From the April 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard
There’s probably more history published today than ever before. As with every genre sold as a commodity most of it is of little value
At its very best history is one of the most important of all disciplines. It seeks to present a narrative explaining not just who we are and how we got here but also why we use these very concepts to understand ourselves. A chronicle of events is of little interest without interpretation; and it is through this that an analysis has any chance of achieving significance.
The interpretation of motivation is seen as important in understanding events but their significance can only be calculated by the effect on later generations. Often the motivation for action is given to be this or that hoped-for effect on later generations. This was part of the stated aim of many historical figures including Caesar, Napoleon and Hitler. It is doubtful whether they were successful in achieving such aims but what cannot be doubted is the need of the support of thousands, sometimes millions, of others to even make the attempt. It is in this support that the real social power resides.
Hitler’s rise was no less dependent on the Treaty of Versailles and the Wall Street Crash than on any characteristics he may or may not have possessed. The ideological values, which evolved within the German state and made millions believe they needed ‘a strong leader’, should be the focus of any historical analysis of the Third Reich. The origin of social power and its relationship with, and expression by, individuals, groups and the masses is the real business of historians.
The conventional definition of history (as distinct from prehistory) is the study of the written record from and about the past. It is no coincidence that this record begins during the so-called ‘Neolithic revolution’ when humans were making the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to that of the private property city-state. Such settlements were made possible by the discovery of sustainable crop growing and animal husbandry. This not only brought an end to the nomadic lifestyle but also dramatically changed the social relationships that went with it.
The production of surplus food changed the basis of power within society forever. It meant, amongst many other changes, that some parts of society were freed from subsistence living to pursue other activities. Foremost amongst these was the development of a warrior elite to protect this surplus from raiding nomads. It was not long before they restricted access to other members of their own settlement.
Those who created the wealth were only granted access to the surplus if they produced more of it. In this way social elites evolved, their power derived from the ownership of the wealth created by others. To this day social power derives from a group or class’s relationship with the means of production and the surplus it produces. Many historians would object to this characterisation of social power and would point to theories of morality, justice and reason as explanations of capitalist ‘civilisation’. Such theories ignore the possibility that the origin of these concepts derive from ‘rationalisations’ of social relationships which seek to justify their existence without reference to their historical source.
Of course the examination of the ‘mode of production’ as a way of understanding historical development is identified with Marxism. To attempt to dismiss it as mere political propaganda is to ignore the ideological content within any historical perspective. Although Marxist historians can with some justification claim that at least their bias is conscious, does this mean that all history is propaganda (conscious or not)? To answer this let’s examine those who create history –historians.
Most of us do not have the time or resources to become historians. The intellectual division of labour within our culture means that most of them are created by and financially dependent on universities.
Living in Cambridge I have encountered many through the years. They are immersed in a life of study and intellectual rigour with usually only their peers to provide debate and criticism. Specialisation (knowing more about less and less) gives them the right of interpretation.
A memorable conversation with a noted scholar on the Crusades provides a sense of this. When asked about the motivation of the leaders of the first crusade he replied he believed it was an attempt at redemption. Europe’s knights hoped that their God would forgive their violent life style if they ‘liberated’ the holy land. This was so reminiscent of many historians who believed that Lenin, Mao and Castro were socialists because they proclaimed themselves to be so.
The sincere motivation of an individual does not give us any understanding of the origin of the concepts involved or their acceptance by those who are led into any action. The English revolution was not dependent on Cromwell’s belief in an obscure Jewish prophet who lived some 1600 years before. Likewise the English reformation was not caused by Henry VIII’s lust for a young Anne Boleyn. Napoleon was quite possibly not the inheritor of ‘the age of reason’ he supposed himself to be.
The distinction between any proclaimed ideology and the actions of those who profess it seem lost on many historians. Perhaps it is because they themselves are immersed within a deeply ideological culture – from public school to university the cult of individualism is universal. How could it be otherwise within one of capitalism’s oldest establishments?
The elitist ethos is the cornerstone of any authoritarian social structure like ours. I use this to illustrate how ideology permeates historical interpretation. As stated earlier, Marxists do the same in a more conscious manner. But can we ‘prove’ that some historical interpretations are of more value or even of more significance than others?
Why are socialists disgusted but not surprised by the activities of Bush and Blair any more than we were by the crimes of the Bolsheviks and their fascistic ‘Soviet Union’? Because an analysis of history based on an understanding of the relationship between the mode of production and the values and concepts that it creates can only come to one conclusion: people make history but only within the constraints of their historical context. Blair may proclaim himself to be ‘New Labour’ but what is new about worship at the altar of the ‘free market’ to answer all of capitalism’s problems? Can a moral crusade against one’s enemies that means the murder of thousands of innocent people be considered ‘new’?
Neo-conservatives use the same failed ideological excuses as their 18th century counterparts to maintain their wealth and status. Despite all of the socialist rhetoric the Bolsheviks and their subsequent purges and militarism was symptomatic of all regimes that orchestrate the transition between agrarian feudalism and industrial capitalism. China’s ‘cultural revolution’ had infinitely more in common with the ‘terror’ of the French revolution than it did with the Paris commune.
We know this to be so because of the lack of a majority to oppose such actions of the elite (and indeed to be complicit to make them possible). Today it is still this lack of historical knowledge that makes it possible for our rulers to continually repackage their reactionary ideology using the media and helped in no small measure by historians.
Fukuyama, Starkey, Sharma and countless others have and continue to propagate capitalist ideology through their history. Good history is an ideological battleground. Two people present at the same event can give opposing interpretations of its meaning and significance. Most of us were not present and are not historians but we have a political duty to decide which perspective is more likely in the light of our own experiences. Our future depends on the understanding of our past.