Memory  /  Book Review

What is Left of History?

Joan Scott’s "On the Judgment of History" asks us to imagine the past without the idea of progress. But what gets left out in the process?

It is natural enough for professional academics to look back to distant moments in history as a guide to political action today. Thanks to their immersion in the sources, they feel at home in these moments in a way that most people do not. It is also natural for radical academics to focus their energies on the way that structures of domination continue in the present rather than on the progress that has been made against them in the relatively recent past. Scott knows perfectly well that the conditions of Black Americans have improved in many ways since the days of Jim Crow, not to mention the era of slavery. But the work of the historian, she believes, is not to cheer this terribly incomplete and imperfect progress but to expose and struggle against the oppression that remains and that in some ways has grown worse since the late 20th century.

The risk in taking this position is that it places so little weight on the hard-won progress that has been made and how it might be built on in the future. With every account of a step forward in any of these domains comes a rigorous explanation of why there has also been a step (or many steps) back.

But there are other ways for historians to tell stories about progress that do not underestimate the extent to which racism and inequality survive in the present. These stories emphasize that the setbacks the left has experienced over the past decades have stemmed less from its inability to overcome deeply rooted structures of ideological domination, or from its susceptibility to dangerously entrancing myths, than from a very deliberate conservative backlash against the successes of the New Deal, the civil rights movement, and the Great Society. So much of modern conservatism, as the political scientist Corey Robin has argued, has its origins in conscious political reaction to movements for social progress. Attributing the setbacks principally to the sinister structures of domination eclipses the dynamic, contingent role of actual politics—national parties, grassroots movements, ideological media, the courts—in how these events have played out. By the same token, it is possible to treat neoliberal capitalism as a series of predatory practices and policies (mostly aimed at increasing shareholder value) that have been advanced by unstable political coalitions and that social democrats can fight against by building coalitions of their own, rather than an all-pervasive ideological system.