Monday, 30 September 2013

Book Review: Grand narratives


A Marxist History of the World: From Neanderthals to Neoliberals

by Neil Faulkner
Pluto Press 2013 352pp
ISBN 9780745332147

Marxism looks at historical grand narratives and the sweep of history (although not only that obviously) and Marx in the Communist Manifesto ventured on a brief summary.
Since then a handful of books in the English language (there are others beyond the scope of this review) have attempted to summarise the broad range of history from a Marxist perspective.
Probably the best known is A.L. Morton’s A People’s History of England (1938) which is still worth a read today. Morton was a member of the Communist Party Historians Group. More recently the late Chris Harman has produced a similar volume (A People’s History of the World) but extended its scope world-wide.
Neil Faulkner keeps the world wide scope but has aimed to produce a Marxist rather than a people’s history. The difference may be subtle but perhaps revolves around a popular history of struggle on the one hand and one that seeks to make more overtly political points in terms of indicating a strategy for today on the other.
Faulkner’s book comes from a regular piece he wrote for the Counterfire website so each chapter can be seen as an individual entry, rather than the book being written in more traditional format. However, as the author notes, the original blog entries have been re-worked and regrouped so the book can be read in its entirety or as a series of historical episodes.
The author, of course, follows an historical trajectory from ancient - his particular area - to modern and admits in the introduction to certain biases, primarily euro- and perhaps even anglo-centrism. These can be forgiven since no one, the author included, is saying that the volume is the last word on things.
Readers may have their disagreements with this or that characterisation made by Faulkner. I’m not clear why he uses the word ‘decay’ to reflect the defeat of revolution in Russia once Stalinism got a grip for example (p221). However, that kind of discussion is for the back rooms of pubs or corners of coffee bars.
In general Faulkner gives a well informed and well written whistle stop tour of the history of the world from a Marxist perspective exactly as the book’s title indicates. It may be that in the balance between the impact of material forces and the ability of ordinary people to change the world despite this, that the book errs a little more to the latter than might be historically justified.
However, its sense of the historical process remains in my view excellent. For example a short piece on ‘how history works’ raises the important point of the relationship between core and periphery with an understanding that change often starts first at the margins.
There are one or two more serious criticisms. It may just have been the fact that the book was constructed from web entries, but it does rather skate over the issue of women’s fight for equality and liberation.
It is strong on issues like imperialism, war and racism, as it should be, but again perhaps rather less good on more mundane but over time as important matters such as the fight for adult suffrage, civil rights and so on.
To give the reader a more general sense of where Faulkner comes from in the book I couldn’t spot any characterisation of a Marxist historian like E.P. Thompson or a Marxist historical debate that is not well within the bounds of existing orthodoxies.
In other words, and in many ways quite rightly, Faulkner’s concern here is getting across the pattern of the historical grand narrative rather than pursuing potentially ground breaking but controversial historiographical points.
As a book to read along with A.L. Morton’s and Chris Harman’s it is certainly a worthwhile volume

Keith Flett
From LSHG Newsletter # 50 (Autumn 2013)

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