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A Critique of Current Historical Scholarship


If the history profession in the United States were to take stock of itself now [in 2011], it would have the right to be proud in many respects. It has come far in the last fifty years, become far more sophisticated. Social history has enormously enriched our understanding of the past, in particular the past of subaltern groups of people who tended to be ignored by academic historians up to the 1960s. Labor history is no longer mainly about trade unions and institutional politics; it also encompasses the lives of workers, as well as of their families and communities. The history of minorities is no longer excluded from the mainstream, and women are finally integrated into the historical profession—both as scholars and as subjects of study. The history of gender and sexuality has explicated the formation of subjective identities and shed light on varieties of oppression that were hardly even recognized in the past. Historians have become methodologically more self-conscious and self-critical, and their scholarship has become incredibly meticulous. Like culture itself, history-writing is incomparably more inclusive than it was fifty years ago—inclusive of more people, more ideas, more methods, more agendas, more countries and societies (hence “transnationalism”). It is diverse, and it is huge. Nevertheless, the discipline has by no means perfected itself, nor should it be complacent about what it has achieved. In some ways it has not taken its recent democratic achievements far enough, while in others it has taken them too far, thereby losing sight of important issues and old insights. The discipline is also too fragmented and specialized, like most of the humanities and social sciences. One can accuse it, moreover, of being too “academic.” Being humanistic, it should not isolate itself from society but should critically engage with it, bring history to bear on the burning political questions of our time.


There is a myth among academics that “objectivity” entails “neutrality,” that to take a partisan position in some controversy is by definition to be non-objective and unscholarly.[1] This belief goes back decades, and helps justify the political disengagement of scholars that is a function in part of the insularity of their institutions. According to conventional wisdom, the university system is not supposed to be the plaything of political agendas; it is supposed to be dedicated to politically innocuous research and the unpartisan education of students. Otherwise universities might not be able to get funding from a variety of sources, and they would not be able to maintain their supposed autonomy from the rough-and-tumble world of politics. Corresponding to these institutional facts is the academic conviction, which serves to justify an apolitical stance, that to take a politically controversial position in scholarship or popular writing is to depart from the “disinterested” pursuit of truth.


This is a fantasy, as is the idea that the university system is even moderately removed from political influence and agendas. By virtue of their particular locations in social structures, academics are already integrated into the political economy in ways they might not even know about or like. They are already serving certain economic and political interests in their research and teaching, both of which are inherently political. Whatever position one takes in teaching or writing, one cannot escape the implicit commitment to some set of political interests and institutions. By not challenging conventional interpretations, for example, one is upholding the hegemony of power-structures and the status quo, implicitly taking the “partisan” position that mainstream narratives, which like all interpretations exclude certain voices and include others, are substantially correct and that the powerful therefore are not only basically right but should remain powerful. By consciously avoiding political controversy in one’s work, one is making a statement that to some other group of interests, an unrepresented group, is controversial.


There is no such thing as “disinterested” scholarship. In Nietzschean terms, one necessarily proceeds from a particular perspective. Jean-Paul Sartre said something similar in arguing that one is inescapably committed, whether one knows it or not. On the other hand, it is possible to be “committed” in a relatively “objective” and “rational” way, namely by encompassing more voices, more facts, and more arguments in one’s position, and by being willing to assess it according to canons of logic rather than emotion or some other standard. An intellectual’s work can serve the interests of freedom and democracy in more objective and rigorous or less objective and rigorous ways, just as it can serve the interests of the powerful in rigorous or unrigorous ways—or, alternatively, in open and honest ways or implicit and unconscious ways (as it usually does). Every social scientist and humanist should decide which interests and values he intends to support in his work, and then do so as objectively as possible.


Historians, one might retort, often do serve democratic values and agendas in their work, as evidenced by the rise of social history in all its forms. This is true. However, there is still too much of a pretense of neutrality on issues of political moment, a neutrality that effectively supports the status quo. In many cases this neutrality takes the form of a specific method, viz. an “idealistic” method. In The Global Cold War (2005), for example, Odd Arne Westad argues that “the United States and the Soviet Union were driven to intervene in the Third World by the ideologies inherent in their politics.”[2] He pays little attention to economic dynamics and institutional imperatives as explanations of the superpowers’ foreign policy, instead relying to a great degree on policymakers’ self-understandings and rhetoric. His idealistic method lends legitimacy to powerful actors, their institutions, and their policies, thus implicitly legitimizing the political status quo and undermining the popular democratic hopes and strivings that he ostensibly supports.


Social historians, on the other hand, sometimes adopt a kind of status quo-supporting idealism precisely by virtue of their “democratic” method of telling people’s stories more or less as they lived them. Books like Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (2009) and Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (2002) embody the commendable project of taking ordinary people’s experiences seriously and revealing such people as “active, articulate participants in a historical process.”[3] However, these works can have an extreme emphasis on ideology and culture insofar as people interpret their own experiences that way. Political correctness frequently suffuses this sort of scholarship; everyone is given “agency,” assumed to have control over his or her life because to deny that would be insulting or condescending. Institutional contexts and influences are frequently played down as the individual’s motives and self-interpretations are elevated. The consequence is to divert the reader’s attention from class structures and the overall distribution of power, which in turn often prevents this work from being politically very challenging or subversive.


Ironically, one can object to idealism not only morally but also by invoking the “disinterested” rational standards that scholars are so concerned with. For a materialism and “institutionalism” along Marxian lines is singularly plausible too, as contrasted with the various types of idealism manifested in much political history (e.g., The Global Cold War), postmodernist cultural history (e.g., Joan Wallach Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History (1999)), and a fair amount of social history, the “humanism” of which tends to have factually incorrect implications. To quote the political scientist Thomas Ferguson: “That ordinary people are historical subjects [as social historians assume] is a vital truth; that they are the primary shapers of the American past seems to me either a triviality or a highly dubious theory about the control of both political and economic investment in American history.”[4] The point is that one can overemphasize the historical importance of ordinary people’s experiences and self-interpretations, and that many historians do this. The simple fact is that in the history of capitalist society, large business interests or corporations have vastly more sway over society than ordinary people do. They have incomparably more historical agency by virtue of their access to material resources—surely a commonsense truth. Thus, if historians want to explain the dynamics and trajectories of societies, they would do well to emphasize economics, moneyed interests, and class structures far more than they do. Furthermore, as stated above, this would have the morally desirable effect of highlighting the injustice of current institutional arrangements, thereby bolstering popular struggles.


The intellectual’s moral and scientific responsibilities, which arguably are not being fulfilled by much contemporary historical scholarship, can be reduced to the responsibility to challenge conventional wisdom. Intellectuals are in a unique position to do this, having the necessary skills, leisure, and access to enormous amounts of information. Instead, they are usually the guardians of conventional wisdom, not its challengers. Most of their work reinforces the notion that class relations, which determine differences in groups’ control over productive resources, are, far from being the most important determinant of social dynamics, not of especial significance, that, if anything, culture, ideology, gender, group psychology, and so forth are historically more important than the brute institutional realities of control over economic and material resources. The age of postmodernism has ushered in a scientifically dubious and morally objectionable (in its political implications) subjectivism, culturalism, and obsession with “discourse,” as if cultural discourses were not shaped precisely by institutional, ultimately economic, conditions and the play of competing interests. (It requires access to resources, after all, to propagate discourses, and access to resources is primarily an economic fact, i.e. determined largely by the dynamics of class relations, conflicts between groups of people with different economic interests by virtue of their occupying different locations in social structures.)[5] Analyses of discourses, ideologies, and gendered, sexual, and racial identities have their place in scholarship, but authors should keep in mind that to emphasize ideas and identities at the expense of structures of, and struggles over, economic production and distribution is already a political act, in that it tends to focus attention on politically peripheral issues and does little to develop a critique of the central power relations in society. This fact, of course, helps explain why it is so predominant in academia: institutional mechanisms tend to filter out materialistic critiques of economic and political relations, since such “leftist,” “radical” arguments challenge society’s most entrenched power-structures, the structures that fund universities and influence political policies toward them. From the perspective of these moneyed interests, it is far safer to write about the formation of sexual identities or ordinary people’s “agency,” their supposed power over their lives and influence over politics. To emphasize ideologies, too, is politically safe, since it suggests that ideas matter more than institutions and that it is more important to change the former than the latter.


History writing should stop being as “academic” as it is; scholarship should more often be motivated by current political struggles. Historians could do popular movements, not to mention truth, a service by placing in its historical context, for example, business’s ongoing assaults on public-sector unionism, or by tracing corporations’ influence on federal and state politics or their systematic, decades-long dismantling of civil society (unions, communities, public education and transportation, etc.), or the ways in which public-relations firms craft media campaigns and thereby propagate “discourses” favorable to business. There is no shortage of politically controversial subjects—the controversial nature of which, incidentally, suggests their importance, their subversion of shallow conventional wisdom. That such scholarly projects and arguments are “partisan” is no argument against their essential truth, for there is no reason to think that truth should be benign toward or supportive of entrenched interests. Quite the contrary. It would be startling if social truths were unpartisan, i.e. acceptable to powerful interests, whose concern is not to propagate truth but to advance their own agendas.


Consistent with the foregoing critique is the criticism that historical scholarship is altogether too specialized, not “synthetic” enough. There is little cross-fertilization between economic history, political history, social history, cultural history, labor history, business history, and so on. To place everything in its proper social context, integration among fields is necessary. Historical materialist ideas should in general be the foundation of most kinds of history, since they are common sense (notwithstanding their having been knocked out of people’s heads due to their politically subversive implications). Economic theory, too—at least the “realistic” kind of theory, e.g. Marxian economics,[6] not neoclassical fantasies about efficient markets, perfect competition, etc.—is relevant to history in that it helps explain social dynamics, and historians should study it. The consequence of not studying other fields or disciplines is the postmodern parochialism that pervades academia, the overemphasis on gender, sexuality, discourse, ideologies, subjective identities, in addition to the more general counterproductive fragmentation that itself does much to vitiate the political potential of scholarship.


One can argue, in fact, that “intellectuals” have a moral obligation to serve progressive political struggles, being the beneficiaries of other people’s “surplus labor,” of an exploitive economic system that perpetuates poverty and disfranchisement among the large majority of the world population. Intellectuals tend to have extraordinary privileges, which, because they are made possible by other people’s lack of privileges, they are morally obligated to use for these other people’s benefit. Such arguments, however, start to take us outside the realm of scholarship, so I will leave them here as suggestions.


The point is that political activism and scholarship need not be mutually exclusive, that politically partisan scholarship (or scholarship with partisan implications) can embody the highest standards of academic rigor, and that, far from being unrespectable, it is scientifically and morally imperative that humanist intellectuals use their work to undermine conventional narratives. To do so, as I have said, historians ought to broaden their scholarship, integrate social history with economic history with political history and so forth. We have a lot of monographs on every conceivable subject; it is time we did more to integrate the best scholarship in numerous fields and so make it more compelling to the general public. The public hungers for knowledge untainted by political dishonesty—as evidenced by the popularity of such figures as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Mike Davis, Glenn Greenwald, and others who bring knowledge to the masses. This is the next frontier in the history of the intellectual; historians should recognize that and celebrate it.




[1] See Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream,” History and Theory, Vol. 29, No. 2 (May, 1990): pp. 129-157.


[2] Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 4.


[3] Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 96.


[4] Ibid.


[5] This paper is not an appropriate place to set forward all the arguments for “materialism”; the best I can do is give examples of scholarship that shows its true power. Thomas Ferguson’s above-cited book is one example. Others are Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (New York: Beacon Press, 2001); Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (New York: The New Press, 2002); Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence: The Advanced Capitalist Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945-2005 (New York: Verso, 2006); Erik Olin Wright, Classes (London: Verso, 1985); Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913); Terry Bouton, Taming Democracy: “The People,” the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); and G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981).


[6] See, for example, Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence; Fred Magdoff and Michael D. Yates, The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009); John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009); and Robert Brenner, The Boom and the Bubble: The US in the World Economy (New York: Verso, 2002).

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