The Big Picture

A People’s History of the World
by Chris Harman

Universal or synoptic histories are not favored by professional scholars.  As specialists, they prefer the detailed monograph to sweeping world histories.  They look askance at those naive enough to believe that global history can be encompassed in one volume.  They know better, they say.

It is our good fortune that Chris Harman doesn’t share their caution.  Harman, a London journalist and leader of England’s Socialist Alliance, has written a lucid, compelling narrative of world events.  His People’s History of the World is explicitly Marxist.  It is also extremely impressive.  Its 728 pages are worthy of standing on the same shelf with such classics as Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins.

Within the brief compass of this review, it is impossible to do more than suggest the scope of Harman’s achievement.  This is a massive work, its careful scholarship leavened by the author’s passionate commitment.  Though a thorough and conscientious historian, Harman disdains any pretense of “objectivity.”  He favors the oppressed, and makes no secret of his partisanship.  From the outset, quoting Brecht’s tribute to labor  — “Who Built Thebes of the Seven Gates?” — he declares his solidarity with the builders.

Harman attacks the received wisdom of the conventional historians.  His first chapter explodes the diligently cultivated myth that mankind is selfish and mercenary by nature.  His description of “primitive communism” — the economy of Old Stone Age hunters and gatherers, which prevailed for tens of thousands of years — puts the lie to the theory that men and women are naturally driven by greed or “enlightened self-interest.”  In a world where scarcity compelled foragers to move constantly in search of food, property in land was an alien concept.  (So was personal property, as the “savage” custom of potlatch shows.)  Harman’s account of the poor but collectivist society that dominated the “long childhood” of the Old Stone Age makes the ideal of a collectivist future seem less bizarre than problematical.

The succeeding chapters of his People’s History are marked by similar insights.  A recurring theme is the courage shown by ordinary men and women in resistance to oppression — from the revolt of Spartacus and his slave army to the Zapatista rising in Chiapas.  Harman pays tribute to the rebels of the Paris Commune and the Petrograd Soviet.  But his homage to these fighters leaves a troubling question unanswered.  If the natural allegiance of the workers — the “ordinary” men and women whom Harman admires – is to the socialist Left, why has that Left so often failed, sometimes miserably, to win their loyalty? 

As a Trotskyist, Harman is too quick to blame the Left’s failures on the legacy of Stalinism, with its train of purges and massacres.  He is loth to challenge the accuracy of Marxist theory, despite Marx’s own insistence on “ruthless criticism of all that exists.”  For Harman, Marxism is still the theory of “scientific socialism” — still a science whose hypotheses have been proven by history.  Armed with such confidence, he sometimes neglects the role of chance in human events — what the English historian H.A.L. Fisher called “the play of the contingent and the unforeseen.”

Harman’s work should not be underestimated, however.  To write a global history is an immense undertaking, and it is one in which he has acquitted himself brilliantly.  Marxism may lack the exactitude of a true science, but Harman has marshaled its findings to skillfully illumine the past.  In doing so, he has helped to restore the history of those whom Brecht addressed in his poem.  “Who built Thebes of the seven gates?” Brecht asked.  Thanks to Harman, we begin to know who the builders were, and what we owe to them.

A People’s History of the World may be ordered from Bookmarks (at <>).  A free online version is available at <>.

Dean Ferguson is an editor of Transformation, a newly launched literary journal.  He lives and works in San Francisco.

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