Saturday, December 11, 2004


I'm steaming at the moment. I went to a conference this morning on 18th Century revolutions, (it was free so I thought I might as well) organised by York History Department and left half way through. It was dismal. Actually, I'm being unfair there - a lot of it was very interesting, but something really pissed me off. I knew beforehand that it wasn't going to be radical history and it was clear from the moment I arrived from the preponderance of yellow Pringle sweaters, side partings and white haired gents in tweed sports jackets amongst the delegates that the Centre for 18th Century Studies was not exactly a hotbed of leftism. However, despite all this, I was still completely taken aback by the response to one of my comments. I'm still concocting witty replies in my head - the things I should have said at the time, but didn't, because it's still winding me up. I think the Germans have a term for this kind of mental anguish after the event which translates as 'the inspiration of the stairs'. Probly.

The incident occured after I had sat through a paper on the Brabant Revolution in Belgium. It wasn't particularly interesting, but I thought I'd have a go at asking a question anyway, since I hadn't said anything about the previous papers on the French Revolution. I asked what the speaker could say about the class base of the Belgian Revolution - it seemed to me that while the driving force behind 1789 in France could be said to have been the sans cullottes and petit-bourgeoisie, the Belgian Revolution was very much a process of manouevring amongst social elites. A reasonable enough question you might have thought. The speaker didn't have to agree with the premises of the question and I suppose I might as well have been holding a big sign above my head saying 'Marxist!', but it didn't seem a particularly silly question. I distinctly remember the sight and sound of several sports jacket wearing historians in the audience rolling their eyes and sighing dramatically. The paper giver (a woman from Belgium) looked at me for a second as if I had just fallen out of a space-ship and then replied that 'Well, actually, elites always do intitiate and drive historical change in these situations' (or something similar) and proceeded to give me an account of how the French and Belgian revolutionary elites had merely sought to secure popular assent for their actions and that this was about as far as popular class involvement in history goes.

I didn't reply. I wish I did. I should have said to the paper giver and to the wise, tweedy head nodders in the audience that if you made the sweeping normative assertion that it was self-evident that elites intitiate and drive historical change in a seminar in the philosophy or political philosophy departments, you would at the very least be greeted with amazed incredulity and, possibly, you'd be laughed out of the room. I'm not annoyed so much that I was confronted with conservative history - but that the conservativeness of this history seemed unacknowledged. It was presented as common sense and as self-evident. How on earth academics can get away with such bold assertions containing implicit normative assumptions so large that you can see them a mile off is beyond me. Maybe 18th Century historians tend to be like that.

Not impressed.

Now, I'm off to cool down.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?