Historians and progress

A few weeks ago, my seminar discussed E. H. Carr’s What is History? It’s another of those old books that I often ask my students to read, on grounds that voices from the past can shake up our understanding of the present. They tell us how the world was understood by smart people who didn’t share our assumptions about it.

Of course What is History? isn’t a real antique like The Communist Manifesto, which I also push on my students, for the same reason. What is History? came out a mere fifty-odd years ago, in 1961. But the issues it raises are stunningly relevant today, and I don’t know of anything that covers the problems of historical knowledge so well. Problems like, how can we know anything about the past, since it’s over and done with? and, how are we supposed to distinguish between important issues that are worth studying and pointless trivia? and, what’s a historical explanation, anyway? With only a little massaging, a lot of Carr’s 1961 wisdom can sound like it comes from a post-modern theorist in the English department.

But there’s one issue where Carr seems to speak to us from a distant planet: he was a firm believer in progress, in fact one of his chapters is titled “History As Progress,” and he meant it: “A society which has lost belief in its capacity to progress in the future will quickly cease to concern itself with progress in the past,” is one of his lines.  Another is, “Nor do I know how, without some such conception of progress, society can survive.”

Does anyone nowadays have that touchingly innocent belief that the world is actually getting better? Does anyone even think we know where the world is headed, whether for better or for worse? In that sense, an infinite gap stretches between us and 1961.

It’s pretty tempting to explain Carr’s optimism in biographical terms. He grew up just before the twentieth century’s great calamities, and from day 1 he belonged to the gentlemen’s club-style British elite: fancy schools, a top degree at Cambridge (in classics, no less), work in the Foreign Office and London journalism, and high-level academic positions. He had radical opinions, and viewed the Soviet Union with what today seems insane enthusiasm. But even that had a place in the British establishment of his era. It didn’t prevent him from writing editorials for the London Times or holding a fellowship at Bailiol College, Oxford, right at the top of the British establishment.

Sheltered in all those ways, you might think, of course Carr could take an Olympian view of the historical troubles around him, as mere speed bumps on the way to a brighter future. But then you look at some of the other important historical writing from his era, and an awful lot of it has that same sense of forward marching. My favorite example comes from the French historian Lucien Febvre, writing in France in 1942— possibly the single darkest year in the twentieth century. World War II had been going for three years, the Holocaust was beginning in earnest, the Germans occupied France, smart people still thought Hitler would win. In spite of which, Febvre’s whole work was predicated on the contrast between dark, confused, and frightened pre-modern societies and modern societies like his own, which enjoyed the benefits of science, rationality, and electric lighting. At least “in normal times,” as Febvre put it.  (For the specifics, you can look at my book Lost Worlds, which examines Febvre and other French social history types.)

Could there be a more poignant confession of faith in progress? Examples like Febvre make me think it’s the era that explains Carr’s faith in progress, not his posh social niche.

But more important, it’s made me wonder if he wasn’t on to something in linking that faith to a certain vision of history itself, maybe even to history with certain ambitions– just because it’s hard to find the strong historical vision of mid-twentieth-century writing in the history we write today. Of course we still have lots of wonderful historical writing, but we’ve mainly given up trying to connect our discoveries about the past with our visions about the future– perhaps because so few of us imagine we can see that future with any clarity.  The great historical works these days tend to be microscopic in focus, detailed examinations of moments, individuals, and practices.

So the Carr example makes it seem we historians face a bad choice. We can keep to a dubious idea of progress and use it to shape our historical thinking, or we can write history that’s disconnected from how we think the world is going– in other words, we can write fragments, with no conviction that these fit into some larger pattern, or that there actually is a larger pattern. Was Carr correct in thinking that we can’t write meaningful history without those convictions?