Journalist and author John Green interviews U.S. historian Eric Foner, for Morning Star. Foner is Professor of History at Columbia University.
JG: Would you be happy to be described as a “Marxist historian” or is there a more accurate term for historians like you, Howard Zinn and others?
EF: I tend to eschew labels. Marx is believed to have said: “I am not a Marxist.” In other words: “I don’t want to be assigned to a single school of interpretation.”
But no-one can understand history who does not have at least some familiarity with the writings of Marx.
I have been powerfully influenced by Marxist insights, especially those of the last generation of British Marxist scholars such as Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson and others.
But I have also been influenced by black radical scholars like WEB Du Bois, who himself was influenced by Marxism and also by other radical traditions and by feminist scholars.
JG: You’ve argued that the past needs to be “usable.” What exactly do you understand by that term?
EF: The idea of a “usable” past is often misunderstood. It certainly does not mean distorting history for political ends, nor ignoring less than appealing features of past movements with which one is sympathetic.
I do believe that for those trying to change society today, an understanding of where our current situation comes from is essential and knowledge of past social movements very desirable.
A usable past is a body of historical knowledge that inspires people to try to make this a better world and that cuts through much of the historical mythology with which we are surrounded.
JG: In an essay you wrote some time ago, you discuss the role of docudramas on the small screen and their place in the public reception of history. You’ve written that they tend to highlight individual rather than collective action and that this reflects the “peculiarly American strand of individualism.” Do you still stand by that assertion?
EF: My historical interests focus on social movements and their struggles for greater freedom and equality in American life.
Even in my study of Abraham Lincoln and slavery, I devote considerable attention to Lincoln’s symbiotic relationship with radical Republicans and abolitionists, rather than simply portraying him as the “great emancipator.”
It is the combination of social movements and enlightened political leadership that brings about social change.
I have the impression that docudramas are less prevalent nowadays than they were in the 1980s when I wrote that essay. They straddle the line between historical fiction — such as the recent film Lincoln — and documentaries, which are not supposed to invent dialogue or recreate past situations.
But the larger point is that many people gain their “knowledge” of history from films that often distort the past in subtle ways.
To the extent that these genres encourage an interest in history is good. I hope that after seeing them, people will read a good book.
Learning about history and understanding our past is important in helping us grapple meaningfully with our present.
JG: You’ve shone a light on those aspects of US history that have been largely glossed over or ignored, particularly the genocide of the native population and the historical narratives of collective action. Is such a position now more accepted than it was or is it still an uphill battle for historians like you?
EF: I am only one of many historians who have highlighted these issues in the past generation.
And certainly more attention is devoted to them in history textbooks and introductory courses than when I was a student.
That said, most people tend to prefer an uplifting account of American history and biographies of great leaders are much more likely to appear on the bestseller lists than studies of, say, labor organizing in the “Gilded Age.”
But I do think that our understanding of history has become more comprehensive and critical — which is one reason conservatives for years have been denouncing historians.
JG: You say that Trump is not an aberration, but a logical extension of the way the Republican Party has been operating since Barry Goldwater. Why?
EF: In terms of personality or temperament, Trump may be unique.
But his essential outlook and strategy — liberating business from “regulation,” opposing the rights of labor, appealing to white resentment against non-whites and native-born peoples, fears of foreigners and immigrants — have been standard Republican fare since Goldwater’s campaign of 1964 and Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy.”
Trump gives all this a new twist but the basic ideology is the same.
JG: In the face of the Trump administration’s determined efforts to rewrite history or change our understanding and interpretation of it, how do you feel historians can best counter that?
EF: To paraphrase Jefferson, the best antidote to bad history is good history. In the current situation, writing what Nietzsche called “critical” history is itself an act of opposition.
Read John Green’s review of Eric Foner’s latest book: Eric Foner’s ‘Battles for Freedom’ salvages America’s history of struggle
Reposted from Morning Star the socialist daily newspaper in Britain