Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Sunday, May 21, 2006

What a Tristram!

In an article entitled 'Why be shy about our radical past?', the British historian Tristram Hunt once again demonstrates his oft-noted ability to completely misunderstand a question.

Hunt starts off brightly enough, noting the lack of respect in modern British culture for revolutionaries like the Levellers, and perhaps because he has just spent the day with Tony Benn and the Workers' Education Association he correctly puts part of the blame for this on New Labour:

'Last week saw a welter of commentary on Education Minister Bill Rammell's call for teaching 'British values' in schools. The left took it as a cue for more historical self-flagellation; the right for cultural triumphalism. Yet, disappointingly, what Rammell had, in fact, urged was the anodyne incorporation of "modern British cultural and social history into the citizenship curriculum". What he should have demanded is a vigorous exploration of our democratic heritage in schools and communities alike.'

Bill Rammell is a Blairite whose 'Third Way' between 'historical self-flaggellation' and 'cultural triumphalism' is er, cultural triumphalism but with a flaggellation of the historical record. Rammell wants kids to be indoctrinated with a pride in 'British values' in History lessons at school but then not go on to study History at any higher level. Things tend to get more murky then - as students might learn about the exact role that Britain historically played around the world as an imperial power. Worse, they might make a connection between the bloody History of British imperialism in the past and current events in Iraq and Afghanistan. This sort of knowledge does not help create a booming British economy, which is surely what 'citizenship' is all about...

Hunt, as a History lecturer, has his job in Higher Education to justify against the likes of Rammell, so he hits back and calls for 'a vigorous exploration of our democratic heritage in schools and communities alike'. Hunt then gives us a glowing portrait of this 'democratic heritage', and how the British ruling class prefer not to discuss it:

'Democracy has many fathers, but in its modern, Western variety, the British contribution is marked. From the Magna Carta to the Levellers' 'Agreement of the People' to the Chartists and Pan-African Conference, the British experience went on to influence democracy around the world. The US Declaration of Independence was partly born from the democratic ideals of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution.

Yet the difference between us and them is that French and American officialdom nurtures its political heritage. Bastille Day, the Fourth of July holiday, even the veneration given to their written constitutions, point to a public culture which reveres and renews its democratic legacy. In Britain, we are close to amnesiac about the individuals who crafted our political freedoms.

Most of our major cities are replete with statues to generals, dukes and royals, but not to our democratic heroes. Outside his home town of Thetford, the great democrat agitator Thomas Paine is barely remembered. Our democratic sites are equally neglected. The Houses of Parliament contains the most pitiful account of its role in the development of democracy.'

Hunt is wrong about the Magna Carta being a 'democratic' document, but that aside he makes some useful if unoriginal points. Moreover, his prescription as to 'what is to be done' is not totally amiss:

'This contempt for our democratic past cannot be excused by an unwritten constitution. For, as historian Linda Colley has rightly pointed out, constitutional documents, from the Treaty of Union to the Catholic emancipation acts right up to the devolution acts of 1998, all exist in the archives. The challenge is to get them out into the public sphere. And, with them, the stories of struggle, triumph and disappointment they contain: the untold lives of Chartists, suffragettes and anti-colonial campaigners. For the history of democracy is far more than just the story of the ballot; it is also about the growth of public reasoning, a free press and liberal tolerance. This is the legacy which should be highlighted in our schools and museums.'

Yet then Hunt manages to make his fatal blunder, noting that the 'cultural memory of democracy' in Britain 'does not have to be a Whiggish narrative of ever- broadening freedom, nor yet a Marxist account of aristocratic and imperial intransigence. Rather, a complex, conflicting, yet ultimately progressive history of the ebb and flow of democracy and the people who made it happen.' There is a fundamental flaw to Hunt's vision, and it is not simply his dismissal of Marxism as only concerned with 'aristocratic and imperial intransigence'. Hunt's view of the past is trapped within the boundary of the nation state to the point where he reifys 'Britain', which is, after all, in Benedict Anderson's phrase an 'imagined community'. Hunt is concerned with 'our' radical past which is 'ultimately progressive' and 'democratic'.

This is a nonsense, and a dangerous nonsense. As one commentator on 'Comment is Free' immediately countered after Hunt had concluded:

'British Values: - Enslave the Blacks, destroy their land and rob their minerals. - Colonize the rest of the third world, steal their heritage, their treasures, oppress them when they try to resist. - After stealing every piece of art, mineral and human dignity from the indigenous people of your colonies, go back to Britain and declare that the colonialist era is over. - Dont take responsibility for leaving an enormous mess in the Middle East and a devastated Africa. - After committing some of the worst crimes against humanity, start criticize everyone around you and lecture them about morality with as much arrogance as possible.'

There is more than a grain of truth there. What is needed instead of Hunt's vision is a view of History which does not limit itself to fighting the battles over the past, the 'memory wars', within the territory of the nation state or even within an imperial identity such as 'Britishness'. The Right will always tend to win such battles - or rather the Left deserve to lose such battles over who are the real 'patriots'. What is needed instead - and here is where Hunt might learn a thing or two from Frederick Engels (of whom Hunt is currently writing a biography) - is a view of the struggles in the past for progress and democracy - class struggles -that are contextualised in terms of global history - history without boundaries. However, I have the feeling such an internationalist view of the past is just a little too, well, 'radical' for the likes of Tristram Hunt.

Edited to add: For an alternative to Hunt's 'bad History', perhaps check out the following links which I have been meaning to highlight for a while:
- Dave Renton's History of the Anti Nazi League, 1977-1981, When we touched the Sky
- Louis Proyect on Karl Marx and Imperialism
- Lenin's Tomb on Marxism, the bourgeoisie and capitalist imperialism

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At 3:33 pm, Blogger maps said...

What about asking the kids what they want to study? I doubt some Bangladeshi student in Tower Hamlets is going to be very interested in the Levellers or the Chartists. The left should be for the right of pupils to set up their own research projects and tackle the subjects that interest them. We should confine our advocacy to the question of method - we should stress the importance of dialectics and materialism.

At 8:13 pm, Blogger Callum said...

I take it you'll be tuning in tonight, Snowball.

Professor of History at Harvard University, the one and only Niall Ferguson will be on Question Time!

What will he say next? Bring back the slave trade? Restore British rule in India? Reclaim Rhodesia for the Master Race?

Who knows: but it's exciting.

At 11:36 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Maps - while I agree with you that the left should support students who want to set up their own research projects, I disagree with you about the Levellers and Chartists. Such mass 'outbreaks of democracy' have universal significance to world history regardless of time and place. If things like this - as well as the history of working class communities in the East End are taught with that in mind, then I am sure Bangladeshi kids could relate to it.

yktmx - I watched Niall Ferguson and I am sorry to say that the man confirmed my worst fears. It is not only that he is a loathsome bigot, an apologist for Empire and a racist (witness his rant against 'uncontrolled immigration' - does he have any idea how hard it is to get asylum in Britain?). What stood out for me was also that he is actually remarkably thick for a Harvard Professor and 'one of the top 100 most influential minds of our time' or whatever the fuck it is he calls himself.

At 2:35 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

I have discussed Ferguson before on this blog here:



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