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'The Undivided Past', by David Cannadine – review

6 April 2013

9:00 AM

6 April 2013

9:00 AM

The Undivided Past David Cannadine

Allen Lane, pp.336, £25

David Cannadine detests generalisations and looks disapprovingly on any attempt to divide humanity into precise categories. The Undivided Past provides a resoundingly dusty answer to any historian rash enough to seek for certainties in this our life. It is highly intelligent, stimulating, occasionally provocative and enormous fun to read.

Cannadine considers the six ways in which humanity is traditionally deemed to split into distinct and usually hostile groups — religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilisation — and demonstrates that these groups are neither distinct nor hostile — indeed, can hardly be said to be groups at all. ‘When I was coming up,’ said President George W. Bush regretfully, ‘you knew exactly who they were.Today we’re not so sure who they are, but we know they’re there.’

There is no such thing as ‘they’ and ‘we’, Cannadine would retort. The Manichean vision of a society divided into they and we, good and bad, is not merely nonsensical but dangerous; by pre-supposing a world divided into blocs, it creates the frame of mind in which artificial differences become real and lead to embittered hostility and, eventually, war or revolution.

To take religion: pagans pitted against Christians, Christianity against Islam, Hindu against Muslim.  ‘He that is not with me is against me,’ Christ propounded; and though Christ himself pleaded the need to love one’s neighbour, his more belligerent followers saw themselves as Christian soldiers marching as to war and smote the infidels with unchristian relish. But this is far from being the whole story. Cannadine writes:

The encounters between paganism and Christianity were often more complex, nuanced and open-minded, with adherents of both religions living together, on a more equal and tolerant footing than the triumphalist accounts recognised.

Not merely did pagans and Christians often coexist amicably, the line between the two was  blurred, the historic and social ties that bound them together tended to be at least as evident as the religious differences that divided them.


Hostility between Christians and pagans or Christianity and Islam was no more embittered than that between different sections of the Christian church. According to that arch-sceptic Gibbon:

The Christians, in the course of their intestine dissentions, have inflicted far greater severities on each other, than they have experienced from the zeal of infidels.

Yet the Protestant and Catholic camps were by no means as ‘united, coherent or monolithic’ as their more vociferous supporters maintained. Protestants, by the end of the 16th century, had splintered into many shades of dissent — Calvinist, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian — all united in their dislike of Rome but viewing each other with undisguised distaste. Dissension was real: yet for every malcontent determined to exaggerate the differences between the rival movements there was a moderate eager to build bridges and emphasise the points of similarity.  This is not a chess game with white neatly arrayed against black; it is a nuanced array of greys, with one shade blending into another and the colours constantly flickering and fading until it is almost impossible to verify their precise gradations.

The same is true of another of Cannadine’s categories; class. In the beginning were two classes, Marx and Engels believed, aristocrat against peasant, capitalist against worker. Over the generations aristocracy receded before a rampant and acquisitive bourgeoisie and any sense of responsibility which the landowner might have felt towards the peasants who tilled his land disappeared in a new industrial society in which the employer was concerned only to maximise his profits. This development, Marx and Engels believed, was grounds for rejoicing: the time could not be far distant when ‘the new, expanding, factory-based working class would rise up and overthrow the hated and hostile bourgeoisie’.

But they got it all wrong, Cannadine protests. Society was infinitely more complex than Marx and Engels admitted; there were not two or three classes but many different layers of skilled and unskilled labour. Nor was that the whole story. People could not be defined solely by their income or their ranking in the pecking order of industrial society.

For most people, work has only ever been part of their life and has never been the sole determinant of how they see themselves in relation to others.

One problem Cannadine faces is that the six categories into which he suggests humanity is traditionally divided are themselves confused and interwoven. For instance, he distinguishes between ‘Nation’ and ‘Race’.  Mazzini urged:

Love your country. Your country is the land where your parents sleep. It is the home that God has given you, that by striving to perfect yourselves therein you may prepare to ascend to him.

Race is more generalised; it is black or white; Jew or gentile. Yet the distinction is sometimes a fine one. Is the native Kenyan who resents the fact that much of the richest farmland is still owned by white settlers actuated by the fact that he is black and the settlers white? Or by the fact that he is an indigenous Kenyan and the white farmer a foreign interloper? Or, indeed, is it primarily a question of class, with the Kenyan peasant resenting the rich landowner? All three probably: Cannadine could very reasonably maintain that this only illustrates his thesis, that it is impossible to divide humanity into rigid and self-contained groups.

The Undivided Past is a cry for tolerance.  Cannadine believes that his fellow historians have too often succumbed to the temptation to divide the world into rival camps.  In so doing they have fomented the very animosities that they profess to deplore. To write about the past, Cannadine concludes, requires the historian

to celebrate 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.

It is noble message and one that historians would do well to heed.  They won’t, though.


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