To understand politics, you must understand history. But how?
Napoleon crowning himself as Emperor
In our dire political moment, we scramble for action in the present, but we also search history for precedent and warning. It was both bitterly meaningful and completely random that November 9, the day after Trump’s election, also happened to be, in the French revolutionary calendar, the “eighteenth Brumaire,” the anniversary of the coup against the Directory that brought Napoleon to supreme power in 1799. When Marx wrote “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” in 1851-2, he mocked Louis Napoleon-Bonaparte’s imitation of his uncle in naming himself emperor and overthrowing the Second Republic. “All great world-historic facts and personages” repeat themselves, he asserted, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Sounds relevant, sort of! But what exactly is being repeated—is it the George W. Bush presidency or the advent of fascism? Both of those arguably started as farce, too.
Maybe history repeats itself as this kind of slowly-degrading reassemblage of basic component parts. William Morris, though, had a more hopeful view. His patient studies of British medieval history and craftwork, combined with an excited reading of Marxist revolutionary theory during the 1880s, convinced him that the utopian future could be a throwback to medieval village life, but free of all state and feudal power. In this future, which he envisions in his utopian novel News from Nowhere, the violent revolution of the 1950s has destroyed all Britain’s industries and building stock—and the workers, driven by a fierce hunger for freedom, return to a more natural life with an “intense and overweening love for the very skin and surface of the earth on which man dwells, such as a lover has in the fair flesh of the woman he loves.” Morris loved art most of all, and despised modern civilization for its ugliness, hopelessness, and spiritual oppression.
Morris’s library: studying the past to imagine the future
Twentieth century communism did not turn out as he had envisioned it. But Morris, who died in 1896, was not entirely an idealist. He travelled the country lecturing to working men’s associations and trade unions, inspiring generations of British Labour Party activists, socialists, and artists, as well as today’s eco-critics. In an 1887 letter to his daughter Jane, he recounted how he spent Easter Monday marching with Newcastle colliers in “a wretched looking country enough,” eventually climbing on a wagon (“If yon man does na stand on the top we canna hear him!”) to speak to the assembled, “a big crowd of eager & serious persons.” His historicist vision was essentially optimistic, envisioning a re-vivification, a re-flowering, a return to a more meaningful way of life. History in his view can burst into the present in beautiful revolutionary form, pushing society into a better and more sustainable set of conditions. Morris did not live to see fascism, either, in which the past bursts into the present in much more Gothic fashion. In fascism, a toxic pastiche of ethnic domination and hyper-modern technology, the pre-modern past has persisted into the current day in the form of das Volk, the originary fantasy body of the nation-state. Its dream world is that of Inquisitions, of dungeons, of the castle with the demented patriarch imprisoning the fair maiden, and of dark political magic that leads to death. When you open your history book, be careful what you wish for.
I adore Morris’s gorgeous neo-medieval patterns, but as a stodgy liberal I probably lean more toward George Bernard Shaw’s solution to the class warfare of the 1880s and ’90s, which was the long, slow attempt to build a welfare state. As part of the Fabian Society, Shaw was also part of a socialist movement toward a better life for the working class, albeit one that renounced revolution in favor of endless policy pamphlets and insider lobbying. Shaw, like Morris, worked hard lecturing and helping hold together a fragile coalition, at one point being elected to office in the municipal position of vestryman for St. Pancras Borough Council. After a decade or two of this kind of thing, in an atmosphere of social conflict and strikes, and by assembling many different coalitions, England was able to build a Labour Party. Unlike Morris, Shaw lived well into the 20th century, and though he never renounced socialism he gradually became disillusioned with some of its Victorian hopes for progress.
The other thing people always say about history (supposedly this is a quote by George Santayana) is that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” But note: the quote does not say that if you do remember the past you are not doomed to repeat it. I would like to believe in a Victorian-style Whig theory of progress, in which bright hopes lead to useful struggle. But maybe we scholars in literary studies have been coasting on the assumption that “always historicizing,” a progressive project to break the spell of false naturalism that disguises power arrangements as “natural” and “common sense” by showing how things used to be different and therefore can be changed, is the only vibrant way that we can engage with the past. Just such a re-thinking has been happening in my little subfield of Victorian studies in the last year or so, inspired by the V21 manifesto with its call for a “strategic presentism.” In response to the manifesto, which set off a furious transatlantic debate, I think there has been a meta-historicist turn in Victorian studies. (Look here for debates from last fall’s V21 conference in Chicago.)
Strawberry Thief–or clever cherry-picking cultural historian
People in the 19th century certainly did about a million different other things with their fantasies of history, and maybe some of them deserve to be emulated as well as critiqued. I’m not saying we can cure history by fantasizing a neo-medieval utopia, but the attempt to cure history through archival work may also be partial. Literature itself, with its uncanny persistence, slides out of history even as you look at it, bearing seeds of both the past and the future within it. Sometimes a Broadway musical can create a community by making (a little bit) free with history as an act of testimony—and sometimes history takes a disorienting turn and becomes unprecedented and virtually un-narratable. Fantasy and history feed into each other, and we will need to study both to keep our bearings.