H is for History

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Throughout history rulers mystify the past to convince ordinary people that their rule is inevitable. The first recorded histories - in the form of king lists - were used to justify their legitimacy.

King Arthur: "I am your king".
Woman: "Well I didn't vote for you."
King Arthur: "You don't vote for kings."
Woman: "Well how'd you become king then?"
King Arthur: "The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king."
Dennis: "Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony."

from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Today the main institution that seeks legitimacy through the past is not the monarchy but the nation-state. Thus the BBC ploughed millions of pounds into Simon Schama's History of Britain, which began many centuries before Britain existed. In a neoliberal world of fast-paced uncertainty, the appeal of Schama's distorted vision of history is that he is providing a secure point of personal reference - "your" national identity.

Karl Marx has been enormously influential on the writing of history precisely because he went beyond the "illusions of the age".

Marx sought to develop a materialist account of human history rather than one based on the development of ideas and great thinkers. The secret to understanding human distinctiveness and history was labour and production.

As humans evolved and spread across the planet, animal instinct was not enough - humans had to consciously work at it.

Humans laboured together for shelter, warmth and food. What started out with simple tool-making and collective foraging became the dazzling complexity of modern capitalist production. The changing nature of production underpins the overall make-up of society, its political institutions and ideas.

Most early human history was based on a nomadic existence of egalitarian groups. From the time when humans settled into agriculture and crafts in villages, towns and cities, private property and class divisions began to emerge.

From that point rulers had to present their privilege as natural or god-given. A huge sandstone carving of the Assyrian emperor Esarhaddon depicts him dwarfing his servant, who is kneeling before him. It propagates the idea of the might of the powerful and the futility of resistance. But with the rise of class society, an awareness of the disparities of wealth and power emerged. One ancient Sumerian proverb cautioned, "That which is given in submission becomes a medium of defiance."

For much of the time the poor accepted exploitation as normal or inescapable and deferred to their leaders, who in turn took submission as a sign of their own legitimacy. On other occasions latent conflicts became apparent. Ancient Egypt's Deir-el-Medina was a village of craftsmen who worked on the Pharaohs' tombs. The village rubbish tip left more evidence of their lives than other lowly subjects in ancient societies. Foremen controlled hiring and promotion. Some abused their power through sexual harassment, forced service and bribes. On occasion, when wages were late, the workers struck, marched to the temple and staged sit-ins.

The poor have also revelled in apocalyptic religious beliefs in which a final battle or last judgement would take place between good and evil, turning the tables on their tormentors. During the Taborite rebellion in Bohemia of the 1420s and 100 years later during the German peasant war, the lowly were spurred on by leaders who prophesised an apocalyptic fight against the enemies of the poor. During the English Civil War, many shared millenarian revolutionary dreams.

However, during that revolution religious ideas mingled with secular political ideas, visions of a democratic and even - with Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers - a communist future.

Social conflicts have transformed the world into what it is today. Four great revolutions of the late 16th to the 18th century - the Dutch revolt, the English Civil War, the American War of Independence and the French Revolution - and their consequences transformed European and American political and social structures, ushering in modern capitalism.

The last century - when capital conquered the globe - witnessed the unprecedented disasters of world wars, fascism, genocides, Stalinism, environmental destruction and nuclear weapons, overshadowing the 19th century belief that capitalism would start peaceful liberal progress.

But it was also the most unruly century in human history, creating history's most unruly subject: the global working class. Revolutions broke out on every continent and in every decade. There were general strikes, workplace occupations, revolts against colonial rule, movements to get the vote or against racial or sexual oppression, riots and land seizures by poor peasants on a scale hitherto unknown. These popular struggles created hopes of a future beyond capitalism and its injustices.

This is not the kind of history taught in school or broadcast on the television. Learning about this history shows how ordinary people are not just victims but also makers of history. To paraphrase Gill Scott-Heron, kings and queens will not be so damned relevant because the people will be in the street looking for a brighter day.

Matt Perry


Matt Perry is a lecturer in history at Newcastle University. His latest book is Prisoners of Want: The Experience and Protest of the Unemployed in France, 1921-45.

Further reading:

  • A People's History of the World and Marxism and History both by Chris Harman
  • The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx by Alex Callinicos
  • Essays in Historical Materialism edited by John Rees