But Cannadine, despite his many caveats and qualifications, goes much further than most academic historians in challenging the centrality of tensions based on nation, class, ethnicity and gender. Indeed, his claim that “relations between the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’ have been characterized more in the long run by conversation, collaboration and cooperation than anger, antagonism and animosity” would make even Dr Pangloss gasp.
And while it may be true that some nationalist, feminist and Marxist historians have exaggerated the significance of their chosen group, it is difficult to deny that at certain times these identities have become extremely important political forces, and historians would be negligent if they failed to study them. So, however disparate and inconsistent Gandhi’s nationalist movement may have been, it was undeniably a powerful force in mobilizing ordinary Indians against the British. And in 1917 Petrograd, many workers did indeed believe they were engaged in a struggle with “bourgeois” oppressors.
Cannadine may be right to argue that such explosions are relatively rare, but less dramatic conflicts between social groups have been — and continue to be — important motors of historical change. Third-world nationalists played a major role in undermining European empires before and during the World War II, and American power during the cold war. And working-class political parties were crucial in forcing 20th-century European governments to create welfare states, while the social compromises of postwar Europe owed much to elite fears that workers would otherwise vote Communist.
So identities of class, nation, religion and gender are less figments of intellectuals’ imaginations, dreamt up to divide humanity, than powerful political forces that are often rooted in real differences of power and status. That this continues to be the case is clearly recognized by politicians and advertisers, who spend millions on surveys and focus groups to discover how occupational class, gender, ethnicity and generation affect how we vote and what we buy. Contemporary pollsters may use a much more sophisticated definition of occupational class than the old Marxist historians, but they would never question that occupation is a central factor in shaping our attitudes.