Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will ﬁnd the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was ﬁnished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years War. Who
Else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?
So many reports.
So many questions.
‘Questions from a Worker who Reads’ by Bertolt Brecht
i A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE WORLD
The questions raised in Brecht’s poem are crying out for answers. Pro-
viding them should be the task of history. It should not be regarded
as the preserve of a small group of specialists, or a luxury for those who
can afford it. History is not ‘bunk’, as claimed by Henry Ford, pioneer
of mass motor car production, bitter enemy of trade unionism and early
admirer of Adolf Hitler.
History is about the sequence of events that led to the lives we
lead today. It is the story of how we came to be ourselves. Under-
standing it is the key to ﬁnding out if and how we can further change
the world in which we live. ‘He who controls the past controls the
future,’ is one of the slogans of the totalitarians who control the state
in George Orwell’s novel1984. It is a slogan always taken seriously by
those living in the palaces and eating the banquets described in Brecht’s
Some 22 centuries ago a Chinese emperor decreed the death
penalty for those who ‘used the past to criticise the present’. The
Aztecs attempted to destroy records of previous states when they con-
quered the Valley of Mexico in the 15th century, and the Spanish at-
tempted to destroy all Aztec records when they in turn conquered the
region in the 1620s.
Things have not been all that different in the last century. Chal-
lenging the ofﬁcial historians of Stalin or Hitler meant prison, exile
or death. Only 30 years ago Spanish historians were not allowed to
delve into the bombing of the Basque city of Guernica, or Hungar-
ian historians to investigate the events of 1956. More recently, friends
of mine in Greece faced trial for challenging the state’s version of
how it annexed much of Macedonia before the First World War.
Overt state repression may seem relatively unusual in Western in-
dustrial countries. But subtler methods of control are ever-present. As
I write, a New Labour government is insisting schools must stress
British history and British achievements, and that pupils must learn
the name and dates of great Britons. In higher education, the histo-
rians most in accord with establishment opinions are still the ones who
receive honours, while those who challenge such opinions are kept
out of key university positions. ‘Compromise, compromise’, remains
‘the way for you to rise.’
Since the time of the ﬁrst Pharaohs (5,000 years ago) rulers have
presented history as being a list of ‘achievements’ by themselves and
their forebears. Such ‘Great Men’ are supposed to have built cities
and monuments, to have brought prosperity, to have been respon-
sible for great works or military victories—and, conversely, ‘Evil
Men’ are supposed to be responsible for everything bad in the world.
The ﬁrst works of history were lists of monarchs and dynasties known
as ‘King Lists’. Learning similar lists remained a major part of history
as taught in the schools of Britain 40 years ago. New Labour—and
the Tory opposition—seem intent on reimposing it.
For this version of history, knowledge consists simply in being able
to memorise such lists, in the fashion of the ‘Memory Man’ or tM heas-
termind contestant. It is a Trivial Pursuits version of history that pro-
vides no help in understanding either the past or the present.
There is another way of looking at history, in conscious opposition
to the ‘Great Man’ approach. It takes particular events and tells their
story, sometimes from the point of view of the ordinary participants.
This can fascinate people. There are large audiences for television
programmes—even whole channels—which make use of such mate-
rial. School students presented with it show an interest rare with the
old ‘kings, dates and events’ method.
But such ‘history from below’ can miss out something of great im-
portance, the interconnection of events.
Simply empathising with the people involved in one event cannot,
by itself, bring you to understand the wider forces that shaped their
lives, and still shape ours. You cannot, for instance, understand the
rise of Christianity without understanding the rise and fall of the
Roman Empire. You cannot understand the ﬂowering of art during the
Renaissance without understanding the great crises of European feu-
dalism and the advance of civilisation on continents outside Europe.
You cannot understand the workers’ movements of the 19th century
without understanding the industrial revolution. And you cannot
begin to grasp how humanity arrived at its present condition without
understanding the interrelation of these and many other events.
The aim of this book is to try to provide such an overview.
I do not pretend to provide a complete account of human history.
Missing are many personages and many events which are essential to
a detailed history of any period. But you do not need to know about
every detail of humanity’s past to understand the general pattern that
has led to the present.
It was Karl Marx who provided an insight into this general pattern.
He pointed out that human beings have only been able to survive on
iii A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE WORLD
this planet through cooperative effort to make a livelihood, and that
every new way of making such a livelihood has necessitated changes
in their wider relationships with each other. Changes in what he called
‘the forces of production’ are associated with changes in ‘the relations
of production’, and these eventually transform the wider relationships
in society as a whole.
Such changes do not, however, occur in a mechanical way. At each
point human beings make choices whether to proceed along one path
or another, and ﬁght out these choices in great social conﬂicts. Beyond
a certain point in history, how people make their choices is connected
to their class position. The slave is likely to make a different choice
to the slave-owner, the feudal artisan to the feudal lord. The great
struggles over the future of humanity have involved an element of
class struggle. The sequence of these great struggles provides the skele-
ton round which the rest of history grows.
This approach does not deny the role of individuals or the ideas they
propagate. What it does do is insist that the individual or idea can only
play a certain role because of the preceding material development of
society, of the way people make their livelihoods, and of the structure
of classes and states. The skeleton is not the same as the living body.
But without the skeleton the body would have no solidity and could
not survive. Understanding the material ‘basis’ of history is an essen-
tial, but not sufﬁcient, precondition for understanding