The History Book
A new look at history
from the bottom up

by John Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 6, 1975, pp. 7-8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

THE HISTORY BOOK (produced by Li Vilstrup and Jannik Hastrup; distributed by Tricontinental Film center) is a nine-part cartoon history of the world from the middle ages to the present. A Marxist history lesson, it shows the key historical developments from the point of view of the people rather than that of the kings, queens, bankers and generals who profited from the others’ hard work. The major dialectical movement from feudalism through mercantilism to capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism is clearly shown and explained. A humorous rat, a constant observer of these developments, narrates much of the history which is acted out by colorful cartoon characters. Paintings, lithographs, maps and, toward the end, still photographs and documentary footage are also used to add color and authenticity to the fast-paced account of our history.

We see the development of the following historical developments
ˇtrade in Europe
ˇthe colonization of Africa by Portugal and the rest of Europe
ˇthe titanic struggle between the merchants and the landowners (fought, of course, by peasants and workers)
ˇthe development of the state
ˇthe slave trade and its vicious effects on the slaves and the disastrous effect on Africa
ˇearly industrialization
ˇthe development of finance capital and how this leads inevitably to economic crises (as we well know today)
ˇthe development of socialism, imperialism, the world wars, neo-colonialism, and the third world liberation struggles (in the latter parts, six through nine).

Surprisingly, the film was made for the Danish school system by the Danish Government Film Office. It’s hard to imagine U.S. schools using a film which validates a socialist conception of world history. Even liberal ideas about morality and religion draw vicious denunciations in many parts of the country. Although the film will be kept out of most schools, it can and will be used in all kinds of political education—in colleges, unions, community and political groups.

The first six or seven parts are particularly good for this use since they present clear, precise analyses of historical developments. At the same time, they give understandable explanations of Marxist concepts such as capitalism, class struggle, imperialism, exploitation, and colonialism. For example, the film clearly shows how urban congestion, the slave trade, and depressions are necessary aspects of capitalism. The film makes it clear why capitalism, even at its best, cannot exist without exploitation of workers, expansion of markets (the cause of imperialism) and periodic crises (depressions). This basic understanding must precede the effective struggle for a better organization of human potential and society.

THE HISTORY BOOK has two serious problems which do not, however, invalidate the film. But they should be taken into consideration when the film is screened. First, the film’s intellectual level and thus its possible audience changes drastically from the beginning to the end. The first five or six parts could be used in elementary schools; the last four or five parts could not be so used. In the early parts the filmmakers assume no special knowledge of either history or of the basic historical and economic concepts. They very patiently explain and demonstrate the main points.

In the latter parts, perhaps because of the availability of documentary footage, and definitely because of the filmmakers’ own partisan emotional involvement in certain third world struggles, the filmmakers assume much greater knowledge of history and current affairs and begin to speak to the already convinced. The whole film would have been much better, much more coherent and useful, had they resisted the temptation to use documentary footage and the desire to advocate their own particular narrow political interest. In spite of this flaw, all nine parts of THE HISTORY HOOK are interesting, engaging, and very informative. Its use will stimulate valuable discussion within any group and strengthen people’s knowledge of the world’s development.

The second problem involves the filmmakers’ advocacy in the later parts of the film of an uncritical third worldism. The position that the third world liberation struggles are the center of, the heart of, the cutting edge of “The Revolution” distorts Marxism’s demand for an internationalist perspective and often leads to the uncritical support of nationalist bourgeois elements in these countries. At the same time the advocates of this position tend to ignore the significant struggles of the industrial proletariat in the Western capitalist countries and also tend to condemn Russian socialism out of hand. Alain Tanner’s RETURN FROM AFRICA articulately counters this tendency on the part of many European and U.S. radical intellectuals. We cannot, Tanner’s film says, live vicariously through the experience and struggles of third world revolutionaries. We must, instead, become involved in the more mundane and tiresome struggles here at home.

In any case, this bias in the film by no means invalidates it. But the bias does present problems. Anyone using the film should realize that its perspective is debatable and highly controversial. When the later parts of the film are shown, this perspective should become one of the main topics of discussion. All in all, THE HISTORY BOOK is a fascinating experiment in making educational films. I hope many more truly educational films will follow it and that we will begin to make similar films here.