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The Greatest Lessons That History Can Teach

The Greatest Lessons That History Can Teach

What s history? Why do revolutions happen? What is a successful government? What makes a great leader? What wins wars? Why do empires rise and fall? What causes nationalism? How do spiritual movements spread?

These are some of the 20 “big questions” that Harriet Swain, editor of the Times Educational Supplement, put to 20 eminent British scholars. Once the written answers were in, she asked 20 journalists to comment on them. The result is a fascinating little book that reads like an account of a flowing debate on important issues of history and politics.

Perhaps the trickiest of all the questions pertain to the subject of history itself. Is there really such a thing as history? The two essays offered here show that while there is no such thing as History with a capital H, there is such an academic discipline. No single historians can offer the definitive version of even the smallest event in the human story. But the many histories, biographies, research papers, memoirs, chronologies, official documents and even Sumerian shopping lists dating back to 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia can come together to offer us a broad picture that could be described as history. It is also true that each generation, when writing about previous ones, is, in fact, also writing about itself.

One thing the two papers on history make clear is that talking of an end to history, as the American scholar Francis Fukuyama, inspired by Hegel, did a decade ago, is problematic to say the least. History is the story of man and his deeds and will thus continue as long as there is organized human life on earth.

The paper on revolution punctures one traditional belief: that such an upheaval automatically leads to progress. Revolutions, we are told, are not always progressive. In fact, they could, in some specific case such as the advent of the Khmer Rouge Cambodia in 1975 and the seizure of power by the mullahs in Iran in 1979 prove to be thoroughly reactionary.

The ancient Greek philosophers believed that revolutions were caused by stasis, meaning the atrophy of a socio-political system. In other words revolution is like a heart attack that kills a fat old man. The best way to avoid it, therefore, is to remain slim, have a healthy diet, do a lot of exercise, and observe moderation in everything. A good recipe for governments that wish to avoid revolutions!

What about leadership? There are many conflicting answers. At the time that Marx was writing his “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, Napoleon was regarded by many in Europe as the greatest figure in history. Marx, however, deflated that romantic balloon in this way: “Circumstances create conditions for a grotesque mediocrity like Bonaparte to play a hero’s part.”

That view was further developed by Plekahnov in his “The Role of Personality in History”. It is the event that makes the man, not the other way round. Nevertheless, it is possible to reach a compromise. If Bonaparte had been a soldier in Luxembourg he could not have been able to do what he did.

At the same time, however, there were many generals in revolutionary France who could not, and did not, achieve what “the grotesque mediocrity” of Marx did.

What the leader needs is a feel for his people and his age. He also needs to be bold to the point of recklessness when necessary. Above all he must not be too much of an intellectual.

Leaders who try to determine where they are going in every detail would never get anywhere. Here is what Oliver Cromwell, leader of he English Revolution, had to say about great leadership: “He goes furthest who knows not where he is going.”

The two papers on good government are worth reading and re-reading by all decision-makers. Three factors could prevent a government from becoming successful.

The first is ideology. A government that tries to fit whatever it does into a fixed ideological framework is bound to fail because real life is never static while ideologies are. For example, the Kemalist ideology in Turkey forbade the state from allowing foreign companies to invest in developing natural resources such as oil and minerals. As a result, Turkey remained a resource-starved country until the 1990s when the late President Turgot Ozal relaxed the ideological constraints.

The second threat to successful government is morality. A government that tries to dictate the individual behavior of citizens to the last detail will fail because human nature is always tempted to try what is forbidden. The prohibition imposed in the United States in the 1920s led to a dramatic increase in the consumption of alcohol, produced the bootleggers and the Mafia, and corrupted the police and the judges.

The third threat to successful government is a propensity to panic. Governments must avoid knee-jerk reactions and refuse to be provoked into ill-considered moves by events. Talleyrand liked to write down every urgent decision and then put the note under his pillow, and sleep on it for at least a week. In time he found out that the delay meant that more than half of his urgent decisions did not need to be applied at all.

A successful government, while assessing the views of the public, refuses to become a slave to public opinion. In fact Plato described public opinion as “ a large and dangerous beast” that had to be tamed and chained rather than let loose.

One of the most interesting discussions concerns the role of religion in society and the need to subject all belief systems to systematic critical scrutiny.

Here is how Kant put it: “To criticism everything must submit. Religion, through its sanctity, and law giving through its majesty, may seek to exempt themselves from it. But they then awaken just suspicion and cannot claim that sincere respect which reason accords only to that which has been able to sustain the test of free and open examination.”

This fascinating book is a mine of wisdom formed over more than 25 centuries of man’s quest for understanding the big questions of his life.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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