Review: ‘The Revenge of History: The Battle for the 21st Century’

Seumas Milne’s book gives a perspective of what has brought us to today’s crisis and the shape of the future politics.

In March 2003, Milne wrote that the US and its allies would "face determined guerrilla resistance [in Iraq] long after Saddam Hussein had gone" and would eventually be "driven out" [EPA]

A recurring theme in the tragedies of ancient Greek theatre was humanity’s helplessness before the decrees of fate. Characters such as Laius in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex would attempt to defy powers greater than themselves, only to meet precisely the end that had been foretold at the play’s beginning. An interrelated tragedy from the canon is that of Cassandra, whose warnings of the future are fated to be dismissed, then later vindicated. It is from here that the Cassandra metaphor of modern parlance is derived. 

The analogy is not exact, but for fate as the power greater than humanity in the worldview of the classical Greeks, let us substitute, in the modern world, the perpetual development of social, economic and political relations through history, which have no divinely pre-ordained outcome, but which nevertheless provide the inescapable wider context for our actions. 

Both today and in the myths of antiquity, it is those in positions of power who would presume to defy these greater forces, while the modern day Cassandras are the ones who contradict power, point out its hubris and speak truths that it would rather ignore. 

The triumphalist atmosphere in Western capitals following the demise of the USSR produced assessments of America’s status as the world’s only superpower that ranged from the hubristic to the outright irrational. 

As Bush the First announced a “New World Order” based on Washington’s military and economic supremacy, Francis Fukuyama famously declared the “end of history” itself – meaning that Western liberalism (in the benign sense in which he viewed it, as a force for democracy and prosperity rather than imperialism and exploitation), had emerged victorious from history’s struggles, becoming a settled and uncontested ideal to which all would now aspire. 

Fukuyama united with other neo-conservatives under the banner of the “Project for the New American Century”, later using the events of September 11, 2001 to promote the aggressive foreign and military policies of Bush the Second. 

Catastrophic failure in 2008

In 2004, a senior presidential aide told a writer for the New York Times magazine, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality… we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

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In the end, the neo-conservatives’ “New American Century” lasted around seven years, from the al-Qaeda attacks on Washington and New York that fired the starting gun on the “War on Terror” to the departure from the White House of a much diminished George W Bush, with the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan having demonstrated “the limits, rather than the extent, of US military power”, in the words of British newspaper columnist Seumas Milne. 

Meanwhile, the banking crash of 2008 exposed the Anglo-American model of hyper-financialised, deregulated capitalism as a catastrophic failure. For the Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz, the fall of Wall Street was to “market fundamentalism” what the fall of the Berlin Wall was to Communism. The idea that “democratic market capitalism [is] the final stage of social development” and “that unfettered markets, all by themselves, can ensure economic prosperity and growth” had now been conclusively discredited.  

In The Revenge of History, a collection of his columns for Britain’s Guardian newspaper over the last 10 years, Milne notes that the Cassandras who predicted a major financial crash, recognising that “deregulated markets generate crisis, not equilibrium”, tended – like Paul Krugman, Ann Pettifor, David Harvey or Steve Keen – to hail from somewhere on the left of the political spectrum. 

Similarly, Milne recalls the hysterical denunciations elicited by his temerity, as Guardian comment editor in the aftermath of 9/11, to publish pieces critical of Bush and Blair’s military adventurism and questioning the crude “clash of civilisations” narrative that was prevalent at the time. Again, history was to vindicate the Cassandras of the left who predicted disastrous consequences for the new militarism of George Bush and Tony Blair. 

A few days after 9/11, Milne warned that Blair’s “determination to bind Britain ever closer to US foreign policy [would] ratchet up the threat to our own cities… [and] fuel anti-Western sentiment”. In late 2002, he wrote that the coming invasion of Iraq would “… fuel terrorism throughout the world and make attacks on those countries which support it much more likely”. 

Sure enough, on July 7, 2005, al-Qaeda suicide bombers murdered 52 innocent people and injured over 700 in central London, citing the invasion and occupation of Iraq among their justifications. As Milne and others had predicted, the “war on terror” was in fact a huge gift to terrorists and their recruiting sergeants. 

In March 2003, Milne wrote that the US and its allies would “face determined guerrilla resistance [in Iraq] long after Saddam Hussein had gone” and would eventually be “driven out”. 

In 2004, he predicted that the coming elections to the Palestinian legislative council would see a “shift towards greater radicalisation” as a result of Israel’s continued denial of the occupied people’s basic human rights. Sure enough, to the shock of Israel and Fatah’s Western allies, Hamas won a majority of seats in those elections just over a year later. 

‘Double-dip recession’

As with neo-conservatism, so with neo-liberalism. The crash of 2008 and the aftermath of depression and austerity merely confirmed what the misnamed “anti-globalisation” critics had been arguing for many years; that neoliberalism, to quote Milne, “was handing power to unaccountable banks… fuelling poverty and social injustice… [and] eviscerating democracy”. 

In the post-crash years, Milne was one of the few prominent media figures to call the new focus on fiscal discipline what it was: An audacious sleight of hand whereby a failure of the free market model was forgotten, with the spotlight shone instead on public sector deficits (incurred largely as a result of the financial crash).

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Milne warned before the right-wing Conservative Party came to power in Britain in 2010 that fiscal austerity could “risk a double-dip recession… [and] weaken the public finances still further”. Three years later, he has been proven entirely correct on both counts. 

Of course, no political perspective or trend has a monopoly on wisdom, is incapable of making mistakes, or is free of irrational and discredited views. But as The Revenge of History reminds us, it is the left which has got the major judgement calls of the last 10 years – on economic and foreign policy – essentially correct, while the political right and many mainstream liberals have got them badly wrong. To what can this be attributed?  

As the widely respected Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm (who died earlier this month) once wrote, “The good social scientist can only be a person free from the illusions of bourgeois society.” The principle can be applied more widely, to journalists, or to anyone else attempting to make sense of the social and political world. 

Genuine and total objectivity may be impossible, but one must at least avoid unquestioning immersion in the conventional wisdom of the day. The prevailing political assumptions at any given time are inevitably and disproportionately shaped by those with the loudest voices; the wealthy and the powerful. One must be prepared to detach oneself from these assumptions to gain a clear view of what is happening. 

In practice, internalising “the illusions of bourgeois society” appears to be almost a prerequisite for membership of the political class, whether as a politician or a commentator. One is struck, reading through Milne’s essays, of the frequency with which he finds himself at odds with consensus opinion, challenging not just the views of individuals but those of his peer group as a whole. 

One key element of this, when commenting on foreign affairs, is his instinct for writing with a regard for the people of the global south foremost in his mind, rather than from the perspective and priorities of Western power. During Israel’s war on Gaza between December 2008 to January 2009, Milne explicitly urged his readers to imagine themselves as residents of the Middle East, watching unsanitised, graphic footage of the daily carnage on the TV news (very unlike what we are shown by our own channels), and to “consider what sort of Western response there would have been to an attack on Israel, or the US or Britain for that matter, which left more than 300 dead in a couple of days”. 

Failures of the USSR 

It is rare, to say the least, for a foreign affairs op-ed in the British or American press to emphasise the point of view of the subjects of Western power, rather than that of power itself. 

Milne’s willingness to consider the perspectives of others is coupled with an ability to step out of the moment and see the day’s news within a broader historical context. He draws some highly pertinent comparisons between the last era of liberal imperialism and its attempted revival under Blair and Bush. 

In the 19th century as in the 21st, the aggressors saw themselves as a force for progress and civilisation. Then as now, the empire’s subjects refused to accept the subordination of their own interests to that of a foreign occupier. Milne correctly identifies contemporary debates over imperial history, and the attempts to rehabilitate the moral standing of empire, as not merely academic exercises but struggles over the mainstream intellectual framing of current policy.

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What is required is not so much reparations for the crimes of the 19th century, but for today’s politics to be informed by “an understanding that barbarity is the inevitable consequence of attempts to impose foreign rule on subject peoples”. That the putative agents of “humanitarian intervention” would end up producing the horrors of Fallujah and Abu Ghraib came as a shock to no-one who was prepared to take a clear-eyed look at the historical background. 

Similarly, in the realm of economics, the general stunned bemusement at 2008’s free-market failure might have been avoided if, instead of using the collapse of the Soviet model as an all-purpose reference point and a substitute for thinking over the preceding 20 years, commentators had paid attention to what had happened in Russia in the post-Cold War years as well.  

Neoliberal shock therapy compounded the failures of the USSR to a catastrophic degree, turning an unaccountable class of bureaucrats into an unaccountable class of kleptocrats, as the numbers living in poverty rose from 14 million in 1989 to a staggering 147 million less than 10 years later. Some achievement for the economic model standing triumphant at the “end of history”. 

It is these analytical disciplines that have served Milne, and the wider left, reasonably well in recent years: The willingness to stand outside “the illusions of bourgeois society”, to consider the perspectives of those at the wrong end of the guns, and to see the historical context as it should be seen, rather than as power wants us to see it. 

Above all, it is the correction for liberalism’s consistent failure to acknowledge the material power-relations inherent in politics, and their crucial role in shaping the policies of Western governments, that sets Milne’s writing apart from that of his peers in the British media. 

Intellectual confidence

Adoption of these principles does not confer predictive infallibility. Milne wrote in 2001 that the demise of the USSR had “closed off the scope for different alliances” available to developing countries seeking independence from Western power. Yet the following years saw US influence decline sharply in its own backyard as one Latin American state after another asserted its independence from Washington, and regional co-operation made the end of domination from the global north a real prospect for the first time in 500 years. In fairness, Milne was hardly alone in being pleasantly surprised by these developments. 

“A few days after 9/11, Milne warned that Blair’s ‘determination to bind Britain ever closer to US foreign policy [would] ratchet up the threat to our own cities… [and] fuel anti-Western sentiment’.”

Nor does adoption of the anti-establishment left’s theoretical framework remove space for disagreement and debate. In my view, Milne’s recent columns on the civil war in Syria have overplayed the significance (real though it is) of the geopolitical dimensions of the conflict, and insufficiently accounted for internal dynamics that may in the end prove more decisive. Analytical perspectives are no more than rough guides, whose usefulness depends on how we apply them in each particular situation. 

There are some drawbacks to the format of the book; a collection of a large number of Milne’s comment articles for the Guardian. Occasionally pieces overlap, with a slight element of repetition. More substantively, the rhetorical style appropriate for a short column is of a different pitch to that required by a book, and difficult to sustain over 250 pages. 

Stylistically, the best parts are the longer introduction and an in-depth investigative feature on the Palestinian resistance factions from 2004, where the tone and pace of the writing feels a good deal more natural. 

Of greater significance is the message conveyed by the book’s main theme; who has been most successful at making sense of our post-Cold War world, and why. For the Left, the time for 90s’ style cringing in the face of swaggering neo-liberalism is now over. 

The Cassandras have been vindicated, but this is worthless by itself, of benefit only to our own egos. Unlike in the plays of antiquity, those whose hubris meets a tragic end rarely pay the costs themselves. That is the fate of power’s subjects, from Baghdad to Athens, from Wisconsin to Bahrain. 

The Left urgently needs the intellectual confidence Milne is trying to encourage because at this point, the stakes are higher than ever. As Naomi Klein has put it, “it’s time to win more than arguments”. 

David Wearing is a postgraduate researcher on British foreign policy in the Middle East at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. His articles have been published in the Guardian, the New Statesman and openDemocracy. He is a member of the New Left Project editorial board.