‘How does knowledge of the past help prepare us for the challenges of the twenty-first century?’
Over the past centuries, several theorists and intellectuals have mused on history and its seeming tendency to repeat itself, leaving modern society with various witticisms that essentially define humanity as powerless over our destiny. The implication is that history could provide invaluable assistance in tackling modern challenges, and the failure to apply historical lessons and warnings is a failure of humankind. That we are wholly to blame for an undesirable, struggling world is an uncomfortable perspective to embrace, but widespread unrest, appalling inequality gaps, and looming climate disaster mean that it is increasingly difficult to deny the challenges that we are facing. However, instead of blaming ineffective politicians or ‘the uneducated’ for ignoring the lessons of history, we should question the value of history in actually providing valuable guidance. It is easy to ignore the subjectivity of historical interpretation and the impossibility of knowing, let alone understanding, the complicated web of motivations, manipulations and coincidences that surround historical events. With this, it seems unreasonable to expect anyone to draw sensible comparisons with modern day and then apply them in a productive way. However, the study of history is not futile, and knowledge of the past does teach us lessons, which take the form of insights into society and humanity rather than strategies for specific issues. Knowledge of certain ingrained human traits and behaviours allows us to predict societal reactions to events, thus preparing us for modern challenges.
In theory, one could use this knowledge to manipulate the public into acting in a desired way. However, any prospective supreme leader or politician will quickly discover that the lessons of history cannot always be applied on a small scale. For example, the 1925 murder of leading socialist Giacomo Matteotti by the Fascist squadristi, a poorly organised but passionate paramilitary group, conveys certain seemingly-pertinent political truths. The unwavering support of Italian industrial elites and King Victor Emmanuel III for Mussolini, even after he was directly implicated in Matteotti’s killing in the testimony of his press secretary Cesare Rossi, shows the power of society’s tendency to fear left-wing ideologies more than those of the right. This attribute of political culture can be seen throughout history, famously in Weimar Germany, where largely irrational fears of a communist revolution, and endemic bias of institutions such as the judiciary against the left, were instrumental in the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Thus, countless historical examples, not least the failure of Michael Foot’s radical manifesto in 1983, should have warned the Labour Party against having a self-proclaimed socialist leader and a strongly left-wing manifesto. This seems to be clear evidence that although the past does not actively inform policy-makers of an infallible strategy, it passively reveals societal traits, such as an ingrained aversion to seemingly far-left ideas, that can and should be applied intelligently to current events in order to achieve success.
However, we live in unprecedented times and truths can be fickle. The Matteotti crisis and numerous elections throughout history and across the globe suggest the strength of political tribalism, even over fundamental moral values and even in spite of heinous crimes; the loyalty of Republicans to Donald Trump, despite evidence of politically-motivated threats and abuse of power as regards to his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, seems to support this idea. Thus, we are prepared for his likely acquittal when his impeachment trial moves to the Republican-dominated Senate, and therefore the President will successfully avoid responsibility, just as Mussolini did in 1925. However, although breaking the law may not trump political tribalism, the recent UK election suggests that a polemic and divisive issue, such as Brexit, might. For the first time in decades, constituencies in so-called Labour heartlands, such as Blyth Valley and Wrexham, ignored their traditional political and class identity, instead choosing to vote based on the Brexit issue. Knowledge of the past, which seems to assert the strength of tribalism, may have fostered complacency in this instance and prevented the vigorous campaigning and awareness of the working class which the Labour party needed for success. So, although the past can inform us about traditional responses and trends, its lessons cannot always be relied upon and, therefore, one must try not to overestimate the value of historical precedents. Despite the suggestion that history is endlessly repeating, societies do differ through time and across the world, meaning that knowledge of the past and human traits cannot reliably ensure results when facing modern challenges.
Often, however, these modern challenges are on a large scale. As a result of globalisation and social media, borders are rapidly disappearing and many of the most serious issues, such as climate change, affect humanity as a whole. Knowledge of the past can inform us of certain attributes that inhibit change, preparing us for the long and tortuous fight ahead. However, society will never simply abandon these ingrained attributes, at least not in the large proportions required for real change, and so one must accept an element of futility. Although knowledge of the past can prepare us for what problems we may face, it is relatively useless in guiding us on how to solve these problems. For example, it is clear that radical policies are needed to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as recommended by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Therefore, predominantly older politicians (the average age of UK members of parliament is 50 and the average age of US senators is 61.8) in wealthy countries must be persuaded that it is in their interests to support change, and middle-class middle-age members of the public must be persuaded to vote for politicians with bold plans. As a result of an aging global population, older people have the most power in the majority of Western electoral systems, yet history teaches us that these people are most influenced by loss aversion. This human tendency to fear loss more than to hope for gain is evident throughout history, notably during the foundation of the National Health Service in 1948. The British Medical Association and conservative press repeatedly attacked the NHS as ‘the first step…to National Socialism’ and voted against the revolutionary plans, which have since benefitted millions of people and are largely viewed as a success. 7 Older politicians and members of the public, who traditionally have more materially so are less likely to take a risk on change, only overcame their instinctive inhibitions because they were exposed to the necessity of healthcare reform by two world wars, which saw new types of injuries on an massive scale. Unfortunately, although less developed countries are confronting exceptionally ferocious flooding, heat waves and natural disasters because of climate change, major polluters such as the USA, the EU and China are enjoying relative normality. Knowledge of the past teaches us that people must witness the negative effects of an issue first-hand in order to actively fight for change, and thus, with numerous warnings of existential threats and heart-wrenching photos from across the globe having little definite impact, we can only wait. Therefore, knowledge of the past cannot help us to interfere with ingrained attributes and persuade people of the urgency of climate action. But, history can and does inform us about the challenges we face and thus prepares us.
Knowledge of the past prepares us for the challenges of the twenty-first century in many ways. Observations of the repetitiveness of history should not be seen as dispiriting; instead, we should be heartened by the unchanging nature of humanity in spite of changing times, attitudes and ideologies. The presence of certain constant traits of societies suggests that when learning about our past, through the study of history, we are simultaneously learning about our present and future. Though it may not be as useful and directly applicable as one would hope, knowledge is still power.
- Robin Bunce, Peter Clements, Andrew Flint, Sarah Ward and Mark Gosling, Nationalism, dictatorship and
democracy in twentieth-century Europe (London: Hodder Education, 2016)
- Richard J. Evans, The coming of the Third Reich (London: Penguin Books, 2004)
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global warming of 1.5 o C, 2018 <https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/> [accessed 11 January 2020]
- Lukas Audickas, Richard Cracknell and Alexander Bellis, Social Background of MPs 1979-2017, 5 November 2019
- Jennifer E. Manning, Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile, 20 December 2018
- Greg Harman, ‘Your brain on climate change: why the threat produces apathy, not action’, The Guardian, 10 November 2014
- Anthony Broxton, “Why should the people wait any longer?” How Labour built the NHS, 2017 <https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/why-should-the-people-wait-any-longer-how-labour-built-the-nhs/> [accessed 9 January 2020]