History – Whose Story?
We live in times of great change, uncertainty and bewilderment. For many it is hard to see where it is all leading. Empires fall; economies slump; morals are up in the air; riots; new national conflicts; New World Orders that are more wish than substance. Like in the inter-war years, the ruling class seem to be unsure quite what it is they are ruling—and for how long they will do so. The majority of people are a little numbed by it all. Better the devil you know? The atmosphere is one of expectation—often pessimistic and fatalistic, but the assumption is that everything in the known world might soon be not quite the same.
History is society’s collective memory. In times of relative stability (capitalism is never stable, but there are some periods when social chaos is less evident) people do not have to worry very much about history. For the conservative, happy with the present and sure that the future will be much like it, the future is a dull continuation of today, just as today is a tedious crawl forward from the days before it. In times of change and manifest social contradiction, such as the period we are living through, history becomes a highly contested area. The conservative needs to manufacture a history which teaches the lesson of keeping things as they are. Others will use history as a weapon to forge a different future. These others need not be positive forces in their enthusiastic future-building. For example, there are now plenty of emergent nationalist forces which are busily inventing histories in order to validate their own petty territorial claims. The romance of an idealized national story of the past is the stuff which gets young kids to enter the madness of losing limbs and leaving parents burying their sons in places like Bosnia or Belfast or Beirut or Palestine. The bullets follow the flag-waving rituals and they in turn follow the legendary histories which inspire a false consciousness of pride in our Land: the historically manufactured homeland which the past now calls upon the present to restore.
In the powerful nations history becomes a means of winning popular emotions to the cause of stability. An influential and well-funded Nostalgia Industry has long been used in Britain to persuade workers that there is something great about being British subjects. The glorification of war, the myths of national gallantry, the culture which emphasises homely values, the stately homes and the magical qualities attributed to the Royal past are all part of this museum-based ideology which all of us are urged to take in almost with our mother’s milk.
The patriotic lager louts, handling their flags like medieval weapons which will be used to put the passing “frog” or “paki” in his place, are not grotesque monsters who came from nowhere; they are the children of a particularly sick historical consciousness (for which read unconsciousness) who are only mimicking the Great British past depicted to them through cartoon cinema and school book. Our rulers might be embarrassed by the drunken excesses of the ugly Briton on his mean hols in Benidorm or in the Heysel Stadium, but by and large this Union-Jack-loving moron is the success story of the conservative history project. Better the lout who will read the latest exploits of “his” Queen Mum in the Sun than anyone with real historical questioning: Why more war? Why have a monarchy? Why government? Why accept the present?
The minority who control this society (the capitalists and their salaried functionaries) are spending a great deal of time and money right now making sure that history becomes History: the story of our masters and their good reason to be our masters. Frank Furedi’s Mythical Past, Elusive Future: History and Society in an Anxious Age is a book which gives a very useful account of this battle by uncertain rulers to use the past. He looks at the history debate in Germany, Japan, the USA and Britain and draws the correct conclusion that in all of these countries fear is generating a return to what the rulers call “traditional values” in relation to history, but what is in fact a concerted effort to make it seem as if there can be no future except for the continuation of business as usual. As early as 1975, before becoming Prime Minister, Thatcher announced her historical agenda:
“We are witnessing a deliberate attack on . . . our heritage and our past, and there are those who gnaw away at our national self-respect, rewriting British history as centuries of unrelieved doom, oppression and failure—as days of hopelessness, not of hope.” (Quoted in J .H. Plumb, The Death of the Past, p. 18, London, 1986)
By 1984 one of Thatcher’s favourite historians, Lord Elton, the Tudor expert, began his History of England by warning that in times of great social uncertainty and crisis people “can do with the corrective of a past that demonstrates virtue and achievement”. Note the ideological language used here: Thatcher speaks of “our heritage” and “our past” and Elton writes not of the past but a past, almost confessing to the use of history as a means to an end, regardless of the objective validity of the past, offered as indoctrination. We know that there is now a major government move to censor school history, to ensure that the text-books uphold the official line, to pursue the Jesuit-like aim of taking children and infecting their minds with national imagery before they are old enough to think critically. Is it an overstatement to claim that the battle to monopolize history has been the greatest ideological enterprise of the capitalist class in the past decade?
As Furedi rightly states:
“Historical thinking begins with the recognition that human intervention plays a key role in social development: from this perspective the present is no longer the product of an unchanging past but the result of the actions of human beings. Historical thinking is directly antithetical to History . . . Whereas History argues that there is no escape from the past, historical thinking gives a decisive role to the subjective factor, to the potential for human action.”
This is a crucially important distinction. For how many people is history—more precisely, History—a mere story, an objectified account, a process in which they must look on like loyal subjects at a Royal parade. In fact, to think historically is to become empowered; it is to see that out of the darkness of our rulers’ past has emerged us—thinking, active, potentially revolutionary beings with a capacity to make our own history. It is beings like that—like socialists—who are the intended victims of the government’s new control of History. They realize that while we are spectators upon history we are malleable; historically conscious we are a force that will combine intelligently and overthrow these useless parasites who monopolize the world and its resources.
Her story—not ours
Speaking of useless parasites, it is worth bringing to light a current episode in their History which is illuminating. In June, while the world looked on as futile talks between legalized robbers of the Earth were held in Rio, the British tabloids were filled with a story which it was decided everyone would want to hear. It seems that all is not well in the marriage of the future King and Queen. This is the pointless, empty, devalued History that they want us to be come excited about. Only now the teaching of historical truth is not to be entrusted to the universities and schools, where strange Marxist and feminist figures have been seen to lurk, but will be issued straight from the banner headlines of the Sun, like the old town-crier bringing the Lord’s lies to the peasants.
The new historians of capitalism are drunken little low lives from the tabloids who insult us with their Orwellian Newspeak. One such time waster is Andrew Morton, a journalistic errand boy for the Murdoch Empire, and now a rich man thanks to his horrible little book, Diana: Her True Story. Books about the Royals are always nauseating, but they cannot be dismissed with a joke and a dismissive frown; the magic of monarchy is linked with superglue to the myth of History as an everyday story of Them Up There being observed uncritically by Us Down Here.
The endless tales of monarchy and their extra-special goings-on are a classical example of what the historian E.H. Carr called “The Good Queen Bess” version of history. According to this, history is a story of Good or Evil characters and their exploits in a kind of grand, timeless soap opera. Thus it is that we are presented with Histories of Churchill winning the war, Stalin ruining the Russian Revolution, Thatcher causing the crisis or Kinnock destroying Labour’s principles. As if these single beings lived in a vacuum and were immune from the laws of causation. Every act is an effect; every cause of an effect is itself an effect of another cause.
If Royalty matters it is not for who they are or what they do (they are pointless parasites, they do the occasional useful deed), but for what they represent. Ann Morrow, the Court correspondent of the Daily Telegraph wrote an odious little book once called The Queen in which she inadvertently made the point:
“They are at the top of a structure which is confidently based on enormous amounts of money, lots of land, a lot of horses, based in a way on agriculture, and secure in the slow turning of the agricultural seasons. As an institution, British royalty works. It provides stability and continuity for the British.”
It is taken for granted that the “stability and continuity” of this “structure” wherein a few at the top have “lots” of everything and most of us own hardly anything is a necessary and beneficial thing. What seems to have happened to the monarchy, which is essentially a feudal hangover, is that it has be come increasingly exposed to the crude realities of capitalism and has opened its doors, misguidedly from its own point of view, to crude capitalist daughters of millionaires like Di and Fergie. They have found the suffocating confinement of ritualistic life within a household which still imagines it was divinely appointed too hot to handle; they would rather be with their Sloane Ranger friends indulging in all of the uncontrolled and unpublicized indulgences which are the lifestyles of a very small number of extremely rich idlers. Fergie has already decided to leave the Royal soap opera and return to a life of endless partying, like a decaying aristocratic excrescence out of a play by Chekhov—who wrote about these useless dinosaurs better than any historian has. Di is in the difficult position of being unable to get out of her awful marriage to a man who, by Morton’s account, is an uncaring and selfish swine because she is afraid of losing her children.
It is an irony of history that even Di, this caricature Princess created to bolster the symbolism of capitalist History, has herself become a victim of it. She is so depressed by her pointless life that she has several times tried to end it, is frequently in tears. has a depression-caused eating disorder and turns to the queerest psychic jokers and magicians for “therapy” . Capitalism must be an awful system if even its most elegant heroine can’t stand living out her role any more. If she who has whatever she needs and more is miserable, what hope for the woman with two kids who must survive on income support and a husband who knocks her about?
We can make history
What is interesting about the Morton book—more interesting even than its account of Di’s extremely rich background (which exposes the lie that she was just another commoner) and the vast number of people in her circle who were active Tories—is the evidence given that she really believed all the crap about her own importance. Morton’s book confirms a suspicion that the ruling class really do imagine themselves to have been born with a mission to be special. If Thatcher did go slightly mad, as her critics have dared to suggest, it was for the same reason; after a while these people start to believe the ideological junk which tabloid myth-makers sit in pubs inventing about them. For example, Carolyn Bartholomew, described as Di’s best friend, is quoted as saying:
“I’m not a terribly spiritual person but I do believe that she was meant to do what she is doing and she certainly believes that. She was surrounded by this golden aura which stopped men going any further, whether they would have liked to or not, it never happened. She was protected somehow by a perfect light.”
Or maybe it was just B.O. It is rather sad to think of these people really believing in the fantasy histories which workers are fed in order to make Royalty believable. Such self-deceit can drive a person crazy, and seems to have done so. What use could these people be to anyone in a society of equality, co-operation and useful production? Charles, whose future wife was obliged to address him as “Sir” until the day he announced their engagement, has spent his early manhood making pious speeches from a position where he has never had to do a stroke of practical work which has given him anything but an aloof picture of the world around him.
This Royal diversion is part of a grand diversion which is what History—their story—is all about. It is the story of their gains, their marriages, their Empire, their importance and our deference to all of that.
As socialists, who do not aim to change the world here or there, but to turn it on its head and cast aside the whole structure of property and its harmful relationships of exploitation and oppression, it is not as a sideline that we study, discuss and prepare to make history. For history is the struggle for the future—for our own future. If it is to be ours we must make it for ourselves, consciously and democratically. There is no other path to socialism. It was a myth of certain vulgar Marxists of the past that all we need to do is wait and inevitably history would deliver the socialist future to us. Change will not come that way. Indeed, the inevitabilism of vulgar Marxism is best answered in a passage by Marx himself:
“History does nothing; it “possesses no immense wealth”, it “wages no battles”. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.”(Collected Works, Vol. 4, p. 93)
History is too potent a weapon to be left to text-books or tabloids. It is bigger than the trivial lives of the grandest Princess. It is here, it is us, it is electrifying and exciting, and it is ours for the making.