Going Soft on the Weak

Some historians romanticise the powerless to the point where they can do no wrong. This offers a moral threat to both the profession and the wider society, which must be challenged, says Tim Stanley.

I took a class recently that examined the American Black Power movement of the 1960s. We looked at authors and activists who made some idiosyncratic observations about Cold War America. Among the charges were that the white man was invented in a test tube, that Jews established the Federal Reserve, that the drug trade was an experiment in population control by the CIA and that Mickey Mouse was the friendly face of imperialist genocide. However absurd these fantasies were, the most radical Black Power leaders used them as the pretext for separatism and urban terrorism. One wrong (white racism) was used to justify another (black racism). In his book of essays, Soul on Ice, the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver even redefined rape as a political act.

What was shocking about this class wasn’t the literature itself, but the near unanimous sympathy my students expressed for the writers. They offered incredible excuses for barbarism, riot and rape – ‘using violence as leverage’, ‘redistributing property’, ‘asserting wounded masculinity’. They had imbibed the popular view among the ‘sandals-and-Che-Guevara’ set that racism is about power and that those without power are never racist. These writers, they argued, were resisting the prejudice of the ruling class: fighting fire with fire.

This is a classic example of crazy Sixties thinking – that someone has to be powerful to do wrong. The flip side is that whenever someone at the bottom of a power structure does or says something objectively evil, many historians legitimise it by calling it ‘resistance’. No one denies that tyrants and conquerors are oppressive, or that those who seek liberation have just cause. But that doesn’t mean inverse prejudice or terrorism should get a free pass. If history is to be both intelligent and ethical, then we must be detached enough to appreciate context, but superior enough to apply universal, timeless moral standards. It’s wrong to bend someone over a stone and pluck out their heart – no matter how badly the Aztecs’ crops were doing.

This kind of moral relativism enjoys the status of historical orthodoxy in many universities and it clouds both morality and good research. It combines the Marxist obsession with heroic class war and postmodernism’s insistence that all points of view can be equally valid. And so, according to the German political theorist and ‘father of the New Left’, Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), the Vietnamese Communists who butchered opponents and tortured captured soldiers demonstrated that ‘there is a morality, a humanity, a will, and a faith which can resist and deter the gigantic technical and economic force of capitalist expansion’. Or, wrote the French anti-imperialist Frantz Fanon (1925-61), the women soldiers of the Algerian National Liberation Front who planted bombs in cafes were ‘freedom fighters who carried arms against French colonialism’. This madness climaxes in Noam Chomsky’s claim that the extermination of one quarter of the population of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge was actually America’s fault: ‘When poor peasants are driven into the jungle from villages destroyed by bombing, they may seek revenge.’ The reach of this kind of moral mush is testified to by the enduring popularity of works like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which provides select readings by ‘the powerless of America’. Among the (otherwise entirely noble) contributors are several known Communist agents, a pederast, a terrorist and two men involved in a bloody prison revolt.

History impacts upon the way we understand the modern world. If historical research divides things up into the oppressors and the oppressed, then guilt can make us overlook crimes committed by victims in both the past and the present. Violent resistance of the powerless may be understandable, even unavoidable. But historians must remember that no amount of liberal guilt should remit the bigotry and nihilism of many postwar liberation movements. Acknowledging that they, too, erred can play a big part in understanding the sickness of the societies that spawned them.

Tim Stanley is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London.