Summary: David Cannadine says that people have defined themselves (and others) by applying the identities of religion, nation, class, race, gender or civilisation. But he argues these categories lead to over simplifications of the human condition and human history, because most people have multiple identities. He also argues that rather than history being made up of endless conflicts within these identities, human history characterised, at least as much, by collaboration and unity.
David Cannadine is a Professor of History at Princeton University.
In ‘The Undivided Past’ (Penguin 2013) Cannadine refers to six identities by which people have defined themselves and others throughout history- religion, nationality, race, gender, class and civilisation.
For much of recorded history the two most prominent identities were (initially) religion and (subsequently) national allegiance. In relatively recent times these have been augmented by class consciousness, gender awareness and racial solidarity. And since September 11 a more capricious category of “civilisation” has made a comeback.
For each one of these identities there are theorists who claim that divisions based upon that particular identity, are the paramount divisions in history: one religion against another religion, racial conflict, war between nations, the class struggle, the “battle” of the sexes and the so called “clash of civilisations”.
Cannadine does not dispute that conflicts involving each of the six identities have occurred throughout history. But he says that most people have always had multiple-identities. Conflicts often do not relate to a single identity. The result overall is more historical complexity than “paramount identity” theorists typically recognise.
“Both individually and collectively, we are all creatures of multiple rather than singular identities, we inhabit many different and diverse groupings at the same time, and they vary in their significance…depending on particular contexts and specific circumstances.”
Claims that one of the six identities must be paramount cannot logically all be true. Cannadine acknowledges that conceivably one of the claims could be correct and the other five wrong. But he says that the weight of historical evidence does not demonstrate this. Rather, it demonstrates that no single identity is paramount.
Further Cannadine says that human history is characterised as much by co-operation and dialogue within and across multiple identities than by clashes within them. Much like journalists, historians have an incentive to place greater emphasis on conflict than upon cooperation:
“…deeds and attitudes that constitute and exemplify our common humanity tend to be to historians what good news is to journalists: the default mode of human activity, a quotidian reality that rarely merits headlines, being somehow unworthy or uninteresting…Yet human history needs to be approached, understood, explained and written not just in terms of…group identities latently or actually in conflict with each other, but also in terms of the concerns, activities and achievements that transcend these divisions…A history that dwells on divided pasts denies us the just inheritance of what we have always shared, namely a capacity to live together in societies sufficiently harmonious and orderly not to be constantly breaking apart.”
Cannadine emphasises that ideologies propounding the paramount importance of this or that identity tend to emanate from the elite, sometimes as a means of obscuring more banal motives. Conversely, common folk are often more pre-occupied with the practical aspects of daily life. These include the need to interact and co-operate with others, even where those others have differing creeds or identities.
Cannadine acknowledges the tendency of most monotheistic religions to regard themselves as the sole repositories of truth. Paradoxically this renders them more susceptible to schism and fracture than polytheistic beliefs.
Cannadine examines three areas where different religions, or religious tendencies, have intersected: Paganism and Christianity, Christianity and Islam and Protestantism and Catholicism.
Gibbon (author of ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’) saw paganism as a strength of Ancient Rome. Paganism was mild, flexible, non-proselytizing, devoid of any separate priesthood and without any agreed dogma. Consequently it allowed the many peoples within the Roman empire “the comfort of local loyalties”. Gibbon saw the eventual adoption of Christianity by Rome after Constantine as one of the factors that contributed to its decline and fall.
Cannadine recognises that within the Roman Empire there were significant episodes of conflict between pagans and Christians. But he says that in many large cities of late antiquity, pagans and Christians got along well enough. Christians, pagans and Jews were held together by the bonds of a common culture and shared experiences of life in the Roman Empire. Christianity adopted aspects of pagan festivals and, far from having caused the “fall” of the Roman Empire, was part of Rome’s legacy to medieval Europe.
Cannadine acknowledges that between the seventh and seventeenth centuries and beyond, from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, Christians and Muslims were encouraged to view the “other” as an infidel to be feared and loathed-hence the Crusades and the Islamic response of jihad.
Yet there were also instances where Christian and Muslim leaders formed alliances against other Christian and Muslim leaders. There were also instances of peaceful co-existence, such as in ninth century Bagdad, the caliphate in Cordova Spain, in early modern Italian cities, and perhaps most famously, in the Ottoman Empire.
Cannadine concludes that most careful scholars reject the claim of “unbroken animosity” between Christianity and Islam and that the weight of evidence is that they have just as often lived together constructively and amicably.
Differences within religions are often more extreme than differences between them- for example in the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics and Sunni and Shiite. This reflects what Freud called “the narcissism of minor differences”.
Cannadine acknowledges that from the time of Luther’s first protests in 1517 until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Europe was torn in the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism. The wars of religion between them were seen as a battle between “good and evil” or “truth and falsehood”, with so-called heretics viewed as even more reprehensible than infidels who did not recognise the Gospels at all. Christ’s biblical statement that “he who is not with is against me” became a clarion call in battlefields across Europe.
However Cannadine says that, even during this period, there were significant divisions within both Catholic and Protestant sides, and that “humanity and decency, co-operation and conciliation kept making their voices heard”.
Cannidine’s chapter on class is mostly an attack on Marx’s view that class struggle is the paramount mover of history supplemented by an attack upon those historians that have used class as their basic framework for historical analysis.
Cannadine attributes to Marx a view that class identity, which Marx called “class consciousness”, is the paramount mover of history. Here I think Cannadine misinterprets Marx.
Marx’s central idea was that there is no human history that does not involve production because production is essential to survival. Each system of production invariably involves us entering into social relationships with others. These relationships vary depending on the type of society involved.
For Marx these social relationships, or “relations of production”, together with the “forces of production”- tools, technologies, skills etc., constitute the economic basis of society. These conditions exist objectively, irrespective of how the relations might be perceived, or described, in our consciousness.
The different classes struggle with one another around the process of production because their interests conflict. It is this struggle, together with changes in the forces of production (often technological changes), that I think Marx regarded as the pre-eminent moving force of history.
“Class consciousness” is relevant to politics and the way history unfolds. But, at least in some sense, it is secondary for Marx. This is because he views class consciousness, indeed consciousness in general, as being more influenced by the forces and relations of production than vice versa.
Cannadine is correct that Marx predicted that it was inevitable that class consciousness of the proletariat would lead it to revolt against the capitalist ownership of the means of production. But Cannadine does not mention that this conclusion largely flowed from Marx’s view that the rate of profit inevitably tends to fall over time. Marx described this tendency as the most important law of political economy.
Marx was not alone in his view that the rate of profit tends to fall. It was a view held by other economists in the 19th century. It is now viewed by most economists as either not a tendency, or one that has been offset by technological advancement, population increases and the increased capacity of capital to relocate production to localities where the cost of labour is lower.
Even on the mainstream left, theories about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall have recently been replaced as an explanation for economic inequality by Thomas Piketty’s theory that, over long periods of time, the rate of return to capital is trendless, with a constant long term average of 4-5%. This average rate of return tends to exacerbate inequality because it exceeds the average rate of economic growth. This means that the already wealthy tend to assume greater and greater proportions of the economic pie.
In any event, despite his prediction of the inevitability of proletarian revolution, Marx certainly never asserted that class consciousness would always reflect the objective conditions of production.
He recognised that members of a particular class, especially a subordinate class, could fail to understand the exploitative nature of the production relations surrounding them. Although he believed that class consciousness would eventually deepen as the economy polarised more into two classes- bourgeoisie and proletariat, he always recognized that religion, as well as identification with nation, were two identities capable of obscuring class relations and the development of class consciousness.
It is fair for Cannadine to criticize Marx’s failed predictions regarding the inevitability of proletarian revolution, as well as reductionist applications of Marxism which hold that particular classes will always develop particular forms of consciousness. Equally it is fair for Cannadine to suggest that the relationships people have to the way production is organized, particularly in modern developed economies, can be more complex than the simple classifications of “bourgeoisie” or “proletariat” allow.
But it is not fair to suggest that Marx himself failed to understand that other identities, such as religion, or identification with one’s nation, could not also influence consciousness, human behaviour and the course of history. Indeed Marx stated that the dominant ideas in a given society are usually ideas that represent the interests of the ruling class, that is, those who control the means of production.
Further because Cannadine unfairly attributes to Marx a mechanistic view of the relationship between class and identity, he does not deal adequately with Marx’s central point and his greatest legacy. This is Marx’s still powerful idea that the way that production is organised is a fundamental mover of history.
No amount of identification with a particular religion, nation, race, gender or civilisation can remove the centrality of the production process as a requirement for human survival. The relations and forces of production will remain central to human history, at least as far as the processes of wealth creation and distribution are concerned. It is fair to say that there is more to history than the creation and distribution of wealth, but surely these are central aspects of the human story.
Marx’s idea about the centrality of production is not fundamentally defeated by whether or not profits have a tendency to fall, or whether a more significant cause of inequality is the rate of return to capital exceeding the rate of economic growth. Neither is it defeated by the fact that religion or nation, or indeed other identities, may influence consciousness more or less than class.
And in the end semantic arguments over the precise definition of class, or how individuals or groups define their own class identity, may be less important than the stark fact that 1% of the global population owns 46% of global wealth, with the bottom 50% of the world’s adults owning just 1%.
Whatever the state of our “common humanity”, or our unity and collaboration, or the effects of class consciousness, these conditions are the outcome of systems of production and distribution of wealth to which class structures, however complex, are inextricably linked.
With one fifth of the world’s population living on less than $1.25 (US) a day, and 2.6 billion people living on $2 a day, or less, a figure that has changed little since 1981, the position one holds in the class structure surely remains central to the history of billions of human lives.
Cannadine says that while monarchs, aristocrats, priests and writers identified with nation in medieval and early modern times, the wider population rarely, if ever, shared these sentiments:
“During the Middle Ages most people lived and died near the locality of their birth and acquired little if any notion of a distant “national” authority…The medieval West was united by trade and religion, both undermining and transcending any claims to territoriality grounded nationhood… the majority of people spoke local and regional dialects rather than a “national” language”.
The last two decades of the eighteenth century and the first two decades of the nineteenth century witnessed a marked intensification of more broadly based national feelings and identities. This was exemplified by the French Revolution, the creation of the USA and the overthrow of Spanish imperial domination in Latin America by the early 1820’s.
Cannadine says that this “age of revolutions” ushered in the “age of nationalities”. Many nations imposed protective tariffs from the 1870’s onwards and armies began to embody the nation rather than being merely an extension of the royal household.
By the First World War whole populations superseded the traditionally limited conflicts of armies. Dying in battle for one’s county became a higher calling.
Yet, in reality, WWI was global conflict amongst empires that transcended the claims of national identity. It was a war that brought about the end of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires.
WWI peacemakers wanted to create nation states out of the wreckage. Woodrow Wilson believed the creation of nations would lead to a more stable world. The result was the emergence of nation states including Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Turkey, and the League of Nation mandates in Syria Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Palestine.
But many of these new nations were multiethnic and multilingual and the stability Wilson had hoped for did not result. The League of Nations failed to restrain national aggressors, especially Germany, Italy and Japan.
The three decades after the end of WWII was a period of substantial decolonisation. But, once again, the instant contrivances of “nationalities” rarely achieved the hoped for reality of national unity and collective identity.
The most recent spate of new nation building after the collapse of the Soviet Union also resulted in instability- such as with the break up of Yugoslavia and, although it occurred after the publication of Cannadine’s book, the current conflict in the Ukraine.
Further, Cannadine points out that national sovereignty is increasingly ceded to supranational agencies- UN bodies, the IMF and World Bank, and multi national corporations. Worldwide problems like climate change and terrorism demand transnational solutions. Immigrants move back and forth between national boundaries in ever increasing numbers.
Hence the nation state and national identities are widely regarded as a “threatened species”, in the still emerging, post- communist, post colonial, globalizing world.
Cannadine concludes by considering the question: What actually is a nation? It cannot be the same thing as race and religion because all modern nations are ethnically and religiously mixed. And so called “natural” frontiers have constantly been subject to change. Cannadine concludes that national identities are more local, particular and temporally circumscribed that the identities of race, religion, class and gender which, at least in theory, can transcend national boundaries.
Cannadine views the very universality of gender differences as rendering gender a less cohesive and potent basis for collective identification and mobilisation than any other identity.
There are so many geographically scattered men and women that gender differences have tended to be taken for granted.
Cannadine traces the long history of the idea that women are inferior to men. Views as to women’s inferiority were held, in one form or another, by thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Rousseau, Darwin, and Nietzsche, as well as being reinforced by religious texts.
But there has also been a parallel view which has asserted equality between the sexes. These views were advanced by Plato, the Marquis de Condorcet, Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill.
By the nineteenth century, urbanisation and industrialisation were challenging the traditional divide under which men were seen as “producers” and women as merely “reproducers”. WWI was a further turning point because many women assumed the jobs previously performed by men, a factor that led Woodrow Wilson to advocate the extension of franchise to women in 1918.
Cannadine then discusses the “difference versus equality” debate within modern feminism. If the focus is on women’s essential difference from men, then what are the special needs that arise from these differences, and how should these be met? If, on the other hand, the focus is on women’s essential sameness to men, then what are the implications of this for how equality between the sexes should be achieved?
Cannadine observes that the difference versus equality debate leads to different political strategies- should women seek what men already have, or seek to create a post-gendered world? Should they collaborate with men, or should they focus on “consciousness-raising” within their own ranks, with a view towards acting on their own? What is the relationship with class? Should women seek to join the ranks of the predominantly male ruling class or seek the transformation of class relationships as part of their own liberation? Who, if anybody, can plausibly claim to speak for women as a whole?
Cannadine thinks that throughout the long haul of history it has been easier to mobilize people on the basis of religion, national pride or class identity than on the basis of gender. This makes the significant changes that have recently occurred to the benefit of women, all the more remarkable.
Cannadine says these achievements are in part attributable to mobilisation of women and in part to changes in work patterns and improvements in contraception. He cautions that there are still powerful bastions of conservatism such as the Catholic Church (most recently Pope Benedict) and mainstream, as well as extremist, Islam. Another caveat is that some feminists believe that the “wrong type” of feminism has triumphed because making women more the equal of men has not led to the overthrow of patriarchy. Cannadine adds that many 1960’s feminists tend to see younger women, who have increased opportunities thanks to their forbearer’s struggles, as insufficiently eager to carry on mobilizing, presumably because they cannot see the need.
In the late 1840’s, around the same time that Marx was writing that history is the history of class struggle, a Scottish doctor, Robert Knox was propagating the idea that “race in human affairs is everything”.
But Cannadine says historians cannot agree on when race became an important collective form of identity. It seems that this way of conceptualising the world was not widespread in Ancient Greece or Rome. These were slave owning societies but it was conquest, not skin colour that distinguished slave from slave owner. Black Africans known then as “Ethiopians” were not regarded as lesser beings due to their colour.
The Bible promoted monogenesis- the idea that all humankind descended from Adam and Eve. In late antiquity other religiously based interpretations, the so-called “Curse of Ham” emerged as a justification for enslavement of black people. Notions of purity of blood became prominent in Christian Spain from where the Jews were expelled in 1492.
Cannadine says that it was the Enlightenment that demonstrated the first modern preference for light skinned people.
The leading lights of the Enlightenment had sought to overthrow religion and superstition and replace these with science and rational thought. But this led to the Christian doctrines of monogenesis and the common roots of humanity being challenged.
New doctrines of polygenesis, which held racial differences to be absolute, were adopted by otherwise liberal thinkers like Voltaire. Blatantly racist comments were made by brilliant philosophers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Other “paragons of liberty” such as Thomas Jefferson (himself a slave owner) also insisted that the differences between blacks and whites were “fixed in nature”. So called “scientific racism” developed, accompanied by social Darwinist views that the survival of the fittest meant that life was a struggle for existence between different races.
During the decades before WWI race was widely regarded as a more important identity than religion, gender or class. Two models of racist social structure developed- the first held that the races could co-exist within the same nation or empire but within strictly enforced hierarchies. The second held that inferior races should be expelled or refused entry.
Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa proclaimed themselves as “white man’s” countries. And by the 1890’s segregation was the law and custom throughout the Southern States of the USA, where intermarriage was prohibited and an average of 150 black men were lynched each year. In Germany, by the late nineteenth century anti-Semitism was on the rise and Jews were subsequently made scapegoats for Germany’s defeat in WWI. Hitler assimilated these views together with the notions of “blood links” and shared racial consciousness.
After WWII there was widespread revulsion at the Jewish Holocaust and in 1950 UNESCO issued a statement by a panel of scientists that all human beings belong to the same species and that likenesses among human beings are far greater than their differences.
Over the next 50 years other racialist regimes also disappeared and decolonisation was virtually complete by the 1980’s with South Africa’s President announcing the end of apartheid in 1990.
The notion of race as a fundamental identity still persists. But Cannadine asserts that the notion has significantly declined in both reach and plausibility.
Scientific research has now undermined so called scientific racism and those who urged polygenic origins as an explanation for (unequal) races. The Human Genome Project found that 99.9% of the genes of a black person are the same as the genes of a white person and that the genes of any black person may be more similar to the genes of a white person than to another black person. Race is biologically meaningless and the claim that race is the most important way of understanding who we are does not survive serious scrutiny.
Cannadine believes that of all of the notions of identity, civilisation is the most nebulous. It is this very vagueness that makes it appealing to those who invoke it but which also makes it so dangerous. Cannadine thinks humanity would be better off without it.
Interestingly the word “civilisation” only entered the English dictionary about 200 years ago. But its antonym “barbarism” far preceded it.
Cannadine commences by analysing Gibbon’s view of the contrast between “barbarism” and Roman Civilization. But he suggests that Gibbon himself realised that “barbarian” was too simplistic a term to encompass all of Rome’s enemies who had various attributes and histories and no shared purpose. More recent historians suggest the underlying relation between Rome and barbarians in late antiquity was not antagonism and strife but mutual need and co-operation.
According to Cannadine, historians such as Teggart, Spengler and Toynbee sought to make the case that humanity is best understood as being divided up into a “plurality of civilisations”. And by the end of the Cold war the notion that the world might best be understood in terms of a plurality of civilisations had become a conventional wisdom.
Harvard political scientist Samuel P Huntington, wrote a book entitled ‘The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order’. He asserted that power was shifting from the long prominent west to non-western civilisations. He warned that the dangerous clashes of the future were likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance and Sinic assertiveness.
But Cannadine asserts that Huntington is like those of his predecessors who have also tried to claim “civilisation” as a fundamental identity. In the end, his so-called civilisations are based on arbitrary groupings. For example, Huntington regards Spain and Sweden, but not Greece, as part of the “West”. “Sinic civilisation” includes Korea and Vietnam but not Japan or Laos. Huntington considers that Latin America could be considered a sub-civilisation of the West or as being divided on whether it belongs to the West. Islam is a very varied religion with its share of conservatives, moderates and extremists.
September 11 led to the “clash of civilisations” being renewed as the most influential explanation of the event that had just occurred and of what must happen in the future. The US media, George W Bush and his neo-cons and Tony Blair’s government all urged a new crusade to save civilisation itself. “Our civilisation” said the late Christopher Hitchens “must be fought for and barbarism defeated”.
Cannadine says that Obama discarded the clash of civilisations as an explanation of the woes of the world. He made a speech emphasising that although the relationship between Islam and the West had sometimes been characterised by conflict and religious war, there had also been centuries of co-existence and co-operation. More recently however (and subsequent to Cannadine’s book) Obama has called for a united international, Arab and Muslim response to the so-called Islamic State’s “barbarism”. With the war against IS the rhetoric of civilisation will likely be invoked once again, although even if it is, it seems clear that Obama will seek to include other Islamic countries within the defence of civilisation.
Cannadine makes a convincing case that history is more complex and multi-faceted than identity theorists would have us believe. His point that historians suffer from the journalist’s propensity to emphasise conflict over co-operation is well made.
I am of the view that Cannadine errs by failing to adequately distinguish Marx’s view about the centrality of production and conflicts between classes around the production process from the issue of class consciousness. But even if this is true, Cannadine’s point that the factors that move history along are more complex and multi-faceted than class consciousness, is not thereby diminished.