Monthly Archives: April, 2016

History, damn it. History stuck on repeat

I’m so pleased. The History Game is popular again.

I wouldn’t mind betting it’s something to do with the notion that, in the EU Referendum, we’ve been asked to make a frightfully important decision. This whole business feels like it might just be the stuff of history.

And isn’t it of more than passing interest that, when history is pressed into service pursuant to a piece of public rhetoric, it’s almost always a certain type of history? Let’s call it, for the sake of argument, Marxist.

Remember Marx? You should do. Marx’s ideas took an awfully long time to die. They were first torn to shreds by philosophers and economists during the late Victorian era; and they came under further withering scrutiny among intellectuals in the inter-war years; yet, if his reputation survived in small pockets right up until the late 1980s (and it did), that was surely because of the longevity of nominally Marxist states.

But, intellectually, Marxism always faced an insurmountable problem, a problem that deepened with every day that passed. At its core, it’s a theory of history, leading to a potent brand of Prophesy – and a tipster, even one with guns and ammunition, becomes a laughing stock if his horses limp in last.

Or so we thought. Occult Socialism is fashionable once more, especially among London’s chattering classes. And Marx just happens to be a prime source, whether as cause or effect, of the spectacularly virulent form of intellectual Mumbo Jumbo that we’re calling the History Game.

Actually, that’s slightly unfair. The true source is Georg Hegel, the philosopher (we use the term loosely) who reinvented the art of Prophesy to pander to his patron, Frederick William III of Prussia.

Georg told Freddy that history boiled down to a catalogue of conflicts between nation states and that the process of history would be complete when one nation prevailed over all others. That nation, naturally enough, would be Prussia.

Decades later, Hegel had his homework copied by a rather dull-witted enfant terrible called Charley Marx. Chas merely crossed out the phrase “nation state” and replaced it with “class.” He also insisted that Hegel had insisted that this progression to the end of history was, like, sort of inevitable.

This mechanism and this insistence on its inevitability was Marx’s most pernicious gift to the 20th and 21st Centuries. Yes, he’s back: but there’s also a sense in which he never really went away in the first place. Most of us, at some level, whether we like it or not, are Marxist historians. This, in fact, is probably the single most insidious form of horsemeat in our intellectual food chain.

And we are all prone (increasingly so, it would seem) to let this form of Mumbo Jumbo spill over into our understanding of the world and our place in it. It all boils down to the bizarre notion that if you pay enough attention to what happened (we’re talking big picture here: politics, society, economics) in the past, you will be able to predict the future.

We’ll not waste any time pulling apart this fallacy. Because to do so would leave us even more at a loss in attempting to explain its popularity. And it is spectacularly popular. It creeps in, almost unnoticed, to all sorts of public utterances, from political speeches to BBC news reports and newspaper leaders. It’s especially prevalent in online spaces where chronically stupid people congregate in excitable numbers. Like the “comment is free” debates on the Guardian website.

There’s always someone somewhere wittering on about the “lessons of history” these days.

But here’s a thing: though the over-arching notion about the power of (or, indeed, lessons of) history is Hegelian, people who dabble in the Hegelian History Game rarely stick, at a detailed level, to a Hegelian theory of history. Because of course this isn’t a science. There is no single Law of History. Instead, many confused and contending and interrelated theories.

Hegelian history is dialectical and, though it’s not exactly linear, it processes in one direction and one direction only, ever onward and upward. Yet (at a localised, analytical level) the mechanism most likely to be evoked in public debate is cyclical history.

This is because some politicians and many journalists, especially columnists, suffer from a Cassandra Complex. They like to see themselves as gifted prophets who are shamefully neglected or downright ignored. So it is incumbent on them to waste whole reservoirs of ink and pixels declaiming the fact, almost-but-not-quite universally acknowledged, that those who ignore their prophets are condemned to repeat (the sufferings of) history over and over.

I feel their pain. I really do.

And I have always been fascinated by Prophets. Not necessarily the Old Testament sort, though you can learn a thing or two about English prose by reading Isaiah in the King James’s version.

I’m thinking of more popular forms of prophesy. And it does us all good to have reminders of the fairground and the racetrack brought to us in our daily diet of news.

Or, indeed, the Classical world. Think of Delphi. Alexander and the Gordian Knot.

Prophesy. Cherish this fad while it lasts. It may take a while to come round again. That’s the thing about history stuck on repeat. Inevitable yet unpredictable.

(And if you’re at all curious about what I’m referring to, I’ve started a History Stuck on Repeat clippings file on Pinterest. I’ll also, if I get round to it and can find some old notebooks, compile an anthology of quotations, some profound, some poignant, some just plain downright comic, about the discipline of history.)