Socialist Worker

Mark Steel reviews 'A People's History of the World'

Issue No. 1672

Cover of A Peoples History of the World

There is something slightly satisfying about reading a history of the whole world. You find yourself thinking, 'While I'm waiting for the kettle to boil, I can do the 11th century.' A five stop train journey can get you through the decline of the Roman Empire and a bit of the Crusades (with a bit of concentration).

Reading Chris Harman's epic account also induces a frequent 'so nothing's changed' snigger, as thousands of years of ruling class trickery unfold. For example, the ruling families in the early Roman Senate imposed a system in which 98 of the 193 votes went to the highest class, while the propertyless had one vote between them. And I'm sure the Senators were adamant that this electoral college was the fairest system and nothing to do with ensuring the toady Frank Dobsonius got the job.

This book is more than a series of fascinating but disconnected facts. Each section conveys how the facts of history are anything but disconnected, and can only be fully explained by a Marxist approach. Marx's starting point was that before human beings could indulge in politics, religion or culture, their first priority was to keep themselves fed, clothed and alive. He showed how the organisation and ideas of society stem from the methods employed to keep that production rolling. This is the premise that makes Harman's book possible. If the more conventional approaches to history were to take on such a task, they would struggle to get off the ground.

The 'Save Our Pound' view explains society in terms of nations. Yet for the bulk of human existence no such thing as a nation existed. Clearly there were not settlements in the Iron Age in which people felt a strange allegiance to the lump of land which 2,000 years later would become Italy. The view that sees history as being driven by a handful of great men and the occasional woman fails to answer the questions in the poem by German socialist Bertolt Brecht with which Harman introduces the book: 'Who built Thebes of the seven gates? In the books you will find the names of kings. Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?' The values and habits of contemporary society – inequality, war, small family units, sport and road rage – are most commonly put down to human nature.

THIS IS the Flintstones method, which assumes that prehistoric society was organised just like ours, except in stone. Yet the opening chapters of A People's History illustrate how hunting and gathering societies depended on cooperation for their survival. And with no surplus above what was essential for immediate consumption, class society was not just undesirable, but impossible. It follows, as people lived in foraging bands continually moving on to other sources of plant food, that 'there could not have been the obsession with private property that we take for granted today'.

So from the opening pages the book declares itself a participant in the most modern debates, even when it's discussing foraging bands of neolithic tribes. For all socialists find themselves face to face with the argument that aiming for a socialist society is futile, as 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 examine every corner 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. This theory holds together more firmly than those involving wise men or voices on mountains do. And it provides countless fascinating insights.

For example, the reason why Hinduism insisted that the cow was sacred was that the cow was more valuable as a ploughing tool than as an instant meal as Indian agriculture developed. There is even an explanation for the behaviour of the remarkable Flagellants, 14th century Christians who would march to a town in a group of 500, form a circle and beat their own backs with iron spikes. Though on this occasion I'd be prepared to accept they were just bonkers.

Harman accepts the wide brief he has given himself with such a title and does not skimp on including artistic and cultural aspects of society. The artists of the Renaissance, the plays of Shakespeare, and the trend of radical films by Welles and Chaplin are examined as deriving from the social movements that influenced them and as forces which then influenced those social movements.

There is another aspect of Marx's approach, which Harman uses to great effect. Each period is analysed, not just for its social structure, but for the shifts and changes moving beneath the surface. By viewing 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. How the French journalist who wrote a few months before the French Revolution that disturbances in Paris were impossible must have wished he had adopted this approach. In the same way, New Labour is blind to the sullen discontent rumbling in the crevices of society it never visits.

The method allows Harman to counter a variety of modern assumptions, such as the view that European society has always been in advance of the rest of the planet. A traveller in Tanzania in 1331 is quoted as describing the town of Kilwa as 'one of the most beautiful and well constructed cities in the world'. China is depicted as in advance of Europe throughout the Dark Ages. As late as the 15th century the Aztecs inhabited a civilisation comparable to any in Europe.

Harman is able to portray many current views of society as untenable by placing each event in a world historic context. The idea, for example, that the growth of Islam threatens a specific brand of brutality is dealt with in a sentence: 'Khomeini's repression was not qualitatively different from that endorsed by French Catholicism at the crushing of the Paris Commune or that backed by Prussian Lutheranism in 1919-20.'

Above all, the book portrays how the history of class society is not just a fearsome account of repression and brutality, but of continuous resistance to that repression. From the earliest ruling classes, the exploiters have had to keep one eye firmly on the unpalatable fact that 'ye are many, they are few.' Ancient Greek rulers were persuaded to ensure food supplies to the peasants, not by the debates of philosophers, but by a series of rural revolts. Similarly in each period ruling class policy has been shaped either by revolt or by the threat of revolt.

AS THE book arrives at the modern world, however, 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 phase of society in which the majority rule in the interests of the majority. A certain dizziness results from travelling three million years in a single book. I can imagine bizarre conversations between those who own a copy: 'I'm up to the English Civil War.' 'Oh, I've only got as far as the pharaohs.' But there are other inescapable thoughts as you reach its conclusion.

As you gaze across the panorama of thousands of years of rebellion, revolution and persecution, how facile it seems for someone to claim that now, at this precise moment, 'the class struggle is over'. We have been here so many times before. No doubt there were jumped up creeps in the Bronze Age who declared at the coppersmiths' conference, 'At last the class struggle is over.'

But the finest of this book's achievements is to compile a splendidly readable account of the entirety of human history and not leave the reader feeling at all insignificant. Instead you sense that your humble role in the class struggle connects you to the slaves who rattled Rome, the poor who toppled the king of France, the workers who stormed the Winter Palace, and anyone at Thebes who refused to haul up any more rocks.

While such people are still celebrated, no one now recalls the slaveholders who crucified Spartacus, or the officials who got an extra groat for betraying the Peasants' Revolt. Just as, when the history of the next millennium is written, those who continued the battle for a better world will take their place with pride, while no one will recall the public school twerp with the millionaire friends and the manic grin.

You can get a copy of A People's History of the World from the socialist bookshop Bookmarks or from the bookstall at your local Socialist Workers Party meeting for the special price of £12.99. Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE, phone 0171 637 1848 or fax 0171 637 3416 (please include £2 for postage and packing).

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Sat 13 Nov 1999, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1672
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