21 August 2009

History is the Memory of States

In the opening chapter of A People's History of the United States (1980), Howard Zinn explains his bias. His history examines case studies of the downtrodden—African Americans, laborers, women, anti-war activists—rather than constructing a narrative that covers the breadth of the main events in American history. In a critical paragraph, he marks clearly his disagreement with Henry Kissinger.
"History is the memory of states," wrote Henry Kissinger in his first book, A World Restored, in which he proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the viewpoint of the leaders of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from those statesmen's policies. From his standpoint, the "peace" that Europe had before the French Revolution was "restored" by the diplomacy of a few national leaders. But for factory workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women and children everywhere except in the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, exploitation—a world not restored but disintegrated.
Zinn, A People's History, 9-10
Does Zinn accurately represent the views of those he cites? Does he quote accurately? Out of context? Here are the two paragraphs in which the sentence appears.
A physical law is an explanation and not a description, and history teaches by analogy, not identity. This means that the lessons of history are never automatic, that they can be apprehended only by a standard which admits the significance of a range of experience, that the answers we obtain will never be better than the questions we pose. No profound conclusions were drawn in the natural sciences before the significance of sensory experience was admitted by what was essentially a moral act. No significant conclusions are possible in the study of foreign affairs—the study of states acting as units—without an awareness of the historical context. For societies exist in time more than in space. At any given moment a state is but a collection of individuals, as positivist scholars have never wearied of pointing out. But it achieves identity through the consciousness of a common history. This is the only "experience" nations have, their only possibility of learning from themselves. History is the memory of states.

To be sure, states tend to be forgetful. It is not often that nations learn from the past, even rarer that they draw the correct conclusions from it. For the lessons of historical experience, as of personal experience, are contingent. They teach the consequences of certain actions, but they cannot force a recognition of comparable situations. An individual may have experienced that a hot stove burns but, when confronted with a metallic object of a certain size, he must decide from case to case whether it is in fact a stove before his knowledge will prove useful. A people may be aware of the probable consequences of a revolutionary situation. But its knowledge will be empty if it cannot recognize a revolutionary situation. There is this difference between physical and historical knowledge, however: each generation is permitted only one effort of abstraction; it can attempt only one interpretation and a single experiment, for it is its own subject. This is the challenge of history and its tragedy; it is the shape "destiny" assumes on the earth. And its solution, even its recognition, is perhaps the most difficult task of statesmanship.
Henry A. Kissinger, A World Restored: Europe after Napoleon: The Politics of Conservatism in a Revolutionary Age (1964 [1957]), 331-332 [emphasis added]
From this brief passage, it seems that Kissinger's statement has to do with the nature of diplomatic history, and does not exclude the sort of cultural history Zinn favors. It may be true that Kissinger's text does not address the experiences of the suffering masses, but what does such an orientation do to the subfield of diplomatic history? Kissinger's book, it must be remembered, started as a doctoral dissertation at Harvard. His professors were not expecting a dissertation on social history.

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