Here I have written far more than I set out to (it was originally supposed to be a couple of tweets), and this awkwardly-sized post is only intended to flag an issue rather than deal with it in a systematic way. That is a task for the distant future when I have more time for it. Something else that is relevant but I felt was a little too much to discuss on this occasion is the question of present agendas in historians’ work.
Since I began working on free trade history it’s been quite interesting to see the kinds of things people will infer from my choice of subject matter – like my feelings about the things I study and extrapolations from this about my opinions and positions in present day politics. A curious idea I’ve come across is that a person choosing to give their time to a particular subject is them also giving an endorsement or tacit approval of that subject. Another is that a person not clearly stating their political positions in relation to their subject is cause for suspicion. A strong implication seems to be that the historian should get their politics out in plain view straight up, because we know that an objective stance in historical work isn’t possible – so it’s best if we’re all very explicit about the political projects motivating our work. A detached posture and political ambiguity could perhaps be cover for something nasty, and we need to avoid any appearance of surreptitiously endorsing problematic ideas.
Hearing these ideas has made me wonder about how people view the relationship between their political commitments and their academic commitments, and if they are indeed thoughtful about it. There is, of course, an obvious and freely-stated relationship between some people’s political stance and their academic work. Perhaps those people assume that this same relationship is present among everyone and that the people who aren’t forthcoming about it are being deliberately deceptive and concealing something unsavoury. The choice to study something or not is significant and can certainly say particular things about a person’s priorities; I’m sure this is sometimes quite clearly a choice tied to politics, and other times less obviously so – but overly imaginative assumptions here seem dangerous.
Navigating political and academic commitments is a great concern of mine. The tension that I feel between them hovered in the background for some time until I actually began to think seriously about what it means for me to be a Marxist and also an intellectual historian. This an ongoing project. I am indebted to many generous friends and colleagues who I discuss these things with. These are questions of politics and epistemology and ethics that keep me up at night, and I can’t help but be a little incensed that I’m struggling behind the scenes with a lot of hard intellectual work while having some uncharitable assumptions made about me.
I do have a collection of broad questions and aims that animate the work I’m doing. In what sense they are “political” is not a simple matter. I have goals I want to achieve with my work, interventions I want to make in existing historiography and debates, bridges I want to make across intellectual history and political history and economic history. I am happy to be upfront about these things, but am often coy about specifics simply because I don’t like to think in public. I am a bit too proud and shy and insecure to put my half-formed ideas out into the world. Not everyone needs to see how the sausage is made.
Importantly, though: the aims attached to my work are not simply something I’ve brought over wholesale from the realm of my political views and plopped on top of the information I am collecting from my archival sources and so on. They have formed slowly, sometimes coming from political ideas and questions, sometimes from ideas in other academic work, sometimes from the archives, and they continue to change and shift as my knowledge base expands and my ideas (hopefully) become more sophisticated.
My academic aims and questions have relationships to modern day politics that are complex and may not make a lot of sense to people who aren’t also thinking about the same things a lot. Free trade has been claimed by certain political and economic groups in the present day but its history drastically complicates its “fit” into any twenty-first century group; study all this for a while and a question like “is free trade good or bad?” will sound as strange and almost beside-the-point to you as it now is to me. My motivation for studying what I do isn’t really about my opinion on historical trade policies or even on present day trade policies. It’s about things like, Where did modern arguments for free trade come from and why did they evolve the way they did? Why is the modern day relationship between politics and economics so tense and confused? What is the relationship between the state and the economy in terms of conceptions of and regulation of trade? When did “the economy” emerge as a distinct entity both in practice and in discourse?
So: I am baffled by people who would demand an explicit statement of my politics before presentation of my academic work. On the one hand, yes, I will gladly lay it all out, but how much time do you have? On the other – why do you need this? What does your need to know my political opinions say about your own conception of the relationship between politics and academic practice? There’s some thinking to be done here. Going straight to suspecting others of “bad” politics due to a lack of explicitly-stated political opinions is a bit shabby.