If the left doesn’t learn from history….

By Dr Peter Purton

The news that more universities are to drop the teaching of history in favour of vocational subjects prompted my letter to the Guardian and the invitation to write for this website. It is another step along the road long planned by those who believe education is only about (technical) training for work.

Leaving aside the profound fallacy at the heart of this argument (name a job not improved by the ability to think critically, for example), and recognising the vital importance for many of vocational training, history and other humanities subjects are increasingly retreating into a subject for the elite – who obviously don’t need vocational training because their career paths have already been set.

The old saying goes that those who don’t learn from their history are doomed to repeat it. I’d refine that a little: while learning from our history may help us in big decisions, or may not, failure to learn makes a catastrophic outcome far more likely.

But what does learning from history mean?

When I was at school, history was about the monarchs of England (and later Great Britain) and literature for teenagers praised the stalwart heroes who’d created the empire and brought civilisation to the savages. Racist, bigoted, national chauvinist (shame they didn’t create an English word for this, instead of having to borrow from the historic foe across the English Channel), totally male-dominated, this was the message absorbed by pupils forced to learn history to get their O levels and then quickly drop it for something more interesting.

For the twentieth century, it was about how Britain alone beat the Nazis – unlike the implicitly or explicitly cowardly European nations. This message was echoed by a relentless diet of war films,  which forced us to acknowledge the American role, while somehow the Russians – 20 million dead, the army that broke the Wehrmacht – scarcely got a mention. It was reinforced by the mass media: history in the service of little Englander nationalism and often explicit racism.

This is only slightly a caricature. Because this ‘history’ was propaganda. As Joseph Goebbels said, if you’re going to tell a lie, make it a big one. The British ruling class can claim credit for promoting some of the most successful and enduring lies ever. Its continuing echoes were heard repeatedly in the Brexit ‘debate’.

Again and again we listened to ordinary folk interviewed who repeated how England (only occasionally Britain) had stood out against Hitler and won, how we were a great power and had always managed on our own, and our empire – on which the sun (or maybe they meant the Sun?) never set – was something of which they were deeply proud. This had been, too, my experience as a child of the attitudes of my mother and grandmother. Home and school: a combination hard to challenge.

We can put the argument another way: if you control the past, you can control the future. This is such a powerful weapon that having allowed it to fall so easily into Tory hands has had consequences we have lived with for decades and to which there is no end in sight. Most people aren’t interested in the past, they have more important things to focus on: learning a skill that will secure a decent job and allow them to live and support family members. So all they recall from their history class is a pastiche of half-formed pictures reinforced by media propaganda in the guise of entertainment.

Many have resisted this approach to history and many teachers and academics strive to present alternative, more inclusive and more accurate views. The voices of the excluded – all women, all people of non-white ethnicities (and white people from Ireland) – have long demanded that traditional history is cleansed of its racist, sexist and homophobic imperialist agendas.

But this is hard and most left-wing people don’t have the time or energy to do anything other than nod that they agree, before getting on with the current struggle. It’s hard because of the deeply-entrenched verities of establishment versions of history and it’s hard because – almost by definition – the history of the excluded has been buried if not deliberately suppressed.

Dedicated researchers have been unearthing the truth for a long time but often struggle to bring their findings to an audience broader than their own communities – not reaching those who really need to know it – and sometimes, sadly though not surprisingly, leave themselves open to charges (oh, the hypocrisy!) of going too far and allowing bias to distort their thesis.

Inroads have been made into the teaching of history. It has been a struggle to introduce black history into the curriculum. Features such as Black History Month and since 2006, LGBT+ History Month have become established, though not everywhere and not compulsory and of less impact if restricted to a single month than if they were integrated into the curriculum; which is unlikely to happen soon.

The significance of knowing what really happened, of analysing it and drawing the correct conclusions is not, however, academic. Debates around immigration have long been driven by a set of ideas that have become deeply ingrained in popular consciousness. The Windrush scandal broke upon almost everyone as a complete surprise. Who knew how and why immigration from the West Indies was actively encouraged after WWII? Why didn’t we know? Hostility to black communities rooted in an assumption of white superiority is a consequence of the racism imbued in everything white kids learnt at school or from their parents who also learnt it at school or from their parents who knew the empire first hand.

Other forces contributed malevolently too, of course. White supremacy is deep-rooted, almost unconscious, and has more recently become linked to anti-Muslim prejudice where the explicitly Christian message shared by all the European empires still casts a long shadow – remember Bush’s new crusade – and the inevitable exploitation of this message by Islamist extremists.   

One analysis of the May 2021 local election results highlighted the collapse of the neo-fascist vote (hooray!) but explained that these voters, many formerly supporting UKIP candidates, had found a newly comfortable home voting for the Tories.  They have not ceased to be racist. The endless barrage of racist abuse on social media confirms it.

But people are not born racist, sexist, homophobic or disabilist. They have to learn these prejudices. Too many are still doing just that. Of course there is a generational divide as more recent social changes and community struggles have given, now, several generations of young people a different perspective. They are learning a better history. But it hasn’t yet changed the political results or prevented any of the -isms continuing to produce discrimination and hate crime.

Left wing activists are often avid readers of working class history: a magnificent tradition that has produced numerous excellent histories of working lives and champions and the development, in Britain and everywhere, of unions and parties. Interpreting such history – our history – however, is an example of why it is vital to apply caution to the notion of learning from it.  Readers know plenty about how events since the 1980s have transformed the landscape, having lived and struggled through them. Understanding what has changed – and continues to change – is essential, but it does not of itself provide the answers.

Marx coined the memorable phrase that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. This was in reference to the coup of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, soon to become Emperor Napoleon III, analysed brilliantly in his Eighteenth Brumaire. Anyone who knew the history of modern capitalism should have anticipated that the 2008 crash would create the conditions for more dictatorial and reactionary regimes and an associated resurgence of the far right as people sought easy scapegoats. That very (medieval) term reminds us of how sudden catastrophe leads people to pin blame on blameless others just because they are different. But if the left understood this, they failed to develop strategies effectively to counter this trend. History repeated itself but not in the same way as in the 1930s.  

Learning from history is not a panacea. History does not tell us what to do. But it can tell us what happened in similar circumstances in the past, and help us pick a path more likely to avoid particular outcomes. It can warn us how preachers of hate and those appealing to false solidarities, for example, against those whose differences are visible, can win unless the left successfully offers an alternative that is better and more convincing.

While recognising the immense scale of the challenges facing the left, to ignore the importance of understanding history is to leave a weapon of immense power in the hands of the class enemy, one that has shown time and again its ability to drown out the voices of progress in a flood of -isms springing from a reactionary misinterpretation of our history.  As things stand now, and without even factoring in the imminent catastrophes produced by a climate crisis that is already upon us, the future looks bleak: but it is not to contradict the urgent necessity of devising current answers to say that without understanding the past, we will not succeed in changing our future.

Peter Purton obtained a DPhil in history at Oxford in 1977. He worked in the voluntary sector and in the trade union movement until retirement five years ago. He was a political activist for forty years and has published books on medieval history and Champions of Equality. The trade unions and LGBT rights in Britain (Lawrence & Wishart, 2018).

Image: Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886. Source: FlickrImperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886. Author: http://maps.bpl.org, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts