Saturday, November 08, 2008

A People's History of the World by Chris Harman

(Book Review)

Like every history student, I am familiar with Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”. So when I saw this book on the shelves, I assumed from the similarities in the title that it must be a companion volume. Or at the very least, inspired by Zinn’s work.

And yet, for reasons that are a complete mystery to me, the author Chris Harman never acknowledges Howard Zinn once. He doesn't mention Howard Zinn in his introduction when he writes about other works which inspired him. And he doesn't mention Howard Zinn at the end in his very extensive list of books for further reading. Nor can I find Howard Zinn’s name in any of the endnotes. Although a quote from Howard Zinn praising this book does appear as one of the publishers blurbs on the back cover, nowhere in the actual pages of the book is there any acknowledgment that Howard Zinn even exists.
Why the publisher's of this book gave it a title deliberately designed to evoke Howard Zinn's book, and then completely ignored Howard Zinn within the pages, is a question I’d be very curious to know the answer to.

For those of you who aren't history geeks, Howard Zinn’s original work “A People’s History of the United States”is a retelling of United States history that frames all of U.S. history as a battle between oppressive government forces, and the popular resistance movements to those forces. It’s a left wing history, but I think it’s famous enough that history geeks across the political spectrum are at least aware of it. We had to study parts of it in my Calvin class on the study of history. (It was also briefly mentioned in the Hollywood film “Goodwill Hunting”. At one point Matt Damon turns to Robin Williams and says, “All you professors, you always surround yourself with books, and there the wrong books. You should read ‘A People’s History of the United States’ by Howard Zinn. Now there’s a book that will blow your mind.” )

Despite the fact that my politics and my interest in history make me an ideal audience for Howard Zinn’s book, I've got to confess I've never read it cover to cover. I flip through it whenever I’m in a bookstore. And I once borrowed a friend’s copy, only to have it just sit in my apartment for two months.
Why? Well, like a lot of history buffs, I’m attracted to history because I like hearing stories. I want to read biographies about interesting people, or read about certain events in great detail. But I don’t get as excited about books which try and condense long periods of history, and then view it through a certain ideological lens. Even if I agree with the politics, it doesn't make for very exciting reading.

And so, those same thoughts went through my head as I stood in the bookstore, wondering whether I wanted to sink $20 into this book or not. Part of me was curious to see how Chris Harman would be able to weave a narrative out of all the strands of leftist world history, another part of me was wary about plodding through 600 pages of unexciting historical summary.

Well, obviously you can see I ended up buying the book. But my first hesitations turned out to be correct.

Now, granted, it is extremely difficult for anyone to summarize all of world history. And it is impossible to write a world history that will make everyone happy. Someone will always be complaining about this or that important event that the author didn't have the space to include. Especially when you’re writing an ideologically charged history. So I admit it’s probably a little too very easy for me to sit back and take pot shots at Chris Harman.
But that caveat aside, here I go with my criticisms:

The book is 620 pages, and tracks the progress of civilization all the way from the stone age to the Iraq War. This does not mean, however, that all epochs get equal time. The book displays a strong bias for recent history. For example, over half of the book takes place after the French Revolution. Over one third of the whole book is on the 20th Century alone.

This means that the previous 3,800 years of recorded human history are given only the most perfunctory of treatments.

I’m sure Chris Harman would argue that the recent history has more of an effect on life today, and so should get more space. However in my opinion, if he wasn't going to take the time to do pre-modern history right, then he shouldn't have bothered with it at all.

Once the French Revolution kicks off, the pace of the book slows down a bit and we are treated to more indepth examinations of workers movements and revolutionary personalities. Until the French Revolution, the book is largely just a bland examination of empires rising and falling, and faceless masses being oppressed by it.

The pity is, the historical record is a lot richer than Harman’s book acknowledges. We know a surprising amount about the class struggles in the ancient world. Although ancient historical sources can sometimes mix truth with legend, they have left us with a wealth of material. We know, for example, a lot about the ideological battles between the warring Greek city states. The entire 500 year history of the Roman Republic was one of intense class warfare, and the last century of this is especially well documented.

Many of the ideologies and struggles of the modern world had parallels in the ancient. The French were well aware of these parallels during the Revolution, and the obsession with classical history among the early revolutionaries is so established we even have a name for it: “the cult of antiquity”. However, Harman does not bring any of these parallels out.

To give but one example: Livius and other historians have written in detail about the republican revolution in ancient Rome. From their writings we know that at the time of the revolution, the neighboring kings were absolutely appalled by the republican sentiment, and were worried that the ideals would spread to their own realms. To prevent republicanism from spreading, they launched a war against the new republic to try and reimpose the monarchy by force. All of this, of course, is exactly what would happen during the French Revolution 2500 years later, and from their writings we know that the French Revolutionaries themselves were keenly aware of this parallel. However Harman only mentions the Roman republican revolution only in passing.
The Romans threw out the Etruscans at the end of the 6th century (in 509 B.C. according to Roman tradition), established a republic, and embarked on a long process of military expansion” (Harman 72).
Perhaps you can get a feel from the above sentence what a fascinating book this is to read. This is not the reason people like to read history.

The big problem is that there’s just too much history being crammed into too small of a space. If there was more room to get into some of these stories, the book would have been a lot more interesting.

Every respected history of the world runs several volumes, and there’s no reason why a people’s history of the world shouldn't take up a couple volumes as well. (Howard Zinn, for example, spent the same amount of pages as Harman on the United States alone).

If, one the other hand, Harman feels strongly that he wants to cram the entire history of the world into one portable volume, then he should have limited himself to a 50 page prologue for the pre-modern world. Because what he’s at right now is just about the wrong length from every way you look at it. It’s too short to be interesting, but it’s way too long to sit through. I mean really, 277 pages is a chore to work through just for one long prologue. I almost gave up on the book several times during the first half, and only persisted through it out of sheer determination to finish.

Along the way, Harman does mention a few of the figures and movements who opposed the ruling classes. But until he gets up to the modern socialists, Harman never finds anyone he can entirely approve of. And he feels it is his duty to point out the shortcomings of all prior liberation movements. And although his criticisms are usually true, in the end he spends more time criticizing their shortcomings than he does highlighting their accomplishments. Take for example his paragraph on Athenian democracy. Notice the way he briefly mentions it, then goes into several sentences criticizing it, and then finally grudgingly acknowledges that it was somewhat better than the previous system. This is characteristic of how the whole book is written:

In some states, most notably Athens, the pressure from below resulted in even more radical changes-the replacement of both oligarchy and tyranny by ‘democracy’. The word, taken literally, means ‘rule of the people’. In reality it never referred to the whole people, since it excluded slave, women and resident non-citizens-the metics, who often accounted for a large portion of the traders and craftsmen. It did not challenge the concentration of property-and slaves-in the hands of the rich either. This was hardly surprising, since the leadership of ‘democratic’ forces usually lay in the hands of dissident wealthy landowners, who advanced their own political positions by taking up some of the demands of the masses. But it did give the poorer citizens the power to protect themselves from the extortions of the rich” (Harman 67).

All of this is true, but one can’t help but wonder if Harman is missing the main point.

In the same way, he mentions the Gracchi brothers in ancient Rome, but then emphasizes that their main motives were only to strengthen the existing state. Later he gives 3 paragraphs to Gandhi, and then spends all 3 paragraphs emphasizing that Gandhi was a middle class capitalist who only was concerned about the bourgeois interests. (Again, there might be some truth to this, but when you only have 3 paragraphs on Gandhi, this is not the main point of the man’s legacy). In short, Harman comes remarkably close to embodying the stereo type of the whiny leftist historian, who is more concerned with knocking heroes of off their pedestals than in actually telling history.

When Chris Harman gets to the Socialist movement, however, he has almost nothing critical to say about Marx, Lenin, or Trotstky

Chris Harman is a member of the Socialist Workers Party, and the entire book reflects a strong Trotskyist bias. The anarchist theory and movement is noticeable only by its absence. Bakunin's name does not appear once in the book. Bakunin’s critiques of Marx , and the great schism between anarchists and communists in the First International are entirely absent. Peter Kropotkin’s historical research is cited briefly in the French Revolution section, but aside from this, his only other mention is to cite his support of World War I. (Admittedly that was not Kropotkin’s finest moment, but there is a lot more to the man and his theories). The Proudhonist section of the Paris Commune is mentioned, but only to criticize it. Likewise the anarchist movement in the Spanish Civil War is mentioned, but only to criticize its decentralization.

However, when Harman gets to Lenin and the Bolsheviks, he finds nothing to criticize. Granted, Harman is working against 90 years of biased history in the West, and he perhaps feels a need to over-emphasize the positives of the Bolshevik revolution. But all was not as pure as he makes out. Even during Lenin’s lifetime there were harsh critiques of the Russian Revolution from within the Left, such as “My Disillusionment in Russia (full text here)” by Emma Goldman. Harman could have added some balance to his work by acknowledging these, but he does not.

Harman acknowledges some early dissatisfaction with the Bolshevik regime among workers, but he attributes all of this to economic factors and deprivation beyond the control of the Bolshevik’s. Nowhere does he mention that the Bolshevik’s curtailing of civil liberties and abolishing freedom of the press played into this dissatisfaction. Nor did he mention the fact that Lenin had several of his political opponents on the left (the Left Social Revolutionaries) arrested and executed.

The Krostadt rebellion in 1921 is also portrayed purely in economic terms, with the Krostadt rebels portrayed as too impatient to realize that their impoverishment was temporarily beyond the control of the Bolshevik government. Nowhere does it mention that the Kronstadt sailors were also fighting for freedom of speech and the press for all socialist groups, the re-establishment of secret ballots, and the independence of trade unions.

After the death of Lenin, than Harman repeats the old Trotskyist line that Stalin was solely responsible for corrupting everything good about the Russian Revolution.

Before I finish off my criticisms (I know I’m really going to town on this book here), one last word about the Euro-centralism.
Time was, you could write a book on the history of the world, and it could be all about Europe, and no-one would think that was the least bit odd. Those days are long gone now, and Harman dutifully keeps switching back between Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Mayan and Aztec civilizations.

Personally, I thought the book always lost its narrative flow whenever the action would break off and go to another continent, and I might even have preferred something a bit more European based. But that’s just the closet Euro-centrist in me.

Unfortunately, Harman doesn't really tell us anything interesting about the rest of the world, so we’re left with his same dry analysis of rising and falling empires that he gives us in Europe.
A little more irritating is the fact that whenever he leaves Europe to go to another continent, Harman is constantly emphasizing that the civilizations were either (a) as advanced or more advanced than European civilizations, or (b) in some cases slightly less advanced than Europe, but as a result of class structure and not as a result of genetic deficiencies.

This was patronizing enough to read the first time, and it got downright irritating as the book kept returning to this theme. Apparently Harman is under the impression that his audience is a bunch of 18th century white supremacists who need to be constantly reminded that all races have equal potential.

And then in some cases he completely drops the ball. For example he spends 10 pages on 1968 and the student movements in which he contains himself entirely to Europe and North America. Despite the fact that the student movements in Japan and South Korea were every bit as militant and widespread as the student movements in the West. In fact, many people believed the student power movement originated in these two countries.
Not one word from Harman. Even when he lists cities where major demonstrations took place, he doesn't so much as name drop Japan or South Korea.

Okay, (whew) deep breath. Now that I've blown off steam by listing everything I didn't like about this book, I should mention briefly some of the things that I liked about it. (If there’s anyone still reading this review this far down).

The first couple chapters are excellent, in which Harman uses anthropological and archeological studies to argue that the natural state of human beings is to live peacefully in a classless society. Contrary to those who argue that class distinction and violence are inherently part of human society, Harman shows that for 95% of human history organized warfare and class repression did not exist.

Through his study of ancient civilizations, Harman shows that most of them declined and fell because the ruling classes over-exploited the surplus wealth created by the lower classes. Not (as is sometimes claimed by conservative historians) because of immorality or neglect of religion.
Harman would probably not approve of applying this parallel too strictly to societies in the capitalist age. (As Harman quotes Marx, capitalist societies suffer from a crisis of over-production). However as the world faces a new energy crisis, one wonders if our over-exploitation of natural resources is leading us down the same road that ruined the many of the ancient civilizations.
Furthermore, despite the argument that politically equality is a rather recent idea in world history, Harman illustrates repeatedly that throughout history the lower classes have always used rhetoric in favor of a radically egalitarian society, long before the French Revolution brought these ideas into the mainstream.

When he gets to World War II, Harman does an excellent job of cutting through all of the mythology that has grown up around “the good war” and shows how the allies were really more interested in protecting their colonial interests than in spreading democracy.

Finally, Harman does a great job of showing how the stability of the modern age is a dangerous illusion. Just as all other ruling classes in all ages of history have believed themselves to stand at the end of history, immune to any future disasters and revolutions, today’s modern society, with its energy crisis, its environmental problems and its nuclear weapons is dangerously close to its own destruction.

(An edited version of this review was also posted on Media Mouse)
Link of the Day
No to Larry Summers as Treasury Secretary
OpenLeft has set up a petition to John Podesta and Michael Strautmanis of the Obama transition team calling on Obama not to appoint Larry Summers as Treasury Secretary. As they describe, there are many reasons Summers would be an horrendous (although funny!) choice.


ensign0208 said...

Thanks for your review of A people's History of the World. I plunked down $20.00 for the book based on Howard Zinn's endorsement, and found the book's defects as well as it's strengths pretty much as you say. Perhaps someone else will also attempt it's ambitious task, improving on A People's History of the World.

Joel said...

Thanks for the positive feedback. This review was such a monster post I was worried no one would read through it.
Yeah, I agree. We need someone else to come along and take another stab at writing a "People's History of the world". It's a project that deserves another try.

Anonymous said...

Can really appreciate why you make some of the comments that you do however, I would say that Chris Harman's book is a fantastic introductory history text.

I am currently in my first year of a Behavioural Science degree and am humbled to admit that I knew very little of history at all until undertaking the History & Social Change module - this book was the set text.

In my opinion, if you are looking for an indepth study to deepen your knowledge and understanding of the History of the world then this probably is not the most complete text you could buy however, it is an excellent introduction, a fantastic compliment to sociological studies and it largest accomplishment has to be in persuading me that history can be interesting.

I did everything within my power to avoid history at school etc but have a full appreciation of the subject, and know that without understanding history, we cannot understand how we arrived here, today. History is pertinent to ever subject I can think of. Due to being made to read this book I have found a love of history!

Ahmad kot.. said...

What is your Comment on JM Roberts and OA Westead book, The Penguin History of the World?

I really liked the book. And when I picked Harmann book, I literally compared how Harman's book is written and how Roberts' is written and even aesthetic-wise, the former is far inferior.

Your review seems to confirm my suspicion.

Joel Swagman said...

I'm ashamed to say I've never read the Penguin History of the World.

As I mentioned in this review, I don't tend to like big survey histories. But I picked this book up anyway because I was a leftie, and I wanted to see what the common strands in leftist history would be throughout the ages. And I was disappointed at what I thought was Harman's inability to delivery on this score.

....The Penguin History of the World is worth a read though, is it?

Joel Swagman said...

For a discussion of some of the ideological struggles of the ancient world that I wish Harman would have addressed, see here: