Friday, October 30, 2009

Demanding a New British Foreign Policy

My article, "We Must Demand a New Foreign Policy", was published on The Guardian's website earlier this week.
The article set out to do three things:
First, to point out that at the next election the political system will not be offering us any alternative government that presents the clean break in UK foreign policy that the public desires, following the Blair-Bush years.
Second, to try and describe some of the main features of what a progressive transformation in Britain's relations with the rest of the world might look like.
Third, to encourage the public to get involved in activism that challenges current UK policy and aims to change it for the better.
You can read the article here.
Many comments were made by readers (I believe it was one of the top five most commented-upon pieces in the 24 hours it was prominent on the site, and the editors were kind enough to nominate it 'Thread of the Day'). Some of the input was good, some less so, as is always the way in these forums. One comment I thought particularly valuable was this from Paul Lambert in which he cites polling evidence backing up my point about the democratic deficit on foreign policy.
It was good to get the opportunity to publish in the Guardian and get some of these ideas out to a much wider audience than I get here (no offence to either of you, my faithful and valued readers). Hopefully this will be the shape of things to come.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Britain splits with Israel & US on Goldstone report

Its so rare that you see the British government standing up to Washington on any major foreign policy issue that when it happens its worth taking a look.

A UN report into Israel's recent assault on Gaza undertaken by Justice Richard Goldstone (who had served as the chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda), condemned both Israel and Hamas for committing war crimes during the conflict, but reserved its strongest criticism for Israel, accusing it of deliberately targeting and terrorising the civilian population of Gaza [Jamie Stern-Wiener provides a good summary of the report here].

Discussions are now ongoing at the United Nations to decide whether the UN Human Rights Council and the Security Council should endorse Goldstone's report (it has already been endorsed by leading human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch). If those UN bodies endorsed the report, they would also be endorsing its recommendation that should Hamas and Israel fail to conduct proper and thorough investigations into their alleged war crimes, both parties must then appear before the International Criminal Court to answer the charges there.

The administration of Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama leapt into action, pressuring UN members to vote against the report. Even the Palestinian delegation at the UN, led by the notoriously supine Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, was strongarmed by Washington into calling for a delay of any discussion of Goldstone's report. Palestinian society erupted in fury at this betrayal and, shaken by the extent to which his support base was evaporating, Abbas quickly backtracked.

Still the US and Israeli efforts to bury the report continue, and this is where the UK comes in. Britain plans, not to vote against the report alongside its American and Israeli allies, as one might expect, but to abstain, effectively lending tacit support to Goldstone's conclusions. Efforts by hard-right Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to reverse this decision are apparently being firmly rebuffed by London.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports:

"[A] conversation [between Netanyahu and] his British counterpart Gordon Brown, was said by a diplomat to have lasted 30 minutes. According to sources, the exchange was uneasy and full of disagreements. Netanyahu tried to convince Brown that the U.K. change its position from abstaining to opposing its adoption by the Human Rights Council.

Netanyahu also protested the fact that the U.K. supported taking the Goldstone Report seriously, and that Britain intends to abstain at the vote.
[Israeli] Minister of Defense Ehud Barak also spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton several times, asking her to act quickly in order to convince more countries to vote against the report's adoption. Clinton also focused her efforts on Britain, whose stance will affect that of other European Union countries.

Clinton asked British Foreign Minister David Miliband to alter his stance and vote against the adoption of the report. However, like Netanyahu, Clinton also failed to convince the British foreign minister.

Miliband explained that unless the report passes, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will suffer a serious political blow."

This last line is telling. We should be clear that Britain is not taking a moral but a pragmatic stance here. Britain has continued to arm and support Israel through all its worst atrocities, but while London's stance on the Israel-Palestine issue has often been grossly immoral, that does not mean it is necessarily misguided within the narrow terms of its own strategic goal (the service of Western power). Brown's government clearly understands that the West's best chance of getting the sort of peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians that it collectively favours - one in which the occupied Palestinians make all the substantive concessions and the Israeli occupier makes but a nominal few - is most likely to be delivered if the quisling Abbas remains at the helm. Another high-profile diplomatic defeat for the Palestinians would undermine Abbas further in the eyes of his own people, and perhaps pave the way for his being replaced by someone better able to stand up for Palestinian rights. Washington's zealous, reflexive support for Israel over the Goldstone report misses this broader picture, leaving it to London to spell out the point.

But there is a wider issue here, which explains why this development is still an important one. It is becoming increasingly clear to Western policymakers and opinion formers that siding wholly with an extreme right-wing and rejectionist Israel against the Palestinians is a major strategic error, damaging Western interests in the broader Middle East. The settlement of the Israeli Palestinian conflict by Israel's withdrawal to its legal borders, handing back the illegally occupied Palestinian lands of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip (the latter no longer colonised but still under a crippling siege), is widely known to be the only sustainable peace deal possible. I would prefer it if the West endorsed that conclusion from moral grounds, but if it happens as a result of a pure calculation of power-interest then at least the result for the people who matter - the long-suffering Palestinians - would be roughly the same. If a bit of pragmatism (albeit cynical) on the part of London can help that process along, then that would be something. Obama's involvement in the "peace process" (such as it is) has been lamentable so far, but London does at least formally understand that a settlement along Israel's the legal borders is the only game in town. Any sign that the West collectively may be able to wake up to the pragmatic if not the moral case for abandoning its historic rejection of that settlement is to be welcomed.
London would doubtless favour the weakest version of the two-state solution possible and Washington a version that was weaker still. But any realisation that these are the lines along which a settlement must come opens rhetorical and political space for ourselves in civil society to push for a solution that is genuinely fair. We have to be realistic about the limitations to any apparent moderation in Western support for Israel, but that does not mean being blind to the openings such moderation offers us in terms of making the case for a genuinely just settlement to the conflict and for an end to the oppression of the Palestinian people.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Incorporating Historical Scholarship into my PhD Research

The purpose of this paper is to discuss issues arising from my intended incorporation of elements of historical scholarship into my PhD dissertation. There are parts of my dissertation which, as currently envisaged, would in many respects be works of history as much as works of political science. This takes me into a new area of scholarship, and this paper is an account of my attempts to familiarise myself with the discipline of history, its background, and the theoretical debates that exist within it. This is a particularly valuable exercise since those theoretical debates have relevance to the entirety of my research project. I will survey these issues, engage with them, and identify my own initial position with regard to them at this stage of my research.
The research question for my PhD is, ‘how do concentrations of socio-economic power shape British foreign policy?’ To answer this question, I intend to begin by tracing the historical roots of the political economy of British foreign policy, narrating the rise and development of the various concentrations of power that influence policymaking in this area in the present day. I will do so on the basis that the current political economy of British foreign policy is the product of historical processes. Later on in the thesis, having mapped and analysed today’s foreign-policymaking network, I will conduct three contemporary case studies which show the network in action. These will, to an extent, be works of ‘contemporary history’ (defined as “writing about the recent past” (Gildea:xi)), in that the topics will be sets of recent events, where my aim will be to establish the facts (actions taken, policies adopted) and to construct a narrative that accurately presents the causes and effects of those events.
In short, though my PhD is a work of political science, I shall, in a significant part of my work, be acting like an historian. In doing so I will be extending myself beyond my field of immediate expertise and entering a realm of scholarship which, like political science, has its own landscape of theories, debates and practices. This paper represents the results of my attempts to introduce myself to this new terrain and to find an appropriate place within it from which to conduct the relevant parts of my current research project.
The paper will proceed as follows. After these introductory remarks, I will begin with a first section discussing the benefits that the use of historical scholarship can bring to my research. I will show how a broad array of both historians and politicians have signed up to the proposition that understanding the past is a precondition for understanding the present. I will talk about the benefits of adopting an interdisciplinary approach to the social sciences that incorporates an understanding of history, briefly mention the cognitive benefits of detachment and perspective that the use of historical context can bring to the study of current events. I will conclude this section by identifying some respects in which political science can benefit from an historian’s approach.
Next, I will set out a brief history of history as a scholarly discipline, describing some of the theoretical approaches that have arisen over the years and the challenges sometimes posed to them. Of these various approaches, it is historical materialism that has appeared, at the end of my initial research into this subject, to be the one most appropriate to my own work. I will therefore spend some time discussing this particular paradigm. I will note four senses in which historical materialism aligns well with my research: first, its explicit moral purpose; second, its focus on socio-economic class power and inequality; third, its theoretical account of the political economy; and fourth (and most pertinently for the purposes of this paper), the central role it gives to accounts of historical development in attempts to analyse the political economy of the present. Before concluding this section, I will discuss briefly how a fuller, nuanced and perhaps more evolved understanding of Marxist theory can be put to productive use in my work, and I will note the areas where I retain reservations and/or disagreements with this broad theoretical paradigm.
The clear political nature of Marxism raises questions about the role of partisanship in scholarly practice. I will make a few remarks about how I intend to retain both the scholarly integrity of my work and its ethical dimension. I will take this as an appropriate point to then introduce one of the most significant challenges to historical practice in general, including historical materialism, that has arisen in recent years: the post-modernist critique. I will use the debate around the points made by the post-modernist critics to further develop my ideas about the use of history.
Finally, I will sum up the topics covered in the paper and offer some tentative conclusions about how to proceed from here.
A health warning to round off these introductory remarks: the aim of this paper is to facilitate an initial exploration of issues that I will continue to deal with over the next four years of my PhD research: issues that are outwith what has hitherto been my range of academic expertise. Two differences therefore arise between this and other essays I have written.
First, to the extent that I have reached any conclusions, these are tentative and open to subsequent revision. Indeed in some instances, I believe it suffices to simply identify an issue, describe its nature and note the need to give the matter further thought. My current priority is to identify relevant issues and allow proper discussion of them, not to force conclusions when I can arrive at these later on, when I am better equipped to do so.
Secondly, as a result of this, I have allowed myself space in the paper to talk through the issues identified in as full and productive a way as possible, rather than constraining that process with unnecessary concision. I have, as always, imposed a deliberate focus and structure on the paper, and made every effort to avoid repetition and excessive verbiage. What I have not done is to strip what I have to say down to the bare bones, given that the aim is to explore issues fully rather than to convey conclusions succinctly. To the extent that any of the writing here makes its way into my final dissertation, it will of course be significantly abridged.
However, the main reason that I have in the event written a longer piece than I had planned at the outset is that I found, during my research into historical practice, that the relevance of the theoretical and philosophical issues that arose was by no means limited to the historical elements of my final dissertation. Rather, I found myself exploring debates that have direct relevance right across my research, and that both my current project and my future career as an academic will benefit from my having engaged with now. Hence this paper has become, in the context of this early stage of my PhD, a rather more important piece of work than I had originally envisaged.
How the past can inform us about the present – the historians’ consensus
It is common ground for historians that the events of history have a bearing on the world we live in today. This is not limited to recent history. Michael Grant felt moved in the introduction to his 1978 history of Rome to stress the relevance of that work by saying that “The past is deeply and unavoidably engrained in our own lives” (p2, Michael Grant, ‘The History of Rome’). A significant part of any attempt to understand today’s world must be an account of how the present came to be. Waters and Noiriel give as an example “[t]he socio-historian [who] tries to illuminate the historical dimension of the world we live in, the better to understand how the past weighs on the present. This approach is also valid for early periods. In all human societies, the past conditions the present”. (Waters & Noiriel:16). History then represents a valuable resource for those of us concerned with the state of today‘s world. “One of the key features of historical inquiry, it seems, is that whenever the contemporary world develops a fault, historians look to the past to seek its origins” (Black & MacRaild:54)
This view of history is particularly adhered to by the Marxist school of historical materialism. It is unsurprising therefore that, in his overview of the scholarly field, ‘On History’, the eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm frequently returns to the links between past and present that it is the task of historians to emphasise and investigate. For Hobsbawm, this fits squarely into the broader traditions of history as a scholarly discipline, Marxist or otherwise. “What can history tell us about contemporary society?”, Hobsbawm asks, going on to say that in asking this he is “ formulating a question which everybody is asking, and has always asked for as long as we have human records”. (Hobsbawm:32).

The question is a vital and immediate one, because “…the understanding of society requires an understanding of history…” (Hobsbawm:188). It is a “fact that understanding how the past has turned into the present helps us understand the present” (Hobsbawm:Hobs). “[W]hat history in the broadest sense is about [is to explain] how and why Homo sapiens got from the Palaeolithic to the nuclear era” (Hobsbawm:Hobs). History does not merely sit behind us in the past; it imposes itself on our present. In the here and now, we make our own history. However, we do so not as we choose, but “under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx, quoted by Hobsbawm:222).

The value of the past in attempts to explain the present is particularly notable in the case of Western imperialism and foreign policy. Many clearly agree with the idea that “[Historians] should try to promote reflection on the role of empire in defining the national identity, whether from a cultural, social, political or economic point of view” (Evans & Branche:163). Where disagreement arises is over the question of what our imperial past has to teach us about today’s political economy, especially in the realm of foreign affairs. For historians such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, the effects of British imperialism were broadly positive, the lesson being that the responsibility, as they see it, of spreading liberal values, free markets and democracy, should be taken up by today’s leading superpower, the United States of America (Evans & Branche:149; see also, Chibber). Others take a different view. Post-colonial and anti-imperialist scholars such as Rasheed Araeen, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Robert Young and Noam Chomsky have worked to place the contemporary world in the context of a historical narrative dominated by the Western imperialism. “The crux of their argument was that the structures of power derived from nineteenth-century imperialism remain the major determinant of the contemporary world, and that to be properly understood, all factors, whether race, class, economics, gender, sexuality or the nation state, must be analysed in the context of their relations with the colonial past” (Evans & Branche:149; Chomksy). The point here is that the major legacy of empire is the continuing denial of liberty to many people through various systems of coercion that have persisted from earlier centuries into the present day. My paper to this year’s Durham International Affairs Conference, in which I proposed a view of the contemporary world economy as in part bequeathed to us by the former British empire, including all the iniquities and problematic issues intrinsic to that system, fits broadly into this post/anti-colonial narrative (Wearing:2009).

How the past can inform us about the present – the politicians’ consensus

Given this broad agreement that the past has something to say about the present, it is entirely predictable that politicians of every stripe have attempted to influence perceptions of that relationship in their own specific contexts. Of course, both the Soviets and the Nazis made a point of rewriting history as a means to bolstering their own particular dogmas. (Black & MacRaild:11 & 72-75), but the practice is not limited to dictatorships. Politicians in liberal democracies have also, in their own ways, attempted to shape our understanding of what history should mean to us today.

One infamous example arose when the French National Assembly passed a private bill introduced by right-wing deputy Christian Vanneste, whose aim was to challenge colonial guilt with a renewed pride in France’s imperial past. Article four of the 23 February 2005 law stated that:
“University syllabuses must grant the place that it deserves to the history of France’s presence overseas, particularly in North Africa. School courses must … recognise the positive role played by the French presence overseas, particularly in North Africa, and must accord the prominent position that they merit to the history and sacrifices of members of the armed forces” (Evans & Branche:146)
Nicholas Sarkozy - then Minister of the Interior, now French President - was a strong supporter” of the 23 February Law, but the then President Jacques Chirac asked the Constitutional Council to rescind it, stating that, “[i]n a Republic there is no official history. It is not up to the law to write history. Writing history is the business of historians” (Evans & Branche:147)
An example arises closer to home. “Gordon Brown made a speech to the Fabian Society in January 2006 in which he argued that in the face of the challenges of globalisation and multiculturalism, there was even greater need for a British identity which must centre on the ‘golden thread’ of the ‘ideal of liberty’ which runs through British history from Magna Carta in 1215 to the 1689 Bill of Rights and the defeat of fascism in 1945” (Aglan & Gildea:181). It is notable that Brown here tacitly admits that our understanding of our nation’s history should be defined in some way by what is politically expedient. In any event, Brown here places himself squarely in the Whig tradition of British history which, as far back as the eighteenth century, portrayed Britain as the historic torch bearer of liberty at the vanguard of human progress.
These examples all suggest an understanding - broadly shared by politicians of varying political persuasions - that the image of their contemporary power is shaped by the popular understanding of the state’s historical record. It seems a fairly uncontroversial point that “[p]oliticians and leaders in any country… have a vested interest in the past. Whether driven by a self-serving or narcissistic desire to connect themselves to the glories of their predecessors in high office or by a need to revive and mould the national spirit, politicians use history.” (Black & MacRaild:12). The task of both the historian and the political scientist therefore must be to oversee these uses of history, and to intervene whenever the truth is being prevented from getting in the way of a good story.
The benefits of incorporating history – the interdisciplinary approach.
All this suggests some benefits to my research as a political scientist in finding ways to draw upon history. Social scientists focusing on my current topic of research, the influence of elites, have in the past done exactly this. Charles Tilly in his ‘As Sociology Meets History’ (1981) noted that one of the main areas of history that had become popular with sociologists was the structure of elites (cited in Black & MacRaild:130). John Scott’s ‘Who Rules Britain?’ (Scott) incorporates a detailed look at the evolution of the British ruling class over recent centuries. Given the overlap between the various scholarly disciplines, it is unsurprising to see it argued that “[s]ome of the most striking developments of socio-history in the last fifteen years have been in political science” (Waters & Noiriel:16), or that “[i]t is now impossible to pursue many activities of the social scientist in any but a trivial manner without coming to terms with social structure and its transformations: without the history of societies” (Hobsbawm:98).
The benefits of incorporating history – the cognitive benefits of detachment and context
Two further benefits can be gained from introducing elements of historical scholarship into political science research. One is the cognitive advantage of detachment. A political scientist studying phenomena within the society in which they themselves live is likely to find it more problematic to take a detached view of their subject matter than a historian studying, say, the ancient Greeks. One possible way to import a degree of the historian’s detachment into our analysis of the present is to attempt to think of the present in the context of the broader sweep of history, which may serve to refresh our analytical perspective on affairs with which we are familiar and perhaps even involved at some level or in some way.
To be more specific, take the example of comparative history; an approach which allows us to identify the common and the particular between two contemporaneous sets of historical events (Black & MacRaild:106). This principle can be adapted to two non-contemporaneous scenarios on an historical continuum. In my research, comparing present events or scenarios in British foreign policy with similar events and scenarios in the past may allow the possibility of illuminating those features of power and influence that are constant and which are characteristic of their particular time, thus enabling a deeper understanding of the current political economy of British foreign policy. The comparative approach may add some perspective, therefore, which might otherwise have been lacking.
The benefits of incorporating history - an empirical emphasis
A second benefit of importing history into political science research is to place a greater emphasis on analysing the particular rather than the universal, which necessarily requires one to incorporate the sort of factual documentation that is the bread and butter of historical practice. Whilst it is important to endeavour to establish, if we can, some broader truths about the socio-political world, it is often also important to gain an understanding of particular topics. This is true not least because as political scientists we are tasked with analysing issues that are ongoing and whose solutions we are uniquely placed to search for. Eric Herring points out that, when US and UK-backed sanctions claimed the lives of around a million Iraqis during the 1990s, half of them infant children, what both the Iraqi people and the British and American publics needed from political scientists was not more general theory but an attempt to establish empirically what was happening, to make some sense of it, and to communicate that analysis as widely as possible (Herring:106; see also, Pilger).
In the case of my current research project, my aim is not to theorise universal principles of elite capture of foreign policymaking in liberal democracies (though that would undoubtedly represent a vital piece of work) . Rather, my aim is to document and analyse a specific case. The reason for choosing such a project is that I see the elite capture of British foreign policy as a live issue with an attached human cost - not limited to the victims of the Iraq sanctions regime - that is current, ongoing and increasing. The task I have set myself therefore is to establish and explain the facts in respect of a current political issue, and it is a task I intend to perform in research projects subsequent to the present work. One might therefore say that I aim to write, as a political scientist, the second draft of history (if journalism is the first). Call it the historical approach to the study of contemporary politics.
The history of history
Just as we can enhance our understanding of elite influence over British foreign policy by tracing the history of its political economy, so we can understand something of the study of history by briefly recounting the development of the discipline over time.
In Europe, before the Enlightenment, representations of the past were often designed so as to reveal a divine hand at work, with “[p]rovidence and God’s role [being portrayed as] the organising themes of historical development” (Black & MacRaild:53 & 31-32). From the eighteenth century, the philosophy of the Enlightenment encouraged the grounding of scholarship strictly in terms of empirical fact (Black & MacRaild:34-6). A form of providence did however continue to play an explanatory role in subsequent years, with the role of God replaced by the role of Western Civilisation. In Britain, “The Whig interpretation [of history], most famously expounded by Lord Macaulay, held that the history of Britain since the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 had been the story of continuous progress, the bedrocks of which were constitutional monarchy, parliamentary government, Protestantism, tolerance, freedom and liberty. Moreover, these values were seen, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to define British history as different from that of those continental countries where Catholicism and absolutism were believed to hold firm. The key emphases of the Whig view were British distinctiveness and British progress” (Black & MacRaild:6). Similar views are not unknown today.

Challenges began to arise to the established mode of history as being one of a narrative of events occurring at the level of high-politics and starring the major political, martial and monarchical characters of the day. Two of these in particular are worth mentioning. First, the ‘historical materialism’ of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels threatened the aristocratic subjects of the old history with a new narrative, one focusing on the underlying socio-economic structures rather than the deeds of great men, and one which seemed to predict a new egalitarian political order emerging through the observable evolution of those structures. I will discuss this in greater detail in the next section. Then, in early twentieth century France, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre founded the Annales school as a reaction to the historiographical traditions of the nineteenth century, stressing the importance of social structures over the actions of individuals, of understanding the mentalities of the past, and of drawing upon the insights of other disciplines in the social sciences (Black & MacRaild:68-71 & 80-81).
Generally speaking, the Annales and Marxist schools exerted increasing influence over the study of history during the twentieth century (the latter amongst Marxists and non-Marxists alike) even as they evolved over the course of that time. It was towards the end of the twentieth century that the latest and perhaps the most fundamental challenge to history as a discipline was mounted, this time by the post-modernists. They argued that, while the study of history purports to be an objective and rational attempt to establish the truth of past events, in reality it has been hopelessly biased by the preconceptions and ideologies of historians themselves. And since those historians have largely been members of social elites, ‘objective’ historical truth has often been little more than an ideological construct, created in the service of privilege. I will return to the postmodernist critique of history later on in his paper.
This short run through the development of the study of history over the past thousand years is, obviously, far from complete. It does however highlight some of the broad trends at work and some of the theoretical issues that my own research is likely to encounter. I will now go on to explore some of these issues in greater detail, starting with a discussion of my preferred paradigm of historical study: historical materialism.
Choosing historical materialism
Of the various approaches and theoretical paradigms I have come across in my reading on this subject, it seems that historical materialism aligns most closely with the aims and assumptions of my research.
The materialist conception of history does not begin with Karl Marx. The fourteenth century scholar Ibn Khaldun described his own view of history, as:
“the record of human society, or world civilisation; of the changes that take place in the nature of that society…; of revolutions and uprisings by one set of people against another, with the resulting kingdoms and states with their various ranks; of the different activities and occupations of men, whether for gaining their livelihood or in various sciences and crafts; and in general, of all the transformations that society undergoes by its very nature” (Hobsbawm:x)
Today, following Marx’s writings, historical materialism can be defined as “the contention that the development of the economy is central to historical development” and all the conflicts and contradictions that this developmental process involves (Black & MacRaild:57). There are four key senses in which this approach aligns with my own work: its moral focus, its concern with class inequality, its theoretical account of political economy, and in the view that political economy can best be understood in the context of historical processes. I will discuss each of these in turn.
Why historical materialism? - Moral focus
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels formulated their theories of politics, economics and history in direct response to the social iniquities of nineteenth century Europe. Their goal was not to reach an understanding the political economy of the time simply as an end in itself. Rather, this understanding would have a specific utility: informing efforts to effect social change. For them “[t]he social sciences [were] essentially ‘applied sciences’ designed, to use Marx’s phrase, to change the world and not merely to interpret it” (Hobsbawm:178). This has been the motivation for Marxist historians ever since. Hobsbawm says that his own work is “concerned with the uses, and abuses, of history in both society and politics, and with the understanding and, I hope, reshaping of the world” (Hobsbawm:vii). The proposition that scholars should seek not merely to interpret the world but to change it inevitably raises the issue of partisanship, a topic to which I will return presently.
Why historical materialism? - Focus on class inequality
My research focuses on a key theme of historical materialism - the politics of socio-economic power distribution. “For most of history the basic mechanism for economic growth has been the appropriation of the social surplus generated by man’s capacity to produce by minorities of one kind or another…” (Hobsbawm:43). In other words, economic development over time has produced acquisitive, exploitative elites, wielding a disproportionate amount of socio-political power.
In my Durham paper I argued that we should not merely see the international world as split vertically, between states, but also as divided horizontally, between classes, with the elites in different states often cooperating to maintain an international economic system that they saw as mutually beneficial. To illustrate the point, we might recall the references made by English radicals of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries to the ‘Norman Yoke’ and to themselves as ‘Free Anglo-Saxons’, as an explanatory device for domestic class relations (Hobsbawm:21). The colonial analogy illuminates the role that class plays across the international scene, at home and abroad. The ‘Norman Yoke’ was, at this time, also being imposed on imperial subjects from Jamaica to India, but many in Britain evidently felt just as subjugated by the same imperial power. The imperialism of class as well as of state is a concept that is central to my research, just as it is central to historical materialism.
Why historical materialism? – the theoretical account of political economy
In simplified terms, the Marxist account of political economy describes society as comprising of a ‘base’ - consisting of the relations of economic production - and a ‘superstructure’ - consisting of politics, civil society and culture. Marx described the concept as follows:
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relationships, which are independent of their will, namely, relations of production. The totality of the relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but their social existence that determines their consciousness” (Marx, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, 1859, quoted in Black & MacRaild:134-5).
This theoretical paradigm has, to the extent that one agrees with it, implications for the way research should be organised. Hobsbawm lays out three key factors to writing a materialist history of a given society. These are:
(1) setting out the chronological sequence of actual events;
(2) establishing units of analysis that can be adequately defined (e.g. the British foreign policymaking class); and
(3) organising analysis through, “if not a formalized and elaborate model of [social] structures, then at least an approximate order of research priorities and a working assumption about what constitutes the central nexus or complex of connections of our subject” (e.g. class, wealth, political power) (Hobsbawm:105-7)
Under the theoretical model in (3), we start by establishing the “material and historical environment“, then the “forces and techniques of production“, then the “consequent economy”, and finally the “institutions and the image of society”. “[E]conomic movements [are] the backbone of such an analysis” (Hobsbawm:107).

This was the basis of “[the] famous three-part or three-stage plan which organised so many theses between the 1950s and 1970s: first the economy, then society and finally politics. According to this plan the analysis of struggles for and exercise of political power was always left to the third part, alongside ‘culture’ and ‘mentalities’”. (Waters & Noiriel:13)
This aligns with the basic theoretical description of political economy set out in my original PhD proposal. There, having noted that in his standard public policy textbook, Peter John had described “the five principal factors in policy-making [as being] institutions, groups and networks, socio-economic factors, rational decision-making, and ideas” (John), I went on to say how I saw these elements fitting together.
“In my view, socio-economic factors – the interests of power – are the principal forces at work. The landscape of institutions, groups and networks broadly reflects the spread and location of socio-economic power (national and international), and embeds the influence of power in the decision making process. This results in an environment where ideas must pass through a process of “natural selection” governed principally by what serves power rather than what is justifiable in moral/philosophical terms”. (Wearing:2008)
Why historical materialism? – the context of historical development
A fourth respect in which historical materialism aligns with my own ideas is in its stress on history as a developmental process, under which the political economy, as theorised above, evolves and changes shape. Just as the base defines the superstructure, with economic conditions defining and shaping political relations, so changes in relations of production over time produce corresponding changes in the political, social and cultural world.
In this respect, the roots of historical materialism can be traced back to the Enlightenment and to the work of Adam Smith. After all, “history and economics grew up together … the Scottish thinkers who contributed so much to the discipline refused to isolate economics from the rest of the historical transformation of society in which they saw themselves engaged” (Hobsbawm:129). Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’
“provided a study of economic development - what Marx called inquiry into the nature of wealth. With Smith, we can argue, began the discipline which became known as political economy. From this basis, political economy developed into the modern discipline of economics, from which in turn economic history splintered. The so-called Scottish School, of which Smith was a part, provided what Christopher Lloyd in ‘The Structures of History’(1993) called an ‘embryonic historical materialism’ (the contention that the development of the economy is central to historical development) with which to frame the nature of social change” (Black & MacRaild:57)
Marx of course had his own distinct take on how these historical processes played themselves out. Central to the evolution of political economy, as Marx saw it, was the dynamic produced by tension between the various component parts:

“…Marx holds not just that the mode of production is primary and that the superstructure must in some sense conform to ‘the essential distinctions among human beings’ which it entails (that is the social relations of production), but also that there is an inevitable evolutionary trend for the material productive forces of society to develop, and thus come into contradiction with the existing productive relationships and their relatively inflexible superstructural expressions, which then have to give way”. (Hobsbawm:215)
Historical Materialism – noting complexities
Plainly there is more to historical materialism than can be conveyed within the confines of these remarks. I have emphasised so far the defining role that economic relations play in social change under the Marxist paradigm. However, “Marx and Engels…never intended a unilinear and monocausal conception of history to be their epitaph”. In 1890, Engels said (in a letter to Ernst Bloch) that “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger writers sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to empathise this main principle in opposition to our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in the interaction to come into their rights….The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure … also exercise their influence upon the course of historical struggles”. (Black & MacRaild:135-6)
In my PhD proposal I was keen to stress that my own theoretical outlook allowed for a similar level of complexity, and that my emphasis on material socio-economic power was intended to be a case of prioritisation rather than reductionism. I said:
“Clearly the flow [of influence] is not of a unidirectional, downward nature: from socio-economic power, through institutions, groups and networks, to ideas and finally to rational decision-making. Feedback will also take place, … in terms of the self-reinforcing nature of discourse and ideology; and also, for example, in terms of how policy decisions come back to shape the landscape of institutions, groups and networks and even the balance of socio-economic power itself. But while the system I describe is fluid horizontally and vertically, it is socio-economic power that is in the position of privilege, shaping the overall dynamic to serve its interests.” (Wearing:2008)
Marxism and historical materialism continued to remain live and developing areas of enquiry long after the deaths of Marx and Engels, and later contributions to the tradition served to broaden and deepen its scope. Many who have built on the work of Marx, such as Antonio Gramsci, have “underlined the absolutely essential connection between the world of ideas and feelings and the economic base, if you like, the way in which people get their living in production. …[A]fter all the Marxist model of base and superstructure, whatever you may think of it, implies a consideration of superstructure as well as base, that is, the importance of ideas. It is not widely recognised that in the discussion of the seventeenth century English Revolution it was Marxists like Christopher Hill who constantly insisted against pure economic determinists on the importance of Puritanism, as something that people believed in, and not simply a kind of froth on the top of class structures or economic movements.” (Hobsbawm:242)
Historical Materialism – noting reservations
A further note of caution or clarification should be sounded at this point. Though it seems very likely that my research, particularly the historical parts, will be influenced by historical materialism, that does not imply a rigid or unquestioning adherence to its principles. In any event, I expect other sets of ideas to inform my thinking. And in respect of historical materialism, I intend as my work and ideas develop to explore a number of reservations that I have over Marxist theory as I understand it at this stage. For now, I believe it will suffice to make brief note of those reservations.
The first is in respect of class antagonism, one of the driving forces of social change under historical materialism. This stresses the self interest of certain groups, but I do not believe that human beings act from self-interest alone. Indeed, neither Marx nor Engels themselves were members of the class whose liberation they sought, and nor were any number of other figures in history, known and unknown, who took up the struggle against class privilege and economic exploitation. I understand that Adam Smith stressed the human capacity for sympathy for others as the defining part of our moral character, and I should like to investigate this and other writings on human motivation before arriving at any conclusions on this part of Marx’s theory. It is possible that my reservations can be reconciled within a nuanced version of that theory, or put aside as my understanding of the theory becomes deeper and more sophisticated, but this is a question that will require further work on my part before I am able to answer it.
Another reservation I hold at this stage concerns the extent to which we can extrapolate from the historical materialist version of economic development to predict the course that the political economy will take in the future. I remain wary of the predictive power of theory in social science, whatever the theory might be, and the question does apply here. Marx seems to be understood in popular discourse as someone who predicted a socialist utopia, and is discredited by the fact that this utopia either did not emerge or, when efforts were made to create it, turned into a nightmare more often than not. My research so far has suggested that Marxism is rather more nuanced and complex than my own preconceptions allowed, so I am open to the possibility that this may be more caricature than accurate characterisation. But again, I will have to find this out through further research.
That said, the question may be of marginal relevance, since my approach to history for the purposes of my current research will be non-teleological. That is, I will not describe a progression of historical stages that is directed or necessarily heading toward a final future result. Rather, I will describe no more than the evolutionary processes that have led us to the present, and not then extrapolate in order to predict where those processes might lead. Indeed, the question of prediction may be of secondary relevance even to historical materialists. As Hobsbawm says:
“The purpose of tracing the historical evolution of humanity is not to foresee what will happen in future, even though historical knowledge and understanding are essential to anyone who wants to base their actions and plans on something better than clairvoyance, astrology or just plain voluntarism . The only result of a horse-race which historians can tell us with absolute confidence is one that has already been run. Still less is it to discover or devise legitimations for our hopes - or fears - for human destiny. History is not secular eschatology, whether we conceive its objective as unending universal progress or a communist society or whatever. These are things we read into it, but cannot derive from it. What it can do is to discover the patterns and mechanisms of historical change in general, and more particularly of the transformations of human societies during the past few centuries of dramatically accelerated and widened change. This, rather than forecasts or hopes, is what is directly relevant to contemporary society and its prospects”. (Hobsbawm:40-1)
A final note of caution concerns the ever-present danger facing all historians, but historical materialists in particular since they seek to study the past so as to better understand the present. That is, ‘anachronism’: “the imposition of contemporary ideas and agendas upon the past” (Black & MacRaild:117). Avoiding anachronism can involve a tricky balancing act. Black and MacRaild point out the importance of charting a course between anachronism and historicism.
“If, on the one hand, we adopt a present-minded stance in our approach, we risk overplaying continuities, or indeed manufacturing continuities, between us and the past which do not actually exist. If, on the other hand, we adopt an historicist position, or posit the hermetically sealed epochal approach to history…., we risk removing any thread which might connect our past and present. This notion of time, of change and continuity, or similarity and difference, is the hardest balance to achieve; yet it is central to our understanding of the nature of history and the dynamics of social developments” (Black & MacRaild:18)
These are important points to keep in mind as I analyse how the past has shaped the present.
The challenge of partisanship
The clear moral and political motivation for Marxist scholars (a motivation I share, though I would still hestiate to call myself a Marxist) raises the question of partisanship, and the compromising effect this may have on scholarship.
The key point here is that our political and moral beliefs as scholars should influence our choice of topic, but not our treatment of it. In terms of our choice of topic, political partisanship can be positively beneficial in opening up fields of enquiry that might otherwise have remained neglected. Indeed, we might speculate about the state any given field would soon find itself in without such contributions. In terms of our treatment of our chosen topic, there are rules of scholarship that must be followed by all, regardless of political persuasion.
“[P]artisanship in science [in the broadest scholarly sense of the term] rests on disagreement not about verified facts, but about their selection and combination, and about what may be inferred from them. It takes for granted non-controversial procedures about verifying and falsifying evidence, and non-controversial procedures of argument about it …In short, for everyone engaged in scientific discourse, statements must be subject to validation by methods and criteria which are, in principle, not subject to partisanship, whatever their ideological consequences, and however motivated”. (Hobsbawm:166 & 169)
The bottom line is that whatever our political and moral standpoint, whatever our research interests, the truth is the truth, and cannot be subject to political expediency
The challenge of post modernism
The view that scholarship has the means to brush subjectivity aside and produce a reliable, even a definitive account of the past, is roundly rejected by the post-modernist critics of historical practice. The post-modernist critique represents the major challenge to the study of history in recent decades, and it comes from the political left. For those reasons, the analysis it offers is something that I must engage with, understand and form a view on before I can proceed further. This section represents my initial attempts to do this, though further work may well follow. An additional benefit is that this gives me a chance to develop further my ideas about the possibilities offered to me by the study of history.
The post-modernist critique of history is essentially that what purports to be an objective and rational attempt to establish the truth of past events is in reality hopelessly biased by the preconceptions and ideologies of historians themselves. Furthermore, since those historians have largely been members of social elites, ‘objective’ historical truth has often been little more than an ideological construct, created in the service of privilege. Central to the postmodernist critique is the idea that narrative form is imposed on historical events essentially by the subjective imagination of historians, rendering such narratives little more than works of fiction.
For the postmodernists,
“[t]here could be no objective or definitive account of history. Everything was relative: each culture had its own story and one story was as valid as another. Indeed, the ‘definitive’ interpretation laid claim to by established academics could easily be dismissed as imperialist, sexist and bourgeois. It did not give voice to women or black people, to gay people or slaves, and the accounts of these minorities, systematically ignored or censored, must now be privileged” (Gildea:xxii)
The end result is that “there is no such thing as historical reality, only texts representing it, and that each account is as valid as any other.” (Gildea & Schaub:96)
The observation that historical narratives purporting to be objective and accurate have often in reality been distorted by the ideology of historians is one that is hardly controversial. Take the Whig version of history, most popular in the nineteenth century during the era of British imperialism, but retaining some currency and alluded to by the present Prime Minister Gordon Brown, as mentioned above. According to the Whig account, “the history of Britain since the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 had been the story of continuous progress, the bedrocks of which were constitutional monarchy, parliamentary government, Protestantism, tolerance, freedom and liberty”. One can see why Whig historians such as Lord Macaulay would want to believe that the Britain that had treated them so well was in fact the best of all possible worlds. But, perhaps as a result of their subjective standpoint, they had produced what could legitimately be described as a form of fiction. Take the ‘Glorious Revolution’ which, far from being an showcase of consensual continuity in the advance of liberalism, was a coup d’etat which, most notably in Scotland and Ireland, had to be enforced through violence. It “led not only to civil war, a War of British Succession (1689-92), and major constitutional changes, but also to a new established church in Scotland and the violent destruction of the Catholic Church and degradation of the position of Catholics in Ireland” (Black & MacRaild:8)
However, the point here is that we are able to expose ideologically distorted history as such precisely because we often know what the real facts are. We know the War of British Succession took place, just as we know that Germany lost the Second World War and that Elvis Presley is deceased. Objective truth is discernable. There are, as I noted in the above section on partisanship, established methods in scholarship for ascertaining what is truth, what is uncertain and what is fiction, which methods, it must be said, place a heavy burden of proof upon any statement that purports to be true. To say that such efforts are often compromised, or may fail, is obvious to the point of banality. To leap from this to say they are intrinsically hopeless, is quite different.
The post-modernist claim to offer a liberatory discourse, wherein white, male, imperialist claims to objectivity are put aside in favour of a plethora of narratives, all with equal validity, concerns me in particular, as someone who is motivated to study my chosen subject precisely because of a concern for the victims of British foreign policy in the developing world. Here, while I accept that further reading may well be required, I hold strong reservations about the post-modernist position, based on my initial understanding.
In my view, there is a serious danger in implying that each history is no more than a subjective viewpoint as valid as any other. These are not principles, presumably, that we would wish to see applied to holocaust studies, for example, with the works of David Irvine brought to equivalence with the objectively real experiences of the Nazis’ victims. It is hard to see what could be liberating about a discourse that relegates one of the few emancipatory assets that the victims of history have at their disposal - namely the truth - to the level of one fiction amongst many. A far better course of action would be to strive for an ever more comprehensive understanding of history by bringing in the experiences and contributions of all those groups and individuals excluded by previous, elite-dominated accounts. To do anything other than to insist on “the past as extra-textual reality” (Richard Evans, Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, quoted by Gildea:xxiv) is, as far as I can see, not only to dishonour the marginalised and oppressed, but to betray the moral responsibilities of social science scholarship.
How accurate is the view of history presented by the post-modernist critics in any event? “[M]ost historians would…agree that too many post-modernist criticisms of history are based on old-fashioned, stereotypical images of how historians work. In fact, the rise of Marxism, the Annales, and gender, social and cultural history have long since consigned the over-confident, narrow, male-centred and political focus of much nineteenth-century historical writing to the margins of what is now a wider and more vibrant discipline.” (Black & MacRaild:163).
In fact, scholars as far back as Hume, Macaulay and Burckhardt “respectively, challenged grand narrative, wrote about cultural factors in a vibrant fashion, and investigated symbolic order. None of these writers propounded the view that history was of fixed and singular meaning”. (Black & MacRaild:163).
One could present a strong argument that the postmodernists’ account of history is itself a work of fiction, imposed on the reality of historical study by the preconceptions and ideology of the critics. Of course, the alternative to this is that the postmodernist critique is rational and objectively accurate, a notion surely so naïve that the postmodernists would feel bound to reject it.
A final and rather more fundamental point is this. Society does not have the luxury of being able to view political events as abstractions. There is no available alternative to our living in the present, which in turn gives us no alternative to endeavouring to understand the nature of the world around us. The task then for scholars of politics is to make sense of the world as best we can, whatever limitations are placed by circumstance on our ability to do so. Contrary to the post-modernist critique, historical practice seems well equipped to negotiate those limitations and provide us with a workable understanding of the past. And crucially from my point of view, this includes attempts from the left to challenge versions of history that privilege elite interests and marginalise less powerful groups.
Ultimately, I may have to accept that if the postmodernists are right then my approach is fatally undermined. The existence of objective truth, and the view that it can be discerned to a meaningful if often incomplete extent, is central to my theoretical and indeed my moral approach. The views expressed here on the post-modernist critique are the results of initial readings. The critique offers a high-profile challenge to my outlook and further investigation may well be warranted. But at this stage, I remain unconvinced.
A number of benefits arise from my research into the study of history. These are:
• A deeper understanding of how an account of the history of British foreign policymaking can inform my analysis of its current political economy;
• An understanding of the benefits of extending my research beyond the confines of political science;
• An understanding of the different approaches to history that exist, and the ability to make an informed choice about which approach is relevant to me; and
• The opportunity to identify and consider any challenges to or problems with my chosen theoretical paradigm.
The opportunity to engage with these issues in depth, as I have done here, will I believe enrich the quality of my research project, particularly in terms of those elements of it where historical practices come most to the fore, but also in terms of my understanding of broader theoretical issues that have relevance across my research project.
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