Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Social Change and Development

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. USA


11, What is the use of history now

G. The historian, ethics and social commitment

When I think of historians and social commitment, I immediately think of the great medieval historian, Marc Bloch, and the democratic question, the critical challenge, he posed for us. in the shadows of the German occupation, Bloch wrote Strange Defeat (published after the war). In this moving work, a personal testament, he discussed not only France's military defeat in 1940, but also political and intellectual questions of the pre-war years. A veteran of the First World War, Bloch - already 50 years old - had rejoined the French Army at the outset of the war to prevent the worst from happening. gut the worst did happen. Still, Bloch, a French Jew, did not surrender. He joined the French Resistance. And, tragically, in 1944 he was captured, tortured and executed by the Gestapo.

Late in the text of Strange Defeat - in a chapter titled -A Frenchman Examines His Conscience" - Bloch reflected on his and his colleagues labors as scholars and intellectuals. He wrote that "The real trouble with us professors was that we were absorbed in our day-to-day tasks. Most of us can say with some justice that we were good workmen". And he asked: "Is it equally true to say that we were good citizens?"

Are we good citizens? Historians might reply that they have enough to do just trying "to keep straight the record of the past" [a responsibility I would emphasize in my Intervention in the Roundtable on "The Historian and Power"]. Nevertheless, we might ask how our work as historians could better contribute to the advancement of the ideals and practices of liberty, equality and democratic development. In the Western states, we do not currently face authoritian regimes. However, we do confront another kind of authoritarianism: The market rules ever more forcefully and other human values are often sacrificed or subordinated to the demands of capital.

As Marx understood, the age of capital has replaced theistic and biological determinisms with economic and technological determinisms. We suffer social amnesia about the making of history and the social origins of the world in which we live. We reify, we practically deify, -the market. Democratic historians must work to develop critical historical memory, consciousness and imagination. Indeed, as much as historians must cultivate an appreciation of the tragic and ironic character of human experiencie, we must also encourage realization that politles and social orders of greater freedom, equality and democracy are posible and seek to imbue our deliberations and agencies with the experiences, struggles and visions if these who preceded us. History has not ended.

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