Any version of history that rises above the driest narrative conveys a certain understanding of the world. It will explain, applaud and condemn, and it will subliminally impose patterns and concepts related to wider political and social ideas. Heroes and villains appear in accounts written by both winners and losers. All these pointers and judgements shape the understanding of the reader, and this in turn can affect what any one of us thinks, and does.
One obvious recent example is the empire history taught in British schools until the 1970s, but modern terrorist movements all have their own versions of the grand narrative underpinning their struggle. Dictators from Hitler to Kim Jong Il have been happy to tamper with history to make specific points and to deny truths accepted by others. History, like religion, likes to adopt an air of authority. With this in mind, I am happy to present a heretical view of history, meaning a view that challenges standard ideas, and is not driven by the requirement to find particular ‘good’ and ‘bad’ outcomes. Such an account will, I fully expect, be rejected and reviled by other self-confident schools as the work of a heretic.
Through the course of human experience, many alternative, and highly self-confident versions of world history have emerged, and they all have their shortcomings. The most common failing is not simple misrepresentation of high profile events, but the selective presentation of facts around a central editorial assumption. For example, some schools have represented history as the unfolding of a divine plan, while others have seen ‘inevitable’ material forces at work. In the modern era we can choose from; liberal history, with its dominant theme of progress; Marxist history, as it charts the inexorable march towards socialism; various world narratives based on racial struggle, espoused in different ways by groups as varied as Nazis and pan-Africans; or assorted highly religious global narratives as told by partisan Muslims or Hindus. There are even feminist accounts of how we got to where we are today. Worst of all would be Samuel P. Huntington’s attempt to sum up world history in his execrable, and highly damaging, The Clash of Civilisations (1996) – a book so intellectually impoverished that it never even attempts to define either of its two central terms.
All these types of historical writing have their dominant themes and their preferred categories, but all overlook the processes that created these categories. In doing so they become blind to their own particular biases, and fail to account for their own roots. Religious history is always reluctant to dwell on how the world was before the appearance of the religion in question. Muslims dismiss this as a time of ignorance; Hindus simply claim that Hinduism is billions of years old; Christians minimise pre-Christian history by admitting that there was very little of it, that it didn’t matter and that the birth of Jesus Christ was the central event in human (and cosmic) history. Marxists are driven to find comforting traces of proletarian consciousness in pre-industrial society, where it was not noticeably effective in hastening the arrival of socialism.
History was only driven in fits and starts by the categories that particular historical schools employ, and all their perspectives are relative and of limited usefulness. The categories they like to use do not explain history, though they certainly help to describe it. By analogy, a football reporter might note that the blue shirts were playing the red shirts. The shirts, however, do not explain the game.
The fundamental process at work throughout history, and more particularly through modern history, is human social definition, meaning the process of defining the social groups in which we gather – the way we decide who ‘we’ are. Once we are gathered and defined, the definition takes on a life of its own, dictating who are our friends and enemies, and therefore what we must do to organise and defend ourselves. History sets out the subsequent interaction of the categories we have invented after the initial gathering process. This primary process, the act of self-definition, is initially driven by ‘natural’ circumstances such as kinship, geographical closeness, shared language or skin colour, but can easily go further and become almost wholly the result of human brainpower, mixed with emotion. But no matter how they originally coalesce, these groupings go on to develop enough practical reality to sustain complex interactions with other groups.
The groups that we accept as natural, that we consider most important, that we like to think we belong to – go on to determine the creation of political ideas and institutions. History is not simply the history of class conflict, but of the creation of categories and of conflicts between them.
History without categories would be an endless, aimless chronicle, so human categories have always been the historian’s friend. The writing of history has helped immensely in the development and maintenance of social groupings. During the long reign of monarchy as the principal political institution on the planet, most of the categories we now recognise lay dormant, or only emerged disguised as religious divisions. But as societies became more complex and human philosophical resources increased with the development of objectivity, things changed.
The writing of modern scientific history has not been with us long; Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) is usually credited as the first writer of this kind. After his time, building a narrative structure based on documentary evidence became the accepted way to write history, a convention now replaced by highly theoretical accounts of ‘state formation’, post-colonial liminal identity and other abstract ‘problemizations’. Meanwhile, history for the general reader is now most often written by journalists, especially accounts of more recent events, which many of them witnessed first hand. This approach makes for vivid story telling, but it is not quite the same as history.
So, because the specialists have become hyper-theoretical and are engaged in a dialogue amongst themselves, and first hand reportage of recent events cannot lay out broad themes very convincingly, the field has become very open for partisan accounts that explain long-term historical trends in highly specific ways.
As a result, we currently have a great many non-specialists writing their own histories, based on supposition and prejudice. This sort of writer is happy to avoid documentary sources as too laborious and potentially unhelpful to their wider objectives. In this they have been supported by modern post-Marxist ideas that ‘archives’ are essentially unreliable and tainted with capitalist/imperialist purposes. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) has also been unhelpful here, not because it stopped westerners having misguided opinions about Orientals – which was his aim – but because it has too often been taken as justification by non-westerners to say anything about themselves that they pleased without fear of challenge from former colonial quarters.
All this has led to the emergence of a new literature, much of it in cyberspace, that ignores old qualms about evidence and instead proceeds by selecting a friend-enemy axis, and by using two highly selective explanatory tools – conspiracy and atrocity – as superior avenues to ‘truth’. Both these tools purport to reveal what was really happening within any historical period distant or near, and both rely on rhetorical and poetic force to tell more satisfying truths than any paper trail can yield, and with rather less labour expended.
Ultra-nationalists and religious fanatics have now developed a substantial internet archive of their own, entirely untainted by imperialists, containing untruths and inventions that are available to readers desperate to hear the truth that conventional media must be hiding from them. What they find proves their original suspicion – that the truth is out there, and it is not what they had been told previously. The identification of oppressors and grievances, and the discovery of a host of new friends, is the result.
By a long process of action and reaction, numerous alternative accounts have arrived with us. Categories, or rather the engines that generate them – belief systems – are at the root of all this.
General accounts of history used to come in two main kinds; one where everything was getting worse, and another where it was all getting better. Conservative historians harked back to religious models and particularly to the idea that there was once a golden age; this could be a time of great ancestors or the Garden of Eden. Then Man’s natural depravity gradually destroyed the fine start that divine favour had given us.
This account went largely unchallenged until modern times, when the great narrative of Progress became available, and credible. Left wing history, in both liberal and Marxist traditions, considers that things are getting better or are working to a certain end point. Sadly, neither of these views is correct. Both are biased and selective, taking progress to mean light bulbs, and ignoring mass slaughter, systematic political repression and environmental degradation. It would be more truthful to relate that some parts of the human project are progressing in various ways at various rates in various places.
Why does there need to be an overarching narrative at all, never mind one laden with moral meanings and preordained outcomes? Should history really take as its function the provision of selective judgements that things are getting better, or worse, as an overall assessment? Says who? Says people with points to prove, or axes to grind.
The driving force of history is not progress; progress is an incidental by-product, uneven and scarcely controlled, and not always beneficial in its wider impact. There is no mystical holiness within the idea of progress. The word contains a moral element to describe a process that is essentially disunited, uncontrolled and unfeeling. A better, more neutral word would be ‘change’, and there is undoubtedly a great deal of change on show all through history, but it comes at varied rates and in unexpected ways. Change, when called action, produces reaction, and further change. We have human inventiveness and inquisitiveness to give us intellectual and technological change, and we have birth and death to give us a rotation of personnel, with constant replacement of generations. Even ancient religions changed, although their guardians always fiercely denied and deny this.
Class conflict is not the only or even the principal generator of change. This was a selective reading of certain types of society. Marx had to invent a great deal of additional philosophical apparatus to explain why the class system that seemed to him to be so exploitative could be accepted by the people living in it. Alienation, false consciousness, the anaesthetizing effects of religion, the illusions of bourgeois culture and so forth, sprang into life to help him do this. Marx thus set usual scientific method on its head, gradually working forwards towards what he wished to see.
What Marx sensed but did not fully understand was modernity, and the way it was developing along individualistic, not collective lines. He saw new possibilities within industrial processes and associated aspects of the sale of labour, but he could not conceive that modern, non-communist states would eventually bring wider benefits to all, as they have done all across the world.
Most pre-modern societies did not change much; some not at all. So Marx should have felt obliged to explain the stability of these societies, not to invent ways in which he thought future societies would change. He was not setting out an account of why stability happened. He was an early analyst of industrialisation, outraged that its benefits were so unequally shared, and he was consequently much more of a revolutionary thinker than a historian. He was convinced communist societies would be better materially, but also morally, in that they were more likely to produce the flourishing of human capabilities – a good thing. Revolutionary struggle was aimed at the creation of a better life, which is a moral sentiment, if we allow that human beings have motivations and act of their own free will, even if they are only avoiding starvation.
Societies are always more of a truce than a war. Most people do not like to live in a maelstrom of change, and societies do settle themselves down, even while sometimes preserving large measures of inequality and injustice. But sometimes they do not, and there is frequently a random or external reason. Famine is one, plague another. Two of the greatest changes in European history were the fall of the Roman Empire – from external causes – and the Black Death.
Another great change was the expansion of European states and their economies across the wider globe. This has had enormous effects on all the participants: India first, then Africa, and finally China. One of the main reasons for this was the development by Europeans of deep-sea navigation in big ships, and the fact that this soon developed into a way of making money. That was then. Now the Chinese are invading the rest of the planet using the kind of money that can go down wires. Two key assumptions that underpinned the liberal notion of progress, that it was a western concern and was fated to go ever eastwards, have been junked.
History does show a distinct move away from direct personal domination and into institutional domination, which is much more subtle, and more enduring. It creates new needs within political systems, and enables larger political units to appear and survive successfully. This is the track the modern world has been on, with educational and technological advances allowing for an increasingly autonomous government machine. The appearance of democratic nation-states enormously enhanced this process, largely by taking the political risks out of hereditary monarchy. Disputed elections for the holding of legally circumscribed public offices are generally a less destructive event within democracies than succession struggles when absolute power is at stake.
That is a kind of progress. But the real progress we have achieved as a species is in inventing contexts within which we can afford – dare – to be nicer to each other for more of the time. When we can do that, we increase our enjoyment of the various fruits of our labours and our imaginations, and can take pleasure from associating with one another in more ways. Sadly, such benign contexts are not easily created, as the modern experience of Syrians, Somalis, Mexicans and Hondurans can amply testify. Peace is better than war, and it is only ideologues and fanatics who will deny this.
The most relevant unit within our historical narrative is not class or race or nation; it is the belief system, because it is these systems that create and cement our social groupings. The key understanding is that belief unites. It does not greatly matter what the belief is in detail; any of them will include, inspire and unite. Scepticism is harder work and it carries a degree of social penalty. Scepticism isolates, so unbelievers will always struggle to resist the motivated, united believers.
Believers write more history than sceptics, because believers win struggles more often and are more motivated to tell the tale. Perhaps it’s time for a change.