Book Review: A People’s History of the World

Published online 19 January 2009.

To celebrate the revolutionary spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’ve decided to look at a newer volume; Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World.  This newer book takes off from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which indeed covered the particular impacts of people’s movements (including the one participated in by King) throughout American history.  A People’s History of the World, unfortunately, has to cover far too much ground far too quickly, and so Harman puts out a series of historical explanations which follow his script too closely, and thus misses a lot of the content of people’s history.

A People’s History of the World is nevertheless a fun read which ought to stoke some anti-capitalist fires in the hearts of readers, even if it doesn’t do so thoroughly.  My review will conclude by discussing the import, to activists, of the issues Harman brings up.

Book review: Harman, Chris.  A People’s History of the World.  London: Verso, 2008.  729 pp.  Softcover.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

One of the few things I actually learned from teaching at the community college level (given my hit-or-miss adoption of curriculum and teaching styles) was that a lot of students really liked Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States.  Zinn’s book was a history of common people written as an antidote to the “famous people” history commonly taught in American high schools.  Its emphasis was upon the expansion of a “class society” which oppressed Black people and First Nations residents of America as well as women.  This book, then, spoke to the consciousness of young Americans by presenting them with a history in which something important to them was at stake.

Thus a book with the title deserves our full attention and respect, if only because it has such a title, and because such a title might grant it respect among young people.  A People’s History of the World has now come out in its first Verso paperback edition, which would explain why one of my best friends got me a copy for Xmas jut last month.  This, then, is its review.

Now, Zinn was (and is) an anarchist, but in the writing of A People’s History of the United States this worked in his favor, as Zinn’s anarchism gave him a general suspicion of political power regardless of the circumstances in which it was applied, and of a wide variety of particular causes and ad-hoc issues which guided the struggles of groups of people throughout American history, from an end to war and discrimination to better wages and working conditions.

This other book, however, is written by a Trotskyist, and a prominent political figure in the Socialist Worker’s Party in England, Chris Harman.  The point of Harman’s world history is to place the idea of class struggle at the center of world history, without really worrying too much about what a social class is, about whether social classes form cohesive social units, or about whether the class struggle can really deliver us all that Marx promised.  The idea, of course, is to motivate us to continue the class struggle through a specific reading of history.

The difference between the two books, in my opinion, is that A People’s History of the United States speaks to specific readers with an appeal to their sense of having been taught a partial (and biased) history, whereas A People’s History of the World comes at history from a point of view cobbled together from inspirational passages in Marx and Engels, and simplified to make points.  This isn’t done, mind you, in a heavy-handed way, except maybe when the author discusses the Communist Manifesto: generally, this book is a fun read.  But it’s there, all right.

To be fair, writing a world history in a single book requires a LOT more simplification than writing a US history.  (Try to remember what your high school world history class was like, and then superimpose that upon a single book, even if the book is 729 pages long.)  And, as for “unbiased” history, forget it: all history is biased, Harman’s, Zinn’s, yours, mine, and everyone else’s.  Live with it.

And a world history requires much more in the way of guesswork than if one were merely to write an American history.  This is true, especially, of ancient and medieval history, which occupies the first 160 pages of Harman’s book.  It’s a matter of documentation.  It’s quite difficult, for instance, to discuss objective social conditions in the Roman Empire, when our sources for historical documentary (especially during the crises of the 3rd century CE) were biased and unreliable, and when there was no printing press, low levels of literacy, and limited access to papyrus, the paper of its time.  So, and this is true especially with regard to ancient history, historians must “fill in the blanks” with speculations of their own, when the historical record does not spell out what actually happened.

In that spirit, Harman boldly speculates (for instance) about the Roman Empire’s decline and fall:

All the time, the economic strength of the empire was being undermined by the very factor which had been so important initially – the massive level of slavery.  The flow of new slaves began to dry up as the wars of conquest which had brought the empire into being came to an end, and slaves became expensive. (84)

I’ve chosen this particular subject because I’m somewhat familiar with the literature on it.  I don’t recall reading this explanation of Rome’s decline before, and it seems to me that at least some of the “barbarian incursions” of the 3rd century CE led to an increase in slave populations in the Roman Empire.  There are, moreover, other texts which offer a better history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, even marxist ones.  (And there is, of course, the old-fashioned explanation, which refers to human actors rather than social classes.  In 402, the head of the Roman Army, Flavius Stilicho, stripped the border guard along the Rhine to deal with a usurper to the throne and to fortify his army against Alaric the Visigoth, and so in 406 or 407 a great horde of barbarians crossed the frozen Rhine River and conquered large portions of the Empire in the west.  The Empire was thus “parted out” to the barbarians, and thus lost its tax base.)  A People’s History of the World, nevertheless, chose to highlight this particular explanation for Rome’s decline.  Rome was an oppressive concept, it had to have slaves, and (among other reasons) it didn’t have enough of them, so it fell.  (This example should give you an idea of the sort of historical flavor you will be reading in this book.)

What I am suggesting is this: read A People’s History of the World, but read other histories as well.  You’ll want a bigger picture.

There are, nevertheless, plenty of good things to be said about A People’s History of the World – it’s entertaining, and it does give a picture of history in all eras, without any really major geographic discrimination (Africa, Asia, and the Americas are covered), as presented by someone with a comprehensive world-view.  Harman’s history starts with the first social classes, defined loosely as “exploiter” and “exploited,” and with “primitive communism” as seen in Engels’ The Origin of the Family.  Its emphasis upon people’s revolts is enlightening and heartening, as it proceeds from the “first recorded labor strike” (ostensibly) in ancient Egypt in 1170 BCE, to the slave revolts of the later Roman Republic, to the Levellers of the English Revolution to the French and Russian Revolutions to 1968.  Its narratives tend to draw the reader in, to root for the good guys in their search for liberation.  The book picks up steam in its depiction of the critical events of the 19th and 20th centuries, from its chapter on the struggles of 1848, forward to the end of the 20th century.

Of course, the Russian Revolution is covered here – as we might expect from a Trotskyist author, “bureaucratization” and Stalin are held to blame for the termination of the Soviet ideal of communism.

The “bravura” conclusion to this book, as advertised on the back cover, defensively argues that the possibility of socialist revolution must be held out as a basic working class tendency.  This is done as follows:

These great social and political upheavals (of the 1990s) did not prevent superficial and fashionable commentators speaking of an end to class politics.  Even Eric Hobsbawm, long regarded as one of Britain’s best-knows Marxists, could claim that, while Marx was right when he wrote of the instability of capitalism, he was wrong to see the working class as driven into historic opposition to the system.  The proponents of such arguments relied on two sets of evidence – the decline in the proportion of the populations of advanced industrial countries involved in manufacturing, and the relatively small number of people looking to the overthrow of capitalist society in these countries.  Neither sort of evidence justified their conclusions.  (613-614)

To fortify this attack on Hobsbawm and other doubters, Harman shows that the proletariat, the industrial working class, has expanded with time and is larger than it ever was, and that history, as well as the present day, is full of class struggle, with the lower classes sometimes winning.  All this is intended to show us that hope still survives.  It’s all true, of course, but not quite to the point.  Finally, Harman speculates on whether the working class can become a class “in itself”:

Karl Marx once made the distinction between a ‘class in itself,’ that has a certain objective position within a society, and a ‘class for itself’ that fights consciously for goals of its own… the real argument about the role of the working class is about if and how it can become a class for itself. (615)

In sum, Harman’s argument here does not quite come into direct clash with Hobsbawm’s argument, here.  A “class for itself” might “fight for goals of its own” in a way that could be compatible with further capitalist domination.  Oh, sure, in the long run this “class for itself” might be screwed in pursuing such a strategy – but what if that were their choice?  The important question with Hobsbawm, as I understand it, is one of whether the working class would tend to support revolution in this era, as opposed to reform, and Harman does not quite make this case.  Sure, there’s plenty of class struggle out there, as with all history after the invention of agriculture.  What has it done?  What will it do?

As history-reading activists, we can say this: change begins with education, education begins with dialogue, and dialogue begins by letting the other person tell her full story, and listening carefully.  A really skilled communicator can thereafter establish common interests.  And if one’s common interests are revolutionary ones, one had better be prepared to make a case for the feasibility of social transformation, having listened carefully to society, knowing its history, and being able to predict its likely futures.  It’s a really big task, and I’m not quite sure Harman is there yet.

In this sprawling, seven-hundred-plus-page history, Harman has not plumbed what sort of social organization a “class” really is – how is the exploited class exploited in each period of history, each time and place, and why could a “class” organize itself as a group “for itself” instead of, say, groups organizing themselves around national identities, common experiences of oppression, gender or race identities, professions, ideological commonalities, or other common attributes?  How about if the “working class” organized in groups of smaller than 150, or whatever Dunbar’s number is?  If you want to be an activist, and organize people toward some sort of revolutionary goal, you have to work with people as they are, not as you would like them to be.  You guys are activists.  Don’tcha think?

In the end, then, though Harman has written a readily-accessible, fun-to-read world history, he doesn’t really measure up to his own standards for class struggle.

As an alternative, Kees van der Pijl’s history titled “Nomads, Empires, States” is a marxist political history which, unlike A People’s History of the World, starts from ideas of how people actually organize into groups, rather than starting by sitting in judgment upon past and present organizations for their failure to approximate Marx’s ideals.  I would, therefore, prefer van der Pijl to Harman.  (WARNING: Van der Pijl’s history, however, is not half as easy to read as Harman’s.)

As I’ve pointed out in my earlier diary on Marx, there really isn’t anything wrong with the marxist utopia – in fact, it’s something we should all want.  The problem with Harman’s popularized marxism is that it is invested too heavily in those moments of history when people behaved like Harman wants them to behave.  The social context behind such historical moments is also covered, sure enough, but not as carefully as I would have liked.

I’d like to conclude this review with a political observation which draws from history, so that readers can see how important it is to be able to fashion a history which is politically motivating, and so that activists on this site can take something from this review to start upon the path of “class struggle” suggested herein.  The reactionaries in Congress who created the Taft-Hartley Act, passed over Truman’s veto in 1947, seem to have caught on to a subtlety of human social organization that Harman missed – by illegalizing “political” strikes, they seem to have removed one rather basic modus operandi of people power, the labor organization, from the possibility of inciting a revolution.  At some point before abrupt climate change fries us all, we might seek to repeal Taft-Hartley and laws like it, so that our people power can have a broader choice of social vehicles for our organization.

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