The names Lana Wachowski, Lilli Wachowski, and Laurence Fishbourne are conspicuously absent from the historiographical pantheon of radical history. I am only halfway joking. For the spirit of so much of radical history, and indeed of historical scholarship of all stripes, is encapsulated in a single meme, apocryphally derived from one of Fishbourne’s monologues in The Matrix (1999): What if I told you…
What if I told you that the success of smallpox inoculation was a matter of political propaganda, press manipulation, and the contracting-out of governance, rather than a self-evident triumph of science? What if I told you the protagonists of the story were not Hans Sloane, Mary Wortley Montagu, and Princess Caroline of Ansbach, but seven convicted felons in Newgate Prison? These are, in effect, the guiding questions of my article in the Spring 2020 issue of History Workshop Journal, investigating the first experimental trials of smallpox inoculation (sometimes known as variolation), carried out on London prisoners in the summer of 1721.
Scholarship as revelation, combined with the subversion of the received narrative, imbues history with power, rhetorical and intellectual. The power to recast what we thought we knew and to make the world anew. The power to challenge assumptions so ingrained we have forgotten we ever made them. The power to enlighten the misguided and permit them to see things as they truly are. What if I told you that rather than the cannon- and capitalism-fodder of history, “the working class made itself as much as it was made?” What if I told you that instead of prejudice inspiring the oppression of marginalized groups, oppression generated prejudice to justify and sustain itself?
The revelation of what really organizes the world is also the plot, as it were, of the conspiracy theory. So often in radical history, the revelations on offer are of a conspiratorial bent—stories of the oppression of the many by the few, of systems rigged against the poor and marginalized, of hidden agendas and implicit understandings. Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts critiqued Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s emphasis on the “rigged system” precisely for its conduciveness to (anti-Semitic) conspiracy theory. Yet, paradoxically enough, there can be conspiracy theories without conspirators: Michelle Alexander’s landmark The New Jim Crow (2012) deftly shows how the American criminal justice system operates as a structure of racial oppression that needs no conscious racist intent from any of its actors. Systemic and depersonalized analysis simply produce subtler forms of conspiratorial thought. For their part, the conspiracy theorists have generated their own archives and their own historiography, sometimes far vaster than those of “respectable” academic history.
My own flirtation with the paranoid style, to borrow a phrase from Richard Hofstadter’s famous 1964 critique of the conspiratorial rhetoric of American politics, started to wear uneasily in January 2019, as my project was drawing to a close. A public health emergency over a major outbreak of measles was declared in Washington State, the area not coincidentally a hotbed of anti-vaccine sentiment. The parallels felt obvious: an atmosphere of fierce recrimination, wild fears about secret plots and the machinations of the powerful, and stubborn local resistance to political-medical interventions by the state. Like the anti-vaxxers of today, eighteenth-century skeptics challenged inoculation’s medical bona fides, its ethical probity, its legality, and its possibly demonic origins.
More troublingly, the story I was telling bore an uncomfortable resemblance to those of the anti-vaxxers. I argue that the experiments were a project of the Hanoverian state and its partners in the medical sphere, a contracting-out of governance much as the transporting of other felons was contracted to merchants and their labor and supervision to landowners. Debates over the safety and efficacy of the procedure proxied for debates over the limits of royal power and individual agency, law and order, and the balance between rigor and mercy. More than anything, I was deconstructing the heroic narrative of the history of medicine, revealing the calculations of interest and power that lay behind claims to serve, as the experiment’s backers put it, “the Generall benefit of Mankind.” Is my narrative—of a small cadre of political and medical elites shaping health and penal policy for their own ends—anything but a conspiracy theory in scholarly garb?
The conspiracy is, I must acknowledge, a perfectly valid form of historical explanation. Some years ago, browsing in a now-defunct Toronto bookshop, I heard the clerk defending his idée fixe—I don’t remember the details, but I believe vaccines were involved—against the charge of “conspiracy theory,” or at least the term’s connotations of the fantastic and the far-fetched. After all, he pointed out, “conspiracy” derives from the Latin conspiro, which simply means to breathe—to speak—together. And could one deny that corporations, governments, and other powerbrokers met in secret to collude for their own benefit?
Such meetings have indeed happened in human history, and presumably will again. Even that patron saint of the market, Adam Smith, acknowledges, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Most definitions of “conspiracy theory” invoke Occam’s Razor, the principle that the simplest sufficient explanation is to be preferred. The explanation that Apollo 11 did in fact reach the Moon in 1969 requires far fewer moving parts than the explanation that it didn’t (the BBC sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look brilliantly elucidates this point). But Occam’s Razor allows for conspiracies—when they are the simplest explanation of the facts available.
So perhaps I am a conspiracy theorist, but I am in good company, with Angela Davis and E. P. Thompson, Karl Marx and Audre Lorde, to name only a few. To blame radical history for the world’s less savory conspiracy theories would be absurd, and an overstatement, alas, of our influence. The possibility that someone, somewhere, might read a project in bad faith is no reason to abandon it—but it does militate for circumspection in the narrative strategies we (over)use. The tale is all in the telling, after all, and there are other modes than revelation. What if I told you we didn’t need to rewrite history with every book and article?
Spencer J. Weinreich is a Ph.D. candidate in the history of science at Princeton University, and an Editor for JHIBlog, the blog attached to the Journal of the History of Ideas.
Twitter handle: @spenceweinreich