Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 4


A People’s History of the World

Chris Harman
A People’s History of the World
Bookmarks, London 1999, pp. 729, £15.99

THE writer of this book is to be commended for his audacity in attempting such a mammoth task. It is well conceived and logically developed, and the range of the author’s reading is quite astonishing. But it is equally plain that he has bitten off more than he can chew. Taking his title from the language of 1930s Stalinist populism, he stakes a claim to an alternative concept of history, as opposed to such things as learning lists of great men (p. iii), which according to him is the policy of New Labour. His criticism of the national curriculum is well beside the point here, for the method the modern state uses to make history unintelligible to working-class students is precisely the opposite, chopping it up into incoherent gobbets under the excuse of teaching methodology. Moreover, Harman only overthrows one orthodoxy to erect another in its place – the fashionable viewpoint of the New Left and ex-Stalinist mafia dug into the universities. For example, he claims to break with Euro-centred bourgeois conceptions, but the structure and focus of his book say quite otherwise. Well over half of it is about the last 200 years, and a third is devoted to the twentieth century alone. Ireland receives more space than Indonesia and Indo-China put together, and none of it touches on the Dark Ages, when Ireland was fulfilling an important rôle on the world stage. Chartism is made out to be ‘as important for world history as the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution had been’ (p. 325). If you think that this is frightfully innovative, try looking at the curricula of all too many of our university history departments.

At the same time, Marxism in these pages becomes quite unproblematic, a grand schema into which all world events can be happily fitted, after the manner of Kautsky’s Materialist Conception of History or the notorious chapter in Stalin’s Short Course. Speaking of the origins of class society, Harman considers that ‘the only account of human society which comes to terms with the change is that outlined by Karl Marx in the 1840s and 1850s and further elaborated by Frederick Engels’ (p. 24). But modern scholarship has made it clear that the gens and phratry system that Engels deduced from classical Greece and Rome was not a linear development from more ancient forms, but was in both cases a regression from a previously more advanced society. On the other hand, Harman is similarly unaware that, echoing Engels, several modern scholars believe that representative institutions preceded the rise of sacral kingship at the first point at which it is open to investigation, ancient Sumeria.

But many of the major problems of Marxist historiography find no airing here at all. Why do all human societies except those of the Old Stone Age and capitalism seem to be so geographically limited, how and why does each new form of class rule extend the power of the state over its subjects, and why does a pure class system only gell out under capitalism? Even if we cannot blame Harman for skating over these basic questions, we must surely think it strange for a Marxist historian to make no mention of the birth of dialectical thought in ancient Ionia, or of Marx’s dim view of Bolivar when describing the revolt of the Spanish colonies.

Much that is necessary to Marxist historiography is totally absent. As far as ancient history is concerned, although use is made of Ste Croix’ work, it is nowhere stated that the spread of the Roman empire was part of the crisis of late classical society, a process of bailing out the upper classes of the polis and reinforcing their rule over the chora. Nor do we learn that the spread of Islam is part of the revolt of this same chora against city state civilisation, along with a Semitic reaction against the hellenisation and étatisation of Christianity. Why this same Christianity triumphed in the first place is not seen against the archaeological background of the large number of silver hoards from the fourth century onwards, which show that an important motive for the conversion of the Roman empire was the opportunity afforded a bankrupt state to plunder the wealth of the pagan temples (not unlike what moved Henry VIII to break with Rome so many years later). Nor is there is any analysis of the crucial part played by literate religions in the rise of peoples from tribalism to statehood during the Dark Ages, as illustrated by the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, the Khazars to Judaism, or the Uighurs to Manichaeism.

Coming up to more modern times, there seems to be no awareness that the two different phases of the British Empire are related to merchant and industrial capital, or how the American Revolution represents the dividing line between them. We look in vain for any application of Abram Leon’s concept of the people-class to understanding the process of nation building in Eastern Europe, of Rosdolsky’s investigation of the same problem, or of Mandel’s researches into the nature of the Second World War. A particularly Jesuitical piece of reasoning (pp. 511–2) attempts to establish a difference between Stalinism and fascism, quite an achievement for someone with a state capitalist analysis of the Soviet Union. And yet again we have the tired old myths that Rosa Luxemburg ‘alone’ challenged the ‘complacency’ of Kautsky and Bernstein (p. 393) and ‘best appreciated the importance of 1905’ in Western Europe (p. 402).

This brings us on to straight factual errors, which abound at every turn. Susan Pollock has shown (cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 7, no. 3, p. 322) that contrary to Harman’s categorical denials (p. 12), both social stratification and male supremacy were already well developed in Mesopotamia by 3000 BC. The Middle Kingdom in Egypt can in no way be described as ‘stagnation’ (p. 41). Sippara, with its great temple of Shamash, was hardly ‘run by the trading merchant classes’ (p. 38). It would be interesting to learn where Kassites are mentioned in the Old Testament (p. 40). No Israeli archaeologist of any credit any longer believes in the existence of ‘Solomon’s empire in Palestine’ (p. 45). The rapid Hittite raid that captured Babylon hardly ‘captured Mesopotamia’ (p. 45). And when Harman talks of Rome being ‘under the domination of the Etruscan state to the north’ (p. 72), he is wrong on two counts. Etruria was never united into one state, and there is no evidence that the nearest of their cities, Veii, ever dominated Rome. Neither Luoyang nor Chang’an were ‘new capitals’ during the Sui and Tang dynasties (p. 107). There was no such thing as an ‘ordinary Inca’ (p. 170). ‘Elector’ does not simply mean ‘prince’ (p. 637, n47), but a member of that college that had the right to select the Emperor. Most of the Gunpowder plotters were from the gentry class, hardly ‘some of the rump of large Catholic landowners’ (p. 205). Compared with Gustavus Adolphus Wallenstein cannot be regarded as ‘the ablest commander’ of the Thirty Years War (p. 196). Aehrenthal’s annexation of Bosnia did not add it to the Hungarian half of the dual monarchy (p. 343). Hobsbawm is not wrong to question whether Franco, a pronunciamento general backed by Alfonsine and Carlist monarchists and the church, was a ‘fascist’ (p. 509).

At the same time, Harman is fearfully anxious to appear politically correct, especially on the anti-racist front. His discussion of the ‘African’ roots of Egyptian civilisation reflects very modern concerns, and is quite silly when applied to the fourth millennium BC (p. 136). Colour coding in Egyptian tomb paintings sticks to a rigid pattern, and does not show ‘fairly random mixtures of light, brown and black figures’ (p. 252). The Ethiopians did not develop their own script during the early stages of the ‘urban revolution’ (p. 17). The earliest inscriptions of the Kushite court were in classical Egyptian, and the first dated examples of Meroitic come from the second century BC. It is quite ridiculous to compare the scale of atrocities in the Aztec sacrificial system with those of the Spanish Inquisition (p. 167), and it is simply not true to say that ‘the Spanish attempted to destroy all Aztec records when they conquered the Valley of Mexico in the 15th [sic] century’ (p. ii).

This work, therefore, must be regarded as a brave, if premature, attempt at a synthesis. But Marxist historical writing, if it is to remain Marxist at all, must be oppositional and iconoclastic, and subject all traditions to the keenest criticism, particularly its own. And it should ask questions as much as answer them. So whilst this book cannot be said to have succeeded in its stated aims, it does succeed in quite another direction, that by systematically laying out the orthodoxy of left-wing historical thought at the end of the twentieth century, it allows us to measure how far it falls short of the development of conventional bourgeois scholarship.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 5.10.2011