The Things We Choose Not to Know

I was out recently with my partner, and we met a retired couple. When they discovered I was a historian, his first question was whether I was a ‘Marxist’.

I laughed it off, and he said, ‘No, you don’t look like one.’

He appeared to be serious, which my partner and I found funny, given that I have a rather large bushy beard, generally scruffy appearance, and small, round glasses.

Face of a Marxist.png
Tell me that’s not the face of a Marxist. No, I don’t know why he appears to be pouting.

But I think this man’s attitude is fairly typical of an attitude I come across a lot, an attitude that betrays the kind of lack of historical understanding among non-specialist publics that I believe historians should see as the most important challenge they face today. It is most common in relation to schools of thought that wide sections of these publics believe are ‘discredited’: Marxism, Freudianism, or indeed supernatural or religious beliefs.

What the man asking if I was a ‘Marxist’ didn’t realize is that in a sense it is very hard not to be a Marxist in 2016.

OK, perhaps I’m overstating the case a bit: I don’t expect to see a proletarian revolution of the kind Marx envisaged any time soon, and I don’t think many people today subscribe to a majority of his ideas about the development of civilization. But we use his language, and the language of the other radical socialist and anarchist thinkers he was in conversation with. We think and talk in terms of ‘social class’ because of the profound influence these people had on how we conceive of human societies.

Look, it’s Freud next to a bust of Marx! Mind. Blown.
In a similar way, I try not to roll my eyes when my students tell me that Freud has been proved ‘wrong’.

Yes, many of his theories are discredited today. But try talking about psychology without resorting to concepts that Freud originated or popularised. I think it impossible to step outside of conceptions of selfhood that have their roots in his ideas about id, ego, and super-ego. Many people today implicitly accept – I think – that jokes, slips, and dreams reveal something about our unconscious.

I call this what we choose not to know because anyone who has studied the history of the last two hundred years, the area where I hang my hat, cannot fail to be struck by the influence and importance of these legacies.

The caricature of Freudianism that highlights only penis envy and the Oedipus complex, or the caricature of Marxism that focuses on the atrocities committed by communist regimes are forms of wilful ignorance, and attempts to purify the past. They are related, I believe, to the desire to sanctify the figure of Darwin the modern rationalist visionary, while relegating the Spiritualist beliefs of his long-time intellectual frenemy Huxley to the dustbin of progress.

Everyone wants to think themselves the intellectual heir of an Einstein, yet no-one wants to think about the roots of atomic theory in Occult ideas.

Everyone aspires to be Mandela, but few want to dwell on his connections to radical communist and violent movements. And we easily think of Pankhurst as a hero, but how many of her modern-day admirers would break the law in defence of what they believe is right?

It isn’t normally considered a very radical thing to be called a ‘traditionalist’, but I suppose what I am saying is that it can in fact be quite radical indeed to think about the traditions we inhabit. In fact, that is the kind of radicalism that has long been the preserve of the folklorists, who seek to understand, rather than condemn the traditions we live within.

I came across the following quotation from the Scottish folksong collector Hamish Henderson in a piece I have been editing:

What is culture if not our human consciousness of the natural historic ambience into which we were born, and whose colours and sounds we have inherited?[1]

Make no mistake: in how we conceive of society, we are the inheritors of Marx. In how we conceive of psychology, we are the inheritors of Freud. And, as many historians of science have begun to suggest, modern technologies and theories are haunted by supernatural practices and beliefs.

But in the end, perhaps I’m not a Marxist after all. This tradition is no ‘nightmare’ weighing ‘on the brains of the living’, as Marx called it in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. As the folklorists have long known, it is a creative resource from which groups and individuals today draw meaning.

It is that selectivity, I believe, that demands reflection, and that is what we need historians for.



[1] Hamish Henderson, The Armstrong Nose. Selected Letters (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1996), p. 277.

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