A People’s History of the World
Chris Harman 1999
Where to begin with such a broad and all encompassing topic as the history of humanity?
According to Harman “History is 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 how we can further change the world in which we live.” The understanding that Harman’s all encompassing work portrays is not the worn academic path cataloging great leaders, thinkers, and innovators but a narrative that depicts the broad cultural and societal movements of human history. In so doing his work questions the paradigm that “human beings, we are told, have always been greedy, competitive and aggressive, and that explains horrors like war, exploitation, slavery, and the oppression of woman,” and Harman presents the theory that “Human nature as we know it today is a product of our history, not its cause.”
Beginning at the beginning Harman aptly illustrates the development of civilization alongside the onset of agriculture that required a division of labor – this was a stark contrast to the majority of human prehistory that encompassed an idyllic shared communalism only witnessed today in scantly scattered Amazonian tribes. Harman argues that the development of labor divisions required a new perspective of human relationship that we take for granted in our times but was not natural to humans at the time. This pattern of learning new relationships along with the social norms of bigotry and classism has persisted throughout human history as new innovations from the collection of people’s into urban cities all the way up to the present interconnectedness of electronic communication. The story of human history is a conflicted tale full of glory and brutality, conquest and suffering, progress and decline. These facts are not argued, however the meaning within these facts are questioned when the faced with the paradigm that one man must be lesser or greater than another.
I need not provide historical examples to illustrate these arguments, I’ll let your reading of A People’s History of the World lead you to your own evaluation of Harman’s argument. However I will say that the recent uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and even the political/labor clashes in Wisconsin have lead me to question the path of history and what these recent uprisings meant within the larger perspective. I was drawn to Harman’s book to seek answers to these broad questions and although Harman’s book ends with the 1990’s (I was a little disappointed that 2008 reprinted version I bought was not updated to discuss the last decade), having read this work I appreciate that these recent uprisings, as well as the Iraq and Afghanistan war, are entirely predictable and a result not only of the past 60 years of cold war influences on the middle East regimes, but the result of a much older influence from European imperialism that arose from the collapsed Ottoman Empire. The people’s revolutions currently occurring in the Middle East have occurred throughout Europe, the Americas, and Asia in the past two centuries and will continue to occur in nations throughout this globe in the century to come. The question that remains is what will come of these uprisings? Will the dominant world powers continue to promote new governments or internal legislation that supports the continued dominance of US and European power that runs the risk of only repeating the patter resulting in further barbarism – or will these revolutions take a decisive step towards a governance that promotes the interests of the people governed?
History – and humanity’s investment in it – will tell.