Many people think they have no use for history. Too often this is because the history people are taught in schools and the media just doesn’t ring true. History does not tell the truth; at least not the whole truth. Nor is history only in the telling. It is also in who is doing the telling. Traditionally, those doing the telling have been the rulers and their sycophants. Despite this, there is a people’s history that somehow gets handed down through the generations. In recent years, there have been numerous attempts to make that people’s history available to the broader public. Naturally, those attempts are under constant attack. Consequently, attempting to tell the story of those who are oppressed is not only a challenge to compile, it is often also a challenge to publish.
Ben Dangl is a historian and journalist. His work focuses mostly on Latin America. More specifically, he reports on the role of social movements in that region, most often those movements in Bolivia. Bolivia is a nation currently governed by a government that came to power because of certain social movements among its people. In the years since the rise of that government, Bolivians and others around the globe have watched as the Bolivian people engage in an ongoing experiment in popular rule. This experiment has been mostly successful despite interference from the United States, other nations, and the entitled right wing of the country. Dangl’s previous books—Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia and Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America—examine the Bolivian experience and related movements in other nations in the region.
His most recent work, titled The Five Hundred Year Rebellion, is about Bolivia. It is also about the nature of history, its uses and its revolutionary potential. Dangl describes his work in the country, traveling to various towns and villages, interviewing elders, activists and other Bolivians, and attending meetings and protests. Simultaneously, Dangl examines the role popular history can play in revolutionary movement building. In any country where the written word (especially that of the colonizers) was not understood by many of its people before the revolution, the role of folk tales and legends is often quite important. As Dangl patiently explains, this was certainly the case in Bolivia. Indigenous heroes who stood up to the colonizers became revolutionary inspirations in the same way Karl Marx served as inspiration in the revolutions of Europe and Russia’s early twentieth century. In other words, history informed the present in service of the future.
One of the most interesting discussions in this text revolves around an organization the author worked with while researching this book. Called Taller de Historia Oral Andina (Andean Oral History Workshop/THOA), this group of mostly indigenous scholar-activists formed in 1983. The impetus for the organization was a lack of indigenous histories at the universities and libraries where these individuals were studying. In part, this was due to the essentially oral nature of many indigenous groups in Bolivia. It was also related to the lack of importance academia placed on indigenous history at the time. In addition to embarking on a program to gather, catalog and publicize the oral histories of indigenous Bolivians, THOA took it upon themselves to challenge the dominant intellectual perceptions. This not only meant insisting on the validity of the indigenous narrative they were collecting; it also meant insisting on the validity of non-written history itself. The determination of the group and the individuals that composed it meant that its work in collecting and popularizing indigenous history would play a role in the popular uprisings that came later.
History has many uses. Colonizers replace the histories of the conquered with the history of the conqueror. They diminish the cultures and political arrangements of the colonized to diminish the colonized themselves. Over time, the only histories subsequent generations learn are the histories that keep them subjugated. In countries like Bolivia where the colonizer was defeated by the colonizer’s descendants, the original people’s history usually becomes even more remote. This phenomenon is true throughout the Americas; indigenous peoples have had their history and culture suppressed, denied and otherwise destroyed for centuries. In its place, they have been taught a history that champions the freedom of the colonizer’s sons and daughters, usually at the expense of those the colonizer originally slaughtered, converted and otherwise destroyed. In his book The Five Hundred Year Rebellion, Ben Dangl describes not just the rediscovery of indigenous histories, but also how that rediscovery has led to one of the most popular and radical revolutionary experiments of the twenty-first century. In doing this, he reminds us that history is an important part of the battle to interpret the past and apply its lessons to the future.