Michael Burleigh

The Weight of History

Our Shadowed Present: Modernism, Postmodernism and History


Atlantic Books 336pp £25 order from our bookshop

THREE OF THE finest English historians working today are Jonathan Clark, Maurice Cowling and Edward Norman. All are prolific, serious, important scholars of, respectively, the eighteenth-century ancien rigime; the relationship between religion and public doctrine in modern England; and, last but not least, the history of the churches. Of the three, Clark’s work was the least known to me, but readers of this new book will discover a highly talented historian brimming with ideas who is the master of an extraordinarily wide range of sources and the equal of his older former Peterhouse stablemates.

Our Shadowed Present is a measured critique of some of the explicit and implicit assumptions of both ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism’ as they have infected historical writing, ironically at a time when many hstorians are no longer sure where to draw lines between premodern and modern themselves. I can testify to that since, as a contemporary historian, I am increasingly of the view, first propounded by the 1930s journalist Frederick Voigt and more recentlv, bv, the mehevalist Norman Cohn. that twentieth-century totalitarian rulers had more in common with medieval millenarian heretics than with anyone else in the previous thousand years.

Modernists. often reflectin”g the influence of Marxism or structure-obsessed social ‘science’, were concerned to explore the subterranean currents that ‘explained’ the ‘mere’ surface of events. All causes became long”- term: actual events f.i ke volitics, for example) were reduced to A r incidental triggers. Anyone who read Lawrence Stone’s histories of the Enghsh Civil War in the 1970s will know what I mean. ~osimodernismb, orrowing heavily from U literary theory and an eclectic range of European philosophers (incluhng, horror of horrors, people who were Fascists,), . is much more concerned with a shortterm world of smoke and mirrors, but in one respect it retains the Marxist narrative of perdition and redemption (which it rejects in most contexts), namely in celebrating the emancivation of minorities – ethnic or sexual – in an unchallengkable fashion. The exposure of that sort of lineage (and deliberate inconsistency) is one of the key strands in a book whose author occasionallv betravs the stigmata of having worked on American campuses where ‘hscourse’ is all the rage.

Clark feels that postmodernism is more dangerous than the desire of, say, Christopher Hill, late Master of Balliol, or Eric Hobsbawm CH, to see a People’s Republic of Britain gleaming alongside the erstwhile People’s Republics of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, or Poland. Such vistas never enthused the British masses, although under our Ruritanian honours system this one clearly did no harm to its proponents’ wish to join the middle reaches of the British Establishment. The new challenge is potentially much more insidious, especially since some of the old ‘modernists’, like Hobsbawm, have cunningly swapped Stalinism for ‘postmodern’ concerns in order to slip hke Trojan Horses into the hardly vigdant intellectual camp of New Labour. If it can be shown that a ‘concept’ like ‘Britain’ is just something cooked up quite recently as an ‘invented trahticm’, then what is to stop anyone popping back into the kitchen to botch up a federalised Britain, with a strong Wales and Scotland, an England reduced to a series of pseudo-regions, and all to be an ofihore province of a federal Europe? What if such unchallenged musings tantalised those with few ideas but much political power?

That prospect would, of course, be absurd in any democratic country where the majority of the population had an understanding of Britain’s past as distinct hm a preoccupation with the hairstyles and suntans of Posh and Becks. Unfortunately that is no longer to be taken for granted. What Clark calls ‘presentism’ means that we have a Government who erased this country’s past from their dennial tent; a school hlstory curriculum that overdoses children on the narcotics of Hitler and Stalin; and universities that teach bits and pieces of fashionable nonsense about witches and ‘Fascism’, rather than anything that might give them joy in being where they are, as opposed, say, to living in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. Bizarrely, the daytime skies of a peaceful, prosperous and powerful democracy whirl with demons that seem to have strayed in from Goya.

The most powerful parts of Clark’s book deal with how the Enghsh and British national identities developed. The development is continuing, as any visitor to South East London, with its proliferating crosses of St George, can see. Here Clark effortlessly ranges over a couple of millennia of British history to confound the fashionable view that Britain is an evanescent, shallow-rooted ‘concept’ or ‘construct’. Clark shows how a unitary, centrally governed state stems from the Anglo-Saxons, with the Church providing providential purpose in the shape of the Venerable Bede’s account of God’s deahngs with His Chosen (English) People. A sense of cultural difference was successively heightened through contact with our Celtic neighbours, whom our ancestors sought to civilise, and by endemic warfare with France. The Reformation added further layers of collective identity. As Clark convincingly shows, very little of this was couched in terms of superiority (racial or otherwise), for the English preferred the term ‘Geeborn’ to ‘true born’. By contrast, the nationalisms of their Celtic neighbours were shot through with the usual mumbo-jumbo of nineteenthcentury European raciahsm – one of its most disturbing recent incarnations being the sinister and strange emphasis on blood and seed in Me1 Gibson’s film Braveheart.

Clark is also particularly strong on the mutations of such concepts as ‘racllcalism’ and ‘revolution’; for example, he uses hls keen analytical intelligence to hstinguish between English Jacobinism and radicalism (the latter heavily indebted to utilitarian irreligion), and then between radicalism and socialism. Now based in Kansas, Clark writes convincingly about the American Revolution, not only giving readers a fascinating counterfactual account of what an America ruled Gom Britain might have been like – no expropriation or extermination of the Red Indians, and no slavery – but also explaining why American historians are so loath to countenance counterfactual history writing at all. This is a wonderfdy thought-provohng book, by an immensely distinguished historian. Perhaps we should leave hlrn with a small thought? Postmodernism has many vices, but one major redeeming virtue. By challenging the Old Left, and by ’empowering’ discordant voices, it has inadvertently made it possible for liberals of the Right such as Jonathan Clark to get the hearing they deserve. That victory is worth the price of any number of Black, Gay and Women’s History courses, and after all, what decent conservative could object to any of that?

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