2007 - 2022

A Theory of History: From The Province Of The Cat

Scotland is a butterfly stuck in a 315 year old chrysalis. But change is a-foot. When it comes we can at least say, with some probable certainty, that it will be peaceful. Both history and myth tell us this is unusual.

Antiquity is littered with stories of humans transforming into wolves, trees and all sorts of things, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Usually with bad outcomes. The field of history is strewn with monarchs and political leaders who make the transition from bloodless heads of state to blood drinking cyphers of hate. The result is always the same: the corpses of the innocent pile up and the great cities turn to dust. North of the Solway and the Tweed and South of Muckle Flugga we, at least, can aspire to free our future from that fate. We can furnish ourselves with a happy metamorphoses. It’s a theory, at least.

In his recent short Radio 4 programme “Tolstoy In our Time” (24th March) Adam Gopnik, the American writer (with a Ukrainian background) reflected on, amongst other things, Tolstoy’s great novel of 1869 “War and Peace”, identity and whether Vladimir Putin thinks he is Napoleon. It was a fascinating listen, because like all of us Adam Gopnik is trying to make sense out of Putin’s war and the Ukrainian resistance. He was trying to seek enlightenment through Tolstoy’s “theory of history”.

James Wood, the English writer, provides his take on Tolstoy’s famous theory, as expressed in “War and Peace”, in an essay for the Guardian (1st August, 2014):

“Great occurrences like the Napoleonic invasion (of Russia) happen not because one man dictates the movement of history, but because hundreds of thousands of motives and accidents and reactions occur at once; Tolstoy called this the ‘swarmlike life, where man inevitably fulfils the laws prescribed for him’. He is really a kind of historical fatalist who spends the course of his novel searching for the laws of that fatalism. Napoleon and great men like him think of themselves as supremely free, but in fact they are the servants of history, as caught up in that “swarmlike” existence as the meanest hussar.”

In other words Tolstoy dismissed the idea of history as a tidy narrative of “Great Men doing Great Things”. Instead he saw it as made up of innumerable unknowable people being driven by innumerable unknowable reasons to do innumerable unknowable things. Napoleon may have thought he was commanding his soldiers on how to kill their enemies but in fact he had no control over them at all. The stories coming out of Ukraine of Russian soldiers mutinying and deserting alludes to this. They obviously don’t think Putin is Napoleon either.

What has been anguish inducing to witness is the response of the UK to the war in Ukraine. If Boris Johnson ever more looks like a truth and laundry free zone in Westminster he looks more like the coke dealer in the kitchen at parties when he appears alongside other world leaders. The idea that this Falstaff/Mussolini-esque figure might voluntarily resign because he’s been caught doing something wrong is beyond absurd. He is literally flooding the loch of reason with bullshit. And because of it the UK is looking more like one of its former colonies than a modern European state. Corruption, disease, bureaucracy, cronyism, authoritarianism, isolation, inflation, political ineptitude, a crumbling infrastructure, increasing levels of poverty and debt, wealth accumulation by a few and a motiveless and dispirited population. This is not a progressive European democracy. This is a cliché state where the rich elite rule the roost and the poor can go whistle because they have no real road to power. This is a fictional state as if it had been dreamed up by Graham Greene or Gabriel Garcia Marquez – the story of a life in the day of a flea. Do not blame the flea or the rat for the plague but rather the ship that brought it to the city.

From the not so lofty perspective of the Far Noth of Scotland it looks as if the state called the UK is spiralling out of control – slowly now and then suddenly and all at once, and sooner than we might think.

None of this is inevitable, despite what the Tories may tell us. The politics of inevitability is that there are no ideas. Those in its thrall, such as Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, deny that ideas matter, proving – ironically – that they are gripped by a powerful one. The cliché of the politics of a cliché state is that “there is no alternative”. To accept this, as we Scots are being asked to do, is to deny any collective or individual responsibility for seeing history at all or abandon any hope of making a change. We are being asked to accept that life is a sleepwalk to a pre-marked grave in a pre-purchased plot. The ink of the politics of a fiction state is blood. It is a terrible spectacle.

Seen from the Northern shores of Scotland the plight of the good people of England, because of all of this, is beyond sadness, beyond expression. It is as if the Fimbulvetr or Fimbulwinter in Norse mythology, which is the harsh winter that precedes Ragnarok and puts an end to all life on Earth, is about to begin. It is as if England is sinking beneath the sea. Rishi Sunak’s dismal indifference to the desperate needs of the poor was heart breaking to behold. The inability of the UK government to forgo procedure and give sanctuary to the war traumatised refugees from Ukraine is beyond understanding. Contrast that with the open-heartedness of the Dnipro Kids initiative set by the Hibs fans where 50 orphans, the chair of the charity Steven Carr said, would be “welcomed with open arms”.

There is no good music any more rising up from the vales of Albion. Who knows when it will flourish again? In Scotland at least we have the possibility and the necessity to make a new song and to reacquaint ourselves with our ancient music, our historic rights and freedoms. The people of Scotland need that music now & we need it urgently. No global pandemic or cruel Russian aggression can be allowed to deny us. We have to reclaim it. We need to instruct our Parliament in Edinburgh to legislate for it and for the civil servants to facilitate it and for the people to embrace it. We have to insist through our democracy that no single politician, for whatever reason, can stand in the way of this. If they do they will be trampled into the mud by history. Better to be “the servants of history” rather than its victim.

We also have to understand that what the war in Ukraine means is that no-one won the Cold War. Because, post 1989/90, there was no peace. There was no “great vision” and no attempt at reconciliation. No economic scheme to raise the depressed nations up off their knees. There was only Triumphalism and the claim that this was the “end of history”. The nukes remained. The Tories, like Dr. Strangelove, still fetishize Trident. Hope has taken a trip to the dark side. There is no democracy in the Russian Federation and the US is choking to death on its diet of materialism.

Despite all that we must insist that we are remembered for our life, not our death.

We must also insist, as best we can, that memory becomes imagination because imagination is the key to our freedom, our humanity. It will allow us to escape the black hole of the politics of inevitability and the depressing cruelties of Rishi Sunak and his destructive cabal. It was imagination that was lacking when the Berlin Wall came down. What we got instead was the eastern advance of NATO and the smell of political napalm in the morning of history.

As the butterfly of Scotland awaits to be transformed, as she surely will, our political leaders have to realise that being seen as “good managers” when the world is falling apart around you is not the ambition required. The Scottish Government should have recognised by now that what the Scottish people both desire and need is a radical vision for an independent Scotland. As the UK unravels we need to offer the people a country where the majority can feel secure and are free to work for the betterment of that country, of themselves, their children and the society they live in. We need to deepen our democracy by the distribution of wealth in order to nurture and protect a democracy that serves all of us. As the UK gorges on “the market” and financialisaton the Scots require a nation that is a co-operation between the individual and society for the good of all, including those outside Scotland’s borders who seek asylum after being displaced by war, famine, climate change or some other disaster. We must ensure against the storing of great financial wealth by individuals and companies, because that only results in condemning the majority to poverty and injustice and to believe in a false principle that equates wealth with freedom and poverty to dependency. Injustice breeds conflict. Freedom has to be collateral and specific.

The seeds of our future Scotland are contained in the present day to day reality of all her people. If our political representatives want to encourage a politics which is based upon the ability of ordinary people to change their lives then these same representatives better pay very close attention to what people actually desire. Most Scots want what isn’t there yet – independence. This desire is not some subsidiary to either politics or day to day reality, as the Tories would have it. On the contrary, an independent Scotland has to be seen as an extension of the everyday – as the normal political desire of a normal society. Instead, on one hand we have the modest ambitions of a set of road traffic managers, and on the other a government in London that exploits the misery of the innocent and the weak, treating them worse than beasts and using their desires as hostages for their selfish political ends.

In reality human relations have no end, know no borders or confines and cannot be hammered into either a circle or a square. Tolstoy has his character Prince Andrei compare chess, as opposed to war, as being “outside the conditions of time”. But no-one is outside the conditions of time. We are all trapped in time, but we are free in space. Our space in Scotland is finite and, despite history and cosmology, so is out “time”. This is our space. Now is our time. This is our life. We must make our own history.

©George Gunn 2022

George Gunn’s new play “Call Me Mister Bullfinch” will be given a reading at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh at 7.30 on the 1st April as part of The Wonder Festival.

Comments (17)

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  1. Axel P Kulit says:

    we still need to deal with the Unionists, but maybe they are shrinking in numbers. Otherwise, good observations

  2. Hugh McShane says:

    The sweep of your piece is impressive,+ says a lot to me, but the despair I feel is, as a long retired teacher, now socialising with mainly footy/ suburban golf club types, of how widespread apathy is among people who are intelligent enough to see recent events+trends in your way, but just can’t be bothered, lifestyle-happy, + cynical about politics/political leadership of a different sort.

    1. 220328 says:

      Maybe for conservative (with a small ‘c’) Middle Scotland – a.k.a. ‘the silent majority’, ‘the moral majority’ – upon whose votes electoral success depends, life just isn’t as bad as some folk make out.

      Maybe the apathy you detect is just material contentment.

    2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Hugh, when the Easter Rising took place in 1916, many – most – in Dublin, particularly the society in which WB Yeats moved, were taken by surprise. This led directly to his “terrible beauty is born’ in his poem “Easter, 1916”.

      Of course, Mr Gunn is saying that the history and culture of Scotland has been different to that of Ireland, and, we hope, will continue to be peaceful and that the transition might arise from the rotting decay of the United Kingdom, a state in which people lose any faith and which increasingly will be ignored because it is decreasingly serving their interests. Since 1978, it has been the agent of the financial interests (aka money launderers) of the City of London.

      So, while Scotland needs to be well managed, at this time, we need a sense of vision and a sense of action to begin to take control. We have a legal Parliament in Edinburgh and its members, with our support need to assume more and more control.

      1. Hugh McShane says:

        Agree 100%, but the devolved parliamentary systems were designed as safety valves to let off peripheral steam, without over-troubling the centre, and that’s without looking at the calibre of those elected – there are no firebrands in either legislature to progress the cause, unlike the Irish analogy.

  3. 220328 says:

    If historicists like Tolstoy are right and events are the product of impersonal historical forces rather than of voluntary agency of Great Men like Bonaparte and Putin, one wonders how and on what basis moral praise or blame for those events is to be ascribed.

    1. Hugh McShane says:

      Indeed-profound- where to now?

      1. 220328 says:

        Who knows where ‘the innumerable unknowable people, being driven by innumerable unknowable reasons to do innumerable unknowable things’, will take us?

        1. Adrian Roper says:

          Environmental catastrophe seems a safe bet.

          If only we had innumerable vegans and the best bits of Buddhism went viral.
          Maybe it could happen.
          Hope so.

          1. 220329 says:

            That is the current prophetic pessimism: repent, for the end is nigh!

            Yet, the people show little sign of repenting, the innumerable wee rascals!

            Maybe the elect/enlightened need to capture the state’s monopoly on violence and coerce the recalcitrant masses onto the strait and narrow path to salvation.

          2. Meg Macleod says:

            Don’t give up hope

    2. John Learmonth says:

      Tolstoy was wrong and people should be held to account for their behaviour/actions.
      If Tolstoy was right then the Nuremburg trials should never have been held…..we are all guilty……no we’re bloody well not!

      1. 220330 says:

        No, John; if historicists like Tolstoy are right, then none of us is ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’. For (from Tolstoy’s Christian perspective), as Paul says in his letter to the Romans (12:19): ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”.’

        1. John Learmonth says:

          But God is dead……is he not?

          1. 220330 says:

            Not for Tolstoy. He was still predisposed to act as if his particular values were backed by some transcendent authority and in that sense ‘right’; the auld b*gg*r was an inveterate moralist.

  4. Tom Ultuous says:

    Great article George. Thanks.

  5. Justin Kenrick says:

    I’ve found that when I make a statement like this one of yours . . .

    “We also have to understand that what the war in Ukraine means is that no-one won the Cold War. Because, post 1989/90, there was no peace. There was no “great vision” and no attempt at reconciliation. No economic scheme to raise the depressed nations up off their knees. There was only Triumphalism and the claim that this was the “end of history”. The nukes remained. The Tories, like Dr. Strangelove, still fetishize Trident. Hope has taken a trip to the dark side. There is no democracy in the Russian Federation and the US is choking to death on its diet of materialism.”

    . . . then I get jumped on because people misinterpret this as my excusing the violence of Putin and his state against Ukrainians, when it is anything but.

    It is being clear that Putin and co have been part of the overall system of exploitation that those in power in the west have also perpetuated. That doesn’t in any way remove the need to support the Ukranians against aggression. It just guards against our support being misrepresented as suporting an exploitative system.

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