The following guest post is by Peter Wirzbicki.
Recently the Atlantic Monthly has posted two fascinating articles on the relationship between historians and hope. The first, a blog post by Ta-Nehisi Coates builds off the work of Nell Irvin Painter and his own arguments in his recent work, to assert that “a writer wedded to ‘hope’ is ultimately divorced from ‘truth.’” The tasks of the writer, Coates claims, is to be hardheaded and realistic, to see what really existed and exists and not to give into “the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity itself.” His disillusionment (he sometimes refers to this as his “blue period”) with the possibility of political progress, he claims, puts him at odds with the dominant black political tradition. Coates wants to pierce the self-satisfied myths of white and black alike that the American political tradition has a historical trajectory leading happily towards justice and progress. The second, by Tim Tyson, evokes his own experiences as a historian and a civil rights activist, to echo Coates’ claims. “To tell the sunnier story,” Tyson writes, “is a slide towards futility and perhaps a kind of insanity, a march into a circus mirror.”
Both Tyson and Coates are intellectuals whom I greatly respect and I’m thrilled to see such important questions about the historian’s craft debated with such moral seriousness. Both are correct that there is a style of historical writing that is, in Tyson’s words, about “self-exoneration,” the attempt for white Americans to find a feel good past, a triumphalist narrative that tells us that the crimes of the past—slavery, racism, violence—are quarantined safely in the past. I’m not sure such a description fits much serious academic history, but certainly does describe how some popular narratives conceptualize the past.
I found their arguments about the split between history and hope compelling and thought-provoking. I am especially convinced that there are triumphalist narratives of US history that must be combatted. But I also was concerned about where the logic of these essays seemed to go. Many of us, after all, study social movements for lessons on how to recreate those successes. Or we study structures of oppression to find their weakness. Where does a history without hope leave us? More pernicious, I worry that this narrative conceals, surely unintentionally, an approach to politics itself that, by eliminating the place for imagination and hope, falls into a realism that borders on conservatism. There is a pessimism about mankind’s abilities in these narratives, a tragic sense of our fallenness found most often on the right. In many ways, I think, the fault lies with us historians, who have claimed that history should be our total guide to present political life. Counter-intuitively, by seeking in the past a totalizing guide for present politics, we have sucked the air from our contemporary political imagination, leaving us necessarily disillusioned. An overly-politicized past may inadvertently lead to an under-politicized present. A politics shaped solely by history is one that runs the risk of a pessimism, the denial of the human task of rebellion against the given, a rejection of the power of critical rationality to reshape.
Of course, one easy answer to the historians of hopelessness, is to point out that while history is one long march of oppressions, it is also one long story of the ends of many of those oppressions. Yes, monarchs starved peasants, but then they ended with their heads in a guillotine; slaveholders commodified human beings, but then saw those human beings rise up in dignity and revolt; gays and lesbians once were forced to hide from employers and policeman, today they can marry freely. Historical continuities are only one part of the story; radical disjuncture is the other. So history is also the study of the glorious moments—revolutions, social movements, elections—in which everyday people chipped away at the tremendous injustices that surrounded them: July 14, 1789, January 1, 1863, May, 1968, and a thousand smaller dates (Perhaps we could include June 26th, 2015, when gay marriage was fully legalized as a recent example). Along with oppression and suffering, history is a story of solidarity, emancipation, revolution, dance, laughter, and joy; of moments when, with Wordsworth in the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” Like us, people in the past were horribly imperfect, but in face of that imperfection they still accomplished tremendous victories—overthrowing monarchies, abolishing slavery, winning female suffrage, building labor unions, and defeating fascism. Never were these victories perfect but I think most of us are pretty happy they occurred. Tyson admits that political struggle is one place to find “our highest aspirations as a species,” but then asserts, with a pessimism that seems to border on dogmatism, that “again and again, things fall apart, the best hopes are dashed, and history does not offer a happier lesson very often.”
But the issue, I believe, goes deeper than what parts of the past we choose to focus on, touching as it does the relationship between our notions of the past and our hopes for political change. The question, I think, involves the relationship between past and present, the degree to which our current political struggles (and even existential outlooks) are set by how we read the past. I worry that contemporary historians have overreacted to a conservative and capitalist erasure of history by positing a too powerful history, one which ties us hopelessly like anchors to an oppressive past. We endlessly repeat Faulkner’s dictum that the past is not even past, (ignoring how this phrase develops out of Faulkner’s tragic Southern sensibility, one not innocent from a Confederate nostalgia.) This runs the risk of eliminating the possibility that we can criticize and remake the world. Unintentionally it sets the stage for what Mark Fisher, in a brilliant short book, calls “Capitalist Realism,” that sense that Margaret Thatcher was correct: there is no alternative beyond the stifling boxes of liberal democracy and capitalist economy. For Fisher, “capitalist realism presents itself as a shield protecting us from the perils posed by belief itself… analogous to the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion.”  We have the pessimism to negate, but seem to lack the further courage and wisdom to negate the negation.
Perhaps a brief foray into familiar intellectual history will explain why I see this link between such “capitalism realism” and an understanding of history as disillusioning. Since the French Revolutionaries declared that they would restart time itself, there has been strong linkages between history and the political right and the future and the left. For the ur-conservative Edmund Burke, the French Revolution erred exactly in its hubristic approach to time; its belief that it could restart the world’s clock according to abstract ideas of justice that sprung fully formed from the heads of the revolutionaries. Not only did this erase the wisdom of past generations, who through hundreds of years of experiment and trial had developed institutions to respond to real world needs, but it missed how humans themselves took pleasure out of their connection to the past. For Burke, a defense of traditional institutions was also tied to a particular epistemological outlook: he was skeptical of “extravagant and presumptuous speculation,” of “a priori” reasoning, and defended “wisdom without reflection.”  Burke and his conservative followers would take their stand on raw empirical history, not on the wild enthusiasm for reason that marked the Jacobins.
On the left, a far bolder narrative about time and history was developing. The French Revolutionaries didn’t just remake the state, they remade the very months and years of the calendar, symbolically breaking with the feudal past. Thomas Paine, meanwhile, responded to Burke by declaring that “every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it.” To respect an institution just because a past generation had saw value in it was to abandon one’s own political judgment. For both Paine and his American friend Thomas Jefferson, this amounted to a dominion of the dead over the living. Perhaps the second most famous thing that Jefferson thought was “self-evident” was his belief “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” This was both a narrow statement about land rights in a feudal economy, and a profound argument on behalf of the rights of each generation to break free from the traditions and legacies of the past. Jefferson, famously, believed that every generation should consent to its form of government by re-ratifying whatever constitution they wanted to. The Left, in the Age of Revolution, proclaimed itself the party of the future; the Right the party of the Past.
The nineteenth-century brought the first major complication to this narrative: capitalism. As historians and political theorists (E.P. Thompson, Moshe Postone, etc…) have demonstrated time is crucial to capitalist development, but in contradictory ways. On one hand, economists of the labor theory of value argued that capital was nothing more than past labor, that therefore the workings of today’s economy was shaped by yesterday’s activity. At first, of course, this served as a justification for capital’s rule: if a wealthy factory owner had more to invest it was because he or his ancestors had worked harder. However, critics quickly turned this argument on its head. For Marx capital was “dead, congealed labor,” that lived “vampire-like” by sucking value from living workers. Capitalism is thus the dominion of the past over the present. Like the landowners in Jefferson’s day, it represents the control of the dead over the living. Hence all of the undead metaphors in Marx ‘s Capital drawn from gothic horror books—capital as a “werewolf,” “vampire,” or “animated monster,” reaching from out of the past to consume the present, to remake it in ways that no one wants.  Similarly, Thomas Picketty’s recent analyses of patrimonial capitalism has convinced him that, under capitalism, “the inequality r>g in one sense implies that the past tends to devour the future.” 
But capitalism—unlike feudal economies that happily lived in the stagnant past—has a strange and contradictory relationship to time. While fueled by past labor, capitalism is relentlessly innovative and “revolutionary.” It creates such dizzying economic and cultural change (“all that is solid melts into air”) that capitalist culture often seems to evoke an Aeolian lightness, unmoored from the anything as concrete as history. But where the French Revolutionaries and Enlightenment philosophers imagined a future put under the control of rational thought and virtuous citizens, capitalism is an unwilled machine, a Frankenstein out of the control of its makers, trampling the innocent as it lurches this way and that. The question thus became not history itself per se, but whether human life would be ordered by capitalist logic or rational democratic decision-making. In many ways then capitalism reordered the left and right’s relationship to the past. Other than a handful of backwards looking reactionaries (Carlyle, etc…), there was little question of actually going backwards, as it was the ruling class itself that, for the first time, was invested in cultural change and progress. The serene confidence of the Victorian “radical bourgeoisie”—who would remake the world in line with Smith, Bentham, and Spencer—was, after all, aggressively forward-looking. The question was whether the future would be ordered by rational collective self-government or the unplanned “self-correcting” chaos of the marketplace.
One might read Marx’s historical materialism in part as a reply to this new bourgeois approach to time. By combining the Enlightenment confidence in progress with the historicism of Hegel, Vico and others he asserted both the power of the “long duree” and his faith in the human capacity to create a dramatic break with the past. Historians today love to quote Marx’s dictum that the men do not make their history as they’d like, but are always bound by “circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” But they put far less emphasis on the first part of that statement (“Men make their own history”) and on his vision of a proletariat that could break the bonds of the past, seizing control of history putting it to work for the purposes of the living. Marx consistently denied that he was a crude economic determinist, famously quipping that “All I know is that I am not a Marxist,” when faced with readers who interpreted him as such. The promised realm of freedom differs from the realm of necessity not simply because men can only be truly liberated once they are not living in poverty, but also because they are metaphysically free and autonomous for the first time, collectively directing their lives according to a self-willed plan of action rather than the irrationality of the past.
For Marx, as for Shelley and other radicals, the symbol of this human agency that struggled against the world as given was the Greek “saint and martyr” Prometheus. By stealing fire from the gods, Prometheus was an eternal symbol of revolt against, as Marx wrote in his doctoral dissertation, “all heavenly and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity.” So Prometheus isn’t just the rebel against obvious power—the state, church, and economy. He represents the power of humankind to struggle against the nature and history that we are born into; stealing fire from the gods becomes our collective task to bring justice and rationality to the conditions of life.
If Marx in London was thinking on the level of the global, Ralph Waldo Emerson in Concord was describing the psychology of politics in a similar way in his essay “The Conservative.” Conservatism, for Emerson, lives in the realm of the actual, the concrete, and the historical. At a metaphysical level, the conservative mindset springs from necessity rather than reason, nature rather than consciousness, the senses rather than the spirit; at a psychological level from memory rather than hope, one-dimensional logic rather than dialectical or intuitive reasoning. Conservatism is a pessimism about human agency and will power, a surrender to what Herbert Marcuse would later call the “prevailing empirical order of life,” and what Emerson calls a “negative fate.”  A conservative, in a sense, is an anti-Transcendentalist, one who lives by “necessity,” concrete facts, common sense, established usage, and, above all else, historical precedence. This is not to say that Emerson’s essay is a polemic—more so than many of his abolitionist friends, Emerson’s dialectical monism pushed him to see some value in the conservative viewpoint. “Throughout nature the past combines in every creature with the present,” he writes, thus making all of us, to some degree, bound and created by the past, by fate, by the cruel arbitrariness of history. But we still retain some say in the degree to which we resign ourselves to our fate, some ability to seek agency in our own self-willed autonomy. It is in this ability to will, this “power,” as he would later term it, that our freedom begins and political reform takes its inspiration.
At the individual level, Emerson’s essay links up well with more global analyses of Marx. Chastened a bit by the failures of the first Age of Revolution, both were deeply aware of the power of the past, how it shaped close to everything that we do, but still thought that humans had some collective capacity of moral and political freedom.
I’m a historian of the abolitionist movement, and I’ve always been struck by the forward-looking nature of abolitionist politics, their own belief that they could break free from the past. Consider Wendell Phillips, whose career saw him take leading roles in the abolitionist movement, the women’s rights movement, and the labor movement. “Do not,” he once told an audience, “set down as extravagant every statement which your experience does not warrant.” It sounded a bit like Emmanuel Sieyès, the great propagandist of the French Revolution, who declared in What is the Third Estate, “let us not be discouraged because we find nothing in history that can be adapted to our present situation.”  During the Civil War he spoke about “that beautiful future which we behold.”  For Phillips, the ethics of the abolitionist movement was to be judged not by the standards of the past (he considered the Founding Fathers to be hypocritical slavedrivers) but by those of the future. “We will write your judgment,” he confidently told slave owners in 1853, “with the iron pen of a century to come.”
Race and racism complicated even more the ability for the American left to be the party of the future. After the rise of capitalism, the legacy of race and slavery in America—as Coates has brilliantly shown in much of his work—offers the second way in which the old left narrative about history was disrupted. Consider an important debate between what were probably the two greatest black intellectuals of the Nineteenth-century: Alexander Crummell and Frederick Douglass. In 1885, Crummell gave the commencement address at Storer College, a black college in West Virginia. With Douglass in the audience, Crummell called for black men to live in the future, rather than in history, to not “dwell morbidly and absorbingly upon the servile past.”  To live looking backwards was to ignore that “we were made to live in the future as well as in the past. The qualities both of hope and imagination carry us to the regions which lie beyond us.” For Crummell, sounding a bit like Marx and Emerson, a future-orientation was necessary for African-Americans to challenge their current oppression, to use their human capacity to imagine and fight for a different world.
Douglass immediately registered his “emphatic and most earnest protest.” To him Crummell sounded too much like the white Americans who were trying to erase the past—not in order to create a utopian future—but in order to justify black repression. By demanding that former slaves forget slavery and sink or swim in a brutal racist Gilded Age economy, white Americans, Douglass argued, were naturalizing the racial and economic inequality of the day. Douglass was prescient: white Americans were beginning a long tradition that used an erasure of the past in order to evade tough questions about the historical roots of racial inequality. Today the conservative media demands that African-Americans “get over” slavery and Jim Crow, stop “playing the race card,” claim that we live in a post-racial society, etc… Obviously this is a bad faith attempt to avoid dealing with the consequences of 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow, to shift the blame for black poverty onto supposed cultural pathologies rather than see them as the predictable results of historical oppression. In response to white Americans’ attempts to forget the past, many of the greatest black intellectuals, from Douglass to Du Bois to contemporaries like Angela Davis and Coates himself have centered historical awareness in their analyses of the functioning of contemporary black oppression.
And one insight that can be gleaned from African-American studies—among other places—is the incredible power of social structures to control and limit our lives. Perhaps if structures of racial domination, capitalism, etc… are so strong, it doesn’t matter whether we desire to advance from history—as Paine, Emerson, and Marx asked us to—if we cannot possibly do so. This seems to be the lesson that Coates takes from Nell Irvin Painter, that, like the poor, white supremacy will always be with us. Perhaps the Old Left overestimated mankind’s power, put too much faith in our reasoning capacity to give birth to a new world unmoored from the past. Perhaps every attempt at the melioration of social conditions only ends up reinforcing some other structure of injustice.
The problem is that we wouldn’t know. The American left has so conclusively given up trying to make the dramatic breaks from the past that recent history can’t possibly give us any insight into whether structures of injustice are truly indomitable. All we can know for sure is that what we are currently doing and imagining isn’t creating a more just world. Slavoj Zizek has a good joke about this: commenting on the popularity of apocalyptic movies he quipped that we can much more easily imagine the end of the world than we can imagine the end of capitalism. To put it another way, of course the reformist structures of liberal democratic order have not produced justice for African-Americans (or women, or working class Americans, or the environment, or immigrants, etc…). In the past it almost always took radical organized demands to create the progress that occurred—demands that were rarely if ever phrased in the language of slow liberal melioration, but in the hard accusation of utopian ideals. Emerson had written of reformers that they must attempt to “displace the actual order by [an] ideal republic.” Who talks in such ideals any more?
Today, as the philosopher Alberto Toscano has argued in the brilliant essay, “The Prejudice against Prometheus,” we are living in an era of reflexive anti-prometheanism, even on the left: “The sedimented effects of a long intellectual Cold War are still registered in the language of the left. Excoriations of the will, denunciations of the all-seeing state, grim warnings about the consequences of seeking mastery over nature and history…converge in descrying the political ills of a ‘Promethean’ desire to control collective destiny.” From the perspective of historical materialism, such an intellectual stance is obviously related to the dominance of neoliberal economic conditions. It is the left-wing version of the TINA ideology (“there is no alternative”). While the right anti-Prometheanism is very legible—a libertarianism that distrusts any organized and democratic control of the state or economy—the left one is more complex. It operates, Toscano claims, at level of melancholy—“the sense that emancipation is an object better mourned than desired.” From the perspective of intellectual history, one might add to Toscano’s analysis a narrative about how many of the prominent intellectual developments of the Age of Fracture—from the French New Philosophers, the American reclamation of neo-pragmatism, the postmodern disdain for grand narratives, and even the Foucaultian shift to understanding power as diffuse and bottom-up—all serve to decenter the bold reasoning autonomous subject of Enlightenment and Marxist thought, leaving, unfortunately, little positive sense of the political to replace it. With Toscano “we may wonder whether a diffuse anti-Promethean common sense expresses a dangerous disavowal rather than a hard-won wisdom.”
We live in a world still being shaped by the whirlwind of an ever-accelerating capitalist (post)modernity. The passive lethargy and fatalistic surrender that once denoted an overly historical worldview is, today, found among those preaching futuristic “disruption” and “innovation,” economic changes which, they tell us, our democracy and collective actions cannot avoid or prevent. On the left we are rightfully skeptical of the futuristic claims of these tech-utopians, barreling us towards a future dominated not by reason or collective justice, but by a horrific monetizing of the most intimate aspects of human existence. White “post-racial” commentators ask us to erase the past so as to evade responsibility for racial inequality today. So it seems natural for activists to respond by “historicizing” the present, by emphasizing how past political decisions and structures created the privileges and inequalities that today rent our society. It can almost seem like—in the face of white America’s erasure of the past and postmodern capitalism’s dizzying “creative destructions”—holding tight to a historical sensibility is itself an act of resistance.
But I can’t help but wonder if the hopelessness that some find in history is because history itself cannot, alone, show us a path towards a just future. If history becomes our only source of political inspiration we will put too much expectations on a past that will always disappoint. Because, and here is where Coates doesn’t take his atheist realism far enough, history simply cannot compel us to believe any grand moral or metaphysical principles, neither hope nor hopelessness. There is a dumb inert facticity to history. It can provide the building blocks with which we build an ethical or existential outlook, but the task of constructing those values is ours and ours alone. This is not to say that hopelessness is an illegitimate response to the horrors of history—it clearly is one response. But to hope or not to hope is our existential and ethical choice, not one compelled by the facts of history. Do we focus on human suffering, or human resistance; the horrors of war, or the everyday pleasures of peace; the human capacity for evil or for solidarity and love? Obviously, what we do with the manifold contradictory facts that confront us in archive, how we decide to order and interpret them, cannot be determined by the facts themselves, but by our own political and existential judgment which we bring to bear on the facts. And in choice, we exert our moral freedom, bringing us back to old questions about rationality, justice, and critical judgment.
So yes, in face of a capitalist and racist imaginary that erases the past, we should demand the importance of history. But capitalism will push us towards the future whether we want to our not. The question is whether we have the courage to use our collective agency to bridle or overcome it. History can prove a guide, but only a partial one, limited and unreliable. Imagine a French peasant in 1787 convinced that the King will always rule, the feudal lords will always starve them, the Bishops will always lie to them. He’d have all the monstrous overwhelming facts of a millennium of history on his side, but be absolutely wrong about the political lessons to be taken from them. Perhaps we still need that Promethean imaginary of a young Marx and Emerson, a vision that we have largely given up on, of people collectively seizing their destiny, breaking free from the past, through acts of critical rationality. Without it, we are left only with the silence of the past, where our political questions will always echo back to us unanswered.
In 1857, in one of his most revealing speeches, Frederick Douglass asked his audience to “allow him to give a word for the philosophy of reform.”  He didn’t know that in five years his abolitionist dream would become reality. At the time it appeared that there were seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way of slave emancipation: white Southerners exercised a stranglehold over the government, the Dred Scott decision called black citizenship into question, and even white abolitionists were often racists. What followed was one of his most famous quotations: “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle….If there is no struggle there is no progress.” For Douglass, “struggle” becomes the lynchpin that holds together his political vision, it forms a sort of bridge between the injustice that exists and the “progress” that the world needs. “Struggle” solves the antagonism between the natural and the rational, the given and the willed, the sensual and the formal, the historical and the utopian. It is rooted in the unjust world that exists but confronts such a world with accusations and bold demands that point the way to a new world. It imagines a future shaped not by faceless historical forces alone, but by the active agency of human beings acting together. As for Marx, it serves as a midwife to an old society pregnant with a new one.
If there is not hope to be found in the past, certainly there is Douglass’ struggle, and maybe that is enough.
 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is there no Alternative, (Washington, DC: Zero Books, 2009), 5.
 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). 37,62,33.
 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, Ben Fowkes, trans. (New York: Penguin, 1990) 342, 302.
 Thomas Picketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 20140, 378.
 Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), 18.
 Tim Blanning, The Romantic Revolution: A History, (New York: Modern Library, 2010), 127; Wendell Phillips, Speeches, Lectures, and Letters (Boston: James Redpath, 1863), 127.
 “Washington and The West, Speech of Wendell Phillips, ESQ., at the Tremont Temple, Boston, Thursday, April 17, 1862,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, May 3, 1862.
 Alexander Crummell, Africa and America: Addresses and Discourses (Springfield, MA: Willey, 1891), 14.
 I am indebted to Matt Karp, from Princeton, for reminding me of the importance of this speech. http://www.blackpast.org/1857-frederick-douglass-if-there-no-struggle-there-no-progress