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History as Democracy?

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Central European University
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Historians can meaningfully contribute to the program and profile of the Democracy Institute not only by asking what the historical study of processes of democratization, de-democratization, and so forth, may add to our understanding of democracy. It may, indeed must also be asked where democracy “is” in history as a discipline and a cognitive field, what the practice of history itself contributes to democracy – to what extent and in what sense is, or is not history “democratic”.   

There are several, equally important layers to this question. As a discipline cultivated by trained professionals, history is an ongoing, dispassionate – sine ira et studio – debate among propositions about the past that may not be equally plausible but are equally attained by applying the recognized standards of critical scholarship.  Ideal-typically at least, this practice thus represents important attributes of “open society”. At the same time, history is also a civic and public discourse and pursuit, whose appeal and access are perhaps wider and stronger than any other field in the humanities and the social sciences. The “monopoly” of the historical “guild” over historical “truth” has been repeatedly challenged from diverse corners as not only restrictive but irrelevant, including by memory politicians who prefer simple representations, presumably capable of forging loyalties and identities, over the multi-causal explanations of historians.   

But historical studies may be deemed, and have been, restrictive or exclusive and “closed”, as against inclusive and open, in another sense, too: with reference to their scope, and especially the range of those recognized as having agency in participating in or shaping the historical process, and thus, to be included in the study of history. Whose history it is that is being explored, who it is that history “belongs to” are questions central to the profession as well as to the problem of democracy and history. Over the past two generations, the rise of social history, historical anthropology, women’s history, labor history etc., and agendas of inclusiveness in historical research in terms of class, race and gender were inseparable from processes of democratic transformation. As it involves the study of minorities, marginalized and subaltern communities, and dominated groups such as women and colored people, the historical profession plays a vital role in making visible (and critically interrogate) historical processes of exclusion and inclusion, i.e. democratization. Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement, which poses major questions about the global status of “Western” liberal democracy, has also evoked important debates pertaining to memory politics, and to inclusiveness as well as complexity versus simplification in historical reflection and argument.   

At and related to CEU there are already several research and educational initiatives that feed into exploring the relationship of history and democracy from this perspective. This relationship is a meta-level issue relevant to the formation and self-reflection of all historians and can be meaningfully engaged irrespective of one’s specific empirical research interests. By embracing it, the Democracy Institute may provide an important platform for CEU graduate students, researchers, faculty, visiting fellows and external scholars to develop joint projects relevant to its larger endeavors. For a start, a series of public conversations about these issues with a select range of historians, will be organized by a small team of graduate students and CEU faculty during the academic year 2021-2022.