David Cannadine is a phenomenally productive historian whose work has questioned received opinions on the management of empire, the decline (and survival) of the aristocracy, the invention of traditions, and much else that has gone to make modern Britain. He has also written brilliantly about the United States, where he lives. (His biography of the philanthropist Andrew Mellon is one of the most searching explorations of the culture known inaccurately as “Scotch- Irish”.) Above all, he is interested in the way history gets written, as well as the way it is made, and the dissonance between the two.
This is the brunt of his new book. The cover notes describe it as “agonised”, which seems rather odd given Cannadine’s fluency, firm tone and easy style. But you see what is meant: he has written an eloquent and resounding plea for intellectual tolerance and inclusiveness, in spheres where such things are often lacking. The book considers various themes in the history of humanity, including race, nation, religion, gender and class. These are analysed as organisational categories, and subjected to a quizzical analysis, winkling out contradictions and paradoxes. Few traditional assumptions survive unscathed.
Cannadine’s treatment of religion, for example, while briefly nodding at what Gibbon called “the dark enthusiasms of the vulgar” and the pretensions to omniscience in both Christianity and Islam, prefers to stress the traditions of culture and interfaith communication to be found in the late medieval world. Here, as elsewhere, we are reminded that Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences” can be applied; the most visceral antagonisms are to be found in internal feuds. While Cannadine admits that the early modern period, especially the dark 17th century, is characterised by violent and bloody religious polarisation, he also draws a picture of Protestant students at Jesuit universities, biconfessional use of Swiss churches, and common recreational cultures. His emphasis throughout is on multiple identities, with religion (or class, or nationality) simply one negotiable component. (Though he has to admit that Northern Ireland is one of the less encouraging loci for such observations.)
Discussing nationality, he begins with the great historian Fernand Braudel, whose classic work on the Mediterranean began as a conscious attempt to reconfigure a prenationalist world but ended up as a piously Gaullist account of the French nation. There is a warning here: nationalism as a kind of original sin, forever recurring despite attempts to transcend it. Nonetheless Cannadine, like Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm, gamely searches out the contradictions that argue against essentialist national cultures. From the heyday of nationalism in the late 19th century, however, this is more problematic. Certainly, many of the belligerents in the first World War were far from homogenous national units (how many countries are?), but for all their polyglot and multi-ethnic characteristics, the rhetoric that drove them to Armageddon was fuelled by nationalist exclusivism as well as imperialist ambition. And nearer our own time, the fact that nationalism in eastern Europe was formally demoted for about 50 years of the 20th century did not dilute its toxicity when it awoke again.
One of Marx’s less successful prophecies was his announcement that the age of division into nations was past. Cannadine has some feline fun with other Marxian shibboleths, particularly regarding class, on which he has himself written a short but thought-provoking book. Certainly the Marxist categories of class have been rendered obsolete by unforeseen shifts in economy and society (though the prophet’s strictures on globalised capitalism have come back uncomfortably into focus over the past decade). Cannadine does not invoke Isaiah Berlin’s belief that Marx’s violent anarchist rival Bakunin was a more accurate prognosticator of the future than the sage of Hampstead, but it carries a certain conviction.
Marx’s collaborator Engels made his own prophecies about gender roles and the future of the family unit under socialism. He visualised men as bourgeois exploiters and women as an oppressed proletariat (an analysis essentially appropriated by Germaine Greer among others). Cannadine’s treatment is more suggestive, and is particularly interesting on the tensions and arguments within second-wave feminism, as well as the blindness of some “radical” historians towards gender issues, though he rather sticks his own neck out on “the haziness of the feminist project”. The point, once again, that gender is only part of an individual’s identity is well taken; though in a world where ex-pope Benedict can proclaim that women’s appropriate roles are “inscribed in their own biology” and where genital mutilation is rife under fundamentalist Islam, it may necessarily be both more primary and more politicised than appears here.
The chapter on race is less an argument for downplaying racial identity than a resounding demonstration of the idiocies of racial “theory” from the early 19th century onwards. Cannadine has some rough fun with the contradictions of the “land of the free”, but his reach is, as elsewhere, admirably global. Failures to legislate racial difference in Africa and elsewhere are dealt with crisply, as is the importance of anthropological revisionism, bolstered by modern geneticist analysis. Paradoxical effects of the black consciousness movement of the 1960s also feature, and the revival of melting-pot imagery in the age of Obama.
In fact, as the book moves to its conclusion, Cannadine's preoccupation with American developments predominates, with a powerful attack on the dodgy generalisations and messianic invocations of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilisations". By contrast, The Undivided Past has much in common with recent books on identity and cosmopolitanism by Amartya Sen and Kwame Anthony Appiah. As when reading their works, one is in the company of a mind that is flexible, curious, sophisticated, and wide open to the largest questions. Unfortunately, the oracular simplicities of Huntington or Philip Bobbitt appealed more to policymakers in the age of Bush and Blair, and we are living with the results now.
Unfortunate, too, that essentialist views of identity and fundamentalist approaches to religion and culture carry more weight than Cannadine’s plea to see civilisation as a construction of overlapping, variable and negotiable identities. Reading his sane, thoughtful, often mordantly witty book, I thought of another gifted demythologiser, Ernest Renan, who declaredin 1882 that nations were not eternal and would give way to a more inclusive kind of federation; but added sadly that “such is not the law of the age in which we live”.
Roy Foster is Carroll professor of Irish history at Hertford College, Oxford.