I am new to history, but what strikes me is that people in the field often complain that a certain text is too much whig history. (See wikipedia for a definition.) It really seems like a critique, or insult to the author when he is accused of whig history. Is this true? Is whig history considered to be bad history, or are there authors who are proud of doing whig history and explicitly propagate it?


2 Answers 2


Historiographically, viewing history through a progressive lens is as over-generalised as viewing history through a conservative, Marxist or Ayn Rand lens.

However the term "Whig History" is used as a slur. An Ye Olde Tory criticism of history blending into the future, in the manner of Cosmopolitanism, Technological Progressivism or Post-Humanism.

The prevalence and negativity of the term may also reflect scholarly frustration with the common popularity of the "We are the best and getting better" view of history; and the idea that pure "unpolluted" historians are not supposed to use or know about Cultural Relativity (a/k/a History is Now).

The core concern should be whether history is being viewed through a particular lens to tease out certain novel insights (good) or to bury certain contradictions of the supporting ideology (bad).

A good author will usually state which lens they are using and why. If they have done so, then people tagging them as 'Whig Historians' meant it as a slur or as a thought-terminating cliche instead of a neutral descriptive term; if the term can retain any neutrality.

The historical qualities of a work* should of course be assessed in the usual way.

* Blaming fiction authors of 'Whig History' beggars belief. As if the reader or critic forgot what part of the library they were in. Or that most authors and readers don't strive to suck all the joy and hope out of past, present and future events.


The theory of history, that history is a linear progress to perfection (generally) or bourgeois liberal society as exemplified in the United Kingdom (specifically) is easily disprovable.

For example, the relationships between people in what is now Western Europe sank from legal reciprocity to armed violence as Rome slowly morphed into the Germanic kingdoms.

For example, out of a state with codified laws, Mussolini's fascism emerged with its systematic paralegality.

On top of this critique, that whig history isn't tenable as it is demonstrably wrong, whig history contains the theoretically suspect category of "progress," which is necessarily ideological in form. To claim as transhistorical (ie: as the universal justification of all historical processes) a particular ideological outcome is not just teleological, it is also anachronistic: whiggery didn't exist during 500BCE.

Finally, some use "whig history" to point to any teleological historiography, such as Marx's teleos for example. Teleos in Marx isn't determinate. In the determinate transition to feudalism, there was no further determination of capitalism or socialism. The bourgeoisie were a side effect produced and reproduced by feudalism. Unlike whiggery which postulates a universal and determined project; Marx's description of history's past determination is merely that, a description.

Teleology is often used as a criticism, but it doesn't have the force of suggesting someone's history is a whig history. There are circles in which teleological histories are still acceptable, as long as the teleology is demonstrated of course. There aren't circles where I've seen whig history accepted, but this does remind me to suggest to friend that a non-historical discipline they're involved in is playing in the filth of whig history.

In specific relation to Marx's teleology (at various stages), let's consider 1847's Poverty of Philosophy at chapter 2:

M. Proudhon the economist understands very well that men make cloth, linen, or silk materials in definite relations of production. But what he has not understood is that these definite social relations are just as much produced by men as linen, flax, etc. Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.

The same men who establish their social relations in conformity with the material productivity, produce also principles, ideas, and categories, in conformity with their social relations.

There is a continual movement of growth in productive forces, of destruction in social relations, of formation in ideas; the only immutable thing is the abstraction of movement – mors immortalis.

Marx's determinate category here is pretty close to a technological determinism, and there's a sense of teleos in the movement of productive forces. But there's no indication that the hand-mill produced capitalism, any more than the steam-mill produces socialism. The hand-mill produces a new instance of social relations whose unique character changes what comes next. The society of the hand-mill can't comprehend industrial capitalism, and nor did it produce it. Apart from the universal of movement, there's no determination linking as a necessity Society A to Society B.

The kind of reinfeudation and mass slavery seen in Federici's Caliban and the Witch as just as likely as free wage labour appearing in the European bourgeoisie's slow contest with the aristocracy. I suppose that the Varieties of Capitalism discourse follows this up more closely.

I will agree, however, that Diamat as taught in the Soviet Union, and on history in particular, taught Marx as determining a universal course of human social change.

  • 2
    An professional historian striving to see progress everywhere in history is suspect; but a historian striving not to see progress in history is worse. Like arbitrarily deciding that the human species is locked on the wheel of suffering for all time without reprieve or evolution. Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 8:12
  • A Whig historian would not have claimed that a parliamentary monarchy was a historical inevitability, but that it was an ideal situation which the British achieved through certain steps in their history and which other countries (notably France) failed to achieve. But events such as the English Civil War were only positive in that they taught later English monarchs and political classes to avoid absolutism either in an individual or in an ideology.
    – Henry
    Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 17:06
  • I'm not seeing how a didactic reality that intends an ideal is anything other than a teleology. Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 20:30
  • Your description in paragraph 5 is directly contrary to what was taught in Marxist History classes in USSR. Doesn't mean you're wrong, but I'd appreciate direct cites from Marx on "In the determinate transition to feudalism, there was no further determination of capitalism or socialism".
    – DVK
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 3:38
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    That Marx view of history is deterministic is pretty obvious, and saying things like "e transition from feudalism to capitalism in itself not being determinate of socialism; rather, socialism emerging as determined from the contradictions of capitalism" is in effect just playing with words. Marx sees, incorrectly, socialism as something that has to rise out of capitalism. The mechanism is irrelevant. Marx history is deterministic and sees and inevitable march towards "progress". It is as such perhaps not "whig history", but the socialist equivalent. Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 8:00

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