Political Dimensions of History

17 July 2014

Thursday


Leopold von Ranke (1795 - 1886)

Leopold von Ranke (1795 – 1886)

In George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four there occurs a well known passage that presents a frightening totalitarian vision of history:

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’, they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink’.”

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part One, Chapter 3

What Orwell called, “…an unending series of victories over your own memory,” is something anticipated by Nietzsche, who, however, placed it in the context of pride rather than dissimulation:

“I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually — memory yields.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, section 68

The phrase above identified as the “party slogan” — Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past — is often quoted out of context to give the misleading impression that this was asserted by Orwell as his own position. This is, rather, the Orwellian formulation of the Stalinist position. (Stalin reportedly hated both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.) The protagonist of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith, is himself part of the totalitarian machinery, rewriting past newspaper articles so that they conform to current party doctrine, and re-touching photographs to erase individuals who had fallen out of favor — both of which Stalin presided over in fact.

The idea that the control over history entails control over the future, and the control over history is a function of control in the present, constitutes a political dimension to history. Winston Churchill (who is said to have enjoyed Nineteen Eighty-Four as much as Stalin loathed it) himself came close to this when he said that, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” This political dimension to history is one of which Orwell and other authors have repeatedly made us aware. There is another political dimension to history that is more difficult to fully appreciate, because it requires much more knowledge of the past to understand.

More than mere knowledge of the past, which seems empirically unproblematic, it also requires an understanding of the theoretical context of historiography in order to fully appreciate the political dimension of history. The name of Leopold von Ranke is not well known outside historiography, but Ranke has had an enormous influence in historiography and this influence continues today even among those who have never heard his name. Here is the passage that made Ranke’s historiographical orientation — the idea of objective and neutral history that we all recognize today — the definitive expression of a tradition of historiographical thought:

“History has had assigned to it the office of judging the past and of instructing the account for the benefit of future ages. To show high offices the present work does not presume; it seeks only to show what actually happened.”

Leopold von Ranke, History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations

The deceptively simple phrase, what actually happened (in German: wie es eigentlich gewesen — became a slogan if not a rallying cry among historians. The whole of the growth of scientific historiography, to which I have referred in many recent posts — Scientific Historiography and the Future of Science and Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time among them — is entirely predicated upon the idea of showing what actually happened.

Sometimes, however, there is a dispute about what actually happened, and the historical record is incomplete or ambiguous, so that to get the whole story we must attempt to fill in the ellipses employing what R. G. Collingwood called the historical a priori imagination (cf. The A Priori Futurist Imagination). Historical extrapolation, placed in this Collingwoodian context, makes it clear that the differing ways in which the historical record is filled in and filled out is due to the use of different a priori principles of extrapolation.

I have noted that diachronic extrapolation is a particular problem in futurism, since it develops historical trends in isolation and thereby marginalizes the synchrony of events. So, too, diachronic extrapolation is a problem in historiography, as it fills in the ellipses of history by a straight-forward parsimonious extrapolation — as though one could unproblematically apply Ochkam’s razor to history. (The symmetry of diachronic extrapolation in history and futurism nicely reveals how futurism is the history of the future and history the futurism of the past.) The political dimension of history is one of the synchronic forces that represents interaction among contemporaneous events, and this is the dimension of history that is lost when we lose sight of contemporaneous events.

There were always contemporaneous socio-political conflicts that defined the terms and the parameters of past debates; in many cases, we have lost sight of these past political conflicts, and we read the record of the debate on a level of abstraction and generality that it did not have as it occurred. In a sense, we read a sanitized version of history — not purposefully santitized (although this is sometimes the case), not sanitized for propagandistic effect, but sanitized only due to our limited knowledge, our ignorance, our forgetfulness (at times, a Nietzschean forgetfulness).

Many historical conflicts that come down to us, while formulated in the most abstract and formal terms, were at the time political “hot button” issues. We remember the principles today, and sometimes we continue to debate them, but the local (if not provincial) political pressures that created these conflicts has often all but disappeared and considerable effort is required to return to these debates and to recover the motivating forces. I have noted in many posts that particular civilizations are associated with particular problem sets, and following the dissolution of a particular civilization, the problems, too, are not resolved but simply become irrelevant — as, for example, the Investiture Controversy, which was important to agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, but which has no parallel in industrial-technological civilization.

Some of these debates (like that of the Investiture Controversy) are fairly well known, and extensive scholarly research has gone into elucidating the political conflicts of the time that contributed to these debates. However, the fact that many of these past ideas — defunct ideas — are no longer relevant to the civilization in which we live makes is difficult to fully appreciate them as visceral motives in the conduct of public policy.

Among the most well-known examples of politicized historiography is what came to be called the Black Legend, which characterized the Spanish in the worst possible light. In fact, the Spanish were cruel and harsh masters, but that does not mean that every horrible thing said about them was true. But it is all too easy to believe the worst about people whom one has a reason to believe the worst, and to embroider stories with imagined details that become darker and more menacing over time. During the period of time in which the Black Legend originates, Spain was a world empire with no parallel, enforcing its writ in the New World, across Europe, and even in Asia (notably in the Philippines, named for Spanish Monarch Philip II). As the superpower of its day, Spain was inevitably going to be the target of smears, which only intensified as Spain become the leading Catholic power in the religious wars that so devastated Europe in the early modern period. Catholics called Protestants heretics, and Protestants called the Pope the Antichrist; in this context, political demonization was literal.

There are many Black Legends in history, often the result of conscious and purposeful propagandistic effort. There are also, it should be noted, white legends, also the work of intentional propaganda. White legends whitewash a chequered history — exactly the task that Stalin set for Soviet civilization and which Winston Smith undertook for Oceania.

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Philip II of Spain (1527-1598)

Philip II of Spain (1527-1598)

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Grand Strategy Annex

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