Books help me articulate my thoughts. Sometimes though they take me to dark places. Recently, I bought “Vanished kingdoms”. Written by the historian Norman Davies, this is a romantic evocation of lost European history.
Davies delves into the stories of countries which have disappeared into history; places like Tolosa, Litva, Borussia, Rosnau and Tsernagora.
You don’t recognise them? Buy the book. I have it on the shelf, reserved for my holiday reading.
Davies is performing an act of historical resurrection, restoring to the memory those we have forgotten.
It is a truism that history is written by the winners. Now however, we are discovering that the modernist, rationalist, enlightenment legacy is not so satisfying.
Consequently, we are beginning to examine the history of the losers to see what they possessed which we have lost.
Although the style of Davies’ culturalhistory is more usually associated with conservative traditionalism; he himself apparently votes Labour.
Further to the left is Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. His book, “In defence of lost causes”, undertakes a similar archaeological excavation, of failed revolutions.
The mistake made by the French and Russian revolutions, for example, was not that they were too radical.
Instead, Zizek asserts, they were not radical enough. And this he applies even to their methods.
The revolutionaries, Robespierre and Lenin, did not go far enough in their terror and violence.
Perhaps this is tongue-in-cheek. You can never tell with Zizek, who frequently writes as if to shock.
What he means is that they stopped short of total societal transformation. Their very violence was a compromise with the supposed ‘realism’ of political power.
To be genuinely revolutionary would mean overturning the conditions of every oppression, including that of a violent dictatorship of the proletariat.
He is able to apply this dialectical critique even to Hitler. Far from being a radical movement, Nazism represented collusion with capitalism.
These very failures, however, transmit a positive revelation of missed political opportunities.
For Zizek, as for Davies, albeit from their different political positions and varied historical interests, the past can communicate fresh potentialities to the present-day.
For those who lived in the past, it was not then the past. It was their present. Although we know how things worked out, they did not know what the future held.
The future was then unknown. They operated full of hope towards a fully open horizon.
The losers of history represent for us possibilities which still reveal options for us today.
The past provides a reservoir of imagination to fuel hope in our own political dilemmas.
Rather than being the repository of reaction, history may contribute contemporary resources of renewal.
The Catholic Church, for example, employs the theological concept of renouvellement, a return to the sources.
Unlike Protestantism, Catholicism seeks the seed of the new in the soil of the old. We too need to search in the inheritance of the past.
Thus we may discover political imagination in the present, and perhaps discern the lineaments of hope for the future.