Judging the Past: Can We Really Afford Not To?

University of Edinburgh historian Donald Bloxham has provided much food for thought in his recent article for the March edition of BBC History Magazine, entitled ‘Why History Must Take a Stance’. In it, he challenges the dogmatic insistence on neutrality that pervades the historical profession. Instead of feigning an unattainable neutrality, he argues, historians should take ownership of the judgements they make and the moral ‘prompts’ that they provide to their readers. Proclaiming neutrality is misleading, and possibly dangerous. I am inclined to agree.

Whilst neutrality is an honourable and necessary ambition for any historian, it is an ideal, and it is folly to suppose otherwise. No morally conscious human being can honestly claim to provide a totally neutral account of British imperialism, for instance. We tell a story in the way that we want to tell it, and there are plethora ways of telling that story, all of which have moral implications in the present. Language, as Bloxham observes, is a key factor. Can a historian who writes about the ‘exploitation’ and ‘subjugation’ of millions of human beings as a result of the Atlantic slave trade truly claim that they are providing a ‘neutral’ impression to their reader? These words carry weight, and rightly so. To talk about the past in totally neutral terms is not only impossible, but also heartless. The stories of the people whose lives were torn apart by past injustices deserve to be told, not only out of respect or disengaged interest but because they bear lessons that exert a tangible and morally didactic hold over us in the present.

The Lady of Justice statute outside the Old Baily. (Credit: Into the Blue)

That is not to say that historical writing should take the form of a moral invective, lambasting the behaviour of dead people whom we can no longer hold to account. Nor is it to argue that historical relativism is not a vitally important and foundational principle of the profession. What I am proposing, however, is that when Richard J. Evans claims, in his otherwise brilliant ‘In Defence of History’, that we should refute E.H. Carr’s argument – that the human cost of collectivisation in the USSR was a necessary evil – in the ‘historian’s way’, by undermining its ‘historical validity’, he seems to be suggesting that we are not doing so with a moral purpose in mind. Indeed, suggesting that the costs outweighed the benefits is itself a moral judgement, for is it not judging the value of people’s lives? Whilst Evans claims that it is the reader who must infer this conclusion, not the historian, his economic argument (that collectivisation was no more successful than the policies that preceded it) is surely intended to ‘prompt’ it.

Evans, like most people, clearly opposes the morality of Carr’s argument, and his way of communicating this is in the (highly effective) ‘historian’s way’. But his purpose nonetheless is to influence the opinion of his readers, not simply to fulfil the role of historical automaton, providing those readers with every fact under the sun. The process of omission and admission is one that, try as we may to temper it, will always involve some degree of value judgement about which facts matter for the purpose of our argument and which do not. Such a value judgement will inevitably, at times, operate on a moral criterion.

This debate may, as is often the case with those that take historiography as their subject, appear somewhat academic. In a world in which our history does so much to define the identities of (and relations between) ethnic, social, cultural and political groups, however, it is anything but. What we can call the ‘neutrality complex’ runs the risk of imbuing the historical profession and its practitioners with a sense of intellectual superiority, forgetting the political consequences of its output. One can find little fault in Bloxham’s assertion that certain histories carry less moral weight, and are therefore more conducive to neutral assessment, but subjects with as much emotional resonance as the history of slavery, the Holocaust or Mao’s Great Famine cannot but be judgemental in nature. 

‘Neutrality’ can be a mask for the covert projection of nefarious ideologies and interpretations. Presenting something simply as ‘fact’ is irresponsible and shows great ignorance of the moral dispositions that influence what we write and how we write it. There is space and need for some degree, however tentative, of self-acknowledged judgement in historical writing. We owe it to our audience to declare our judgement and to justify it. The crimes of imperialism, genocide and slavery are universally evil. The historian has a concern and a duty to show their audience why those that claim otherwise, who hyperinflate relativism and claim neutrality, are guilty both of intellectual hubris and moral cowardice.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer

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