As the contemporary political climate becomes extremely hostile and the battle between the politically correct Left and social conservatives persists, academic historians are frequently called upon by the masses to provide insight on the problems of the nation. Should Confederate monuments be torn down? Is President Trump best compared to Adolf Hitler or Andrew Jackson? Did the Founding Fathers anticipate assault rifles or is the Second Amendment about muskets? Is the US Constitution supposed to be interpreted as a living document or followed as originally intended? The Internet is filled with Twitter-warrior historians and humanities professors writing op-ed pieces eager to provide their two cents. But what are these highly esteemed historians doing in their ivory towers and classrooms?
James Walpole recently published an article about the misrepresentation of the past by historians and the social and political repercussions that result from their narrow focus. Historians are only talking about influential political figures and major diplomatic events, according to Walpole, and the result is they are fostering a dangerous delusion in the public who now believes that only those with political power can change the world. While I agree with Walpole that solely focusing on the powerful elite can be dangerous and ultimately dilutes the rich history of mankind, this isn’t really what the majority of historians are doing. Grade school history teachers—which I wouldn’t consider historians because they do not contribute research or add to historiography—may focus predominantly on the political elite, but they are just operating within the confines of the bureaucratic public education curriculums. For academic historians to focus primarily on the political elite would require them to examine and write about individuals. Because it goes against their background and political beliefs to take individualism seriously, academic historians are up to something entirely different.
Like the teachers discussed in Walpole’s article, academic historians are perpetuating a dangerous idea: that Marxism should still be regarded as relevant. Though not all historians are self-proclaimed Marxists or even directly apply Marx’s theory of history in their analyses of the past, if they received a Ph.D. or even a Master’s degree then they unquestionably had their fair share of discussions on the ideology. It frequently appears in their methodology and personal beliefs (We will discuss those that reject Marxism and Leftist ideologies later in the article). For those unfamiliar with Marx’s theory of history, it’s the German economist/philosopher’s way of explaining human history through a series of stages. Beginning with tribal societies, or what is commonly referred to as “Primitive Communism,” Marx explains how societies transition through different historical stages (Primitive Communism > Slave Society > Feudalism > Capitalism > Socialism > Communism) to get to the present stage Capitalism. What follows beyond this capitalistic stage is Marx’s prophetic phase of Socialism and then eventually his social nirvana, Communism.
It seems odd that we still need to discuss why Marxism is dangerous ideology, but apparently the concept isn’t sinking in. Marxism is the foundational ideology behind almost every major mass-murdering dictator of the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries. Human induced famines—the Ukrainian Holodomor, the Great Chinese Famine, the North Korean Famines, and Ethiopian Famines—labor and death camps, party and military purges, and the mass deportation and execution of ethnic minorities have all been carried out in the name of a Marxist class struggle and under the façade of ‘equality.’ Though statistics vary depending on where you receive your sources, theoreticians believe between 75-100 million people have been killed by communist regimes and policies. We wouldn’t discuss the philosophy and theories of Adolf Hitler in classrooms, so why is it acceptable to discuss Marxism? I wouldn’t bother asking academia, as you are sure to get every fallacy in their arsenal to divert from the question.
One Marxist, however, did not run from “the question.” In fact, the fear of being asked the question (“What did you know and when did you know it?”) completely altered his position on Marxism and he is one of the few academic historians from the Cold War Era to recant their ideology. His name is Eugene Genovese. In 1997 he published numerous seminal works on American slavery and the functionality of the plantation system and wrote an essay addressing the Left’s inability to acknowledge the murderous results of practiced Marxism. Acknowledging the Marxist crimes of the twentieth century, Genovese states, “I am sure that we of the left have to answer to ourselves, to each other, to the movement to which we have devoted our lives, and especially to the millions of our comrades who were themselves slaughtered in a heroic effort to make the world a better place.” While Genovese was able to recognize the crimes of Marxism, many of his colleagues simply renamed their pseudo-religious background and reemerged as “cultural Marxist.” This new school of thought allowed Marxist theoreticians to continue to slander capitalism, attempt to explain the gaps in Marx’s traditional theory, and simultaneously distance themselves from the Soviet Union.
Aside from defending and then later disregarding the detrimental effects of Marxism, it must be acknowledged that the work put forth by Marxist historians is counter productive to the very reason they claim to write. Believing that marginalized groups—racial minorities, lower class citizens, “subalterns,” the uneducated, women, colonized peoples—have failed to receive the attention of previous historians (granted, this is often true), Marxist historians centralize their work around these populations. While there are countless other lenses through which to examine the past (economic, environmental, diplomatic, and military to name a few) historians typically focus on what they collectively refer to as the “holy trinity” of historiography: race, class, and gender. Though this approach is not completely problematic, the manner in which they write and the fact that their work is virtually incoherent and inaccessible to anyone they are writing about is. Marxist theoreticians are notorious for publishing monographs filled with made-up jargon and turning simple ideas into unnecessarily convoluted rambles (a.k.a word salads). While their rebuttal to my claim is most likely that I’m not intelligent enough to understand their ‘brilliant’ and complex ideas, they fail to realize that the vast majority of the disregarded collectives they write about (or any lay individual) can’t comprehend their work either. Ironically, they are marginalizing the very populations they are complaining have been marginalized. Instead of writing with a purpose, Marxist historians are writing to impress their colleagues and flaunting what they believe to be intellectual thoughts, while simultaneously keeping a dangerous and outdated ideology alive.
While it’s easy to point out the flaws of Marxists and their work, most contemporary historians are equally guilty of writing history without purpose. In their defense, most individuals seeking to pave their own path in modern academia are bound by the expectations of their institutions and the constant desire to gain the security of tenure. Once historians have obtained job security, they can write and publish with a profound amount of flexibility. Until then, they must fall in line and engage in the tedious process of acquiring a Ph.D., completing their post-doctorate work, and eventually publishing a book worthy of making them a tenured historian. Most of these “first books” are narrowly focused on obscure events or individuals that have yet to be examined.
While obscure subjects deserve attention and do expand our knowledge of the past, these books are rarely written to give a voice to those unnoticed, as historians attempt to convince themselves. They are written to help get authors the tenure they desire. Every young academic says it: “once I get tenure, I’ll write what I really want to. I’ll answer the bigger questions and go toe-to-toe with the renowned authors.” The problem, however, is even tenured historians are opting to continue to remain narrowly focused and engage solely with other academics. The public has been omitted from the historical equation, and historians wonder why the public is historically illiterate. The result is that most individuals outside of academia will never read the work written by pre-tenured academics, which begs the question: what is the purpose?
In his essay “Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben” (translated in English as “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” in Untimely Meditations), Nineteenth Century philosopher and cultural critic Friedrich Nietzsche addressed what he believed to be an unhealthy human obsession with the past. Nietzsche claims, “that for the health of a single individual, a people, and a culture the unhistorical and the historical are equally essential.” Put plainly, Nietzsche is calling for people to find and exercise a balance between a nostalgic remembrance of the earlier times and a complete ignorance of the past. Discussing the role of the academic historian, Nietzsche argues, “the true historian must have the power of reshaping the universally known into what has never been heard and to announce what is universal so simply and deeply that people overlook the simplicity in the profundity and the profundity in the simplicity.” Historians are supposed to write with purpose, to harness the past as a tool to understand contemporary issues, and establish a dialogue with the public to share their knowledge. Instead, contemporary historians are only conversing amongst themselves.
What historians have failed to recognize is that they have systematically created a market for anti-leftist writers. People are not oblivious to the fact that the Left has monopolized higher education and shut out anyone who disagrees with their views. As a consequence, they are now turning to alternative resources to educate themselves. The demand is there, and there are libertarian and conservative historians jumping through the bureaucratic hoops of academia to provide readers with quality research, while still maintaining the ‘credibility’ of an academic. Unfortunately, this process takes years, and when they finally achieve the status of a doctorate of history, their colleagues dismiss and ignore their work. It’s time to recognize the death grip that the Left has on higher education and exploit their flaws to render their institutions obsolete. Libertarian, Classically Liberal, and Conservative writers need to abandon the embarrassment that academia has become and use the private markets to provide the public with quality research, engage in conversation, and most importantly, create tools which promote self-education. The university is no longer a place of intellectual competition and as proponents of the free market, it’s time to practice what we preach.