Learning from history

Writing about history is important for this project, but why is that? I took for granted how important learning from history is without really thinking about why. When I read How Change Happens by Duncan Green, he clarified things. This got me thinking about wanting to understand learning from history better to then write about it.

Successes and failure of the left
Duncan Green, who’s area of focus is international development, describes how looking at history lets us question the world we take for granted and understand the long-term trends that shape it. By understanding how our current world has been created, we can find more realistic methods to change it. He describes how the success of the abolitionist movement shows that massive, immovable objects have been changed before. Green describes how history can inspire a deep respect for the personal sacrifices and campaign skills of our predecessors. History can also provide intellectual material to challenge the current narrow window of what’s acceptable. By studying historical examples that are an alternative and different from the norm, it gives new insights and ideas. Green explains that history encourages curiosity and humility and reminds us that activists are usually less influential than political, economic or unexpected changes. [1]

Campaigning for change: lessons from history by the History & Policy Network and Friends of the Earth explain that the case studies in the book: “illustrate, documenting activism and organising for change in the past gives us greater understanding of strategic choices, communications strategies, timing and serendipity in campaigning, as well as some extraordinary examples of mobilisation on a scale that today’s campaigners can scarcely dream of.” [2] The book explores ten case studies from the last 200 years in Britain.

They reference the famous quote ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, and describe how politicians and pundits regularly use history to try to understand the present but without thinking how to do that appropriately. [3]

The History & Policy Network and Friends of the Earth describe the three questions that academic historians focus on the most:

  • how you choose your questions/choosing your histories,
  • the truthfulness of historical explanations/choosing your historians,
  • the unique character of historical events/translating past into present/challenge of drawing parallels. [4]

The conclusion of Campaigning for change: lessons from history identifies four areas of learning:

  1. Big game-plan and proxy campaigns – many modern-day campaigns do not have a bigger game plan compared to campaigns of the past.
  2. Approaches – using economics arguments instead of moral arguments is now common; movements do reach out to elites to build coalitions as they did in the past; we now have loose networks heading in the same direction compared to broad-based cohesive movements and coalitions of the past.
  3. Tactics – strong individual and group identities are important; people have relationships with the place they live in and the people who live there; direct action has contributed to successful campaigns in the past when used strategically; over time women have extended their sphere of influence in movements resulting in novel and successful tactics.
  4. The backlash – prepare for and understand what possible backlashes may appear and from where, and prepare how to use them to benefit the campaign; and understanding that those in power cannot always control the narrative so aim to control or change the narrative. [5]

In Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy Rinku Sen describes how looking at the history of community organising shows several different models, that are based on a “specific theory of constituency building and social change”. These specific models of organising can be beneficial and limiting. Understanding the model that our tactics are based on means we can “follow that model to a logical conclusion, get help from others who have used it, avoid its pitfalls, and describe ourselves effectively in our attempts to raise money and train new leaders.” Models can also limit campaigns ability to innovate, which is key to success. Sen explains that pure models do not exist and effective organisers mix and match. Community organising and social movement history are full of examples of tactics from past campaign being applied to ongoing struggles. She argues the importance of being able to articulate the theory of social change being applied to then stick with it or adjust it as necessary. [6]

Professor Jodi Dean describes how historical accounts are meant as lessons and guideposts, ways of thinking that let us learn and do better next time. She argues that sometimes leftists forget this and get bogged down in lessons of the past as if they tell us exactly what will happen. As if history is completely determinist [7] and there is no alternative. She argues that the determinist perceptive is an academic approach and instead need to think in more political and revolutionary terms. Dean describes that we need to look at the past for guidance and the future should determine how we apply this guidance in terms of ‘strategy, tactics, practices, and slogans.’ [8]

Jodi Dean also argues that we need to learn the positive lessons from terrible historical periods. Jodi Dean wrote The Communist Horizon intending to reclaim ‘communism’, argues that when people reduce communism to the Soviet Union, they don’t want to learn from history. Instead, they want to universally criticise and condemn the Soviet Union. I’m no fan of the Soviet Union for obvious reasons (it was responsible for the mass murder of millions of people and highly repressive) but like Jodi Dean, there were experiments in self-management and collectivisation that we can learn from. It’s important to not write the whole period off. The people that undertook these experiments – scientists, doctors, farmers – do have something to teach us. [9]

Ben Reynolds who wrote The Coming Revolution: Capitalism in the 21st Century describes how we need to learn where the left has made missteps or gone wrong. Not so much about blame as being able to conduct an honest appraisal of our historical and current failures that will help us to build a strong and solid movement going forwards. He links this to how fractured the left is, with people being very ideological and not many reading or listening to opposing voices on the left. Reynolds describes how those on the left caricature those in other tendencies, so they are seen as evil and the enemy. The result is that no one learns from the historical experience and instead everyone is just regurgitating their talking points. He describes some of the lessons from the victory of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and the mistakes the left made there. [10]

Naomi Klein describes the emotional benefits of learning from this past in a talk she gave in 2011 about her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. She explains that the large amounts of terrifying information that we are bombarded with result is us being in a state of shock so we don’t make important connections or construct analysis. This keeps us in the immobile state we’re stuck in. She describes that when we gather and tell ourselves stories then the clicks of connection happen. We can’t be effective activists if we’re hysterical. We can be calm and angry at the same time. Our role models in the effective political struggles of the past weren’t hysterical. They were focused and calm. Klein describes that when we make the connections between issues – war, torture, economics – between the present and our past, then our bodies start to relax. We calm down, get more focused and we can feel some of that rage as opposed to just fear. So we can be much more effective activists and fighters. [11]

The Marxist economics Professor Richard Wolff, explains in many of his youtube videos how important learning from history is in relation to why the 2008 economic crash happened and also what happened in the US in the 1930s in response to Great Depression – labour movements forced President Roosevelt to implement the New Deal by taxing the rich. [12] He also explains that most people know a lot of what he explains in his talks but he shares his understanding of history with a narrative in the hopes that it will cause people to join with other people to make a change. [13]

Richard Wolff explains clearly in this video how since 1980 the capitalists in the US rolled back the New Deal gains for ordinary people of benefits, pensions, and full employment. He explains near the end of the video that although the rich were heavy taxed during the New Deal period and post-war boom, they were left with the resources to be able to support the neoliberal project of think tanks and academics from the middle of the twentieth century. It then became the dominant political and economic ideology from the late 1970s. I will describe the history and nature of neoliberalism in a future post.

Richard Wolff argues in the video that what we learning from the last fifty years is that: if taxes are drastically increased and regulations are put in place to stop another financial crash, the rich have the resources to undo them again and they will do this. He concludes that “you can not leave some people in control of a disproportionate amount of the wealth of society and then be surprised if they use that wealth to keep themselves at the top. If we don’t want that, then let’s not fight over redistributing the wealth. Let’s not distribute unequally in the first place. We shouldn’t have some people earning millions of dollars and other people fighting to get $15 an hour as a minimum wage. That creates inequality and the corruption of politics to keep that inequality in place.’ [14]

History from below
In All Knees and Elbows of Susceptibility and Refusal: Reading History from Below Anthony Iles and Tom Roberts describe two perspectives of ‘history from below’: “‘radical history’ – the history of more or less organised political movements which challenge and sometimes shape the order of things – and history from below as the history of unheard voices and experiences per se.” [15]

All Knees and Elbows of Susceptibility and Refusal: Reading History from Below has eight chapters. The introduction describes core figures and institutions that are used as a starting point to explore the field. Chapter two looks at class, ‘the people’ and ‘the below’, and how history from below has expanded these categories. Chapter three explores questions related to the discovery and use of historical sources. Chapter four looks at how the working class developed intellectual practices and developed distribution networks for the dissemination of dissent. Chapter five focuses on the relationship between history, literary forms and myth-making, and how people construct their own identities and experiences about the dominant culture. Chapter six looks at education – university institutions, their critique and protest against them. Chapter seven looks at history and state politics, focusing on the Coalition Government concept of the ‘Big Society’. The final chapter describes some of the disputes and controversies that ‘historians from below’ have initiated.

Reflections on Knowledge, Learning and Social Movements edited by Aziz Choudry and Salim Vally brings together “radical adult education and historical theoretical frameworks to explicitly examine the knowledge production, learning and politics involved in processes of retrieving and critically engaging with movement histories and developing activist archives, and further, in ways which put them into dialogue with contemporary activism.” [16] Its asks important questions “How do educators and activists in today’s struggles for change use historical materials from earlier periods of organizing for political education? How do they create and engage with independent and often informal archives and debates? How do they ultimately connect this historical knowledge with contemporary struggles?” [17]

The book is divided into four sections:

  • engagement with activist/movement archives,
  • learning and teaching militant histories,
  • lessons from liberatory and anti-imperialist struggles,
  • learning from student, youth and education struggles.

Six of the chapters focus on social movements in South Africa. Struggles are explored from other countries including Argentina, Iran, Britain, Palestine and the US [17]

The introduction (download here) gives an overview of the book and aspects of learning from history. It describes the importance of developing “context-specific, locally relevant ways to connect historical movement knowledge with contemporary organising.” [18] It also states that “histories from below can be fraught with contradictions, silences, omissions, distortions, and absences in similar ways to official histories, just as learning and knowledge produced in activist milieus can sometimes replicate rather than disrupt dominant power relations.” [19] Using ideas and concepts from previous struggles requires us to be aware of potential problems of “constructing imagined histories and continuities with the past”, so we need to avoid romanticising earlier struggles. We need to avoid copying past victories and applying now in different conditions and contexts. We also need to seriously consider to value of ‘old tactics’ that did not work in the past. [20]

The introduction stresses the importance of being aware of the problems of historical and social amnesia. This amnesia “risks losing the thread and texture of what it takes to bring about social change, with all of its tensions and contradictions and threatens to leave us with a version of history that glosses over or ignores the significance of behind-the-scenes organising. Such amnesia can paper over the conflicts, tensions and power dynamics that have been part of these organising efforts and from which we can also learn.” [21]

It also underlines how important it is for many movements to identify the “historical context for the conditions in which people live and struggle”, related to capitalism and colonialism. It describes the essential need to fashion “tools from forms and histories of resistance that are sometimes forgotten and buried.” It is important to appreciate struggles “at the margins or dissenting currents within larger movements, the ideas that they produce and their contributions to organising.” Finally, the introduction describes the need to be aware of revisionism “we need to also bring to light ways in which the latter struggles sometimes get overwritten by dominant accounts which focus on individual leaders and more visible or more powerful organisations.” [22]


  1. How Change Happens, Duncan Green, 2016, page 76/77
  2. Campaigning for change: lessons from history, History & Policy Network and Friends of the Earth, 2015, page 9
  3. Campaigning for change, page 11
  4. Campaigning for change, page 12
  5. Campaigning for change, page 160-174
  6. Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy, Rinku Sen, 2003, page lxiv
  7. Determinism is the philosophical theory that all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes. Determinism is usually understood to preclude free will because it entails that humans cannot act otherwise than they do.
  8. Jodi Dean, Launching the 2018 Register: Rethinking Democracy, 11m https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8IioL6TyKDE
  9. Jodi Dean – The Communist Horizon, 13m https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhUvNkJve-w
  10. Bey Reynolds, The Coming Revolution, 29m, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SdHitD2ag8&t=98s
  11. Naomi Klien, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, 129m, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hA736oK9FPg
  12. Richard Wolff, Crisis and Openings: Introduction to Marxism, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9Whccunka4&t=352s
  13. Richard Wolff, the Game is Rigged, 121m, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XlhFMa4t28A
  14. Richard Wolff, How Reaganomics Killed America’s Middle Class, 47m, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdCNGkZoIZw
  15. All Knees and Elbows of Susceptibility and Refusal: Reading History from Below, Anthony Iles and Tom Roberts, 2012, page 6
  16. Reflections on Knowledge, Learning and Social Movements, Aziz Choudry and Salim Vally, 2017, page 8
  17. Reflections on Knowledge, Learning and Social Movements, page vii
  18. Reflections on Knowledge, Learning and Social Movements, page 4
  19. Reflections on Knowledge, Learning and Social Movements, page 6
  20. Reflections on Knowledge, Learning and Social Movements, page 8
  21. Reflections on Knowledge, Learning and Social Movements, page 9
  22. Reflections on Knowledge, Learning and Social Movements, page 14
  23. https://www.britannica.com/topic/historiography