The central theme of history has not been the struggle of religions, classes or races, it has been the formation and reformation of human communities based on variable definitions. Within this episodic meta-process, religious writers have tended to see the progress of religions, Marx saw the struggle of classes, and nationalists and racists still see the struggle of nations and races. But the principle that governs both the substance of history and how it is perceived is the way human beings recognise and account for their wider collective identities. It is the reality of the groups formed, and the development within those groups of the theory and practice of self-government, that gives history a motor force and provides a coherent narrative of what has been happening. This process has created a cast of recognisable characters and has defined their various arguments and rivalries.
Struggles between political units provide the main events of conventional history. By contrast, personal struggles between individuals who are not at the head of such units, are simply stories of disorder. Such struggles are sometimes taken to be the main substance of history, but if the wider community is not involved these are often condemned or ignored when there is no wider frame. There is little or no history of what went on in the various wildernesses and forests of the world if no tribes, clans or larger groupings were involved. Outlaws did not write history, and were rarely included in it as important players. It would be an unenviable task to write the history of Somalia over the last twenty years.
The formation of units and what they have had to say about themselves make up what has come down to us as the content and form of history. History is the record of how political power has been generated and controlled, and the resulting storylines are directly affected by the results of this process. All the constituent elements usually involved in historical analysis are subjective descriptions, especially when there is no direct institutional structure to accompany them – as in the case of ‘races’, which have no political skeleton at all, and whose only power is of self-replication.
The interaction of social groupings, on whatever pretext, supplies our grand narrative, because without the discrete units to generate political motivation and collective action, there would be no higher conceptions available to humanity. There would be no organised followings for leaders to lead, and no basis for the elevation of violence into wars with rules and objectives. There could be no theory of statehood, no way to build permanence into any human achievement, and no concept of tyranny, or philosophy of liberation. There would only be inchoate struggle, with the highest, noblest objectives being first survival, then the attainment of personal dominance, and finally the aspiration to hand such status down to blood relatives. Most of recorded history shows humankind elevated well above this crude level. Action on behalf of others is the one universally recognised noble trait in humanity, and we depend on collective definitions and units to supply contexts and opportunities for it. Ironically, what drags us down also allows us the opportunity to be noble. Fortunately the reverse is also true.
It is very difficult to step outside of the system of organised human groupings, but not impossible. Once free of its dazzle, it is possible to see all sorts of competing forms of conjoined humanity, and to see all these forms as heavily subjective and highly selective in their principal defining terms. The groups exist, but the reasons they exist are variable and contingent. Their main characteristic is that they constantly become autonomous actors within a wider struggle, each with its own like. City-states struggle against city-states; they do not struggle against races. Nations do not fight religious creeds. The tangled multi-layering of these different organisations makes for complicated analysis but, not surprisingly, the struggles look much simpler from within. Seen from inside, races are fighting other races, nations other nations, and creeds other creeds.
Most historical viewpoints are compliant with this general scheme, but tend to pick out only the struggle of like against like. Even the most contentious of all the great encompassing theories of history select their categories and stick to them. The Nazis hated Jews and Slavs on a racial basis but were not bothered about the difference between Catholics and Protestants, and modern Islamists are not concerned about skin colour.
The commonest historical accounts, and the easiest to follow, are written when territory is at stake. This explains why racists and certain kinds of religious believers get so worked up about the possession of land, even though land has no intrinsic genetic or religious content. Certainly, before transferable wealth, land was the only true gauge of temporal power. Your land was where your family lived, and it gave you a great many material things too, especially food, and food represented wealth. More land represented more wealth. Land was a blessing, and land therefore became holy in a way that defies common sense and human primacy. Land is still holy all over the world as the result of very ancient struggles, that may persist today, but are no longer about food. Land is still the best way, after money, to keep score.
Land also creates room for the extensive expression of any community based on some dominant binding idea, and land therefore remains as much at stake in some community struggles as points of principle. Nowadays things are a little more complicated, and subtler comparisons can be made. Newer rivalries, especially those within the capitalist world, tend to be about access to state power; political parties do not ague over land. Meanwhile more ancient struggles, between faiths, continue over tiny plots in Ayodhya or Jerusalem.
While taking in all these varieties of history, the point I wish to emphasise is that the headline categories of standard history are not really real. They may feel real to active people in any particular era, but they are subjective and changeable. The power they generate, though, is frighteningly real.
The most efficient and direct genesis of power has been nationalism, which took as its outer shell the nation-state, the most powerful organism so far created on our planet. Nationalism is entirely about self-government. It demands the right, based on a particular group definition, to rule oneself and not be ruled by others of any other grouping. Nationalism, as originally conceived, can have no other objective, which is why it was very much a liberal project in its early days, when across much of Europe it stood against dynastic absolutism.
We can see why nationalism was and is so powerful if we compare it to its rivals, in terms of organisation. Religious creeds produce churches, which have never been as good at putting armies into the field as the cause of national defence. Races are at best only vague definitions of kinship that may relate clearly to intermarriage but contain little specific reference to land, and create no natural echelon of leadership. The working classes are too dispersed, and too poor, to mount effective joint action; they cannot arm themselves or join internationally, in order to march on a single front to fight any other class. For these reasons the dominant account of modern history is the story of nation-states.
Nation-states appeared in the west as a specific form of self-government after a long patchy story of city-states in isolated times and places, and an extended period dominated by monarchies. The city-state was an early form of self-government, made possible by its small scale. The Athenian style of self government – democracy – was not the same as modern systems with the same name. In several well-understood ways, the Greek city state, and its Roman imitation, were very selective as to who exactly was governing themselves. Monarchy was an institution with only two strong supports – the idea of God and the model of the family.
It is the modern era that took the idea of universal rights to create the right to self-government, and then find a way to select who, out of the entire pool of humanity, would be included in each self-defining, self-governing unit.
Nationalism was the first and easiest modern answer to this question of selection, and it created the political structure of the world we are now living in. Other parallel structures still exist, but with less or no political authority left to them by the all-encompassing claims of the nation-state to sovereignty – meaning the right accorded to states of ruling whoever constitutes their particular ‘nation’. The fact that ethnic nationalism does not correspond well to the outlines of religious creeds is the main source of extreme political violence in the world today.
But history is not driven by any one exclusive category of human competitiveness, or by one single, vital point of difference between groupings. What drives history is the power generated by human beings, organised and motivated towards specific goals in larger units. The force they generate is called political power, and it is a constant in human affairs – ennobling, multiform and dangerous.