What Is to Be Done?

By Knox PedenFebruary 18, 2015

The History Manifesto by David Armitage and Jo Guldi

IN LATE SEPTEMBER 2014, Cambridge University Press published The History Manifesto with much fanfare, making the book available as an open-access download on a website designed as a forum for debating the book’s arguments. The book’s authors are Jo Guldi, a young and accomplished historian at Brown University noted for her work on infrastructure in modern Britain and her enthusiasm for digital methods of data gathering and analysis, and David Armitage, professor and chair of the history department at Harvard. Armitage has long been celebrated for his work in the history of political thought and his fruitful efforts to establish more dialogue between intellectual and international history. Recently, he lobbied for a move beyond the synchronic or snapshot view of the past dear to the “Cambridge School” method of historical contextualism that shaped his earlier work.[1] In Armitage’s view, intellectual history needs to adopt a method of “serial contextualism” that retains a sense of the punctual nature of historical context, yet nevertheless works to link such discrete contexts to one another in time. One might have thought that we already had a word for “serial contextualism” — namely, plain history. But Armitage’s goal is to develop a deeper sensitivity to the “transtemporal”; he is inspired by the moves transnational history has made to break from the homogenizing tendencies of international history.

The result of Guldi and Armitage’s collaboration is a call for renewed attention to the longue durée of historical time, with the twin benefit of new means of data analysis and a half-century of methodological debate that has primed historians with fresh eyes. This marriage of big data and methodological sophistication is not simply fortuitous, however; it is deemed an imperative, giving academic historians an opportunity to regain their place in public debate.


The mid-century French historian Fernand Braudel coined the term longue durée in a rejection of mythical and overly speculative accounts of the past, be they Marxist, liberal, or simply nationalistic. He opted instead for a more scientific approach that yielded a famous, geologically informed history of Mediterranean commerce and politics. This critical method in turn begat a contraction of subjects, as historians abroad assimilated Braudel’s methods and used them for all kinds of myth-busting on a local scale. But the results became less tractable over time, or at least less palatable to a broader educated public. With the analytic attack on narrative, history seemed to lose any sense of broader coherence. Today, having assimilated the critical practices that led into its present dilemmas, the discipline ought to reclaim its “original” purpose as a source of communal meaning.

Much of the strength of The History Manifesto comes from the urgency at its core. The book knows its audience and plays to the apparently indefatigable “crisis of the humanities” meme that has hijacked the critical faculties of so many humanities scholars. The authors’ call to arms has solicited a modest slate of enthusiastic reviews. But the other shoe has begun to drop, as any observer of the book’s reception knew that it would, in the form of a ferocious critique of The History Manifesto by Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler that is set to appear in the American Historical Review, “the anglophone historical profession’s leading journal” in Guldi and Armitage’s own words (one of their less contentious contentions). Guldi and Armitage will have right of reply, but in the meantime the piece is available for download on Cohen’s personal website.[2] The quick and open access of this document is consistent with the digital ethos Guldi and Armitage promote, as is Cohen and Mandler’s attention to the perceived failure of the authors to respond adequately to criticism of the book thus far on Twitter or any other digital venue.

The substance of their critique is that Guldi and Armitage’s history is a fiction. In this, Cohen and Mandler play the role of impenitent revisionists, using the book’s own source base to show that the image of the profession the authors have concocted around contracting timescales and relevance is precisely that — a concoction. It’s not simply a matter of recusing Guldi and Armitage’s narrative of 20th century historiography, recapitulated above in an admittedly potted form. They also put pressure on the fetish for elites in the book, and target Guldi and Armitage’s general tone-deafness whenever they deal with the local histories of alternative cultural groupings — especially those distracted by “identity history.” In the end, Cohen and Mandler charge Guldi and Armitage with a kind of dogmatism, finding something fundamentally anti-democratic in their paean to history as the democratic discipline par excellence.

The perplexities of Guldi and Armitage’s project, and the hostile response it has procured, become clearer in light of the ambiguous nature of revisionism. In its original sense in Marxist thought, “revisionism” referred to the revision of Marx’s teachings, above all concerning the transition to communism. When, in the late 19th century, Eduard Bernstein and others promoted parliamentary procedures as a means to achieve the transition to communism via state socialism, they were lambasted as “revisionists” by Lenin and others keen to insist on the need for revolution. This sense of the term has stuck in the history of communism as a powerful doctrinal weapon. Hence Mao could ultimately condemn Khrushchev-era Soviets as revisionists, presenting his efforts as a return to the purity of revolution as the only means of letting a thousand flowers bloom. The sense of revisionism in modern historiography is different, and even here two different meanings of the term vie with one another. In one sense, revisionism amounts to denialism — for example, denying the Holocaust, or the violence of genocide in colonial settings. In another, revisionism refers to the use of new evidence and new conceptual frameworks to rewrite — to revise — our account of the past. So the irony is acute. In Guldi and Armitage’s Marxisant aping, they look like dogmatists railing against revisionism, targeting deviationists from history’s true cause and calling. But their fellow historians actually conduct the revisionist gesture against them, aiming to reveal the ideological nature of Guldi and Armitage’s account. This kind of revisionism is as central to historical practice as it is cyclical. One waits for Cohen and Mandler to be taken to task in turn.

It’s almost enough to make you despair for the historical profession, which would be tragic in a literal sense, given that it runs counter to Guldi and Armitage’s earnest intentions.

Saturated in earnestness, The History Manifesto is at least as Leninist as Marxist in its essentials. Where Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto sketched a poetic philosophy of history and wore its utopianism on its sleeve, Lenin’s What is to Be Done? took the existence of warring factions as its point of departure. “Training” and “expertise” are keywords in Guldi and Armitage’s brief against the specter of “short-termism” that has taken over the academy and public intellectual life. Those trained in history have a moral obligation to take their rightful place over the economists as the key source of political counsel in a world confronted with climate change and growing inequality.

The vanguardism of the project is clear, but so are the Leninist consequences in a more general sense. Guldi and Armitage acknowledge the gamble of their title and frame, and make use of one of the first posts on the book’s website to address reader concerns. Yet their jocosity betrays a lingering discomfort in their rhetorical decisions. It also creates a dilemma for their critics. It’s all well and good if you find their enthusiasm infectious. Welcome aboard. But anyone troubled by the ideological analogy at the book’s heart will inevitably seem churlish for taking it so seriously.


For a pair of scholars committed to history’s empirical bona fides, Guldi and Armitage are curiously lax about allowing ideological commitments to shape their view of the past, including history itself as a modern field of study. To suggest that the “form” of history-telling is “inherently democratic” is to proffer at best a vague sociological thesis about collective memory and meaning. As a historical thesis about the advent of the discipline from the 19th century into the present, it’s simply inapplicable. Modern history was as much a result of professionalization and exclusion as any other discipline, and here the literal sense of the term “discipline” insists. As much, if not more, history has been written to consolidate power rather than achieve emancipation from it.

This notion that history has an inherently democratic and broad-minded tendency is central to Guldi and Armitage’s claims about what has happened to the historical “profession” over the past 40 years. “It was during this period, we argue, that professional historians ceded the task of synthesizing historical knowledge to unaccredited writers and simultaneously lost whatever influence they might once have had over policy to colleagues in the social sciences, most spectacularly to the economists.” Cohen and Mandler go to town on the empirical (in)correctness of this vision. But apart from that, the claim is plainly essentialist and a-historical. History has a value and purpose that are unique to it, but it has deviated over the past decades and succumbed to various revisionisms from within and without that have led it astray. Empirical correctives will have trouble getting traction on such a stalwart view.

The image of historians as a faction is inscribed in the very way that Guldi and Armitage conceive the notably short-term history that is the actual substance of their account. By speaking of historians having “ceded” their task to others, most lamentably those “unaccredited writers,” Guldi and Armitage construct an image of political history as an abstract space, the occupation and orientation of which is a matter of will and gumption. To be sure, Guldi and Armitage are well aware “that history can be used to promote a political bias.” But the register of their remark is, alas, not self-reflection; it’s part of a tirade against the Rand Corporation and other purveyors of free-market ideology. Apparently a liberal progressivism that pilfers inoffensive elements of the Marxist tradition is immune to such charges. Why? History is on its side.

No doubt much academic progress can flow from such conceptual conundrums, but in Guldi and Armitage’s case the result is incoherent. Even when they state their argument directly (which they do several times in the book’s introduction), such directness makes the incoherence all the more stark. “Our argument is that History — the discipline and its subject-matter — can be just the arbiter that we need at this critical time.” If the whole point of the book concerns the eclipse and resurgence of a certain way of dealing with the past — a specific disciplinary approach to the “subject-matter” — then logically the past alone isn’t the arbiter of anything in itself. It is the site of conflict, not the salve to it. Yet Guldi and Armitage persist: in a “society plagued by false ideas about the past,” historians are needed because they “have become adept at examining the basis of claims.”

It’s a bold move to suggest that historians are special because they examine the basis of claims. Presumably everyone else just makes claims? The distinction sounds vacuous, but The History Manifesto eventually gives content to the historian’s special powers of examination. Two key factors are central: a unique capacity for attending to multiple causes and a heightened sensitivity to the role of agency as one causal factor among others. This notion of multiple causality is deeply tied to the figure of the arbiter that is so central to The History Manifesto. Over the course of the book, the language of expertise cedes ground to that of arbitration. What makes the historian special is not what he or she knows, but the capacity to arbitrate among multiple causal strands to develop a robust composite picture of the past. Indeed, it is this special “apprehension of multiple causality” that allows history as a discipline to be “an arbiter for these mythological histories, capable of casting out prejudice, reestablishing consensus about the actual boundaries of the possible, and in so doing opening up a wider future and destiny for modern civilisations.”

You hear that, historians? Stop squandering your talents trying to understand what happened in some specific past instance to satisfy whatever parochial concern led you to investigate it. The destiny of modern civilizations needs you. The manifesto form sanctions such extravagance, of course. But the problem here is not the extravagance as much as the arrogance. At no point are these notions of causality and agency — deemed so central to the historian’s “powers” — elaborated in any satisfactory way, yet the concept of causation remains central to contemporary work in philosophy, particularly analytic metaphysics. It’s even earned its own entry in the Very Short Introductions series.[3] Its authors aren’t historians. Do the historians really want to go head-to-head with the philosopher of science and the metaphysician saying that they understand causality better because they’ve spent more time communing with the past? As for agency, it too is a central subject in philosophy today, in ethics and philosophy of action above all. Oddly enough, Guldi and Armitage don’t list philosophy among the disciplines with which history shares a critical vocation, which makes their reliance on the figures of causality and agency all the more perplexing. They could make a case for the specific ways historians trade in such concepts, e.g., what distinguishes philosophical understandings of causation from historical ones. But they don’t do this. Instead, it’s again the Leninist move — historians understand how causality works because they happen to be trained in the special knowledge of how causality works.

Yet the figure of causality in any historical account will necessarily depend upon the conceptual scheme in play. Even if one negotiates among different conceptual schemes — say, the science of climate change and the terms of political economy — the terms of the negotiation itself will be grounded in a conceptual scheme at a second-order or meta- level. In other words, any notion of “multiple causality” works with an idea of what constitutes the “multiple” in the first place. Guldi and Armitage insist “the world around us is clearly one of change, irreducible to models.” The implicit charge is that models as such err to the extent that they are “reductive.” The doctrinaire Marxist may speak the language of multiple causality, but in the last instance it really comes down to the mode of production. Likewise with the neo-liberal apologist and “human nature,” or the relentless naturalist who treats biology and evolutionary psychology as inexorable processes. The Anthropocene has emerged as a concept that names a new epoch in Earth’s material history, one marked by qualitative changes resultant from the impact of the human species on the planet; its status within the field of geology is contested, as nascent concepts often are.[4] But it has been warmly embraced as a conceptual scheme by wide sectors of the humanities and longue durée enthusiasts for a very simple reason. It names the intersection not simply of incommensurable processes, but quite simply incommensurable categories: the laws of nature and human agency. It is not itself a scientific paradigm, but a figure for mediation among different paradigms. In this, it is a paradigm for multiple causality, which means historians are well suited to arbitrate among the various strands it comprises. Despite its second-order status, the idea of the Anthropocene remains but one conceptual scheme among others. It just happens to be a scheme for organizing schemes rather than data.[5]

Guldi and Armitage insist on the pluralism of historical subfields as a virtue of the discipline. But such pluralism is valued to the extent that it yields a composite picture, which is to say, a unified picture no matter how brilliant and differentiated a mosaic it may be. What if we allow the discrepancies of the discipline to go all the way down, making a composite impossible? In what is ultimately the most disturbing aspect of the book, Guldi and Armitage prevent such an eventuality by redefining history as an inherently progressive discipline that, done correctly, will yield an inherently progressive politics. This isn’t some unfortunate and unforeseen implication of their work; it is absolutely central to the project. Again the poor straw economist plays a key role. In a discussion of critical history’s public purpose, Guldi and Armitage insist: “Historians no longer believe in the mythology that the world was shaped dominantly for the good of economic well-being by the influence of western empire, but many economists still do.” The categorical meaning is clear. By this rationale, Armitage’s colleague in history at Harvard, Niall Ferguson, author of numerous works on the history of finance, imperialism, and modern warfare, is quite simply not a historian. Never mind that his arguments, his claims, and his research (or more lately that of his research assistants) are all pursued according to the recognizable standards of modern historical scholarship. His “beliefs” make him an economist.

I’m not defending Ferguson to defend his political views, even if I did find his recent assessment of Kissinger’s World Order in the TLS distressingly cogent.[6] I’m defending Ferguson to countermand the idea that his political views have anything to do with whether or not he is a historian — not simply a good or bad historian; though political views shouldn’t be the ultimate arbiter here either — but a historian tout court by Guldi and Armitage’s standards. Presumably Guldi and Armitage would prefer Pankaj Mishra’s masterful historical essay on the Asian experience of imperialism From the Ruins of Empire to Ferguson’s qualified defense of the imperial project in Civilization.[7] I certainly do, but such preference doesn’t prevent me from seeing that it’s grounded as much in prejudices borne from my political judgments as it is in Mishra’s talent for using intellectual-historical case studies to illuminate the ambivalent political culture of contemporary Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. But here’s the rub. Though Mishra is an accomplished novelist and essayist, he certainly lacks training in the special powers of historical research and writing. His university degrees are in commerce and English literature. He is, in The History Manifesto’s own lexicon, “unaccredited.”


Early on, Guldi and Armitage deploy the cliché that history is philosophy teaching by examples. The cliché that the road to hell is paved with good intentions is no less applicable or hackneyed here. The History Manifesto raises important questions about the public role of scholarship, the impact of technological innovation on disciplinary methods, and the challenge of establishing comparative frameworks for academic debate. But any attempt to provide useful ways for engaging such questions falters under the weight of the book’s moral aspirations and its bewildering self-righteousness. “Without historians’ theories of multiple causality, fundamentalism and dogmatism could prevail,” they write. “History can serve as the arbiter here: it can put neo-liberalism, creation, and the environment on the same page.” The stakes are high. What is the special view that historians bring? What is this single page on which we can inscribe the discourses of neo-liberalism, creation, and the environment so that they will be illuminated, their interconnections and resolutions revealed? We are never told. Instead, we are reminded yet again that “the reading of temporally generated sequences of heterogeneous data is a historian’s specialty.” When you parse the sentence for its content, this description sounds an awful lot like what countless professionals do everyday. The doctor assesses a temporally generated sequence of heterogeneous data each time a patient walks in the room; as does the lawyer faced with a new case, not to mention the truck driver looking down the road. All of this suggests that the historian’s “special powers” aren’t so much unique as aligned with intelligence, probity, and good judgment as such, qualities which, when combined, must yield good politics and a just society. It’s a very simple point, actually, and a starkly clear ideological message.

Which leads one to wonder why it had to be trumped up in a technical language akin to the “incomprehensible formulae and keywords” found in the economists’ arsenal. The ability to read “temporally generated sequences of heterogeneous data” may or may not be the historian’s specialty. It’s hard to tell. Such is often the case with the language of the expert, the vanguard who will show us the way.


[1] David Armitage, “What’s the Big Idea? Intellectual History and the Longue Durée?”, History of European Ideas Vol. 38 No. 4, 2012: 493-507.

[2] Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler, “The History Manifesto: A Critique.” Available at http://www.deborahacohen.com/profile/?q=content/critique-history-manifesto

[3] Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, Causation: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

[4] Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The Anthropocene,” IGBP Newsletter 41, 2000, 17-18. Available at http://www.igbp.net/download/18.316f18321323470177580001401/NL41.pdf

[5] For a sharp overview and historical critique of “big history” and related attempts to incorporate the natural sciences into history-writing see Ian Hesketh, “The Story of Big History,” History of the Present, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2014), 171-202. Open-access at Jstor: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/historypresent.4.2.0171

[6] Niall Ferguson, “K of the Castle,” Times Literary Supplement, November 28, 2014. Available at http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1488107.ece

[7] Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia. London: Allen Lane, 2012 and Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest. London: Allen Lane, 2011. Cf. the vituperative exchange between Ferguson and Mishra following the latter’s review of Civilization in the LRB. Pankaj Mishra, “Watch this Man,” London Review of Books, Vol. 33, No. 21, 3 November 2011, 10-12. Available at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n21/pankaj-mishra/watch-this-man


Knox Peden is an ARC Research Fellow in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University and the author of Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze (Stanford, 2014).

LARB Contributor

Knox Peden is an ARC Research Fellow in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University and the author of Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze (Stanford, 2014). 


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