Thursday 21 March 2013

Paper Tiger

It’s by pure chance that I came to David Cannadine’s recently published The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences in succession to Catalin Avaramescu’s An Intellectual History of Cannibalism, though they harmonise quite well.  Both are concerned with categories and perceptions, both with the divisions created between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’, both with notions of ‘Us’ and notions of ‘Them.’
Cannadine, a professional historian who professes history at Princeton, comes to us rather in the manner of a prosecutor, bearing a heavy indictment against the profession of history!  Actually his beginning is the profession of politics, or the sort of simple-minded politics embraced by the likes of George W. Bush and Tony Blair in the aftermath of 9/11, a new form of Manichaeism, with clear and uncomplicated division between the forces of light and the forces of dark.   
Historians are to blame here, Cannadine feels, in creating to a general mood of division and derision.  They have spent too much time, he argues, on conflict and very little on collaboration, on disharmony rather than harmony.  Above all, they have failed to celebrate a ‘common humanity.’
The Undivided Past, if you like, is a critique of artificial identity politics.  Professor Cannadine unveils his six paper tigers.  These are religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilization.  In cementing differences and creating antagonisms, historians made their particular choices.  The overall result is a kind of interpretive straightjacket. 
The simple truth is that we have multiple and shifting identities, a truth so simple it scarcely deserves repeating.  But the author’s blood is up and his challenge offered. He bears down on “the conventional wisdom of single-identity politics, the alleged uniformity of antagonistic groups, the widespread liking for polarized modes of thought, and the scholarly preoccupations with difference.”  My, how those paper tigers fall, driven down by this mighty verbal onslaught! 
Broadly speaking it’s possible to accept elements of Cannadine’s argument.  All history, to take one example, is not the history of class struggle!  But Marx and Marxism is such an easy target, for the simple reason that ‘class’ is the weakest of all the tigers.  Old dinosaurs like Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson, are now themselves consigned to the past with a good part of their tendentious scholarship, though they and their kind still have an abiding influence on sections of the liberal media.
Yes, what a chimera class politics proved to be.  The whole sandcastle was swept into the sea in 1914, when the German Social Democrats, the largest Marxist party in the world, voted for war credits, thus in a single move destroying the Second International.  Here nation trumped class, but even so Cannadine’s method would not allow us comprehend why class-based politics became so important in the Second Reich in the first place.  Why on earth did Bismarck and Bebel not simply celebrate ‘togetherness’?  Altogether there is a conceit and polemical blindness here that I find difficult to accept, for all of the author’s weighty scholarship. 
Actually I’m not quite sure who the author is arguing against, beyond the ghosts of the past, those who rest in the shade of Karl Marx or Oswald Spengler or Arnold Toynbee.  I know of no reputable scholar today who is in thrall to any single one of the six categories.  We all know – surely we do? – just how complex the past is, just how hopeless the search for any imperial model of explanation.  The supposed big division between Christianity and Islam sublimates a great many internal divisions within these faiths.  Historians have long been alert to the truth that wars of religion, for example, are never exclusively about religion.  The Thirty Years War is very fertile ground here. 
Cannadine is certainly no Marxist but paradoxically he seems to have lifted notions of false consciousness from the ideological wreckage.  His fellow historians, you see, have helped to create artificial and misleading perceptions of reality.  Alas, he would do well to remember that the task of historians is to interpret the past, not change it. It there are conflicts the conflicts are real; if there are debates the debates are real, if there is oppression the oppression is real.  We cannot conjure away the things we do not like or approve of by fatuous appeals to a ‘common humanity.’  This book, for all its weightiness, is replete with too many unsupported generalisations and too much, well, pious intellectual conceit.    
There is the professor at the end of the lists, his tigers all knocked down.  The contest was just too easy, the false solidarities all dead.  The only solidarity acceptable from this point forward is human solidarity; it’s really as simple as that.  Come, now, ye academic historians, see the truth and abandon the artificial divisions and celebrate those things “that still bind us together today.”  Yes, I imagine Haitian slum dwellers and Russian billionaires will be delighted to see a celebration of a ‘common humanity’ as the profession of history sinks into a sleep of quietism! 
All history may not be the history of class struggle, but it is the history of struggle, as Arthur Schopenhauer rightly contended.  Yes, we are all human but any attempt to create a ‘common identity’ or a common history is a task that has failed, destroyed by its own absurd contradictions.  There is nothing new in this observation.  As long ago as the 1960s J. H. Plumb described UNESCO’s History of Humanity as “an encyclopaedia gone berserk, or resorted by a deficient computer.”  Speaking of berserkers, there is the European Union’s House of European History, which begins the story in 1946, because the various national governments can’t agree on what went before!  I’ll go with Cannadine’s six categories, liberally mixed, any day over absurdities like this, or over his hippy-like, Kumbaya approach to the past.
At the end I found that The Undivided Past was the biggest paper tiger of all.  It’s entertaining, certainly, at least now and again, though far too prolix and dense in style.  It's also wide-ranging, but that does not compensate for its deficiencies.  My most serious criticism is over the stunning banality of the central message.  Simply put, it’s almost impossible to provide an acceptable definition of a ‘common humanity’ when one proceeds beyond the basics – we are born, we breath, we eat, we grow, we decline, we die.  That’s it, a ‘common humanity’ we share with every other species on earth. 
Historians have to grapple with the past and interpret it for the present and perhaps even the future, with as much honesty and integrity as they can, not be seduced by cosy common room cant. We are in the presence here of a new Francis Fukuyama.  


  1. There will always be a percentage of fat cats and starving dogs.

  2. Damned indeed, to conjure the shade of Fukuyama!

  3. I suggest that if the telling of history has a problem it is because we judge with hindsight and with the historian's era values and not the values current at the time that is being written about. As for paper tigers there will always be polarization as people will identify with those who have similar views to their own and as long as there are wide divides between those views. One day if humans survive long enough those different views will be so near enough similar to each other that we can all live in harmony with one another. After all that is what the UN, the EU and other similar bodies have been set up to achieve. They may on the surface not appear to be very successful in that endeavour but put in perspective in that it will require a long time frame then they indeed are. The problem being is we do not like it because generally speaking we hate change and of course we like the side effects even less.

    1. Antisthenes, I don't mind change - it's a fact of life and of history. What I hate is change for the worst, a fact of our life and of our present.