On “On History” by Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell is well known – indeed, he is revered by some – for his philosophy. But his writings, which stretched over a long and eventful life, frequently took on other subjects, many of them decidedly different. In July 1904, when he was a young man, Russell published an essay entitled “On History” in The Independent Review. This piece of writing is both simple and complex; the truths it contains – at least initially – could be seen to be little more than truisms; but this does not mean that they are not true, and nor does this suggest that they are not worth saying.

Russell begins his essay with a bold, powerful phrase: ‘Of all the studies by which men acquire citizenship of the intellectual commonwealth, no single one is so indispensable as the study of the past’. The language is grandiose, but the sentiment, it seems, is largely inclusive. There is a sense of commonality, both in the suggestion that one can earn a place in this ‘intellectual commonwealth’ at all and also that its requirements include a head for – and understanding of – history; history, after all, can be profoundly demotic.

After setting out his stall so openly – and with a phrase that is, though arresting, a little general – Russell justifies his opening remark with vigour.

To know how the world developed to the point at which our individual memory begins; how the religions, the institutions, the nations among which we live, became what they are; to be acquainted with the great of other times, with customs and beliefs differing widely from our own – these things are indispensable to any consciousness of our position, and to any emancipation from the accidental circumstances of our education.

Again, the emphasis here is on the transcendence of ordinary circumstance, the overcoming of limited individual perspectives and even ‘emancipation from the accidental circumstances of our education’. This is not, it must be stressed, a vision of a ‘people’s history’; but such things cannot be entirely disassociated from the sort of class-conscious invocation of education.

And Russell then goes even further, suggesting – rather blandly, in my view – that history is not (or ought not to be) simply an activity of historians: ‘It is not only to the historian that history is valuable, not only to the professed student of archives and documents, but to all who are capable of a contemplative survey of human life’. The idea of a contemplative study, at once humane and rational, is both appealing and, one hopes, possible. But as Russell argues, ‘the value of history is so multiform, that those to whom some one of its sides appeals with especial force are in constant danger of forgetting all the others’.

It appears that one group who may be guilty of forgetting this value are those who argue against the attainability, or even existence, of objective truth. Russell quickly sets out a position which runs contrary to that particular interpretation: ‘History is valuable, to begin with, because it is true’, he writes; ‘and this, though not the whole of its value, is the foundation and condition of all the rest’. This is predicated upon the idea, as Russell puts it, that ’all knowledge, as such, is in some degree good’. This is a suggestion with which some may take issue, however.

As Gertrude Himmelfarb once said a little more explicitly, elements of postmodern history do not contain much of what makes the enterprise pleasurable in other traditions; in this she relates the story of William Dunning, who once made the discovery ‘by a comparison of handwriting, that Andrew Jackson’s first message to Congress was actually drafted by George Bancroft’. ‘I don’t believe’, he later said to his wife, ‘you can form any idea of the pleasure it gives me to have discovered this little historical fact’. Himmelfarb continues:

Every historian has had this experience – the pleasure of discovering a fact that may appear in the published work in a subordinate clause or footnote, but that, however trivial in itself, validates the entire enterprise, because it is not only new but also true. The postmodernist historian can never have that satisfaction.

Russell, who was writing before the apparent explosion in popularity of postmodern historical interpretations, is confident enough in the former to state that ‘[m]odern historians, for the most part, seem to regard truth as constituting the whole of the value of history’. Furthermore, ‘they urge the self-effacement of the historian before the document; every intrusion of his own personality, they fear, will involve some degree of falsification’. The tone here seems to be gently mocking – and the image of ‘the self-effacement of the historian before the document’ appears more than a little absurd – but the fundamental goal (that of ‘let[ting] the facts be merely narrated, and allowed to speak for themselves’) is a noble one.

And the primacy of documentary history can have immense advantages. There is great value in this pursuit of knowledge, and each document surveyed ‘has a strangely vivid life-in-death, such as belongs to our own past when some sound or scent awakens it’. This sort of first-hand documentary evidence is better, in Russell’s view, than latter-day commentary in that it has about it a sense of the subjunctive. What might have happened, had things been different, may now be dismissed as mere counterfactual, but it undoubtedly influenced how historical actors themselves behaved; and primary source work is vital if for no other reason than it communicates this truth – after all, ‘history written after the event can hardly make us realize that the actors were ignorant of the future’.

Similarly, Russell writes that ‘it is plain that untrue history can have no great value’. This is an attack, no matter how delicately phrased, on obscurantists and propagandists of every stripe, who seek to distort the past to their own ends and in their image. Russell’s statement, which contains little more than the obvious, is in many ways a direct repudiation of what would come later: the Stalinist purges, not just of people, but of memories and even historical truth; the Goebellian manipulation of German thought and culture through the creation of scapegoats and pseudo-Darwinian excesses; and even more recently, in the actions of modern states and modern modes of factual distortion of Putin’s Russia, where Vladislav Surkov, an éminence grise in a similar vein, manipulates the population through the organised chaos of the nation’s media. It is also a pre-emptive rejoinder to the superstitious, those who derive their understanding of the universe from truth supposedly revealed to them by a higher power. Their history is one of partiality, blind faith, and often serious error.

Truth and fidelity to source material: these are both good, according to Russell, but they do leave the historian open to pointed questions. ‘[I]f documents are, in so many ways, superior to any deliberate history, what function remains to the historian?’ E. H. Carr answered this question rather well in What is History?, a book which is still compelling in argument and style. For him the historian’s job must be more than simply compiling information, though the ‘nineteenth-century fetishism of facts’ still stands a chance of relegating works of history to mere encyclopaedias. What Carr and Russell both agree on, it seems, is the vital nature of what the latter calls ‘the business of selection’. It stands to reason: ‘the materials are so vast,’ Russell writes, ‘that it is impossible to present the whole of them’. As such the skills of the historian are very much needed. Like the representative in Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol, the historian ‘owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment’.

Here, however, it could be argued that Russell’s philosophical worldview led him astray. First, he argues that the selection of facts must be a scientific process; then he suggests that there is no real science of history as things stand – though this may be untrue in the nascent study of economics; finally, he observes that ‘[h]istory, considered as a body of truth, seems destined long to remain almost purely descriptive’, an argument with which many a historian would doubtless like to take issue. In many ways what Russell says can be commended; he correctly states – as most historians argue, and have done for years – that history has no predictive power. There are no cast-iron laws of history either, and those who do subscribe to such thoroughly prescriptive analyses are unlikely to produce anything which can truly claim to transcend that worldview.

In this sense, it appears that Russell essentially refutes a point no historian really makes; but his analysis is still worth reproducing.

Such generalizations as have been suggested – omitting the sphere of economics – are, for the most part, so plainly unwarranted as to be not even worthy of refutation. Burke argued that all revolutions end in military tyrannies, and predicted Napoleon. In so far as his argument was based on the analogy of Cromwell, it was a very lucky hit; but certainly not a scientific law.

But Russell does write supportively of the idea that history, and historical enquiry too, can have value outside of what he describes as scientific methods. ‘Historical facts, many of them, have an intrinsic value, a profound interest on their own account,’ he writes, ‘which makes them worthy of study, quite apart from any possibility of linking them together by means of causal laws’. Though this statement does not absolve history of the problem of selection, which was discussed above, it does at least liberate the discipline from the pretence of scientific study; such pursuits would be practically worthless, as history (rather obviously) has no experimental facility, and there is nothing that can be done to assess causes and consequences in the sort of controlled, replicated way which characterises scientific experiments.

A new tack is attempted. ‘The study of history is often recommended on the ground of its utility in regard to the problems of present-day politics’ (not to mention other features of contemporary society and of contemporary interest). Though it may not predict the future, history will – or so it is said – give us greater insight into the present, and also that which might come to pass going forward. Russell, however, is wary of such rhetoric, but his objection is of a technical tone: ‘The “teachings of history,” in the crude sense, presuppose the discovery of causal laws’. This statement is not terribly strong, or indeed very relevant to the ways many invoke the lessons of history. Better, I think, is what Russell goes on to enunciate. The plague of historical reference – largely meant to praise with the borrowed glories of the past – is a problem which has seen the creation of many perverse parallels. Russell gives voice to a valuable one: ‘What can be more grotesque than to hear the rhetoric of the Romans applied to the circumstances of the French Revolution!’

And let us not forget the prevalence of classical reference in British society – or at least its upper end – at the time Russell was writing. With Greek and Roman allusions peppering the whole lexicon, the following seems an appropriate and necessary response: ‘The whole organization of a City State, based on slavery, without representative institutions, and without printing, is so utterly remote from any modern democracy as to make all analogy, except of the vaguest kind, totally frivolous and unreal’. But still the quest for borrowed glory persisted. Especially in the realm of imperialism, tales of historical antecedents were a valuable currency. They were deployed both to glorify imperial ambitions and to warn against an uncertain future. Whole swathes of literature covered the fall of Rome. Much of it dealt with discerning how Rome collapsed: why the empire contracted, why the society itself appeared to fall into ruin. Russell lists a litany of them. They were built not only to provide some historical interest but to prophesy about the future of contemporary empires; the British incarnation in particular – increasingly after the turn of the century – was beginning to totter. Joseph Chamberlain said in 1902 of Britain that ‘the weary Titan staggers under the too vast orb of its fate’. Russell’s concluding statement is worth remembering, especially in view of these invocations: ‘All such arguments will always be conducted according to the prejudices of the author; and all alike, even if they have some measure of truth in regard to the past, must be quite inapplicable to the present’.

It is worth also bearing in mind that, as Russell writes, ‘[t]his evil is greatest when history is regarded as teaching some general philosophical doctrine’. It allows for the excusing of excesses because they conform to, or are the inevitable consequence of, a historical rule or certainty or constant. This, I suppose, is the practical reason why politicians, like historians, cannot truly succeed if they are beholden to to an ideology of prescriptive tendencies. As Russell says, ‘history may yield useful precepts’, but when it becomes dogma – or is used to build up or to justify another dogma – its example become remarkably less helpful and less positive.

Things are not all bad, however; and there is a ‘greater utility’ which history can provide – even if the measure of its goodness is detached from the inherent value of studying the past. History ‘enlarges the imagination, and suggests possibilities of action and feeling which would not have occurred to an uninstructed mind’.

It selects from past lives the elements which were significant and important; it fills our thoughts with splendid examples, and with the desire for greater ends than unaided reflection would have discovered. It relates the present to the past, and thereby the future to the present. It makes visible and living the growth and greatness of nations, enabling us to extend our hopes beyond the span of our own lives. In all these ways, a knowledge of history is capable of giving to statesmanship, and to our daily thoughts, a breadth and scope unattainable by those whose view is limited to the present.

And the same is true in other senses. The great library of world literature would be the poorer, I would argue, without many historical works which contain much to be admired and emulated in purely literary terms. And indeed, there is something lyrical, even beautiful, about Russell’s own writing on this subject. Witness the following assessment of history’s power to transfigure death into a kind of solemn permanence.

The past alone is truly real: the present is but a painful, struggling birth into the immutable being of what is no longer. Only the dead exist fully. The lives of the living are fragmentary, doubtful, and subject to change; but the lives of the dead are complete, free from the sway of Time, the all-but omnipotent lord of the world. Their failures and successes, their hopes and fears, their joys and pains, have become eternal – our efforts cannot now abate one jot of them. Sorrows long buried in the grave, tragedies of which only a fading memory remains, loves immortalized by Death’s hallowing touch – these have a power, a magic, an untroubled calm, to which no present can attain.

Furthermore, Russell writes, ‘[y]ear by year, comrades die, hopes prove vain, ideals fade; the enchanted land of youth grows more remote, the road of life more wearisome; the burden of the world increases, until the labour and the pain become almost too heavy to be borne; joy fades from the weary nations of the earth, and the tyranny of the future saps men’s vital force; all that we love is waning, waning from the dying world’. There is hope, however; and it is to be found in the vitality of history.

But the past, ever devouring the transient offspring of the present, lives by the universal death; steadily, irresistibly, it adds new trophies to its silent temple, which all the ages build; every great deed, every splendid life, every achievement and every heroic failure, is there enshrined. On the banks of the river of Time, the sad procession of human generations is marching slowly to the grave; in the quiet country of the Past, the march is ended, the tired wanderers rest, and all their weeping is hushed.

This is the role of history, and in that it has tremendous power, immense influence, and a kind of transcendent, fabled beauty. Through history, it is possible individuals ‘to transcend their blindness and brevity in the slow unfolding of the tremendous drama in which all play their part’.

The personages and events and conflicts forged the present live still in history. And history rings with the ‘clash of arms, the hatreds and oppressions, the blind conflicts of dumb nations’; now they ‘are all still, like a distant waterfall; but slowly, out of the strife, the nations that we know emerged, with a heritage of poetry and piety transmitted from the buried past’.

It is the endeavour of the historian to summon images of the past to the minds of the living; to elucidate those mysteries that exist to the benefit of the present; and to do so with humility, humanity and a sense of the smallness of the individual. In many way historians are the custodians of cherished memories; and the task that role entails deserves respect and solemnity. As Woodrow Wilson once wrote: ‘Most troublesome questions are thus handed over, sooner or later, to the historian’. The next phrase, coming as it does from a future President of the United States, is especially telling: ‘It is his vexation that they do not cease to be troublesome because they have been finished with by statesmen, and laid aside as practically settled.’ ‘It is a wonder’, Wilson writes,’ that historians who take their business seriously can sleep at night.’