Monday, 27 January 2020

Keith Flett on Socialist History at the Millennium (2000)

Socialist History at the Millennium
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: January 2000
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 8: Lent 2000 

Socialist historians may look with a degree of historical scepticism on the Millennium that was celebrated on 1st January 2000. Not only because many will want to point out that the celebrations were a year too early, but also because historians understand that historical landmarks and boundaries don’t fit neatly with the calendar as it ticks over into a new century.

We might think, for example, that the twentieth century started with the Great War in 1914, or the Russian Revolution in 1917. Eric Hobsbawm, of whom more below, has argued some thing similar in the Age of Extremes. We might also argue that the twentieth century ended with the collapse of the ‘communist’, ‘stalinist’ or ‘state capitalist’ regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989/90. Personally I prefer to stick with Lenin who saw the modern era as one of wars and revolutions, and one, therefore, that clearly did not end on December 31st 1999 and is unlikely to have ended a year later either.

However, there is no point in ignoring social reality and most people believe that we are now in a new Millennium. We need to ask what is the point of socialist history and historians in the twenty-first century? Indeed are there still any socialist historians left anyway?

Let’s take the second point first. As the seminar and conference organiser for the London Socialist Historians Group I can confirm that socialist history is alive and well where it matters. That is among young post-graduates, and amongst those who I consider to be the real bedrock of socialist history, those researchers not employed in academia, who enthusiastically research, recover and analyse areas of historical interest. This is not simply an assertion. As the terms have rolled on from the mid to the late 1990s I have been gradually submerged under offers of papers - far more than I can fit into the seminar series. That is one of the reasons why a major theme of our annual conference on Saturday May 6th 2000 will be simply ‘new research in socialist history’. We aim to showcase some of the best.

I turn now to the point of socialist history in the new millennium. One central task, which I have referred to before in this Newsletter is the need to keep on inserting history into a political debate where it is increasingly left out. Sadly it is left out not by the Tories, but by the Labour Party, whose celebration of its hundredth anniversary on 27th February 2000 are unknown as I write - probably as much to Millbank as to myself.
Another important task is to defend some of the central tenets of socialist history. That is, a belief in class as a way of understanding things, agreement that there is progress in history and a defence of revolutionary movements and moments against those who would rubbish them or deny their existence.
Does this last category still exist? Yes. Robert Conquest is a serious if right-wing historian. However the Independent on Sunday on 26th December 1999 chose not a serious historian but an unpleasant liberal Nicholas Fearn to review Conquest’s latest book Reflections on a Ravaged Century. Here is a sample of Fearn’s precis of one of Conquest’s arguments: The Western dupes of the Soviets were the idealists of nothing but their own egos, puffed up by intellectual vanity. There is a lot of mileage in the thought. Leading sit-ins at the LSE were always, one suspects, a good way of impressing the girls.
What a thought for the new Millennium! Conquest, and particularly Fearn, have in their sights in particular Eric Hobsbawm. I have disagreed with Hobsbawm about the nature of Russia after 1927. His public apologias for Stalinism - which he has long since criticised himself incidentally - did not help his work as a marxist historian in this country. Even so Hobsbawm has produced some of the best works of marxist history in the second half of the twentieth century. With new revolts occurring, not least at the WTO talks in Seattle in December 1999, socialist historians urgently need to defend the heritage of marxist historical endeavour and to provide explanations and arguments to counter the intellectual philistinism of the Nicholas Faiths of this world.

A new century dawns not with the end of socialist history, but with an agenda of urgent tasks for socialist historians to pursue. One of those of course is to recall that we don’t just exist to interpret the world but also to change it. Protest and survive.

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