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

Rupen Ghosh

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based retired government officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Book Review: A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium/Chris Harman/Verso/2008

A People’s History of the World is a fascinating and comprehensive analysis by a well-known British historian, Chris Harman, that traces earliest human history to the Roman Empire, from the Middle Ages to the Age of Enlightenment, from the industrial Revolution to the end of the Millennium. Focusing on the development of technology, its impact on the society and conflict, he dwelt on how the society has changed and developed, what possibilities are for further radical change in the 21st century. First published by the Orient Longmans in India in 2005, the book is in its consecutive sixth reprint.

The magisterial study begins with an introduction by the author, which is worth quoting. Chris Harman writes: “History is about the sequence of events that led to the lives we lead today. It is the story of how we came to be ourselves. Understanding it is the key to finding out if and how we can further change the world in which we live.” In understanding events, one approach which was quite dominant even till the early 20th century that of presenting the perspective from what was a list of achievements by the rulers and their forebears. This ‘Great Man’ approach forced those interested in history to memorise the list of great achievements of the rulers and the powerful. However, the author illuminates that there is another way of looking at history, in conscious opposition to the “Great Man’ approach. It takes particular events and tells their story, sometimes from the point of view of the ordinary participants. This can fascinate people. But, it has its limitations too. It can miss something of great importance, the interconnection of events. 

11The author argues that simply empathising with the people involved in one event cannot bring one to understand the wider forces that shaped their lives, and still shape ours. We cannot understand the rise of organised religion without understanding the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Similarly, one cannot have an idea about the flowering of art during the Renaissance without knowing the great crises of European feudalism and the advance of civilisation on continents outside Europe. Harman asks whether it would be possible to understand the industrial revolution without understanding the workers’ movements of the 19th century. These interconnection of events makes reading history interesting, illuminating and thought-provoking. A broad overview has been provided in the book running to more than 600 pages. In his view, understanding the material basis of history is an essential, but not sufficient, precondition for understanding everything else as beyond a point, the author feels, how people make their choices whether to proceed along one path or the other, depends on the social strata to which they belong. In his own modest way, though he presents a grand panoramic sweep, he claims that his attempt is only to present an introductory outline.

The author presents a radically different view of how to deal with existing prejudices in writing history. He refutes the idea that the human nature has remained unchanged through successive phases of human history, that human beings have always remained greedy, aggressive, pugnacious, competitive, ambitious, and this attitude could conveniently explain the horrors of war, violence destruction, exploitation, the neglect and oppression of women and disadvantaged. He argues that ‘human nature’ as it is known today is a product of our history, not its cause. He debunks the proponents of this caveman approach propagated by Richard Dawkins (‘selfish gene’), Robert Ardrey (‘killer instinct’) and others.

He goes on to argue that there are enough scientific evidence to show that the primitive societies were not characterised by competition, greed, inequality and oppression, not always. These are, rather, the product of history, in fact of recent history. He writes beautifully: “Our species of Homo sapiens is over 1,00,000 years old. For 95 percent of this time it has not been characterised at all by any of the forms of behaviour ascribed to human nature today. There is nothing built into our biology that makes present day societies the way they are. For all through the 4 or 5 millions of years as our ancestors evolved into species from homo erectus, Neanderthals to homo sapiens and till 10,000 years ago, societies shared certain common, fundamental features of collective or common ownership of land and resources, reciprocity in the distribution of food, and relatively just and fair social and political relations. The hunting and gathering or rather foraging societies were marked by cooperation and collective principles, born out of a deep-rooted sense of community, sense of dependence on one another, on cooperation and collective values.”

The absence of male supremacy over women was another positive feature of the primitive societies, with the division of labour in such a fashion that the men would be doing the hunting and the women most of the gathering. This was because a woman who was pregnant or just had a child and had to attend to the baby could only take part in the hunt by exposing it to the dangers, and thus threatening the reproduction of the tribal band. But, this division did not amount to the dominance by male.The author puts forth his view that both women and men would take part in making key decisions and missing was the male supremacist attitude, which is too often assumed to be part of ‘human nature’. The obsession with private property was also missing that we take for granted today and there was no accumulation of personal wealth. 111

The author, in the prologue, concludes that while unprecedented wealth creation marks the 21st century and there is technological marvel unheard of, that could not be even dreamt earlier, but the world is also blighted by wars, violence, oppression and want. He ends the prologue brilliantly as he started, “ the dominating question for everybody ought to be whether it is possible to use the wealth to satisfy basic human needs by getting rid of iniquitous structures, to subordinate it to a society based upon the values that characterised the lives of our ancestors for the hundreds of generations of primitive societies, that we called ‘hunting and gathering’, or better still, ‘foraging societies’.With the 21st century holding hope with the speeding up of the historical process that was not witnessed in the last 5000 years of recorded civilisation, the author feels that it holds out hope of remoulding society around the values of mutual support, collective cooperation, just and fairness in dealing with fellow human beings and democratically planned use of resources. Understanding the past, as the author attempts to do in this astonishing book, will help in illuminating the future, he hopes.This chronicle of events and historical processes from a subaltern perspective, drawing examples of struggles of the ordinary masses and upsurges from below, makes a fascinating reading. History is not just a chronicle and narrative of dates and events, of asking when and where. Rather, it draws a reader to ask how and why such events happen and who are the dramatis personae within the larger historical framework and canvas, and how individuals and individual events are only important so long as they connect to the broader historical processes and phenomena.

The great erudition and scholarship that marks this magisterial study of epic nature is evidenced by the list of further readings suggested by the author. It is a very impressive and awe-inspiring read: V Gordon Child’s ‘What happened in history’, J. Needham’s ‘Shorter Science and Civilisation of China’, Fernand Braudel’s ‘Capitalism and Civilisation’, Eric Hobsbawm’s famous two volumes on industrial revolution and capital, Isaac Deutscher’s epic biographical study of leading Russian political figures in the early 20th century and many others. Some of the notable influences that the author acknowledges are names like Marc Bloc, Christopher Hill, Edward Thomson and DD Kosambi. The chapters with all the grand sweep are organised as the ancient world ( the ancient India, the Chinese empires, the Greek city states, Rome’s rise and fall), the middle ages, to Renaissance to reformation, to the spread of the new order and finally to the modern era from the eighteenth century to the tumultuous and eventful 19th and 20th centuries (which the author prefers to call them as centuries of hope and horror).

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