Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Past Is Not A Cold Dead Place: Perry Anderson, Genealogy, History

[This piece first appeared at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog on July 18, 2014]

In his triptych of articles for The New Left Review – “Homeland”, “Imperium” and “Consilium” – Perry Anderson examines the rise of the current American neoliberal national security state. Anderson uses each article to tackle a different aspect of this rise: “Homeland” looks at domestic politics, “Imperium” at foreign policy, and “Consilium” at current mainstream academic thinking on US foreign policy. These articles, and “Imperium” in particular, are historically oriented. Anderson traces the creation and development of the national security state from the 19th century to the present day with special emphasis on the way the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson shaped US policy thinking about America’s place in the world. Anderson’s erudition and the breadth of his project is impressive. The further I read his NLR articles though, the more one question nagged at me: is this history?

I believe Anderson is writing as a genealogist, not a historian. Since being adopted by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in the late 19th century, genealogy has been one of social criticism’s most powerful and versatile weapons. It is also an important corrective to the historian’s orientation toward objectivity and context. For the purposes of this article, I define genealogy as an archeology of knowledge interested in exposing incidents of knowledge/power as constructed with the hope of disrupting its application and affecting future change. In contrast to the historian, the genealogist Anderson’s aim is to show how the American neoliberal national security state developed from the Founding to the present. His hope is that by exposing the contours of American empire, it can be more effectively combatted.[1]

Friedrich Nietzsche developed the genealogical method in the 1870s. Genealogy’s inspiration was not historical. In his “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” (1874), Nietzsche dismissed most historical thinking for its undue emphasis on presenting an objective past. Attempting to present an objective past denied human subjectivity and deadened life-giving lessons by diluting them with spurious contextualization and detail.[2] Instead, Nietzsche crafted his genealogical method by combining his training as a classical philologist with his interest in Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution. His interest in the relevance of non-historical scholarship to genealogy is evinced by one of Nietzsche’s fundamental questions in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887): “What light does linguistics, and especially, the study of etymology, throw on the history of the evolution of moral concepts?[3] Here both linguistics and evolutionary science play a crucial role in showing the development of Western morality and values. To Nietzsche, a virtue shared by linguistics and evolution is its rejection of objectivity.

The culmination of Nietzsche’s genealogical method is found in Michel Foucault’s work on institutional power and authority. In his essay, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”, Foucault provided a concise outline of his genealogical method and its indebtedness to Nietzsche. Foucault is explicit that genealogy is neither opposed to history nor is it a less rigorous version of it. “Genealogy does not oppose itself to history as the lofty and profound gaze of the philosopher might compare to the molelike perspective of the scholar,” Foucault wrote, “It opposes itself to the search for ‘origins’.”[4] Whereas Nietzsche used genealogy to undermine the foundations of Western morality, Foucault used the same method to unmask the power dynamics underlying institutions. His method was more historically oriented than Nietzsche’s, but in all of his genealogies (The Order of Things (1966), Discipline and Punish (1975), and The History of Sexuality (1976-84)) Foucault was committed to Nietzsche’s orientation toward the present and future at the expense of historical objectivity.

While Foucault was the most visible adopter of Nietzsche’s genealogical method, it also found an audience among American historians. These historians, including Gabriel Kolko and William Appleman Williams, believed that history should be used as a tool to criticize American culture, society, and politics.[5] In the preface to his The Contours of American History, William Appleman Williams defined the purpose of history, it “is neither to by-pass and dismiss nor to pick and choose according to preconceived notions; rather it is a study of the past so that we can come back into our own time of troubles having shared with the men of the past their dilemmas, having learned from their experiences, having been buoyed up by their courage and creativeness and sobered by their shortsightedness and failures.”[6] Like Nietzsche, Williams believed history should be future oriented; it should inform us as we try to make a better future. Though history cannot be the sole means of informing a better future – in Williams’ words “History offers no answers per se, it only offers a way of encouraging men to use their minds to make their own history” – it can be a useful tool.[7] It should be a means of “enrichment and improvement through research and reflection,” not a backward-looking scholasticism myopically obsessed with the past for its own sake.[8]

Beyond a common devotion to history for life, Nietzsche and Williams shared a commitment to using history as a tool to disrupt the search for singular origins, continuities, and wholes. Both reject the notion that total understanding of the past is possible. Perspective and subjectivity feature prominently in the work of both authors. In the same way Nietzsche could only create a genealogy of morals, Williams is limited to tracing the contours of American history. Nietzsche can trace a few common themes in his genealogy of morals: the rise of slave morality, the triumph of life-denying religion over life-loving warrior culture, and the coming of the übermenschen. Though Williams’ values could not be more dissimilar from Nietzsche’s, he also rejects a totalizing approach to history. Themes like frontier expansion, private property versus social property, and community are embodied in subjects like the Earl of Shaftesbury, Charles Beard, and Herbert Hoover. There are not impersonal historical forces for Williams, any historical continuities are dependent on individual agency for carriage between generations.

Perry Anderson is writing in the tradition begun with Nietzsche and carried on by Williams. Like Nietzsche and Williams, he is most interested in trying to understand how contemporary American domestic and foreign policy has come about. In line with his argument in “Homeland” that American political power has become unduly concentrated in the executive, Anderson embodies the characteristics of the neoliberal national security state in various Presidents. Woodrow Wilson in particular, is a pivotal figure for Anderson in unifying and arguing that, “Religion, capitalism, democracy, peace, and the might of the United States were one.”[9] It is no coincidence then for Anderson that, despite Wilson’s peace-loving rhetoric, he entered the United States into a world war that would massively expand American militarism at home and influence abroad. For Anderson despite periods of isolationism, “the ideology of national security, US-style was inherently expansionist.”[10]

Anderson’s vision of American foreign policy is erudite, but has clear limits. He’s not particularly interested in context or depth. To cover such a rangy topic as American foreign policy over a century’s duration in only a couple hundred pages compels Anderson to narrowly focus on a few individuals. He is also not concerned with counter-evidence or providing alternative opinions to his own. Like other genealogists, Anderson’s argument is polemical. While discussing the aims of the Truman administration after World War II, for example, Anderson focuses only on Europe.[11] The American government’s occupation of Japan, attempt to arbitrate the formation of a coalition government between the Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang, and decolonization in South and Southeast Asia are omitted from Anderson’s account of postwar American policy. This omission streamlines Anderson’s argument regarding the expansion of executive power and political consensus regarding liberalism (in both its political and economic forms) across the world. The postwar reality was much messier. Congressional support for Chiang Kai-shek frustrated Truman and the State Department, opinion was divided as to the future of Southeast Asian independence movements with substantial support in the State Department for independent (even if leftist) nationalist regimes in Vietnam and Indonesia, and despite the surprising ease of US occupation in Japan, the future role of the US there was unclear. While not acknowledging these seminal events in US history would be a mortal sin if committed by a historian seeking to write an authoritative historical account of 20th century US foreign policy, providing this historical context is not important for realizing Anderson’s aims as a genealogist. Like Williams before him, Anderson is able to keep his argument focused and coherent by eschewing historical complexity.

Despite being interested in the past, Anderson rejects the methodological dogmas of the professional historian. Though Anderson is writing during a more methodologically inclusive period of post-linguistic, post-cultural turn historical scholarship, historians still prize values that Nietzsche criticized. Objectivity, now seen as a ‘noble dream’ instead of realizable goal by historians, nevertheless remains a valued mindset. Polemics and jeremiads, while useful fodder for historical articles and monographs, fall outside the bounds of acceptable historical scholarship. Many historians also continue to believe that history should be solely concerned with the past. Jill Lepore and other who have deigned to approach history with an eye to the present have been labeled “presentist” by their peers.[12] Frequently, these accusations amount to little more than political disagreement couched in the language of good scholarship. Still, they posit a hard, artificial dividing line between the past and present.

Genealogy provides an alternative to endless debates about historical methodology. It is a separate method with its own values. At the same time, it can inform our thinking about the past and its relevance to present and future events. Historians need not have a monopoly on the past. History can tell us about the past as it was and for its own sake. The genealogist is first and foremost a social critic, interested in history as a means of interpreting the present. Both are necessary for a complete understanding of the past and how it informs current events. Embracing methodological diversity will allow scholars, be they historians or genealogists, to construct a thoroughgoing and socially responsible vision of the past that can inform how we live in the present.

[1] Anderson, “Imperium”, 4.

[2] Michel Foucault wrote about Nietzsche’s criticism of objective history that, “The objectivity of historians inverts the relationships of will and knowledge and it is, in the same stroke, a necessary belief in providence, in final causes and teleology – the beliefs that place the historian in the family of ascetics.” The historians obedience to unchanging, dead facts denies, for Nietzsche, the perspectivalism of our understanding of past events as well as the historian’s own subjectivity. Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Paul Rabinow (ed.) The Foucault Reader (New York City: Pantheon Books, 1984): 76-100.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals in Walter Kaufman (ed.), Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York City: The Modern Library, 1992): 491. Italics Nietzsche’s.

[4] Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”, 77.

[5] It should be noted that the genealogical method is not the exclusive purview of leftist social critics. I think the best way to understand much of Christopher Lasch’s late-career work is as genealogy instead of history. The Lasch monograph best fitting the genealogical description is The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991).

[6] William Appleman Williams, The Contours of American History (New York City: New Viewpoints, 1961): 23.

[7] Williams, Contours of American History, 480.

[8] Williams, Contours of American History, 23.

[9] Anderson, “Imperium”, 9.

[10] Anderson, “Imperium”, 30.

[11] Anderson, “Imperium”, 17-18.

[12] This is obviously not a new phenomenon. American communist historians in the mid-20th century were often labeled unscholarly for viewing history as a tool for political struggle. My reference to Jill Lepore concerns a 2011 spat between her and Gordon Wood concerning her book The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (2011). See Gordon Wood, “No Thanks For the Memories”, The New York Review of Books (January 13, 2011): and Claire Potter’s thoughtful riposte at The Chronicle of Higher Education: David Sehat has written on the debate for the S-USIH blog back in 2011. See his post here: