Mythical Past, Elusive Future: History and Society in an Anxious Age
By Frank Furedi
Pluto Press, London and Concord, Mass, 1992
Reviewed by Ian Bolas
Reason, progress, change — the words are rarely spoken today without an apologetic cringe.
Across the political spectrum, no-one speaks of the future with optimism and a sense of conviction. The best vision on offer is a prolongation of the present. The worst is imminent disaster — a secular apocalypse.
The right ransacks the past in search of a tradition and identity which will validate the empty present. The left responds by replicating the right's project, counterposing other traditions, alternative histories.
The sense that human beings, acting collectively, can take hold of the future and shape it to their needs is lost. In its absence, revolutionary politics cannot be developed, whatever the objective circumstances.
Frank Furedi's new book seek to intervene in this dismal ideological landscape. It succeeds, with a freshness and perspicacity that took this reader by surprise.
Mythical Past, Elusive Future is primarily a Marxist critique of History, that, "mode of thought which relies on the past to provide authority for human change". Implacably hostile to change, such thinking shuts out the potential for men and women collectively and consciously to make history.
Furedi wants to reopen the conscious mind. His project is to return the human subject to its rightful place at the centre of the historical process.
Arguing in defence of the gains of the Enlightenment, he affirms that men and women need not be subject to the dead hand of the past. Neither are we condemned to be passive and fearful spectators in a random process of change which is beyond our power to comprehend or affect.
Furedi argues for a form of consciousness, or "historical thinking", which welcomes change because it "regards all social arrangements as transient and therefore susceptible to further improvement".
The book rebuts the ideologues of the right who have dominated the intellectual landscape since the late '70s. It also challenges many assumptions which have become received wisdom on the left.
Furedi's analysis of particularist histories and of post-modernism is impressive. He connects these tendencies with their origins and reveals the profoundly conservative impulse at the heart of their apparently subversive projects.
His style is lucid and readable. Furedi has the ability to present ible language. At the same time, the reader is treated with respect. Furedi never vulgarises concepts for easy assimilation.
Mythical Past, Elusive Future will not be popularised by the bourgeois press as intellectually inferior works by authors like Bloom have been. It will certainly provoke hostility from both the right and left.
But in a period when historical materialism has been pushed to the margins of intellectual argument and fatally compromised by many of its adherents, Furedi's work demonstrates the real vitality of the Marxist method.
For that reason alone, it should be read and discussed by all who are genuinely concerned with social change. Winning the battle of ideas is essential if we are to rebuild the foundations of revolutionary politics.