Conservative, Liberal and Marxist History

History has been understood differently by different people. While some have understood it as the study of the past events, others have defined it as a record of human actions which have occurred in the past. 1 However the variety of definitions, it should be pointed out that history does not constitute everything that happened in the past. Only those past activities which have had a bearing on the present are what may qualify to be worth history. 2 Just as there are many definitions of history, so are there many branches of history.
This essay is meant to define and illustrate the importance of three of the braches of history. These include Conservative, Liberal and Marxist History. The essay is organized in two parts. The first part will provide in-depth understanding of the three terms, whereas the second part will show how important each of them is in the study of history. Conservative History is one historical interpretation of history which traces its foundation in the word ‘Conservatism’. Conservatism literary means preservation of what has always been tradition.
It is an ideology which favours status quo and is very reluctant to accept change. Conservatives prefer having things continues as they have been in the past. Any drastic change to tradition is viewed with suspicion. According to this ideology, political and other human institutions have endured through ages because of tradition. For this reason, change should only be accepted very gradually. 3 Having looked at conservatism, it may now be imperative to define Conservative History as that branch of history whose writings are based on maintaining history as has always been written, without altering it.

In this vein, this history favours tradition, as no perceptions or any other radical views are not emphasized. Conservative Historians may also write history not to preserve the past, but to remind society of the good olden tradition. The goal in this case, is to see societies revert back to the values of earlier times. Because of its emphasis on the value of tradition, Conservative History has always perpetuated inequalities, absolutist regimes and domination of the poor by the upper class. 4 Liberal History as the word ‘liberal’ suggests, comes from the Latin word ‘liber’ meaning ‘free’.
The word therefore, has more to do with freedom or liberty. Liberalism advocates for equality of opportunity for all and allows maximum freedom to individuals while limiting the powers of government. The earliest form of Liberal History was a reaction to the conservative history, which was being considered as static. Liberal History advocated for the freedom of thought for historians as a way of ensuring the progress of humanity. Core to this branch of history is the belief that if historians are to write history which promotes progress, then historians should not be controlled in trying to seek historical truth.
The past, present and future are seen as being interconnected and influencing one another. Therefore, it is not necessary to emphasize one when all the three (past, present and future) collectively shape history of humanity. According to liberal historians, it is possible to analyze history progressively rather than look at it as tradition. They totally differ with conservatives who may always want to maintain status quo in areas such as divine rights of kings and hereditary status among many others. They regard traditions as having no value other than hindering social progress.
Further, they hold the view that traditions and other social practices should continually be adjusted for the benefit of humanity. In other words, Liberal History constitutes those historical accounts which are highly critical of certain traditions and cultures, referring to them as uncivilized, barbaric and primitive. 6 Marxist History’s origin may be traced to the works of Karl Marx (1818- 1853) who analyzed human history and concluded that it was all about class struggles. 7 It is also called Radical History.
Marx theorized that in every historical era, there is always a dominating class and an oppressed class, as well as a struggle between these classes. According to him, these struggles are perpetuated by the state and economic conditions such as capitalism which produces oppressed classes. He contended that capitalists will destroy engage in brutal competitive struggles with each other, thereby giving an opportunity to the exploited laboring classes to rise up against capitalism and overthrow it so that they replace it with communism.
In communism, there would be no classes and economic benefits would be shared equitably. 8 Marxist History is therefore, that interpretation of history on the basis of not only social and political factors but also economic factors. Marxist historians asserted that poverty and diseases of the poor people are as a result of social classes and conditions under which peasants lived and worked. 9 The base of man’s problems was to be found in the division of society into classes. Therefore, in order building a society with no exploitation is only dependant on the forceful removal of the capitalist system.
At the centre of radical history is the argument that the historical analysis of man’s progress and development is meaningless unless that analysis puts into consideration the economic and social relations aspect. 10 This is unlike liberal history which only emphasizes the social and political factors in the analysis of man’s development. So far, it is clear that Marxist History differs considerably from the other two branches discussed. For example, whereas liberal history centres on man’s progress, Marxist history is more concerned with changing the world.
Marxist historians advocate for a radical transformation of the economic and social conditions by removing capitalist relations. This would have to be done through a violent revolution. An example of radical historians is Paulo Freire who championed the cause of the oppressed in his book, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. 11 In this book, he campaigned for the liberation of the poor who had been oppressed by the dominant classes. Having discussed the three branches of history in detail, the essay will now focus on the importance of each of these branches in the study of history.
Merely defining the concepts without illustrating their relevance can render futile the need to understand them (branches) in the study of history. It should be noted from the onset that while all the branches discussed may have their faults or inadequacies, they all are very relevant in the study of history. Many a time, historians align themselves with one of the many branches, and this reflects in their works. The importance of Conservative History can never be overemphasized. What is life without tradition?
No society would be what it is today without the contribution of past values and traditions. Though arguable, it could be true to assert that the world has evolved into what it is today because of the good values of the past. It is for this reason that caution ought to be taken to ensure that societies and politics remain immune to temptations to change. Conservative history is premised on the old adage that ‘the devil you know is better than the angel you do not know’. The emphasis on maintaining the status quo will definitely result in continuity and stability of societies and institutions.
Conservative history gives an impression that things were better in the past than they are now and that there is need to go back to the olden ways. This is especially true in the area of African education. Indigenous education was better compared to the current western education, which promotes nothing but social stratification and unemployment. The entire curriculum is so irrelevant, bookish, with very few practical subjects at selected levels of education12. However, looking into the past, it is vivid that traditional education which was offered ensured a rounded education and comprehensive preparation for real life.
There was no such thing as unemployment! Owing to the fact the past was much better off than the present, conservative history plays an invaluable role in enlightening the present generations on the achievements of the past. Its stress on the need to return to the values of the earlier times has always been received positively. In Zambia for example, there are moves to ruralize the school curriculum so that it includes some of the traditional aspects which have direct relevance to societies.
13 Further, tribute should be paid to conservative historians for their role in the re-writing of African History which had been greatly tarnished by some liberal historians. The first writers of African history portrayed it in a very negative way. The African ways of life were seen as heathen, barbaric, primitive, backward and uncivilized. 14 It had to take conservative African historians to try to erase the fabrications, omissions and stereotypes of colonial historians. By eulogizing the African past, conservative historians have made a huge contribution to the study of history.
Like Conservative History, Liberal history plays an important role in the interpretation of history. The notion of the past as a continuation into the present and future is very true and important. It is very true in the sense that society is indeed dynamic. The conditions of the past may not be the same conditions now. Therefore, societies cannot afford to be static in a fast changing world. For example, in the 1970s, Zambia and many other countries were under socialist and dictatorship regimes. It worked so well that time. However, in the 1990s, a wind of change blew, and countries could not afford to remain static.
Many socialist governments were toppled and replaced with more democratic and capitalist governments which espoused the principle of liberalization. The role of liberal history in promoting the progress of society cannot be overlooked. Besides, this is the only branch of history which makes it easy to analyze the past in order to understand the present and finally forecast the future. By supporting social progressivism, certain bad elements of tradition can be done away with. Such elements or practices include the divine rights of rulers, hereditary status
and other injustices. 15 In the study of history, this branch helps greatly in the understanding of present events as offshoots of past events. In addition, it is the goal of liberal history to be written from several view points as long as it has man’s freedoms at the centre. 16 This branch is very important because it allows for the different perspectives with people try to explain historical events. Without liberal history, there would only be one universal interpretation of historical facts. It concerns itself with the political and social life of societies.
These are very cardinal aspects of history which demand for interpretation. Marxist history has an immense contribution it makes in the study of history. As discussed earlier, this branch fills the void left by liberal history. The latter only addressed the social and political aspects leaving the economic aspect which also contributes to man’s progress in both political and social life. Though radical in nature, this branch provides a working interpretation or hypothesis of the existing social classes and consequent class struggles in man’s history.
17 It is therefore, possible to understand the source of the frequent conflicts between workers and owners of the means of production. Conservative and liberal history may not answer the questions of about poverty and diseases from which poor people suffer. Yet, these are very important questions in any study of history. Radical or Marxist history hence, becomes imperative because it provides answers to these questions. According to this branch, poverty and disease are as a result of the creation of classes based on economic factors.
In other words, capitalism which is the main cause of division of societies is the base of man’s problems and exploitation. 18 Another important aspect of Marxist history in the study of history is its role in trying to change the world. This branch of history attempts to cleanse the world of the social ills and inequalities by bringing them out in the open. It therefore, advocates for a radical transformation and liberation of the poor’s economic and social conditions. Careful analysis of Marxist history offers a good explanation for the under-development of Africa.
Colonialism which brought with it capitalism, is blamed for the exploitation of African human and material resources. This knowledge is important in the study of African history. It is necessary to learn how African peasants and workers were stripped of their resources by the greedy colonial capitalists. Throughout the colonial period (and even now), Africans did not benefit from their resources. 19 Rather, they have always been suppliers of cheap labour to the capitalists. In summary, this essay has defined three of the many branches of history, namely: Conservative Liberal and Marxist.
Conservative history bases its writings on the preservation of what has been traditionally followed. It has no room for divergent and radical views other than the status quo. Liberal history on the other hand, emphasizes freedom of thought for historians as a way of promoting historical progress of humanity. It is a reaction to conservative history. Finally, Marxist history is a radical view of history which emphasizes the interpretation of history on the basis of both social and economic factors.
The essay has further, illustrated the importance of each of the branches discussed. Conservative history is cardinal to the understanding and appreciation of the past traditions and cultures. Liberal history facilitates an understanding of present events and projection of the future through analysis of the past. Economic inequalities and problems in man’s history can be better explained by Marxist history. It is therefore, clear that historical accounts of all the three branches discussed are extremely relevant in the study of history.

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