Tue, Apr 30, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Book review: The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences

By David Priestland  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Such divisions, then, cannot be glossed over. Historians, like other social commentators, must study them, for resolution of our differences is much more likely to come from understanding than from ignorance or denial.

Cannadine’s overstatement of this case is strange, and the reader has the strong sense that his writing shares some of the shortcomings of the polemicists he is attacking, exaggerating one identity — in his case “common humanity” — at the expense of others. So does his proposed new history also serve some political purpose?

One clue lies in a statement from Margaret Thatcher, which he seemingly cites with approval: “Class is a Communist concept. It groups people as bundles, and sets them against each other.” Thatcher was voicing the neoliberal belief that there are no fundamental differences of power within or between societies; we should compete as individuals devoid of group identities. Success or failure simply reflects personal abilities and virtues.

Cannadine’s proposed history of humanity seems very compatible with these sentiments — though in many ways it would be more neoliberal than a Thatcherite history. For unlike Thatcher he would ditch even the identity of nation in favor of a globalized identity.

It is unlikely that Cannadine intends to promote a political agenda — he devotes more attention to criticizing other historical approaches than to developing his own. But given his harsh judgments on the supposed politicization of other historians’ work, it is surely legitimate to apply the same analysis to him. His ideal history of a united humanity, free of class, ethnic and gender resentments and detached from religious and national identities, would certainly be welcomed by the global free-marketeers who wield so much power in the world today.

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