Why is everyone obsessed with 19th and early 20th century European politics and should I care even a little?
Over the Eurocentrism
Dear Understandably Over It,
Should you care? Yes.
Before I explain why this history matters, I first want to share my very real sympathy for your exasperation. There’s something about being told that the key to understanding the world lies in the writings of some old, dead, European men that sure does chafe! And Western socialists frequently and unfortunately overlook historic movements outside of Europe and Russia to our own detriment.
That said, the history you’re referencing is the context in which Marx and Engels were first able to develop, test, and further develop their theories about materialism, capitalism, and the potential for socialism. And in the early 20th century, in Europe and Russia, socialists engaged in lively debates about how to put the theories of Marx and Engels into practice in their current conditions, tested their conclusions, and developed even more theory that is rife with lessons for 21st century socialists, like what material conditions give rise to fascism, why international solidarity is so important, and how we can most effectively organize ourselves.
While it would be a mistake to assume that we can simply apply the analyses of the Bolsheviks in 1917 (for example) to 2020 conditions in the United States, learning about the times that past generations of socialists lived through, their analysis of their conditions, and the debates that emerged from the challenges they faced is a way to sharpen our ability to assess our own conditions and figure out the best way forward. It’s a practice that has been embraced by socialists all over the world for well over a hundred years. This includes the socialists behind the movements and histories you actually care about. I understand your reticence to dig in, but think of it as a jumping off point that will help you more fully appreciate the history and the theory you’re really interested in.
This doesn’t have to be limited to just 19th and 20th century European histories, though. You can practice applying historical materialism on any social movement, whether it’s the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Black Panthers in the USA, or the recent mass-demonstrations in Hong Kong and Kashmir. Whatever you choose to dig into, it’s always a good idea to learn alongside fellow socialists. Read with comrades! Find relevant movies! Discuss current events! Mine the internet for resources (WeAreMany.org is a treasure trove of socialist talks about history and many other topics)! At the very, very least, your expanded knowledge means you won’t have to take the word of a dude-bro descendent of old Europeans the next time these histories come up.
Giant History Book Addict