This one goes out to all the historians

How long has it been since you heard someone called a “revisionist,” or heard someone muttering darkly about “revisionism” after a job talk or search committee meeting?  (For all of the non-historians out there who might still be reading:  “revisionism” was a charge thrown around a lot in the 1980s and 1990s by those historians who imagined that history is the pursuit of Unchanging Truth, and who were generally quite hostile to most of the new approaches to history since 1960 or so–social history, subaltern history, feminist history, queer theory–pretty much everything except political and intellectual history focused on DWEMs, that is, Dead White European/Euro-American Males.  Anyone who had different ideas or subjects in mind were called “revisionists,” which implied that we were doing Made-Up history, which was seen as an attack on the Unchanging Truth.)  I think it’s been nearly a decade since I’ve heard these terms in serious conversations.

Has the historical profession, much like the blogosphere, gone tribal, such that we don’t even bother having conversations across political lines?  Or is this just a brief cease-fire in the kulturkampf?  (Or does the kulturkampf continue, and I’m just unaware of it because I’m not on the Front Lines myself?)

Dish it!

0 thoughts on “This one goes out to all the historians

  1. Early Islamic history has these debates, with the rise of source criticism of the primary sources for the first century or so of Islam. The actually led to one faculty member, Suleiman Bashir of the University of Nablus, being defenestrated by his students. Upon landing, he decided to take a sabbatical he had coming, and used it to apply for other jobs. I forget where he wound up.


  2. …Unlike those emissaries for the Holy Roman Empire in Prague back in 1618, who landed in deep trouble! What would you do if you were NOT revisionating? It would be sort of like copying illuminated manuscripts in a monastery or something like that I would think. (I’m sure the medievalists on this blog will find that analogy wanting, as I’m sure it is, I just can’t think of another one). You would be like the ancient wizened narrator sitting by the campfire in the neolithic days, passing along the received verities. Wait, you’d be like a parent telling a favorite bedtime story to a small but vigilant child, with no permission for emendations, marginalia, or flights of fancy from the authorized text!


  3. The darkly muttered commentary tends to be less on revisionism, you’re right. But I heard someone dissed for “thinking like a sociologist” so keep an eye out for any colleagues from those departments being defenestrated, next!


  4. You know, all semester I’ve been up to my eyes in conspiracy theories and decidedly alternative histories. (I’m teaching 3 sections of Conspiracy in American Culture right now–so much fun. Also, it was Oswald and he acted alone. Get over it.) I see “revisionism” when you 1) start with your conclusion and work backward from there, 2) propose a narrative that your evidence simply can’t sustain (“ancient Egyptians mastered flight, and we know this because we found a little thing in a tomb that sort of looks like an airplane if you squint”), 3) construct a politically expedient narrative (“the US broke away from colonial rule because we were going to be forced into a gumbint health care system,” or everything Glenn Beck has ever said), or 4) just only focus on those aspects of your history that you can approve of and not the messy parts (what I think of as “heritage building”). Most historians don’t rise to the level of nutloaf that is required to meet my definition of revisionist, even when they are openly speculating. Also, defenestration. (Everyone seemed to be saying it and I did not want to be left out.)



  5. I just hear grumblings about the humanities against itself: complaints about “advocacy” scholarship, about interdisciplinarity, about lack of attention to serious scholarly topics in favor of frivolous topics like women…


  6. How long has it been since you heard someone called a “revisionist,” or heard someone muttering darkly about “revisionism” after a job talk or search committee meeting?

    I’ve got a search committee meeting soon, and I’m totally gonna try that shit! “I really find his revisionist approach to physiomotherfuckinology to be excessively glib, superficial, and–most troublingly–highly derivative.” That’ll be fucking hilarious!


  7. I can’t think of a direct example off the top of my head, but I do see the term used now and again to describe work (usually books). It strike me, though, that it’s usually used, in reviews and on book blurbs, not as a throw-away insult but in its correct form: the book represents an attempt (often a bold one, haha) to re-envision an event, field, etc. If I had to guess, I would say that most people who would use the term in a kulturkampf way don’t throw it around as much.

    I wonder if it’s because they are acting, for lack of a better term, as counter-revisionists? Those fighting the good fight on the Texas state school board, for instance, are pushing for actual innovations to the school standards to include Reagan, Gingrich, etc. So maybe there’s an acceptance among some culturally conservative folks that revisionist history is just part of the game.


  8. Who ever spends a breathing day of their working historian lives NOT wanting to find something that’s going to make what we have previously known, assumed, wanted, needed, to have been true crumble and make room for the new account. That’s what we’re doing this stuff for, right, whether it be for philosophical or just plain psychological purposes? It’s only when this gets lain across ideological fault lines that this gets labeled with the sneery-toned variation on the term “revisionism.” What are we going to do about Texas, anyway? What of a huge multi-state textbook buying cooperative in the northeastern quadrant of the country? Whoops, there I said it, cooperative. Next thing you know, we’ll be taking people’s kids away and putting them on huge farms or something.


  9. In my field the valence is exactly the opposite of what you suggest: i.e. the revisionists were “conservative”, arguing that ideology didn’t matter etc. And it’s a very explicit movement against Whig history. Revisionists (and Janice can confirm this) certainly NEVER EVER talked about gender, or class, or anything like THAT.

    Then we had the post-revisionists.


  10. Dear Comrade Physioprof:

    Please, please pleeeeze conclude your search committee meeting comments by defenestrating someone. Pleeze? I’ll pay top dollar for a quality youtube video.

    Yrs truly,

    The Cog.


  11. Those people still sneer at historians who actually talk about things like gender and race and stuff, they just don’t use the word “revisionist.”


  12. I have reason to sometimes be over in the conservative blog-o-sphere and conservative intellectuals told the masses to STFU with the word revisionist. That, you know, revising what we thought we knew to what we know now was called progress and conservatives are generally pro-progress. Plus the phrase “global warming revisionist” was starting to be used in place of global warming skeptic.

    re: people who mutter – just got smarter about it they just ask “so what does this have to do with politics because as we now know, politics matters.” Happened at my round table panel today, swear to god. Little old lady in the audience of a panel on Teaching Environmental History spent 7 minutes asking a question that amounted to “your not doing enough old fashioned political history.” Really? Really? Better manners prevailed in that she was not immediately defenestrated. Sigh.


  13. By the time I got to grad school, “revisionism” had come full circle, so “revisionist” was applied to those révanchistes who wanted to take back all that territory from the feminists, postmodernists, and their ilk.

    At least, I think that was what we were talking about back then. Does this ring any bells for anyone else?


  14. I guess my main relationship with revisionism is in teaching- where we still teach there were the Marxists, then the revisionists, then the post-revisionist/ Gramsci-ists. Which tends to be taught as Marxists- pretty cool people, but a bit simplistic; revisionists-more complex, but a but conservative; post-revisionsts- just right (yes I teach in places where labour politics are still fashionable).

    I also tend to see women’s/ social history as revisionism of Whig history- but I guess we don’t really use ‘revisionism’ as an expression in women’s history.


  15. My experiences are pretty similar to Susan and Feminist Avatar. For the study of the English Civil War, revisionism was something which happened in the 1970s and destroyed the old Whig and vulgar Marxist master narratives. We’re now in the post-revisionist phase, which is exciting and diverse, and is starting to take more notice of things like gender and race. One criticism of revisionism was that it destroyed the old models without putting anything in their place, but I think that’s a good thing because it’s opened up a space where we can take lots of different approaches and there’s no longer one right way of doing things.

    But despite inadvertently achieving a kind of postmodern breakthrough, the revisionists were very conservative. Even Conrad Russell, whose real life politics were very progressive, produced historical writing which was full of right-wing ideological assumptions. The revisionists tended to focus very heavily on elite white men, and deny that there was anything revolutionary going on. One of their main strategies was to insist on a very narrow and technical definition of revolution, radicalism, opposition, absolutism or whatever; refuse to debate that definition at all; then show how The Evidence proves that nothing met those criteria.

    As others have already mentioned, revisionists were not at all interested in gender or feminism. They were heavily influenced by Geoffrey Elton and criticized Whigs and Marxists for failing to meet their standards of (false) neutrality. They apparently had so much contempt for feminism that rather than directly criticizing it, they just pretended that it didn’t exist (even though Conrad Russell played a part in the campaign to get women admitted the the Oxford Union). Although the civil war revisionists were a diverse group one thing that they all had in common was hating Laurence Stone. They called him out for all sorts of things, but as far as I know they didn’t complain about his blatant misogyny, which is a bit suspicious.

    Meanwhile revisionism means something different again for the First World War. This started in the mid to late 1980s and challenged the popular myth of futile slaughter and lions led by donkeys. It used very detailed studies of military history to disprove the master narrative, showing that by 1918 the British Army had adapted well to the conditions of the Western Front, was making very effective use of the latest tactics and technology, and won some spectacular victories which have been erased from popular consciousness. There are still some conservative elements in this movement – for example, Gary Sheffield argued that fighting the war was A Good Thing For Britain – but not all of us who subscribe to the revisionist view of tactics and operations would agree with that.


  16. I thought that “revisionist” was originally used in a positive sense, as in “daring scholar who challenges the received wisdom”, but gradually came to have a negative meaning like “someone who twists the facts to fit a preconceived ideology”, or “someone who challenges the accepted narrative just because they’re a contrarian who likes to piss people off”.

    Oddly, I remember worrying during my brief history student career that in another decade there wouldn’t be any room at all for people who studied more traditional types of history. Apparently this worry proved to be highly exaggerated, and it wasn’t why I dropped the idea of trying to become an actual historian myself.


  17. By the time I got to grad school, “revisionism” had come full circle, so “revisionist” was applied to those révanchistes who wanted to take back all that territory from the feminists, postmodernists, and their ilk.

    Fucked-up french shit and “ilk” in the same sentence, FTW!


  18. @ Gavin, some of us have been trying to get the English CW establishment to talk about gender for many many many years…. Just saying 🙂


  19. My own area of African history is not a field where this kind of thing comes up much in scholarship in English, save in some degree in South African history. I think the anti -“revisionist” crowd 20 years back just assumed African history was some leftie fad or something. The New Criterion used to make brief remarks about the joys of colonialism and the value of DDT (vs. malaria-bearing mosquitoes).

    In French scholarship on Africa, though, there’s a battle over whether or not colonialism was benevolent between the majority of historians of Africa with a few conservative dissenters. Sarkozy’s government passed a law mandating that textbooks discuss the positive aspects of French empire in 2005. The few academic fans of this terrible idea claim that French colonialism has gotten a bad rap while Communist empires have been ignored by leftie scholars.


  20. @Susan: Yes, there’s a very long history of people trying to get gender onto the ECW agenda and not being taken very seriously by the privileged white male establishment. Just recently I’ve read Ellen M’Arthur’s article about women petitioners from 1910, and Christine Krueger’s article about how the standards of professional were largely defined by Mary Green but subsequently appropriated by men to keep women out.

    It just seems to me that maybe gender is finally edging into the mainstream, with things like Andy Hopper’s biography of Fairfax, and Anne Hughes and Richard Cust’s chapters in the Lake and Pincus collection on the public sphere. There’s still a lot to be done though. We need an Abraham in Arms for old England.


  21. It’s so interesting to hear about the different valences of “revisionist” in your many sub-fields. In American history, it was an insult used by anyone angry or defensive since the practice of modern social history began in the 1960s, whether it was self-consciously New Left/feminist/antiracist or not.

    I’m with Indyanna: If we’re not “revising” something, then what’s the point? This does lead to a lot of “new wine in old bottles” type studies, but it’s better than the alternative of being glorified transcriptionists and worshippers of power.


  22. In an odd sort of way, I was recently accused of being “revisionist”. I work at a historic site, and was contacted by a member of the public who had a ‘question’ – the question turned out to be his feeler to find someone to share his complaint that historians should be “reporting the facts” because “history is facts” and too many people are putting their opinions into history (an example of “opinion” was using Gregorian dates for things that happened just before the switch).

    With the help of my colleagues I was able to remain polite, but it has been a long time since someone told me that history was True Facts and historians were mere recorders.


  23. If we are talking about “revisionism” (to use Ted Rabb’s term) in an English or British 17th-century context, Gavin (Robinson?) and Susan (Amussen?) have got it wrong. What Russell and those who adopted a new approach in the 1970s objected to was the assumption made by Christopher Hill and Lawrence Stone that the study of the political history of the period had already been completed and that it was to be explained by antecedent economic and social changes. Russell argued that the “gentry controversy” had proved a dead end and considered in 1973 – as Jim Holstun has repeatedly pointed out – that any new economic/social change explanation would have to be based on the study of yeomen, the middling ranks in towns, etc. (That has yet to come forward although some of the work of Andy Wood and John Walter touches upon it.) Since the focus of his work was on the Parliaments of the 1620s and the period after 1637 and up to 1642, Russell was inevitably concerned with the overtly political world of the period in which women played a minor part. He held that the multiple kingdoms hypothesis offered a more promising explanatory mechanism than any antique Whig or Marxist assumptions. John Morrill agreed with him although he preferred to place more emphasis on the explosive power of religion. Other so-called “revisionists” have advanced different arguments. It is true that Russell chose not to answer his critics in any detail. But is is also the case that feminist and gender approaches have not so far added any significant insights into the issues raised by the troubles of the 1640s in the British Isles and show little signs of offering any ‘revisions’ to the new approaches being developed.


  24. But is is also the case that feminist and gender approaches have not so far added any significant insights into the issues raised by the troubles of the 1640s in the British Isles and show little signs of offering any ‘revisions’ to the new approaches being developed.

    Really? Check out Katharine Gillespie’s Domesticity and Dissent in the Seventeenth Century, among dozens of other titles. How do these books get published at all, if in fact they add no “significant insights into the issues raised by the troubles of the 1640s.” How many women’s lit and history titles have you read?


  25. I don’t think the “troubles of the 1640s” are owned by the “new approaches being developed,” whatever they are, so maybe revizors will just have to take a different route entirely and see whether they meet up farther up the mountainside. This is sort of what happened in the American historiography of the “troubles of the 1770s.” Things got late early out there (as Yogi Berra once said) with “remember the Ladies” avenues of inquiry, so new questions had to be asked and answered. Once they had been, there were some intersections, and some non-intersections, with both the old and the “new” histories as they may have been understood in, say, 1976 or so.


  26. It is interesting that I have not heard the word revisionism in years. I began my MA the early 1990s, got side tracked into Political Science, and Now I am back looking at the profession again from a different light. In the late 1980s early 1990s, when I was working on my BA, revisionism could still be spoken as a curse word by many. Because the notion for historians then was that revisionists had an agenda. I do think that if new historical evidence arises, then updating the historical record is necessary. For example, there is a new book on on FDR. As if there are not enough books out on FDR. But it does have a new spin on it. HW Brands “TRAITOR TO HIS CLASS”. This was published in 2008. Now, I have not read much about this but it is a different take on FDR than the standards by Arthur Schlesinger, William Leutchtenberg, James MacGregor Burns, and Frank Freidel. (please excuse errors in spelling of names). One needs to look at revisionism as opposed to the wakados out there on the extremes. There is still that story that FDR had prior knowledge about Pearl Harbor, “which has soundly been taken to task by the historical community.” This person had an agenda. When one writes history with an agenda without looking at the important materials, then that is propaganda. Anne Coulter comes to mind for some reason. However, new ways to view history are not necessarily revisionist in and of themselves. To look at the historical record and to bring to light the role of women and minorities, and the role of labor organizations as part of a larger view of society at the time is not revision. The word revision implies there was a version to begin with. I would say that they are visionary. Since the 1960s, this has been a trend among social and progressive historians. The idea of a complete history like the Annales school is intriguing and continually an area of investigation.

    However, I do think that historians should, and do, point out to those who are writing histories without regard to facts that this is NOT history. A serious bood by Gavin Macenzie was full of historical flaws in investigation the work 1421 while an admiral attempt, was full of “well others already knew about this” arguments used as points of fact. He got scathing reviews by many a historian. Hence, i would draw a line between Revisionism and new work.

    Revisionism, in my opinion is attempting to prove established facts as incorrect or factual conclusions as ill conceived. And if they have evidence of such a version that is ok. But beware of the conspiracy theories, JFK and all of that stuff. On the other hand, bringing new material to light about historical eras through new research is not revisionism in that sense. I would say it is expanding the current literature about how people reacted during a particular time. Unions, women, social movements, all are emblematic of how eras have both spoke to societies concerns attempted to offer remedies. And For years, labor and women were left out of this picture due to the fact that many did not investigate these eras. Offering an expanded insight is not revisionism its enlightenment.


  27. What does the phrase “significant insights into the troubles of the 1640s”? To me that’s a vague phrase that can justify a lot of arbitrary inclusion and exclusion. I’m an outsider (as an Americanist), but I can see a variety of different ways that one might approach the troubles. Studies of imperial bureaucracy (the nitty-gritty the machinery of state), are not the same as studies of changing political discourse, which are not the same as local order and disorder that might have contributed to instability in the kingdom.

    Some of these studies might examine men pretty exclusively (not many women MPs or cabinet members) but don’t necessarily exclude gender analysis. And some studies, particularly local or regional studies done in a “three kingdoms” context certainly could draw on women’s history and gender history (not the same!) as well as local legal history, political history, etc. And studies of political debate, like the one Historiann noted above, could well include female actors and feminist analysis.

    Moreover, there is a difference between studying cause–when the civil war actually started–and effect, broadly conceived–how men and women understood and experienced these events. Because, after all, wars are fought by people and sustained by home fronts; there’s no particular reason that these questions would preclude women’s and gender history. (For an American example: see Drew Faust’s Mothers of Invention, about the Civil War.)

    Not everyone *has* to write a book about the 1640s that’s heavily influenced by feminism and, indeed, that kind of analysis isn’t appropriate for every topic. But that’s a choice–you’re electing to study one aspect of the troubles rather than another. You know, you have agency and stuff.


  28. You know, I think my PhD advisor (an economic historian) was branded as a revisionist, because he argued that the Habsburg Monarchy had sustained significant, if somewhat gradual, economic growth and integration between the 1860s and 1914. The received wisdom of the time (1960s & 70s) was that the Monarchy was “Europe’s China” – a moribund, economic backwater, with a permanently stalled agrarian economy. Turned out that the Habsburgs were just as capitalist as the rest of Europe and were making the transition to an industrial economy just fine before WWI. So you can be branded a revisionist for suggesting that capitalism did work in some instances.


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