The Magazine

Onward and Upward

‘The Whig Interpretation of History.’

Oct 18, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 05 • By EDWARD SHORT
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For Namier, this would have been proof positive that his materialist reading of history was not only right but incontestably right. The Christian missionaries in India, whom the Anglican clergyman Sydney Smith took seriously enough to attack in the pages of the Edinburgh Review as “insane and ungovernable,” were never given even so much as a nod in Namier’s astringent calculus.

Namier was a fascinating figure. Born Ludwik Bernstein in Poland in 1888 to Jewish parents who converted to Roman Catholicism, he spent a year at the London School of Economics before taking a first in modern history at Balliol College, Oxford. Then he took a post with one of his father’s business partners in America, where he began researching the 18th-century House of Commons that would become his major historical focus. When he returned to England, he worked in the Foreign Office from 1915 to 1920 in its political intelligence department, taking a particular interest in the resolution of Polish affairs at the Treaty of Versailles. During 1920-21 he worked as a tutor at Balliol, which only intensified his infatuation with the English ruling class: “All I’ve done,” he later admitted, “I owe to Balliol.”

To gain some financial independence, he left Balliol and became the European representative of a firm of Manchester cotton manufacturers; he also became a caustic journalist in the Manchester Guardian. From 1924 to 1930 he completed the two groundbreaking works that made his reputation, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929) and England in the Age of the American Revolution (1930). 

Bentley nicely captures their unsettling impact:

The tale, such as it was, was emphatically not one told by idiots, but the whole signified something close to nothing. It did so still more obnoxiously if one began with the view that history had to be conceived as a humanizing subject that laid the foundations among young people for an appreciation of citizenship and its obligations. Butterfield stood among those who wanted to see the study of eighteenth-century history function as a form of “political education.” To accomplish that objective it had to show statesmen to be better than crooks and wastrels, and to provide a story whose denouements would reveal improvement even when leadership had proved lacking. 

Throughout the 1930s Namier was a strong supporter of the anti-appeasement positions of Winston Churchill, and he became adviser to Chaim Weizmann, though he later repudiated Zionism as ineffectual. From 1931 until 1953 he held the chair of modern history at the University of Manchester, and in 1946 published what is probably his best book, 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals. The last nine years of his life, despite his growing deafness, he dedicated to an official history of Parliament, which exemplified his meticulous, static approach to the past. 

According to his research assistant John Brooke, Namier was convinced that “the reasons men give for their actions are rationalizations designed to cloak their deeper purposes,” which led him “to distrust ideas as the explanation of historical movements and to stress the determinism underlying history.” Accordingly, for Namier, Edmund Burke’s political philosophy was so much “cant.” Yet Burke’s understanding of history, which consisted, as he said, “of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites,” had more in common with Namier’s than is perhaps often realized. In all events, A. J. P. Taylor, who taught with Namier at Manchester, was not being entirely facetious when he said that his friend had taken the mind out of history. Still, if Namier was adamant about excluding philosophical thought from his pages, he never stooped to using history to advance the interests of Soviet Marxism, as the fellow-traveling Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and E. P. Thompson did. 

Nor was his distrust of ideas as unreasonable as it may sound. As J. L. Talmon pointed out, “Far from denying the potency of political and social ideologies, [Namier] was frightened by their power to disturb, and he was inclined to regard them as the neurotic symptoms of a society, as traumatic visitations.” Those who have lived to see multiculturalism and political correctness addle whole swaths of American and European public opinion can readily see how ideas might become “neurotic symptoms.”  

Bentley sees an era of increasing professionalism that became too insular, too specialist, bearing out Tolstoy’s quip that “historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.” The history that has succeeded Bentley’s period may be less rigorous, but it is more attentive to the real interests of general readers. Bentley deplores the behavior of “academic publishers [who] now lead historians with a cheque-book towards the banality of the television script or door-stop biography.” 

But this is hardly fair to first-rate historians who have written brilliant biographies: Andrew Roberts’s masterly life of Lord Salisbury is only one of many examples that could be cited. In any case, most readers will agree with Bentley that “one stands in necessary awe” of what historians in his period accomplished. “The skill and assiduity that they brought to their monographs meant that their writing will never be superseded .  .  . because new reckonings must engage with their work.” 

Indeed, good books about historiography are rare. J. W. Burrow’s A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (1981), Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The New History and the Old (1987), and John Clive’s Not By Fact Alone (1989) were all superb additions to this slender literature. One can now add Modernizing England’s Past, which is at once very shrewd and very witty. It should appeal to a wide audience: not only students of history, but students of theory as well. On theory, broadly defined, Bentley quotes Arnold Toynbee, who claimed that “pattern history” was a “dangerous game.” Why? “The pattern becomes clear in one’s own head,” the great historian explained, “without any guarantee that it isn’t nonsense.”

Edward Short is the author of a forthcoming book about John Henry Newman and his contemporaries.

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