November 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard
Remember school history lessons? Long streams of dates and names. Dates of battles; names of great leaders; “our” army against them, the enemy; stories of Popes and Princes and other collections of pimps and ponces. History tests consisted of learning all of this seemingly meaningless stuff. Glorious Revolution 1688; the two Jacobite rebellions. 1715 and 1745; Great Reform Act 1832; Indian Mutiny—when the hell was the Indian Mutiny? Refer to the textbook and commit the date to memory. As long as you know that it happened and when it happened, let's not get ourselves bogged down in why it happened. For most of us, school history did not concern itself much with the question Why—the question which is at the root of all historical understanding.
History is a vital aspect of knowledge for those who want to comprehend and change the world. If we know where we have been (not just ourselves, but countless generations before us), then we can determine where we want to go. History is the key to the future. Once we become conscious of the fact that humans have not always lived as we live now, that history is a long story of contending classes oppressing and fighting oppression, and that our class is the class that will end all oppression, we can have confidence to play an intelligent part in the making of our own history. History is pointless if it is simply the study of dead men. When Thomas Carlyle asserted that "the History of the World is but the biography of great men” he could not have been more wrong. Great men do not make history; what happens in society is not the product of Bad King Johns and Good Queen Elizabeths, but is a reflection of the interaction of material forces of which individuals are only ever a part, not independent controllers. The only useful history is that which, however indirectly, can help us become conscious of what we can do to change the history of which we are now a part.
As Orwell warned, those who control the past can control the present. In Nineteen Eighty Four he depicted a fearful society in which the state manipulates the collective memory. If an event in the past is no longer regarded as useful to the authorities all reference to it is destroyed. A people who cannot remember where they used to be are in no position to challenge where they are now. Historically controlled, the present is something that workers come to accept as an unquestionable normality. Orwell was not merely inventing nightmares. In Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia the deletion from the record of history of disruptive facts was a carefully organised campaign.
Now that the crimes of the Stalinist historians are beginning to be rectified by modern East European historians, who are trying to recover at least some of the truth of the state-distorted past, here in Britain the government has embarked on a campaign to control the teaching of history which would have brought a sparkle to Stalin’s eye. The Tories, with their new national curriculum by which they want the state to determine what children in schools shall be taught, are seeking to reform the history syllabus. In recent years history teaching has improved. There have tended to be less dates, less big names, less propaganda on behalf of national pride and our masters' morals, the traditional emphases of history in schools.
In its documents relating to history in the new national curriculum, the state has called for a return to greater emphasis upon the teaching of hard facts. They have also called for much more concentration on the importance of Britain in history. One of the main sins of the more recent, enlightened history teachers has been to stress the significance of history as a global investigation. We are citizens of the world and this makes it of limited value to learn only, or mainly, about the story of one little island where we happen to have been born. The flag-waving nationalists who control education are not happy about this. A return to more nationally-centred history teaching is being required from now on. Or else.
Telling Lies Last Century
Like most of their authoritarian attempts to pull the workers into line by curtailing freedom, there is nothing new about the ideas of modern Tories. What they are now calling for was the educational norm in schools during the last century. In her lucid and comprehensive study of school history textbooks between 1800 and 1914 History For Their Masters (New York. 1970). Valerie Chancellor cites numerous illustrations of how history teaching was used as a means of pro-capitalist indoctrination. History textbooks were used in those times (as they are still, but less blatantly) to demonstrate three ideas: that England was the greatest nation on earth; that all other countries were inferior or racially unsound; that working-class movements and revolutionary movements are by definition harmful and to be avoided.
Textbook nationalism in the last century knew no bounds. Writing of the importance of using history for patriotic purposes, one reviewer wrote that ‘‘it is no light matter to animate the rising youth of England with a spirit of dignified pride in the great traditions of a glorious past and a noble future which is ours”. Explaining the rise of the British Empire, one textbook writer explains that:
We have seen England and Great Britain growing larger and larger, stronger and stronger, more and more free, more and more intelligent, until our Empire has grown to be the greatest, most powerful and most respected on the face of the globe . . .
It is odd to think that some of the children forced to read such nonsense would not have even had a pair of boots to wear as they did so. As with the Empire, so with the history of the British constitution, children were taught to celebrate this undemocratic system:
This is the best of all forms of government and it continues in England to this day. By this form of government, the good of all ranks is consulted, and, if either the king or the lords or the people attempt to exceed the limits of the power assigned to them, the others are ready to see that all things are properly balanced.
How handy it is for the people—the majority—to be kept in check by lords and kings, an unelected minority! In war. the victory of the British—it is mainly the victories that were talked about, then as now—was regarded as an act of god and a reflection of the wickedness of any national group that dared to take on our rulers. For example, one textbook, writing about Henry V's gang winning at Agin- court. pointed out that
The French people had at that period of their history arrived at a dreadful pitch of wickedness and nothing . . . appears more clear than that Henry was an especial instrument of Providence to humiliate and chastise them.
If the British were always right, foreigners were usually in the wrong, often due to no fault of their own—it was the high price paid for being mere foreigners. Writing rather petulantly about the Chinese resistence against British opium trading in the 1840s, one textbook writer noted that "the Chinese are a very cold kind of people and do not like strangers to go among them". Other groups of people did not escape from such crude racist stereotyping. One history book, co-written by Kipling, explains that freed West Indian slaves were
lazy, vicious and incapable of serious improvement or of work except under compulsion. In such a climate a few bananas will sustain the life of a negro quite sufficiently; why should he work to get more than this? He is quite happy and quite useless and spends any extra wages which he may earn upon finery.
Another textbook describes how under the “able guidance" of a strong British Viceroy in India "the natives soon learned to recognise the justice and sound sense of their conquerors and gradually settled down to peaceful work in the rice-fields". As for the Irish, one textbook described them of “incapable of ruling themselves and impatient of rule by others”. In a quite obscene historical comment on the Irish famine, published in a textbook of 1848. children were told that
The hand of charity was willingly stretched forth in England for their relief: government and the nation united in aiding that unhappy people; and but for the timely aid afforded, the whole country would have been one vast scene of death and destruction. Would that the pen of the historian could record that this aid was followed by a nation's gratitude! But this was not so.
Textbook descriptions of working-class movements were carefully put in such a way as to depict the majority as a mindless mob. The Chartists, who were simply asking for the right to vote, were described in one textbook as "mechanics, labourers, and others of the lower classes who were led by demagogues to desire a People's Charter"’. Another textbook, written by one Lady Calcott, stated that the Chartists
thought this would be a good time to try and frighten the Queen and government into granting their foolish and dangerous wishes . . . But the people of England loved the Queen too well, and were too well satisfied with the government of their country to let the Chartists do any mischief.
History writers for children tended to take the same approach to all workers' efforts to change their social position. In Kipling's textbook Peterloo is dismissed in one sentence; “At one riot in Manchester in 1819 the soldiers had to be called and several people were shot”. Apart from the factual error—the workers murdered at Peterloo were not shot—this description turns history on its head; the truth is that the middle-class militia rioted against the workers, fearing that the right to free speech might lead on to more dangerous changes in society. The Peasants' Revolt (against the poll tax, let the present government note) of 1381 was dismissed as another dangerous move by people who should play no part in history: "When the common people have got arms in their hands, and feel themselves masters, they are apt to run into the most dangerous excesses”.
As one textbook writer noted, in the course of a description of the English revolution (by the capitalists against the aristocracy) in the 17th century.
It is ever so with revolutions. A few violent men take the lead; their voice and their activity seem to multiply their numbers; the great body of the people either indolent or pusillanimous are led in triumph at the chariot wheels of paltry faction.
It is interesting to note that Mrs Thatcher wishes to see a return to Victorian values. We can only assume, from the authoritarian nature of her government's new efforts towards statist centralisation in history teaching, that it is her aim to see school history returning to the absurdities and crass indoctrination of that age.
In Stalin’s Footsteps
As we have shown, Thatcher is trying to go down the path previously travelled by Stalin. In the name of uniting the Russian Empire, the most atrocious distortions of political and cultural history were imposed on the republics of the USSR. Also, in order to defend his dictatorship over the Communist Party, Stalin had to destroy all recollection in the public consciousness of earlier Bolshevik traditions. Bukharin is just now being rehabilitated by Russian historians. It will be interesting to see whether they start to discuss his ABC of Communism, in which Bukharin and Preobrazhensky argued that communism entailed the abolition of money. Trotsky (the butcher of Krondstadt. who deserves no kindly memories from socialists) is still a virtual non-person in Russian history books.
In Zimbabwe, which calls itself a "socialist state", textbook writers are now doing their best to distort what socialism really means. This is very useful for the Mugabe government: if children learn from history that “socialism" has always been the kind of state-capitalist scenario presided over by Mugabe, then they will be less likely to resist against such rule. Consider this description of Stalin’s rule in Russia, as published in a contemporary Zimbabwean history book for schoolchildren called People Making History:
Stalin called for greater sacrifices from the workers. He also introduced a system of higher pay for skilled workers. In spite of hardships, the USSR was able to develop its own heavy industries. Slowly the government also started building other factories to produce consumer goods. By the end of the second Five-Year Plan the Soviet Union's industrial production was the third highest in the world. Life slowly began to improve for the workers . . . Stalin's economic revolution was a great achievement.
That several million workers and peasants were killed for the sake of this development of Russian state capitalism is passed over in one sentence.
The past does not belong to the state. It is not the property of a class. In a quite awful pamphlet put out by the quite awful Centre for Policy Studies History in Peril—May Parents Preserve It (1987), Alan Beattie proposes the effective privatisation of history. In his view history should be put into the marketplace and that which buyers want to learn about should be promoted. Presumably, unprofitable history, like that concerning the lives and struggles of the poor and the weak, would ended up like disused coalmines—rich with resources, but untouched.
To some extent history is already privatised: if you want to publish a book about a theme which is not considered by the publishing elite to be "historically relevant” (relevance is a concept usually determined by book sales managers), then the book will not see publication or major distribution. Privatised history is bad. but nationalised history is no better. The state is making sure that it has a tight control over what subjects scholars are given to research in British universities. These controls are inevitably political, often quite transparently so. University history lecturers are having to watch their backs these days. In a period of harsh job-cutting it only takes a few rumours that you are putting unacceptable interpretations to students to make employment difficult. Students are also under threat: they need to fight hard for the better jobs, and that requires them to conform to what their paymasters want them to think. If it is true that ten or twenty years ago universities, polytechnics and sixth-form colleges were places where young workers could take time to open their minds to new ideas, these days they do so at their economic peril, and tend to feel unable to do so at all. Thee tyranny of the market strikes again.
As workers we can have no greater weapon in our struggle against the bosses than knowledge. Understanding history is to us as powerful as all the filthy weapons that our class enemies can muster to defend their minority power. Once we see that history is about people—people who are just like us—making changes to their material environment, we can make the most conscious change of all: that of bringing society under social control. That is the greatest and noblest task which history places before us. and no amount of distortion or persecution by our class enemies will stop socialists from pursuing that task, inspired by the history of class-conscious workers who have struggled before we were born.