A history that’s on our side

Review: A People’s History of the World
By Chris Harman, Palgrave Macmillan $39.95

READING CHRIS Harman’s epic A People’s History of the World, republished by Verso, was a delight.

At 620 pages, this is more than a series of fascinating facts or tales of “great leaders” with easy- to-read individual chapters from ancient Greece and Rome, to China and Byzantium in the “Middle Ages” to the new world disorder of the 21st century.

The book recounts the history of class struggle since the birth of class society. From slave revolts, peasant uprisings, to the modern working class taking strike action against being ripped off at work as well as against the kind of world our rulers want us to live in.

Harman uses the Marxist approach to show how changes in “the forces of production” have led to changes in “the relationships of production”. These, as Chris argues so well throughout, “eventually transform the wider relationships in society as a whole.”

Karl Marx’s starting point was that before human beings could indulge in politics, religion or culture, they have to keep themselves alive by making sure they are fed and clothed.

He showed how ideas and the way society is organised stem from the method of production, whether it is slavery, serfdom or capitalism.

Marx and his collaborator, Frederick Engels, argued that human beings have only ever been able to gain a livelihood—food, shelter, and clothing—by working together to use and shape the products of our natural environment. This is the precondition for us doing anything else.

When the ways we work together change, so do our wider relations with each other. But once one group gets control of the process of work—a ruling class—wider ranging change cannot take place without struggles between that ruling class and the rest of society.

This is the method makes Harman’s book stand head-and-shoulders above the more conventional approaches to history. They cannot find a unifying theme for human history except banalities or sophisms, such as static “human nature” or a “naked ape” version of human endeavour.

Our rulers have always tried to present history as nothing more than a record of the supposedly heroic deeds of themselves and their predecessors.

Theirs is an ahistorical view that assumes that prehistoric society was organised just like ours, except in stone or metal.

The opening chapters of A People’s History illustrate how hunting and gathering societies depended on cooperation for their survival. With no surplus above what was essential for immediate consumption, class society was not just undesirable, but impossible.

Because people lived in foraging bands continually moving on to other sources of plant food, “there could not have been the obsession with private property that we take for granted today”.

For socialists who constantly have to face the argument that aiming for a socialist society is futile, and the claim that violence and greed are endemic traits of the human condition, Harman leaves you in no doubt: hunter-gatherers did not need share options.

The recognition that ideas are related to the way society is organised allows Harman to explain every aspect of each period.

Religion, for example, is portrayed as a product of its environment. Christianity and Islam are explained as forces which spread because they offered an alternative to the oppressive empires that surrounded them. You cannot understand the rise of Christianity without understanding the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.

The reason why Hinduism insisted that the cow was sacred was that, as Indian agriculture developed, cows were a very valuable ploughing tool that needed to be kept alive, instead of turned into an instant meal when times were tough.

Each period is analysed, not just in terms of its social structure, but for the shifts and changes moving beneath the surface. By analysing the bottom of society as well as the top, he sees the conflicts brewing which lead to the clashes that eventually erupt, apparently out of nowhere, and transform the world.

The continuous resistance to ruling class repression is a constant theme.

From the earliest ruling classes, the exploiters have had to keep one eye firmly on the unpalatable fact that they need us but we don’t need them.

As you arrive at the modern world, the implications of those revolts take on a new meaning. Capitalism has created a new class, the working class, forced to act collectively and as such capable not just of revolt, but of establishing a new form of society in which the majority rule in the interests of the majority.

We can gaze across the panorama of thousands of years of rebellion, revolution and persecution and see how facile it is when a paid apologist for the existing order pompously claims that, “the class struggle is over”.

The book gives you a sense that movements of resistance today connect us to the slaves who terrified the rich of Rome, the poor who toppled the Sun King of France, the workers who stormed the Tsar’s Winter Palace.

No one now recalls and toasts the Roman slaveholders and generals who crucified Spartacus or the aristocrats who wanted save the French monarchy.

For climate change activists, Marx’s approach shows that advances in human knowledge and technology taking place in particular society stop at a certain point. After that, the ruling class discourages further change, in case it leads to a weakening of their grip on society.

Capitalism is now a global system that shapes people’s behaviour, which breeds revolt and inspires others to follow the example of the most militant working class and peasantry.

As Harman has said, “I think there is an audience for the book far beyond the confines of the activist left. People who have given it as a present to parents or friends tell me they like it. With luck the Verso edition will get into many more such hands.”

Readers of Solidarity can help here—get your school, university or local library to provide a wider view of history than the versions usually on offer.

Harman has done us a wonderful service, a history book that is on our side.

By Tom Orsag


Solidarity meetings

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