I am sometimes asked about the ‘lessons’ that history can teach. The question presumes that the study of the past can help provide guidance for the present — and future. But is this presumption accurate? Can (for example) politicians exercise power more wisely if they are better informed about the past?
The brilliant, maverick, historian AJP Taylor was sceptical that they could. He once said about a certain French emperor that ‘he was what I often think is a dangerous thing for a statesman to be — a student of history; and like most of those who study history, he learned from the mistakes of history how to make new ones’.
Of recent American presidents, the one most keen on history was George W Bush Jr. Fat tomes on past wars and dead statesmen adorned his bedside table. History professors from Yale and Harvard came to dine at the White House. Unlike AJP Taylor, these scholars offered large claims about their discipline. Their expert understanding of the past, they believed, could help in crafting successful foreign policies in the present.
These professors and their books confirmed Mr Bush in his conviction that America must consolidate its role as a global policeman, thereby becoming, to the 21st century, what Great Britain had been to the 19th. The products of this willed learning from ‘the lessons of history’ were the misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.
History is a humanistic, not a technical discipline. It aims at expanding human understanding, not at solving social (or national) problems. The historian cannot really assist or advise a prime minister on how to run a better government or a CEO on how to make his firm more profitable.
From 30 years as a practising historian, I have come to the conclusion that there is but one, singular, lesson of history. It is this — there are no permanent winners or losers.
This lesson is too often forgotten by individuals. Consider how long it took Sachin Tendulkar to realise that he was no longer good enough to play for India. He stayed on, and on, until — to spare everyone further embarrassment — the BCCI arranged a home series against the West Indies to allow him to reach the magic figure of 200 Tests without having to face Dale Steyn and Morné Morkel.
Indians far greater than Tendulkar have taken their pre-eminence for granted. In 1958, Jawaharlal Nehru took a holiday in Kashmir, where he decided he would retire as prime minister to make way for a younger man. On his return to Delhi, he was persuaded by his colleagues to reconsider. Had he left office then, Nehru would be remembered as an extremely successful politician who had played a crucial role both in the struggle against British rule and in building an independent and democratic India. However, by staying on as prime minister, Nehru presided over the Mundhra scandal, the dismissal of the Kerala government, and the China fiasco.
The verdict of history on Nehru is therefore much more mixed than it would have been if, in 1958, he had made way for someone younger.
Like individuals, cities too can forget that success is hard won and easily lost. A decade ago, Bangalore fancied itself as a leading centre of entrepreneurial innovation. It gloried in the title of ‘India’s Silicon Valley’. Its moderate climate, cosmopolitan culture, and cluster of research laboratories would, it was thought, allow it to further pull away from the rest of India. In fact, the reverse happened. The lack of attention to infrastructure, the short-sightedness of local politicians, and a leadership crisis in some major Bangalore companies encouraged new investment to move to other cities instead.
Cities considered prosperous and progressive can stall or fall backwards. So also states. Kerala was once a byword for secular tolerance and gender equality. In recent years, however, there have been incidents of communal violence — and, more disturbingly, a rise in attacks on women. A survey of eight states found that women felt most unsafe in Kerala.
What I have called the singular lesson of history applies forcefully to countries as well. Adolf Hitler spoke famously of building a ‘Thousand Year Reich’. The British, meanwhile, expressed their bombast in stone rather than words. Those who constructed the Viceregal Palace and the North and South Blocks certainly expected to stay on for several hundred years at least. In the event, New Delhi as a British imperial city had only a slightly longer tenure than the Nazis.
History teaches us that — for individual or organisation, company or country — pre-eminence is never permanent. Although I admired Tendulkar, because I knew there had been great batsmen before him, I knew that there would be great batsmen after him too. As a student of the rise and fall of cities, I was not entirely surprised when Hyderabad or Delhi became more interesting places to live or work in than Bangalore. And it was because I knew how fleeting has been the global supremacy of other nations that I was, from the first, so sceptical of India’s superpower pretensions.
The uses of history are educative rather than instrumental. By writing in rich detail about other peoples and past times, the historian can expose his fellow citizens to a wider range of human social experience. A deeper knowledge of how others have lived and laboured — or failed and succeeded — allows one to be more fully aware of the contingencies and peculiarities of one’s own life.
A knowledge of history may thus make the aam aadmi more self-critical, less xenophobic. As for political (or business or sporting) leaders, a knowledge of history is — or should be — the best antidote to hubris.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed are personal.