The Dissidents’ Assembly, or ‘Histoire ou Barbarie’.
A new journal of history? Yes, so it is. We venture to appear on the ‘market’ of ideas, supported by a common principle which, we believe, has never been declared nor claimed before the foundation of the Association, of which this journal is intended to be the voice. As a matter of fact, this principle is a right:
we claim the right to history as one of the fundamental rights of human beings. A pivotal right, although it has never been explicitly acknowledged, let alone overtly claimed. Without fear of sounding rhetorical, the Association and, now, the journal of HISTORIA MAGISTRA do not hesitate to inscribe this right on their banners. We do not intend to dwell on this point here, referring to the programmatic document published in this number which will be reprinted in the following issues.
So, what is the point of a new journal? The historical periodicals are numerous and often notable, and many of us collaborate with some of them. We have no intention to unrealistically compare ourselves to them, least of all to replace them: at our onset we are a small enterprise. However, starting from this first issue, 'Historia Magistra’ intends to develop its work around one privileged axis: consideration of the political uses (and abuses) of history. And programmatically, it also wants to represent the meeting point between three generations of scholars working in the field today: namely, the generation of its founder who with a group of pupils gave life to the HISTORIA MAGISTRA Association in 2000, and who has always worked with young people, as well as with colleagues; the immediately preceding generation and also the following one. From this very first issue, both the Scientific Committee and the Editorial Offices – starting from the central one which originated within the University of Turin – as well as its collaborators testify to this.
Even if it was born in an academic context, this journal stems from a strong demand for History demonstrated in the public debate - and we are not shocked by the public use of History. In the first place, it will try to be a periodical of cultural battle - if it was not shocking, we would like to use the term ‘guerrilla’ – and, therefore, of historical and historiographic information and critical discussion, linking, as far as possible, a serious presentation and a pleasant arrangement which does not relinquish scientific rigour with the explicit resolve of a (high-level) popularization, trying to speak to a non specialist public as well.
Not just being a historical and historiographic journal in the sheer technical sense is another distinguishing feature of ‘Historia Magistra’: following the principle that history is the compulsory route for all disciplines and a guideline for all, it wants to be open to contributions which technically belong to different disciplinary fields, all remaining however perceptible to the historical dimension. With risky mischievousness, we might even go as far as speaking of historicism… Nevertheless, our first ‘commandment’ is that history is the irremissible and necessary means of knowledge: pas d’histoire, pas de connaissance, we would say, paraphrasing our historiographic classics. Adding immediately, in order to
avoid any misunderstanding, the canonic but not at all ritual: pas de documents, pas d’histoire. Yes, because nowadays it is common practice, or bad practice, where anyone can become an ‘historian’, setting aside even the slightest methodological instructions, all direct relation to that material which the great historiographers of the 19th century taught us in vain to distinguish, catalogue and organize and deal with through appropriate techniques: namely, documents.
These improvised ‘historians’ who, supported by important editorial groups, and benefiting from the media’s support, are not content with flaunting their dozens (or hundreds) of thousands of their books sold - and behind those figures appear what they consider to be the most significant truth: the ready royalties -, are confirmed as maîtres à penser. And we will soon find them – we are not only talking about Italy, naturally – on the command deck, gathered around some ‘duce’ or minor ‘duce’, leading us toward the ‘magnifiche sorti e progressive’ (magnificent and progressive fates) of post-democracy.
One should add that the above-mentioned would-be historians – and part time, but that obviously isn’t the point – willingly polemicize with the ‘caste’ of the academics, and accuse them of claiming the ‘monopoly’ of research and historical narration. And this preposterous polemic is generally approved by the media as well which contributes in creating and circulating a noxious common idea, namely, that history is an open field where everyone can say or write nonsense.
Thus, historical research whose task is to produce knowledge of the past is drawn into question, and in the most radical and vulgar way. Epistème is turned into doxa, knowledge into opinion, science into controversy. Television is the model: in the glowing era of global communication, talk shows have become the measure and means, aim and price of everything. Therefore, if history is an opinion, historical narrative becomes a conflict of opinions: the best sponsored ones are the winners. Media apparatus, financial centres and, directly, political forces do their best to make one ‘opinion’ win rather than another. And the governments themselves – directly, or through Parliaments lacking in autonomy and often in independence as well - intervene to support their ‘vision of the past’, promoting or censuring, even by means of severe legislative measures which correspond or will correspond to judicial as well as administrative actions, those ‘opinions’ which are undesirable, or considered ‘politically incorrect’ by certain majorities and particular climates and milieus. What is most disturbing is not that the very meaning of history as a scientifically grounded activity, autonomous and free from any conditioning, is failing; what is most disturbing, instead, is the political meaning of the operation which aims at wiping out the certainties concerning past events. These are suitably ‘revised’ according to a perspective which has little to do with historical knowledge. Historical knowledge never proceeds by leaps and epistemological revolutions, overturns and reversals.
According to the general climate of the time, events are appropriately adjusted, arranged and adapted. But over the decades, revisionism which may be defined as the ideology and practice of programmatic revision for exclusively political ends - besides the sordid commercial ones, and not in the least for the purpose of acquiring knowledge - has ceased to be satisfied with these procedures. And feeling that the times were right, it has accelerated frighteningly, turning into ‘reversism’, its ‘supreme stage’.
Historia non facit saltus, one may say changing the subject in a famous saying. Revision is, precisely, that slow, constant work which updates, corrects, adds and, more importantly, asks new questions: the History that we intend to make, or anyway which we intend to support, is the Histoire-Problème learnt without fetishisms from the masters of the ‘Annales’. Obviously, revision originates – it should be made clear to those who overlook it or who have not thought about it sufficiently – not just from the access to new sources, from the perfectionism of research techniques (with the help of informative, photographic and chemical means, and so on), and perhaps above all, from the new questions the scholar asks the documents. Moreover, doesn’t the great positivistic tradition remind us that History originates from a question? Die Frage… That question which Croce tersely distinguishes in ‘philological’, or purely ascertaining to the facts, and ‘historiographic’, namely, problematic. To start with, making history always entails telling ‘what really happened’. But the authentic historian does not stop here: the authentic historian knows how to interpret the facts coherently, situating them in micro and macro, individual and collective contexts. The true historian knows how to ask ‘old’ (in the sense of having even been used thousands of times) documents new questions. This is, precisely, the true and most profound meaning of ‘revision’ which is distant and different from revisionism. They work in contexts and with aims which are divergent, not just different. This must be absolutely clear to us because we must be capable of making those who live outside the protected walls of the Muse Cleo understand it. Or those who go beyond them with an active or passive connivance, and, having entered the citadel of historical knowledge, believe that they have the right to ‘their say’ with ends that do not belong to it, and are overtly supported by interests of a totally different kind. And thanks to those interests, these people are accredited by the media and become ‘trendy’ historians: from Spain to Italy, from France to Germany…
HISTORIA MAGISTRA – the Association and, now, the journal – intends to fight against all this. We will not be a base of opinionism. We will not be moderate. We will not follow the ‘Porta a Porta’ model. We will be rigorous and clear, if we are able to, so as to claim the right to fight in order to promote another, much more important right: the right to History. But in doing so, we will be inflexible and tough. We will be irritating and annoying. We will be aggressive, and then ironic. We will be inspired, as far as we can, by some eminent figures, first of all Antonio Gramsci and his ethical, civic, intellectual and, we dare say, political teaching. We will draw inspiration from his ‘passionate sarcasm’, trying to obtain for ourselves and those who want to follow us in our journey a knowledge about the ‘great and terrible world’. We will be ready to fight with our modest capacities and the scarcity of our means for an aim which is simply, without fear of pronouncing a sacred word, called truth. Because this is the historian’s task. And this, more generally, is the intellectual’s duty which we like to think (with Benda) in terms of the sacerdos veritatis, not forgetting, in Gramsci’s words, that truth is revolutionary, and that the truth that we have at heart is also the truth that must be revealed behind hypocrisy, lies, and, especially, social oppression.
To the intellectual, particularly the historian, we set the primary task of being a constructor of truth primarily in its negative sense: namely, of discovering falsehood.
Today, falsehood has many faces: we choose to accomplish our task using scientific research, historical method, philological accuracy, critical skepsis. And, with a pinch of conceit, we intend to undertake a task which is scientific but also political: as we believe the intellectual must be, as someone who, quoting Sartre, ‘fully embraces his time’. Our ideal isn’t that of the scholar closed in his study, but, instead, of the scholar who is confronted with the problems of his time, who ‘soils his hands’, quoting Sartre again, and takes sides. ‘I hate indifferent people’: young Gramsci’s battle cry from the pages of the single issue ‘La Città Futura’ in February 1917 is, in our view, not only extremely contemporary but indispensable. The struggle for truth is always political, and truth is useful to everyone, or rather, to all those who do not gain advantage from its concealment or reversal: in the first place, the subordinate classes which the mature Gramsci took into serious consideration, going beyond the canonical concept of proletariat, thus starting a course of study (and fight) that is followed by many schools today. A fight against lies, against false truths, against the impositions of impossible ‘shared memories’, against memory losses, against the easy tendencies to oblivion, against the mystifications and reversals, against the inventions of traditions, against the resort to history as a department store where those goods which are used for political self-legitimization or de-legitimization of one’s adversaries or enemies
are found at low cost…
We will fight against all this with all our strength, determined to break an oppressive silence and a deafening noise: means through which the power attempts to put down every critical attitude, every appeal, precisely, of truth. Will there be few of us? Will we be weak? It does not matter. What we think is important, is to know our number. And start the fight. Ours could be defined – we declare it before it is said sardonically – a dissidents’ assembly.
Dissidents against the pseudo-histories, dissidents against the theories and practices synthetically specified above. Dissidents against the emptying of democracy which also, and perhaps primarily, takes place through this violation of History - eventually, preceding and going together with the violation of institutions: constitutional changes, populist and plebiscitary policies, leaderism driven to unprecedented levels in the contemporary liberal regimes, the attack on the autonomy of the judiciary as third power, the progressive reduction of the pluralism of information and communication, the privatization of natural primary resources, the privatistic control over knowledge, cultural conformism, television as an authentic separate power. And, in a situation of growing, irresistible financialization of economy – which now grapples in a crisis with unpredictable developments, what’s more – war is a constant and permanent setting in a process that threatens to overwhelm us.
The scenario which delineates in the fall of democracy is disquieting. And we must react. We believe that making history, making it seriously and passionately, with science and will to truth (that is, will to justice) means erecting a good barrier. We will work on a long period position warfare, but without excluding the short period war of movement, starting immediately, before it is too late, before having to cry out in alarm: Hannibal ad portas.
In conclusion, paraphrasing a well-known, desperate motto of Rosa Luxemburg - another one of our ‘guides’ - which was taken up by a group of ‘heterodox’ Marxists some six decades ago – and who, precisely, sixty years ago gave birth to an homonymous review, 'Socialisme ou Barbarie’ - we will say: Histoire ou Barbarie.
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