Past and Present: The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Post-Modernists
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Encounter Books, 2017, 256 pages, US$23.99
That the past lectures us on the present is one of the reasons we read history. Such lectures are often merely whispers, and coded in a language very few of us speak. This is why historians are indispensable translators.
Past and Present presents some of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s (left) shorter and apparently minor essays. The present the title refers to is contemporary America as it has been shaped by political battles in the last fifty years—a period Himmelfarb has witnessed first hand. The past of the title is mainly, though not exclusively, Victorian England, of which Himmelfarb is a foremost historian. Now Professor Emerita at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, she is a scholar’s scholar. Her bibliography includes works on Lord Acton and Mill, and seminal editorship of the latter too; explorations of the “Victorian mind”; and a genuine classic, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959). Few historians of ideas have dug deeper in the British nineteenth century, and fewer still have done so from a conservative perspective. Himmelfarb, who married Irving Kristol, often considered the “godfather” of neoconservatism, by and large shared her husband’s views.
This review appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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Himmelfarb’s conservatism can better be considered a style of arguing, rather than a consistent set of political ideas. Postmodernists have long been ruminating about the subjectivity of historians, making a theory of “a denial of the fixity of the past, of the reality of the past apart from what the historian chooses to make of it, and thus of any objective truth about the past”. Surely any work of history is vulnerable because historical records may be imperfect or imperfectly read by the historian, who is as fallible, conceited and biased as any other human being. But, Himmelfarb maintains, there is no reason to think history “is fatally flawed, that because there is no absolute, total, final truth, there are no relative, partial, contingent truths”.
The craft of the historian entails a struggle with her own subjectivity, a careful search for bits of truths whenever possible, a passion for making sense of them with the best of our analytical tools. Sure, history can never do without imagination, for no historian can do without putting himself in other people’s shoes. Macaulay thought that:
A perfect historian must possess an imagination sufficiently powerful to make his narrative affecting and picturesque. Yet he must control it so absolutely as to content himself with the materials which he finds, and to refrain from supplying deficiencies by additions of his own.
Such a description fits Himmelfarb’s own works, where the inspired writer never shines at the expense of the careful researcher.
These essays are not an exception to this rule. The material here assembled is diverse and fascinating, scholarly yet accessible, stubbornly relevant for today’s debates. Just read, for example, “Victorian Values/Jewish Values”. This essay, originally published in Commentary, was occasioned by Margaret Thatcher’s endorsement of “Victorian values”. That Thatcher was the daughter of a shopkeeper, and her youth was imbued with the work ethic, is now some sort of a platitude. And yet it was hardly obvious that reclaiming virtues reminiscent of the times of Queen Victoria was conducive to electoral popularity. The 1800s, Britain’s “victorious century” to quote historian David Cannadine’s recent work, were often dismissed as an age of exploitation and bigotry. The dynamism of a society forged by the Industrial Revolution was reduced to the Olivertwistian cliché of child labour and dirty chimneys. The veneration of thriftiness was dismissed as hypocrisy and greed; technological innovation was little more than the forging of chains to enslave the proletariat; scientific discoveries were but instruments to reassert the otherwise shaky dominion of the white man.
Thatcher, on the contrary, moulded a political rhetoric which married freedom and duty. As Himmelfarb explains:
Capitalism has always required moral legitimization but has not always received it, certainly not from politicians in high places. It did not even always receive it in Victorian England, before socialism usurped the high moral ground by claiming a monopoly of social justice and compassion. Even then the critics of capitalism … were often more articulate and passionate than the defenders. What the Victorians did have, however, was an ethos—a generally accepted (although not always observed) code of behavior—which was congenial to capitalism and which implicitly sanctioned and validated it.
There was perhaps no virtue more often invoked, more idealized and revered by the Victorians than work.
Trying to improve one’s lot (think of the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor) was a practice which broke sharply with the past. In seigneurial ethics, work is an occupation unworthy of a gentleman. But for Mrs Thatcher, a newcomer in the still by-and-large aristocratic Tory party, getting to the top was impossible without strenuous application and continuous self-challenge. “Getting rich is glorious,” said that unrepentant Thatcherite, Deng Xiaoping. Well, at least it can be, the Victorians conceded.
“Bourgeois virtues” is a term now proudly claimed by economic historian Deirdre McCloskey. But this locution often implied that “bourgeois values” were “foisted upon the working class by the middle class for purposes of ‘social control’”. Who is truly dismissive of the working class, Himmelfarb asks: “the historian who requires a theory of false consciousness to account for the inconvenient fact that most Victorian workers … did seem to share those supposedly middle-class values? Or the historian who recognizes and respects that fact?”
That rich and poor can be morally different is an idea that may sound offensive when stated in such stark terms, but which is in fact held as often on the Left as on the Right. Apologists for the status quo may think that being successful per se implies merit: though cronyism, corruption and monopolies granted by the sovereign are frequent occurrences which may suggest otherwise. Radical historians, Himmelfarb muses, tend to be contemptuous of those Victorians who patronised the poor by attempting to make them “respectable”: people like the housing reformer Octavia Hill, who provided apartments at low rents but insisted upon the prompt payment of rent:
But are they to be condemned for “imposing” (if that is the right word) upon the poor the values they imposed on their own families? Were they patronizing or condescending when they assumed that the poor had the ability and the will to act upon those values?
For Himmelfarb, on the contrary, this is a reminder that while class differences existed, “they were just that: class differences, economic and social differences, not fundamental moral differences, not differences of character or nature or spirit”. The rich are different from us: they have more money.
Himmelfarb searches for this Victorian attitude to appreciate the poor’s prudence in Beatrice Webb’s inquiry into the daily lives of the Jews of the East End. Webb noticed that:
the immigrant Jew, fresh from the sorrowful experiences typical of the history of his race, seems to justify by his existence those strange assumptions which figured for man in the political economy of Ricardo—an Always Enlightened Selfishness, seeking employment or profit with an absolute mobility of body and mind.
But Webb’s view of the Jew as the quintessential economic man differed sharply from Marx’s. Young Beatrice Potter, later to marry Sidney Webb, was a Victorian socialist:
and at this time a Victorian more than a socialist. It was the Victorian in her that responded favorably to those values—hard work, thrift, intelligence, sobriety, fidelity, self-reliance, self-discipline, devotion to family, loyalty to community, respect for law—which she saw as conducive to economic and social improvement and to a decent, moral existence.
Such values were thus not the exclusive domain of a social class, but the necessary underpinning of a society that for the first time embraced economic transformation as an opportunity and not as a curse.
A free market economy needs a culture: habits, ideas, customs that build the trenches of legitimacy. When they denounce the inflation of bourgeois values in the working classes, writers recognise this: but they assume that labour subordination requires a brainwashing of sorts to be accepted and complied with. This tendency to consider the working classes as something less than fully conscious adults reverberates in widely held opinions on the kind of cultural artefacts the capitalist system produces and happily spreads far and wide.
Indeed, besides being oppressive, capitalism is typically looked down on by ideas professionals as inherently vulgar. The anti-capitalist mentality thrives on diagnosing markets as breeding barbarism and bad taste.
In a 1952 essay, “American Democracy and Its European Critics”, Himmelfarb makes sense of such a diagnosis but points out that “most European radical intellectuals have not had much opportunity to appreciate how common the common man can be if he is given his head”. The context is the period immediately after the Second World War, when Europe began to be flooded not only by American consumption goods, but also by American cultural products. Science fiction, by then perfected in obscure pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories, reached the European bookstores, and Coca-Cola became as insanely popular in France as it was in Minnesota. Himmelfarb notes:
When Coca-Cola, comic books, and Raymond Chandler murder mysteries invaded Europe, radicals set up a great cry against American capitalism. What they chose not to see is that the real offender is not capitalism so much as the European masses, who have given an enthusiastic reception to these supposedly degenerate products of capitalist America. Europe’s real complaint against America is not that America is exporting capitalist culture, but that it is exporting popular culture.
In Europe anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism are strongly related, and in a way the first is the premise of the second. Even in countries where the Americans have enthusiastically been held as liberators, anti-Americanism prospered on the idea that greater economic integration between the two sides of the Atlantic was robbing Europeans of part of their identity. Consequences are far reaching: France lobbied for introducing the provision of exception culturelle in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations in 1993, maintaining that culture should be treated differently from other commercial products. More recently, exception culturelle was one of the reasons that the TTIP negotiations failed, well before Donald Trump entered the picture.
Not all paternalisms are created equal. The paternalism of Victorian reformers thought poorer people should be put in the position to roll their sleeves up and find their way to higher prosperity. The paternalism of the European intellectuals thinks poorer people should be schooled in the good taste of intellectual grandees. Himmelfarb comments:
When it comes to books, the cinema, radio, and television, he [the English radical intellectual] insists upon giving the people what is good for them rather than what they may happen to want. And he knows what is good. When it was the fashion to do so, he denounced the classical, aristocratic, High Church traditions of English society; but he is still, as the saying goes, living off the capital of an earlier age.
Urging people to be prudent seems both easier and less patronising than urging them to read the good books or watch the good movies. The reasons why people aren’t prudent enough may be institutional glitches to be fixed (living in an insecure neighbourhood is hardly an incentive to save), but how they like to be entertained should not be anybody else’s business. Of course, Himmelfarb’s argument goes—and so goes experience—poorer people can naturally be prudent, so the reformers were hardly twisting their arms.
Himmelfarb is no libertarian. Her husband Irving Kristol advocated a “conservative welfare state”, claiming that the idea of the welfare state wasn’t at odds with conservative principles. She effectively sketches that, by looking at Winston Churchill planting the seeds of the future Beveridge plan by promoting the National Insurance Act of 1911. But that welfare state, she argues, is inherently different from ours.
In what sense? Himmelfarb contrasts Churchill with Beatrice Potter, again, but now properly considered as half of the Fabian duo she formed with her husband Sidney Webb. A few years have passed and Beatrice, who wrote admiringly of the poor Jews’ prudence, now thought the gentile poor needed guidance and direction as much as help. Radical intellectuals as they were, the Webbs had little faith in “the average sensual man”. They didn’t “believe that he can do much more than describe his grievances”. Help the poor by giving them cash, and they’ll drink it up. The Webbs’ idea of successful reform entailed introducing into politics “the professional expert—to extend the sphere of government by adding to its enormous advantages of wholesale and compulsory management, the advantage of the most skilled entrepreneur”.
This is why they had little patience with Churchill’s welfarism. He stopped short of what they considered the proper level of compulsion—choosing for England’s poor what was best for them. Himmelfarb explains:
The Webbs wanted to organise society in order to curb the anarchy of individualism and create a rational society in which the average sensual man would be prevented from indulging his whims and vices. Churchill wanted to organise society in order to create the condition in which individualism would thrive and the average sensual man—that is to say, everyman—could live his life freely, whims, vices, and all.
Champagne-drinking Churchill, by no means a common man, had some sympathy for the ordinary man as he was, and did not dream of carving a better creature out of him.
Himmelfarb’s grasp of history is so profound, and her prose so commanding, that one feels intimidated to voice a disagreement. But I find the way she treats, or avoids treating, Herbert Spencer somewhat baffling. In the pantheon of the Victorians, Spencer is less a demigod than a Zeus-like figure. Whether you consider him a forerunner of the theory of evolution or a champion of laissez-faire, he was no alien to the zeitgeist of prudence, thrift and science. While the ominous label of “Social Darwinist”—a malign contrivance of Richard Hofstadter—still sticks, he wasn’t cooler on the “deserving poor” than other Victorians—and perhaps he was far more humane in his view of the foreign people who too many considered only a necessary casualty of the British Empire.
Himmelfarb has no sympathy for Spencer. She does not even acknowledge his (considerable) influence on the young Beatrice Potter, the daughter of his close friends and his protégé, and she openly sides with Thomas Huxley in Huxley’s debate with the author of The Man versus the State. Huxley was a self-taught biologist and an evangelist of Charles Darwin’s gospel (“Darwin’s bulldog”) and one of Spencer’s few personal friends.
Still, his enthusiasm for evolution in the organic world did not extend to the social world. Spencer thought evolution to be a movement from simple to complex structures, and that such a movement could be detected in human institutions too: the division of labour gets more complex and ramified, people specialise more and more, social bodies become at once more diverse and more spontaneously integrated. The development of society, like the development of life generally, is marked by a tendency “to individuate—to become a thing”. For this very reason, highly developed states do not have the same need for strong leadership as tribes, and open societies allow for people pursuing different interests, rather than all obeying their chiefs, in the quest for survival.
Himmelfarb approves of Huxley’s rebuttal of Spencerism, a 1871 essay titled “Administrative Nihilism”, “provoked by recent demands to deny the state any role in education”. She cheers him for decrying the “fanatical individualism of our time”, meaning Spencerism. She also considers Huxley’s attack on Spencer to be a refutation of “scientism”, which she implicitly associates with Spencer’s evolutionary theory. “Huxley’s arguments against social Darwinism are all the more telling because they come not, as might have been expected, from a cleric or theologian, but from an eminent scientist and ardent Darwinist.”
What are these arguments? For Huxley, evolution doesn’t result in a higher morality or better political arrangements. He wrote:
Unfortunately evolution gives rise to and perpetuates immoral sentiments together with the moral … Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.
“The fallacy in the ethics of evolution,” Himmelfarb comments, “is the equation of the ‘struggle for existence’ with the ‘survival of the fittest,’ and the assumption that the ‘fittest’ is identical with the best. But that struggle may favor the worst rather than the best.” It is surprising to find so careful a scholar producing so lame a straw man for Spencer’s evolutionary theory. The philosopher from Derby surely attempted to identify trends in human evolution, and thought more advanced societies would be less violent and hierarchical. And yet he strives to accommodate in his own theory history’s changes of direction, its rhythms, and the undeniable fact that the great libertarian hopes of the mid-century were giving way to growing state interventionism: a tendency against which he wrote The Man versus the State.
But more than Himmelfarb’s reading of Spencer, it is her reading of Huxley which is surprising. I find it hard to see in Huxley a critic of the tendency of organising society around some scientific principle, creating that rational society whereby “the average sensual man would be prevented from indulging his whims and vices”: the same dream that the Webbs dreamt.
For Huxley politics is “social chemistry”, and as such is better entrusted to chemists who should “discover what desires of mankind may be gratified, and what must be suppressed, if the highly complex compound, society, is to avoid decomposition”. Thus “the business of the sovereign authority … appears to me to be, not only to enforce the renunciation of the anti-social desires, but, wherever it may be necessary, to promote the satisfaction of those which are conducive to progress.”
Spencer’s reply to his friend Huxley was a defence of the power of society to self-organise:
It is not by any “order in council” that farmers are determined to grow so much wheat and so much barley, or to divide their land in due proportion between arable and pasture. There requires no telegram from the Home Office to alter the production of woollens in Leeds, so that it may be properly adjusted to the stocks on hand and the forthcoming crop of wool … From hour to hour messages pass between all the chief provincial towns, as well as between each of them and London; from hour to hour prices are adjusted, supplies are ordered hither or thither, and capital is drafted from place to place, according as there is greater or less need for it. All this goes on without any ministerial overseeing—without any dictation from those executive centres which combine the actions of the outer organs.
Both Spencer and Huxley used the metaphor of social organism, but it was Huxley who maintained that the social organism, like the human body, should have a brain to direct and organise it. To me, this reads like those pretentious conceits Himmelfarb chastises when exhibited by radical intellectuals. What do they want, if not to “promote the satisfaction” of desires “conducive to progress”, while enforcing the renunciation of allegedly anti-social ones?
These debates survived their protagonists. They are the essence of today’s political discussions: from Obamacare to the attempts to regulate the media to get rid of “fake news”. The Victorian age, if we knew it and its ideas better, would help us understand our own world. In her major works and in these invaluable essays too, Gertrude Himmelfarb brings the Victorians back to life.
Dr Alberto Mingardi is Lecturer in History of Political Thought at IULM University in Milan and Director General of Istituto Bruno Leoni, a Milan-based free-market think-tank.