A People’s History of the World by Chris Harman

You would drive yourself crazy trying to read every history book in the world. Best not to try. Better to look for the best of the best so as to gain a comprehensive understanding without dying of old age. When talking about “the best” often the book, and series of books inspired by Howard Zinn comes to mind. Hence we enter Chris Harman’s recent inclusion into a “people’s history” series; his efforts, centered around trying to give the working class its version of history, from the stone age to the millennium, does some things right but gets a lot wrong.

The first quarter (or so) of the book is done well. Considering Harman’s thesis, he is able to narrow in and tackle the important events in a civilization’s history while providing a solid materialist analysis. While I often wished he had expanded in his chapters to include other social and economic formations, he at least is able to remain focused and coherent while writing. However, that is where my praise for his history stops. The remaining three quarters do not hold water.

Just around the time where he finishes discussing the First World War, his account takes a major downhill turn as he slips into petty historicisms built around his political sectarian urges. Gone are the straightforward descriptions of class warfare in antiquity and here are rants against reformism, social democracy, and, of course, Stalinism. The latter, of which, seriously impedes the author’s ability to formulate coherent argumentations. Instead of objectivity there is pure biases intertwined with reductionist claims.

Essentially, the brevity of the book beyond the First World War is one long attack against “Stalinism,” that catch-all phrase so adored by bourgeois politicians. Chapter after chapter you’ll see Harman blame Stalin, the COMITERM, and “ruthless authoritarianism” as the culprits for the defeat of the various workers movements. Whence in lies another serious problem: Harman simplifies the processes and movements to a gross extreme. Throughout the writing he exudes the belief that the only thing holding the worker revolutions back was incorrect policy affected by Moscow and alliances with the capitalist class. Yet this ignores the whole point of some of these movements which, at the end of the day, simply were not sufficiently powerful to make revolution; Harman refuses to reveal this much, however, and opts instead for an a-historical approach conflating what he sees as “possible actions” with “actual actions.” The only grounding for such a view lying in the decisions of some of the leaders and revolutionaries; divorced from actual material critique one can only laugh as Harman attempts to superimpose his narrow understanding of historical forces onto a larger framework.

Yet it is precisely this narrowness which is a thorn in my side. While it has its own kind of allure in the early sections when he describes the seldom talked about class conflicts of the ancient epoch, it quickly loses its luster by the time you reach the contemporary centuries. It is at this point where you wish the author examined forces other than merely the (admittedly important) conflict between rich and poor; it is not that the class aspect is irreverent, but rather that without incorporating the wider aspects of the society’s problems, it seems isolated from the wider history thereby limiting the actual complexities of the situation; though understanding the class angle is vital, it rushes to its deficiencies when overly focused on without providing context for the encounter.

Of course, some chapters are so haphazard that there are unforgivable. These chapters do not appear until the final quarter of the book, but when they do it is almost unbearable to read. The most notable example is China when he talks of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Instead of offering glimpses of the controversies and nuances of the machinations of these events, he outrightly assaults the occurrences as nothing more than Stalinist terror. Harman goes as far as to lump in Mao with Deng (as one in the same, ignoring the grievous differences in ideology), cites known anti-communist (as opposed to anti-Stalinist) writers, completely forgets the historical rationale for the launching for these movements (not even so much as giving the material conditions a second or even first, glance), and (surprise, surprise) reduces the whole moment to what is only describable as a hatchet-job.

For a supposed historian these techniques are unforgivable. While I would expect such dribble from Glen Beck in an understanding of history, for someone who takes themselves as a serious historian, the glossing over of significant material and social facts cannot be overlooked. This is not to say that Haram needed to take a positive view of the situations he massacred but rather that he should have actually done his job and provided an accurate picture of the forces colliding in a given historical space. Unfortunately, however, post-WW1 chapters, Harman dons the armor of a Trotskyist and abandons all pretenses of offering “non-bias” history from a perspective sympathetic to the working class. What you get instead is a masturbatory sectarian tirade against history itself.

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