Definitions and Key Concepts


It is not my purpose here to overturn or challenge the detailed content of any scholarly historical work. I am not disputing well attested facts. I am trying to find ways of summarising historical processes while not being too closely bound up in them. That, surely, should be the objective of all good historical analysis. One major problem with this ambition is that a great deal of the vocabulary of historical analysis has been generated wiithin ideological frameworks, and many standard terms are tainted to some degree. This means that, in order to be clear, new concepts have to be expressed using new vocabulary where necessary, while being very specific about certain familiar words.

This page is a rolling compilation of definitions and concepts.


Beliefs unite, scepticism isolates. Until scepticism becomes specific enough and popular enough to become a belief in itself. Then the new belief unites in its turn.

Beliefs create social solidarity and are then held in place by it, in a loop of social unity.

Beliefs unite – this is the motor of history. It explains the social units we live in, the intellectual blocks we think in, and the way they interact. Beliefs easily fall into rivalry, so belief dependent groups frequently conflict. They do not have to, unless serious material interests are at stake. Until then, a pattern of opinions, interests and identities determine social patterns.

Humans resort to beliefs in order to supplement our knowledge; we cannot know everything – the universe is too big. We aspire to know, but we often end up hampered by belief. Beliefs affect what we know, though they are supposed to be based on what we know. There are feedback loops in this process that can become corrupted, or autonomous – and which are often, like madness, invisible from the inside.

We have to believe, and we have to unite to effect common purposes above solitary living. Civilisation is a collective project. So we join together and our beliefs are the main glue. But once joined, there are multiple issues to decide, and this is politics. The union into wider groups is pre-political.

Historical processes come in two kinds; circular and spiral. Circular processes are in balance and do not lead to political and social change. Spiral are in positive or negative feedback loops, and bring change.

There is a big-small oscillation in all modern human institutions.

All human communal collective action requires institutions to endure across generations. Those institutions wax and wane, grow and shrink in competition with other institutions. Stasis is not an option when two or more such institutions are in contact; contact implies conflict. The ancient world relied on single, integrated institutions (family-tribes, city-states, god-kings), whereas the modern world has singled out these functions. Competition has been the result, between church and state, between kings and subjects, and especially between state and state.

What is distinctive about modernity is individualism, which has given us the right to make choices, and the right to have rights at all.

Capitalism is definitely the enemy of the left, and the left completely acknowledges this. But capitalism is not necessarily an ally of the right; most on the right do not acknowledge this.

Capitalism is not class conscious, or colour conscious, or faith conscious. It is money conscious.

Modern politics, of left and right, was born with the culture of rights created by the Enlightenment, and the choices about self-government opened up by the success of the French Revolution. Left and right positions will be found in all modern societies ever since, because these standpoints represent rational choices about who should be included in society, who should be rewarded and why, what rights are, and what society is for.

Rights are not distinct things-in-themselves; rights are simply what other people will concede to you without a fight. Sometimes you have to fight to establish this – what exactly will be conceded to you – but once fought for, the right is created and is conceded as a matter of course.

We have many reasons to believe what we believe – cognitive, personal and social (evidence, interests and identity).

We also have many reasons to keep believing what we already believe

We do not choose all of what makes the composite thing we call an individual – factors like our parentage and our native culture and our class interests are decoded for us. But modern identity and social structures contain many elective elements. It is modernity that did this – there was little choice in these matters in the ancient or mediaeval worlds.

The content of particular beliefs doesn’t really matter. They vary, and they always suit the believer to some degree. What matters is what those beliefs do in action. What they all do.

Beliefs generate political power, via collective action.

Social and political change does appear through a slow process of personal interests aggregated across any society, but this change is slow. It is the change beloved of conservatives.

Social and political change comes rapidly via beliefs. History’s fast lane is reserved for the collective action stimulated by beliefs, not interests. This is the change beloved of ideologues and revolutionaries.

Power is always much easier to pick up than to put down.

Property rights are a form of localism.

The opposite of imperialism is not necessarily nationalism, though the two forces are definitely opposed. Imperialism denies the validity of national ambitions, and tends to rely instead on a mixture of decentralised beliefs, such as paternalism, or straight racism.

There are no ‘true’ patterns in history, but there are often strong patterns in the perception of history.

Bad history makes bad opinions, which make bad politics.

Both bad history and bad politics arise from the conviction that you know what other people think. Our own history, opinions and interests are clear enough to ourselves; where things go wrong is when we arrive at certainty about what other people think about those same things. Imputing motives to other people, which may be quite wrong, is a standard human failing, and one that is very difficult to transcend, especially in a climate of fear.

You can take the religion out of politics, but you can’t take the politics out of religion.


 Posted by at 11:45 am