Lessons for the 21St Century

Lessons for the 21St Century

European History:

Lessons for the 21st Century

Gregory T. Papanikos

Director, Athens Institute for Education and Research (

General Secretary, Economic and Social Council of Greece ()

Opening Speech at the 3rd International Conference on European History: From Ancient to Modern. Athens, 29-31 December 2005. Cultural Center, City of Athens.

Athens, 29 December 2005

The past, the present and the future: What history has to do with this

History deals with the future reflecting on the past in order to serve present needs and interests.[1] This definition of the subject matter of history is suitable for the political and economic history of Europe since ancient times. It is quite possible that fits other histories as well. This interpretation of history, takes the future as given (fixed). The past is manageable. Present needs determine how the past should be managed to achieve, the best way possible, the desired future course of events. One corollary of this approach is that the past has many histories.

The above description of history fits well with the two fundamental approaches to history that seems to dominate the historical writings of the European world in the last two centuries. The first is based on the works of Karl Marx. Historical materialism is the “right” approach for the left to interpret the past because it serves the needs of the present day “proletariat”. As for the future, this is determined and inevitable, in other words fixed. Capitalism will collapse. Socialism and communism will triumph. Slightly paraphrasing Marx, “the historians have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” (emphasis in the original). Change by definition relates to the future course events. And after communism what? Is it the end of history? Marx is not around to respond.[2]

The second approach came as a reaction to the Marxist interpretation of the past. Hayek, the Nobel Prize winner is the most important authority who stood up against the Marxist interpretation of capitalism in general and the historical interpretation in particular. According to this view, our present day civilization is due to private property and capitalism. The future is fixed. Private property and capitalism will triumph and socialism wherever it exists will collapse. Hayek (1954, p. 4)) in his introduction of an edited book called Capitalism and the Historians stated very clearly “[H]istorical myths have perhaps played nearly as great a role in shaping opinion as historical facts. Yet we can hardly hope to profit from past experience unless the facts from which we draw our conclusions are correct”. Historical myths are spread by the historical materialistic approach. The greatest of all myths is the misery of the working class under capitalism. And Hayek proceeds to criticize all those historians and philosophers who consider the industrial revolution as the cause of all evils. Such anti-capitalist interpretations of history are myths and they are not based on historical facts (truths).

Just for the historical record, data up to the early 20th century did not refute Marx’s approach to history. On the contrary they vindicated him. Allen (2001), examining the trend of real wages and standard of living in Europe after 1500, concluded that for many Europeans the alleviation of mass (absolute) poverty was achieved only in the 20th century.

One just wonders whether the specter of communism was responsible for creating the modern civilized society that has elements of capitalism and socialism. Some scientists baptized this bastardization the “welfare state”. One may interpret this historical development as being the result of class struggles under capitalism. This is Marx’s definition of history.[3] Even though it might sound absurd but Marx and the working class movement, particularly under the umbrella of social democrats and Keynesian elements of government interventions, reformed capitalism in a way that postponed or (even worse for Marx) prevented altogether the collapse of capitalism. Marx saved capitalism along with its Soviet type realization. If socialism is like the one implemented in the Soviet Union, we are better off with capitalism.

Capitalists took Marx’s historical interpretation, particularly its future part, very seriously and decide to use it to prevent what Marx thought inevitable. After all, Marx predicted it in his 3rd Thesis on Feuerbach, “[T]he materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances” (emphasis added). Capitalists are men and, I should say, very smart men. Who is going to blame them if they decided to change their circumstances? Definitely not Marx.

According to Hayek, great men such as Bertrand Russell spread the bad myths about capitalism. In his book on The Impact of Science on Society, published in 1951 Russell stated that the industrial revolution created unspeakable misery reducing the average happiness. Hayek’s interpretation of history and with him all the political and economic philosophers of the new economic order of unrestricted market power deny all these as lies and against the common sense facts. History should be rewritten.

Unfortunately for Hayek his interpretation of history is not vindicated. In a recent paper on happiness, by the well-known economist Richard Layard of LSE, it was concluded that happiness does not go hand in hand with increasing standard of livings. On the contrary, it is reduced. Russell is vindicated on happiness; Hayek is vindicated on standards of living and the future might vindicate Marx.

There is nothing new in saying that history is not the past per se. Nor it is new to say that history reflects on the past serving present needs. Present needs reflect certain ideologies that historiography is called to serve. Both Hayek and Marx will agree on that. That ideology and history are interconnected is nothing new and is as old as the writing of history itself. It seems that this issue will re-appear all the time. As Strath (2006) has argued, the whole issue of globalization and the clashes of civilization is sufficient evidence of the role of ideologies in shaping history. The history of the 21st century or of the 3rd Millennium will continue to be shaped by ideology, i.e. by people’s beliefs of how things should or must turn around. How these beliefs are shaped is an entire different question. Whether they are realized or not is a completely different story.

Concluding this section, the first lesson that we can learn from European history is not to underestimate the power of ideology. It is a very strong determinant of where we want to go. It determines how we should look at the past. But how we should look at the past in the beginning of the 21st century?

Global history

Today the past should reflect globalization. A global history or a universal history is needed. Globalization itself has a long history and can be considered as a regular or irregular process of bringing together all nations, particularly in the economic sphere. Technology is one of the most important factors that determine the extent of globalization. Institutional arrangements are another factor. Both are affected by the need for economic benefits to be reaped off by an increasing number of global economic agents.

During the 20th International Conference of Historical Sciences that took place in Sydney 3-9 July 2005, the opening session was devoted to the globalization of history and its limits. Professor and President of the Association Jurgen Kocka questions the possibility of coming up with a unified world history. He gave various arguments why history will always be a subject with a high degree of diversity, fluidity and conflict. I was almost persuaded till he made a conditional statement: “…as long as such diversity, fluidity and conflict are not ruled out or suppressed by political means or ideological force”. But globalization is exactly this: a strong political (and sometimes military) force that is driven by a very strong ideology. Thus, I conclude that a unified history is coming very fast.

There is a strong interest to globalize the world. Therefore there is a need to interpret the past in a way that supports these present interests. This might explain why history has shifted the focus from discussing national histories to a discussion of a world history. From what I learn, courses are added on issues that relate to world history at an increasing rate. We are going to see more of that. If I read correctly the present needs, then I see this history to focus on the conditions of social and economic developments rather than on individual nations or cultures. A good and a typical example of this new history is a paper on the economic history of Latin America. Cole, et al (2005) explain the failure of Latin American countries to create the right conditions. It is not historical but political and economic forces that will drive these countries into the global arena. All they have to do is to destroy the barriers to international integration. They do not have to change anything else. Look at China as an example. Every country can play the game of integration irrespectively of her historical role.

Thus, the second lesson for the 21st century history is that globalization needs a unified world history. I am sure that many historians will be willing to write it. However, this new history must be a practical history. Everybody should understand it. What constitutes a practical history?

Practical history

It seems to me that many historians define history as what historians do. In mathematical terms this is an identity and in terms of logic it is a tautology. However, it is an important definition because it leads us to raise an important issue: who are the historians that do it better. Contrary to what many historians may believe, the 21st century history will be a global history that is based on newly constructed and recovered hard data that will prove beyond any doubt that the present world order has a long history and most importantly has a promising future. Politicians, economists, sociologists and other social scientists that have a position of authority rely on history to make decisions. Decision-makings link the present with the future. Policy makers set the latter.

Such a useful history should be based on “facts” and little stories that can be easily and quickly understood. It is important that this history follows a certain methodology that becomes familiar to policy-makers. First, such a history should be based on data, whatever can be found in the historical archives. Quantitative data, qualitative data, categorical data are fine as long as they are well constructed. Cliometrics will be on the rise as a historical subject. If historians do not do it, then others will fill the gap. Economists are already there. In October 1993, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics to Robert William Fogel and Douglass Cecil North “for having renewed research in economic history”. The Academy noted that `they were pioneers in the branch of economic history that has been called the new economic history, or cliometrics.

Second, the emerging global history should be based on the construction of world historical myths. We need a new theogony to show that the end of all is a globalized world. We need paradigms and successful historical case studies that justify the global history. We need historical failures of attempts to globalize the world to study them in order to show to the world that we learn from our mistakes and that we are now ready to globalize the world. All races and all nations fit into this world. The global history requires myths that nations and races have always wanted to globalize and collaborate but something has prevented them from doing so. Historians are called upon to identify what prevented nations and races to collaborate in order to create the beautiful world of globalization. I expect that the employability of historical graduates will depend very much on how good they will be in spreading these myths. However, do not confuse myths with lies. Do not forget that mythology was the predecessor of history, if ever was such thing as history.


Allen, R.C. “The Great Divergence in European Wages and Prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War”. Explorations in Economic History, vol. 38, no 4, October 2001, pp. 411-447.

Cole, H.L., Ohanian, L.E., Riascos, A. & Schmitz Jr, J.A. “Latin America in the Rearview Mirror”. Journal of Monetary Economics, vol. 52, no 1, January 2005, pp. 69-107.

Hayek, F.A. Capitalism and the Historians. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1954.

Kocka, J. “The Utopia of Universal History”. Paper presented in the opening session of the 20th International congress of Historical sciences, Sydney, Australia, 3-9 July 2005.

Layard, R. Happiness: Has Social Science a Clue? Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures 2002/3 Delivered on 3, 4, 5 March 2003 at the London School of Economics.

Liu, J.H. & Hilton, D.J. “How the Past weights on the Present: Social Representations of History and their Role in Identity Politics”. British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 44, no 4, December 2005, pp. 537-556.

Strath, B. “Ideology and History”. Journal of Political Ideologies, vol. 11, no 1, February 2006, pp. 23–42.

Pomper, P. “The History and Theory of Empires”.History and Theory, Theme Issuevol. 44, no 4, December 2005, pp. 1-27.


[1] As I was writing this short note, I read a recently published paper that in its opening sentence uses the same definition of history. According to Liu and Hilton (2005) “History provides us with narratives that tell us who we are, where we came from and where we should be going”. If you substitute who we are with the word present, where we came from with the word past and where we should be going with the word future, we have the same definition.

[2] The writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on Historical Materialism have been published in a collected volume prepared and edited by Progress Publishers in 1972.

[3] The opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto states: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”.