Faber, David: An activist sense of history: indications for users

David Faber*

‘An activist sense of history: indications for users’, Honest History, 20 December 2016

‘Never underestimate the power of dogma when propagandistically spread about among people who do not know much history.’ (Lawrence Davidson)

We all know that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. But why is that so? Because ignoring history is like driving forward without a rear view mirror. You never know what dangers are sneaking up on you from behind. Take, for example, the Balkan Wars of the late 20th century. There were also Balkan Wars before the Great War, which was famously touched off by a Balkan assassination. (See Trotsky, The Balkan Wars 1912-13. It was as a conscientious war correspondent that Trotsky learnt the military craft which saw him create the Red Army which won the Russian Civil War and defeated the Wehrmacht in World War II.)

robin-george-collingwood_by-walter-stonemanRG Collingwood (Origin of Specious/Walter Stoneman)

The Oxford historian, philosopher and archaeologist RG Collingwood thought the Great War itself was an effect of historical understanding being culturally outstripped by technical know-how. When the Nazis overran Yugoslavia during World War II, this precipitated nationalistic civil war. To a student of history, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s were tragic but not surprising, like 9/11 when you look at the history of post-war US foreign policy in the Muslim and Arab world. The back-to-the-future perspective of conventional economists who promote old fashioned shibboleths of trickle down theories and the market’s invisible hand are essentially serving up reheated notions from the past as abstract eternal truths. This would be impossible with a good critical grounding in the history of economic thought.

The reading and study of history enables a broad and deep understanding of the social, political and cultural structures of our community, be it the nation or the world, inherited from years gone by. It gives dimension and meaning to the society we live in today and our activist efforts to shape our future. It can even be an excellent foundational education for a professional contribution to the revolution in career paths in public service, teaching, journalism, law and politics.

And what it cannot deliver as a meal ticket, it does deliver as activist training. For history outlines the place of local, regional and national communities in global context, in terms of how things came to be and may yet develop. Having a sense of history therefore puts you securely in the driver’s seat of participation in the living historical process of which we are all part, politically, socially, culturally and economically. It enables you to think dialectically, because history is a matter of relationships critically understood, not an inert collection of isolated facts which speak for themselves. Reading and writing history also inculcates habits of intellectual decorum, without which no rhetorical polemic is safely grounded.

History then is not a matter of blundering forwards with your head screwed on backwards, weeping tears of grief about the irremediable past. So what is history? History is the process of social individuals living in community over time. The study of history is called history also, and is itself part of the historical process, because historical enquiry has its own history and partakes of social and economic ideas in action. The study of history is also called historiography, literally the writing of history, and this term historiography also refers accordingly to the theory of history.

Another term for historiography is the philosophy of history. Philosophy derives from the Greek terms philo– and sophia, literally the love of truth, the true criterion or standard or measure of thought. Historians, like other philosophers, are obliged as far as possible to prefer truth to their own opinion. This cannot mean not having a point of view. That is not possible. The point is to be honest about it and responsible and accountable for it.

The point was well understood by that insightful philosopher, historian and economist Karl Marx. He was receiving letters from self-appointed disciples of his in Russia asking him what to do. He replied that he was only the architect of some provisional, evidence-based findings; ‘researches’ as Herodotus called them, or ‘histories’.

61km1Marx (Marxist Internet Archives)

So Marx told his Russian correspondents to devote themselves to the practical task of feeling their way towards the needs of the future by studying the history of their own country. For, as Lewis Carroll knew, if you cannot change history, you can learn from it. When these self-proclaimed Marxist disciples continued to send letters in the same vein, Marx told his colleague Friedrich Engels: ‘I am certain of only one thing. I am not a Marxist’. This must always be remembered, both by those who pretend Marx was a dogmatist, and radicals who forget that Marxism is a realistic, common sense, scientific world view which aims at thoughtful practical intervention in the historical process (praxis).

Knowledge of Marxist philosophy of history is a valuable tool in the activist’s kit. Start ideally with the early part of The German Ideology, where the young thinker tackles the lack of historical and socioeconomic expertise of his Young Hegelian colleagues and explores the rise of capitalism. Then proceed to read the essays collected by Penguin in the volumes The Revolutions of 1848 and Surveys from Exile. Lastly read all of Capital Volume I and at least some of Volumes II and III. The Theories of Surplus Value are incisive about the history of the categories of bourgeois economic thought. And remember that, according to Marx, despite the dead weight of the past which lays like a nightmare on the brain of the living, we are free in the present to actively shape the future, although not just as we please, for freedom is the recognition of necessity, or in other words, conditional on respect for the circumstances in which we are obliged to operate.

I mentioned RG Collingwood. His most accessible book is The Idea of History (1946), a history of historical ideas embracing the historical implications of Western philosophy and the logic of Western historical ideas. However Euro-centric it may be, it is a compendious survey. In it Collingwood emphasises that history and criminal detection (and we might add, good investigative journalism) ask much the same questions, among others, for example, who, what, when, where and why.

In fact, Collingwood was an insomniac who used to read Agatha Christie stories to relax at night. His Autobiography is a good window into his thinking, as are his Essays in the Philosophy of History and The Principles of History. Like Marx, Collingwood was an historicist, which is to say he was concerned with the historical dimension of things and human affairs in this world of ours. But Collingwood focussed on ideas rather than other realities because he was a convinced Anglican. Philosophically he was an idealist, meaning that, like Plato, he thought ideas real and reality a phenomenal expression of them.

Thus Collingwood was an historical idealist whereas Marx, who emphasised the ineluctable bottom line in human affairs, was an historical materialist and scientific realist. Nevertheless, their thought can be reconciled in terms of their common historicity – up to a point. Tellingly, Collingwood, the confirmed idealist with conservative religious tendencies, became radicalised in later life by the rise of fascism, which he deplored as a new barbarism, writing a philosophical tome, The New Leviathan, against it.

manning-4-1Manning Clark (Manning Clark House)

If you want to take Marx’s advice and begin reading Australian history with a view to overthrowing neoliberalism and the vicious socioeconomics of austerity, Mark Peel’s A Little History of Australia is worth a read. Manning Clark’s A Short History of Australia is a good introduction, written with feeling like his multi-volume History of Australia. Clark’s primary concern was with Australians’ emerging sense of identity and nationhood. See also his An Historian’s Apprenticeship. Another good short introduction from a more leftist perspective remains Humphrey McQueen’s A New Britannia, although somewhat superseded in terms of its author’s own later Marxist thinking. Another good multi-volume series is The Oxford History of Australia, by authors such as Stuart Macintyre, Geoffrey Bolton, Beverley Kingston, Jan Kociumbas and Tim Murray.

In conclusion, let me quote Collingwood from The Idea of History on how to work historically for social progress:

If we want to abolish capitalism or war, and in so doing not only to destroy them but to bring into existence something better, we must begin by understanding them: seeing what the problems are which our economic or international system succeeds in solving, and how the solution of these is related to the other problems which it fails to solve. This understanding of the system we set out to supersede is a thing which we must retain throughout the work of superseding it, as a knowledge of the past conditioning the creation of the future … [W]e ought by now to realize that no kindly law of nature will save us from the fruits of our ignorance.

* Dr David Faber is Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Flinders University of South Australia. This article is based on a speech delivered at the Anti-Poverty Network Winter School, Box Factory, Adelaide, 20 August 2016. David Faber has also written for Honest History on the Adelaide Cenotaph and on aspects of Anzac Day and the Great War.

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