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Saturday, March 09, 2013

A Nineteenth-century Ideal

As I reach the end of my full-time career as an academic I have been moved to reflect on the discipline of history. It has been steadily disintegrating for the last forty years or so, and while I am still doing what I can to keep the best of it alive, I don't see how any real regeneration is going to come from inside the academy now. But I am more concerned with the impact of the decline of history upon society at large. One of contemporary history's many problems is its inability to take a truly long view about almost anything. Today's historians generally compare the values and behavior of societies in the past with those of contemporary academic departments, and inevitably find them wanting. They assume that their department represent the summit of civilization because of their diversity and opposition to any kind of privilege. In my opinion, however, they have been contributing to our general slide towards anarchy, not least because they help educate the leaders of tomorrow.

For a different view altogether I have turned to the founder of modern history, the German Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), who contributed fundamentally to the discipline in several ways. First, he insisted that when possible, historians must rely on primary sources--actual state papers and diplomatic documents, for instance--rather than memoirs. Second, he insisted that the historian's task was to recreate the past "wie es eigentlich gewesen"--German words usually translated as "as it really was," although I once translated them as "in its own right." Thirdly, Ranke, a religious man, made the critical statement at least once that "every epoch is immediate to God," which I would once again adapt to mean that every major epoch and episode of history, from the founding of the United States to Stalin's purges and Hitler's death camps, represent actual elements of human nature. And lastly, writing the bulk of his enormous output about the development of European states from the 16th through the 18th centuries, he focused upon the role of particular states, the individual national characteristics which they embodied, and the ways in which they all drew upon a changing European or even Atlantic spirit of the age. Ranke was born in Saxony and spent his working life in Prussia. By the standards of his time he was a moderate conservative. He never wrote a major study of the transformative event of his childhood, the French Revolution, but he indicated in asides, I have discovered, that he believed the revolutionaries had wrongly abandoned religion and chosen to worship Reason instead. He was himself a devout Lutheran, although his works on early modern Europe, including a multi-volume history of the Papacy, treat Protestantism and Catholicism with extraordinary balance.

What caught my eye some months ago, reading a selection of his early writings, were these remarks from a "Dialogue on Politics" that he published in 1836. How, one of his mythical interlocutors asks, can the interests of different regions and even of individuals be reconciled with the good of the whole?

"Ultimately, undoubtedly, [because] the idea of the state permeates every citizen, that he feels in himself some of its spiritual force, tha th econsiders himself a member of the whole with an affection for it, and that hte feeling of community in him is stronger than the feeling of provincial, local, and personal isolation."

How could a state maintain this goal?

"Nowadays every government must be benevolent. Its powers, as we all agree, are based on the gneeral welfare of the people anyway. But it also must show that it is benevolent int he proper way. It must take care to be recognized. People should nwo what it does. And every single citizen must see that his own affairs, as far as they are connected with the public affairs, are dealt with as efficiently as possible. If their reluctance is finally overcome, this invisible, penetrating, unifying motive will have seized them all. Compulsion will be transformed on a higher level into voluntary individual initiative. Duty will become liberty. . . .I am convinced that the development even of a man's personality depends upon the sincerity of the inner interest which he takes, not necessarily in the forms of a constitution but in the progress of public welfare in the common good."

It is rather interesting to read these words, written in the midst of the Restoration era in Germany by a subject of the absolute Prussian monarchy, by a man who lived to see the advent of something approaching modern democracy in all the major nations of Europe but who to my knowledge did not address its consequences in detail. Clearly he believed that the subject of a monarchy could have the same investment and involvement in his government as a citizen of a republic. But more importantly, it seems to me that Ranke was expressing the fundamental idea behind all the great political achievements of the modern era, the idea of political organization to assure the security of the citizen and promote the common good. That idea grew in power in the half-century or more after his death, and lay behind all the major political developments of the first half of the twentieth century, from the Bolshevik Revolution to National Socialism to the New Deal, the democratic socialist regimes of western Europe, and so on. Those examples illustrate that it was the foundation of enormous efforts, both for good and for ill--although in the end the good predominated, a result which Ranke would probably have interpreted to confirm his religious beliefs. But beginning in the late 1960s--triggered in large part by a disastrous American national effort, the Vietnam War--that idea went into decline, and that decline has not only continued but accelerated both in the United States and in the rest of the world. In fact, those nations which in the Cold War had created the strongest states--the Soviet Union and the US--have experienced the most spectacular declines, it seems to me, in civic spirit. And now this process, I think, is raising the question of whether our society can still cope with the demands of modern life.

The idea that the development a man's (or woman's)personality depends upon his or her commitment to the public welfare is virtually anathema, of course, to almost any Republican today. That party believes in our right and duty to pursue our own self-interest alone, and regards the state as nothing but a swindle that takes from the deserving and gives to the rest. It even believes that our personal security is more properly our own affair than that of the state, and denies the state the power which a younger German, Max Weber, defined as the essence of a modern state, the exercise of a monopoly of legitimate force. That is why the Texas legislature, as I read today, allows members to carry weapons into the capitol. But this problem is not confined to Republicans. The idea of a state serving the public welfare is bound up with the idea of common citizenship, and the left has been undermining that idea since the mid-1960s as well, claiming that traditional ideas of citizenship have excluded everyone but heterosexual white males and that the universal language of our Constitution and laws was nothing but a sham. That is why, it seems to me, the Boom generation has failed to produce a new cadre of truly dedicated public servants comparable to the contemporaries of Franklin Roosevelt or of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Like the Right, the Left is interested above all in personal liberty issues such as the freedom to practice birth control, to enter legally recognized same-sex relationships. They have also focused upon opening up the elite to women and minorities. And that, ironically, has encouraged women and minorities to focus upon their own individual well-being, rather than to commit themselves, as earlier generations did, to the betterment of all. They have also insisted on their right to define their own reality, which inevitably involves a repudiation of the Enlightenment tradition upon which the modern state, and modern ideas of consensus, were based.

The decline of Rankean civic spirit can be seen, I think, even in much of Europe, where governments have mindlessly adopted austerity in defiance of the damage it is doing to their body politic. It seems to be strongest in Germany, which still puts the highest priority on high employment, and to a lesser extent in France, which has returned to the high marginal tax rates of the past. But elections in Greece and Italy have shown the established parties in disarray, just as they were in the last crisis 80 years ago. The idea of a common European destiny is even more threatened by the current crisis.

A great historian, it has always seemed to me, should know better than to argue with history--as Ranke generally declined to do. The steady civic decline of the last half century--which it seems our current national crisis is NOT going to reverse, as Strauss and Howe hoped twenty years ago--is a gigantic historical event, connected to other equally big ones such as the decline of print media and the eclipse of much of the western intellectual tradition in universities. If circumstances are to force us to reverse the trend, they would have to be very bad indeed. History is not however at all likely to die out completely, and the example of the three centuries from the late 17th until the late 20th will remain, and eventually, perhaps, inspire those yet unborn to cultivate the virtues of that increasingly distant era.


Anonymous said...

Excellent Blog posting. What a professional historian knows in the face of the mindless pablum the rest of us are fed by the media even wikipedia would seem better. I learn most of what I know about regions when they start to disintegrate. Long articles appear over Yugoslavian or Afghan or Iraqui or Syrian history to disucss how it got so bad. I fear politicians are no better informed than I am. About the comment that all episodes in history are elements of human nature, it is like human life cylce where we are born and go through phases. Is the current spiteful egoistic western boomer based phase inevitable?

Your basic exposition of the civic ideal under whatever governmental form and idea of religous unity over worship of intellect is interesting as intellect necessarily splinters, also and quickly in religions. Doctrinal differences amongst communist groups(e.g.trotzkists) and christian sects, etc, are frequent but are really egoistic power struggles. How many schools of yoga exist? I say to criticize my own specialty. Common cause must not anymore be national, racial or linguistic but global.

When society dissolves a common enemy has to be found and a demagogue or national hero depending on who writes the history afterwards. I suspect we are slowly approaching that stage but at a global level due to climate and environmental destruction and resource depletion. Generational transition is supposed to be the final trigger for the big war and we see that happening in extreme form in the talk coming out of the mouth of N. Korea's very young dictator's mouth. It seems to me that the wars in the muslim world since the 90s and 2001 and the arab spring were a warm up only, a testing ground for the big powers. Any attack on Japan, Taiwan, India by China triggers alliances like in WWI which pull in all other powers. One young man's nervous trigger finger can bring down the whole house of cards we call international order and that will only be allowed becuase nobody really wanted it anymore presuming they could make something better on their own รก la the Republican party or the racist (anti-Japanese) Chinese citizens of late.

Only after such occurrrences destroy what we have taken for granted for so long (Pax Americana) will civic duty become a cherished good again in all countries.

Bozon said...


Great short essay.

I have been reading Gustav Schmoller's short monograph on Mercantilism.

I especially thought helpful your references outside the discipline of history, to Weber,.....etc.

all he best,

tructor man said...

Your work is not in vain. You have held up the banner of civility, reason and compassion, and I for one, thank you.
You are right that universities, for the past 40 years became havens of frustrated, impotent left-overs from the '60's pseudo-'revolution', whose fall-back position was "political correctness' and narcissism. None then had the guts to join MLK's last crusade, that of economic revolt against the 'power elite', and the broader left of Democrats & unions rejected solidarity with the unemployed and welfarites, opting instead for their patronage synecures. So therefore, no working class/Labor party was formed, leaving us all to suffer the onslaught of right-wing capitalist syncophants without organizational weapons.
With all the gross faults of Soviet communism, the USSR was a theorectical bulwark against gross exploitation by capital. Note the decline of working wages & lower & middle-class income since the fall.
The counter worry now is that imminent collapse of the fincial system (no food in stores, no gas at pumps, no bank withdrawals) wil only ushert in marshall law and a 'great white hero' a la Hitler or Donald Trump(!). Yoyr voice is still necessary.

Bruce Wilder said...

I've been reading a lot recently about the French Revolution. Austerity and laissez faire have their roots in the Enlightenment, too. Olli Rehn might well use Turgot as a speechwriter. Necker was as much bankster as banker.

The universality of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, though admirably idealistic, was also legalistic and quickly hedged about with exceptions and distinctions; the long, long path from ideal to realization, for the freedom of slaves, or the rights of the poor or of women is no great testament to the Enlightenment -- certainly nothing that ought to have you being churlish now about more recent work in reducing sexual, racial and ethnic discrimination, or liberalizations such as gay marriage. You seem to mourn the passing of the hypocrisies of the Enlightenment more than you fear the eclipse of its ideals.

The road to the French Revolution was paved by the arrogance, parasitism and incompetence of the elite, initiated when that incompetence manifested in the bankruptcy of the state. Revolutions are, often as not, made by the incompetence and overreach of conservatives, not the rebellions of the oppressed or resistance of idealists.

The low ebb of social affiliation, which has us, as the title of an excellent book has it, Bowling Alone, is certainly troubling, and handicaps our politics in the struggle against a ravening plutocracy run amuck. But, you might consider that as and when American community revives, as I think it will, as Generation Y, with its team ethos, makes itself felt, it will do so with less of the authoritarian shadow of in-groups oppressing out-groups that has marred previous populist episodes, and the breakdown of strong racial, sexual and ethnic stereotypes and prejudices and subcultures in the late 20th and early 21st century have contributed to making that advance possible.