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The Weight of History


You will certainly have heard by now that 1989 is the bicentenary of the French Revolution. In many quarters there will
be events – be they sentimental, thought-provoking, spectacular
or brash – to mark the occasion. All in all, in this issue you will
fmd various pieces referring to the French Revolution or related
topics. There is Chris Artbur’s analysis, which interprets how, for
Hegel, the Revolution might be said to bring reason and freedom
into history. My own article discusses how the evolution of
historical writing over recent decades has conceptualised those
involved as free agents bringing the Revolution about. Besides
that, Jean Grimshaw discusses Mary Wollstonecraft, who, was
herself actively involved in the contemporary defence of the
Revolution. Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of
Woman, argues Jean, needs to be understood historically; it was
an attempt to progress beyond 18th-century gendered notions of
distinct virtues for men and for women-though these also bear
on the issues facing modern feminism.

All these assume (as does the marking of the bi-centenary
itself) the importance of properly appropriating history in order
to understand ideas, theories and arguments before us today. And
there is more which involves that topic. lan Hunt’s case for a
distinct concept of labour-power responds to recent literature,
which has tried to reduce the idea to other terms. But he, too, is in
the business of preserving some part of the Left’s intellectual
inheritance. Rosalyn Diprose argues that Nietzsche should be
understood as an attack on the 19th-century unified bourgeois
male subject, because, if that is correct, there is in his work a
source that contemporary feminism may draw upon.

These articles advocate an historical understanding of thinking from the past both for its own sake and as a stage in obtaining
some insight into truths and issues for the present day. It is not
surprising to fmd such discussion in a magazine of the Left. For
the Left belongs in a tradition where (notably, but not solely in
the work of Hegel and Marx) politics and intellectual activity are
held to belong together within the historical progress (or inertia)
of society as a whole. Thus, Sean Sayers provides a suitable
counterpoint to the historical concerns of other articles. He
claims that, if knowledge is understood as a social phenomenon,
the errors of the past are causally related to reality and therefore
contain within them distorted truth. In sum, over and above
discussion of one crucial historical event (the French Revolution), thoughts on the weight to be accorded to history itself run
through this issue.

Political conservatism, of course, certainly realizes the
weight of the past; though it is choosy about what it will preserve
intact. The right-wing government in power in the United King-

dom is all too well aware of the use of history. History has
recently been admitted to the new, centrally determined school
curriculum. But, from recent statements by our education minister, it appears that this status is given only on condition that
history forsakes the subversive empathising of the ‘New History’

(which was developed in the 1960s to broaden the subject with a
perspective ‘from below’). Schools must return to ‘traditional
British history’, which (like the ‘whig’ history discredited decades ago) presents ‘the plain facts’ of our blessed progress to
become what Britain is today: a great democracy and paragon of
all that is just and good in society. History, then, is bound to
provide live political material. The question is: How is it to be
used, by whom and for whose political benefit?

But this poses a problem for us as intellectuals: If we are
being careful to remain aware that history always has contemporary political weight, what space will we give to objective investigation of historical reality? We want history to be put to the
political uses we believe to be good; but we also want to retain a
loyalty to the realities of the historical past.

Of course, once we take due account of the vicissitudes that
surround all real research – be it historical, scientific or sociological- this emerges straightaway as a naive juxtaposition. Passive dedication to the facts is not an option. At the very least, we
approach topics in history with a complex, politically sensitive
selection of interests and conceptual apparatus. On the other
hand, an obstinate determination to find only what most pleases
us in the historical past is a real temptation – and one which
studies of the French Revolution (on the Right and the Left) have
often succumbed to. Yet, in the long run, to give in to that is about
as sensible as the posture of those who, instead of admitting to
oncoming deafness, insist that no-one around is speaking as
clearly as they used to.

It is right and proper (indeed inevitable) that we should look
at the past using those ideas that seem important to us politically:

ideas such as the struggle between classes; the possibility of
democracy; the mechanisms of oppression; the effect of the
economic structure and of power; the conditions of social
progress. But it would be both stupid and self-deluding, if we
employed those ideas to construct an account of the historical
past in which we refused to recognise unexpected or disagreeable
reality. The great revolution of 1789 put democracy and selfdetermination on the historical map in Europe. But it also threw
up dissension, civil war, Terror and a drastic set-back for the very
ideas of democracy and progress. Like much other history, when
considered coolly, as it ought to be by the Left, the Revolution
has to be not only an inspiring topic, but also a chastening one.

Noel Parker
Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989 1

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