Popular history has been conquered by a complacent liberalism

Television history, in particular, has changed - and not always for the better.

Andrew Marr presenting "History of the World". Photograph: BBC

At the end of September, the BBC screened the first part of its eight-part History of the World, written and presented by Andrew Marr. Within days of the show’s first episode, another world historian, Eric Hobsbawm, died, at the age of 94. Although the proximity of the two events was coincidental, it did seem as if the baton was being passed from one public historian, keen to paint the “big picture” and with a taste for the grand sweep, to another.

However, a closer comparison of the two men reveals how far popular history has changed and not always for the better. For Marr’s series shows the extent to which the struggle to interpret our history has been won by a complacent liberalism. And victory has been rather easy, as many historians have simply refused to join the fight.

This is a triumph with serious consequences – especially for anyone trying to make sense of the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Our view of history shapes our attitude towards contemporary politics. Consciously or not, we are perpetually judging the present by the measure of the past. Once a particular “history” that supports the status quo becomes all-powerful, it is very difficult to make alternative political and economic solutions seem either plausible or necessary.

Hobsbawm and his generation of intellectuals were keenly aware of how damaging liberal complacency could be. In the 1920s, the postwar victors were convinced that they could impose the pre-1914 laissez-faire order without fully incorporating the working class – as if the First World War and the Russian Revolution had never happened. Hobsbawm, a teenager in 1930s Berlin, witnessed for himself the disastrous consequences of such conventional thinking – soaring unemployment, social breakdown and the rise of Nazism.

Yet after the Second World War the tables were turned. Now the western elite accepted that states had to control markets and improve workers’ lives. This analysis lay behind the grand social-democratic projects of the era – welfare states, the Bretton Woods system and the Marshall Plan. It also underpinned the “Marxist” history that dominated the postwar era: socio-economic forces were central; and educated experts, who understood those forces, could use reason and science to improve society and help the working classes.

However, just as Marxist-influenced history reached its high tide in the 1960s and 1970s, serious signs of decay had set in. For the convulsions of 1968 triggered a powerful – and in many ways justified – critique that left it looking deeply old-fashioned. The main target of the ’68-ers was the technocrat-worker alliance that characterised the era of social democracy. Scientists, the new radicals argued, far from being progressive, were apparatchiks of the military- industrial complex. As for the supposedly heroic working class, they had sold their souls to consumerism. History’s real heroes were the victims of cultural discrimination – whether ethnic minorities, colonised peoples, women or homosexuals.

This political sea change required an entirely new view of the past. With cultural identity now central, historians scrutinised subjective perceptions, not objective economic conditions. In the vanguard were Ranajit Guha and the “subaltern” historical school, who sought to rescue the cultures of the Indian poor for posterity; meanwhile, gender historians surveyed the many ways in which patriarchy shaped everything from progressive politics to the micro-power relations of everyday life.

This cultural turn was accompanied by an attack on notions of historical “progress”. Marxists were now lumped together with liberal “Whig” historians, such as Macaulay, as the false sirens of an Enlightenment that claimed “rationality” would make society more fair and free, when it often did the exact opposite. Newly fashionable “postmodernist” thinkers now saw progress as the highway to the Gulag and the death camp.

Postmodernists insisted that historians themselves, with their simple-minded “grand narratives” – whether “Whig” stories of progress towards liberal democracy and capitalism, or Marxist fables of progress towards communism – were contributing to this oppressive way of thinking. Historians had to avoid all grand theorising and concentrate on the marginalised and the powerless.

One casualty of this approach was economic history. Once the aristocracy of the profession, economic historians were now regarded as servants of hegemony. As free markets swept across the globe after 1989, there were even stronger reasons for historians – like most humanities academics, generally people of the left – to concentrate on the cultural sphere.

Hobsbawm represented all the postmodernists hated: the mandarin surveying the world from Olympian heights, uninterested in everyday life. Surely this was the attitude that led to grandiose projects of social engineering that caused the death of millions (not least in the Soviet Union, of which Hobsbawm was an unrepentant supporter)?

In somewhat diluted form, postmodernist ideas have reshaped both academic and popular history, and with many positive effects. In their insistence on the value of the experiences of ordinary people, such histories fit with a more democratic age. The recent BBC series presented by Pamela Cox, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, is an excellent example – giving us the real voices of the domestic servant class and driving a coach and horses through the Tory romanticism of Downton Abbey. These histories have also had a broader cultural effect, contributing to a growing intolerance of the abuse of power in ordinary life.

Necessary and important as these gains have been, the rejection of the most influential grand narratives has brought serious losses. In their abandonment of the big picture in favour of the fragment, academic historians have ceded the political high ground. And this crucial strategic space has been occupied by popular historians from the liberal centre and the right, such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts.

Until the 1980s, it was the right that was most suspicious of grand narratives, whether Marxist or Whig. For them, history was one damn thing after another, a long series of accidents and of great men making decisions; or, for a more “new-age” right, of randomly significant butterflies fluttering their wings in some corner of the globe or other.

Yet after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it suddenly seemed that history was going their way; the right embraced grand narratives with relish. In his history of the cold war, The Atlantic and its Enemies (2010), the Thatcherite Norman Stone shamefacedly admitted that he had ended up writing a Whig history of progress, even though he had spent much of his youth condemning the very idea.
 
And it is various forms of Whiggery that dominate our history today – whether propagated by those on the centre-right, such as Stone, or on the centre-left, such as Marr. Much of this is ideological rather than economic Whiggery: history is seen as a battle between liberalism and totalitarianism, and liberalism has won. The political theorist Francis Fukuyama put the argument most eloquently in his 1989 essay “The End of History?”. But it also underpinned some of the most popular histories of the early 21st century, including Simon Schama’s A History of Britain (2000-02).

We also see it in the widespread notion that Nazism and Stalinism were essentially the same – violently utopian ideologies created by dangerous anti-liberal intellectuals. We are still battling with their heirs, we are told, but the struggle will inevitably be won. This, in essence, was the history that George W Bush used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Economic Whiggery is equally influential, though it is more frequently peddled by science writers and economists than by historians. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) tells an optimistic story of the defeat of warrior values by a peaceable liberalism. More forthright is Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (2010). Yoking Darwinism to free market economics, it casts merchants as the main agents of progress in human history.

Ridley’s analysis is a cruder version of a fashionable “big history” that combines the insights of evolutionary science with praise for economic globalisation (though it tends to be much more pessimistic about its environmental consequences than Ridley is). In his History of the World, Marr has whipped up all these trends into a tasty dish, mixing evolutionary history with Whiggish enthusiasms about global trade and warnings about “utopian” ideologies, though marinated in a conservative pessimism about human nature and political improvement.

Marr’s series is expertly crafted and stimulating; but it rests on an unexamined assumption common to much popular history today: it assumes, as Margaret Thatcher once put it, that “there is no such thing as society”. Marr gives us evolutionary imperatives, economic forces, ideologies and great (or evil) men. But the social groups Hobsbawm saw as central to history are in the background.

The Marxists certainly saw these social groups in crude terms – the postmodernists rightly argued that history was not just driven by economic “classes” but by a range of different groups, in part founded on culture and identity. Even so, occupation is enormously important in creating those identities. To ignore that is to deprive ourselves of a powerful tool for understanding.

The violence of the 20th century was not primarily caused by the pursuit of illiberal utopias, nor by evil dictators. It was largely caused by struggles between groups – social, national and ethnic – over questions of hierarchy and equality. These were the battles that brought Hobsbawm and his fellow Berliners on to the streets.

We saw the consequences of this analytical failure in the incomprehension of commentators and policy-makers when confronted with the turmoil of the Arab spring. Having seen the Middle East as the site of a struggle between liberals and “totalitarian” Islamists, they were bewildered as conflict exploded between competing social and ethno-religious groups – poor Islamists, their more business-orientated co-religionists, leftist workers, cosmopolitan liberals, Shias, Sunnis and Christians.

It is no surprise that the left is not flourishing in this intellectual environment. For the left is primarily concerned with equality. And if social hierarchies and the struggles of social and ethnic groups to flatten or bolster them are airbrushed from the historical record, the left’s agenda appears wholly irrelevant.

But even more serious, perhaps, is the effect of Whiggish ideas of gradual progress on our understanding of the financial crisis. We are so used to thinking of history as a process of gradual improvement that we find it difficult to remember how suddenly world orders break down – as they did in 1918, the 1930s or the 1970s – and how radically our ideas have to change in response. Whig gradualism simply cannot prepare us for the very serious challenges ahead.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote that “life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward”. The British are right to value their historians, and the BBC should be investing in grand histories. Yet they have to choose the right ones. For bad history may be worse than no history at all.

David Priestland is the author of “Merchant, Soldier, Sage: a New History of Power” (Allen Lane, £20)