Assignment 3, September 17, 2012

An answer to this assignment. The articles read are, in chronological order:
Hans-Ulrich Wehler (1970): Bismarck’s Imperialism 1862-1890, in: Past & Present, No. 48, pp. 119-50
E. P. Thompson (1971): The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century, in: Past & Present, No. 50, pp. 76-136
Fernand Braudel (1972): Personal Testimony, in: The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 44 (4), pp. 448-467
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese (1976): The Political Crisis of Social History: A Marxist Perspective, in: Journal of Social History, Vol. 10 (2), pp. 205-220


Following the idea of James Cook that so-called turns in historiography are only retroactively designated as such, the title of the Genovese’s piece is sufficiently reassuring that a ‘turn’ has, indeed, taken place; if only insofar as there is talk about a turn: after all, Social History is endowed with the markers of a distinct entity, capital letters (see Judith Surkis, p. 714). What is more, this article gives a critique of Social History, accusing it of lacking political commitment (Fox-Genovese & Genovese 1976: 206, 214, 217). It seems, then, that the question of characterizing Social History can, for the moment, suspend its deeper twin, the question of whether such a formation exists at all.

As always, what characterizes Social History as a whole may be inferred from what authors working within this type of historiography identify as the categories they resist. Contrary to the opening paragraph of this post, however, it seems necessary to maintain from the outset that the authors in the present sample are different in their geographical origin, and, following Iggers (p. 71), working on projects that might be similar, but remain parallel (Wehler evidently being in the tradition of German Critical Theory and social research; Braudel, without a doubt the most widely known proponent of the Annales ‘school’; Thompson, representing Past & Present as a distinguished English source). There are common threads running through all three pieces, however. These may be summarized by maintaining that all three authors – and the Genoveses as well – introduce a non-individualist point of view into historiography, leaving behind visions of history which focused on statesmen and political actions, and espousing a (more or less) materialist focus on socio-economic formations and developments instead.

For Hans-Ulrich Wehler, it is especially the statesman Otto von Bismarck whose actions, motives, and political positions shed light on his social environment rather than himself. This needs to be emphasized, since it is especially Bismarck who, like almost no other politician in German history, seems to invite a historiographic approach delivering a biography (more often than not, a panegyric) rather than a social history. Wehler shows, however, how Bismarck is entangled in a question of Modernity (123) as he tries to uphold an outdated power-formation (147); how the so-called ‘Iron Chancellor’ was, in fact, driven by necessities of class struggle (143) when embarking on imperialist adventures (123) as well as introducing social policies that were far ahead of their time (140); and how social psychology drove large parts of the German decision-making process, and thus Bismarck’s decisions (144, 145). In short: according to Wehler, historical processes like German imperialism are “to be seen primarily as the result of endogenous socio-economic and political forces” (124, emphasis Wehler’s), and neither as stemming from pressures exercised abroad, nor from individual action.

Describing the Moral Economy of the English Crowd, E. P. Thompson broadens the list of possible social actors by introducing two neglected focus groups of historical agency: the crowd – far too often, Thompson maintains, characterized as a mob, driven by its belly rather than an actual agenda (76) – and women (115). He seemingly, therefore, opens up a broader view of individual actors as they create, influence, and change historical conditions. Thompson introduces the idea of crowd riots being organized rather than spontaneous outbursts (78), and describes their cunning techniques (117) as part of a militant resistance to a newly-introduced political economy (95). Thompson gives an analysis of these forms of resistance which opens up a strategic field of class war (120, 129) between a magistrate not nearly as powerful as usually recognized (121, 124), and an active and organized peasantry, frequently organized by women (116). I would, therefore – even though it is least obvious here – interprete Thompson’s account as a description of class, not individual, actors; and of economic, not political, formations. (On this last point, Iggers (p. 88) disagrees, emphasizing Thompson’s cultural over his economic approach. I would argue, however, that this stems from an overstatement of the base-superstructure-model on the part of Iggers, leading him to overemphasize Thompson’s departure from it.)

Finally, Fernand Braudel, introducing the idea of a quantifiable approach to history (452) and his famous longue durĂ©e-timeframe (454, 463), gives a decidedly non-individualist account of history (454). His analytic focus lies on the totality of a historical formation: not only would historiography build on a total analysis by all aspects of scientific evidence (457), but the phenomena themselves were to be analyzed (462) and described (453) as totalities – with a bent to geography (453, 465).

It is, perhaps, this last article, rather than Wehler’s or Thompson’s, which gives the Genoveses the impression of an abandonment of political commitment on the part of social history (214, 217). Certainly, they agree with the analytic focus on a historical totality espoused by all three above articles (205, 207, 208); they agree with the anti-positivism which governs Wehler’s and Thompson’s accounts explicitly, and Braudel’s implicitly (205, 210); and they subscribe to a focus on material, and specifically geographical conditions of historical events (207). Their overarching critique, of social analyses of totality (209), of ethnography (213) and anthropology (215), as well as social psychology (218), is that the totality analyzed is not dialectical: that is, it is not open for, not designed to further, political action governed by a class struggle within the historical profession (219).

Which brings us full circle: for the articles juxtaposed here – and the turn they might add up to – is, of course, a social formation.

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