The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan: reviewed

This short history book is a defence of history and a criticism of those who try to distort it for reasons of their own. The positions taken are liberal and progressive. Specific attacks are made on an assortment of nationalists, conservatives and Marxists. However, while many of these assaults were persuasive, the text raised some awkward questions about itself.

While nobody would defend the intentional ideological pollution of history, can anybody tell a narrative which is free from ideology? Is it possible to be neutral or objective about a partly known past? The critical reading of sources may reveal biases, but how can our own biases be transcended?

The central problem is that the work of a professional historian can be as flawed as the speech of a politician in terms of its selectivity and its distortions. Being composed inside an academic environment will not necessarily make a text free from the influence of the powerful. Nor does opposition to the powerful guarantee impartiality. Studying the past is only likely to be useful if a range of positions are taken seriously. Admitting the limitations of knowledge is a productive beginning as MacMillan suggested, but her scepticism could be met by the scepticism of others who might want to know more about her own beliefs.


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