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Past present: The other side of the story

Updated June 22, 2014
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Since traditional history is written with reference to power; it deals with war, diplomacy, administration and the question of the succession to the throne. Some historians and thinkers believe that individuals make history. Thomas Carlyle (d.1881) in his book Heroes and Hero Worship (published 1841) writes that great individuals have changed the course of history.

Hegel (d.1831), the German philosopher, argues that great men unknowingly fulfill the mission of nature. When it is accomplished, nature throws them in the dustbin of history. For example, when Alexander (d.323 BC) conquered most of Asia and died young because nature did not want anymore conquests out of him.

When Caesar (d.44 BC) defeated the Gauls and occupied Egypt, he wanted to usurp power and become the emperor of Rome. At this stage he was assassinated because, according to the Hegelian way of thinking, he had done his job and nature did not require him to play any further role in the history of Rome.

Napoleon, after his defeat in 1815, was imprisoned in St. Helena where he died as a helpless man. Leo Tolstoy (d. 1910) in his novel War & Peace, points out that a great man is like a sheep in a herd with a bell round his neck. When he marches ahead, the other sheep follow him on the sound of the bell.

Traditional history is challenged by a group of historians who bring to light the role of people in creating history. During the French revolution, the masses expressed their power and energy by playing an active role in shaping history. Jules Michlet (d.1874), the French historian published his book The People in 1846, commending the role played by the masses. Since then, historians have projected the role of marginalised groups of people who contributed in the making of history but were previously ignored by traditional historians.

In the 1960s, Edward Thompson (d.1993) published an article History from below which changed the trends of writing history. He also published his seminal work on The Making of the English Working Class. In this book he emphasised on social and cultural elements rather than economic factors which led to the creation of the working class.         

In England a group of Marxist historians including Edward Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm (d.2010), started to publish a journal known as Past-Present. Hobsbawm taught in Birbeck College, University of London where working class students attended evening classes. He especially prepared his lectures related to their interest. Later on, he published The Age of Industrial Revolution, The Age of Capital, and The Age of Extreme — all based on his lectures delivered in class.

The German intellectual, Bertolt Brecht (d.1856), wrote a poem on A Worker Reads History; where questions raised by the worker are devastating to traditional history. Below are some excerpts of his verse:

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?

Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet was sunk and destroyed. Were there no tears?

In turn, traditional historians challenge the writing of people’s history on the ground that there is not enough material to write such accounts. To which the argument follows that there is plenty of material to construct history from below.

For example, judicial documents provide information about conflicts which occurred in families and communities such as inheritance, marriage, divorce, property claims and crime records. Revenue documents show the system of taxation. Records of police, jail and secret agencies could become the basis for writing social history by pointing out different patterns of crimes, methods of investigation and the lives of prisoners. Ginzberg (d.1944), an Italian historian, published his book Cheese and the Worms by using documents from the Inquisition to construct the religious beliefs of the Italian peasants in the 16th century. Moreover, to write people’s history, historians also use literature, diaries, letters, art and sculpture.

The American historian Howard Zinn (d.2010) popularised history by writing People’s History of United States. With the passage of time people’s history has become so popular that one can find titles such as People’s History of England, People’s History of France and People’s History of Germany.

There is an inherent need in Pakistan to give attention to marginalised groups who are nameless and history-less. They should be made a part of history by projecting their role in society. This will not only provide an identity to them but they will also be treated with respect and dignity for their contribution which so far has no recognition.                    

Since common people generally do not write their own history, therefore it is the responsibility of historians to collect the material and reorganise it to write their role in the process of history. Historical narratives can only be complete when common people become a part of it. History should be liberated from the clutches of the elite classes and brought down to the masses.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 22nd, 2014