Memory  /  Argument

History Is Always About Politics

What the recent debates over presentism get wrong.

In his recent essay in these pages on the vexed question of “presentism” in the discipline of history, David Bell offers a soothing alternative to the American Historical Association president James Sweet’s clumsy dismissal of “presentism” as a deviation from the true path of historical scholarship. But Bell misses the real problem we face in this moment of unprecedented attacks on the teaching of history, largely from the right. While we can all cite disturbing examples of students and faculty on the left seeking to censor what can be taught or even spoken, the concerted attacks from the right — in the ultimate form of state laws prohibiting the teaching of so-called critical race theory, the 1619 Project, gender and sexuality, and other topics — are much more dangerous to academic freedom in general and to the practice of history in particular.

The problem that Sweet sidesteps with his invocation of presentism — and that Bell avoids by blandly suggesting that of course present questions inform historians’ engagement with the past — is the one of politics, where “politics” is understood as struggles for power, not always overt or acknowledged. For a long time, politics was the object of most history writing, but it was not considered a dimension of that writing. History was described as dispassionate, neutral, the antithesis of politics. There was nothing “political” about the writing of history itself.

That was the standard disciplinary orthodoxy, probably until the 1960s. Then the expansion of the university and its opening to previously excluded groups — women, African Americans, Jews — led to the critical examination of the processes by which exclusion had been accomplished in the first place, and consequently to an enlarged object for historical research.

Those of us who wrote feminist history asked not only where the women were in what had passed for conventional historiography, but how and why they had been excluded for so long. Those who took up the history of race asked similar questions. In the process, the writing of history itself became for many of us an object of critical investigation. The understanding of history as apolitical was challenged. Upon reading, for example, the presidential addresses of the AHA, it was now clear that there was a politics to history that the discipline needed to acknowledge.