Common people make history

By Prof Khwaja Masud


Man lives for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic aims of humanity. — Tolstoy

LORD ACTON, in his report to the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press wrote in 1896: ‘Ultimate history we cannot have in this generation, but we can dispose of conventional history and show the point we have reached on the road from one to the other, now that all information is within reach, and every problem has become capable of solution.’

Sixty years later, Sir George Clarke, in his introduction to the second Cambridge Modern History pooh-poohed the idea of ultimate history and said: ‘Historians of a later generation do not look forward to any such prospect. They expect their work to be superseded again and again. They consider that knowledge of the past has come down through one or more human minds, has been processed by them, and therefore, cannot consist of elemental and impersonal atoms which nothing can alter… some impatient scholars take refuge in… the doctrine that, since all historical judgments involve persons and points of view, one is as good as another and there is no objective historical truth.’

The contradictory views of Acton and George Clarke about history are a reflection of the change in the total outlook on society over the interval between the two pronouncements. Acton stands for the positive, confident belief of the later Victorian age when the British Empire was at its zenith and George Clarke echoes the confusion and disillusionment consequent upon the disintegration of the Empire.

What is history? The answer depends on our position in time and the view we take of the society in which we live i.e. on the philosophy of history.

Ranke believed that the task of the historian was ‘simply to show how it really was.’ History, according to him consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. First get your facts straight, then and only then plunge into interpretations. To recall the dictum of C.P. Scott: ‘Facts are sacred, opinion is free.’ This is the common sense school of history.

What is an historical fact? This is a crucial question. According to the common sense view, there are certain basic facts which are the same for all historians and which form the backbone of history. The fact, for instance, that Pakistan came into existence on Aug 14, 1947 or the fact that the battle of Plassey was fought in 1757. But is the issue as simple as that?

For one, there is an abundance of facts and the historian has got to make a selection. For another, the historian has to arrange facts in order of priority. There is a common saying that facts speak for themselves. On close analysis this is simply not true. The facts only speak when the historian calls on them.

The facts of history do not come to us in pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. History means interpretation. One must study the historian before one begins to study the facts that he is narrating. Here the age old philosophical problem of the relation between mind and reality, between subject and object raises its head. There is no denying the existence of objective reality, but it has to be grasped by an active mind.

The historian, like all other individuals, is a social phenomenon, both the product and the conscious or unconscious spokesman of the society to which he belongs. Before one studies the historian, one must study his historical and social environment. While some historians regard history as the biography of great men, others have emphasised impersonal forces in the making of history.

Carlyle who upheld history as the biography of great men contradicted himself when he summed up the causes of the French revolution: ‘Hunger and nakedness and nightmare oppression lying heavy on twenty-five million hearts: this… was the prime mover in the French Revolution; as the like will be in all revolutions, in all countries.’

Lenin corroborated this view and said: ‘Politics begin where the masses are; not where there are thousands, but where there are millions, that is where politics begins.’ Carlyle and Lenin’s millions are millions of individuals: there is nothing impersonal. Millions of discontented people are a factor which no historian can ignore.

If a leader comes forth who voices this discontent and guides the people to a new social order, some historians attribute this success to his charismatic qualities and belittle the role of the millions of masses, who are the real motivating force of history.

In his speech that he delivered in the German parliament in 1869, Bismarck said, “We cannot ignore the history of the past, nor can we create the future. I would like to warn you against the mistakes that causes people to advance the hands of their clocks, thinking thereby they are hastening the passage of time…We cannot make history. We must wait while it is being made…if we pluck [a fruit] before it is ripe, we will only prevent its growth and spoil it.’

While Bismarck was correct in assessing his role, it is suicidal to wait while history is being made, because it is men who make history. History has its bye-laws, but they operate through people and great men are not so much creators as midwives of history, pregnant with great events.

It is this philosophy of history which should guide us while making an attempt to understand the history of Pakistan.

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