Book reviews: The Undivided Past: History Beyond our Differences | Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century

STUC members protest government cuts in Glasgow in 2011. Picture: Robert Perry
STUC members protest government cuts in Glasgow in 2011. Picture: Robert Perry
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WE’RE living in an age of nice, soft history: easy to digest, easy to forget, won’t change your mind or send you out to riot.

The Undivided Past: History Beyond our Differences

by David Cannadine

Allen Lane, 336pp, £25

Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century

by Eric Hobsbawm

Little, Brown, 336pp, £25

Call it Blue Plaque history: the attempt to write stories that seem unobjectionable, and take out all the brawls, conflicts and special interests that made it possible to find the material to write the story in the first place.

Now David Cannadine is, his new book tells us, Chair of the Blue Plaques Committee: guardian of the official kind of memory. He is in charge of allowing people to be remembered, but also to be cut down to a slogan on a decorative bit of metal. This is not entirely a surprise.

For Cannadine is a lovely writer, very reader-friendly, with a clear and wide angle view of the past; but he cushions us. He writes a book about the British Empire and turns it into an export drive for the British class system; which nicely lets us forget about race and colour and suchlike matters, not to mention profit and greed. When he writes about class it’s not the brute Marxist engine of history, inevitable conflict, it’s just the way we choose at any given time to talk about inequality and social conflict; which is closer to lit crit than any disturbingly lively prophecy of endless struggle.

His ideas can be bright and clarifying, but they’re given importance mostly by conflict with the ideas he’s contradicting; they don’t quite stand on their own. This makes it very odd that what he most of all contradicts is conflict itself. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t do dialectic, which seems to make him think of Marx and not Plato. He hankers after one-volume histories in the Trevelyan manner – grandfatherly history, which tells the story of Britain with no disagreeable mention of warring groups and interests.

He also loves a total kind of history – the economy, the politics, the culture and as much of society as he can get down on the page; and he acknowledges that he gets this taste from reading the likes of that old Marxist, Eric Hobsbawm. The trouble is that an old Marxist thinks he knows why and how the different parts of the picture fit together, even if his notion is entirely wrong, so he has a single subject. Cannadine doesn’t; he tells his stories as they come along. He tells them with a vividness and sometimes a wit sadly missing in history drenched in last century’s theories, but you’re left wondering exactly what he thinks is going on.

This time he’s arguing against one-dimensional history, even against one-dimensional living – allowing yourself to be reduced to just one label, maybe woman, maybe lumpenproletariat, maybe Muslim or Scottish or black or a signed-up member of a bona fide, battle-ready civilisation. He says he wants to show what connects us, our variousness, our “common humanity”; but he doesn’t write that history, which is tough to shape. Instead he writes about how our ideas of conflict change, fight among themselves.

For “common humanity” usually means “what You have in common with Me.” History may look comfortable to a comfortably tenured white man but there have been times – try being a woman in Afghanistan now, or a Jew or a homosexual in 1938 Berlin, or the wrong kind of black in a British colony – where a single label, one part of an identity, mattered so much it could kill you.

Cannadine’s war is against Marxists, even though he admits they’ve pretty much given up fighting back. The fall of Communism becomes his argument against the Marxist notion of class, and its overwhelming importance in history, which is rather odd since he also says the idea was falling apart when the people trooped off willingly to fight the First World War instead of making revolution. How willing they were, and how close Britain came to revolution in 1919, are not questions he wants to raise. Class was still baffling the Labour Party in the early 1990s when they obsessed over why the workers voted “wrong.” One clue: the only person I’ve ever actually heard talk of voting for his class interests was a banker.

Cannadine is very good on the abuse of history by politicians who don’t know much. He disapproves of anything being inevitable, everything is circumstantial, so it makes no sense to him to talk about the inevitable clash of civilisations, Western against Islamic, say, much less to see it as the new and supercharged engine of history. He disapproves of the last President Bush saying the world is fundamentally divided and we have to choose where we stand.

He flirts with the notion of a post-racial America, citing (as do many white American professors) the number of inter-racial marriages, as though love and lust ever had any trouble crossing racial barriers, and also the election of President Obama. He says genetics have made a nonsense of the notion of race controlling destiny; we are all much too much alike for the argument to make sense. This is clearly true, but it only makes the notion of race more interesting; it has never rested only on faith or fact or the usefulness of not having to pay for human rights for your slaves or subjects. And it has not lost any of its importance, unfortunately: take a close look at the slogans the next time the Republican Right is out protesting against President Obama and you’ll see that race is very much on their minds.

Then there’s the question of women. Professor Cannadine clearly does not much approve of Professor Germaine Greer, which is a question of taste, but he doesn’t have convincing arguments against her old slogan that “before you are of any race, nationality, region, party or family, you are a woman”. The fact feminists don’t always agree on everything does not discredit the idea of paying attention to women’s views of the world. It doesn’t mean that at times – issues of equal pay or equal access to work, for example – a woman could ignore the fact that she was seen as a woman before anything else.

Historians of women, he says, “have found it difficult to agree what this history looks like, whom it is about, how it should be written, and what it shows”. Well, historians of men aren’t doing that much better, which is the whole point of this new book of his, and you’d think he would remember the gigantic omission, or maybe deletion, that historians are trying to correct: a history that often left out half the people who ever lived (except, of course, queens, saints, victims and the occasional Borgia). And what makes feminist historians disagree is precisely what he says they don’t do: their concern with race, class, economics and all kinds of complicating factors which can’t be reduced only to sex or gender.

As for nations, he doesn’t quite manage to prise apart the two 19th-century notions of race and nation, two ideas which blossomed poisonously at much the same time. I’m not sure modern nationalism is quite so obsessed with living in a perfectly homogeneous place with people exactly like you; it looks much more like a determination to be heard and recognised in all the babble and fury of a multinational’s world.

But maybe there is an unacknowledged framework for Cannadine’s thinking, kept quiet as though he finds it embarrassing: a vein of Christian apologetics. He’s not the first writer to quote Christ on turning the other cheek, avoiding conflict; but it is odd to leave out Matthew 10:34, Christ saying that he came to bring not peace but a sword, because it is hard to use a sword if you’re not fighting someone. A few heartfelt and bloody crusades suggest not everyone always read the Gospels the way Cannadine does.

He says Christianity was a powerful force against racism last century, which is partly true, but it was Christianity in the American South and in old South Africa that put up barriers against racial mixing or racial equality. He says the Church taught that women were inferior but their souls were equal to men’s in the sight of God, and he seems to expect us to applaud that notion, for the very little that it’s worth; it won’t save a woman’s body from violence, or allow her to have her own life. And it’s even odder – for example – that he praises the religious compromise in 17th-century France after the Edict of Nantes without even mentioning the religious massacres that followed, 80 years later, when Louis XIV revoked the whole thing.

What’s left is history with the conflict left out, an emphasis on great moments of compromise without an account of why anybody needed to compromise in the first place. It’s refreshing to turn to the last, sparky collection of essays by Eric Hobsbawm, Cannadine’s master and his opponent. It’s true this post mortem collection is uneven, occasionally embarrassing and the subtitle and the fetching picture of Marilyn Monroe are close to false advertising; and Hobsbawm, writing of how the French have welcomed immigrants and how extreme religious orthodoxy is dying down in Afghanistan, is not much of a prophet. He is, however, very good indeed for the brain. You don’t have to agree, you probably won’t, but you have to argue with him rigorously.

He doesn’t pretend to come from some all-knowing Faculty of History; he’s a Jew from Vienna with a fascinating interest in the history of people like him, a Marxist who knows the game is up for simple ideas of class but who pays proper attention to the economic and social change that made Art Nouveau possible and the very political idea of “heritage”, a man who saw historical studies as a danger to crude nationalism and who said “I regard it as the primary duty of modern historians to be such a danger”. He breaks frontiers of all kinds, smacking down the self-satisfied “avant garde” of artists by pointing out how the most interesting, the most radical and revolutionary stuff comes out of popular arts such as music and movies.

This book is all sketches and lectures, nothing like the cumulative power of Hobsbawm’s great narrative histories, and occasionally there’s a phrase which suggests the old Soviet apologist hasn’t changed his mind quite as much as he’d like to say; but it hardly matters. Cannadine is comfortable; Hobsbawm isn’t. Hobsbawm makes trouble and wants to change the outside world; Cannadine shows no signs of either virtue. Hobsbawm questions the usual views and makes it possible to change them. Cannadine is chair of the Blue Plaques Committee, and proud of it.