History: one damn thing after another?

Posted on August 31, 2016

Making sense of history resembles gambling. Instead of a casino, we have all reality we can grasp. Instead of betting on outcomes, which are yet to come, we bet on explanations of outcomes, which came already out. The irony of history is that explanations of the past are as controversial as bets on possible futures. We bet on the past, we bet on future, and we are betting on the now and here. Some gamble.

For instance, the role of a class struggle in creating of the unequal wealth in the history and herstory of different nations. Here are two possible competing entries.

Once upon a time there was a country, which had lost a war. Most of its industries were destroyed and politicians were condemned by winners. The society had to rebuild and reconstruct itself. However, the core social structure survived with the ruling classes still in firm possession of authority and knowledge. They were followed by the lower classes - still disciplined, still hard-working and frugal, ready for a reset. Lo and behold, such stability has been rewarded. Welfare came and the country jumped from the status of a broken enemy to the status of a successful ally of the free and wealthy world. Happy end of story one.

Another story about the same country, which had lost a war once upon a time.

Most of its industries were destroyed and politicians were condemned by winners. The society had to be rebuilt and reconstructed. However, the core social structure had been slightly altered. The ruling classes, serving in the army, in the government and in the top management teams had been crushed. The middle and lower classes sensed the vacuum. They were more motivated, hard-working and frugal than ever before – because they knew they are working for themselves and they smelled a chance to get to the vacancies on the top. Lo and behold - their prayers had been answered. Welfare came and the country jumped from the status of a broken enemy to the status of a successful ally of the free and wealthy world. Happy end of story two.

Happy ends belong to ideologies and fables. Realities do not oblige. Some more brilliant sociologists and political scientists, say, a Mancur Olson, did compare the postwar economic growth of Germany and Japan, two main losers of WWII, in the above terms, but none could come up with a convincing choice of the “correct” (true, evidence-based, confirmed by facts) story. Moreover, none could come up with the external link in the explanation of the post-World War II developments, namely the Cold War, which changed all the national stages designed for fighting the class struggle out. Interestingly enough, when the Polish ‘Solidarity” demolished the class ideology of the communist parties behind the Iron Curtain in 1980 and when the East Germans tore down the Berlin Wall in 1989, their actions were explained in terms of a universal human struggle for freedom. Classes evaporated into nations and constituencies. The Polish historians needed 36 years of a postcommunist research to discover the class nature of the economic program of the independent trade union “Solidarnosc” and to compare it to the post-1988 policies introduced by the neoliberal politcians. Their German counterparts are not yet up to repeat Nolte’s “Historikerstreit” with focus on a comparison of what the manifesting East German wanted and what they got. Shall we bet on who detects the class struggle behind the waves of the predominantly Muslim refugees in Christian Europe?

Poznan/Rotterdam, August 29, 2016