Thursday, June 09, 2005

Reading History

One of the side effects of my intensive reading of history books in the last few months has been to make me more aware of the ways in which lack of knowledge of history allows ahistorical understandings of the present to persist unnoticed in many little corners of my brain -- and, I would not hesitate to assume, the brains of many people out there, including many fellow activists. This makes it all the easier to fall into essentialist ways of talking about people and institutions and identities and schools of thought without realizing that we are doing it.

For example, recently I have read a number of book from a number of different perspectives with a number of different approaches to writing history which have talked about various party-based or party-related socialist efforts in Canada in the first half of the 20th century. I would have been able to tell you before I read these, in an intellectual way, that the battle lines between different schools of socialist thought are not pure and eternal, but rather products of history, and that those which persist mostly serve different functions today than they might have decades ago. But reading these books has helped this surface fact seep more deeply into how I think about things; it has actually applied this idea and shifted in subtle ways the shapes of the concepts attached to various political labels in my head.

Another example: Because of the context in which I have encountered members of the Christian sect known as Quakers, their ancient "peace testimony" (a socially engaged, faith-based pacifism) is central to my image of the group. But according to a book I read recently (sorry, didn't review it for the site) the peace testimony was actually not particularly emphasized in Quaker thought between the 17th and early 20th centuries -- it was pretty key at some points during the early years of Quakerism, and then was revived, especially in England, before and during World War One. Even during this last period, its meaning was hotly contested between liberal-minded elders and socially and religiously radical youth. Its fluctuations over time are just as historical as everything else in this world, not some ahistorical essence that is immutably attached to the label "Quaker."

I'm not sure if I can draw any sweeping lessons from this that aren't obvious and trite, but I'm pretty sure there are lessons for social movements in Canada and the United States related to this observation. It's vague and not original and I'm not sure I really understand fully what I mean by it, but I think it's critical that we work to have a historical rather than an essential understanding of the problems we're facing, and I think too many of us are caught up in the latter without even realizing it. And a more historical understanding can also be an antidote for pessimism in difficult times -- the structures we oppose were made by human beings and they can be transformed by human beings.

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