A People's History of the World by Chris Harman - Free
A people’s history of
the world A people’s
history of the
London, Chicago and Sydney A People’s History of the World – Chris Harman
First published 1999
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Part one: The rise of class societies
Prologue: Before class 3
Chapter 1 The neolithic ‘revolution’ 10
Chapter 2 The ﬁrst civilisations 17
Chapter 3 The ﬁrst class divisions 22
Chapter 4 Women’s oppression 29
Chapter 5 The ﬁrst ‘Dark Ages’ 32
Part two: The ancient world
Chapter 1 Iron and empires 45
Chapter 2 Ancient India 48
Chapter 3 The ﬁrst Chinese empires 54
Chapter 4 The Greek city states 63
Chapter 5 Rome’s rise and fall 71
Chapter 6 The rise of Christianity 87
Part three: The ‘Middle Ages’
Chapter 1 The centuries of chaos 103
Chapter 2 China: the rebirth of the empire 106
Chapter 3 Byzantium: the living fossil 117
Chapter 4 The Islamic revolutions 123
Chapter 5 The African civilisations 136
Chapter 6 European feudalism 140 Part four: The great transformation
Chapter 1 The conquest of the New Spain 161
Chapter 2 Renaissance to Reformation 172
Chapter 3 The birth pangs of a new order 194
Chapter 4 The last ﬂowering of Asia’s empires 219
Part ﬁve: The spread of the new order
Chapter 1 A time of social peace 233
Chapter 2 From superstition to science 237
Chapter 3 The Enlightenment 242
Chapter 4 Slavery and wage slavery 247
Chapter 5 Slavery and racism 249
Chapter 6 The economics of ‘free labour’ 257
Part six: The world turned upside down
Chapter 1 American prologue 265
Chapter 2 The French Revolution 277
Chapter 3 Jacobinism outside France 303
Chapter 4 The retreat of reason 315
Chapter 5 The industrial revolution 318
Chapter 6 The birth of Marxism 326
Chapter 7 1848 335
Chapter 8 The American Civil War 345
Chapter 9 The conquest of the East 355
Chapter 10 The Japanese exception 365
Chapter 11 Storming heaven:
The Paris Commune 368 Part seven: The century of hope and horror
Chapter 1 The world of capital 379
Chapter 2 World war and world revolution 405
Chapter 3 Europe in turmoil 430
Chapter 4 Revolt in the colonial world 449
Chapter 5 The ‘Golden Twenties’ 463
Chapter 6 The great slump 469
Chapter 7 Strangled hope: 1934-36 491
Chapter 8 Midnight in the century 510
Chapter 9 The Cold War 543
Chapter 10 The new world disorder 577
Conclusion: Illusion of the epoch 605
Further Reading 687
Index 695 Chris Harman is the editor of Socialist Workerand a leading
member of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. He is the
author of many articles, pamphlets and books including Class
Struggles in Eastern Europe, Explaining the Crisis, Economics of the
Madhouse, How Marxism Worksand The Lost Revolution:
Germany 1918 to 1923. Introduction
Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will ﬁnd the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was ﬁnished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years War. Who
Else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?
So many reports.
So many questions.
‘Questions from a Worker who Reads’ by Bertolt Brecht
i A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE WORLD
The questions raised in Brecht’s poem are crying out for answers. Pro-
viding them should be the task of history. It should not be regarded
as the preserve of a small group of specialists, or a luxury for those who
can afford it. History is not ‘bunk’, as claimed by Henry Ford, pioneer
of mass motor car production, bitter enemy of trade unionism and early
admirer of Adolf Hitler.
History is about the sequence of events that led to the lives we
lead today. It is the story of how we came to be ourselves. Under-
standing it is the key to ﬁnding out if and how we can further change
the world in which we live. ‘He who controls the past controls the
future,’ is one of the slogans of the totalitarians who control the state
in George Orwell’s novel 1984. It is a slogan always taken seriously by
those living in the palaces and eating the banquets described in Brecht’s
Some 22 centuries ago a Chinese emperor decreed the death
penalty for those who ‘used the past to criticise the present’. The
Aztecs attempted to destroy records of previous states when they con-
quered the Valley of Mexico in the 15th century, and the Spanish at-
tempted to destroy all Aztec records when they in turn conquered the
region in the 1620s.
Things have not been all that different in the last century. Chal-
lenging the ofﬁcial historians of Stalin or Hitler meant prison, exile
or death. Only 30 years ago Spanish historians were not allowed to
delve into the bombing of the Basque city of Guernica, or Hungar-
ian historians to investigate the events of 1956. More recently, friends
of mine in Greece faced trial for challenging the state’s version of
how it annexed much of Macedonia before the First World War.
Overt state repression may seem relatively unusual in Western in-
dustrial countries. But subtler methods of control are ever-present. As
I write, a New Labour government is insisting schools must stress
British history and British achievements, and that pupils must learn
the name and dates of great Britons. In higher education, the histo-
rians most in accord with establishment opinions are still the ones who
receive honours, while those who challenge such opinions are kept
out of key university positions. ‘Compromise, compromise’, remains
‘the way for you to rise.’
Since the time of the ﬁrst Pharaohs (5,000 years ago) rulers have
presented history as being a list of ‘achievements’ by themselves and
their forebears. Such ‘Great Men’ are supposed to have built cities
and monuments, to have brought prosperity, to have been respon-
sible for great works or military victories—and, conversely, ‘Evil
Men’ are supposed to be responsible for everything bad in the world.
The ﬁrst works of history were lists of monarchs and dynasties known
as ‘King Lists’. Learning similar lists remained a major part of history
as taught in the schools of Britain 40 years ago. New Labour—and
the Tory opposition—seem intent on reimposing it.
For this version of history, knowledge consists simply in being able
to memorise such lists, in the fashion of the ‘Memory Man’ or the Mas-
termindcontestant. It is a Trivial Pursuitsversion of history that pro-
vides no help in understanding either the past or the present.
There is another way of looking at history, in conscious opposition
to the ‘Great Man’ approach. It takes particular events and tells their
story, sometimes from the point of view of the ordinary participants.
This can fascinate people. There are large audiences for television
programmes—even whole channels—which make use of such mate-
rial. School students presented with it show an interest rare with the
old ‘kings, dates and events’ method.
But such ‘history from below’ can miss out something of great im-
portance, the interconnection of events.
Simply empathising with the people involved in one event cannot,
by itself, bring you to understand the wider forces that shaped their
lives, and still shape ours. You cannot, for instance, understand the
rise of Christianity without understanding the rise and fall of the
Roman Empire. You cannot understand the ﬂowering of art during the
Renaissance without understanding the great crises of European feu-
dalism and the advance of civilisation on continents outside Europe.
You cannot understand the workers’ movements of the 19th century
without understanding the industrial revolution. And you cannot
begin to grasp how humanity arrived at its present condition without
understanding the interrelation of these and many other events.
The aim of this book is to try to provide such an overview.
I do not pretend to provide a complete account of human history.
Missing are many personages and many events which are essential to
a detailed history of any period. But you do not need to know about
every detail of humanity’s past to understand the general pattern that
has led to the present.
It was Karl Marx who provided an insight into this general pattern.
He pointed out that human beings have only been able to survive on
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