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. Continue reading

Introducing the Annales Approach to History

They were heady days when the first issue of a new history journal was published. The cataclysmic disruptor, the Great War, had ended and many people in the western world were revelling in the moment on a giddy ride skimming the crests of a sea of change. Others were churning the waters in their desire to shed the old ways, to think and do differently. Everything was challenged.

While momentous change is flung in the face of people through stupendous events, the stirring of the sea that leads to such an upset can be seen in retrospect to have been developing long before the event. The publication of the new history journal, Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, in January 1929 formalised a profound change in the way history was written that can be traced back years before.

Western history was political history for much of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. In the halls of cultural power, the history of important, dead, white men was the only history that mattered. But challengers were emerging, among whom were the Marxists. They shone the light on the mass of people previously ignored, and the social and economic structures that shaped their lives. Yet the traditional accounts of history still held sway in the late 1920s when the Annales journal emerged from the University of Strasbourg. Continue reading