Arecent survey in the Times Literary Supplement suggested that the writing of history in England was on the verge of a renaissance. This is only another way of saying that the progress of British historiography in the last 100 years provides a spectacular case of arrested intellectual development, and conceptual poverty. British historians have largely remained impervious to the solutions put forward by Marxism, psycho-analysis and classical sociology. Or else they have only glimpsed them through the blurred light of caricature and vulgarization. Thus the ingrained assumptions of British historical method have never been thoroughly shaken. The force of outside pressure has resulted in a few tactical concessions—the economic ‘factor’ has been conceded as important, real motives, it is admitted, are not always the same as those professed, and lately there have been hints of an arranged marriage between history and sociology. But the structure has remained intact. The result is as weird as if a
The peculiar myopia of English historians goes back at least to the 1860’s and 1870’s, when history was first established as a subject worthy of academic study in English universities. At this time the main defining characteristic of academic history was a devout liberalism buttressed by a positivist methodology. The task of the historian in Ranke’s much quoted dictum, was ‘simply to show how it really was’—in other words to ascertain the facts. Historical facts were analogous to the facts of natural science: discrete, atomic and supremely indifferent to the position of the observer. What the natural scientist could reveal by the use of test-tube, microscope and experimental method, the historian could uncover through the use of archaeology, philology and painstaking textual criticism. Historians of the generation of Acton, Stubbs, Maitland, Gardiner and Bury undertook prodigious feats of factual production in the happy belief that soon all ‘facts’ would be uncovered and universal history would be completed.
In the original positivist programme, the collection of facts was to be followed by the framing of general laws comparable to those of Newtonian physics or, more relevantly, Darwinian biology. But the pronouncements of Comte were not greeted with enthusiasm by English historians, and Comte’s main English disciple, Buckle, was execrated by Acton ‘for submitting men and human actions to the crucible of induction’. Since, within the positivist framework, philosophy (and in particular the philosophy of history) was assumed to have been overthrown by natural science, therefore even ‘Positivism’ itself, in as much as it was a philosophy, could also be safely disregarded by British historians.
In place of dangerously speculative and scientifically unfounded general laws, the British historians substituted magisterial moral judgments. History, Thomas Arnold had stated in 1841, was a moral lesson. Over 50 years later, it was still possible for Acton to assert confidently that ‘the inflexible integrity of the moral code is to me the secret of the authority, the dignity and the utility of history’. Yet in some unresolved way history was also a science. History was a science because it was composed of ‘facts’. ‘Facts’ were events, and events resulted from the action of individuals producing them through the framework of institutions. All these were verifiable empirical realities, and once they had been established and confirmed, it was the task and duty of the historian to judge them. At its most elevated level therefore, history could attain the status of a scientific sermon.
It was probably for this reason that so much history was focused upon the Constitution and upon ‘great men’. For non-sensible realities like class, mode of production or politically and culturally determined
The positivistic adherence to the visible and immediately verifiable ‘facts’ of the past was reinforced by an almost unquestioned acceptance of the basic tenets of 19th-century English liberalism. Individuals were discrete, autonomous, and thus morally accountable for their actions. Superimposed upon this, were the optimistic assumptions implicit in the idea of progress. The central theme of history was seen to be the development of civil and religious liberty. This was fortunate, for England seemed to have been especially marked out by the hand of God for the execution of this divine mission. England’s gift to the world had been the English Constitution. Stubbs and Freeman, their vision unblurred by mountainous erudition, traced its origins back to ‘the dim recesses of German forests’. Gardiner and Macaulay carried its development through the ‘puritan revolution’ up to the ‘glorious revolution’ of 1688. Seeley argued its connection with the greatness of the British Empire and ordained its transmission throughout the globe. Of course Liberalism had no intrinsic relation to democracy—indeed it was predominantly hostile to it. This seriously disqualified the French Revolution which, in Lord Acton’s words, had sacrificed liberty to equality, and in which the absolutism of the king had been replaced by the absolutism of the assembly. Thus the torch of Liberty remained firmly in the grasp of the Anglo-Saxons.
This Podsnapian ensemble was well suited to the social function of the teaching of history in late Victorian England. History, according to Freeman, was ‘past politics’, because, as Seeley put it, history was ‘the school of statesmanship’. Statistically he was probably correct. By the first quarter of the century, it has been estimated that one third of the Oxford undergraduate population was reading history. Against a background of agricultural depression and the expansion of socially undemeaning posts in the imperialist administration, it is not surprising