more overtly ideologically engaged historiographical disputes of the Cold War period? Most notable among these alternatives, from the point of view of those engaged, as Smyth is, with particularly British historical writing, is the notorious “Storm over the Gentry”. This historical controversy had its origins in two powerful articles published by RH Tawney in the early 1940s which explained the outbreak of the English civil war as the product of the economic rise, from within the traditional feudal structures, of a group of landowners whose adoption of new estate management policies, new agricultural techniques and new approaches to marketing their produce established them as an economic class. These were the gentry. 

The great struggle of the 1640s and 1650s, formerly interpreted in constitutional and political terms as “the Great Rebellion” or in religious terms as “the Puritan Revolution”, could now be seen as a social and economic movement familiar to Marxist historians as an English form of the bourgeois revolution. For some time, Tawney’s thesis regarding the rise of the gentry and the English Revolution, aided by some historians, such as Christopher Hill, who took the case further than its originator was pleased to go, was powerfully influential. But it was to be vigorously, not to say violently, attacked in the immediate postwar period. Leading the charge was the formidable Hugh Trevor-Roper, former intelligence officer, occasional spy for the intelligence services and avowed anti-Marxist. Ably abetted by a number of historians, including the American JH Hexter, the attack on Tawney and such acolytes as Lawrence Stone and the resultant “storm”, the storm spread out beyond the pages of the academic journals into more general intellectual reviews like The Listener, History Today and, most significantly, Encounter, a publication, as Smyth points out, indirectly (and covertly) funded by the CIA. Here surely, it might be said, was the real ideological battle ground of historical writing in Cold War England.

Smyth’s reasons for eschewing this obvious topic for the ostensibly more marginal one of Namierism are entirely persuasive on several grounds. First, in a disarming introductory chapter (which other historians might consider imitating) he reveals the personal roots of his own intellectual curiosity. As a historian deeply familiar with the kind of sources among which Namier and his students worked, he was driven to ask how the intense engagement with ideological issues which he encountered in his own research could have been so systematically drained by the Namierites from their version of the politics of the period. He came to see that this blindness and deafness to the rhetoric of political argument were so pervasive that they could not be explained away simply as an absence. The denial of the ideological was itself ideological; but ideological in a far more subtle way than the wars over the gentry.

In the case of the “storm over the gentry” the ideological divisions were all too clear. They arose between those left-leaning historians who to a greater or lesser degree endorsed a Marxist mode of historical interpretation, and those on the right whose determination to submit the Tawney thesis to death by a thousand cuts, evidential and methodological, was driven by an imperative to deny the heuristic value of Marxism. And so participants and observers were free clearly to take sides on the basis of explicit political and even ethical grounds.

But the Namierite method allowed of no such simple alignment. Indeed it could easily have been taken to offer comfort to the left both in its emphasis on the material (and usually economic interests) underpinning the conduct of the propertied elite, and in its total dismissal of the Whig (that is, conventional liberal) interpretation of history. But it was precisely such a feature that, as Smyth persuasively argues, made it such a powerful agent of the most refined and most effective mode of postwar anti-Marxism that posited “an end of ideology” and the triumph of a practical common sense approach to the development and implementation of social and economic policy, a methodological claim which, as Smyth ably demonstrates, was itself deeply ideological.

Smyth’s decision to foreground Namier is further reinforced by a consideration of the actual opposition which his historical method provoked. For it came primarily not from the left, but from the Liberal centre in the form of the crusade waged against it by that other leading historian of the English eighteenth century, Herbert Butterfield. Butterfield’s shifting stances from one-time excoriator of the “Whig interpretation of history” to celebrant of an English political tradition have been a source of perplexity to some historians and of amusement to others (the latter being best expressed in JGA Pocock’s mock-serious Germanic identification of “das HerbertButterfieldproblem”). It is re-examined here by Smyth with characteristic lucidity. Despite his eminence and the widespread popularity of his writing among the general public, Butterfield failed – most notably in his major attack, George III and the Historians (1957) to do any serious damage to what he identified as the Namier school. This was in part, as Smyth shows, because of his comparatively weaker scholarship, and in part because of his overly simple understanding of the underlying assumptions of the method. But it was mostly because of his uncritical attitude toward his own unstated presuppositions. Butterfield reaffirmed the importance of normative values and ethical ideas in politics and history; but happily assumed that the ones which he was advocating – those of liberal Christianity – were the only proper ones.

Thus the silent ideological influence of Namier continued to work its spell over historical research publication and postgraduate training for some time after the great man’s death in 1960. But there eventually arose in the following decade a renewed scholarly interest in the significance of political rhetoric and its underlying ideological forces. In part a result of a re-orientation in left-wing scholarship away from the indeterminate evidential and methodological tangles of the gentry controversy, it also had roots in increasingly more sophisticated approaches toward the history of political thought and expression being pioneered by such centrist scholars as Quentin Skinner and Pocock. Toward the close of his book Smyth has some highly suggestive observations to make on this development, and it may be regretted that he chose to end his investigations where he did without taking those thoughts further. To ask for more is, however, hardly an unwelcome criticism of what has been offered here. This is a hugely enjoyable book, illuminating, provocative, and rich in telling anecdote. It is a valuable contribution to the study of “historiography” in one of its most important senses.


Ciaran Brady is Professor of Early Modern History and Historiography at Trinity College Dublin.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published this month. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Éamon Ó Cléirigh’s review-essay on Hugh Trevor-Roper from 2013, “Sharp Mind, Sharp Tongue”. Here is an extract:

Trevor-Roper viewed Ireland largely in terms of its impact on the balance of power in England and seems to have regarded the seventeenth century New English presence on the island as a colonial enterprise imposed upon the “native papists”. Although his Irish references are few, they are of a sort which are likely to set teeth on edge. In a characteristic moment, in an essay on James Ussher, he spoke of the archbishop’s need to assert Protestant ideas aggressively in the face of “the Catholic gentry, who still dominated society and sat in parliament, and the sinister unintelligible babble of the priest-led Celtic peasantry”. Such phrasing was not an accident or an occasional infelicity but clearly deliberate. This approach, if excessively high-spirited, was capable of discerning unexpected connections. When he visited Prague for the first time, it reminded him “more of Dublin than of Rome, the great palaces and buildings of a foreign aristocracy gradually crowded out by the shoddy hutches of a peasantry come to town”.

Trevor-Roper was a man of limited sympathies. These did not extend to such figures as “an Apulian peasant” grovelling “abjectly before a bottle of tinseled pig-bones in a tawdry southern church”. Although it is difficult to imagine any member of the Annales group writing of the mental world of the Mediterranean peasantry in comparable terms, Trevor-Roper would no doubt have replied that the contents of that world were not only false but of little intrinsic interest. While such prejudices might seem to be disabling in a historian, in fact his Whiggery, allied to an intense curiosity and wide-ranging erudition, acted as a source of energy and generator of insights. His perspectives were predominantly elite, his masters being the great high-cultural historians from Gibbon to Burckhardt, with whose works he maintained a constant intellectual dialogue. His great theme, which he approached again and again from varying perspectives, might be described as the line of thought which led from Erasmus and Grotius, across the bloodstained seventeenth century, to Hume, Montesquieu and the philosophes. Trevor-Roper differed from such Victorian celebrators of the triumph of rationalism as Lecky and Bury in his sense of the complexity of that line, of the subterranean routes it took, and the arcane symbolism – drawing upon such unfamiliar sources as Hermetic magic and Renaissance alchemy – in which it sometimes expressed itself. He also differed from them in his sense that what mattered were ideas in their social and historical context, how they were used by absolutist princes and Counter-Reformation popes, by Anglican divines and Calvinist preachers, and how they interacted with other forces to influence men’s actions.