Chris Harman


Socialists and history:
a battle for the past

(10 May 2008)

From Socialist Worker, No.2100, 10 May 2008.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A People’s History Of The World by Chris Harman has just been republished by Verso in an edition for the US as well as Britain. He spoke to Socialist Worker about the book

Why did you decide to write a book about world history?

History is important because it shows how the world we live in today came into existence. If we look at the world around us we see racism, economic crises, a rat-race mentality, multi-billionaires and vast pools of poverty.

Now if you don’t have some understanding of history, you can easily fall into the trap of believing these things have always existed, that they are a fixed part of human nature that cannot be challenged or changed.

It’s also undeniable that people have an enormous interest in history – the fact that there are two television channels devoted to history documentaries shows this. But despite this, gaining a broad grasp of history is not that easy.

Our rulers have always tried to present history as nothing more than a record of the supposedly heroic deeds of themselves and their predecessors.

So the first written histories, some 5,000 years ago, were lists of the pharaohs who ruled Egypt – as if it was they who had built the pyramids, not thousands of conscripted workers.

The same attitude persists down to the present day, with right wing educationalists and politicians believing that history ought to focus on the deeds of kings and queens. And our rulers have always tried in one way or another to suppress historical accounts that do not suit their own purpose.

The first Chinese emperor ordered that all the old history records be burned. The Russian dictator Joseph Stalin doctored photos to remove the image of Leon Trotsky, the revolutionary leader who led the opposition to his power-grab.

More recently, both Tory and New Labour ministers have tried to narrow history syllabuses down to concentrate on “British history” and the role of so called “great men” within that.

In his novel 1984, the writer George Orwell summed up the rulers’ attitude to history as follows: “He who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future.” So if you are a rebel of any sort, you have to challenge this control over the past.

There has been one healthy reaction against the “great men” approach to history that is often called “history from below” – looking at what ordinary people did with their lives.

Progressive history teachers have managed to get elements of this into the school syllabus and have found it engaged the interest of students much more than the old style did.

But the result can often be a completely fragmentary understanding of history. School students get to know a great deal of detail about, say, resistance to the rise of the Nazis in Germany, or the struggle against apartheid in South Africa – but they aren’t told how these episodes fit into a wider picture of 20th century history.

The history programmes on television also encourage this fragmented understanding. Right wing historians such as David Starkey provide their chronological accounts of kings and queens, while left wingers such as Terry Jones or Mark Steel tend to be marginalised, or restricted to jokey snippets about individual events or figures.

How does your approach differ from that taken in other books on world history?

The key point was made by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels writing more than 160 years ago. Human beings have only ever been able to gain a livelihood – food, shelter, clothing – by working together on our environment. This is the precondition for us doing anything else.

And when the ways we work together change, so do our wider relations with each other. But once one group gets control – a ruling class – wide ranging change cannot take place without struggles between that ruling class and the rest of society.

Once you grasp this, you can see a broad picture to history running from the time of our ancestors – who lived by picking berries, digging for wild roots and hunting animals – right down to the present day with our vastly more complex ways of making a living.

Marx and Engels themselves only had time to provide very general outlines of this pattern of history. But ever since then, writers influenced by them – some who called themselves Marxists, some who did not – have filled in many of the details.

For instance, there are the works of anthropologists like Richard Lee and Eleanor Leacock who studied human societies where class distinctions have not emerged. There is the great Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe who studied the early development of society in Europe and the Middle East.

The French historian Maxime Rodinson looked at early Islam, Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib studied Indian history, E.P. Thompson examined the early working class, while Leon Trotsky wrote on the Russian Revolution. I could add scores more names to this list.

But what I have tried to do is to draw together key elements in their accounts to provide a coherent overall picture of what has happened to lead us to where we are now.

I hope that many people who have read my book will go off and look at what these others have got to say – although the pressure of earning a living under 21st century capitalism means that many people just won’t have the time or energy to do so.

Marx’s approach to history is often accused of privileging European history over that of the rest of the world. But your book puts a great deal of stress on developments outside of Europe. Why did you take this path?

I did it because there is no other honest approach to history! The idea that you can study British or European history without starting with the rest of the world is – or at least should be – completely laughable.

Most of the new techniques which gave a boost to European civilisation in the Middle Ages originated in China – the compass, the wheelbarrow, paper making, gunpowder, printing and so on.

The eruption of learning and ideas in the Europe of the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods depended on a previous such eruption in the Islamic world of the 8th and 9th centuries.

People who talk of our supposed “Graeco-Roman” or “Judeo-Christian” heritage ignore the fact that the wisdom of the ancient world had to be fostered in Baghdad before being passed back to Europe via Islamic Spain.

Sub-Saharan Africans were making steel directly from iron ore long before Europeans. And many of the most important foods we eat – potatoes, tomatoes, maize in our cornflakes, chilli in our curries – were the result of thousands of years of plant selection and cultivation by native Americans.

Marx’s approach shows that advances in human knowledge and technology taking place in particular society stop at a certain point.

After that the ruling class discourages further change in case it leads to a weakening of their grip on society. So world history sees one part of the world forging ahead, and then another. And each is reliant on what has gone before.

For a brief period – 200 or 300 years at most – parts of western Europe were the front runners. The capitalist form of society, which had only made a fleeting appearance elsewhere, took control there. Soon European empires were able to conquer the rest of the world.

So there was a short moment when world history did seem to run through London, Paris and Berlin. But that was not true for thousands of years previously – and it is not true today.

Capitalism is now a global system that shapes people’s behaviour everywhere. And for that reason, resistance to it is not confined to one country, continent, religious or ethnic grouping.

People fighting against wage controls in Britain need to know the history of resistance to the British Empire. Those fighting against US and British troops in Basra and Baghdad need to know about the French Revolution and Chartism. Such things are our common heritage, and I hope my book can make a small contribution to spreading that heritage.

Why is the book being republished now by Verso Books?

Bookmarks published it nine years ago and did a marvellous job promoting it among the left in Britain, so that it has sold 6,200 copies.

Since then it has been translated into Korean and Farsi, the language spoken in Iran. I am told that it is on display in one of Tehran’s big bookshops alongside Alex Callinicos’s Revolutionary Ideas Of Karl Marx. Orient Longman recently published an Indian edition of the English language version.

But there are limits to what a very small publisher can achieve in terms of a wider distribution.

The book trade in Britain is dominated by giant firms who look to lucrative deals with big publishers, while the reviews sections of the national press are dominated by circles of people who review each other’s books.

And then there have been problems getting it to the US left scene, which is fairly large but also very scattered. So myself and Bookmarks were pleased when Verso – a rather bigger small publisher – offered to republish here and in the US and Australia.

I think there is an audience for the book far beyond the confines of the activist left. People who have given it as a present to parents or friends tell me they like it. With luck the Verso edition will get into many more such hands.

And readers of Socialist Worker can help here – by making sure it is stocked in school and university libraries, that it is on reading lists and used to provide a wider view of history than the versions usually on offer.

Last updated on 14 December 2009