What is History?

Capitalism, Historians and the New History Syllabus in the National Curriculum

In February 2013 the National Curriculum Consultation Document was published and capitalist ideologue and Tory Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove made a statement to the House of Commons about the new history syllabus: ‘in history there is a clear narrative of British progress with a proper emphasis on heroes and heroines from our past’ (Daily Telegraph 7 February).

Earlier at the 2008 and 2010 Tory Party Conferences Gove had complained that ‘our children are either taught to put Britain in the dock or they remain in ignorance of our island story, education has been undermined by left wing ideologues, the under-appreciated tragedy of our time has been the sundering of our society from its past and the current approach we have to history denies children the opportunity to hear our island story. This trashing of our past has to stop’ (Guardian 30 September 2008, Daily Telegraph 5 October 2010).

When the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government came to power in May 2010, Gove invited historian Niall Ferguson to advise on the development of a new history syllabus for the National Curriculum, ‘history as a connected narrative’ (Daily Telegraph 30 December 2012). Later in 2010 at the Tory Party Conference Gove announced historian Simon Schama as the new ‘History Czar’ to ensure pupils learn Britain’s ‘Island Story’, and review the curriculum. Schama responded ‘without this renewed sense of our common story, we will be a poorer and weaker Britain’ (Guardian 5 October 2010).

Conservative historians

Schama is well known for his 1989 book Citizens; A Chronicle of the French Revolution where he defines the ‘Revolution’ by the Reign of Terror. Historian Eric Hobsbawm described the book as a political denunciation of the revolution, a continuation of a traditional conservative view of the revolution started by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and continued in Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities. Gove called Edmund Burke ‘the greatest Conservative ever’ at the 2008 Tory Conference (Daily Telegraph 30 September 2008).

Niall Ferguson is a conservative historian who cites as influences Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. His 2011 six-part Channel Four TV series Civilization: Is the West History? is a hymn to Western capitalism, global free trade and bourgeois liberalism. Ferguson identifies the ‘six killer apps’ of competition, science, rule of law, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic as keys to the dominance of western capitalism. Hobsbawm has called Ferguson an excellent historian but a ‘nostalgist for Empire’. He is also a historian of financial capitalism having written The House of Rothschild and a biography of a merchant banker High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg. His magnum opus on finance must be the publication in November 2008 of The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World which unfortunately for Ferguson was overtaken by the events of September 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed and the resulting global financial crisis. In this book Ferguson penned a hymn to global financial capitalism whereas we agree with Marx that ‘money is the universal whore, the universal pimp of men and peoples’.

The Department of Education stated that ‘our approach to the history curriculum has been supported by some of the country’s most eminent historians’ (Guardian 13 May). But the new history syllabus was immediately criticised by the President of the Royal Historical Society, the Historical Association, the Higher Education group History UK, and senior members of the British Academy.

The overall aim of the new history syllabus is ‘a knowledge of Britain’s past, and our place in the world helps us to understand the challenges of our time’ with supporting aims to be to ‘know and understand the story of these islands; how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world’. The syllabus will attempt to cover the Palaeolithic era to the fall of the Berlin Wall in seven years. Even at Key Stage 1, ages 5 to 7 years, children are expected to understand terms such as ‘civilisation’, ‘parliament’, ‘monarchy’, ‘democracy’, and the ‘concept of nation and of a nation’s history’ (Department for Education: National Curriculum Consultation 7 February).

At Key Stage 2, ages 7 to 11 years children will be taught ‘the essential chronology of British history sequentially’ from the Stone Age to the 1688 bourgeois ‘Glorious Revolution’. This is history as a story, chronology, narrative, dates, events which makes Henry Ford comment ‘history is bunk and just one damn thing after another’ quite apt. Professor Jackie Eales, President of the Historical Society said ‘intellectually, it is exactly what 1066 and All That was designed to lampoon. It is a trawl through history, one damn thing after another, in a very superficial way. It’s a very old fashioned curriculum’ (Guardian 16 February).

One of the recommendations of the 1999 Macpherson Report was a ‘National Curriculum aimed at valuing cultural diversity and preventing racism’ but in April 2013 History teacher Katherine Edwards pointed out that ‘the new curriculum is very likely to alienate and disengage children and young people, especially those of black and Asian origin. Black and Asian people are excluded completely from the primary history curriculum and, apart from the token inclusions of Equiano and Seacole they only feature as slaves in the secondary curriculum until the arrival of the Windrush generation’ (Guardian 19 April). Later in June children’s laureate Malorie Blackman added ‘if children are not taught about black historical figures along with heroes such as Lord Nelson, they might be turned off school altogether’ (Guardian 4 June). In fact Olaudah Equiano, freed African slave who campaigned for abolition of the slave trade and Mary Seacole, Creole nurse in the Crimean War, were only introduced into the National Curriculum in 2007 but it was announced in 2012 they were to be dropped in the new syllabus. This prompted Operation Black Vote to gather 35,000 signatures on a petition to Gove, and American Democrat Reverend Jesse Jackson to write a letter to the Times. Gove conceded and Equiano and Seacole stayed in the new syllabus. But Martin Luther King and the US Civil Rights movement have been dropped from the curriculum.

As for the role of women in history there are no women at all mentioned in the Key Stage 2 syllabus except for two Tudor queens. In Key Stage 3, ages 11 to 14 years, Mary Seacole, George Eliot and Annie Besant are grouped under the heading ‘The Changing Role of Women’.

China is not included in the curriculum but is only mentioned as a loser to Britain as a result of gunboat diplomacy, although the OECD stated in March 2013: ‘from a long-range perspective, China has now overtaken the Euro area and is on course to become the world’s largest economy around 2016, after allowing for price differences’ (forbes.com 23 March).

‘Great Man’ Theory

The syllabus focuses on kings, queens, and the lives of great men which is part of the bourgeois ‘Great Man Theory of History’ which has its origin in Thomas Carlyle’s 1840 book On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1840) where he writes that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’.

Do ‘Great Men’ impose themselves on history? Marx wrote in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past’. It appears that Napoleon Bonaparte perceived this truth when he wrote in exile ‘I found all the elements ready at hand to found an empire. If I had not come probably someone would have done like me. A man is but a man, but often he can do much; often he is a tinderbox in the midst of inflammable matter, his power is nothing if circumstances and public sentiment do not favour him’ (The Mind of Napoleon: A Selection from His Written and Spoken Words edited and translated by J. Christopher Herold. Columbia University Press: New York. 1955).

Peter Mandler, Cambridge professor of Modern Cultural History said of the new syllabus ‘we need to know the history of family life, economic development, class formation, not just a list of prime ministers, admirals and treaties. And when the curriculum talks about the rise and fall of Empires it still only means the Roman Empire’ (Guardian 16 February 2013).

History from below

The antidote to bourgeois ‘Great Men’ history is ‘History from below’ (the term coined by historian George Lefebvre) which is people’s history, the history of the working class, everyday history or even micro-history. A good example of ‘history from below’ is The Crowd in the French Revolution by George Rudé where he points out that ‘those who took to the streets were ordinary, sober citizens, not half-crazed animals, not criminals’ in contrast to Carlyle, Dickens and Schama.

E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class is a sweeping people’s history of the English proletariat but his book Whigs and hunters: The origin of the Black Act is a great example of micro-history. Following the collapse of the ‘South Sea bubble’ in 1720 there was an economic downturn and groups of poachers appeared in forests in Berkshire and Hampshire stealing deer from the aristocracy. The Whig government responded with an Act in 1723 which introduced the death penalty for over fifty offences. The Act would not be repealed until 1823. The Act can be seen as an example of ‘bloody legislation’ against the working class. In 1688 there were fifty capital offences on the statute book but by 1800 there were 220 capital offences mainly concerned with the defence of property. Between 1770 and 1830 35,000 death sentences were handed out with 7,000 executed.

At present capitalist ideologists are engaging in a type of ‘historical revisionism’ in relation to the First World War. In The Great War was a Just War published in History Today in August 2013, Gary Sheffield writes ‘Britain’s First World War was a war of national survival, a defensive conflict fought at huge cost against an aggressive enemy bent on achieving hegemony in Europe. If the allies had lost, it would have meant the end of liberal democracy on mainland Europe’.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech in October 2012 at the Imperial War Museum announced that there would be commemorative events to mark the First World War. These would include the outbreak of war, the naval battle of Jutland, Churchill’s disastrous Gallipoli campaign, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Passchendaele, and the Armistice.

The Socialist Standard of November 1914 pointed out that the Sunday Chronicle of 30 August 1914 had identified that it was a capitalist war when they wrote ‘the men in the trenches are fighting on behalf of the manufacturer, the mill owner, and the shopkeeper’. In August 1919 the Socialist Standard concluded that ‘while competition between capitalist groups for routes, markets, and control of raw materials exists, the cause of war remains’.

In capitalist society the working class are educated to identify their interest with the interests of the capitalist class and identify with the nation state not with our interests as a class. As socialists we believe ‘the working class have no fatherland’.

As well as commemorating the First World War, the capitalist state  has also allocated £1 million to restore the battlefield of Waterloo in Belgium ready for the 200th  anniversary in June 2015. There is even talk of commemorating the 600th  anniversary of the battle of Agincourt. All this is done to bolster nationalism and ensure that the working class identify with capitalist history.

The new History Syllabus in the National Curriculum demonstrates the truth of what Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology: ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force’.


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