José Harris

José Harris is an emeritus professor of modern history at Oxford and the author of a biography of William Beveridge. Her most recent book was Civil Society in British History.

Their Way: On the Origin of Altruism

José Harris, 12 March 2009

Possibly no political moralist in modern Western culture has been so widely influential – nor so often overlooked and forgotten – as the 19th-century French mathematician and philosopher Auguste Comte, the inventor of positivism, altruism and the ‘religion of humanity’. In libraries throughout Europe, weighty editions of Comte’s works remain with their pages...

Throughout the history of political thought, attempts to imagine, classify and explain possible modes of political life have been characterised by starkly polarised and stylised antinomies. Among the most familiar are Aristotle’s nature and convention, Sir Henry Maine’s status and contract, Tönnies’s Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, Michael Oakeshott’s ‘Societas’ and ‘Universitas’, Durkheim’s ‘mechanical’ and ‘organic’ solidarity, and Hobbesian vertical ‘command’ models of authority v. Lockean theories of popular ‘consent’. Bertrand Russell described his conception not just of politics and society but of the whole physical universe as poised between a ‘pot of treacle’ and a ‘heap of shot’. In theoretical writings of the last twenty years theorists with often very similar political ends have been deeply polarised between models of ‘liberalism’, and models of ‘community’ that liberalism is widely deemed to exclude.

Last Victorian

José Harris, 10 November 1994

Eminent social scientists are not normally household names, but in the middle decades of the 20th century Barbara Wootton was well-known far outside the dim corridors of universities. Paradoxically for one who lived an intensely private life, she was perhaps best known as the lady professor who had flashed across the tabloid headlines by marrying a taxi-driver. Less sensationally, she sat as a lay magistrate for more than forty years, was a sparkling panelist on popular radio programmes, and contributed to numerous select committees and public enquiries. In her role as director of London University’s adult education services and mentor of mature students she was believed by many to be personally responsible for the marked swing to the left in British public opinion that took place during the early Forties. In 1964 she entered the House of Lords as the first Labour life peeress, and eventually became the first woman to ‘sit on the Woolsack’ as deputy speaker. She was a leading participant in debates that led to relaxation of the laws relating to divorce, homosexuality and the age of majority. She wrote books on social questions in crisp, ironic, jargon-free prose that were printed and reprinted in popular editions. Though she had been rigorously trained in Latin and Greek and had achieved a first with distinction in the Cambridge Economics Tripos, she always insisted that her ideas about society came from practical experience and direct observation and not from abstract reasoning or academic study. Her autobiography, In a World I Never Made (1967), gave a moving account of the intellectual and emotional cross-currents that had fashioned her lifelong beliefs. Loss of a much-loved father, followed by the deaths of her brother and first husband in the First World War (the latter after one night of marriage), nausea at the cultural dominance of ‘dead civilinations’, and gross maltreatment by the Cambridge male economics establishment, left her with a lifelong passion to ‘remake’ the world in a more humane, rational and scientific mould.

Principal Ornament

José Harris, 3 December 1992

Until this week I had read no work written by G.M. Trevelyan since my schooldays. No Cambridge supervisor that I can recall ever recommended any of his books, and I have certainly never prescribed them to my own students. Like most people, I knew – or thought I knew – that he had defined social history as ‘history with the politics left out’, and that he was one of the chief stuffed carcasses in the mausoleum of Whig history. Yet throughout the first half of this century Trevelyan was the most widely-read historian in England and probably in the world. As a child of the Late Victorian ‘intellectual aristocracy’, as a highly prolific private ‘man of letters’, and later as the Cambridge Regius Professor and Master of Trinity College, he defined and dominated popular understanding of the nations’s common past for more than half a century.’

Nobody wants it

José Harris, 5 December 1991

‘A cynic? How can I not be when I have spent my life writing history?’ Alan Taylor’s love letters to his Hungarian third wife created a predictably prurient, though transient, stir when they were published earlier this year. Their more lasting interest may lie in the light that they throw upon Taylor the practising historian, musing to a fellow historian about the mysteries of his craft. Taylor was regarded by many, not excluding himself, as the nation’s greatest living historian; and the personal and domestic details of his letters are intermingled with comment upon his own historical writing, his views of other historians and his interpretation of contemporary events as they unfolded day by day.

Underneath the Spreading Christmas Tree

Gareth Stedman Jones, 22 December 1994

In high criticism, Victorianism is generally presented as the artless antonym of modernity. It fades away anywhere between 1901, the year of Victoria’s death, and 1910, the year of the...

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