Interview with Donald Sassoon

The historian on what we can learn from the study of the past, how different nations view their heritage, and whether capitalism is here to stay

September 5, 2019
Donald Sassoon
Source: Caroline Forbes

Donald Sassoon is emeritus professor of comparative European history at Queen Mary University of London. His most recent book, The Anxious Triumph: A Global History of Capitalism, 1860-1914, has been longlisted for the 2019 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year. His previous books, including One Hundred Years of Socialism, The Culture of the Europeans and Mona LisaMussolini and the Rise of Fascism have been translated into 15 languages.

When and where were you born?
Cairo in November 1946, but we moved to Paris in 1947 and then to Milan in 1954.

How has this shaped who you are?
In my primary school in Paris we were told that “our” ancestors were the Gauls. Our textbook had a picture of the Gallic leader, Vercingetorix. Defeated by Julius Caesar and taken to Rome, he was paraded through the streets and then executed. We were all full of sympathy and pity for the man in chains dragged behind the chariot of the nasty conqueror. A couple of years later, in 1954, I found myself in a Milan primary school. Reassuringly the multiplication table was the same, but the history textbook did not mention the Gallic hero. I asked the teacher about Vercingetorix. After a moment of hesitation, she said, “Ah, si, Vercingetorige”, adding: “Oh, just one of the many barbarians crushed by the might of Caesar’s legions.” I was impressed: a national hero in France was almost unknown in neighbouring Italy, and the brute who had him in chains was celebrated. That was the best history lesson of my life. Since then I have remained suspicious of national assumptions.

What made you want to become a historian?
I did not want to become a historian. My first degree was in economics (at UCL), my MA was in political science (in the US). I did my PhD in history because I wanted to write about the Italian Communist Party and wanted Eric Hobsbawm to be my supervisor. Then, and only then, I developed a passion for history.

What can understanding the history of capitalism teach us about capitalism today?
One of the aims is to challenge the “history” of capitalism peddled by ideologues, a history of constant progress where matters would resolve themselves if only no one interfered – something not even Adam Smith believed. Capitalism is a history of struggles, not always the class struggle, but struggles nevertheless. It is, of course, wrong to defend the study of history by saying that history repeats itself. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. When I am asked “what is the purpose of history?” I answer, according to my mood, that history had no purpose at all, that it is just fun, like music or drawing. Yet no society, not even the most primitive ones, can do without history. Answers are sought and found or invented; hence stories, fairy tales, myths, religions...and history. More recently, historians have finally stopped pandering to the powerful and celebrating their deeds, and tried to provide answers based on evidence and a dispassionate analysis. It is, of course, difficult to be balanced, to abandon one’s prejudices, but one tries, not always successfully.

One of your previous books was on the history of socialism in western Europe. What has writing these two books taught you about the relationship between socialism and capitalism?
Socialists wanted to abolish capitalism, but, unlike anarchists, they fought for social reforms. The more successful they were, the more capitalism emerged strengthened, making the socialist future less likely. Similarly, pro-capitalists constantly complained about state interference (they still do), yet without a state and its regulatory mechanism there would be no capitalism.

Could capitalism ever be replaced as the dominant system in the developed world? If so, what could replace it?
Communism failed miserably in the test that mattered above all else, even more than basic civil liberties: the creation of a consumer society. Capitalism is likely to endure simply because it changes all the time. There are different kinds of capitalism. Capitalists come and go, but capitalism survives. The main obstacles are the ecological limits to the global development of a Western-style consumer society. The “rest” want – quite understandably – to be like the West: driving cars, using energy, eating meat, having holidays abroad, enjoying an endless supply of cheap clothes, cheap music, cheap food, as well as iPads, computers and so on; in other words, all the joys and pleasure of limitless consumption. If ways could be found to resolve the ecological problem, then capitalism, as we know it today, will have acquired another lease of life.

Did your research for The Anxious Triumph take you to any places, literal or figurative, where you had not expected to go?
Since capitalism is a global system I ended up doing quite a bit of work on Japan, China, the Ottoman Empire and the US. This was fascinating, though hardly unforeseen. But one always learns unexpected stuff – for instance, the very high level of debates among successive finance ministers of the last Russian tsars. Tsars like Alexander III and Nicholas II were pretty dim, but they had clever ministers.

Who has been the biggest influence on your academic career, and what did they teach you?
All the books I have read, including novels. They taught me everything I know.

If you were universities minister for day, what one policy would you introduce or abolish?
I would lower tuition fees and absorb some of the cost by abolishing the charity status of public schools.

When are you, or when were you, happiest?
Rereading the final draft of a book I have written, lecturing, reading in a library, being with the woman I love or playing with my grandchildren.


Anton Middelberg has been named deputy vice-chancellor and vice-president (research) at the University of Adelaide. He is currently executive dean of Adelaide’s Faculty of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences, and will take up his new role in October. Formerly pro vice-chancellor for research and international at the University of Queensland, Professor Middelberg will take on his new responsibilities from Mike Brooks, who will continue in his role as Adelaide’s provost. Peter Rathjen, the university’s vice-chancellor, described Professor Middelberg as an “original and creative thinker” who would “shape the future of research, research education and innovation in our institution to the advantage of our state and the nation”.

Palie Smart has been appointed head of the University of Bristol’s new School of Management. She was previously director of research in Bristol’s department of management, which will be formally launched as a school next year. Professor Smart has 20 years’ experience in management education, including various roles at Cranfield School of Management. She said it was an “honour and privilege to be leading the new school at this historic time in its evolution”.

Paul Lashmar has been announced as head of the department of journalism at City, University of London. Dr Lashmar, an investigative journalist who worked for The Observer and Granada Television’s World in Action, steps up from deputy head of department as Suzanne Franks goes on sabbatical.

Danielle Dennis has been appointed director of the University of Rhode Island’s School of Education. She was previously associate professor of literacy studies at the University of South Florida.

Sunitha Narendran has joined the University of Roehampton as director of its business school. She was previously head of the department of business at the University of East London.

John DellaContrada has been named vice-president for university communications at the University at Buffalo. He had held the post on an interim basis since September 2018.

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