Chris Harmon – A People's History of the World

harmon-peoples-history-of-the-worldThis is an ambitious work. Chris Harman attempts to place the entirety of human life in terms of the class and class consciousness. Yes, that is incredibly vague and does no justice to the extremely important work (which is nearly a decade old now, but just released in paperback).

Harman is an optimist. My personal favorite thing about “A People’s History of the World” is his insistence that ‘human nature’ is a construct:

“Human beings, we have been told, have always been greedy, competitive and aggressive, and that explains horrors like war, exploitation, slavery and oppression of women. I argue very differently. ‘Human nature’ as we know it today is a product of our history, not its cause.”

For Harman, all humans make a choice. Choices are not the same for everyone. He mentions slave and slave owner, employer and employee or male and female, for examples. These make up history and explain his theory that “understanding the material basis of history is an essential, but not sufficient, precondition to understanding everything else.”

Harman begins where all standard ‘histories of the world’ begin: the trees. From there, we survived in bands as hunter-gatherers (which Harman displays as the reason for our survival and directly contradicts the theory of ‘human nature’ discussed above). From there he distinguishes the importance of people’s adopting agriculture, but he is interested in the first people to accumulation harvest’s above subsistence means, which created the first classes. Those who worked to supply the surplus food and those who guarded the food. From this beginning, the world as we know it takes shape.

A history of the world does not require much summary. From the rise of ancient civilizations (Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, etc.) to the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR – Harman includes it and provides in class struggle.

I found his take on Christianity after the fall of the Roman Empire, his take on the beginnings of the Soviet Union to it’s demise, and his breadth of knowledge in European affairs in general to be the highlights of the book. It also doesn’t help that he is an outstanding writer (a little dry at times, but this is a history book). He understands history and never shies away from his thesis and is convincing with evidence to support his thoughts.

Obviously one cannot agree with everything. Personally, I did not agree with the downplaying of certain factors for the overall congruence of ‘class struggle’ as the overriding factor, period. I understand his focus on European history, but his forays in Asia, Latin America and especially Africa are too short and could use a lot more analysis.

Like Howard Zinn says on the cover, “An indispensable volume on my reference bookshelf.” I found myself compulsively highlighting this book with interesting tidbits and other facts and opinions that I find myself wishing I wrote. This is book is brief for a history of the world, but it fluid and packs a punch – especially from where it is coming from. For those skeptical, try this out against any standard history to open your mind to a different view on our impact on the world.


~ by Daniel on May 28, 2008.

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