Review: The History Manifesto

Book cover of The History Manifesto

The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage, (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Historians, turn to the longue durée and focus your minds on the needs of our age. Your insights are needed to address intractable global issues such as climate change, inequality and governance. Dig deep into long time to assist policy makers to steer humanity into a better place.

This is the siren call of The History Manifesto. Written by historians, Jo Guldi of Brown University and David Armitage of Harvard, The History Manifesto seeks to change the direction of the discipline, to make it not only relevant to the world at large but an active contributor of solutions that speaks to the yearning of today.

In my previous post about the Annales school of historians I explained the term longue durée as it was conceived in the middle of the twentieth century. Guldi and Armitage explain how this approach to history fell out of favour in the latter decades of that century and was replaced by interest in micro-history. Micro-histories shone the light on histories that had been obscured in the old-style nationalist political histories, such as the lives of the working class and the subalterns who were marginalised by colonial powers.

Now historians need to embrace the ‘new longue durée’ in their work, say Guldi and Armitage. The new longue durée draws on its Annales heritage but it focusses on the future and its connection to the past as well as responding to the current intellectual environment and modern research tools.

Using the issues of climate change, inequality and governance, the authors explain the value that historians can give by plumbing long periods of the past to explore alternative ways of thinking about current problems. Guldi and Armitage explain that historians can do this by highlighting the evidence that humanity has free will to decide its future, the importance of ‘counter-factual thinking’ and the exploration of alternative ways of doing things that could bring about a better future.

Climate change, evolutionary anthropology, and economics may well paint a self-portrait of the species as a victim of its selfish genes, of DNA that instructs us towards greed and exploitation no matter what, but history and anthropology are always reminding us of the variety of human values and forms of mutual aid.

p. 31

Throughout The History Manifesto, economics and evolutionary biology are criticised for presenting a view of the future tainted by theories which history can demonstrate are based on false premises. Humanity has always had choices about the future. There are too many examples of creative collaboration in the past for us to submit to the depressing view that we are all sinners who must submit to an apocalyptic future where the poor will be punished and our planet savagely denuded.

We need to challenge the past if we are to build a different future. This is where counter-factual thinking plays a role. Guldi and Armitage share the work of geneticist Wes Jackson and mathematicians who are using counter-factual questions to explore questions of sustainability. What if there were no highways along which spare parts for a tractor could be sent? What if there were no highways and no airplanes? Would farmers still be able to use tractors? Guldi and Armitage offer a counterfactual question that many people have raised and which needs deep thought: “…what if protecting the planet requires rejecting prosperity”? (p. 33)

Micro-histories, observe Guldi and Armitage, concentrated on stories of victims rather than highlighting the work of people in the past who tried a different way of living to address the problems of their times. History shows us that the past was not uniform – buried therein we may find ideas we need today:

Those proliferating pasts and alternative societies point us to a horizon of alternative and proliferating possible futures. In conversations such as these, history speaks to economics and climate science about the diversity of past responses and future possibilities.

p. 35

The second chapter of The History Manifesto reviews the recent past of history, the decline of the longue durée and the rise of the ‘short past’. The authors are critical of the myopic focus of the discipline over the last forty years which they argue has led to historians being sidelined in the critical public debates of this time and ignored by policy makers.

Yet, Guldi and Armitage recognise and acknowledge the value of the last forty years of work on the ‘short past’. “The micro-historians revolutionised historical writing about unions and racism, the nature of whiteness, and the production of history itself”, they observe (p. 45). In advocating the revival of the longue durée form of history the authors are not saying that the work on the ‘short past’ and micro-histories produced bad history and should be abandoned:

No scholar should argue for eliminating this important micro-work, the recovery of the subaltern and the patient sifting of the archives, from the work of history… historians can salvage the search for crucial pivots, turning-points, and clues, by which outstanding normal experience can illuminate the whole.

p. 120

Rather, they warn of the need to connect this history to a broader context and for the historian to state the underlying purpose of their research. “[M]icro-history that fails to reconnect to larger narratives, and to state frankly what it hopes to overturn and what to uphold, may court antiquarianism”, they argue (p. 121).

‘Relevance’ is the watchword of twenty-first century university research, urged on by academic funding bodies in a number of countries. Guldi and Armitage are also urging historians to make their work more relevant to the concerns of the times in which they live.

It was not until the conclusion that Guldi and Armitage raised the issue that has concerned me and is the reason why I started writing this blog. If historians are to influence public debates they need to write in a way that will engage non-experts (p. 117). Historians already do deep research and profound analysis but the final step in historical work does not always get the attention it needs. Obscure use of words, tedious paragraphs and plodding narratives will not capture the public’s attention or inspire readers to break the fetters of old ways that currently prevent us from creating the world in which we want to live.

This blog is read by readers of many different backgrounds, teachers, librarians, historians, book reviewers, family historians and more. Their comments give some insight into what historians need to do to connect to the public. This is what a reader of this blog, who has degrees in criminology and law, says he wants from historians:

I want to have access to history in a way that I can digest without walking away feeling like I’ve just had a dictionary jammed down my throat or that I’m dumb.

That’s why I like your blog – you tell it to us in plain English like you are having a conversation with us. And it’s why I love Tony Robinson’s television programs – because he tells us stories that we can relate to. He takes history from being something boring to being alive and relevant today.”

Andrew Giles, comment on ‘Historians Ask: Who is our audience?‘, 24/7/2013

Many historians recognise the need to engage with the public and want to do it. As Guldi and Armitage note, there are a growing number of historians writing personal blogs and tweeting. Despite poor funding historians contribute to traditional media such as the excellent Australian history radio program, Hindsight (the victim of recent government budget cuts to the knowledge and cultural sector). Yet the performance criteria under which many academic historians work don’t credit this valuable contribution. Historians are under pressure from these performance criteria to be published in prestigious academic journals which are behind significant paywalls and to publish academic tomes. For many, the only way to consistently reach out to the public is to work in their free time with little real recognition from their employer. The authors don’t mention this issue – maybe their universities are more encouraging of this type of work?

While The History Manifesto is not directed at a general audience, the opening salvo eschews the language of academic obscurity:

A spectre is haunting our time: the spectre of the short-term. We live in a moment of accelerating crisis that is characterised by the shortage of long-term thinking.

p. 1

This book demands to be noticed. It uses strong statements and does not hedge its conclusions. However at times it over-reaches in its bid to be provocative. The chapter about history, technology and big data is the most challenging section of the book. I will  devote my next post to a review of this chapter so will only touch one aspect of it here.

‘War Between the Experts’ declares a section in this chapter. We have the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war in xyz country, the centenary of World War I, yet the authors feel the need to declare another war. In a book that is seeking to inject hope into a moribund world, that has devoted so many pages to convincing historians that we can help humanity find new ways of dealing with our issues, Guldi and Armitage revert to the tired-old language of violent competition and unnecessary conflict.

The arbitration of data is a role in which History departments of major research universities will almost certainly take a lead; it requires talents and training which no other discipline possesses.

p. 107

The authors are not talking about ‘arbitration of data’ in the IT sense, but are proposing that history alone is capable of assessing all kinds of historical data from diverse sources, whether quantitative or qualitative. It is another opportunity for the authors to remind readers about the fundamental problems of the narratives produced by evolutionary biology and economics. While this section succeeds in its argument that historians should be at the table whenever historical data is being discussed, I step back from the implication that historians aspire to displace other disciplines and take over this work.

The authors observe that with the development of technology there may be changes in the backgrounds of future historians, “as time spent in other professional arenas or training in computer science will become a potential asset to the field” (p. 114). I am one of a number of historians who come from a different professional background. I originally trained as an accountant and loved studying macro-economics while at university, then I worked in public relations. I had worked for many years before I returned to university and fulfilled my life-long promise to myself to study history. It is probably because of the fact that I come from a different disciplinary background that I tired of the beating that some other disciplines take in this book.

I have no trouble accepting that economics and evolutionary biology need a major rethink. I saw the problems of economists becoming absorbed in the mathematical beauty of their work which clouded their ability to question the problematic underlying assumptions upon which it was based. Take one look at the long-running dispute between political economy and economics at the University of Sydney and you can see the extent of the problems caused by a discipline that has become beholden to one ideology or another.

Is economic thought dead? While neo-liberal economists dominate the policy field in many western countries, even the authors acknowledge the valuable work of the economist Thomas Picketty. The discipline is aware of the shortcomings of basic economic measures such as gross domestic product, that it does not include the labour of parents in the home and a whole host of other productive activities. First year economics students are taught about these issues.

The cover with a cartoon of Marx, Smith, Keynes and Friedman at a Mad Hatter's tea party.

May 2009 issue of Charter, the magazine of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. 

Accounting is a closely related discipline to economics and there are signs from this field that a profound shift in economic thought may be in the offing. The journal of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia is the last place you would expect to read a critique of capitalism, but there it was on the front cover –  “the future of capitalism: Is the party over?” The cover of the signature publication of a conservative profession featured a Mad Hatter’s tea party with Karl Marx at the table with Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman. The article considered the perspectives of the major movements of economic thought in the twentieth century. It even included an interview with the secretary of the Australian Communist Alliance. I was astonished.

Cover of Six Capitals by Jane Gleeson-White

Six Capitals by Jane Gleeson-White, (Allen & Unwin, 2014). Read my review of this book in Newtown Review of Books.

This May 2009 article could be dismissed as simply a knee-jerk reaction to the Global Financial Crisis, but something is definitely stirring in the profession. I am in the midst of reading Six Capitals by Jane Gleeson-White which explains how accountants (including those working in some of the largest global firms) are developing a new system of national and corporate accounting that better measures other forms of wealth including the natural environment. The author, Jane Gleeson-White, comes from an economics background. She starts the book with a chapter that reviews long history of wealth creation as depicted by Alvin Toffler in his book, The Third Wave. While the dominant strand of economics is flawed, at the edges there are a growing number of people who are rethinking the discipline.

There are many disciplines that have a legitimate claim to be experts in assessing historical data. Statisticians are not even mentioned in this book, but they are specifically trained to deal with quantitative data of all kinds. Accountants are also trained in dealing with historical quantitative data of a different sort. How can historians take the lead in discussions about quantitative data when so few historians receive training in quantitative methods?

We are in a new age and a feature of this age is collaboration. It is through collaboration between people of different skills and different cultures that great strides will be made. In universities great advances can be made by exploring beyond the silos of disciplines and departments. Inter-disciplinary collaboration is starting to occur and some exciting work is emerging.

A few historians have already recognised this. They have gravitated towards the new area of digital humanities. In this inclusive camp specialists in literature, history, anthropology, religious studies and the other disciplines in the humanities work together to explore the use of technology in humanities research. Guldi and Armitage draw on the work of digital humanists in The History Manifesto, especially in their ‘Big Data’ chapter.

Historians are just starting out in their exploration of big data. Quite rightly Guldi and Armitage see this as a field with big potential for historians. Hopefully we shall see historians joining more multi-disciplinary research teams in the future.

The most important contribution of The History Manifesto is that it urges historians to show the world that history demonstrates that humanity has free will to shape its own destiny. It presents history as a discipline of hope that can offer the world alternatives for the future. We can and need to shake off the chains of false ‘natural laws’ and tired old ideologies. Through history we can develop the confidence to boldly step forward.

This book’s mission is to revive the contract between historians and the world. Guldi and Armitage want to stimulate debate amongst historians about the direction of their discipline. In this it is succeeding as the number of blog posts and #historymanifesto tweets indicate. This book is provocative and each reader is bound to find some point of disagreement, but its overall message and the discussions it stimulates demonstrate the worth of this work.

The authors and publisher, Cambridge University Press, have demonstrated their desire to stimulate debate about the longue durée by making this book open access. If you are an historian you should read this 175 page book which you can easily download, or you can buy your copy.

Further Reading

Some time after publishing this post I have added the following reviews which contribute to the debate about this book:

I have subsequently edited this post to correct my erroneous assertion that Guldi and Armitage did not refer to the field of digital humanities in the book. This field was mentioned once in chapter four and is referenced in the index. 

As promised, in my next post, ‘The History Manifesto and Big Data‘, I discuss the ‘Big data and big questions’ chapter of The History Manifesto.

In ‘Reflecting on My Work, Big Data and The History Manifesto‘, I talk about my research about the beliefs of Australian soldiers in World War I, the challenges when faced with the millions of words that are in the soldier diaries that I am examining and what The History Manifesto has meant for my work.

9 thoughts on “Review: The History Manifesto

  1. Hi Yvonne, I want to reply more fully to this comprehensive and brilliant exposé of a series of problems and challenges for our discipline of scholarship. Unfortunately, I have domestic craziness exploding around me, and I won’t have time for a few days.

    I will signal the support for respecting a multitude of disciplines and the insights they bring — some good, some not so good. But I think that the pay-out by historians on the limitations on the other disciplines have come as a pay-back for the way that sociology, and other areas, have sort to shape history for their own ends, leaving the historian out of the equation.

    I’ll get back to discussing this soon.


    • I am reading the Jane Glesson-White book and I am appreciating how it is a counter-balance to the criticisms of economics in The History Manifesto. Life is intervening for me also which is limiting my time for reading which is a bit frustrating. I hope you get the chance to read The History Manifesto soon.


      • I have had a look at the website, . I am overwhelmed by what has been provided, and the relevance of manifesto. Even if everyone will have something to disagree with, it is very pleasing. The heart of the message, which you well described in the first part of the blog, is something that all professional historians will see worthy of discussing, and will find some accommodation in their work.

        I have printed out my own copy of the manuscript. I have registered to follow the global discussion. I would be keen to have local conversations on the manifesto and our own work with colleagues. I have send out an opinion piece to the PHA (Qld) Facebook Group, explaining this publishing phenomenon and asking for local participation.

        “I step back from the implication that historians aspire to displace other disciplines and take over this work.” As I suggested above, there is probably something of pay-back here. In the past, with the best of intentions for multi-discipline study, we have had an encroachment into history work with models of literary criticism, sociology, environmental studies, and so forth. Things went wrong when the tyranny of theory squeezes out the role of the historian. I remember well in the mid-1980s, with the start of the post-modernist charm, an English postgraduate student telling me, at the O-week stalls, that “history was dead” and I was wasting my time in a discipline which was no longer theoretical relevant. I think many historians like myself are bitter at the postmodernist fad which led us up some dead-ends, but also made it difficult — if not impossible — to get an academic position.

        I still believe the humanities disciplines do well to inform each other, but we should not make one discipline simply an adjunct to another. If I do history, I do history, and not sociology. This is something I do think about quite a lot. As your second area (or one of them) is economics, mine is philosophy. I find that I generally agree with William James’ argument that philosophy is the mother of the humanities, giving birth to all the social sciences, and arts, except probably literature and history, which was there with philosophy in the Ancient Greek incubator. Even so, all of the fields are distinct, with distinctive sets of methods and questions. I do believe that my studies and passion for philosophy informs my history. My business tagline is “Understanding history is philosophy in practice.” Nevertheless, I know when I am doing history and when I am doing philosophy, and I know the difference between reading philosophy and reading history. The trouble is that the fields are not like solos. Ideas are never in complete isolation. There are always some shared terrain. Furthermore, the question of ‘what is’ , as in ‘what is history’ and ‘what is philosophy’, has proven to be a very large and very debatable area. Hence, let the debate proceed, and we will have some answers, even if they are never complete.


      • “The trouble is that the fields are not like solos. Ideas are never in complete isolation.” I agree that we should not abandon disciplinary boundaries to the extent that we create a sludge that gets us nowhere. Each discipline has something to contribute from their distinctive methodologies, questions and dare I say it – theories :-). Perhaps the analogy of an orchestra would be apt here? Each discipline plays its part, at various times one discipline or another plays a starring part, but always within the broader research world.


  2. Yvonne, I have just now completed a close and full read of The History Manifesto (two full weeks since our conversation here). Since there is much in the book, I have sliced what I thought were the important points of the argument into a long list of posts. I have divided the posts on Facebook between my open wall and the PHA (Qld) group site, according to the relevance of comments made. I’ll duplicate the posts in Google Plus and LinkedIn, picking and choosing for what is relevant for the sites.


  3. Thanks for this review and the discussion with Neville Buch. And particularly thanks for sharing your own past and its relevance to you as an historian. Just reading the review and not the book, I am ambivalent about the Manifesto. Yes, it is good to raise these issues to discuss, but I felt the points it made were either obvious or exaggerated. I also fear the lack of historical thinking in today’s world, and agree that historians need to write in ways that non-historians can read and appreciate, but I fear the stress on “relevance” for its own sake can result in giving up the particular value of doing history–which is the wrong aspect of our profession that we should surrender in our interaction with other disciplines. The past is both the same as today and different. Research and writing must be grounded in as accurate as possible an understanding of what has happened, at the same time it is presented in ways that connect it to today.


    • The fervour with which the book was written has led to the type of sweeping statements that leads to historians putting on their sceptical hats. Guldi and Armitage clearly wanted to shock historians into questioning fundamental aspects of how they work but this has potential to be counter-productive.But while some of the points were obvious or over-stated I think they need to be made. We need to periodically rethink what we are doing and explicitly examine the basic tenants and assumptions under which we work.

      I think that it is important to recognise and value the displine’s broad embrace. It is important that some historians continue to work in the way that Guldi and Armitage object to. I use a lot of IT tools and programming in my research but I don’t think that 100% of historians should work in the same manner as I do. There will always be great value in close reading, pen and paper, examining original documents in the archives etc. While inter-disciplinary work is very important I agree with you that we should not simply drop the valuable aspects of our discipline that has made it what it is. Although it is very important that a higher proportion of academic historians make it their business to connect with the public and other disciplines a proportion should continue to focus their interaction solely with other academics.

      We need to continue our ‘basic research’ where an historian does research because it interests them, irrespective of whether the public or other disciplines are interested. Sometimes this research will lead to an obscure dead-end, but other times this may lead to discoveries that will have a significant effect on the world. Guldi and Armitage focus on ‘applied research’ which starts with identifying what historical research could be done to help meet the needs of the world around us. Guldi and Armitage don’t think there are anywhere near enough historians working with this kind of focus. Professional historians do this kind of work all the time and a small number of academic historians also do this. I agree with Guldi and Armitage that more historians need to do this type of work.


  4. Just some layman’s observations:

    First, I don’t think the longue duree ever went away. But Braudel’s followers turned out be sociologists (Immanuel Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi), regionalists (Janet Abu-Lughod) or more interested in political than social history (Paul Kennedy). And they tended to be systematizers: nomothetic rather than idiographic. Fernand Braudel was already noting this trend in the last volume of Capitalism and Civilization. Academic social historians are welcome to return to the party, I’m sure, but a lot has been done since they left it.

    Second, I question whether the longue duree approach, in itself, actually lends itself to imagining alternative futures. Once you “get it” (in Braudel’s sense of learning to focus on economic and social structures, not on “events”) the discipline is exhilarating, but it’s also sobering, because constraints are brought into focus just as much as possibilities.

    So I suspect what really excites the manifesto’s authors are the types of modeling and scenario running, “counterfactual” analyses, that are coming into vogue as historical tools. History is way more fun and exciting if you can re-write it and, possibly, manipulate it to point to any future you want. Of course, you need long-series data to do that; hence this turn from the micro.

    t remains to be seen how this will turn out. To me, it seems like a kind of history informed by science fiction and simulation games – so I’m eager to actually read some research of this type to see if this bears out. At a different level, like all calls for relevance and engagement, it seems like the manifesto is a call to write more ideologically informed history. Well, that’s exactly what the Wallersteins and Arrighis were doing for the last 40 years. Their work happens to be “world-systems analysis” rather than “history”. Maybe what the manifesto’s authors are calling for should be called “historical modeling” rather than history. It’s certainly going to be a far cry from what Braudel wrote.


    • I agree with you that the longue durée approach never went away in other disciplines. Guldi and Armitage also observe this, pointing to the work of sociologist Jürgen Habermas and others. However the authors note that with the exception of military history, this approach has disappeared from the discipline of history over the last generation. The History Manifesto is directed at historians and is a call for historians to reconsider what a longue durée approach can offer. Yes, much work has been done in longue durée history by researchers from other disciplines since the time of Braudel. Historians will also be doing longue durée history very differently now given the findings of the last generation of historians using other approaches, the changes in social attitudes over the intervening period (which affects historians as much as any researcher) and the possibilities offered by technology.

      There is no perfect method to approach history. The discipline is stronger when a multiplicity of research methods and topics of research are used by historians around the world. This is where the enthusiasm of the authors for the longue durée approach may appear to give the impression that they are advocating the dropping of micro history. A careful reading of the book reveals that the authors do value the findings that have arisen from this approach and certainly would not welcome all histories being written from a longue durée perspective to the exclusion of other research approaches.

      On the matter of ideologically driven history the authors are very clear – they reject the twisting of history to support a particular political stance. “Long-term data about our past stand to make an intervention in the confused debates of economists and climate scientists merely by pointing out how experts become stuck in old patterns of practice and ideology”, they write (p. 55). They are arguing that historians must become more relevant to public debate in the topics they choose to research and the questions they seek to answer, but if the research leads to uncomfortable results so be it.

      Will the longue durée approach lead to coming up with alternative futures? The only way to know the answer to this is to use this approach and see what arises.


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