Food for a misleading historic thought (a)
Human Rights Reader 329a
[Just recently, I finished reading an excellent historical novel by the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura (El Hombre que Amaba a los Perros/The Man who Loved Dogs) based on the murder of Trotski in Mexico. In it, Padura actually has many reflections on history. I was pleasantly surprised to read that his points of view pretty well match my devil’s advocate view of (mainstream) history. # I already quoted a couple of them earlier. I patiently gathered his reflections spread throughout the book and combined them thus here actually paraphrasing Padura].
I am afraid history has too often been widely used as a political instrument.
1. Ultimately, I see [mainstream]# historians defeated and denigrated to the condition of pariahs left with only a chronology to which to hold on to. This, despite their dream of chronicling history in a way that, at the end, would vindicate them.
Historians have too often ‘reconstructed’ society to custom fit their own (or their lackeys’) designs. Through their writing, they have used the power to play with the destinies of ordinary people.
Historians ignore the repressions and genocides, the persecutions and mass killing of innocent people, as well as the many infamous political deals, the conquering violence of new rulers, the invasions, the geographic and cultural annexations, the prostitution of ideas and ideals and the condemnation of any dissidence by megalomaniacs. In doing so, they have destroyed any notion of legality and have played on the credulity of later generations.
Such historians miss digging out the bottom of things that chronicle the obscure matters hidden down there, i.e., the millennium long dung –dung that may be old and stale, but that needs to be brought up to the surface.
In their attempt of being ‘truly historical’, they miss narrating the history of the personal tragedies of little people, rather hidden in the comings and goings of historical periods. So, what about the individuals down there? Did mainstream historians ever think about them –about them having to postpone their dreams and their lives until the historical tiredness of mainstream history is gone and their lost utopia is rewritten?
The hypocrisy of mainstream history has shown rulers can get away with murder.
-Mainstream history really becomes a big nightmare as we find it as the written account of ‘the-truth’-as-we-are-supposed-to-believe-it. (Marx dixit)
-As historians purport to present to us the history of a given period, they inform us about how the phenomena they recount came about and what the assumptions were at the time. This is a hazardous affair, for in such an undertaking, historians tacitly place some things in light, others in shade. (paraphrasing Goethe)
2. Reading mainstream history often brings out in me adverse reactions. Why? Because, to me, it is proof of how decisions that devastate lives from within can be and have been hidden for posterity.
When it comes to deplorable, unwelcome facts or issues, mainstream history does not tolerate witnesses; it actually silences bothersome witnesses.
The price mainstream history will never repay is that of the millions of lives that could have been saved, as well as the that of the human rights (HR) of further millions of people that could have been upheld.
Mainstream history makes deadly facts look more as if they were a divine punishment than the works of men inebriated with power, with a thirst for control and with the pretentiousness of achieving historical transcendence.
Having history rewritten to place it where it is convenient to the powers that be is not something Hitler or Stalin invented… This is one more reason why it is better to keep mainstream history gagged and interpreted with a grain of salt.
Life of the have-nots and history are indeed intertwined though this fact is simply too often ignored.
3. In the name of some kind of a ‘historic necessity’, millions of have-nots are and have been literally dragged into oblivion by the vicissitudes of a history that disguises the attitudes and actions of supposed benefactors.*
*: As students of history, we cannot admit that such omissions are accepted; they are omitted by historians with the pretext of such omissions being a matter of historic or political necessity.
4. After so many infamies and all types of crimes against humanity we can authoritatively speak of the victims of history (certainly true from a HR perspective) –victims whose destinies were shaped by ulterior forces that overwhelmed them till they ground them to dung.
The beneficiaries-of-history-mis-told have entered history as henchmen receiving the veneration of their victims who were often pushed to death. This is just an example of the too often total indifference by the writers of history about the fate of these victims.
5. History has taken revenge on people who have gone through all possible phases of poverty (with shattered dreams and lost hopes for any future) that history, then, has considered to be un-appealable recounts. Millions of people actually went through life without suspecting the treason they were subjected to by their fate not being recorded fairly –all committed in the name of ‘history’. To them, history has been a fraud in their millennia-old quest for equality. What could possibly save them when they have forever been condemned by a history told to fulfill the Machiavellian designs of so many different rulers since time immemorial? History has been buried by those leaders who literally became the owners of history. To call a spade a spade, mainstream history has gotten away with defeating the truth or presenting it in a distorted, manipulated way.** One has all the right to ask: Is it that contemporaries of these atrocities did nor want to know? Or for us: Is ignoring the true past complicity-in-silence? And/or: Will we have to forever carry with us the dead weight of an untold history of crimes and deceptions?
**: Historical evidence is not only partial and epically ‘favorable’ to the haves, but is not infrequently shamelessly manipulated and different from what most people have lived through.
6. At a time when a ‘great disenchantment’ with mainstream history has become entrenched, a rupture with it is needed so as to change not only the world’s political balance, but to bring up the real ultimate truths.
With hindsight, our struggle must be against history biasedly portrayed.
History can be written in a different way with less chatter about battle and victory heroes and more told about real-life-oppressed-and-deeply-depressed-people –heroes of sacrifice, the legitimate type of heroes that deserve recognition for posterity (Albino Gomez).
To ventilate the many details of a history perverted and buried, what is needed is to rewrite it to arrive at a coherent vision more real of what has been the obscure existence of the oppressed. (But, beware, history’s vengeance can be more powerful than the vengeance of the most powerful emperor that ever existed).
7. So it is: Down with mainstream history! As necessary, we have to reinterpret it. We have to cut across the veneer of the farce and touch the tragic aspects of the underlying truth. The time is now, when we witness a progressive loss of fear and the oppressed can write their own history.
#: The word ‘mainstream’ has been added.
Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
Postscript: [Even more recently, I came across a blog by the Argentinian Eduardo Gruner which had the same effect on me as the quotes from L. Padura. I paraphrase from his piece here].
I have to confess that the word ‘progress’ provokes in me a certain rejection. I perfectly understand that it does not mean the same coming from the left than from the right (as understood by a liberal or a conservative); but anyway, it bothers me. The concept of progress is an ideological weapon of history of the winners (for whom, of course, there was progress: the one that put them in charge) while, for the defeated, history is a nightmarish succession of regressions. Saying it more directly: uncritically accepting the idea of progress subjects us to a linear, evolutionist, colonial, Eurocentric, classist conception of history. Such a conception of history simply amounts to an arbitrary ‘periodicization’ of events. Take, for instance, globalization (with its big bosses): it intermingles historic temporality together with the logic of accumulation. Such a conception is clearly ideological as it presents as ‘natural’ the idea of Western, bourgeois history. Genocide, the gigantic colonial ethnocide and the violence and the human rights violations of globalization are ignored in the name of an alleged progress.* It is true that, at the same time, the idea of ‘social progress’ appeared implying a clever defensive attitude against the destructive effects of capitalism.
*: The history of progress has even legitimated the argument of class exploitation, of colonial domination, of slavery, of racism; it even legitimizes present day imperial aggressions justified as humanitarian actions. (In the 19th century, ‘progress’ was being brought to inferior peoples and races; equally, in the name of progress, in the 16th century, it brought them religion…). But the real history clearly shows us the unequal development these do-gooders’ interventions ended up bringing about.
We thus have to temper our temptation and non-critical enthusiasm about the (conventional) history of governments, of political parties and of political leaders that have called themselves progressive.** Also, ponder the fact that the so-called middle class has the insatiable aspiration of an ascending social mobility; therefore, for them, progress is their favorite, fitting ideology.
**: The danger is that history focuses on ‘great men’ (and women) rather than on the crucial and essential social movements that build the structures on which the greats can stand. (T. Lang)
In the last decade or so, neoliberalism has contributed to the ‘progress paradigm’ taking roots. Its proponents believe they are the true utopians; they seriously believe that through the economics of capitalism, society is racing towards a better future. In all fairness, the paradigm really means, at best, neutralization. In this context, the word progress simply makes no sense any longer. It is then necessary to question a mere-progress-in-stages unless one is willing to condescend and make pacts with transnational corporations, the local bourgeoisies, the bureaucracy and a bunch of corrupt political barons.
But beware: Repair measures that we could take-on have nothing to do with fostering a break with the deeper logic of conventional history, i.e., with a rupture with the logic of the progress paradigm that actually for centuries became a brake for struggles by the masses –which explains the long-term regression the defeated have suffered.
‘Progressive governments’ use the State as a social referee pretending to mediate conflict between social classes with different class interests. They do that to benefit from the tail wind that this can bring them to get the support of the masses –as organized and controlled by the State. Marx warned us about the limits of such class arbitration. Sooner or later, comes the hour of truth: social conflict eventually erupts and the repressive apparatus resurges. All this, while there is no battle fought between the State and the Free Market. Why?, because class logic prevails.
The problem with the progress mentality is that when crises hit, progress has nothing to offer; its proponents are helpless and in disarray. They only, once again, have nothing to offer but to tell us: “Do trust in progress… and believe us: history knows what it does since it has come as far as to today, no?”. (One might as well believe in the advantages of socialism: That would be progress, no?).
The bad news is that we have run out of time; confidence in progress, by itself, only promises more misery and HR violations. Today, more than ever, panic reigns among the dominant classes in the rich capitalist countries (but also in emerging economies like China). Unemployment, pauperization, the crumbling of what is left of the welfare state, the degradation of health and education services, as well as of the environment are in everybody’s doorsteps. And the bad news do not stop there: consider wars, terrorism and fundamentalisms of all types. The current global crises do not only have economic roots; there is a monumental political, social, cultural and moral breakdown. The villain of this story is not dying from natural death, but from its own internal rotting; the villain’s very own history is a cancer that is invading him from his very roots up. It is now not an issue of waiting that destiny takes its course –because that cancer affects us all and will end up dragging humanity to the abyss. And from there, one cannot progress. (Eduardo Grüner)