Varieties of New History

Varieties of New History

The Revolutionary Ascetic: Evolution of a Political Type, by Bruce Mazlish. New York: Basic Books. 261 pp.

Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, by Herbert G. Gutman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 343 pp.

Recoiling from the lack of analytical focus in traditional narrative history, many historians have attempted in the last few decades to develop new angles of vision on previously neglected aspects of the past. Among these new approaches, psychohistory and the new social history assume pride of place; and Mazlish’s and Gutman’s works, respectively, are apt illustrations. Yet only Gutman seems to me to have succeeded in convincing the reader.

Mazlish’s thesis is highly suggestive. Through Freudian concepts, and with major assists from the work of Max Weber, he attempts to show that most modern revolutionaries, though not necessarily all of them, had an ascetic character structure, that they were austere “puritans,” denying themselves personal pleasures, and developing only minimal emotional ties, sexual and otherwise.

Mazlish sets out to trace the development of asceticism, first in the service of puritan religion, then of capitalist economics, and finally of revolution. This seems to me a worthwhile and important endeavor. But he has largely failed to show the concrete interplay between the activities, say, of members of Cromwell’s New Model Army, of capitalist entrepreneurs, or of such revolutionaries as Robespierre and Lenin and the dynamics of their personalities. He focuses instead on the development of character traits prior to their active life careers.