Fact and Fiction

It has become something of a commonplace to comment that ‘history’ must be a strange discipline, since the same word is used to denominate both the process of enquiry and the object of that enquiry itself. Unfortunately, the observation usually stops there; ‘unfortunately’, because what is at stake here is no mere linguistic curiosity but a reflection of a real methodological muddle, of which the ‘fact or fiction’ debate can be seen as but one reflection.

Around what does the debate turn? Fundamentally, on whether there really exist in history such things as ‘facts’, and, if they do, whether historians can grasp them objectively as they are or not; whether, in other words, ‘history’ (which here let us read as ‘the past’) can be said to exist independently of the mind of the historian, or whether all ‘history’ (for which here let us read as ‘historical interpretation’) is mere ‘discourse’: rootless, contingent, subjective, and relative.

Posed this way, of course, it can be seen that the debate is not about history at all really, but is in fact that hoary philosophical chestnut of the existence (or otherwise) and knowability (or otherwise) of material reality: of whether material reality exists outside of human consciousness of it, and, if it does, to what degree human beings can come to a comprehension of it.

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‘We Still Have Much to Learn from the Seventeenth Century’

Following as it does from that of Rodney Hilton last June, the recent death of Christopher Hill at the age of 91 marks the passing of another important member of that remarkable levy of twentieth-century British Marxist Historians (prominent in whose ranks stand, amongst others, Maurice Dobb, Eric Hobsbawm, Victor Kiernan, George Rudé, Dorothy Thompson, E P Thompson, Raphael Samuel, John Saville and Raymond Williams). Hill, however, uniquely among this pantheon, was able to win an unprecedented hearing and an acceptance within mainstream academe on his own terms as a serious historian in his own right; unlike, for example, E P Thompson, who shunned the pursuit of academic glory, preferring in its place a lifelong commitment to active politics (for which he deservedly won the respect of generations of footsoldiers of the left), or Hobsbawm, whose florescent reputation these days is rather more of the Sunday-supplement variety. In fact, such was Hill’s mainstream prestige within British – or rather English – academia that his interpretation on his speciality subject – seventeenth-century England, or, to put it another away, the English Revolution and civil war – although not nowadays accepted as the near orthodoxy it once was, is still for many entering the fray of debate around this period a necessary starting point, even if a starting point from which to develop a critique. Thus any assessment that is drawn up of Hill’s intellectual career must take account of both of the elements that make up the double-handed adjective ‘Marxist historian’: how did Marxist theory affect Hill’s work, and to what degree was he as a historian successful in developing a Marxist account of English-British history within a non-Marxist, if not actively anti-Marxist, academic milieu?

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The Antinomies of Perry Anderson

The best way to describe my present thinking is to run through the sequence of events that have led me to be, intellectually speaking, where I am now.

At some point in the early 1990s I read Perry Anderson’s essay ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’. I can remember it having a profound effect on me. What Anderson had argued (the essay was written in 1964) was that, contrary to the accepted historical wisdom of both the right and the left, what typified British society was its relative backwardness—social, political, cultural—and what explained British backwardness was a premature and backward seventeenth-century bourgeois revolution. British historical development was, in this respect, cast as unique within Europe. Anderson followed ‘Origins’ in the 1960s with further essays pointing up the consequences of British cultural and political backwardness; along with essays by Tom Nairn pursuing a similar vein, their central conclusions are what has come to be known as the ‘Nairn-Anderson Theses’.

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Notes on the ‘Nairn-Anderson Theses’

What follows is an initial and provisional assessment of the strengths and weaknesses, ellipses and omissions, and contemporary relevance of the series of texts that have come to be known as the ‘Nairn-Anderson Theses’.

The key tenets of the ‘Theses’ in my view can be broken up into three essential themes.

1. An articulation of the notion of British ‘particularism’. Even though in the political tradition from which I come expressions of British particularism have been viewed as somewhat heretical, I think it is the case that without a very basic grasp of the fact that in certain fundamental historical respects Britain/England is ‘different’ (concretely, by way of contrast with Europe, and in particular with ‘western’ Europe) then one is faced with great difficulties in any attempt to unpick the root elements of present-day British reality and the essentially British historical process which underlies it. The problem faced by British socialists has never been the idea of British ‘particularism’ as such but rather that of British superiority: in the sense of both the concrete reality of the bourgeois society facing it, and in the way that the British left has in successive waves incorporated the reactionary assumptions behind the reality (Labourism; British Stalinism; Healy, Grant Cliff et al). But a British Marxism which rejects the notion of British particularism in  the name of a disavowal of British superiority will actually end up reinforcing the very idea of the latter: in much the same way as the ‘great-power’ internationalist’s disavowal of ‘narrow nationalism’ actually reinforces the chauvinism of the great power itself, or as the revolutionary syndicalist’s abstention from the political struggle actually reinforces the position of the bureaucrat.

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