Saturday, October 29, 2011

Understanding History: 1. Colonial Constructs

What passes for “history” today is an intellectual construct of the colonial era that originated in the effort by Europeans to explain their sudden global dominance.

It appeared to them that they were innately superior in many ways, one being a unique sense of the past. Beginning with the German theorist Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), it became a fashion to assert that only Europeans had a sense of history. Herder saw societies in China, India and the Americas as experiencing change but not possessed of the capacity to perceive it as cumulative development; their past was thus not history in the European sense.

Europeans acknowledged Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484 to 425 BC) as the “Father of History” for his chatty account of how Greece and Persia became enemies. (It began, he says, with the reciprocal kidnappings of nubile princesses.) A younger contemporary, Thucydides (460 to 400 BC), departed from tradition by not mentioning the Olympian gods as active participants in human affairs (the Peloponnesian War), and got credit for being the first to separate history from religion.

The “historiography” that Europeans developed from those roots involved a “science of history” dealing with the use of evidentiary sources, and a “philosophy of history” exploring its nature and aims. The European mainstream moved towards the belief that the “real past” was unknowable because knowledge of it was inescapably limited: at best, an individual historian could make an honest assessment of the evidence available, and leave overall truths about the past to emerge over time.

In the 1930s the widely influential Oxford Professor R. G. Collingwood put history at a yet farther remove from reality with the argument, in The Idea of History, that the dead past and the living present were separate in Nature, and were brought together only in the human imagination. At one point in his disquisition, he wrote, “The historian cannot have certain knowledge of what the past was in its actuality and completeness … The past in its actuality and completeness is nothing to him; and as it has finished happening, it is nothing in itself; so his ignorance of it is no loss.”

 A subset of thinkers, most prominently Karl Marx (1818-1883), conceived an even narrower frame for history, rooting it in the process by which a society generated wealth: those who controlled “the means of production” viewed the past in the perspective of their own “class interests.” Marx saw societies developing along a predictable line. The “primitive communism” of hunter-gatherer tribal society gave way with the coming of agriculture to the dominance of those who controlled the use of land (feudalism); when the wealth generated from land reached a certain tipping point “bourgeois capitalism” emerged, followed by the imperialism of those who used capital to control all other means of production. Violent revolution would then destroy capitalism (and the entire class of capitalists), usher in “socialism,” followed by the equitable heaven of advanced communism.

Thus, while mainstream European historians groped around in the past like blind men examining an elephant, each declaring his or her own perception, and every successive generation of scholars generated revisionist views reflecting their different personal and social perspectives, Marxists developed a firmly deterministic sense of the historical process. In reality, both Marxist and mainstream European historians tended to be obedient not to their declared principles but to the prevailing power structure of their societies; they differed mainly in hiding/declaring their role as ideological instruments.

While Europe was evolving its peculiar historiographies, its intellectual elite developed a smug sense of superiority towards India that reflected the prejudices of Christian missionaries and the gossip of traders. John Locke (1632-1704) was typical, dismissing India’s rich philosophical tradition (ironically, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding), with a passing reference to “the poor Indian philosopher” who believed the world was held up by an elephant, and when asked what supported the elephant, said it was a turtle which stood on something he knew not what.

The East India Company compounded European ignorance of India by publishing a six-volume History of British India by James Mill (1773-1836), a London journalist who wrote his opus without ever visiting the country or knowing any of its languages.

Mill trashed Indian history as a “monstrous and absurd” concoction of legends and myths. In fact, said he, Indian society “presented a very uniform appearance during the long interval from the visit of the Greeks [under Alexander] to that of the English.” Their “annals … from that era till the period of the Mohomedan conquests, are a blank.” Believing that the “meritorious researches of the modern Europeans,” were responsible for what we know about the Indian past, Mill declared:

“We cannot describe the lives of their kings, or the circumstances and results of a train of battles. But we can show how they lived together as members of the community, and of families; how they were arranged in society; what arts they practiced, what tenets they believed, what manners they displayed; under what species of government they existed; and what character, as human beings, they possessed.”

He endorsed the view that the “sudden, violent, and unprepared revolutions incident to barbarians,” were “so much guided by caprice, and terminate so often in cruelty, that they disgust us by the uniformity of their appearance, and it is rather fortunate for letters that they are buried in silence and oblivion.” In that respect, there was “perhaps but little to regret in the total absence of Hindu records.” Mill’s ignorant views came to be standard throughout Europe.

 Even observers with a high regard for India saw it as having no history. The German philosopher Hegel declared in his History of Philosophy how surprising it was that “a land so rich in intellectual products, and those of the profoundest order of thought, has no History.” India, he said, “has not only ancient books relating to religion, and splendid poetical productions, but also ancient codes; the existence of which latter kind of literature has been mentioned as a condition necessary to the origination of History – and yet History itself is not found.”

Marx explained that lack of history in terms of what he called the “Asiatic mode of production.” Toiling away in the library of the British Museum, never having set foot anywhere in Asia, he pontificated on the “unchangeableness of Asiatic societies” brought on by the “simplicity” of the village economy. Except for the tithe paid to the larger structure of the state, villages consumed what they produced, and were not involved in the exchange of commodities; they remained “untouched by the storm-clouds of the political sky.” Indian society, Marx declared, “has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history is but the history of successive intruders on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society.”

D. D. Kosambi (1907-1966), the avowedly Marxist Indian historian has pointed out how wrong that assessment was: “the greatest periods of Indian history, the Mauryan, the Satavahana Gupta, owed nothing to intruders” yet marked “the formation and spread of the basic village society or the development of new trade centres.” He also questioned Marx’s explanation that a lack of historical sense arose from the “Asiatic mode of production,” noting China’s “great annals, court and family records, inscriptions, coins,” and archeological excavations that provided a chronology “virtually undisputed from 841 BCE down.”

Most Marxist historians have not let such facts get in the way of the Master’s theory, and India became in their view the archetype of the “timeless East.”

To be continued

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