Weaponised history is being used to undermine and demoralise the English-speaking world

Sep 6, 2023 | News & Media

The Australian newspaper’s Inquirer section recently published an edited extract of Professor Robert Tomb’s upcoming Ramsay Lecture Are the History Wars Worth Fighting?

For the full article as it appears on The Australian newspaper website click here.

I’m a sceptic concerning conspiracy theories. So when I say there is an attack on the West, I am not suggesting some co-ordinated plan, even if there are plenty of conspirators. It’s not a unique phenomenon.

We had a cultural revolution in the 1960s and ’70s, when quite a few students proclaimed themselves Maoists. Far worse was that “low, dishonest decade”, the 1930s, when it was commonplace to write off liberal democracy as decadent and praise communism, or fascism, or both: “Who can blame Signor Mussolini,” said George Bernard Shaw in 1929, “for describing (democracy) as a putrefying corpse?” Stalin, he also thought, was engaged in a “great communist experiment” to prevent the “collapse and failure” of world civilisation; while “The Nazi movement is in many respects one which has my warmest sympathy.” So intellectual and moral imbecility is not confined to present-day intellectuals.

We see a vast campaign to undermine and demoralise – well, what exactly? The main target is the English-speaking world, with the attack mainly coming out of the US and spreading. The long-term effect is to discredit the idea of the West (a term I am using as shorthand, as do both admirers and critics) as the main source of modernity and progress (however uneven) over the past three centuries, including as American legal scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic say, “the very foundations of the liberal order, including … legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism and neutral principles of constitutional law”.

For some this attack is deliberate: they claim the West is the root of evil. For others who may not consciously reject Western ideas, it is merely unthinking collateral damage caused by cultural modishness – what philosopher John Gray has called “a farrago of critical race and gender theories imported from America”. For outright enemies, including Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, it is invaluable propaganda.

There is no agreed name for what is happening: woke of course is colloquial but not very scientific; other terms are cultural Marxism (which I think is misleading – Marxism was at least coherent), hyper-liberalism, radical progressivism, even the successor ideology. The profusion of terms shows our uncertainty. Yet there seem to be several evident sources.

One is intellectual. There is a revival of Marxist anti-imperialism going back at least to the 1940s, if not the 1900s: the wealth of Britain and the West is based on exploitation, slavery and theft, and so past and present injustice in the world is their creation, their wealth is not legitimate, and they owe reparations. More recent is the postmodernism of the 1960s: there are no objective truths; all grand narratives are tools of oppression. Instead, there are many narratives (“my truth” and so on).

Feelings trump facts; so free speech and debate are suspect as attempts by the articulate to oppress the inarticulate. Eurocentric ideas including objectivity and rationalism have to be decolonised away. These ideas are contradictory: most obviously, they themselves are grand narratives. But logic doesn’t matter – they make a heady cocktail. Yet ideas alone do not change history.

So a second necessary element is political and ideological. With the collapse of communism and also of the democratic old left representing the working class, radicals need to find a new ideology and audience for their politics – a new intersectional alliance of discontented minorities. Hence identity politics, which uses distorted history (“my truth”) to create victimhood. As historian and lawyer Jonathan Sumption puts it, to “perpetuate grievances on account of past events that have no practical relevance to modern lives”.

Victimhood benefits the upwardly mobile members of formerly disadvantaged groups and their patrons by justifying privileges. But politics needs not only foot soldiers but strategy.

So the third element: institutions. There has been a rapid takeover: beginning with schools, universities, museums, charities and the public service – the things many conservatives abandoned as less important and less lucrative than law, banking and business.

But law, banking and business too are now being taken over, impelled by fear of being seen as against the zeitgeist and attracting noisy criticism: hence the use in advertising and PR of what until very recently would have seemed crazily radical ideas.

Activist minorities, with the tide running in their direction, find it easy to silence internal dissent by intimidation. But who are the people doing this taking over?

This is the fourth element: a new expanded professional managerial class: university-educated, metropolitan, involved in politics, non-government organisations, education, culture and human resources and compliance departments of business, often rejecting the nation as a source of evil, and adopting new identities.

The successor ideology gives them power and legitimacy, allows them to push aside the existing hierarchy, identifies them as part of a newly dominant but virtuous ruling class, and eliminates rivals and dissenters.

The fifth element of course is technology. New means of communication create a far-flung radical movement, spread ideas with unprecedented speed, and provide the tools to organise and exercise power while weakening old loyalties and communities. This empowers what British journalist David Goodhart has called “anywhere people”, disconnected from geographical community and from other generations.

Finally, a geopolitical element: the decline, or perceived decline, of the West. When the Soviet Union collapsed, people looked forward to “the end of history” through the universalisation of Western liberal democracy. It would have been absurd and futile then to attack the triumphant West, its values, and its history. But economic crises, political divisions, military failures, external challenges and discontents with globalisation have made the West a less attractive and less confident model and a less formidable opponent.

The most corrupt and violent regimes profit from the anti-Western tide promoted by useful idiots (as Lenin called them) within the system. The Chinese have denounced “the Anglo-Saxons”. A long diatribe recently issued by the Russian foreign ministry against British “colonial and postcolonial crimes” concludes that “support for anti-colonial initiatives … and continuing attention to this issue in the media and diplomatic environment could have a positive practical effect”. I’m sure the Wagner group in Africa wholeheartedly agrees. Post-colonial states avoid responsibility for their failures by blaming colonialism, and pre-colonial tyranny is passed over in silence.

Creating a historical narrative is at the heart of a deadly serious ideological and political contest. From Putin to Black Lives Matter, the anti-Western critique is based on interpreting our history as a story of oppression, exploitation, slavery, racism, genocide and injustice. This narrative has some elements of truth. Some indigenous peoples certainly suffered and still suffer; millions were subjected to authoritarian rule, sometimes brutal and exploitative. But the narrative systematically removes these true elements from their context, falsifies or exaggerates certain features, and systematically omits all benefits.

Slavery, conquest, cruelty and exploitation have been a part of all of history – until considerably diminished by Europeans and (I say with some pleasure) first by the British. Non-European societies, far from being gardens of Eden, were often hyper-violent and ruthlessly oppressive; and European colonisation restrained some of that violence and partly emancipated many oppressed groups – slaves, women, lower castes.

The expansion of European power was not simply a story of conquest and certainly not of genocide (which is a very recent and contestable allegation), but also of mutual co-operation and exchange. Finally, non-European peoples widely benefited from contacts with Europe, economically, culturally and politically.

Falsification of the past enables falsification of the present. According to this narrative, violence, exploitation and racism in the past creates permanent violence, exploitation and racism in the present. Again, this is a partial truth: we see examples in the Americas and elsewhere too. But partial truth is not truth.

Teaching history as a story of racism buttresses the false account of racism today and, as Lord Sumption says, “can only fragment our society, obstruct the integration of minorities and undermine any sense of community”. This is sufficient reason for believing the history wars are worth fighting.

But there is a wider reason, and this concerns the part history plays in creating a sense of community. I believe the democratically governed nation-state is the foundation of democracy and of social solidarity. It is odd to have to state this as if it were some daringly radical idea rather than an obvious commonplace, but that is where we are. An essential part is nurturing what philosopher Roger Scruton called “a ‘we’, united by a shared sense of belonging”.

A fundamental basis is a positive sense of shared history, of existence through time, and a belief that there are achievements worth preserving and celebrating. This is what our opponents are seeking to destroy. And for what? The solution is not to forget awkward aspects of the past but to urge society to remember accurately, fully and honestly, and make the effort to understand the vital differences between the past and present. Only in that way will we be able to understand how we got to where we are.

We must reject the crude postmodernist idea that truth is an illusion, and restate our belief that reason and objectivity are fundamental in understanding the world.

It is bizarre that we are urged to “follow the science” when it suits the agenda of the woke, but then be told by the same people that “my truth” cannot be contradicted. We reject the now commonly held view – held at least by implication – that a range of subjective narratives should be presented uncritically, with the intention of pleasing vocal minorities, as a form of marketing for institutions such as museums or as a patronising therapy for people who are assumed to be too immature to face the truth.

But are these history wars already lost? Are the intellectual, social and political forces imposing a new orthodoxy already in control? I do sometimes feel that critics of the new orthodoxy are merely putting our collective finger in a widening hole in the dyke. My personal hope is that we represent both rationality and majority opinion – a powerful combination, and I hope ultimately an invincible one. But even if I’m right, I am not confident I shall live to see it.

It would be naive to think we can prevail by reasoned argument. There has to be a determined and long-term attempt to take back control of institutions. Yet the task is immense. Our only advantage, a small minority within the academic world, is that we speak for a majority in the country and hence have potential political influence.

If there is to be hope of stemming the tide of weaponised history, political action is indispensable because this is a political struggle. A hopeful sign is the very recent British law to require universities to promote and protect intellectual freedom. This law was passed against the strong resistance of the academic establishment, strongly represented in the House of Lords (full of woke septuagenarians) and beaten only because the government was induced to show some guts.

Our other strength is intellectual, and I might almost say moral. We are advocating full and accurate accounts of the past. We are not trying to combat one form of ideological distortion by imposing another. We are not afraid to admit past crimes and failures but we want the full story, as accurate as expert research can make it.

Lord Sumption said recently in a lecture in Oxford: “Would the world as a whole be a better place if Europeans had never settled in the Americas or Australia? I do not think so.” Neither do I. But I fear many people do, or say they do.

A final thought from a brave new book by Professor Doug Stokes, Against Decolonisation: Campus Culture Wars and the Decline of the West: “If we do deconstruct the West, who or what will replace it?”

Robert Tombs is an emeritus professor in history at the University of Cambridge and founding editor of the History Reclaimed website. This is an edited extract of a Ramsay lecture he will deliver on September 12; details at ramsaycentre.org. An updated edition of his book The English and Their History will appear later this year.