History’s Superpower

“A man acquainted with history may, in some respect, be said to have lived from the beginning of the world, and to have been making continual additions to his stock of knowledge in every century.”

That’s David Hume’s answer to the question posed by Mark Enser (@ensermark) about the superpower conferred by studying a subject. I suppose it’s mine too.

There are genius teenage chess players, and musicians, and mathematicians. Some talented teenagers are celebrated for their achievements in the arts, and in business, and in sports. But there are no genius teenage historians. There are no celebrated works of history written by teenagers. CV Wedgwood was in her mid-twenties when she published her biography of Strafford, and (doing no more research than thinking off the top of my head for a quarter of an hour) I don’t think many younger historians can have written a book which has entered the historical canon.

Good history requires good judgment which requires a great deal of knowledge. School leavers can’t be good historians. The most we can do is pump them full of knowledge, prime them with some understanding of what historians do with that knowledge, and inspire them with the desire to find out more, and thereby enable them to go on and turn themselves into historians.

Not much of a superpower, you might think. And fair enough. History might give you wisdom, but only after you’ve studied a lot of it.

And yet I think you can tentatively suggest that someone who has done a fair amount of history at school, and has been taught the importance of only ever drawing careful, nuanced, limited judgments, can nonetheless be in a somewhat better position to understand some aspects of the world than he might otherwise have been.

This morning on my way to work I listened to John McDonnell citing Gandhi on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme. And like everyone who has studied or taught the history of the Indian subcontinent in the first half of the twentieth century, I shook my head.

Gandhi is regarded, in many circles at least, as one of the finest men ever to live. And yet historians know that the story is at best (as they say on social media) complicated, and that a critic of Gandhi, the politician and the man, has got plenty of ammunition with which to attack him.

Gandhi’s image is of a humble man. Historians know that Gandhi’s insistence, at the Round Table Conferences and thereafter, on being recognised as the only voice of all of India was not just very far from humble, but also hugely damaging to his cause. Plenty of people who supported the Indian independence movement did not consider themselves represented by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress.

Look, this isn’t going to turn into an essay about Gandhi. But let’s not forget that his refusal to listen to India’s Muslims was a huge factor in Partition. You want to blame Dan Hannan for Brexit-related racism? Okay. Then you can blame Gandhi for the violence which accompanied the end of the Raj, and indeed for the rupture between Pakistan and Bangladesh; you can blame Gandhi for the dismal persistence of Hindu nationalism, and you can blame Gandhi for the fact that the Pakistan cricket team can’t play matches at home any more.

Gandhi’s carefully-cultivated image as the embodiment of India was a great success. He was, and continues to be, very popular. Gandhi described the Dalits as ‘children of God,’ and suggested that the essence of India was rural backwardness. Historians would tell you that. What you did with that information would be up to you.

Gandhi’s image is of a man who wanted to avoid violence at all costs, and you might respect that, but you might also think that of all the points in human history when ‘I’m afraid we need to use force on this occasion’ can be defended, the Second World War against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan is fairly high up on the list.

Historians will tell you that Gandhi launched the Quit India movement, demanding immediate British withdrawal from the subcontinent, in 1942, a moment of great danger for civilisation in the Old World. Historians will tell you that Stafford Cripps offered India self-government after the war in return for the support of India’s nationalist leaders, and that Gandhi described the offer as ‘a post-dated cheque drawn on a failing bank.’

When telling classes that information I try to do so as neutrally as possible. We look at both sides. We consider the motives of people on all sides. However, when I tell them about Gandhi’s decision that he needed to purify himself by taking nubile young women into his bed, and not touching them, I’m afraid I do dabble in a bit of the sort of interdisciplinary approach which I normally disparage. “This,” I say, “is what is meant by ‘objectification’ [something teenagers often struggle with]. Not looking at a girl and thinking ‘I like the look of her, I wonder if she’d like to go for a coffee and an argument about the High Middle Ages.’ Not asking a girl out because you like the way she smiles when she hears the cricket scores. No, the very definition of objectification – treating someone not as a person but an object, a body to serve your interests – is what Gandhi did here.”

You think I’m being unreasonable? Console yourself that the rest of what they’ll learn about Gandhi – especially, I’m afraid, in too many Religious Studies lessons – will be hagiography of the very worst kind. It’s all right. Gandhi the Saint will persist for a long time.

What has this got to do with superpowers?


The pupil who has studied this stuff knows that the conventional wisdom about Gandhi is misleading.

In having learned that she’ll also have learned that sometimes the conventional wisdom is wrong, and should therefore be imbibed cautiously.

(This isn’t, of course, restricted to the Indian independence movement. Spend a year on European dictatorships, or on the Cold War, or on the Russian Revolution, or on the French Revolution, or indeed the English Revolution; spend a year on the Reformation, or the Crusades, or the Norman Conquest, and you’ll learn that these events, and the central figures involved in them, weren’t like you thought they were.)

But the more history you learn, the more you’ll learn that circumstances are always sui generis, but also that there are comparisons which can be drawn, while recognising that trying to do so is fraught with danger, and yet knowing that your understanding of one part of history can be very useful in understanding another.

The French Revolution and the Russian Revolution were very different, not least because the Russian revolutionaries were very conscious of their French forbears. Still, in both countries a decaying system headed by a bad king (with a foreign wife, from the country’s traditional enemy) saw the monarch forced to accept some measure of constitutional liberalism before a bloody war provoked a reign of terror which culminated in the assumption of power by a dictator. They should have seen it coming: it happened in seventeenth-century England too.

But were the systems decaying? Francois Furet & Norman Stone say not. Were the kings bad? Or did they find themselves in impossible circumstances? France’s war was with a foreign power, with some domestic disturbances; Russia’s was the other way round, a civil war with foreign intervention. The Bourbons were restored; the Romanovs were not. There were plenty of similarities. There were also plenty of differences.

A man acquainted with history knows that Gandhi was a far more sinister individual than is usually recognised. He knows that the Mahatma was actually a very ordinary soul, with the same self-regard as your average politician; he might well find himself considering Jinnah and Nehru as greater men. When he comes across other alleged heroes he may well find himself asking whether there is an Ambedkar in the shadows whose perspective may be rather different.

He knows that some combinations of circumstances are dangerous. He knows that he mustn’t assume that just because something happened in some way in the past that it’ll happen in the same way again in the present, or in the future. If he uses this knowledge wisely, his judgment will be improved.

Okay. So it’s not a superpower. But it’s worth having.


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