The New History and the Old
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 209 pp., $20.00
The important subject of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s passionately written and intelligent book is the transformation of the methods, objectives, and content of much of current historical writing over the past forty years. Professor Himmelfarb, a distinguished historian of political ideas in Victorian England, is shocked by the alleged dominance of what is called “new history,” for her a large category in which she includes the work of Fernand Braudel, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Theodore Zeldin, E. P. Thompson, Peter Laslett, among many others. She charges that by concentrating on social and economic history the new historians ignore or downplay the significance of political history; that they despise the ideas of great thinkers in favor of those of the inarticulate masses; and that they substitute analysis for narrative as the natural mode of historical writing.
In her response to these new trends she seesaws between two different positions. Sometimes her objection is to the dominance of the new history, “the decisive role it has assumed, and the superior claims made on its behalf.” In this mood, she asks only for a change in the hierarchy of historical modes, to restore national politics and political and constitutional ideas to their rightful place at the center of the discipline. At other times, however, she talks in a more apocalyptic manner, as if the new history were a major threat not only to history but to the intellectual foundations of Western civilization.
To understand Professor Himmelfarb’s impassioned criticism of modern trends in history, one must realize that it is based on some deep moral and philosophical convictions. They are convictions that are shared by some liberals of the World War II period who were traumatized by the struggle against dogmatic Marxism during the cold war and became the neoconservatives of the Reagan era. One of Himmelfarb’s beliefs is that man is free to make his own destiny, which is why she reacts so strongly against intellectual positions such as Marxism and, worse still, social history, which she regards as “deterministic,” making man the mere passive product of his environment. Thus she condemns Braudel because he “denied both the efficacy of individuals and the possibility of freedom.” Another belief is that man is rational, capable of calculating what is morally right and what is in his best interests. The third is that man is, as Aristotle claimed, a political animal, whose highest form of activity is in the polis.
These three ideas come together in the concept that “rationality is the precondition of freedom,” and that “the political realm is more conducive to rational choice, compared with the social realm which is governed by material and economic concerns.” Since “it is in politics that the potentiality for freedom lies,” Professor Himmelfarb is in bitter opposition to the neglect of the political sphere by so many of the new historians.
In her more pessimistic moments, she senses the new history as a threat to all these good things. She twice quotes a deliberately provocative …