“But when fundamentals are doubted, as at present, we must try to recover the candour and wonder of the child; the unspoilt realism of and objectivity of innocence. Or, if we cannot do that, we must try at least to shake off the cloud of mere custom and see the thing as new, if only by seeing it as unnatural.” – G K Chesterton
I am passionate about ensuring that history is taught with a sense of contingency and agency. Seldom is there anything more boring than a recitation of dates and data that exist outwith an understanding of their relevancy. That’s not to say that sort of teaching is commonplace (far from it), though I think it helps to articulate the importance of uncertainty amongst the people we study.
Most acutely, I think this sense can be seen when talking about decolonization. There is a marked tendency amongst students to assume that the last years of colonial rule in a place like French West Africa were essentially a yawning realisation of imperialism’s end. This fundamentally overwrites all of the possibilities and contingencies explored by people at the time, in government, in public and in thought. The idea of what was going to happen was something that ineluctably shaped the ability of ordinary people to respond to these challenges. Perhaps the most pertinent example is the ‘ticking clock’ of the Geneva negotiations that amplified the horror of the battle at Dien Bien Phu, as France sought to hold onto its Indochinese colonies in 1954. The agreement to commence peace negotiations between Indochinese nationalists and the French drove the nationalists to pursue what US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles called “a knock out this season”, by pressing victories against the French to influence negotiations. The anticipation of how the negotiations would unfold were strategic on behalf of the Viet Minh, though they were also uncertain. This example is specific, but communicates how the anticipation of an outcome can drive forward the action itself.
Visions of the future could motivate nationalists to intensify their struggle when they saw their future at its most precarious. Worries about disorder could push the hand of colonial officials who sought to pacify dissent. Yet even at the very top, amongst statesmen and spokesmen, their idea of how things would pan out could steer their minds and write their words.
Likewise, in a recent class, I was teaching about the series of conferences that predated the offer of Marshall Aid. Britain and France began to construct an ‘All Europe Group’ to negotiate with the USA which pointedly excluded the USSR. In the words of Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Minister:
“the main concern of the French government was to disarm domestic criticism to the effect that Russia had not been given in good faith a full and cordial opportunity to join in the discussions at the outset.”
Yet, as the American Ambassador Jefferson Caffery related:
“they hope the Soviets will refuse to cooperate and that in any event they will be prepared to ‘go ahead full steam even if the Soviets refuse to do so.’”
In this brief moment, the ostracising of the Soviet Union was yet to be confirmed, the ossification of Cold War politics yet to be realised. I tried to stress to students that it was important for us to ask why people were acting certain ways in the negotiation – what did they think was going to happen? One student complained that this was essentially counter-factual, and didn’t really help us understand the process. I disagree.
Understanding how people framed their own visions of the future in historical context is massively important. It is also fundamentally difficult to establish beyond reading memoirs and frank accounts of discussions. Yet it is also important for the historian not to project their own teleological understanding onto the person or people you’re studying. How someone thought colonialism would play out directly influenced their own beliefs and their own propensity for action. The suspicion of the Soviet Union dominated western discussions during the aforementioned meetings, though there were attempts to bridge these gaps. At each stage, the way that participants framed their own future directly impacted upon their decisions and motivations.
I thought of this again when I re-read the introduction of Francis Spufford’s fantastic book ‘Red Plenty’. Within this piece, the construction of a ‘Soviet Moment’, in which it seemed for a brief period that the Soviets might have just cracked it, was as illusory as it was based on confident projections of the future. How much of Khrushchev’s bullishness, how many of his unusual plans were based on a vision of the future that was born and died within a decade?
This may well be something that is particularly pronounced in the late modern period. If we take someone like Reinhart Koselleck as a guiding definition of modernity – wherein it serves as a sort of golden ratio between ‘the space of experience’ and the ‘horizon of expectation’ – we start to see just how much this idea of our own forecasting influences our actions. The actors in the scenarios I described expressed their own ideas about how future events would take shape. There are yards and yards of archival material that point out just this sort of forecasting. Engaging with their visions of the future (even if they did not come to pass) is not counter-factual, therefore, but a necessary act when charting the unrolling of events.
To see through the eyes of our subjects can reinforce the honesty that comes with contingency. We can ensure that, in the words of Chesterton, ‘the objectivity of innocence’ sits alongside the cynical eye of the historical analyst.