History? How propaganda shapes and reshapes our minds (1994)


Sean Matgamna

HSTORY SHAPES us all; socialists, shaped by history, try to shape future history. For much of this century millions of socialists got lost because .they related to reality in terms of false, imaginary maps of future history.

But what is "history"? It is not something fixed and solid and defined, like archaeological findings. It is our knowledge of the past and our interpretation of it

Like things seen through a mist from the back of a moving lorry, it is always unclear, always changing, always being constructed anew, its shape recomposed in the mind of the observer and of successive observers.

It is - written down or otherwise - our collective memory. And,like individual memory, it is always being reshaped and reinterpreted from shifting standpoints.

It is not only that much is not known, or not "available" in comprehensible fashion, about even the recent past. The fundamental difficulty is that of flux and standpoint, and what flux and standpoint does to the apprehending and shaping of the past.

At any given moment, "history" is nothing but a tale agreed upon by a community, a nation, or a cluster of nations, or a political party. For example, look at the way that perceptions of the two World Wars of the twentieth century have changed over the last few decades.

"Timewatch" (BBC2, 6 November) illustrated this once more by demolishing the picture of the Spanish Inquisition held for four centuries by Protestant Europe and America, and in much of the Catholic world too. The Inquisition was an institution of fanatical persecuting Catholic monks. It tortured and burned vast numbers of heretics", and thereby sterilised Spain intellectually for hundreds of years, contributing to its retardation and decline.

The image of the Inquisition as something like religious Nazism entered into popular history and popular culture. Generations of the boys who grew up to staff the British Empire were weaned on tales of British seamen in Drake's time and after fighting "the Dons" for liberty. No worse fatc could befall those heroes than to fall into the hands of the torturers of the inquisition.

Recent research into the enormous archives of the Inquisition is, according to Timewatch, establishing a radically revised picture of the Spanish Inquisition. It was staffed not by fanatical monks but often by career lawyers, who would go on to other things. It did not torture and burn on a vast scale.

Only two per cent of its prisoners, according to a survey of the records for one Spanish province, suffered any torture at all, in an era when the torture of prisoners was routine practice throughout Europe. Very few people were burned by the Inquisition.

The surveying of the forbiddingly voluminous records of the Inquisition is at an early stage. And we should not rush to exonerate this inquisition of repression.

Yet Tirnewatch made a convincing case that the "image" of the Inquisition which we have is one created by combatants in the propaganda war between Catholics and Protestants from the 16th century onward.

Most telling of all was the contrast Timewatch drew between religious persecution in the rest of Europe and in the Spain of the Inquisition. Hundreds of thousands of women were burned alive as witches in Europe (including Britain) between 1450 and 1750, but only a handful of them were burned in Spain, where the Inquisition took a more sophisticated and therefore more tolerant view of such things.

This sort of historical revision should impose no perturbation on Marxists. Frederick Engels long ago (in "Dialectics of Nature") poured scorn on Protestant Europe's identification of the Renaissance with the Reformation. He pointed out that if the Calholic Church burned the scientific heretic Giordano Bruno at Rome in 1600, so too did the Protestant Reformer Jean Calvin roast the Protestant "heretic" Servetius over a slow fire in Geneva a little earlier.

The point for us is that "history" is part of the ideological struggle - part of the class struggle. Of course we must approach historical fact with incorruptible scrupulousness. The realisation that conventional history, as it is shaped and reshaped in society, contains a large element of "current politics read backwards", as one Stalinist historian put it, cannot be a recommendation to substitute convenient fairy stories for attempts at true history. That is, to put out our own eyes.

Within that framework, however, we must fight for our version - for a working-class version - of events, if we are to prevent the ruling-class lies and myths from overwhelming and suppressing the truth (about the 1984-5 miners' strike, to take a recent example), and entering as an element into the consciousness of those who will shape future history.

It remains true that the victors write history, in the main. One of the functions of socialists and of socialist organisations which function as "the memory of the class" is here and now to contest the writing - just as we contest the making - of history with them.

By Tom Macara SO 618, 10-1-1994