Entire histories of individual countries and peoples that are now on the “wrong” side for one view or another are being crossed out and become a direct target for “cancel culture”. Thus, here we see the struggle between the universalist and the national concept, not only in the sphere of identity and patterns of behaviour, but also in relation to history, and within the emerging universalist canon of rules, where national historical identities can become victims, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
A clash of values and ideologies plays a large role in the current geopolitical struggle. In this regard, history has also frequently become a battlefield for modern political controversies. The parties to the conflict use historical arguments to reinforce their positions. The politicisation of historical memory plays its most important role in the formation of modern national and other identities on both sides of the barricades.
Moreover, history is almost openly divided into “right” and “wrong”. The phrases “on the right side of history” and “on the wrong side of history” have become widely used and are taken by many for granted.
According to this narrative, those who are “on the wrong side” should reflect on their position, and it would be better if they quickly cross over to the right side. And not only in the political sense, but also in relation to history. Accordingly, the history that appears to be “wrong” (I repeat, on both sides of the barricades) should be crossed out from the array of modern knowledge and the information field, therefore, rejected and forgotten. In the same context, there is a great temptation to form a new universalist canon of history, the only correct one and cleared of the “wrong” sides. This canon, or rather, the opposing versions of it, the parties to the current conflict are offering to the Urbi et orbi, to everyone else who is ready to listen to them, for perception and reproduction.
All these tendencies shape and reinforce the relativistic approach to history. In a situation where history has become a tool to solve the most acute political problems, then the criterion to evaluate history and historical knowledge becomes a political assessment of its “correctness” or “incorrectness”. Naturally, political tasks are important; nobody would argue with that. They put forward demands on history, at a minimum, to draw clear dividing lines in the analysis of the past. Of course, one cannot say that these political demands have arisen only now and have the specifics of the current 21st century. Something similar has always happened before. However, the current value struggle for identity makes this political framework of history, perhaps, especially sharp and rigid in the context of modern tendencies towards “cancel culture”.
Amid these trends, it would be important to recall the methodological principles and approaches in historical science. The traditional professional craft of a historian within the framework of the positivist paradigm was to search for new archival documents, which he could subsequently analyse, and subject to historical criticism and interpretation. When the historian went to the archive, he did not know exactly what documents he would find there, and how they would affect his analysis and his conceptual perception of certain events. It is possible that the newly found and studied documents would confirm his initial perception, but just as often, the opposite happened. The new archival sources completely changed previous ideas.
From this point of view, the positivist tradition in history made it inexpedient, and even, professionally speaking, incorrect for the historian to have any initial concepts before starting to work with an array of archival sources. Thus, history as a science and as a scientific craft is fundamentally different from political science, where the key tool of analysis is the advancement of an initial hypothesis based on a particular theory shared by the author. The testing and verification of this hypothesis comes during the study. We agree that this is a completely different approach to work. I clearly remember the situation in the early nineties, when the development of Western political science, its texts and methods began to be popular in the former Soviet Union. For many post-Soviet professional historians who decided to turn to political analysis in the new conditions, this was simply a shock. They did not understand how it was possible in principle to approach research with a pre-established concept and hypothesis. For them, this was very close in essence to fitting facts only to a concept, and therefore it could not be called science in the strict sense of the word.
Yes, the post-Soviet historians clearly remember the dominance of Marxist ideology in the previous era, but amid late Soviet realities, everyone understood that Marxism was by no means a dictate, but only an external screen that did not interfere with the positivist analysis of sources in most cases. When post-Soviet historians faced the fact that the basis of Western social science is practically the same, the dominance not of a fact, but of the original concept, and, in the opinion of many of them, in a much more primitive and scholastic form than in the framework of late Soviet Marxism, then, I repeat, it was a shock. Later, however, many adapted, quickly realising which topics and conceptual approaches are grant-winning and which are not. They began to work strictly within the framework of the emerging universalist canon of social knowledge.
The basic idea of positivist historical methodology that knowledge is based on a source and not a hypothesis, by the way, contradicts the widely known approach of Karl Popper to the problem of verification of scientific knowledge in the social sciences. According to Popper, as we know, any valid theory must be falsifiable; If a theory or hypothesis cannot be refuted during testing, then it is not scientific. For a positivist historian, to be honest, this approach is strange. After all, if the research is based on a source, and not a hypothesis, then for the historian the source is the truth, if you like; the absolute truth. A truth that by no means requires its refutation in the Popperian sense for its verification. The source is either there or it isn’t. Naturally, any source should be analysed within the broad context in which it was created, and the goals and objectives of its creation should be determined. Fake news and propaganda are, by the way, an invention not only of modern times; there were many of them before. However, this, again, is a completely different type of work.
Such a positivist approach now faces the challenges of political expediency. It is obvious that it is no longer applicable to them. If history serves to solve political problems, then there can be no question of the historian not having an original concept. Naturally, it is desirable that this concept should be on the “right” side of history and politics, but how could it be otherwise? But, as we see, this, first and foremost, completely changes the basic approach to the profession of historian. It’s still half the battle. More importantly, large strata of historical knowledge are being erased from social memory. The fact is that entire histories of individual countries and peoples that are now on the “wrong” side for one view or another are being crossed out and become a direct target for “cancel culture”. Thus, here we see the struggle between the universalist and the national concept, not only in the sphere of identity and patterns of behaviour, but also in relation to history, and within the emerging universalist canon of rules, where national historical identities can become victims.