Book: In Defence of History, by Richard J. Evans (2001)

reviews historiographyhistorypostmodernismrichard j evans

Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (Granta, 2001) 384pp

This book is more-or-less two things: an account of how history is done in practice, more or less; and a critique of postmodernist theories of history. As far as the first goes, it doesn’t really seem to contain much that an average history graduate would be surprised by, although it might be helpful to those beginning or intending to begin a history degree (it was recommended me in my first year and I only just got around to reading it several years after graduation).

The second aspect is by far the most significant, in terms of the apparent importance placed upon it by the author. Unfortunately I’m not sure it’s very successful in its aim. It’s difficult to shake the feeling, throughout, that Evans is misrepresenting the postmodernists he criticizes, or at least selecting the most extreme claims of the most extreme adherents and holding them up to ridicule as if they were representative of the entire field. I don’t think I’m particularly sympathetic to postmodernism (I found Ellen Meiksins Wood’s argument, in Democracy Against Capitalism, persuasive), but Evans was difficult to take seriously in places. For example, his accusation that a feminist historian of ‘sexism against men’ seems to be based upon the most uncharitable reading of what she’s written, as well as a rather simplistic notion of what constitutes sexism.

The failings, I think, are best illustrated by the ‘extensive new afterword’ in the second edition; 60 pages of responses to critical reviews of a 250-page book is extensive indeed, perhaps excessively so. A substantial part of this is dedicated to arguing that postmodernist critics have misunderstood his arguments. I don’t, however, think that it’s a radical assertion of a Barthesian ‘death of the author’ position to suggest that if a significant number of people are all misinterpreting your book in approximately the same way, then actually you’ve just done a bad job of explaining yourself clearly. Certainly, though he apparently intends to find a middle ground between postmodernism and traditionalist empiricism, the claim that he’s given more weight to attacking the former than the latter matches my reading. That’s not to say that each of the reviews he responds to is right and he’s always wrong in his response to them; while in some cases he’s defending his intentions that were not always clear in the book, other reviewers (like Jenkins) do seem somewhat wrongheaded in their criticisms.

On the other hand, the afterword does have redeeming features, like his comment (in the responses to conservative critics) that ‘It may be rude to say that [Niall] Ferguson’s own remarks about gender history are deeply ignorant, but it’s also true’. Personally, I would have left out the qualification ‘about gender history’. He is, I think, actually fairly even-handed towards conservative historians (particularly Elton) in the main part of the work; his criticism of Carr less so. He seems to consider Carr’s belief in the desirability of a planned economy to have been proven to be mistaken by the failure of the Soviet Union, which is surely only one example of a planned economy; its failure does not constitute proof that no planned economy can succeed, if indeed the dissolution of the Soviet Union constitutes a failure of the planned economy in the first place (rather than simply the failure of a state with a planned economy).