What Is Left of History?

Distant Moments

Joan Scott and the war over the past.


There is a gently comic moment in John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in which the novel’s jaded, cynical protagonist, a British intelligence agent named Alec Leamas, quizzes Liz Gold, the young librarian who is about to become his lover, about her beliefs. He asks her if she is religious, and Gold replies that she doesn’t believe in God. “Then what do you believe in?” Leamas presses. “History,” she answers. “Oh, Liz…oh no,” Leamas exclaims. “You’re not a bloody Communist?” She nods, blushing.

In the 1960s, communists were not the only ones who believed in History with a capital H. If The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was one British publishing sensation of 1963, another was E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, which, despite the book’s departure in many respects from an orthodox Marxism, professed a powerful faith that modern societies would eventually evolve in a progressive direction. “After all,” Thompson wrote hopefully in the preface, “we are not at the end of social evolution ourselves. In some of the lost causes of the people of the Industrial Revolution we may discover insights into social evils which we have yet to cure.” The early 1960s were also the heyday of “modernization theory,” beloved by Cold War liberals, which held that an essentially identical path of historical development would eventually bring all “traditional” agricultural societies into an industrial, urbanized, capitalist, and democratic modernity.

More than a half-century later, any kind of faith in the future—which is to say, any faith in History—is hard to come by. Between catastrophic climate change, the resurgence of authoritarian and racist populism, the ever-growing inequities generated by contemporary capitalism, and a seemingly endless pandemic, it can be difficult to discern much meaning in history at all, let alone a hopeful one. In this new and despairing state of affairs, it is perhaps also no surprise that many people have turned so harshly judgmental about so much of the past itself. If you believe that each successive historical age becomes more enlightened, then it is easier to attribute misdeeds in the past to their authors’ unfortunate lack of enlightenment relative to us. If you believe in progress as an inevitable force, it may not seem worth the trouble to develop elaborate condemnations of these misdeeds, since you can rest assured that the bright and happy future will see and judge them with ever-greater clarity. But if history appears to have no necessary direction to it, then there is less reason for charity toward a supposedly benighted past and no reason at all to have confidence in the way the future will judge it.

This new intellectual climate is one in which many Americans now condemn the United States as a country whose founding principles are irretrievably tarnished and corrupted by Native dispossession and Black enslavement. The late historian Tyler Stovall leveled the charge with particular force in his recent book White Freedom, but he is hardly the only writer to do so. If there is no necessary forward direction to history, a reckoning with the past may be all that we have: to see where things went wrong, to hold people to account for it, and to find alternate forms of political possibility.

This is the position that Joan Wallach Scott writes from in her new book, On the Judgment of History, originally delivered as the Ruth Benedict Lectures at Columbia University. Scott begins by describing her horror at the events of the Trump presidency, starting with the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. A friend tried to console her with the promise that Trump’s supporters would be condemned by the “judgment of history.” But Scott was not consoled. As anyone who knows her pathbreaking scholarship might have guessed, she is not someone who looks to history for solace or easy answers. “Belief in reassuring progressive master narratives ended sometime in the twentieth century,” she cautions in her new book. The idea that history exists as “a seemingly extrahuman, necessarily progressive force” is nothing but a psychological projection.

Yet despite Scott’s reaction to her friend, she found herself fascinated by the consolatory role that history’s supposed judgment has performed in so much progressive discourse, and so she decided to investigate specific instances in which various groups have tried to render a judgment in history’s name. In the book, she concentrates on three of them: the Nuremberg trials, the work of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the African American calls for reparations for slavery, especially as voiced by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Like virtually everything else that Scott has written, On the Judgment of History is concise, elegant, powerfully argued, and deeply thought-provoking. But also like much of her other work, her new book lays down conditions for how to think about history that are so sternly demanding that it becomes hard to imagine how such history writing could ever have much influence beyond the academy. Throughout her career, Scott’s admirable theoretical rigor has existed in tension with her desire to write “histories of the present” that can help drive political change. In her books and essays, she has made it a goal to expose and challenge the interlocking systems of knowledge and power, inherited from the past, that enable domination and oppression in the present. But her scholarship, with its obvious debt to Michel Foucault, often presents these systems as so insidiously ubiquitous in their effects as to be almost impossible to escape. On guard against well-meaning attempts to criticize such systems that only end up reinforcing them, Scott has repeatedly dissuaded her readers from embracing liberal accounts of history that unwittingly downplay the extent of the oppression continuing today. In a brilliant 1991 article called “The Evidence of Experience,” for example, Scott asked whether historians of homosexuality who sought to “make…experience visible” and vivid did not also, by so doing, “preclude critical examination of the workings of the ideological system” that governed categories of sexual difference in the first place. In her groundbreaking 1996 book Only Paradoxes to Offer, she resisted seeing famous French feminists as political models and instead highlighted the impossibility of women trying to claim forms of citizenship gendered as male. She spoke of what she called “the downside of feminist experience: its intractable contradictions, the obsessive repetitions that seem to doom one generation to relive the dilemmas of its predecessors.”

In On the Judgment of History, Scott insists on similarly stern conditions for speaking in history’s name and hands out failing grades in two of her three case studies (Nuremberg and South Africa). She rules entirely out of bounds any politics grounded in the idea that modernity has a “singular timeline” toward progress, since that idea most often equates modernity with the sort of disciplined social management that underlies modern systems of statist domination. But while her account of paths wrongly taken is an attempt to illuminate alternative possibilities that might still have relevance today, the pessimism of her argument often threatens to overwhelm its frail notes of hope.

Scott’s discussion of the Nuremberg trials highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of her approach, especially the ways in which her new book advances her larger project. She focuses tightly on the concepts that underpinned the work of the Allied tribunal judging Nazi war criminals—and especially the judges’ vision of history—rather than on its juridical and political accomplishments. Retelling the story of how the Nuremberg tribunal attempted to establish an “objective” record of Nazi atrocities, Scott criticizes it for drawing a contrast between “barbaric” and “civilized” nation-states, placing Nazi Germany in the former category and the “benevolent” Allies in the latter as the supposed embodiment of historical progress. She also faults the tribunal, and especially its chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson (a US Supreme Court justice), for respecting the primacy of national sovereignty, indeed for seeing nation-states as “the apex of historical evolution and the instrument of justice.” The tribunal therefore condemned the Nazis for violating the laws of war but not for crimes against citizens of Germany. As a result, Nuremberg did not set a precedent for holding countries (including the United States) accountable for oppressing their own citizens, and it legitimized the foundation of future ethno-nationalist states that would engage in similar oppression (here, drawing on Hannah Arendt, she controversially singles out Israel).

The argument is compelling for its surgical dissection of what Scott calls “the unconscious underpinning of the way in which judgment was articulated at Nuremberg.” But in another sense, it is fearfully abstract. The concepts of national sovereignty and historical progress that the tribunal endorsed were almost universally accepted at the time, and it is difficult to believe that the judges would have challenged them during the trials. Nor does Scott consider the positive effects that the tribunal had by coming as close as any such body has ever done to expressing the authoritative judgment of the international community in regard to monstrous crimes. It’s worth asking as well what would have followed had the tribunal asserted the right of the international community to condemn nation-states for their treatment of their own citizens. Would this precedent have protected vulnerable groups from oppression? Or, to the contrary, would it primarily have justified even more military interventions by the great powers in the name of what is now called the “responsibility to protect”? The idea that the Nuremberg tribunal did more to enable future oppression than to deter it has a certain plausibility on the level of pure theory, but it is hard to see how that could ever be proved with respect to actual historical events.

Scott’s examination of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission also emphasizes the dangerous precedents that were set more than the political work that was accomplished. Faulting the commission for seeking to document cases of individual criminality and for emphasizing Christian forgiveness (it was chaired by Bishop Desmond Tutu), Scott argues that the commission should have concentrated on the structures of inequality that sustained apartheid in the first place and that in large part survived the end of the white regime. On the one hand, she implicitly recognizes that the commission (which was not a tribunal) had a limited scope for action as well as little opportunity to challenge the continuing military and economic power of the white minority, and she also acknowledges the moral authority that it derived from its policy of forgiveness. Yet she still laments that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission “undermined attention to the enduring consequences of the political and economic compromises that were being made.”

Scott’s last case study leads her in a very different direction. If Nuremberg and South Africa offer disappointing, perhaps even dangerous precedents, the movement to secure reparations for slavery in the United States represents a more inspiring one. Though Scott acknowledges that the movement has little chance of achieving its stated goal, she characterizes it as “less a literal demand for financial repayment of debt [than] a defiant rereading of the history of the United States.” It forces us to confront the fact that the effects of slavery continue in the present, as do the structures of “predatory capitalism” that emerged in tandem with slavery. It also provokes the sort of moral outrage that can drive political mobilization.

For Scott, the demand for reparations prompts a search for what she calls, drawing on the political theorist Massimiliano Tomba, “arsenals of possibility”—alternative paths of political development and forms of political action. Tomba’s work looks to past moments, such as peasant revolts in Russia and urban protests in revolutionary France, when popular activists pushed political leaders to construe human rights as something more than the narrowly defined civil liberties established and delimited by the state. Scott finds in the demand for reparations and its rereading of history a similar act of “defiance” that can drive collective action. But what sort of action might follow, and how would it offer an alternative path for political development? Paraphrasing reparations activists, Scott speaks of the need “to rid the entire nation of poverty, greed, militarism, and racism” and insists that exploding dangerously seductive myths about our history is the necessary first step toward these grand goals. But what are the next steps, especially since she does not see actual reparations—which in fact would fit into a long tradition of state-backed redistribution programs—as politically feasible? To sustain itself and to achieve concrete results, collective political action needs more than an attitude of defiance.

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.

Telling history in this perhaps more modest way may also offer more effective possibilities for political mobilization than the search for “arsenals of possibility” in the deep past. It is indeed a fantasy to think, as the Liz Golds of the world once did, that we are part of a superhuman force moving inexorably toward progress. The “judgment of history” is not there to save us. But the idea that people of different ethnic and economic backgrounds have been able throughout the modern era to unite to push for a more decent society; that they have made visible progress on many fronts, despite ferocious pushback from their opponents; and that this historical movement can continue—this is not a fantasy or a myth. It is the idea that motivated one of the most successful American political insurgencies of the 20th century: the civil rights movement. It also can be found in many of the egalitarian movements of the 21st century, including Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns. It has been a long time since most social democrats had faith in History with a capital H. But they do believe in histories (small h) that show how progress in the past can be carried forward—even against tremendous opposition.

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