The Practice of History

 Posted by on 1 April 2006 at 10:20 pm  Uncategorized
Apr 012006

Over the past few years, as any reader of NoodleFood knows, I’ve grown increasingly (if not fanatically) interested in history. Right now, I’m still working my way through ancient Greece, mostly focusing on the history, literature, and philosophy produced in that era. For the moment though, I’ve had to set aside those readings, as well as those on 20th century communism, due to the demands of graduate school. Hopefully this summer, I’ll be able to dive into the ten to fifteen books that I’d still like to read on communism, as well as some earlier Russian literature, that of Leo Tolstoy and Fodor Dostoyevsky in particular. (I’m actually listening to Anna Karenina now.) And once I finish my survey of ancient Greece, I’ll move onto ancient Rome.

In the meantime, I’m taking Scott Powell’s First History for Adults course. After four classes, I’m very impressed with his thoughtful and innovative approach to the teaching of history. So I have high hopes for the course as a whole.

Scott Powell’s basic method of teaching history is in the form of a “causally integrated narrative.” On that approach, history is a story of logically integrated facts. Since the basic purpose of studying history is to understand how the past changed into the present, facts are selected for that story based upon their impact upon the world.

Perhaps the closest I’ve seen to that approach in my readings of history is Tibor Szamuely, author of The Russian Tradition. He is a clear and engaging writer with a reasonably firm grasp of the way in which ideas move history. Toward the end of The Russian Tradition, in a chapter on “The Marxist-Populist Dialectic,” he has a delightful passage on the proper practice of history:

The history of the spread of Marxist and the growth of the Marxist movement in Russia has been described with a wealth of detail in a number of excellent specialist studies. The full story requires no re-telling. The historian’s difficulty here is caused, as so often happens, not by the dearth but by the over-abundance of historical material. History is not simply an agglomeration of data, and the historians task is not that of gathering as many facts on some given topic as he possibly can. The writing of history involves, above all, the art of selection. There is nothing invidious about this. ‘The historian is necessarily selective,’ as E. H. Carr pointed out in his 1961 McCaulay Lectures: every work of history, however limited the theme and comprehensive its treatment, is the protect of ineluctable selection. The historian alone must decide which of the mass of facts at his disposal merit inclusion in his story, and which (the vast majority) are to be discarded as insignificant. It is a question not of bias but of judgment.

The ‘pre-history’ of the Bolshevik Revolution offers relatively fewer problems in this respect than most other topics in modern history. The study of Russian Marxism has become a flourishing field of academic research for one reason only: because of its bearings upon 1917. Without the Russian revolution, these records would have remained to moulder untouched by human hand, never even achieving the status of historical facts. As with any historical experience, the growth of Russian Marxism was a multi-textured, complex process of intricate pattern. At the time it was impossible to foretell which line of development (if any) would emerge triumphant. The same considerations would apply, I imagine, to a study of the obscure doctrinal sects in the first-century Roman Palestine: apart from their role in the rise of Christianity they possess no intrinsic importance. Today we know which of the tortuous criss-crossing threats of Russian Marxism lead to the greatest revolution of our time. I therefore offer no apology for limiting my account to an analysis of that particular line of development.

(Please note that Dr. Szamuely is not saying that the Bolshevik Revolution was good in describing it as “the greatest revolution of our time.” He’s merely saying that it was important and momentous.)

At least in some general sense, a “causally integrated narrative” is the basic method of history advocated by Dr. Szamuely above — and practiced in The Russian Tradition. Consequently, that book is required reading, along with East Minus West = Zero: Russia’s Debt to the Western World, 862-1962, for anyone who wishes to understand why communism held Russia in a death-grip for so many decades, why Russia is slipping back into autocracy under Putin, and why business investment in Russia today is not even smart enough to be idiotic. Oh, and both books also explain why Ayn Rand hated Russia so very much — and why she was right to do so.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha