Postmodernists pilloried

19th September 1997 at 01:00
David Walker on a campaigning historian whose new critique lambasts many of his fellow practitioners.

A leading light of the younger generation of British historians will next week launch a "campaign for real history" intended to put the teaching and study of history back on an even keel after years of bitter controversy about subject matter and methods.

In a searing polemic entitled In Defence of History, Richard J Evans of Birkbeck College, London, argues that radical "postmodernists" - many of them American - have corrupted the discipline by denying the possibility that the past can be objectively studied and the truth about historical action uncovered. Some of these postmodernists have come very close to condoning those who deny such historical events as the Nazi Holocaust, he says.

Scholars and teachers are urged to leave behind approaches associated with the French writers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault and return to orthodox methods based on rigorous study of sources quarried from the archives.

But historians are also told to reject the conservatism of the late Sir Geoffrey Elton and his "harrumphing" about social, women's and working-class history. History is about much more than politics and elites. Modern history should rejoice in its diversity, provided it sticks to the pursuit of "how things essentially were" in the past.

Professor Evans, author of studies of 19th and 20th-century Germany, calls his new book a "polemic in favour of moderation". Its many targets may disagree. They include not just the postmodernists - Professor Evans deals savagely with the Belgian writer Paul de Man who after his death was unmasked as a wartime Nazi.

Marxist writers are criticised, too, as are historians of a Tory or British nationalist persuasion get it in the neck, among them John Vincent - the former Sun columnist and professor at Bristol University.

He gives short shrift to historians who try to prophesy, such as Arnold Toynbee, author of the multi-volume Study of History.

Professor Evans's critique will be read with extra interest because next year he is moving to one of the top academic positions in his field, the chair of modern history at Cambridge, where Sir Geoffrey Elton ruled the roost. Professor Evans is currently acting master of Birkbeck, "holding the fort", he says, until a permanent replacement is found for Baroness Blackstone, who left in May for a ministerial position in Tony Blair's government.

The Cambridge job is one Professor Evans is likely to hold for many years. He says he has no intention of founding a school but will continue to argue his conviction that history is a subject with its own "objective" base of knowledge and reputable methods based on the imaginative study of sources.

In Defence of History is intended to replace two textbooks on the nature of history which are still widely prescribed by history teachers. They are Elton's The Practice of History and E H Carr's What is History? "There is something rather strange about two books written more than 30 years ago still serving as basic introductions," Professor Evans says.

The Elton book is invalidated by its failure to come to terms with recent work in social history, its impatience with French work on the history of mind and culture as well as exciting work in the history of women and other groups conventionally ignored. E H Carr's value has been considerably lessened by the fact that, with the collapse of communism in 1989, his life's work as a historian - much of it is an apology for Stalinism - looks seriously flawed.

The eruption of "postmodernism" in history and other disciplines was valuable, Professor Evans argues, in focusing attention on the problem of how to read historical sources objectively. Postmodernists may also have been catalysts in encouraging historians to write more accessibly.

"Postmodernist history has breathed new life into some old and rather tired subjects like the history of royalty and the elites. A concern with gender and ethnicity, as aspects of social inequality which depend as least as much on constructions of identity as they do on real and identifiable physical characteristics, can only enrich a social history impoverished by restrictive concentration on class."

But he scorns the suggestion, from some postmodernists, that, since any one reading of historical sources is as good as the next, there is no such thing as a definitive account of what took place.

"In a number of cases political commitment, freed by postmodernist relativism from the shackles that normally bind historians to the facts has produced deeply flawed work which clearly distorts or misinterprets the source material in the service of present-day ideology."

The truth is indeed out there, Professor Evans writes. "It really happened and we can, if we are scrupulous and careful and self-critical, find out how it happened and reach some conclusions about what it all meant" In Defence of History, Granta Books Pounds 15.99

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