Reviewed: The Undivided Past by David Cannadine

If only the Taliban were like us.

The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences
David Cannadine
Allen Lane, 352pp, £20

This is a strange book. David Cannadine, a distinguished historian of 19th-century Britain, has taken it upon himself to admonish the historical profession for setting up a series of unhelpful oppositions in its narratives of the past, emphasising division rather than collaboration, conflicting identities rather than a common humanity. He chides us for not writing about the boring bits in between, when people got on with each other; instead, he claims, we are always chasing after the newsworthy moments of the past, when people evidently did not.

To illustrate his point, Cannadine isolates six forms of identity in which historians have helped to cement unreal antagonisms: religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilisation. Instead of compartmentalising history by focusing on one form of identity at the expense of others, Cannadine insists – and who would question this? – that we have multiple and shifting identities. It is possible to be a woman, black, a worker, a Christian and British all at the same time. Yet this is so obvious that it scarcely needs to be stated. Cannadine’s fear is that historians impose on figures from the past – and, by implication, on those around us today – a single identity, seeing all workers, for example, as potentially class-conscious proletarians; or all Christians as bearers, through the ages, of anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic prejudices or hatreds; or all women as waiting to be liberated from a male-constructed universe.

The most problematic of these categories is civilisation. Here, too, Cannadine insists that historians have been responsible for taking an approach to the past (and the present) that has divided humanity into broad aggregations based on the idea of separate and identifiable civilisations, which, almost by definition, will be antagonistic and which, in the hands of generations of western writers, have been contrasted with the “barbarian”.

This last category, as Cannadine recognises, goes back as far, if not further, than the ancient Greeks, for whom the barbarian was other or alien. In the 19th century, historians contrasted the Greek and Roman heritage and its survival through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment with the “barbarous” societies of Africa and Asia and the peoples encountered in the New World.

In the 20th century, civilisation-counting became de rigueur, with Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler its leading exponents. Samuel P Huntington’s 1996 book, The Clash of Civilisations, is, for Cannadine, the end point of this damaging effort to divide the history of humanity into stories of “us” against “them”. This effort lies, he suggests, at the root of the current struggle between “western” values and ways of life and the invisible threat of international terrorism.

Cannadine writes about all these things as engagingly and fluently as ever. He is no doubt right that some historians over the past century or so, when historical writing in the west has become professionalised and widely practised, have helped to create conflicts of identity that are overdrawn and at times pernicious. It is tempting to project current concerns and prejudices back on to the past, turning every woman in 19thcentury Europe into a victim of universal misogyny or every black man into a victim of white supremacism. Historians have played their part in the creation of national identities that are more imagined than real, as well as in fomenting national rivalries, inadvertently or otherwise.

The history of war is habitually written by the winners, so that “good-war” narratives gloss over the awful reality of all human conflict, especially when the enemy can be defined as barbarous. Not for nothing was the word “Hun” used to describe the Germans in two world wars (and historians certainly helped by hunting for German atrocities in order, implicitly rather than explicitly, to confirm the barbarous sobriquet).

Cannadine reserves his most powerful indictment for those 20th-century historians who, from a Marxist or sub-Marxist point of view, peddled Karl Marx’s view that all history is the history of class struggle and should be written as such. The arch-villains here are, predictably, Eric Hobsbawm and E P Thompson, though the net can be spread widely from the 1920s up to the 1970s, when postmodernism is said to have challenged “hegemonic” narratives of nation, class and elite. Historians who subscribed to the Marxist model (though not necessarily Marxists themselves) not only defined the past in class terms, from the Spartacus revolt of 73 BC to the triumph of Hitler in 1933, but helped to shape the questions that other historians were supposed to ask about the past – hence endless histories of trade union movements, co-operatives, labour relations and class identities, not to mention Cannadine’s work on the declining aristocracy.

In the 1960s, Marxism seemed a solid reference point for understanding the varieties of the past. Now, Cannadine tells us, Marxism is dead and buried, overcome by how class identity is in some ways the weakest of the collectivities imposed on history, unable to explain or to undermine the appeal of religion, nation or gender.

There are some obvious objections to make to Cannadine’s thesis. He has clearly not been paying attention to the direction in which historical writing in Britain and the United States has been moving over the past few decades. The subjects that now interest historians are to be found in everyday life – sex, fashion, food, even noise or dirt – and in the gaps between the old narratives and their battles, murders and commotion. Historical methodology is now rooted in an obsession with “transnational” pasts – just the kind of fluid intercourse between social groups, national units or civilisations that Cannadine argues has been neglected. Contacts, networks and translations are all the rage.

It is hard to think of any historian who still subscribes to the older verities, so much so that the word “class” (which was a historical concept, invented by Hegel years before Marx) is now regarded as a relic from a bygone age. A great deal of history today is written about historians and the way in which “public history”, as it is called, has been distorted by the values of an earlier generation of writers. Much of this work, including Cannadine’s book, which is based on his 2007 Trevelyan lectures at the University of Cambridge, aims to refine the crude categories that have been imposed on past societies in order to understand them better and to overcome enduring prejudices and assumptions about “the other”. Schoolchildren are now taught in history lessons to sniff out “bias”.

A more simple objection is that historians have often supplied a critical and dissenting voice and have countered crude stereotyping and popular prejudice. Although the current obsession in English schools with the Nazis is perhaps excessive, it is nevertheless a powerful vehicle for exposing all forms of racial prejudice and state oppression. It is precisely because history is an awkward and critical discipline that its capacity to influence how people think or have thought is much more limited than historians like to claim. The small cabals of historians invited to meet, say, Margaret Thatcher or George W Bush were ornamental, not essential. For much of the time, historians have contested realities that they did little to shape.

In his introduction, Cannadine does concede that his six categories are sustained by “pundits, politicians and the public” but he adds that “many engaged academics” (whatever that means) want to define the world in terms of the eternal struggle between “good” and “evil”. This may be true of churches, whose hypocrisy is daily exposed in the press, and of simple-minded American presidents – but of historians? Cannadine has chosen to set up a row of straw men rather than engage with what most of his historical colleagues are really up to.

What is most worrying about Cannadine’s argument is the idea that somehow historians have helped to construct a false version of reality. It is simply not the case that for most of human history social groups, peoples, empires and genders have got on reasonably well. Historians reflect in what they write an inherited reality, however distorted or opaque their portrayal of it can sometimes be. It would be absurd to suggest that women have not been – and continue to be – the objects of discrimination, violent coercion and rape, especially where religious institutions or political structures dictate their absolute inferiority. That women’s voices were seldom heard in the distant past or that evidence seems to show they colluded in their own subjection does not diminish the historical reality of male power.

The same objections apply to Cannadine’s smug dismissal of Marxism. Although some workers felt that they were more Catholic than proletarian, or more patriotic than international, or more white than workingclass, industrial capitalism was responsible for the emergence in the 19th century of jerry-built, grimy cities, inhabited by impoverished populations with few amenities, chronic diseases and negligible welfare. Historians have not made up the antagonism between capital and labour, which is rooted in harsh social realities.

Boring though histories of trade unionism might be, they are monuments to the efforts made by ordinary people to better their bargaining power and challenge an industrial elite that realised only very late that treating workers better improved productivity and expanded demand. Political agitators, economists and philanthropists certainly contributed to the process of ameliorating poverty and social disadvantage; historians have only described that process. Rather than create artificial divisions, most historians are at pains to explain how they came about and what their consequences have been.

It is difficult to see what Cannadine wants his profession to do now. He calls on academic historians to abandon the artificial divisions of “identity” history and to celebrate a common humanity “that still binds us together today”. This is 1960s-style cant, a western delusion that bears no resemblance to the realities of either the recent or more distant past. Most of those who live outside the privileged and secure west think not about a common humanity but about the conditions of merely surviving in a world that more closely resembles Darwin’s than it does John Locke’s.

There remain profound differences in the world that have deep historical roots; indeed, it is precisely western hubris that has assumed that if only the Taliban were like us, we would not have to defend “our way of life” in Helmand Province. There is a common humanity only in the most banal sense that we all eat, sleep, have sex and die – as do rabbits and gorillas. The historian’s role is surely to be able to understand those differences and what they signify and to encourage politicians and generals to respect and comprehend difference. No doubt many historians hope that what they write about will also pose a moral challenge to the many surviving forms of discrimination and violence in the world. But ultimately, human life is, as Schopenhauer insisted, a story of “struggle”. Appeals to a common humanity are not going to change that.

Reading Cannadine’s book, I was reminded of John Lennon’s song “Imagine”, written more than 40 years ago: “You may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one./I hope some day you’ll join us/And the world will be as one.” Keep on imagining.

Richard Overy is professor of history at the University of Exeter. His next book, “The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45”, will be published later this year by Allen Lane

Fleeing an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Oliver Stone on interviewing Vladimir Putin: "There are two sides to every story"

The director says his conversations with the Russian president, like all of his works, speak for themselves.

“You’re going to start with this blogging bullshit?” Oliver Stone raises his voice at a reporter, a look of fury on his face.

The director has been asked about the veracity of a video shown to him by the Russian president in his recent Showtime series, The Putin Interviews. The hapless Norwegian journalist who is asking the question notes that bloggers have taken exception to the footage’s true provenance.

What bloggers think of Stone's work, however, is clearly of no consequence to him. When another journalist asks if he’s afraid to be seen as Vladimir Putin’s "PR guy", though, he erupts. 

“Do you really think I’m going to go and spend two years of my life doing a tourist guide book? You really think I’m that kind of a filmmaker? Do you have no respect for my work?”

Stone is on fiery form at Starmus science and music festival in Trondheim, Norway. His series on Putin was filmed over two years. The final four hours of footage were cut from an original 19 of recorded interviews, which covered such diverse topics as “Russia in the 1990s and the 2000s, the American expansion of Nato, the American support of terrorism in Central Asia, Syria from his point of view, Ukraine, nuclear arms…”

Critics, however, have termed it a hagiography, and argued it offers Putin a deferential platform to share his view. Others have dismissed Stone as a propaganda poodle. 

Stone counters the criticism: “I researched it, I did the best I could, and I think it proves the old adage that there are two sides to every story.”

Whether because of naivety or professional courtesy, on the face of it, in the interview series the 70-year-old appears to buy into everything Putin tells him. "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," is all he'll say at the conference.

Later on, in the calm after the storm, we speak alone. “This was a special deal,” he tells me. “He was very congenial and articulate and willing to talk. He grabbed the moment.

“People need to keep something in mind. They said I was soft on him - that’s nonsense.

“You can’t have an interview where you’re asking hostile questions. He would have just tolerated it and said what he did, and then after that first interview he would have not have done a second or a third.

“I was interested in the long view. Nobody in the West has gone that far with him that I have seen.”

The long view is a speciality of Stone’s, as he reveals with his address at Starmus to a packed auditorium. As befits a science festival, he addresses the development of the atomic bomb and the modern digital arms race of cyber warfare.

In his view, “politics invariably gets a stranglehold on science and takes it in the wrong way”. He cites J Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the nuclear bomb, and computer analyst Edward Snowden’s life following his decision to turn whistleblower. 

Stone directed the film Snowden, a task which involved navigating numerous obstacles, including gaining access to the real Snowden, by then in Russia, himself. 

“Science gets slaughtered by politics,” he tells me.

In the shadow of the criticism on the Putin front, he admits that from an American perspective, for him to become involved with Snowden was, well… “beyond the pale". 

But despite – or perhaps because of – the Academy Award-winning director’s commitment to the truth, he’s not letting go of various facts as he sees them.

“There is no evidence as far as I’m concerned for the Russian hacking allegations,” he says, adding that this was an “assessment” from the US security services which turned into a “farce”.

He has read the detail for himself, he says – and he also appears on film looking like he believes Putin when the president says it’s nothing to do with him.

Back at home, the American domestic political situation has him as appalled as ever. He is critical, not only of Donald Trump, but the system the US president operates in. 

“It seems that the president does not have the power he thinks he has," he says. "You get elected, you think it’s a democracy, but there is this mechanism inside, this Deep State – intelligence agencies, military industrial, the generals, the Pentagon, CIA combined with other intel – which seems to have some kind of inner lock.”

Although Stone places characters at the heart of many of his films, he finds Trump hard to figure out.

“I don’t know what Trump’s mind is like, I think so few people do," he muses. "He says super-patriotic things suddenly like 'I love the CIA, I’m going to really support you, I love the military, I love generals, I love all that beautiful new equipment' – that he sold to Saudi Arabia.

“He also said, and it’s very disturbing, ‘the next war, we’re going to win’. As if you can win a war where you use cyber and nuclear and various weapons. He’s thinking this is a game like a child.

“The purpose of war is not to have one.”

Stone believes – as Trump initially seemed to profess – that Russia will be the chief ally in future for the United States: “They can be great partners in every walk of life, it’s crazy to have them as an enemy."

Nevertheless, he is not as slavish to the official Russian line as many have countenanced.

“I was able to shoot this documentary because of my reputation," he says. Some people say he pulled his punches, I counter.

“Gloves off, gloves on – the truth is, he sees things his way," Stone says. "I’m not there to change his mind, I’m there to show his mind.”

In his view, an observant watcher will learn about Putin just by watching him. "The camera doesn’t lie – the camera tells you things, body language, eyes – you can get a feel sometimes," he says. "I think if you watch all four hours you’ll see that we got an enormous amount of information."

Perhaps those who sit through those four hours will be satisfied that they know more about Putin – or about Stone himself. After all, if the camera doesn't lie, it doesn't lie for anyone.

As I leave the room, Stone raises his voice after me: “Don’t change my words.” He’s smiling broadly as he speaks.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

0800 7318496