Taking apart the west

<strong>A People's History of the World</strong>

Chris Harman

<em>Verso, 386pp, £20</em>

A People's History of the World is the first attempt to provide a single, accessible, grass-roots account of the development of human civilisation. The stories of civilisation that have become popular in the era of the "war on terror" usually come with an arid essentialism. We are told there is a discrete entity called "the west", whose ascent is, as the historian Eric Wolf sardonically put it, a "moral success story" in which the peerless west defeats all-comers by virtue of certain "values" that often prove to be the credenda of neocon servatism. The counterpart to such Spenglerian mysticism is the strident celebration of capitalism and the colonial system through which it spread. Niall Ferguson is an avatar of this tendency. Chris Harman's popular history is a vital antidote to these trends.

From the Neolithic revolution to Y2K, A People's History is a dizzying tale of change "from below", with political, economic and cultural narratives interwoven, and occasional pauses to point out intriguing theoretical vistas. Taking pains to upset received opinion, Harman asserts that class societies are neither natural nor a long-term feature of human history. The first such, he argues, emerged after prolonged struggle, after the agricultural revolution that took place in the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago. Describing the rise of the ancient world, Harman resists commonplace Eurocentrism, showing how similar environmental and technological pressures were at work in creating precocious civilisations in India, China, Greece and Rome. If the latter were novel, it was partly because of their unusual dependence on slave labour. He resists the fashionable temptation to exalt Roman civilisation, which he argues was largely parasitic on Greek technology and culture, and whose wealth and power derived from barbaric overland expansion.

Against the view that the feudal period was one of stasis, Harman emphasises its dynamism. On the Reformation, he properly highlights the social interests embodied in it rather than reducing it to a battle of ideas. And the Islamic contribution to Enlightenment thought is duly registered in a way that frustrates attempts to claim the Enlightenment for "the west". With the French Revolution, Harman assails the myths about its bloodthirstiness progenerated by historians such as Simon Schama and François Furet. And, rebutting colonial triumphalism, he notes that African societies were, before the locust years of slavery and colonies, at least on a par with European societies in literacy and social development. Similarly, Indian society was far from the stagnant behemoth supposed when it was colonised by Britain, whose early success owed more to its ability to win over local rulers than to economic or military superiority.

A People's History has an almost telescopic structure, devoting greater space to more recent periods as the pace of change increases. The past 150 years of human life, from Marx to the millennium, take up approximately half of the book, and it is by far the most provocative part. From the hopeful experiments of early working-class socialism to the horrific Götterdämmerung of the Second World War and the chilling nuclear stasis of the Cold War, there is much to subvert conventional expectations. Scathing about the effects of capitalism and colonialism, Harman holds no brief for the Stalinist dictatorship.

He shows that the USSR, far from being concerned with emancipatory politics, adopted a manipulative stance towards left-wing movements, encouraging loyal parties to limit their radicalism and to connive in pro-colonial policies. In fact, his principal diagnosis here is that the twin pincers of Stalinism and fascism crushed the tradition of "socialism from below" mid-century, and that this tradition was partially revived in the "New Left" movements of the 1960s. Thus, if the postwar strength of the USSR did not confirm the socialist case, Harman maintains, its collapse did not disprove it.

There are a number of points where engagement with recent scholarship might have altered Harman's account. On the subject of the First World War, for example, he in part accepts the idea that the German masses greeted the war enthusiastically, a view that has lately been demolished by the historian Jeffrey Verhey. And one could split hairs over some of the formulations. It is surprising to see Harman defend a version of Marx's conception of an "Asiatic Mode of Production". It is also surprising that he does not discuss the controversies over the origins of capitalism. Given the demands of concision, it is an understandable omission. Nevertheless, it might have been useful to give the general reader at least some indication that they exist.

These are minor quibbles, however, about such an ambitious and marvellously readable history. Harman has, with impressive narrative sweep, delivered a sophisticated attack on many prevailing assumptions, not least of which is the complacent faith in capitalism's durability.

Richard Seymour's book "The Liberal Defence of Murder" has just been published by Verso. His blog, Lenin's Tomb, can be found at http://leninology.blogspot.com

Richard Seymour is a writer, broadcaster and activist. His latest book is The Twittering Machine (Indigo Press)

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class