The old historian put the book aside and told him: “Sire, I can summarize the history of man for you so that you can understand it before you die: They were born, they suffered, they died.” -CLR James, quoting Anatole France in A History of Pan-African Revolt
I’ve been a fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. They’re sweeping and allegorical, grand and visionary. They are among the best tellings of the worst story ever told.
This is not to say that they’re bad, or even that they aren’t self-aware, but the author is dead, both in the literal and Barthesian sense, so what the reader takes away from Dune matters more than what Herbert himself intended. For my part, I choose to read it as a self-aware critique of its own forms.
That being said, Paul Atreides and his descendants, troubled or not, are stand-ins for ‘Great Men’. They are ‘good kings’: tyrants with a sense of paternalism who make choices for the common good knowing full well that their contemporaries will have no understanding of the historical importance of their actions. We readers understand that while these decisions may be reprehensible, they are necessary and it’s a good thing that these fictional worlds have iron-willed rulers to make hard choices that others wouldn’t have the strength to execute. Paul doesn’t so much rescue himself from death as he rescues himself from obscurity. Even his prescience speaks eloquently to his ultimate importance- he cannot directly observe himself in the future, only the waves of events that he creates.
Like I said, this is the worst story ever told.
My current reading obsession centers around eighteenth century England, which is one of the places in which a stunningly violent second act for global capitalism was planned, when what we experience as the present was ushered in by men who gave every indication that they thought they were chosen agents of history. It’s not possible to interrogate these people, but it is obvious when one reads the history that they were demonstrably avaricious, spiteful and cruel and that they were surrounded by enough people like themselves to confuse those qualities with greatness.
This ‘worst story ever’ keeps getting told.
I am currently reading A History of Pan African Revolt by CLR James with a group of friends, all of whom are smarter than I am, or who are at least better at paying attention. It’s short, and lacking in citations, but it’s still good and for the most part it details the outrages of slavery and the points at which, in the context of the international system, open revolt erupted. It argues, among other things, that ‘modern’ capitalist industry would have been stillborn without chattel slavery. In the absence of this spectacular cruelty, the monetary supply, textiles and cheap calories that British manufacturing required at its origin could not have existed in the form required.
This system was planned and orchestrated by men of state, who in addition to whatever base desires motivated them, had every expectation that they would be remembered as, if not good, then necessary. They expected that their future would justify their present, just as their present validated the barbarity of the past.
For the various tendencies of authoritarian Marxism, it is also the case that the past justifies the present, though I think it has to do with more doctrinaire factors. Marx, for part of his life at least, believed that capitalist development was a necessary precondition of a communist future, which would inevitably arise from the immense productivity of capitalist industry.
For the broadly defined ‘tankies’, this has served to justify quite a bit of authoritarian planning and repression on the part of states that are ‘building socialism’. I haven’t received a satisfactory answer as to when socialism will be sufficiently ‘built’ to allow for a free and dignified society. There is something of a parallel in all of this with the dynamic of belief that allows abusive relationships to go on for years- they can change. They just need time.
I think that to consider a statement by Marx that capitalism was/is/has/will be necessary in this way is 1) deterministic, 2) fucking stupid and 3) very boring. It would be much more useful to state that he thought a communist society was desirable and that, as capitalism was and is the dominant world system, it is a ‘no-shit’, unavoidable argument that communism would arise out of capitalism. But this doesn’t equate to ‘capitalist development was desirable or even justifiable’, and leaves aside the very reasonable observation that one of the major motors driving the economic development of the system was a reaction to people’s political struggles against immiseration.
An aside: It is a profound failure of imagination and gross chauvinism to argue that the prospects for technological development were absent in pre-capitalist societies. How boring does a person have to be to accept that?
It’s the worst story ever told, all over again.
This dumbness- that the present somehow justifies the past and that the future will justify the present- is as visible on the right as it is in factions of the anti-capitalist left that are comfortable with authoritarianism.
The relationship to the past, present and future that I see expressed on the right is that there is some amorphous and poorly understood glory, a heroic struggle in which there was a gradual move toward a perfect moment of manhood and right that existed, in its purest form, sometime in the mid-1950’s. After that point people became lazy and depraved. It got turned around for a minute in the early-1980’s and then slid even further into a profound moral failure. There’s a sense in all of this that suffering builds character, and that if things would only become worse for the right people, there would be a new golden age inaugurated. All of this has a very clear relationship to ethnicity, skin-color, and gender, and I think to fear as well. Not theirs- they don’t want to feel scared for a moment (though they are profoundly scared), but for others. If enough violence were to be directed at the people asking for too much out of life they’d shut their mouths and take what they’re given.
That’s the past and the present. For the years to come, there is either a desirable return to a status quo or a terrifying future in which their strange, conspiratorial dreams give rise to concentration camps and detention centers, seizure of their property, and slavery. They’re afraid that the things that they want to happen to other people will happen to them.
These people are hungry for the worst story ever told to be told again.
For my part, I am trying to read the other stories, which I suppose you’d call ‘social history’. These are histories from below. They speak to misery and depredation, but they also speak to the ingenuity, strength, resolve and cunning of people who, for the great men, were nothing but rounding errors in their schemes to manage the world.
In reading James’ book, I am struck by his optimism, and I think this applies broadly to these other social histories. When one studies the resistances that people actively hid from the eyes of the powerful, you have to believe in them- they were smart, they were tough, they were funny. It’s impossible to say that they won or lost anything, just that they survived, and when they didn’t survive, that they preserved their dignity.
Optimism is naive, but it is also necessary if you want your imagination to stay intact, and it makes for a much better story.