I cannot think of another scholar who has so sweepingly dismissed the whole idea of history as identity politics.
Let us give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, there is no use denying that however much on the side of the angels historians may be now, in the past they have done their fair share of rabble-rousing. The real issues raised by this book lie at a rather deeper level. Appalled by the Manichean rhetoric that emanated from the Bush administration after 9/11, Cannadine wants us to abandon Us and Them, and to eschew such polarised modes of thought, what he calls “the impulse ... to sunder all the peoples of the world into belligerent collectivities” that has been around as long as mankind itself.
Yet this Age of Terror emphasis on binaries, on polarisation – between faiths, civilisations or nations – is more than a little misleading. For theorists of nation or class, for instance, those categories were often neither exclusive nor, indeed, terminal. Marxists believed that class struggle was necessary only so long as humanity’s basic goals remained unrealised. Heck, even Proudhon felt that way. The greatest 19th-century theorist of nationalism, the Italian Giuseppe Mazzini, told his many followers that to be a nationalist was to be an internationalist. This was precisely the reasoning that inspired the creators of great global institutions such as the League of Nations to give them the form of clubs of member nation-states and that allowed President Woodrow Wilson, one of Mazzini’s most ardent admirers, to be both a proud American patriot and a confirmed internationalist.
Overcoming our differences sounds great. It is about as hard to denounce as Christmas. But might there not be losers as well as winners in this game? Try telling the unemployed they should focus on what they have in common with billionaires and reflect on who has gained or lost out from the collapse of the language of class. Categories that Cannadine finds wanting have underpinned many of the decisive struggles in our time. In one case, he accepts this – noting that in the second wave of feminism, women’s groups achieved lasting civil rights gains. Nothing so positive emerges from his chapters on race, nation or class. Yet it is often the relatively powerless who have chosen to name things the powerful would have rather ignored, and who in naming them have helped improve their lot.
Class may have turned out to be a fairly useless category for some generations of historians. But it was a pretty indispensable part of the toolkit of organised labour and not irrelevant to the struggle to raise workers’ living standards. Race may have been invoked to justify slavery; but it was later asserted to win rights for slaves’ descendants as well. Nationalism was emancipatory before it turned into its own form of tyranny. And, for many centuries, solidarity itself was regarded as a virtue; in 1981, when martial law was declared in Poland, every good western liberal was in support of it. Now, The Undivided Past suggests, the only solidarity that is acceptable is solidarity with humankind: nothing less will do because anything more partial risks dividing us, and division means fisticuffs or worse. Yet is there not something ultimately quietist about writing off many of the conceptual vehicles that have previously allowed people to mobilise? Not all conflict, after all, is bad and justice sometimes may even require it.
Behind Cannadine’s story of identities that need to be shrugged off is the interesting intellectual question of when we all got so hung up on this business of identity and started seeing it as something limiting rather than liberating. Nazism and fascism took the shine off nationalism for many European liberals. “Identity” began to be used in the contemporary sense sometime in the 1950s but it acquired a harder and more negative edge during the culture wars on British and American campuses. In an earlier book, Ornamentalism (2001), Cannadine criticised Edward Saïd’s influential account of Orientalism by claiming that in the British empire divisions of class trumped race. In The Undivided Past he seeks to do away with such categories completely, trumping them by an appeal to our common humanity.
Yet terms such as “the human condition” are no less problematic than the six [religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilisation] he highlights and simply shift the identity problem to a new level. The cause of humanity has often lent itself to ideological misuse but these days, in particular, we face a bewildering proliferation of “the human” in global affairs – from human rights and humanitarianism to human security and human development. One therefore looks for Cannadine to provide more information than he does on the new kind of history that he has in mind to improve our lot.