A history of struggle

Issue: 141

Andrew Stone

Neil Faulkner, A Marxist History of the World: From Neanderthals to Neoliberals (Pluto Press, 2013), £18

This is the kind of book that the now thankfully lesser-spotted postmodernists warned you about—an unashamed grand narrative of humanity’s global history; an attempt to analyse rather than describe, and to synthesise rather than compartmentalise. But it is also an account which holds no truck with the nationalist and elitist narrative advocated by Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove in his recent abortive attempt to disembowel the school history curriculum. Neil Faulkner’s history is one which, in the classical Marxist tradition, is both profoundly internationalist, and which celebrates the self-activity of the exploited and oppressed and their potential to shape the future.

Beginning with the emergence of the first hominids (animals that walk upright) around 3.2 million years ago, Faulkner begins a breathless journey through the evolution of homo erectus (around 1 million years ago) through to biologically modern humans (homo sapiens, around 200,000 years ago) and then on to the agricultural revolution (starting around 8,500 years ago) that precipitated a division of labour and ultimately the development of class societies. Faulkner is a specialist in ancient history, and this comes across in early chapters that subsequently trace evocatively the rise of ancient civilisations and the crises that successively confronted them. But the majority of the book deals with the medieval and modern world, reaching the present day, and does so with impressive range and confidence.

Faulkner’s approach is to assess the transformative effect of what he considers to be the three motors of history: technological progress, ruling class competition, and the struggle between classes. The first of this troika can have a variety of causes—for example, how Eurasia’s east-west alignment aided trade and transport, or how improving mining and metal working techniques eventually enabled both more productive farms and more destructive armies. Ruling class competition mediates as well as drives such changes. So Hittite attempts to monopolise iron weaponry in ancient Anatolia (Turkey) delayed its spread, but ultimately: “Rival chieftains competed for [the metalsmith’s] services, which raised his economic value, his social standing, and his own valuation of himself and his craft. This, in turn, gave him the rewards, independence, and self-confidence to be an innovator.”

If the above quote could be taken out of context to suggest an eternalisation of capitalist norms, the impression is dispelled both by Faulkner’s consistent historical materialism and by the frequency with which he returns to one of its key elements, and his third motor of history—”the struggle between classes”. This is one of the key respects in which he betters Andrew Marr’s recent A History of the World, which provided illuminating examples of human agency, but only inconsistently grounded them in the social relationships which they emerge from and help to embody. And like any good Marxist, Faulkner’s sympathy is always for the underdog—celebrating the major landmarks of slave, peasant or worker resistance while attempting to explain their limitations.

This is then a very useful and readable work in which readers of this journal will find much that is novel and agreeable. Few historians, this reviewer included, would have the skill to complete such an ambitious project. The relatively minor criticisms that follow should be seen with this recognition in mind.

This book began life as a series of website instalments. Although it has been revised for book-format publication, occasionally the seams are visible. So there are a number of pieces of needless repetition—the attentive reader, for example, will not need to be reminded three times in the space of four pages that unemployment affected one in three workers in Weimar Germany, shocking as that statistic is.

Faulkner’s style is generally quite pithy, and the book is clearly aimed to be accessible to a wider readership. This has informed his decision not to footnote. While this is an understandable choice for a general introduction, it can be _frustrating for the reader wishing to check the source of contentious evidence. The main text also does not address historiography, and though some recognition is given to the author’s influences, there are some obvious omissions—Leon Trotsky’s metaphor of the steam engine for the role of the revolutionary party, for instance, goes uncredited.

There are though some biographical notes, which include both praise and criticism of Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World. Despite calling it “an outstanding work of Marxist historiography”, Faulkner accuses Harman of economic determinism, and takes issue with what he says is a teleological “stages view of history” (ie that events are moving towards a pre-determined end point). But no evidence of this is provided, and this reviewer is _unconvinced. Likewise, his assertion that there was no distinctive “slave mode of production” might have been more persuasive if he had pursued it in the main body of the text (the case against the existence of an “Asiatic mode” has been made powerfully elsewhere).

Finally, although obviously omissions will be inevitable in a work of this kind, it was disappointing that the changing role of women, though traced in pre- and early class societies, is not explored in modernity. Similarly though slavery’s role in generating racism is well analysed, its modern manifestations are not explicitly covered. And Marxism has a lot to say about the relationship between ecological destruction and class society that goes beyond its brief mention in the conclusion. These reservations aside, this is an impressive work of history which should be on every Marxist’s bookshelf.