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International Socialism, Spring 2000


Robin Blackburn

Reviewing the millennia


From International Socialism 2:86, Spring 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


C. Harman
A People’s History of the World
Bookmarks 1999, £15.99

Our culture is today prey to seemingly relentless commercialisation and dumbing down. Fortunately there are some counter-tendencies and one of those is the evidence of widespread interest in world history, anthropology and archaeology. While the bestseller lists are crammed with the likes of Jeffrey Archer, John Gray and Jilly Cooper, respectable sales can still be achieved by serious works of popularisation by authors like Richard Leakey or Stephen Jay Gould. When it comes to world history, writers like Jared Diamond and William McNeill can find hundreds of thousands of readers for books which offer a materialist perspective. Thus McNeill has surveyed the differential impact of disease in Plagues and Peoples, and more recently Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel has had great success. These works have their weaknesses, usually that of pursuing a valid insight further than it can go, missing vital aspects of the complex texture of human social relations. So McNeill has much to teach us concerning the impact of microbes; but while he does have a concept for the exploitative features of social structure, it is a rather simplistic one. Likewise Diamond offers an ecological explanation of why agricultural development flourished more consistently and cumulatively in Eurasia than Africa, which perhaps tries to explain too much but nevertheless at least poses the question in ways that provoke helpful argument. His thesis is that Africa’s north-south succession of very different terrains – desert, savannah, tropical rainforest, veldt etc. – greatly impeded the spread of domesticated plants and animals while Eurasia’s lateral spread of somewhat more similar habitats facilitated it. While Diamond is able to elaborate his account in interesting ways, by the end of several hundred pages the danger of reductionism is palpable.

The serious concerns of such work contrast not only to the frivolities of ‘infotainment’, but also to the whimsy of the occult or the narrow and obtuse specialisms of academia. Evidently there is a popular thirst for authors who try to explain where we have come from and where we are going, and who confront the large questions without recourse to the supernatural. Socialist writers have always seen this as one of their essential tasks; the fact that The Communist Manifesto offers a compelling historical sketch as well as a vivid sense of what drives global development helps to explain its enduring appeal.

Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World is a very welcome and largely successful attempt to produce a popular history of the human species, bringing out the interconnection between the development of modes of production on the one hand and class struggle on the other. The book is closer in spirit to The Communist Manifesto than to Capital, because of this interweaving of story and structure while taking into account a further century and a half of history and historiography. It is 729 pages long, with the last 150 years taking up just over half the space. But to put this another way, Harman still devotes 300 pages to events and developments prior to the industrial revolution. Early chapters cover the farming revolution, the urban revolution, and the rise of the early states and empires, drawing on the work of Jared Diamond as well as Gordon Childe’s classic materialist studies in pre-history, updating Childe’s account with the later findings of such scholars as Colin Renfrew and Charles Maizels.

Some topics could, perhaps, have received a bit more attention. It would have been interesting to have more on what Harman thinks about the new evidence concerning conditions of life in the first settled communities, or on the origins and spread of language, or on variations in family form and their link to the dynamic of different relations of production, or on the impact of nomad warriors on history. But given the book’s already considerable length, it is clear that hard choices had to be made about coverage. And lest I imply that Harman is uninterested in cultural superstructures, I should add that he has chapters on the rise of Christianity and Islam. Indeed, I have the impression that he attributes too much importance to the intrinsic qualities of Christian ideology and too little to the fact that its decisive growth occurred after it had become the state religion of the Roman Empire.

Marxist accounts of world history have sometimes been accused of Eurocentrism but Harman makes an effort to give space to the fate of Asian empires, to the impact of Islam, to Africa and the Americas, and to resistance to slavery, racism and colonialism. If Europe still looms quite large in the story there is a reason for that – namely that the capitalism and imperialism which developed most strongly in Europe, and in the lands settled by Europeans, have dominated the world history of the last few centuries. Writers as diverse as Jack Goody and Andre Gunder Frank have recently been disposed to object that the dominance of European capitalism is a more recent and a more shallow phenomenon than Marxists have traditionally supposed. Some authors are now claiming that China was as developed as, or even more developed than, Europe as recently as 1800 and that it is likely to catch back up within the next 20 years or so. [1]

It is, perhaps, in the relative weight accorded to China’s history that a certain residual Eurocentrism may be detected. Today more than a fifth of the world’s people live in China and the last century and a half of that country’s history has embraced an extraordinary sequence of events leading up to both the Communist seizure of power and a recent surge of economic development without parallel in the Third World. Harman devotes only two pages – and in substance really only two paragraphs – to the the crucial two decades between 1930 and 1950. The 19th century T’ai-p’ing Rebellion and the revolutionary struggles of the 1920s are properly dealt with, but little attempt is made to assess the overall significance of the last quarter century. Harman is prepared to allow that the Stalinist regime did, at terrible cost, modernise the Russian economy, but he does not essay a comparable balance sheet of China’s development.

The long term perspective of macro-history can illuminate contemporary history in important ways. Thus awareness of the historical achievements of Chinese and Indian agriculture helps to explain different patterns of rural-urban relations in today’s world. Thus in Africa migrant workers send back a stream of remittances to the villages from which they come; in much of Asia workers can be hired for less than the cost of their upkeep because they receive food from their villages.

Ensuring even and comprehensive coverage in a work such as this is extraordinarily difficult, especially if the aim is to keep the story going and to convey the overall sense of pattern and direction in human affairs. Without forcing the evidence Harman does usually succeed in conveying that sense of flow, as of some gigantic river, and in deftly identifying counter-eddies, the silting up of some channels and the opening of others. Popular struggles are recounted, but also the historical conditions which both favour and frustrate them. A good example here would be his account of the French Revolution and of the impact of Jacobinism outside France’s borders in Britain and Ireland, in Italy and Germany, and in the Caribbean and Latin America.

The still-dominant national framework for the writing of history characteristically misses the way that events and ideas overspill national borders. Harman’s account of the 20th century gains from the fact that he tries to see it whole. He rightly insists on the far-reaching and disastrous impact of the First World War, whose carnage and brutality did so much to make possible and probable (not, of course, inevitable) the subsequent rise of Stalinism and Nazism. A global perspective is needed, not only because this allows us to compare and contrast, but also because there are shared themes and common impulses.

This is a book about history and not a book about books. But from time to time Harman does allude to controversies and authorities so that it is not inappropriate to suggest that when he came to such a decisive watershed as the rise of capitalism he should have provided his readers with some signposts to the great controversies to which the study of this event has given rise. As it happens the work of Marxist writers – Maurice Dobb, Paul Sweezy, Eric Hobsbawm and Robert Brenner – has attracted what are widely acknowledged to be the central debates on ‘the transition’ and ‘the crisis of the 17th century’ so it would have been especially helpful for Harman to have addressed them more directly. However, the reader does glean that Harman is not persuaded by those whose single minded focus on the emergence of a capitalist calculus in north west Europe has led them to neglect material constraints and technology on the one hand, and Marx’s own theses on ‘primitive accumulation’ and ‘bourgeois revolution’ on the other. When forced to choose, Harman is more concerned with understanding the connection of events than exploring the intricacies of structural logic, a very understandable preference for someone attempting to cover the whole span of history in a single book.

The fact that capitalism first achieved a real and lasting breakthrough in Europe is, however, a structural event that demands explanation on several levels. The fragmentation and rivalries of feudal power structures gave more leeway to would-be capitalists than was ever permitted by the large agrarian empires, no matter how advanced their technical achievements. At the same time fertile soil, regular rainfall, a network of navigable rivers all contributed to productivity, market expansion and surplus generation once direct producers could avail themselves of heavy ploughs, animal power, windmills and watermills. Like others, Harman gives importance to the weakening of lordly power consequent upon peasant revolt and great plagues, but he also stresses the role of the printing press, the clock, new blast furnaces and new forms of animal husbandry. He believes that by the 14th century a mixed species of ‘market feudalism’ had developed, and that the social and military strife launched by the Reformation was greatly to weaken the feudal element and to promote a new social landscape more conducive to the rise of independent producers and merchants.

Perhaps the reason for Harman’s peremptory treatment of prior debates on the transition stems from the fact that they have focused on structure, not narrative. Consequently they cannot readily be used to interpret the striking sequence of bourgeois revolution and capitalist advance in such events as the Reformation, the Peasant War in Germany, the religious wars in France, the revolt of the Netherlands, the Thirty Years War, the English Revolution, the Enlightenment, the war for American independence and the French Revolution. One of the most original features of this book is that it argues that each of these episodes ultimately strengthened the autonomy of capitalism, notwithstanding the great variety of the social forces which participated in these events and contrived to set their own stamp upon them. Indeed Harman evidently warms to the popular and heroic dimension of struggles against the old order and usually has less to say about the phase of bourgeois exploitation and consolidation. In the case of the English Revolution he evokes the revolutionary spirit of the Levellers and New Model Army, drawing on the work of Brian Manning and Ian Gentles, but has little to say about the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689, which put such vital finishing touches on the new bourgeois order as the Bank of England and the National Debt. As John Brewer has shown in The Sinews of Power, it was these financial mechanisms which enabled the new regime to defeat its enemies at home and abroad. In his account of the American Revolution, Harman also dwells on its popular contribution with somewhat less attention paid to the advances of capitalism to which Gordon Wood has drawn attention.

This is a matter of emphasis only and one cannot complain that Harman neglects the bloodshed and oppression associated with capitalist accumulation. In my view Harman rightly stresses the contribution of colonial conquest and super-exploitation to the accumulation process while insisting that it was capitalism that gave rise to slavery and not slavery to capitalism. Some accounts of the capitalist rationality and the advantages of free wage labour fail to register that capitalism’s reach was always greater than its grasp. Accumulation in the metropolis needed ongoing systems of primitive accumulation in the colonies because it had not yet managed completely to penetrate and transform the periphery. This is one of the reasons that a new breed of Atlantic merchants and planters were to play a leading role in the first wave of bourgeois revolutions. The slave systems they thus consolidated made necessary a second wave of struggles in which the new order was forced to jettison the most extreme forms of personal bondage, as Harman relates of the American Civil War.

In the dialectic of popular struggle and capitalist consolidation at least two possibilities are usually present, namely ‘two steps forward, one step back’ and ‘one step forward, two steps back’. In other words there are no guarantees of social progress even where productive possibilities are expanding. The Nazi economic order managed to mobilise capitalist interests for a time more effectively than did the bourgeois democratic administrations in Washington, Paris and London. If Hitler had been content with his winnings in May 1941 the Nazi regime might have ruled Europe for a generation or more.

Harman’s focus on politics and popular struggle helps to convey the drama which always attends the clash of rival social forces and regimes. This is especially true of his deft handling of the great sweep of world history from the 14th century down to the First World War. By the time we reach the middle and end of the 20th century Harman’s story will be more familiar to most readers and his thumbnail sketch accounts less forceful. Harman briefly problematises capitalist democracy or the nature of the Second World War, but does not have the space to develop a rounded argument. On the latter, for example, it is not clear whether he thinks that the points he advances against Hobsbawm’s claim that the war was fundamentally anti-fascist in nature add up to a flat contradiction or to an important qualification.

The account given by Harman of the rise of Nazism does not, in my view, sufficiently register the disastrous failure of the Social Democrats and Communists to form a democratic front. In my view Trotsky’s grasp of the terrible threat in Germany was sounder than his sense of what was happening in France; on the evidence here Harman might put it the other way round. Likewise the boost given to social reform and decolonisation by the defeat of the Axis powers is somewhat underplayed. The narrative approach naturally tends to stress what happens rather than to note what does not happen. Thus Harman does not ponder the fact that workers’ councils and soviet-type bodies did not arise in France in May 1968, or Portugal and Spain in the mid-1970s or in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989. In all these cases the popular longing for a more democratic order was to be cheated to a greater or lesser extent but calls for ‘workers’ self management’ or ‘workers’ power’ seemed abstract if counterposed to elections based on universal suffrage.

But my reservations on such points detract little from my appreciation of Harman’s achievement in this book. The dovetailed accounts of historical developments across seven or eight millennia are always interesting, usually well informed and sometimes highly original. The left has no dearth of polemics concerning the major events of the 20th century. On the other hand it has few accounts which convey as well as this book does the broad sweep of human history.


1. Those interested in such claims might like to consult A. Maddison, China’s Growth in the Long Run (New York 1999).

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