Monday, April 22, 2019

A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium by Chris Harman

The rise of capitalism and the struggle against it
Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World was first published in 1999, but I am reviewing the 2008 ebook edition from Verso Books. In this monumental overview of world history as seen through the lens of class, Harman, a British journalist and Socialist activist, charts the development of class divisions from prehistoric times to the early 21st century. Harman explains how capitalism came to be the dominant economic model, describes how it has oppressed workers, and chronicles efforts by those who have fought against it. Despite his avowed socialism, Harman is not always adulatory toward such anti-capitalists and is often quite critical of their failings.

This truly is a people’s history which explores world events from the ground up, emphasizing social movements rather than famous personages. Up to about the mid-19th century and the coming of Marx, Harman rarely even includes any individual proper names in his history, but rather discusses nations, classes, races, and other groups almost as if they were bacterial cultures fighting for nourishment in a global petri dish. It is a unique way for readers to experience history, and really opens one’s eyes to the hidden motivations behind major historical events. As the book moves into the 20th century, Harman does refer to more individual human beings, but the heroes and villains in this story are not the same as those in your typical history textbook. Any Americans who are still under the impression that the United States has been the good guy on the world stage throughout the past couple centuries will soon be disabused of that notion. In fact, one really gets a better idea of why the rest of the world hates us so much (and this was published prior to the Trump administration). Harman is perhaps even harsher in appraising his own country’s role in world affairs, however. There are no sacred cows here, not even Winston Churchill.

Unlike Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which can be appreciated by pretty much any American who is interested in human rights or social justice, Harman’s A People’s History of the World is a lot more intensive in its Marxism. To appreciate this book, you have to have a firmly leftist political bent and some foundational understanding of economics. While I may meet the former qualification I’m not so confident in the latter, and I will confess that at times the economic theory here was a little over my head. Such passages were few, however, and for a layman like myself this book is remarkably accessible. It could and should (but probably won’t) be used in American high schools as an alternative to the mainstream historical narrative. Because this is a comprehensive textbook on world history, it is not always pleasure reading. The extensive chapter on the Reformation, Oliver Cromwell, and the English Civil Wars comes to mind as particularly difficult and disorienting. Overall, however, this book presents a well-reasoned, clearly explained argument and makes for a fascinating and compelling read.

Though Harman’s history is often a catalog of oppression, injustice, and corruption, it does offer a hopeful message as well. In his early chapters on the ancient world, Harman is quick to point out that capitalism is not the default mode for human society that its proponents pretend it to be. He enumerates various points in history when socialists have come very close to overthrowing the capitalist status quo, and he ends the book with a call to arms for socialist-minded readers to keep pushing for revolution and a new social order. Not only is A People’s History of the World a staggering achievement in comprehensiveness and clarity, at times it also proves quite inspiring.
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