The British media and political class don’t do really Thucydides in the way that he’s a fixture of public discourse in the US (and, it seems, is now making inroads into Australia), or we might by now have seen a rush of references from those horrified by the election of Jeremy Corbyn to “hope, danger’s comforter”, the irrational exuberance of the Athenians in the Sicilian Debate, the depiction of factional in-fighting in the Corcyrean episode, or the general “history repeats itself, people being what they are, so it’ll be 1983 all over again” pessimism of his methodological statements in Book 1.* We have already had lots of more general (and non-classical) comments in a similar vein, arguing that the ‘lessons of history’, and more particularly the lessons of the 1980s, demonstrate the foolishness of abandoning the middle ground, however far rightwards it’s moved, and however much one might yearn for a bit more principle.
It isn’t that history is necessarily a conservative discipline, any more than it’s inevitable that people will become more conservative as they get older; but it is probably true to say that the more experience one has – vicarious or lived – of the weaknesses and frailties of human beings and the difficulty of effecting real change, the more one is inclined to pessimism (most often presented as hard-nosed ‘realism’, head over heart and so forth). Rather as an awful lot of contemporary rock and pop music sounds to me like things that were rather fresher and more exciting back in my adolescence, so for those who lived through the 1980s Corbyn looks like nothing new, but rather a nostalgia tour, a repackaging of stuff that lacked credibility then and certainly isn’t going to cut the mustard now. Spandau Ballet were never the future of music in the first place, and Corbyn is no Gary Numan, somehow turning out to have been right all along.
History is vital to help us understand where we are and how we got here – but it all too easily leads its readers to conclusions to the effect that revolutions always betray their ideals, you can’t fight city hall, the system always wins and in the end you have to look after your property’s market value because that’s all you’ve got. This is the tension that drives the opening section of Marx’s 18th Brumaire essay (which opens, of course, with the famous line that history does repeat itself – but not in exactly the same way: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce). The past can be a source of creative energy and inspiration, as the French revolutionaries found heroes and slogans in the history of the Roman Republic; studying the past can offer a powerful sense of contrast with the present, of the latter’s failures or inadequacies (why hasn’t modernity lived up to its promises? is our society really superior to that of the Greeks?), which can fuel a drive to bring about change. It also highlights the possibility of bringing about such change, since things have manifestly not always been as they are today, and so logically could (or will) be different in the future: capitalism has not always existed, so why assume that it’s now eternal?
But, Marx goes on to argue, at some point history becomes an impediment to change, circumscribing our imaginations and preventing us from believing that anything new or unprecedented could ever happen; it must therefore be cast aside in favour of the future, aiming to create a new world rather than to recreate an old one. Similar claims are made in Nietzsche’s essay on ‘The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’: consciousness of the past is simply part of being human, but there is always the risk that it becomes “the gravedigger of the present”, suffocating life and creativity by making it seem that everything has already been done and nothing new can ever be created, and by stripping away all myth, illusion and hope. Contemplation of the past, let alone serious academic study, tends to reinforce the status quo by making all thought of a different future seem either delusional (“It’s always failed in the past; why should this time be different?”) or terrifying (“Look how much worse things were in the past; that’s what you’re risking in trying to change the present.”). Hegel’s image of the readers of history being like people standing on a beach viewing a distant shipwreck with interest, unaffected by the faint cries of those struggling with the sea, neglects the extent to which this could reinforce the viewers’ determination to stick to the shore rather than venturing into uncharted territory.
Sometimes, it is true, the claim that “this time is different” is indeed vacuous and dangerous; modernity’s characteristic belief (as explored by Reinhart Koselleck) that the experience of the past is irrelevant BECAUSE TECHNOLOGY, so the present bears no resemblance to the past and the future is assumed to be more different still, has regularly run up against the sort of reality roadblock that confirms the pessimistic longer-term perspective. But one thing history ought to teach us is that change does indeed happen, just not very predictably, and indeed lack of change is rare and unusual – it’s just a question of timescales, and of what changes. One key problem of the ‘this time it’s different’, ‘no more boom and bust’ claims in the run-up to the 2008 economic crash was that these didn’t offer a very coherent theory of why things should now be different; they rested on the idea that long-established economic structures and processes had been magicked away by some minor government tinkering and policy announcements, whereas a serious consideration of those policies would (and did, at least to a few commentators) suggest that they operated almost entirely on the ‘animal spirits’ of investors and institutions rather than on structures – and thus arguably made things worse than they might have been, accentuating the underlying trends in both good times and bad, without actually doing anything to change the underlying realities.
But in case of politics, animal spirits are the whole point, and can be transformed (partially if not wholly) on a much shorter time-scale with rather less effort. Yes, there are structures and institutions working against such change (in the UK case, most obviously the media), but unlike in the economic sphere it isn’t the structures themselves that need to be transformed (or not primarily), but the ideas and feelings of people. Proponents of the “it’s 1983 all over again so this is doomed to failure” line have to base this on much fuzzier, almost metaphysical assumptions about the eternal character of the British voting public, or of humanity in general, such that they cannot ever be imagined as adopting different views. (It also tends to rest on a simplified, ideological or even mythical version of the events of the early 1980s, taken to be an account of reality, but that’s a different issue). Of course it is equally implausible to assume that British voters will instantly rise up to collectivise their local Tesco Express, but to be fair to Corbyn’s supporters, very few indeed seem to regard success as a foregone conclusion, or expect the task to be easy; they are putting their faith in the possibility (however faint) of change, which is a more sustainable position than insisting on its absolute impossibility.
And this is where one might claim Thucydides as a resource for understanding, rather than (as he is mostly used) as a source of authoritative sound-bites to reinforce a fundamentally conservative (small-c), reactionary agenda that claims a monopoly on ‘realism’ (most of which aren’t actually Thucydides himself, but are the words of characters in his account, whose claims are frequently ironised or even undermined by subsequent events). Thucydides’ claim about the tendency for events to repeat themselves in more or less the same way is based on a fuzzy notion of “the human thing” (rather than a deterministic “human nature”). On the basis of his account, it’s reasonable to assume that this “human thing” incorporates such traits as irrationality, excessive emotion and volatility, susceptibility to clever rhetoric, poor planning and inability to grasp one’s own situation properly – in brief, a nature that largely fails to follow clear, deterministic principles of behaviour, other than a tendency to get the wrong end of the stick, and which verges on being predictably unpredictable. True, he does offer a sense of what we could call ‘national character’, the tendency for Spartans to behave in certain ways and Athenians to behave in others – but again, his actual account of events shows the wide scope for variation within those parameters, including the existence of Spartan-like Athenians and Athenianesque Spartans…
It’s fair to say that Thucydides doesn’t offer a lot of hope to believers in an imminent Corbynite Revolution; as mentioned at the beginning of this post, plenty of episodes in his work raise troubling questions about the irrationality and self-interest of human beings, the problems of political discourse, the flaws of democratic institutions and so forth. But these questions should be troubling to anyone but the most cynical right-wing populist, not just to the idealistic Left; Thucydides’ ‘realism’ cuts both ways. And, while he himself clearly regarded this with suspicion, what we see time and again in his history is the capacity of successful arguments and appeals to shared values to energise people and inspire them to sacrifices in a higher cause – leaving aside the issue of pacifism, Corbyn might have a better chance of mobilising Pericles’ Funeral Oration than Cameron or Osborne… ‘History tells us’ too many different things for us to safely assume that, in any particular instance, change is impossible and events can only repeat themselves.
*Since I began writing this a couple of days’ ago, we have had a passing remark from Rafael Behr to the effect that political spin “is as unavoidable as politics itself, as old as Thucydides’ sexing up the case for war with Sparta.” You what? Maybe Pericles could be accused of sexing up the case for war against Sparta – though it’s probably a description that better fits the Corinthians urging the Spartans to make war against Athens – and Alcibiades could certainly be accused of sexing up the case for the invasion of Sicily, but Thucydides? In response to my quibbling on Twitter Behr has suggested that it was intended as a joke, but I still don’t get it…