Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, June 03, 2010

In Defence of History

The news that the Tories are going to put the Tory pro-imperialist ideologue Niall Ferguson in charge of re-writing the national curriculum for history in British schools is not altogether such a surprise, but it does signal how the current age of permanent war we live in has come to shape and disfigure not only the present but risks now shaping and disfiguring how we all think about the past.

Traditionally, the British national curriculum brought in by Thatcher during the 1980s seems to have been largely about cultivating 'Little Englander' nationalist sentiment - leaving one with the impression that while the rest of Europe experienced 'totalitarianism' and dictatorship, and the most barbaric forms of exploitation and oppression (lots of learning about Hitler's Nazis and Stalinist Russia) somehow Britain was destined to rule forever in peace and quiet through parliamentary democracy (indeed as Thatcher herself believed, Britain had apparently already enjoyed a 'thousand years of British democracy'). The old curriculum did not focus on British imperial history at all - because that might bring up some slightly awkward facts - the glaringly obvious decline of Britain as a world power by the 1980s for one, but more importantly the fact that the British Empire had very little to do with 'British democracy' but quite a lot to do with the imposition of dictatorship and 'totalitarian' forms of rule, and indeed barbaric exploitation and oppression. Indeed, as one Pan-Africanist critic, George Padmore, put it during the 1930s, 'The British Empire Is Worst Racket Yet Invented By Man'.

New Labour in power did not challenge this lack of focus on the empire in the curriculum at all, though as they waged neo-imperial warfare abroad increasingly their leaders did what they could to encourage imperial nostalgia - and a revival of the old 'imperial spirit'. Gordon Brown in 2004 declared 'We should be proud . . . of the empire' and in 2005 while in East Africa told the Daily Mail that 'the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over' - and essentially re-introduced 'Empire Day', though Gordon Brown had to settle for it being called 'Armed Forces Day' instead of his more imaginative 'British day'.

Yet now under the old Etonian David Cameron and his merry Oxbridge men including Nick Clegg and Michael Gove, it is clearly high time for the Empire to Strike Back with a vengeance - and they have hired the arch-imperialist Tory historian Niall Ferguson to ditch what he calls 'junk history' (he highlights in particular teaching kids about the black civil rights leader Martin Luther King) and try and cultivate the kind of 'proper traditional history' designed to serve the interests of the rich and powerful that Cameron, Clegg and Gove themselves learnt at public school. Ferguson is famous of course for not just being nostalgic for the British Empire of old (he remembers fondly his 'magical' childhood growing up in the former British colony of Kenya during the 1960s) but also being sycophantic about the new masters of the universe - the American Empire. Currently it seems the need is to ratchet up the propaganda level of the war on terror so that the idea of fighting and dying in Afghanistan for the profits of multinational oil and arms companies can be made more appealing to British working class kids. According to the Guardian, at the Hay festival, Ferguson declared that his new 'grand narrative' would mean not simply imperial nostalgia for the British Empire but that British children should be taught that the 'big story' of the last 500 years 'is the rise of western domination of the world'.

This should not surprise us - as historian Stephen Howe has noted of Ferguson, his whole 'world view' flows from two inter-linked assertions.

'Some people – mostly poor and dark-skinned ones – need to recognise that they are conquered, accept the fact, indeed realise that it’s in their own best interests to be so. And other people, especially Americans, must know and accept that they are conquerors and imperialists, shoulder the accompanying burdens, understand that such a role benefits everyone. As Ferguson says in the introduction to Colossus (2004): "Unlike most of the previous writers who have remarked on this, I have no objection in principle to an American empire. Indeed, a part of my argument is that many parts of the world would benefit from a period of American rule."'

Planning to produce a guide and materials for 'a four-year history syllabus on the west and the world', Ferguson declared the big question the course would attempt to answer, he said, was how in 1500 'the small warring kingdoms of Europe, which looked so feeble compared with the Ming or Ottoman empires, got to be so powerful'. He said the syllabus was 'bound to be Eurocentric' because the world was Eurocentric.

Yet as Howe notes, it is Ferguson who is irredeemably Eurocentric in his narratives of empire.

'The fact is that Ferguson systematically bypasses or blanks out every source which analyses or presents the perspectives of the colonised. There thus emerges a consistent pattern of distortion or one-sidedness: a pattern which tends to reinforce the prejudices of those he seeks to influence. Much of the impact Ferguson’s writing has had on public debate, especially in the US, stems from his being perceived as an expert historian whose arguments about policy are based on specialist knowledge. Ferguson is indeed a proficient historian with a great deal of accumulated learning at his disposal. But his authority does not extend to the histories of any part of the non-European world. When he makes claims about these, they must be evaluated as the arguments of a talented, opinionated amateur, not a scholar.'

It is doubtful therefore for example that anti-colonial struggles, revolts or even just the critics of empire, the likes of George Padmore et al, will be included on Ferguson's syllabus (will the likes of Padmore ever be on a British school curriculum syllabus?) - yet there are bigger issues at stake. For example, a related 'big story' to that of the 'rise of the West' is the accompanying rise of racism towards the 'other' over the past 500 years - something that originated with the barbaric criminality of the slave trade and colonial slavery at a time when ideas of 'liberty' were becoming fashionable in European metropoles. Dealing with this is critical, not least because outside Eton and Oxbridge, Britain is itself now a modern multi-racial and multicultural society, and some of the black and asian kids being taught Ferguson's 'new imperial history' in particular might not appreciate being told to simply kneel down and worship at the shrine of Western imperial power. Yet as I noted on this blog in a critique of Ferguson back in 2006, Ferguson writes racism out of the story of the British and American Empires.

'One of the central theses of the 'Oxford school' that Ferguson represents is that there is no link between Empire and the rise of racism. The two have to be distinguished completely and utterly. Which explains why Ferguson insists it is with the decline of the British Empire at the start of the 20th century that racist killing comes into its own - and suggests that only a strengthening of American imperial power in the 21st century can allow humanity to avoid new holocausts. Unfortunately for Ferguson, and his supporters, there is a quite clear link between American imperialism and racist massacres - as testified by, for example, Haditha'.

Overall, Ferguson's 'new history' offers us a return to the most traditional oldest forms of history, ones where myths about Western cultural 'superiority' and uniqueness were taken for granted and are now propagated again only with just a little more subtlety and sophistication. Ferguson in particular seems to have bought into Samuel Huntingdon's notorious Islamophobic thesis about 'the clash of civilisations'. The War on Terror is regurgitating some of the oldest racisms associated with empire in a new form, and just as the historians most favoured by the British political establishment at the high point of the British Empire were the most utter reactionaries available, so pro-imperialist, warmongering propagandists such as Niall Ferguson are promoted and fettered today among the academic and political establishment as Western imperial power finds itself in retreat and decline amidst some of the most disastrous wars in imperial history. This latest propaganda offensive by our ruling class has to be resisted alongside all the other cuts and attacks being waged on education in Britain by the Con-Dem administration, and in the name of history itself all those concerned with teaching history - whether amateur or professional historians or history teachers themselves - need to try and find ways and means of organising to resist this new attack. Ordering copies for yourself and your school/college/university library of John Newsingers The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire might be one good place to start.

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At 11:16 am, Blogger maps said...

Thanks for this thoughtful piece Snowball. I plan to circulate to some friends interested in history curricula. I don't agree with you about the World Cup, though - you just need to find a less obnoxious team than England to support, I reckon!

At 6:17 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers - and I'll keep an eye on New Zealand from now on...


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