Political History Is Worth Saving

IWMPost Article

Historical studies of politics care about how power is organized and used. In recent decades, political history has been rightly criticized as traditionalist and dropped out of the historiographical mainstream. Adéla Gjuričová argues it is worth rescuing.

Political history once stood at the birth of modern historiography. As a narrative of political events, ideas, and movements, as well as of governing bodies, political groupings, and leaders, it grew close to diplomatic history, legal history, and the history of political systems and administration. For long, it used to represent the discipline as a whole and occupied most of its institutional resources. Yet over several decades, political history became marginal and difficult to defend or to get funding for. Even at the IWM, it seemed to be the only topic that did not lead to lively discussions during the renowned lunch sessions, where even very unconventional ideas find a friendly and engaged audience.

Political history itself was to blame for this hostility. It had embodied a specific, narrow perspective of politics, characterized by reducing it to the description of central institutions, to lists of members of formal bodies, and to personified stories of a succession of their leaders or rulers. Such a focus led to exclusive engagement with national elites and white men. That was the political history that dominated historiography from the nineteenth century to the 1960s.

Then new approaches challenged the authority of the discipline. Social history and cultural studies shifted the emphasis away from the study of leaders, elite institutions, and national decisions, and moved attention to the role of ordinary people, including outsiders and minorities. Quantitative methods joined in and managed to relate mass political preferences to social categories such as religion, gender, or ethnicity. Political options began to be seen as a part of cultural practice passed on within cultures and across them.

A few years later, the postmodern and linguistic turns suggested that politics could also be understood as a matter of language, discourse, and visual or other representation. This revealed the language of politics as a cultural and power-laden instrument rather than a neutral product of intellectual activity. Understanding the past as not existing outside its textual and other representations produced completely new interpretations of established problems of political history; for example, as in Lynn Hunt’s work on the literary genres of political rhetoric in the different phases of the French Revolution.

All this seems obvious today, but the fact that the basic premise of an immutable past that had happened and could be reconstructed from certain types of sources has been shattered is of grave importance. Political history, apparently depending on that idea, has been weakened, and adapting to its new position has been far from easy. A previously dominant discipline now experiences a status that “has sunk to somewhere between that of a faith healer and a chiropractor. Political historians were all right in a way, but you might not want to bring one home to meet the family.”

These were the words of William Leuchtenburg, a leading political historian, in a heated 1986 debate on the setback of political history, which not only documented the dramatic decrease in the number of theses and grants but also initiated the idea of New Political History. Many journals and associations have been discussing the crisis of political history since, yet as Giovani Orsina, a leading researcher of the political class and journalism, remarked recently, lamenting over the position of political history sometimes prevails over searching for new topics and approaches to them.

The East-Central European historiographies of communist dictatorships and their post-socialist transformations, to which the author of this essay has proudly contributed, were not exactly brimming with innovative trends in the first decades following 1989. They mostly remained within personified stories of traditional political institutions and showed them as domain of elites—old, new or old-new—and of white male actors. These works most often focused on developments at the central level and were satisfied with seeing the main events from the perspective of national capitals.

The abundance of sources and living witnesses that make the most recent contemporary history an exception within the discipline soon brought researchers’ attention to the stimuli of oral history. Yet its proponents often missed the original point, namely to give voice to the previously unheard narratives from communities that were excluded from conventional historical sources. In contradiction to what the original Anglophone founders of oral history intended, the first collections of interviews in East-Central Europe again favored leading actors and elites, and offered themselves as a historical source equal to written sources, without suggesting any specific analytical guidelines or concepts.

Nonetheless, the historical study of politics is worth saving. The original primary angle of power and its institutionalization is unique, and the criticism of political history should be taken as a starting point for the creative incorporation of useful inspiration from cultural and social history, of anthropology and sociology.

Such experimenting can make even traditional institutions fascinating again, as current European parliamentary studies show. For example, the monograph on Czechoslovakia’s parliament that I co-authored, offered an ethnographic study of the “wild tribe” of parliamentarians to explore the status of newcomers, their different roles in the community, and the institution’s rituals and good manners. An established political body then comes out as much more than the names of those elected, the rules of procedure, and the adopted laws.

An interpretation of institutionalized practices and their institutional ecologies shows parliaments as entities that can be vulnerable and undergo change within the same constitutional schemes, and yet in another sense tend to be resilient and durable. The notion of parliamentary culture—as a complex set of rhetorical, cultural, social, gender, visual, and other characteristics that makes up the idea and practice of parliamentarism in the specific national, regional, or wider European context—helps explain why some features of institutional culture can be preserved through decades of dictatorship and be found again in internal procedures or public expectations.

Leaving the central level, while incorporating some of the perspectives above, can be equally productive. For example, observing socialist and post-socialist towns, municipalities, and regions—as is done within the current fusion of urban history and transformation studies—can expose unexpected actors and factors, new chronologies, and unseen inequalities. My institution’s current comparative research of municipal administrations at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s shows very independent local elites and economies and their crucial influence on the specific paths of privatization and commercialization of urban environments. What seemed absent in the central institutions—the Roma and other minorities, in particular—is central here.

With grand narratives falling apart in current historical research, I do not suggest to particularize the debate further. Political history asks the right questions on power, the state, the institutional framework, and the organization of power relations in social and cultural contexts. Thanks to productive fusions with other parts of historiography as well the social sciences, it gains new tools to interpret sources, while always historicizing the findings. If we allow it back in play, we might gain a helpful ally against the pressure of political activism and the presentism of current historical research, one bringing counterintuitive interpretations to the familiar terms of contemporary debates.

A. Gjuričová and T. Zahradníček: Návrat parlamentu: Češi a Slováci ve Federálním shromáždění, 1989-1992. Praha 2018.

City as a Laboratory of Change. Strategy AV21 project of the Academy of Sciences. http://strategieav21-mesto-stavby.cz/

Adéla Gjuričová is director of the Institute of Contemporary History at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. She was a Jan Patočka Fellow at the IWM in 2023.