The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences?
by david cannadine
?knopf, 352 pages, $26.95

The history of the French Revolution would prove that many of the ­revolutionaries were more loyal to their local traditions and authorities than to the ­government in Paris, and in the decades following the Revolution, theorists on the left ­increasingly replaced the Enlightenment’s ­universalist claims with arguments­ ­taking ­difference and conflict as their point of departure. The ­Communist ­Manifesto is the classic document of this new approach, in which the unity of mankind serves as a goal but the present reality is one of ?class struggle.

In The Undivided Past , the Prince­ton historian David ­Cannadine rejects this style of reasoning. Distinctions between groups of people”of religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization”may dominate politics and society at particular times, but none is the eternal fixture its theorists assert.

The explicit purpose of The Undivided Past is to challenge the “Manichean” worldview that Cannadine finds in American (and British) public life after 9/11: an essentialism that insists on fundamental, intrinsic, and unalterable differences between selected groups. Tracing the concept of “civilization” as a discrete unit from ­Edward Gibbon to ­Samuel ­Huntington, ­Cannadine argues that the idea that human beings are grouped into a small number of culturally distinct and historically opposed “civilizations” was a crucial justification for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

While more stable French and Italian identities were eventually forged in extended and sometimes coercive processes of national education, Cannadine prefers the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, in which peoples of diverse languages, faiths, and traditions managed to live together in relative peace for centuries. These benevolent arrangements broke down, in his telling, when they were challenged by nationalists who demanded countries of their own.

Yet he does not consider the reasons for these demands, including the fact that history offers not a single example of effective self-government within a multinational empire, including the Ottoman and Habsburg regimes. As nationalist theorists argue, political representation, administrative accountability, and pursuit of a common good make sense only within a relatively homogeneous ­national community.

Moreover, we can acknowledge the flexibility of national identity without dismissing it as meaningless. Marxist doctrine insisted that the workers of the world had more in common with each other than with the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, most of the socialist parties of Europe chose national allegiance over workers’ solidarity when war came in 1914.

Nations are not the only identity for which human beings have proved willing to fight and die. Another, and perhaps the most important, is religion. Quoting the historian Martin Marty, Cannadine observes that the history of religion “often appears to be little more than the history of conflict among those who are strange to each other.” Is religious conflict merely an appearance or an irreducible struggle among warring gods?

In keeping with his critique of essentialism, he argues not only that outbreaks of violence have alternated with periods of cooperation, but also that historians have emphasized dramatic conflict between sect and sect, altar and throne at the expense of more pacific relations in ordinary life.

Cannadine is right that Roman persecution of the early Church, the Crusades, and the Thirty Years’ War are not the “whole of the picture.” The question is whether these and similar episodes should be taken as the norm. Arguing that they should, he deploys a concealed version of a classic Enlightenment polemic against revelation and religious hierarchy. For him, people are by nature inclined to live together in peace. They can be turned against each other, however, when they are roused by priests and prophets.

The source of religious conflict, in this view, is not religion as such. Rather, it is the pernicious teaching that one account of God and man’s relation to him is true and others false. For Cannadine, the condition for coexistence is indifference to doctrine and theology. The heroes of Cannadine’s chapter on religion, therefore, are the merchants, politicians, and philosophers who either criticized or ignored religion in pursuit of their worldly interests. The villains are the clerics who have dared to claim that they knew the truth about God”or even that such a thing was conceivable.

Over the course of his discussion, Cannadine acknowledges that relations among religions in different places, times, and contexts have been the subjects of extensive academic debate. So it is curious that he charges the history profession with reinforcing “binary simplicities of difference” that justify conflict and even violent struggle between ostensibly homogeneous groups.

In fact, there is nothing fresh about his reminder that things are more complicated than the ideologues of identity admit. On the contrary, most contemporary historians delight in complicating distinctions that they believe their readers accept at face value, and love to tell us that nations are imagined communities, that classes are defined by decidedly local economic arrangements, that religious orthodoxies are historically constructed, and so on.

Cannadine is on more solid ground when he criticizes activist writers like the late Eric Hobsbawm. Like the archetypal “Whig historian” G. M. Trevelyan, of whom Cannadine has written a biography, the Marxist Hobsbawm preferred inspiring narratives of heroes and villains to the messy facts.

But he does not pay sufficient attention to Hobsbawm’s and ­Trevelyan’s own conceptions of their work. Neither claimed to be practicing disinterested scholarship. They aimed to motivate, or at least justify, political action by means of their writings. This practical motivation did not make them bad historians. It made them engaged intellectuals, whose passionate style and open ­partisanship makes them far more readable than their dreary scholarly debunkers.

And so it goes with the other categories that Cannadine discusses. Although such concepts can be reductive, there is no question that they have helped mobilize change, sometimes for the worse but often for the better.

Favoring a sanitized form of moral criticism that he associates with Gandhi, Cannadine ignores the way in which the reappropriation of binary categories can be essential to overcoming them. For example, the category “black” was crafted to justify slavery and its oppressive legacy. But the modern civil rights movement began with intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois asserting a distinctive black identity rather than emphasizing their similarity to whites.

More generally, Cannadine does not seem to appreciate that appeals to unity are political in the same way as are assertions of difference. ­Sometimes they attract broad support to a cause, as with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strategy for overturning Jim Crow. In other situations, they distract attention from the different challenges faced by people who are nominally members of the same ­community.

A case in point: Republicans’ dismissal of talk about the struggles of the working class as divisive “class warfare.” In this case, the appeal to shared membership in the American people obscures real grievances. The rhetoric of European unification offers a parallel example. Despite appeals to a common European future, most observers and citizens know that Europe’s member states do not have the same interests.

The absence of serious reflection on the political function of identities is striking in light of Cannadine’s own agenda. He suggests that rejecting the category of “civilization” that he believes led to war will allow us to forge more peaceful relations with Muslims, whom he presents as the main victims of the division of humanity in the name of civilization.

Cannadine hopes to recall “the common humanity that has always bound us together, that still binds us together today, and that will continue to bind us together in the future.” Yet his association of the clash of civilizations with ­American foreign policy reflects the same vice that he attacks elsewhere in the book: the political misreading of history.

He is so eager to uncover the intellectual origins of the War on Terror that he misunderstands the motives of its most important architect. According to Cannadine, the “us versus them” attitude encouraged by the concept of civilization is exemplified by George W. Bush. But here is what Bush actually said in one of his major statements on the War on Terror, the graduation address he delivered at West Point in 2002:

When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations. The requirements of freedom apply fully to Africa and Latin America and the entire Islamic world. The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation. And their governments should listen to their hopes.

These are not the words of a warrior for Western civilization. This rights-talk stems from the Enlightenment political philosophy that, like the rhetoric of 1789, is abstract, universal, and ahistorical, taking little account of the deep distinctions that constitute nations, religions, and civilizations.

“In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians . . . ?But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.” With this phrase from the 1797 Considérations sur la France , Joseph de Maistre proposed a powerful rejoinder to the revolutionary Jacobins’ promise to secure, by force if necessary, the universal rights of man. According to Maistre, we do not encounter each other simply as rights-bearing human beings, but as members of communities constituted by language, religion, custom, and interest.

Maistre’s claim is exaggerated. The Frenchmen of his experience were actually of fairly recent vintage, perhaps no older than the revolution itself. But he was right that difference is at the core of the human experience. We are all alike in finding ways of defining ourselves that separate us from others, even if these identities are subject to ­historical flux.

Maistre’s insight is challenging to modern conservatives and liberals alike. Although they have different understandings of the rights of man, both tend to believe that human beings are universally entitled to unchanging freedoms, which can be secured under just one form of government. If he read Bush with more charity, in fact, Cannadine might find an ally in the former president. In their passionate concern for Man at the expense of real people in all their differences, both are Jacobins.

Samuel Goldman is associate professor of political science at the George Washington University.

Articles by Samuel Goldman

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