On studying history

Yesterday at the Oaxaca solidarity rally, I met my friend Abel Østergård, who many of you also know. He told me he is going to audit classes at the University of Texas here (which he graduated from) on Greek & Roman history.

When I was a university student majoring in history, my scholarship suffered not so much from activism as my inability to grasp or navigate an educational system that was so helter-skelter, so hit & miss. I always felt I was coming in during the middle of a play & that I was studying history backwards.

So after college, I pursued the study of history on my own & decided–governed by the eurocentrism prevalent at the time–to ‘start at the beginning’ by studying Greek & Roman history. It was a process that took me years & that I was taunted for by men who said it was pretentious. One older scholar even said to me, “Is that the only way you can learn?” In fact, systematically is the only way I can learn–& I learned years later that the great muckraking journalist I.F. Stone did exactly the same thing as me for the very same reason.

Based on my experience of plowing through volumes of historical rubbish to find great historians of that period, I suggested Abel read everything he could find by Moses Finley. Finley was an American scholar who taught in Ivy League schools & in 1952 was dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) used in the McCarthy Witch-hunt to terrorize dissidents & investigate “subversive activities.” Two years later, he was called before the US Senate committee investigating his ties to communism. He invoked the Fifth Amendment both times though it’s more than likely he never was a communist or a socialist.

After this ordeal, which marked him & could have gotten him blacklisted, he moved to England & taught until his retirement at Cambridge University.

Finley was not a Marxist historian. He was a rigorous materialist historian & that methodology is a hallmark of his investigations of the ancient world. Those who want to understand how to unravel the complexities not just of the past but of the present could not have a better teacher in methodology than Finley. And I say that even though I disagreed with the methodology he employed in “The Ancient Economy,” his most famous book. He’s a brilliant & eminently readable historian who would not make reckless speculations like are so rampant today among left & libertarian analysts.

Years later, Cliff Conners, a political associate from my youth wrote a book titled “A People’s History of Science.” It is a marvelous history & a sharp corrective to the eurocentrism that thinks human civilization began with the Greeks & Romans. In many ways, those familiar with the literature of those periods should know that since especially the Greeks acknowledged their intellectual, political, & scientific debt to Africa & the Middle East.

In his book, Cliff points to all the many important historians who challenged the eurocentrism of historical scholarship. Most notable is Martin Bernal who wrote “Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.” Another very important discussion in Cliff’s book is the elaboration of how racist ideology was developed in German universities.

I point all this out not so you admire my scholarship–which I assure you is still insufficient–but to say that the purpose of studying the past is not only to understand what happened then but to learn new ways of looking at things, to challenge our prejudicial historic visions, to understand the faulty historical methods & politics that led us to eurocentrism & to lopping off thousands of years of human civilization to feed the mythology of white supremacy.