A first cut at explaining how historians do their job is that they find what they look for in that they tell the story they are prepared to tell by their overall viewpoint, whatever the facts may be that might lead to a contrary interpretation. But a deeper appreciation puts historians on firmer ground. They make reference to age old or even newly crafted emotions as the objective explanations for what people do, either individually or collectively. Anger, for example, is dangerous because it can take on any object, whether a political opponent, a minority group, or a nation. People came to hate Caesar; Hitler and the Nazis hated the Jews; and Americans actually considered whether, as a nation, it was better to be dead than Red. Historical explanations are therefore not mere matters of opinion or reducible to economic interests or moral beliefs. They are based on the particular emotion or combination of emotions that a historian thinks or feels drive human nature. To demonstrate that point, let us take a standard historical problem, that of the Industrial Revolution, which is indeed seen as a matter of economic interests and the conflicting moral interests of the capitalists and the working class, and see what historians usually make of it and what they make of it when they are at their best.
There are, at the least, three ways in which historians describe the Industrial Revolution. They can, first of all, provide a history of machines used in manufacture, which is the way it is usually done in high school textbooks. There was Newcomen’s steam engine, as that was modified by James Watt, and which became used first in mines, and then to power early locomotives. There was also the development of the telegraph and the telephone which enabled railroads to coordinate schedules and manpower over long distances, and then the Bessemer furnace, hot enough to make the steel cable that went into the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and then refrigeration, which allowed New Zealand to become the meat farm for Great Britain, and what is at least by way of metaphor “a machine”: the assembly line, as that was pioneered by Eli Whitney and perfected by Henry Ford. This is not a simple minded approach to the development of the Industrial Revolution. Technological development is an autonomous process, later inventions building on earlier ones and not dependant on external influences such as politics or culture, at least once the process gets started. Automobiles were being simultaneously developed in the last third of the Nineteenth Century in Germany and in France with the Americans only a little bit behind. The question was how to create a small explosion inside a piston so that it would rotate a shaft rather than blow up the entire piston. Everyone was taking a try at it. This theory of autonomous development is the same one Whitehead applied to mathematics. What will happen next is plainly clear and a number of people will come up with the same solution, as when both Leibniz and Newton developed the calculus. That is why Whitehead thought mathematics the queen of the sciences: it got at truth rather than at the truths which were merely opinions generated in one or another culture.
A second approach to the development of the Industrial Revolution is to look at the invention not of machines but of those social institutions which are necessary for the Industrial Revolution to take place at all or for it to make substantial progress. We can begin with the stabilization of the currency, which occurred in England at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century when John Locke was Chancellor of the Mint. Another condition and stage of industrialism was the development of family capitalism, which resulted from the profits from agricultural surpluses being invested in breweries and profits from banking getting invested in factories. Another development was the creation by Parliament of individual charters for corporations such as the Hudson Bay Company and the East India Company, and then, at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, of general incorporation laws in places like Delaware that allowed family businesses, such as that of the Duponts, to raise great amounts of capital for their enterprises, and then for a business oriented United States Supreme Court to allow corporations to discipline their workers by paying poor wages, providing poor working conditions, and restricting the ability of workers to organize, a pattern that prevailed until a more mature capitalism was able to deal with labor unions. There had also been established every place where industry took root a free labor market, that exemplified by the English Poor Law of 1834 which required the unemployed in England to go to workhouses and thereby made of unemployment a crime. That set of developments has been very ably described in any number of books. Alfred Chandler’s “The Visible Hand” and John Davies’ “Corporations” are two that come readily to mind.
A third approach is to examine how the Industrial Revolution is part and parcel of the rearrangement of social groupings. It begins with capitalists handing out wool to be turned into cloth by peasants working at home in what were called “cottage industries”. It proceeds to peasants leaving their villages to work at factories set up in cities, the once peasants now an urban proletariat in that they work away from home rather than tend to their crops close to home. More important than that is the fact that the proletariat are dependant on cash payments for hours worked, every member of the family, women and children, trudging off to the factory so as to collectively earn enough to feed a family. Notable books reflecting that sociological approach are J. L. Hammond, “The Town Laborer” and Neil Smelser, “Social Change in the Industrial Revolution”.
So what does this add up to? Each style of history attends to its own concerns, which means looking at the process through the eyes of a different set of protagonists: the inventors, the capitalists, the workers. All of these interpretations are true in that they provide converging accounts of what happened even as the emotions which the participants feel seem quite distinctive. The inventors are innovators and so heroes; the capitalists are selfish in the way all economic rationalism is selfish, and so qualify as villains or as unappreciated heroes; the workers are victims in that they are batted around by the forces of history and so to be pitied and made into causes for outrage. Take your pick. There is no history, only points of view on history, the historian choosing a satisfying narrative frame whereby to introduce his information. You read the historian for his facts and maybe even for his take on his facts rather than to learn a true or full account of what happened because that, according to modern canons of historical investigation, is impossible in that every historian is a product of his times and so will notice the things he is likely to notice, like the injustice of slavery as that is demonstrated in floggings and the separation of families, and will use the concepts of his age to explain slavery, whether as an antiquated and purposeless institution now that wage labor had replaced it, which was the view of William Graham Sumner, or the contrary view, supplied half a century later by Eugene Genovese, that slavery was a form of capitalism in that the Southern plantations were a kind of factory, and that Jim Crow was worse than slavery had been because it did away with the traditional protections available under slavery as to food and shelter and replaced it with the callous exploitation available in the sharecropper system where inferior caste is even more powerful a force for the subordination of a group than was slavery.
The issue of historical objectivity is even more fraught if the historian is out to explain rather than to describe history. The problem for description is to decide which factors or variables are to be considered as well as to be judicious about the inferences which are drawn from the available facts. The problem of explanation has to do with establishing causation when you do not have significant comparable instances. Efforts at comparative history are no more than the drawing of analogies in that while American slavery has some similarities to South African Apartheid, they are very different in character and apply to very different stages of social and economic development. For one thing, the American Civil War was fought less than two generations after England had abolished slavery and at the same time that Russia abolished serfdom, while Apartheid was a system introduced only after World War Two and so was a retrogressive measure. It does make sense to use these two cases as examples of more general principles having to do with race relations, such as the fact that social barriers go along with residential and economic segregation. But that would then be the finding, one applicable as well to the ancient Hebrews in Egypt, and so an example of sociological rather than historical thinking, which aims to tell a story of a particular place with its own distinct set of circumstances. Indeed, Max Weber was caught up short in his attempt to demonstrate what he sensed to be true which was that the Protestant Ethic had played a very significant role in the development of capitalism in general and in the Industrial Revolution in particular. He had only one case to work with in that nowhere outside of Europe had capitalism developed independently of European influence. All he could come up with was circumstantial evidence, such as the fact that Catholics in Germany studied the humanities while Protestant students studied science, which is rather a weak basis for proclaiming he had discovered what had been the engine of the Western world.
Despite their best efforts, such as by David Landes in his “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations”, no historian has done a better job at explaining the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution than did Weber in that, Landes included, no one can do better than supply multiple causes for this singular event. There is, however, a general description of what happens under capitalism, which is to say, that provides a feel for life as it is lived in the industrial system. That is the theory propounded by Karl Marx, which is that labor had been turned into a commodity by the capitalist world, labor no longer a customary activity, like planting and harvesting grain, but something measured in units of time and compensated with money for time served. The worker might resent but almost certainly sensed that his time was not his own. Marx had, in effect, invented a new emotion, that of alienation, which borrowed from the Enlightenment idea that land could become alienated, which means sold, and the equally Enlightenment idea that rights were unalienable, and so not to be abridged, to describe the Romantic trope of a self sundered in two, one alienated from the other, the capacity of people to be engaged with their work subsumed to the sense that work was a waste of time, redeemed and put up with only to secure wages.
Marx’s invention is extraordinary, even for a theorist. He is resorting not to an emotion that is listed by Aristotle, whose list we might consider an exhaustive list of “usual” emotions, but coming up with something new whose invocation still creates incredulity among those who say you can’t explain things by inventing a new kind of emotion to serve as an ad hoc description but can only use the tried and true ones, the eternal ones. Marx knows well enough that he is on fresh ground and so he supplies an objective definition of the conditions under which this emotion occurs. People are dissociated from their work and so selves became split apart when the work is, among other things, repetitive and undemanding of intellectual skill. A file clerk does alienated work, while a doctor does not. Moreover, a person may feel alienated but may not even be self-conscious about this feeling. Alienation is therefore something not easily measured in public opinion polls or focus groups. Yet, alienation is such a profound psychological idea that it has ever since Marx been entered into the lexicon of everyday life.
Marx’s concept suggests that, in general, a satisfactory objective description of history resides in reducing it to the play of one or more of the emotions that have been around since people became people. Capitalists are motivated by greed as people in Machiavelli’s description of history are motivated by the struggle for power and the characters in Thucydides by the needs of the state and Macaulay's people motivated by the social customs and beliefs of their period. Not all historians are able to use the full range of colors on the palette of emotions. David Hume is exceptional in his multi-volume “History of England”. He is able to provide so many different emotions to the people who surround and cause the execution of Charles I that the characters seem to be acting out of their own free will than as instruments of history. But we prize historians for the emotions they do manage to deploy, Parkman notably good at portraying bravery, Schlesinger for the level of political ideas that his politicians are able to appreciate, Braudel having such comprehensive knowledge that the salt trade becomes for him a capitalist enterprise rather than a traditional activity.
Now Marx may have overplayed his hand as his followers further down the line certainly did, arguing that alienation led, eventually, to borrow Horkheimer's phrase, to “the eclipse of reason”. But that may be just the result of the fact that Marx, after all, was writing in the middle of Nineteenth Century and so did not have to keep up with later developments in capitalist structure. It was E. M. Forster who would show, at the turn of the new century, that social class was no longer a matter of just how you made your money but also of the customs and level of education with which people of different social classes pursued their lives. The Schlegel sisters in “Howards End” were not just outliers because they had some money but not all that much; they were outliers because they were far more educated than most people and so subject to the intellectual fads of the time, such as a concern for the poor or merely the lower middle class. That was their social psychology, and it is indeed our own, people voting not on the basis of their economic interests but on the basis for their fancies and their anger.