This essay seeks to discuss the premise of whether political history is more than the history of the state. To understand the premise of this statement it is important to define what political history is.
According to T. P. Wiseman, political history is the history of the citizen body.1 One can discern that a citizen body is comprised of individuals and thus it is important to take note of the rules that constitute it.
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To do justice in critically examining political history in detail, this essay will primarily cover three distinct historiographical case studies. I will firstly explore the use of linguistic terms in political history. Secondly, I will look at cultural history, with emphasis on how historians use sources to explain how people lived in the past. Thirdly I will look at conceptual history to see the importance of etymology in the understanding of past. These will be critically assessed with reference to the discussion pertaining to the statement of whether political is more than the history of the state. By doing this I seek to lead the reader throughout the essay where these cases studies will be critically assessed to see whether the statement of this essay holds truth.
It is evident that language is an integral part of understanding how political history is drawn out. An example of this is the linguistic terms brought up by Boris Ivanovich Kolonitsky’s article on the Russian Revolution of 1917. In this article he delves into how symbolism and language defined the various social groups of the revolution. He makes it clear that such terms as “democracy” were used by groups in multiple ways and how figures on both wings of the political spectrum laid claim to it to legitimise themselves.
He remarks that Lavr Kornilov, a general who tried to overthrow the democratically elected Provisional Government, was supported by a publishing firm by the name of Democratic Russia.2 Thus by the use of language, a political term such as “democracy” can be turned on its head. This is further explored with “democracy” being synonymous with “the people”, narod, and mainly inclusive to workers and peasants, rather than landowners, which effectively enshrined “democracy” in class.
3 Instead of applying the conventional view of seeing democracy and autocracy as opposites, the Russian revolutionaries saw “democracy” as being the opposite of the upper class. It is apparent that the differentiation between “democrats” and the “bourgeoisie” became central to the political views of the revolutionaries. The leader of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, used language to create a cult of personality linked with “democracy” and become a “leader of the people” (vozhd’ naroda).4 Also, Russian “democracy” was grounded in an advocacy of Slavic culture over that of Western Europe. A dictionary of the time described the likes of the United States and France as “bourgeois republics” rather than true democratic states. The closest country to a “democracy” was Switzerland, itself not having reached the level to which the Russian revolutionaries hoped to achieve in making Russia the most “democratic” country in the world.5 Thus, this use of the word “democracy” only serves to the ends of political actors and is thus a device of the state rather than the masses. Ultimately the average Russian individual was illiterate and would have very little agency over the use of language in politics.
This ferments the idea that political history is shaped by those with agency over language and thus may seem limited to the history of the state. However, it is evident that language was very much alive in the Russian political consciousness that lay beyond the state. It is for this reason why Kolonitsky remarks that there is always the obstacle of translation from the more elaborate language of the revolution by less educated, often illiterate, activists.6 While remaining true to documenting Russian political history of this turbulent period, he puts a strong emphasis on documenting the social and cultural variations between different classes. This is exemplified by the soldiers of the Provisional Government, while being de jure republican, wanting a tsar as their sovereign.
This is because the terms of “state” and “tsardom” were interchangeable. Having a non-monarch sovereign was irreconcilable to their traditionally held belief of the state. This was also seen among socialists such as when a Menshevik speaker was embarrassed by an audience member asking him to become a tsar, to the crowd’s applause.7 Since the Mensheviks were part of the political establishment of the time and the audience were not, it can be interpreted that the masses had some agency over political discourse. Thus, it is evident from this case study that the political history covered by Kolonitsky went beyond the realms of the state and thus agrees with the statement.
Conceptual history is a historiographic view that deals with semantics of terms. Its view of etymology and the evolution of terms is reflected in how cultures and language grew. Rather than see history as people going through a linear process, as in cultures gradually changing as time goes on, it puts an emphasis on understanding cultures in their respective time periods. Reinhart Koselleck was a leading scholar of conceptual history, or Begriffsgeschichte in his native German, and focused on the semantics of political concepts to better understand history. Koselleck advocated for the autonomous power of words, stating that it was not deeds that shocked humanity but the words describing them.8 He gives reference to the reorganisation of the Prussian state to put it in line with the French Revolution as an example of the importance of the change of semantics in political history.
This is shown by Karl August von Hardenberg, the Prime Minister of Prussia, and his September Memorandum of 1807 which created guidelines for the state to be structured into a system of ranks, not favouring one estate over another but providing citizens of all estates.9 Hardenberg used the technical term of “citizen” in relation to the state, a newly coined term in the Prussian Civil Code. Thus this was a concept that had been used by Hardenberg as a weapon against the legal inequalities of the estates. Prior to this there was not an existing set of civil rights that would have endowed the Prussian citizen with the same political rights.10 Koselleck argues that concepts can be used as indicators of political change and realities. He gives an indication of a semantic struggle with the German speaking areas shown from 1770 onward where various terms proliferate and alter the linguistic arsenal of the political experience and forging new expectations. Casting aside whether “material” is more important than “conceptual”, it is discernible that the struggle over which concept is “correct” becomes politically explosive.
11 Thus, this is an example of semantic struggle for the definition of a political position. It can be argued that the existence of such semantic terms was of the utmost importance for the formation of the Prussian state as without them, Prussian history would have been very different. This supports Koselleck’s historiographical view of terms reflecting the growth of cultures and nation states.
Thus, it is evident that conceptual history is intertwined with political history. As Koselleck concludes, the theoretical principles of conceptual history provoke structural evidence with which a rigorous social history must come to terms with.12 Political historians would do well to consider the social implications of conceptual history under the premise of better understanding the past. Thus, conceptual history broadens the vision of political history. It agrees with the essay’s statement that political history is not just a history of the state in the sense of a narrative of regime change but of constantly evolving terms.According to Lynn Hunt, traditional political history is dying, stating, “Social history has overtaken political history as the most important area of research in history.”13 This observance is highlighted by the fact that social historians have called for a broader and sociological account of the past. Tony Judt criticized political history, stating, “Traditional political history continues on its untroubled way describing in detail the behaviour of ruling classes and the transformations which took place within them.
Divorced from social history, this remains, as ever, a form of historical writing adapted to the preservation of the status quo; it concerns itself with activities peculiar to the ruling group, activities of an apparently rational and self-justifying nature.”14 It is apparent that Judt takes the view that political history is a conservative view of the past and does not consider the vast array of historical resources to challenge preconceived notions. This lack of a history “from the bottom up” challenges the statement of whether political history is more than simply a history of the state. The traditional political history was challenged by the Annales School which sought to shift away focus on great men to a new form which placed importance on all aspects of society. By looking at the “big picture” Annales historians believe that they have a firmer grasp of history than traditional political historians. Thus this challenges this essay’s statement since the Annales School claims that political history by itself is inadequate to highlight the history of things outside of the state. To understand the impact Annales historians have on historical discourse, it is important to take not of their methods being used in practice. This can be found in an article by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who documented the history of the village of Montaillou while it was a centre of heresy during the Inquisition.
In the article Ladurie uses legal record to write an incredibly detailed account on the lives of the people of Montaillou. The piece documents the life of Pierre Maury, a shepherd in Montaillou. Ladurie goes into detail about Maury’s life, explaining hardships such as suffering from the cold in Winter as well as seeing poverty as a value and ideal.
15 By exploring Maury’s life, the reader can draw upon how shepherds belonging to the Cathar heresy lived. Ladurie writes that Maury was different from the other shepherds in that he did not settle down but lived nomadically, carrying his fortune on his back.16 He delves into the economic status of shepherds through Maury, stating that while a shepherd may be well off in terms of livestock, they were not wealthy in terms of clothes, furniture and so on.17 The shepherds practicing this heresy share parallels with the Franciscans in that they see riches as a sin. Throughout the piece Ladurie makes it clear that Maury and his associates tried to make a living outside the scope of feudal oppression.18 Due to having close connections with the community, Maury had plenty to eat at other people’s homes despite not being part of the subsistence economy of Montaillou.
19 His loyalty to others was an integral part of Catharism and he was able to extend this ideology that way. It is apparent that Maury was born into the heresy through his father.20 Ladurie goes into detail about Occitan culture about the friendship of not being linked by blood but one of being ritualised into fraternity.21 The importance of baptism is highlighted since it gave a common responsibility to godparents. The Cathar parfait of Languedoc, Guillaume Bélibaste, claims that baptisms are a utilitarian means of establishing friendships and forming connections with the community which is why people such as Maury engage in them. Part of Maury’s fundamental belief is highlighted when he claims that he has numerous friends because he is good to everyone and creates a win-win scenario since if they are good to him then he takes that as a reward and if they are bad then they will return some of his good back to him.
22 The psychology of Maury is also brought into observation when Ladurie writes that it was hard for him to distinguish between the pressure of work and emotional impulse.23 The consequences of the Inquisition undertaken by Jacques Fournier is later conveyed to the reader with Maury being saddened that he lost touch with many of his friends due to being a heretic.24 Maury’s sense of destiny is put into the context of community as an old peasant idea, and that one’s profession should be a source of interest rather than a cause of unhappiness.25 Ladurie states that it was ultimately mountain liberty that was the happy counterpart of the migrant’s destiny.26 He concludes with a summary that Maury and his companions were not bound by the married life nor by possessions. It was their destiny to travel over hill and dale. Material wealth would have only burdened them.
27 Thus it can be inferred from this case study that the Annales School’s use of primary sources conveys a clearer image of how people on the lower ends of society lived than traditional political history would be lacking in. While not directly refuting the statement of this essay, it’s clear that the Annales School takes into consideration Hunt’s concerns on the limits of political history in terms of accounting for the people from below. Thus, it is evident that with a greater focus of first hand accounts such as inquisition records rather than a sole focus on the dealings of the state, political history can be more than a simple history of the state.In conclusion it is evident that the works of Kolonitsky, Koselleck and Ladurie reflect the benefits and limitations of political history, as well as alternatives to improve where it falls short. Kolonitsky provides a narrative of how language and symbolism were used to convey a differentiation of opinion between social groups.
Koselleck explains how the evolution of terms led to the growth of culture and language. Ladurie shows how the shepherds who subscribed to Catharism lived in the village of Montaillu during the Inquisition. These three historiographical views offer a nuanced view of how to approach history from a political history standpoint. From these case studies it is evident that one should pursue a history that asks big causal questions about change over time. While it is arguable , it is important to note that studied without the other elements of historiography. The idea of divied history should be left behind.