Book Review: A People's History of the World


6-02-08, 9:52 am

Original source: Morning Star

A People's History of the World by Chris Harman New York, Verso, 2008

Flavor of the moment academic philosopher guru Slavoj Zizek recently proclaimed: 'One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible.'

Bombarded with daily news of international events as we are, it might be understandable that those living in less esoteric circumstances and with memories limited to the result of the last TV football match could well believe that history is simply one damn thing after another, lacking all understandable coherence. But a self-professed Marxist should surely see the world in a longer perspective than decades.

On the other hand, you need to have heroic ambitions to tackle history 'from the Stone Age to the New Millennium.'

Chris Harman fulfills those ambitions magnificently in this new edition of his 1999 world history which demonstrates a breadth of scholarship coupled to a lucid style and a clear understanding of the unfolding patterns of human experience.

This last comes from his Marxist analysis, which, along with history itself, we are often told is dead. Without some rational framework, however – and Marx provides the only one that holds water – our world has been and still is a living nightmare.

Moving from the hunter-gatherer societies of pre-history – increasingly a misnomer as we learn more about our early forebears, who seemed to have shared none of the exploitative gender and racial values that inform our brave new world – Harman charts a course through the emerging civilizations which increasingly failed to reconcile internal conflicting social forces.

Throughout, he points his argument with needle-sharp examples. Slavery, which underpinned empires such as Rome, resulted in a lack of technological progress. With a limitless slave workforce, society has nothing to gain from investing in new methodologies of production, consequently providing easy prey for more dynamic predators.

Understandably, the greater part of Harman's history is devoted to the world that emerged from medieval feudalism and the rise of capitalism.

Here, he takes on the labyrinthine complications of world power politics with deceptive ease. In his analyses of the revolutions that have punctuated the modern period, he demonstrates how the leaders of these movements – Cromwell, Robespierre, Lenin – were circumscribed by the social conditions of their times. As Marx knew, 'human beings make history, but not under conditions of their own choosing.'

Harman believes that there is an essential logic to the apparently bewildering confusion of history. For instance, he answers a question that has always puzzled me.

Was it simply a psychopathic Hitler-imposed decision to continue the Holocaust program even when, facing defeat, German communications and vital war resources would be overtaxed?

Harman suggests that, by then, anti-Semitism provided the only binding ideological element for the corrupt nazi hierarchy.

Acknowledging that 'capitalism is a more dynamic form of class society than any before in history,' Harman nevertheless demolishes the parroted post-modernist claim of the end of ideology and class conflict.

The industrial workers may have virtually disappeared from the Western imperialist world, but, characteristically using statistics tellingly, Harman points out that, 'by the 1980s, South Korea alone contained more industrial workers than the whole world had when Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto.'

Our own teachers, nurses, local authority and post office workers know that overalls are not an essential qualification for membership of an exploited class.

Zizek needs reminding of Marx's dictum. Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it. And the times, they are a-changing.

From Morning Star