Breaking down barriers: are political thought history and public history irreconcilable?

By Zoe Alipranti (@ZAlipranti)

Making historical subjects accessible to a wider audience is an important part of public history. Some public history writers target readers seeking to escape everyday life by immersing themselves in the fascinating stories of the past. Works on the history of political thought might not be an obvious choice here. Tales of medieval chivalry, historical intrigue or the details of ordinary people’s lives seem more likely to fulfil that purpose. The history of ideas is a very important field, but its reputation of inaccessibility and density means it often draws an academic rather than a broader public audience. However, the history of political thought can make an important contribution to public history which uses the questions, ideas and events of the past to illuminate contemporary issues.

I am fascinated by the history of political concepts and how ideas are historically conditioned. In my MPhil research, I explored how competing internationalist visions were articulated by the British Labour Party during the Spanish Civil War, in light of the rise of fascism in Europe. I researched the concepts used by members of the Labour Party from 1936 to 1939, with the role of intervention and humanitarian appeals being the main themes explored.

Internationalism had many different dimensions. One group of politicians spearheaded by Hugh Dalton and Ernest Bevin were strictly opposed to military intervention. They believed in intervening only through humanitarian relief for the victims of war. For another group of politicians, humanitarian arguments were often interwoven with calls for the defeat of fascism through sending arms to Spain. Labour Party views on foreign policy were fragmented. The typical division between liberal and socialist internationalisms crumbled, necessitating an approach attentive to the divisiveness of foreign policy. Moreover, the Advisory Committee for International Questions, a group composed of academics and policy makers, failed to forge a strong relationship to prominent members of the party. This gap between academics and policy makers also shows how internationalism was coloured in more than one way, further exposing its diverse strands.

In the last few years, although in no way a seismic shift, intellectual history works that pervade the popular sphere have started to reach a wider audience. For example, Emily Jones recently won the Longman-History Today Book Prize for her 2017 book Edmund Burke and the Invention of Modern Conservatism.[1] She explored how conservatives in the nineteenth century used Burke’s writings to invigorate the conservative creed, aiming at deconstructing how the public discourse of nineteenth-century conservatism was associated with Burke’s ideas. The popular appeal of her work lay in showing the endurance of a set of ideas but their varied application over time, reflecting on the role of ideology in politics or analysing the contribution of well-known figures to particular movements or creeds.

Similarly, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop retains the intellectual rigour of political thought history, but provides valuable insights for a more popular audience into how the concept of individualism came to govern people’s understanding of society in the West.[2] Siedentop debunks the myth that the concept of individual rights arose from the Enlightenment. Instead, he situates it earlier and shows how, centuries before, Christianity enabled an individual-focused concept of society to emerge. This is likely to attract inquisitive readers who want to see how humans have understood themselves in the past.

What we can learn from these examples is that history that deconstructs myths and casts light on the intellectual trajectories of some ideas can attract wider audiences. Studying Hobbesian philosophy can potentially sound intimidating for some, but presenting it as a history of the role of the state and its relationship to the people – questions we are still grappling with today – can render it more alluring.

Bridging the gap between the history of political thought and public history does not mean we need to abandon the intellectual rigour of the former. To do so would unhelpfully narrow the field of public history and underestimate the interests – and diversity – of its audiences. The history of political thought has much to offer for understandings of political identity and reminds us of the historical contingency of ideologies and ideas.



[1] Emily Jones, Edmund Burke and the Invention of Modern Conservatism, 1830-1914: An Intellectual History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)

[2] Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism (London: Allen Lane, 2014)

Image: Plato and Aristotle fresco, Raphael, 1509-1511 in Stanza della Segnatura, Papal Palace, Vatican (photo by Steven Zucker, via Creative Commons)

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