Thursday, July 16, 2015

History of Rome by Michael Grant.

Michael Grant’s History of Rome is as standard and scholarly a depiction on this subject as you will find anywhere. It is not highly original or challenging in its conclusions. But it is an interesting and easy read by a historian who mastered his topic and was a skilled, methodical writer. Using his consummate understanding and proficient writing ability, Grant leads the reader from the Etruscan Period through the fall of the Western Empire after the split between Rome and Constantinople. He accomplishes this task in approximately 500 pages. Given that such breadth of time is often covered in twenty volume enterprises, one must admire the author’s concision.

While the insights Grant offers are hardly original, they are beautifully expressed with all of the thoughtful complexity intended by the progenitors of these ideas:
“Hannibal was…one of the world’s most noble failures, an altogether exceptional man who took on, in deadly warfare, a nation empowered with rocklike resolution—and that nation proved too much for him. It emerged hardened from the supreme test, and ironically, his most lasting achievement was to confirm and magnify its confidence and power” (Grant, p. 127).
In a couple of short sentences, the historian conveys Hannibal’s character, Rome’s tenacity, and the fascinating paradox that Hannibal produced the opposite of his intention despite heroic efforts of genius.

One surprising feature of this book is the inadequacy of its endnotes. They exist primarily as a further discussion of events and issues; not as confirmation of the statements to which they refer. Sometimes, during the process of explication, Grant will reveal the name of an individual who is a source (as he does in discussion of the claim that Jesus was born earlier than 4 BC [Grant, p. 499]). But even in that instance, he does not tell the reader where he found that source. Most often, he simply offers no information to permit one to investigate his interpretation. It is understood that history is not a science. But the more evidence a work offers, the more accuracy it will contain. Statements and conclusions that are drawn from primary sources, and from the real science of archaeology, are the evidence of history. Notes are the documentation of that evidence. Without accurate documentation, historians cannot confirm or falsify each other’s findings. Consequently, it is impossible to tell how the writer arrived at a conclusion. Statements without evidence are no better than legend.

But this is the only major flaw in an otherwise exceptional synoptic history. It is a difficult task to present a brief account of an extensive time period, about which so much has been written. Among such projects, there is a tendency to over-generalize and present a bare-bones outline, leaving the reader without rich thought or detailed picture of life. Grant performs a superior service by elegantly balancing his subject’s flow and the Empire’s evolution, with instructive, personally relatable features in which history lives. If your goal is to obtain an overview of the Roman Empire, you could hardly do better than to pick-up this volume.

Grant, Michael. History of Rome. New York: History Book Club, 1997.

Louis Blanc. His Life and His Contribution to the Rise of French Jacobin-Socialism by Leo A. Loubere.

Most people outside of French institutions of higher learning know nothing about Louis Blanc. But during the 1848 Revolution, there was no more popular Frenchman in Paris. His books had educated a generation of rebels on the Republican-Socialist alternative to monarchy. As a result, organizers of that monarchy’s opposition and workers in the streets saw him as their leader. The politicized populace was fully willing to place him as leader without parliamentary due process. Indeed, on more than one occasion during those tumultuous days, they carried him on their shoulders (as he struggled to get down), with the intention of violently installing him as autocrat of the government. There was certainly precedent for this means of choosing leadership. Only 50 years earlier, Robespierre had attained supremacy using the power of the mob. But Blanc was not a demagogue. He resisted violent efforts to attain his goals. He thought that the combination of education and representational government would lead to the realization of democratic and socialist ideas he propounded in his writing.

Leo Loubere follows Blanc’s career from journalism and history-writing, through his involvement in the 1848 Revolution, to his later career and death. Permeating the entire chronology are the revolutionary’s ideas on state, republicanism, socialism and social conditions. Be prepared for some detailed political philosophy; this is not just a portrait of a life. It is also quite critical of Blanc’s thoughts and actions. Saliently, his thoughts on violence are self-contradicting. While Blanc clearly states that “a cause…which must dip its hands in blood…can only retard the forward thrust of progress” (Loubere, p. 48), he supports war against Britain, rationalizing that for economic reasons “either France must perish, or England be erased from the map” (Loubere, p. 52). Politically progressive readers may be disappointed that Blanc repudiates the Paris Commune for its establishment through violent rebellion; but when the troops kill 20,000 communards, Blanc is silent (Loubere, p. 197).

Loubere has inimical tendency to perseverate upon sectarian political divisions within 19th Century France. This grinding proclivity dominates chapters 17 and 18, which lead-up to a final whimper on Blanc’s death and legacy. The only consolation to this weak ending is that these chapters comprise 32 short pages, so are quickly dispatched (or skimmed based upon the reader’s preference).

By the author’s admission, “Blanc was not a particularly effective leader” (Loubere, p. 162). He possessed neither the personal opportunism nor the strategic skill to create a lasting legacy. His gifts were those of a teacher, propagandist and thinker. As the biographies of Socrates and Marx show, such people are not remembered unless there is an intrepid student or following to carry-forth their projects. So outside of French academia, Louis Blanc is a forgotten footnote in history.

Loubere, Leo A. Louis Blanc. His Life and His Contribution to the Rise of French Jacobin-Socialism. Westport: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1980.

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

According to Howard Zinn, most of what we are taught about history is “told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats and leaders” (Zinn, p. 9). He contends that selection, simplification and emphasis, are inevitable distortions; choices that must be made in order to tell a cogent story. But, “the historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological” and “any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual” (Zinn, p. 8). Given this view, Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is an attempt to add the viewpoints of those most often left out of historical narratives. He tells the landing of Columbus from the perspective of the Arawaks, the Civil War from the perspective of the slaves, the rise of industrialism from the perspective of the workers, the opeerations of government from the perspective of the women ignored by it, and the wars from the perspective of those who favored peace.

The writing in this book is plain, without being simple-minded. Because of the overwhelming task the historian has set for himself, he relies upon the linked stories of individuals and events to present broad movements and subcultures. “It was January, midwinter, when the pay envelopes distributed to weavers at one of the mills…showed that their wages, already too low to feed their families, had been reduced. They stopped their looms and walked out of the mill…soon 10,000 workers were on strike…the IWW organized mass meetings and parades…the governor ordered out the state police. A parade of strikers was attacked by police…this lead to rioting all that day…a striker, Anna LoPizzo, was shot and killed. Witnesses said a policeman did it, but the authorities arrested Joseph Ettor and another IWW organizer…Neither was at the scene of the shooting.” (Zinn, pp. 327-8). His images are clear and evocative, pitting the common people against a wealthy owner class and the government that supports their interests.

Zinn admits that “a ‘people’s history’ promises more than any one person can fulfill” and that “it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance.” He explains this “makes it a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction—so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements—that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission” (Zinn, p. 570).

There is an underlying political science theory that drives Zinn’s narrative: the historian straightforwardly expresses that he sees our government as created by wealthy elites to support their interests, and that it has been safeguarding those interests ever since. He puts forth the idea that most governments are interested in maintaining stability and will relinquish power and rights just enough to prevent rebellion from below. Concurring with Karl Marx, Professor Zinn describes our capitalist state as “pretending neutrality to maintain order, but serving the interests of the rich” (Zinn, p. 252).   At times, the historian’s self-proclaimed “bias” and “distortion” leads to distorted conclusions. Chapter Sixteen, “A People’s War?” is an artless and comically unconvincing attempt to challenge the notion that World War II was not popular among the US masses and undemocratically foisted upon them. Conversely, in the same chapter, he presents China’s communist government as “the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government” (Zinn, p. 418). Perhaps compared to China’s dynasties, Mao’s regime was closer to “a people’s government;” but it was still a dictatorship with re-education camps and prisons for those who disagreed. It appears doctrinaire to attack the capitalist state for being in the hands of an elite minority while extolling the virtues of a dictatorship in the following paragraph. But such juxtapositions are rare for Zinn, and his version of our history presents consistent evidence of State collusion with wealthy elites to maintain stability in a system which benefits their association.

Whether or not the reader agrees with Professor Zinn’s political paradigm, there is a great deal to learn from his topics. A People’s History of the United States provides significant puzzle pieces to our picture of the past. It is uniquely compiled and sensitively reveals the paths of the disenfranchised through our nation’s evolution. He focuses upon groups that are under-represented in our government and under-represented in the discussion of our past. Their stories are the stories of the rest of us: immigrants, activists, minorities, women and workers. People who influenced the evolution of our country and without whom neither our nation nor our history is complete.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1980.