Cyril Smith 1993

Review: Frank Füredi, Mythical Past, Elusive Future

Source: Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 1, 1993. Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Frank Füredi, Mythical Past, Elusive Future: History and Society in an Anxious Age, Pluto, London, 1992, pp 310, £9.95

This is a book about History. Not history, History – although what the author means by this distinction is somewhat elusive. On page 66 he says it is ‘a representation of a national myth through a selective reordering of the past’. The Preface says it is:

... a mode of thought that relies on the past to provide authority for human action. It restates the case for the main insights of the Enlightenment, in particular, the potential for progress. It is motivated by the belief that the more we seek the sanctions of the past, the more we evade our responsibility for making history.

I am aware that any reviewer worth his pencil would explain the course of the argument. Alas, I must confess that I can’t. I know that the author hisses ‘History’ and cheers for ‘historical thinking’, but I couldn’t grasp what this was, either. On page 59 I read that:

... the perspective of historical thinking... embraces change as the dynamic principle of social development... Historical thinking is the outcome of history: the very recognition that changes take place in society over time is itself the result of social development.

At first sight this looked helpful. But then I had to admit that I hadn’t really understood a word. How can ‘change’ be a ‘dynamic principle'?

The book begins with an account of debates in academic and political circles in Germany, Japan, the USA and the UK over recent years concerning the respective responsibilities in these countries for past military and colonial crimes. Of course, these supposedly scholarly disputes are chiefly characterised by utter theoretical and moral confusion. Füredi is quite correct to point out that ‘this crisis of historiography is not simply an intellectual problem, but reflects a more pervasive ideological and political crisis in society’ (p 22). So it would be very useful if someone with a clear fundamental outlook were to throw some light on these crises. Unfortunately Füredi is not that someone. His method is to throw at us a bewildering mixture of bits of what he calls ‘sociological history’. We find ourselves submerged in a kind of cultural soup: Sam Peckinpah floats past with Francis Fukuyama, Durkheim is soaked with Social Darwinism, Max Weber stumbles over Mad Max, and Enoch Powell is amazed to find himself among Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Honestly: look at page 11.)

Every so often, Füredi seems to be on the point of clearly stating his aims. But the focus keeps changing. Early on (pages 10-11) he says he wants to study ‘the relationship between perceptions of history and society’. Then he tells us that ‘this book is concerned with examining the arguments and the mechanisms though which the construction of History is attempted and through which a sense of absolute values is refashioned.’ (p 15) On the next page we read that: ‘A lot has been said about the past, but almost nothing about the future. That resounding silence is probably the main theme of this book.’ While on page 87, he writes that ‘our aim is to provide a sociological analysis of the history of the demand for History’.

Perhaps what I needed was an explanation of what the author himself thought about history. He seems to have in his mind a contrast between the influence of tradition and ‘the actions of human beings’ (cf, for instance, page 70). But I can’t be sure what this means.

Right near the end of the book, I thought I caught a faint echo of an explanation. He seemed to be accusing the bad guys of ‘the expulsion of the subject from history’ (p 224), or even of ‘the exclusion of men and women from history’ (p 265). Then he writes:

History clearly cannot have a fixed character or essence. History is about the consciousness that people have about time, the passing of time, the past, the changing present and future... Historical thinking... emphasises subjectivity, the act of change through transformation. But it isn’t simply subjective, for it comprehends that there are real constraints to human action... A humanist view of history does not argue that men and women can simply make history; it argues that men and women have the potential to make history. (pp 265-66)

This reminded me of two other chaps who said something about history (or was it History?): GWF Hegel and Karl Marx. But what does our author think about them? Well, Hegel’s name does crop up. On page 194 we hear that ‘Hegel was prepared to accept “the end of history,” and argued that the Prussian state was the realisation of reason’, and on page 208 that ‘reason becomes what exists... for Hegel it was realised in the Prussian state’. On page 218 we are given the word of Fukuyama for something quite different:

‘History’, for Hegel, can be understood in the narrower sense of the ‘history of ideology’, or the history of thought about first principles, including those governing political and social organisation. The end of history then means not the end of worldly events, but the end of the evolution of human thought about first principles.

And that is all we are told about Hegel! Now, despite widespread rumours, Hegel was not an upholder of the Prussian state, as it existed in his time, nor did he believe that it was History’s last word. He was associated with the moderate though substantial reform proposals of Hardenberg and Altenstein. These proposals were defeated by the Prussian conservatives, just before the Philosophy of Right was published. In fact, he had to rewrite it to get it past the authorities.

Fukuyama can look after himself, but I am curious to know whether Füredi has ever studied any of Hegel’s works, and if so which? In any case, there is absolutely no sign in this book of any acquaintance with Hegel’s view on History or on anything else.

Marx is another kettle of fish. Füredi never declares himself a Marxist in these pages, but he does give us a few nods, winks and nudges, to indicate that Marx is a Good Thing. But Füredi’s Marx has something to do with a theory of ‘change’, brought about by ‘the actions of human beings’. On the other hand the real Karl Marx was engaged in something else entirely: the struggle to prepare for the conscious movement of the proletariat to carry out a revolution. Maybe Füredi is thinking of somebody else of that name.

However, despite these comments I am pleased to have read this book. What makes it all worthwhile is the light it sheds on the predominant method of thought of the British left. The fondness for the tradition called the Enlightenment, and the belief in the power of ‘reason’ to bring about ‘change’, has always underlain a good deal of what passes for ‘theory’ in the labour movement. Its real name is individualist common sense.

Hegel’s system was the most profound response to the French Revolution. It was both the completion of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and its refutation. Hegel showed how beneath its pretence of ‘free thought’ was to be found pure dogma. Reason could explain everything in the universe, except three things: life, history and itself. Marx inverted Hegel, not to return to the Enlightenment, but to show that the logic of Hegel’s Absolute was a philosophically disguised expression of the movement of capital. So Marx’s critique of Hegel’s conception of History led him to understand that the proletarian revolution would bring human prehistory to an end, and open the way to real, conscious history. That is what he meant by Communism – something which gets absolutely no mention in this book.

Only in this context, I believe, can we make sense of history, or anything else. If Füredi helps to convince some people that the movement had better pull its theoretical socks up, then his work will not have been in vain.