Practice makes perfect

Politics should be informed not just by history, but by historians, argues Suzannah Lipscomb in her first column for History Today, from January 2014.

When it comes to matters of war and foreign policy, many people run, quite rightly, for their history books.

The debate last summer about intervening in Syria, for example, prompted Andrew Roberts in The Daily Mail to castigate Britain for its ‘hideous, amoral selfishness’ and point out that the only others since 1925 to have used chemical weapons are Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Saddam Hussein. Other commentators compared the reluctance to intervene in Syria to the slow response to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, John Kerry equated it with the Holocaust, and those on the other side of the argument warned of the dangers of intervening by alluding to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet, in turn, each of these historical moments was, at the time, a contested site for historical analogy. In 2009, Simon Jenkins compared the war in Afghanistan to ‘Vietnam for slow learners’; in 2003, others made the same comparison with Iraq, and Vietnam was famously fought by generals seeking to avoid the Korean war.

In every moment of foreign policy crisis, in fact, it seems as if every commentator has a historical comparison to make, all rue our inability to learn the lessons of the past, and yet, precious little good seems to come from any historical inference.

So, can we, for the sake of public policy and present-day politics, really learn from studying the past? George Santayana’s famous quote – ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ – certainly chides those who don’t do so. And previous historians have been confident of our ability to grow wise through the application of historical study: Lord Acton asserted in 1895 that ‘the knowledge of the past, the record of truths revealed by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and a power that goes to making the future’. Acton wrote, of course, in a pre-postmodern time when the facts of the past seemed perfectly recognisable, but more recently, Simon Schama has noted the sacramental role of historians in ‘ministering to a culture terrified of the fragility of the contemporary and seeking in chronicle an inverted form of augury’.

Yet, what can one learn when the lessons of history seem so evidently contradictory and confusing? How can one find guidance from the past when history is brandished as a weapon, and when the events of today are so easily conflated with what is past? Is the trotting out of history in these instances not ultimately pointless and absurd?

No; but the trouble is that we are asking the wrong question. Rather than ask what we can learn from studying the past, we must ask: how can we learn? What we read in the media and hear from the mouths of politicians is history being bandied about – being glibly dropped into conversation and print without sufficient analysis. Historical ‘facts’ alone can be used, as Margaret Macmillan has argued, to pretty much support any position one wishes to take. Yet history is not just a chronicle of past events; it is also a practice.

The practice of history requires rigorous and transparent research methods. It entails putting aside bias as far as possible and critically analysing sources. It involves examining all possible evidence, including uncomfortable and awkward evidence that doesn’t fit one’s own agenda or interpretation.

When it comes to comparing the past with the present, this method demands that we do not substitute the richness and complexity of the past for easy sweeping generalisations. We must focus just as much on differences as on similarities, and refuse the oversimplification of depicting the past and the present in neat shades of black and white. Any lessons we think we might learn from history must be subject to the same rigorous, critical treatment as any other assertion we make about the past.

In short, if history is to be used as any sort of guide for the future and deployed in public policy, it must be history tested and tried through the historical method. We must not just consult history books for apparently pertinent facts and exemplar, but must think historically. As James J. Sheehan, former President of the American Historical Association, has put it, without this, ‘what we extract from history will not be grains of wisdom but the fool’s gold too often offered as precious lessons from the past’. It may be that what every political discussion and debate needs is not just historical allusion, but historians.