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 remark of Peter Stearns, the editor of The Journal of Social History, that “when the history of menarche is widely recognized as equal in importance to the history of monarchy, we will have arrived”; and she quotes another remark by the late Warren Susman, who taught American History at Rutgers, that “Mickey Mouse may in fact be more important to an understanding of the 1930s than Franklin Roosevelt.” To Professor Himmelfarb (and indeed to me) observations such as these are like red rags to a bull. Inflamed by these taunts, she sees no hope of reconciliation. “The two modes of history reflect…different conceptions of history”; “the ‘total’ history that some new historians pride themselves on might turn out to be a total dissolution of history.”

Professor Himmelfarb does not content herself with the thought that “social history, in devaluing the political realm, devalues history itself.” She goes on to argue that “the truly radical effect of the new enterprise is to devalue not only political history but reason itself,…the reason embodied in the polity.” “This rationality is now consciously denied or unconsciously undermined by every form of the new history.” This is because politics has become a mere “superstructure,” and history now concerns itself exclusively with the social, economic, or mentalité infrastructure.

She lists the types of new social history, with an acerbic running commentary. Anthropological history, she suggests, concerns itself merely with mating or eating habits. Psychohistory is preoccupied with irrationality and the unconscious. It produces Freudian interpretations of the effect of the Oedipus complex upon figures in the past about whose relations with their parents no evidence whatsoever survives. She mocks Erik Erikson’s fascinating but wholly speculative work on Luther, and two psychohistories of great political theorists, one on Edmund Burke by Isaac Kramnick and the other on James and John Stuart Mill by Bruce Mazlish. She dismisses the results not only as unscholarly since lacking in historical evidence, but also as the product of “determinism” and “insidiously anti-intellectual.” She attacks the demographic historian Peter Laslett for combining, in The World We Have Lost, statistics with a fantasy of a golden age in the past. She gleefully quotes his sentimental talk about the time when “the whole of life went forward in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar faces, known and fondled objects, all to human size.” She tersely concludes that Laslett “invokes the authority of science while indulging in the rhetoric of nostalgia.”


Gertrude Himmelfarb is morally repelled by quantification, which she claims is “deterministic and mechanistic,” as well as likely to lead to trivial results. She reminds us that Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, a famous French leader of the Annales school in Paris, said in a rash moment that “history that is not quantifiable cannot claim to be scientific,” only to produce a few years later a wholly nonquantified reconstruction of life in a medieval village, the brilliant best seller Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error.

If some quantifiers may later recant, hard-line American cliometricians such as Robert Fogel she believes to be beyond redemption since they use a style that “often requires the suspension of verbal discourse,” and constitute a school of history “as nearly devoid of moral imagination as the computer can make it.” She banishes them to a circle of Hell very close to that to which she consigns those arch determinists, the psychohistorians and the Marxists. In her criticism of psychohistory and “quanto-history,” she is as relentlessly savage as was Jacques Barzun a few years ago in his book Clio and the Doctors: Psycho-History, Quanto-History and History.

She also sees the new social history as “factional and parochial,” hopelessly split up into tiny, separate specialties—economic history, transport history, urban history, labor history, class history, population history, family history, women’s history, black history, literacy history, crime history, sex history, the history of mobs and riots, the history of popular myths and fairy tales, and so on. She argues that as a result historians cannot communicate with one another anymore: having abandoned politics, political theory, and elite culture, they have nothing to hold these different strands of the new history together. The new historians have, she claims, even abandoned national history as “part of the aversion to political history,” falling back instead on village history, local history, social history in its endless variety, or else the windy platitudes of universal history.

In all this, Professor Himmelfarb sees evidence of a deep moral crisis that “may signal the end of Western civilization.” She not only perceives, with Robert Nisbet, a mood of “disbelief, doubt, disillusionment and despair,”* but also “a distrust of ourselves, a discontent with what we have achieved, a disrespect for our principles and institutions, a debasement of our culture.”

This summary of Professor Himmelfarb’s views has been extracted only with some difficulty. The difficulty arises from the fact that her book is composed of a set of essays, written for different sets of readers during a ten-year period. Only the introduction engages the general question of historiography head-on. The first chapter contains a smashing attack on two of the most vulnerable aspects of the new history—psychohistory and the more mindless excesses of quantification. There follows a neat dissection of an obscure article by the late R.S. Neale, an Australian Marxist social historian, which used an elaborate sociological model. She points out that the model is entirely superfluous to the argument, model-building being, to her, “the ne plus ultra of the sociological imagination” that she so much dislikes. She criticizes Neale’s model for its lack of “a strong moral component,” as well as sociology’s “egregious fallacies of misplaced precision, excessive abstraction and obfuscatory language.” But the criticism is unfair, since Neale’s model, whatever its other defects, is built around intellectual categories of deference versus independence, so that it displays no lack of “moral imagination.”

There follows a review of a book about the small group of extremely talented English Marxist historians whose achievements have gained world recognition, the best known being Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and E.P. Thompson. She accuses them of using history to prove an a priori theory; of adopting an all-embracing deterministic model of Marxism in history, based on control of the means of production; and of sacrificing the search for truth to Communist party loyalty.

The next chapter discusses two social historians. One of them is this reviewer, who gets off fairly lightly, being treated as a “chastened father” (not yet a prodigal son). The other is Peter Laslett and his famous book The World We Have Lost. Professor Himmelfarb then circles back again to psychohistory, with a devastating critique of the two books I have mentioned in this unsatisfying genre, by Erikson and Mazlish. Here she is right on target, as most “new historians” would agree. Her essay “Is National History Obsolete?,” on the other hand, which takes Theodore Zeldin’s France 1848–1945 as an example, seems vastly exaggerated. She fails to acknowledge Zeldin’s brilliance in evoking the texture of ordinary French life, despite his book’s manifold defects, especially in its treatment of change over time in political institutions; and she seems to assume that his pronouncements that national history is dead and his denial that there is such a thing as national identity are widely shared. I doubt if there are more than a dozen or so “new historians” in the profession who would agree that national history is obsolete, even if many of them prefer to study smaller units of institutions and social groupings.


The New History and the Old peters out in three final, rather marginal, chapters: one lamenting the alleged fact that no one now reads Macaulay’s History of England despite his insistence on the great truth of the story of liberty based on historical precedent—“the liberal descent”; one a cautious and carefully restricted defense of Robert Nisbet and his History of the Idea of Progress, now a concept unfortunately so unfashionable as to seem almost ridiculous; and lastly a rather obscure article on the English conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott.

What is one to make of this well-written, passionate, and highly polemical book? Is it merely the work of a disgruntled student of political theory, embittered by the suspicion that her field of study is no longer in fashion, displaced by the flashier products of the “new historians”? Is it driven by the extreme antipathy to Marxism of the cold-war liberal intellectuals of the 1940s and 1950s? Some evidence to support this hypothesis is provided by Professor Himmelfarb’s reiterated complaints about the neglect by most new historians of politics and political theory and by her own total failure to mention their equally serious neglect of religion and theology. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that if we remove the excited rhetoric and the exaggeration, there is a considerable amount of truth in what Professor Himmelfarb has to say.

History as a professional discipline based on archival study and rigorous methodological training began in the nineteenth century. Whether in the work of Michelet, Ranke, Macaulay, or the university scholars influenced by them, historical writing was primarily concerned with the nation states in the West, their political and administrative development, and their military and cultural expansion. In the Anglo-Saxon world, stress was put on political ideas of liberty, and the constitutional limitations imposed upon the expansion of state power; upon the state’s rocky relationship with its ancient medieval rival, the Church; and upon the military and diplomatic activities of the leaders of those societies, that is, the top 1 percent of the male population. A small number of historians also studied the ideas of elite thinkers, from Plato to Durkheim, that provided the intellectual fuel for the civilization of the West. Other civilizations were ignored, and indeed in each country most research and teaching was concerned with its own national history.

This was a narrow, but not an unreasonable, way of creating a usable past, and at the same time of giving the citizens of each nation a sense of pride in their national heritage and, it was hoped, a feeling of loyalty toward the current establishment. This was roughly the state of affairs in the late 1930s when I first became aware of history.

As almost everyone knows, the last forty years have seen an astonishing explosion of the so-called “new history.” It is new in two senses. First, it has opened up new fields. Historical demography has been invented from scratch, and has already become a mature profession. In England economic history has become so successful at analyzing patterns of property-holding and tracing the rise of industrialization that every university has a special department devoted exclusively to it. In America, economic history has followed a different route, being housed in economics departments and run by cliometricians, who speak their own arcane language and tend to claim infallibility. Huge volumes have been written about the social history of every class from aristocrat to peasant, a development that has now spread to include more esoteric groups. Oppressed minorities, such as women, blacks, and homosexuals, and deviants, such as prostitutes and criminals, have all become popular subjects for research. The history of mentalités, that is, popular systems of values, has come to rival the history of high culture. Second, large borrowings have been made from the social sciences: first from economics, then sociology, and more recently anthropology, with a tiny but devoted minority drawing inspiration from Freudian psychology. As a result, the new social history has become intellectually chic.

There can be little doubt that for a while all this activity produced something of a golden age of historical writing. Young students were suddenly liberated from the shackles of traditional diplomatic, military, or constitutional history, and took off into the unknown to discover new frontiers. Some of the greatest historical writing came out of this period. In their quest for new worlds to conquer historians were driven by a passionate desire to discover and analyze the forces—economic and demographic, then social, and lastly cultural—that were thought to be the prime causes of historical change.

The study of the early modern period was revolutionized by works from France, such as Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (although the book did not provide the archetypal model it is usually touted as providing, since few have subsequently adopted his materialist determinism, heavily based on geography). There also appeared path-breaking local studies like Pierre Goubert’s demographic analysis of life and death in Beauvais et le Beauvaisis de 1600 à 1730, and Le Roy Ladurie’s broader study, The Peasants of Languedoc. Philippe Ariès’s Centuries of Childhood and Western Attitudes Toward Death provided entirely new historical perspectives. Our understanding of the social setting of classic antiquity was transformed by Moses I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus, Kenneth J. Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, Ronald Syme’s Roman Revolution, and Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity.

Between 1912 and 1925 two seminal books about early modern English and social history appeared in England: R.H. Tawney’s Agrarian Problems in the Sixteenth Century and M.G. George’s London Life in the Eighteenth Century. After the war they were followed by E.P. Thompson’s dazzling The Making of the English Working Class; Christopher Hill’s discovery of the fundamentalist radicals in the mid-seventeenth century in The World Turned Upside Down; Eric Hobsbawm’s original work on primitive rebels; Keith Thomas’s magisterial exploration of the popular religious mentalité in Religion and the Decline of Magic; and the monumental but esoteric study by E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541–1871. Italian scholarship was also affected by the drift to the study of mentalité, producing a fascinating work in Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms.

These currents from Europe soon found their way to America, resulting in such diverse books as Bernard Bailyn’s Education in the Forming of American Society and The Peopling of British North America, Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, John Demos’s A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony, Carl Degler’s At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present, Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom: 1750–1925, and Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s controversial essay in cliometrics, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. This list could be extended indefinitely, but enough material has been cited to demonstrate the amazing range of new subjects opened up, new hypotheses advanced, new methods applied, new raw data discovered in the archives. Taken together, the output represents the most stunning explosion of the historical discipline since it first began in the early nineteenth century.

If Professor Himmelfarb concentrates exclusively upon the defects of this outburst of energy, and gives a drastically limited picture of the historical work that has been done, this does not alter the fact that there is considerable truth in a lot of what she has to say. Many of the new social historians have indeed been over-assertive, arrogant, and unreasonably contemptuous of the activities of the old political historians. She is right to complain that they have tended to ignore problems of political power, political theory, and the political process.

There is also no doubt that for a while too much of the new history was excessively determinist, in the sense that it left little or no scope for the free will of the individual, for the intervention of sheer accident, for the working out of unintended consequences, and for the haphazard flow of day-to-day events. This position is all the more surprising since the new history sprang up during and immediately after World War II, in which the critical role in history played by powerful leaders, such as Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, was plain for all to see. Braudel openly declared history to be determined by long-term trends in material forces, with the individual “imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand,” and Le Roy Ladurie boldly entitled a section of a book of essays “History Without People.” Crude Marxism, as still practiced some thirty years ago, denied much of a role to the individual, as do current studies of climate or demography.

Professor Himmelfarb may also be right to suggest that the new history has had the effect of turning out a generation of historical illiterates. As the two-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution approaches, President Mitterrand has openly expressed his anxiety that French schoolchildren today know nothing about the month-by-month story of that great upheaval. There is also justice in her complaint that much of the more ambitious use of cliometrics has a tendency to elevate method over substance, and that more and more social history is degenerating into trivia, or the pursuit of such trendy subjects as sex and gender.

All this granted, however, the fact remains that Professor Himmelfarb repeatedly overstates a good case. In the first place she fails entirely to acknowledge the astonishing advances made in so many fields of historical inquiry by the new historians. Secondly she greatly exaggerates the degree to which the new history has taken over the discipline and reduced traditional political historians to a defensive minority. In fact most professional historians have always worked in political history. In England and America, the commanding heights of the profession are still overwhelmingly in the hands of traditional historians of politics and political ideas. In England the British Academy is overwhemingly composed of traditional historians, who also fill the faculties and chairs of Oxford, Cambridge, and London. Only one pure “new historian,” Natalie Zemon Davis, has so far been elected president of the American Historical Association. (Carl Degler and Bernard Bailyn, former presidents, have worked in both the old and the new genres.) The history departments of Harvard, Yale, and Columbia are almost entirely staffed by “old historians,” as are those of Chicago and Stanford. Thus outside France, the “dominion” of the new historian is something of a myth, despite the high prestige and high visibility of a handful of well-known practitioners in the field.

Thirdly, there is no truth to Professor Himmelfarb’s claim that the study of political thought has for forty years fallen into neglect and contempt. To prove this point, one need only mention the names of such distinguished scholars as Isaiah Berlin, Felix Gilbert, Franco Venturi, Bernard Bailyn, Edmund Morgan, Quentin Skinner, and J.G.A. Pocock.

Fourthly, Professor Himmelfarb seriously exaggerates the influence of Marxism on the new historians, most of whom are non-Marxist liberals like herself. Except in England, Marxists have been significant but by no means predominant in the new history. There, the early social historians were socialist but not Marxist. R.H. Tawney never called himself a Marxist, and the central role of primitive Christianity in his thinking has now become clear, thanks to the publication of his diaries and other materials. It is certainly true that during the 1950s and 1960s some of the leading scholars of the new history in England—R.H. Hilton, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and E.P. Thompson—were not only devout Marxists but loyal Communist party members. But all but one left the Party in 1956, and since then the influence of Marxism on their writings has significantly diminished. Thus as Professor Himmelfarb admits, E.P. Thompson is now an active (and boring) polemicist against hard-line structuralist Marxism of the Althusserian variety. Meanwhile a new generation of English social historians has grown up, most of whom are largely untouched by Marxism, at any rate in its cruder manifestations.

In France the first generation of new historians—Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and Fernand Braudel—were not Marxist at all. Many of the best of the next generation certainly became members of the Communist party immediately after the war; but they all soon left the Party and abandoned Marxism. Many of them, such as Le Roy Ladurie and Furet, have for two decades now been as fiercely anti-Marxist as Professor Himmelfarb herself. Only the chair in the history of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne has remained a Marxist monopoly.

The situation is more ambiguous in America, where very few of the older generation were openly Marxist. In the 1960s, many of the young were certainly influenced by neo-Marxism of a Gramscian variety, but this sophisticated version of the old dogma makes their writings almost indistinguishable from those of liberals.

The undoubted Marxist tinge to a minority of the new historians has led Professor Himmelfarb, and others, to confuse the intellectual debate among historians about social history and the political debate among intellectuals in general about Marxism. Perhaps it is this confusion that leads her to attack the new history with a bitterness and passion that go far beyond what the positions of most of its leading practitioners will really warrant—however dogmatic and opinionated the writings of some of them may be. Professor Himmelfarb seems to find it hard to admit that only a small number of social historians are, or ever have been, Marxists. All Marxist historians are, and always have been, social historians, but this is not at all the same thing.

Professor Himmelfarb herself admits not only that “all historians reflect in their work a political bias of some sort,” but also that the Marxist historian, unlike the Whig or the bourgeois, is “candid about his bias.” But having made these important and very true concessions, she promptly forgets to apply them to herself, and blithely renews the polemic. There was a time when European and American Marxist historians exhibited some of the failings of which Professor Himmelfarb is still accusing them: rigidity, dogmatism, historical determinism, and a willingness to suppress truth in the interests of Communist party discipline. But that was thirty years ago. Those days are happily now long past, and only a handful of dinosaurs remain. In her anti-Marxist zeal, Professor Himmelfarb is flogging a dying horse, if not a dead one.

Professor Himmelfarb can also be faulted on methodology. Her tactics are to pick out an extreme case of some type of new historian, take him (never her) as typical of all those working in the field, set him up as a straw man, and then knock him down with a sledgehammer. The reader is left with no perception of the enormous range among new historians in literary and scholarly skills, intellectual sophistication, and breadth of historical imagination, as displayed in the works already cited as evidence of a “golden age” of historiography. Nor is he given any hint of the very wide differences between different branches of the enterprise, and the arguments between them. For example, there is no mention either of the active debate over the appropriate use of anthropological methods, or of the fundamental conflict between the older economic quantifiers, and the newer historians of culture.

Finally I believe that Professor Himmelfarb is mistaken in seeing a fateful struggle for the mind of the West between two polar opposites. She says that

the new historian cannot concede the preeminence of politics in the Aristotelian sense, which supposes man to be a “political animal”; and the old historian cannot admit the superiority, let alone totality, of a mode of history that takes man to be a “social animal.”

I believe that it is already clear that the two can and do now live in harmonious, fruitful, and respectful cohabitation. The new social history and the old political history are already coming together, so in a sense her criticism is out of date. Thanks to her strictures on the more absurd aspects of the new historians, this trend will, I hope, continue, with the new historians drawing back from the excesses to which she has drawn attention, and continuing to show increasing interest in and respect for politics, religion, and high culture. But for these trends to succeed, reciprocal concessions of respect and partnership must be made by the old political historians.

Some years ago I warned that the vessel of the new social history was leaking water, and advised all sensible rats to make for the shore, especially if the crew decides to take on ever more esoteric cargo from the social sciences. By her strong, incisive, and to a considerable extent persuasive attack, Professor Himmelfarb has reinforced the warning. But in my view she has gone much too far, perhaps because she is not, on the evidence of her book, closely familiar with much recent social and economic history of immense value, as well as penetrating studies of mentalités. She is also unwilling to realize that her description of a titanic struggle for dominance between two wholly irreconcilable intellectual camps bears little relation to reality. As a result, the great virtues of the book—its stylish prose, its intellectual brilliance, and its polemical force—are offset by exaggeration and a stridency and bitterness of tone. The New History and the Old lacks something of both balance and charity.

This Issue

December 17, 1987