Mrs Thatcher’s Spengler

Tom Nairn

  • An Unfinished History of the World by Hugh Thomas
    Hamish Hamilton, 700 pp, £12.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 241 10282 0

In the Preface to Book I of The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler proudly declared that his work was ‘a German Philosophy’. There was no incompatibility between this and a history of the world. For universal history showed the Germans to be the most important people in the ‘Faustian Civilisation’ of Europe, itself the motor of modern development. German philosophy alone had scaled the mental heights where the whole of this mighty process could be comprehended. Hence world-history was Teutonic self-understanding, and part of its preparation for dominance in the coming Age of Caesarism.

Although the author does not quite say so, An Unfinished History of the World is best understood along similar lines: that is, as a British Philosophy of the moment, aiming to equip us for the tribulations of another Untergang. As with Spengler, the history of the species is solemnly conjured up and interrogated in the hope of forging a new moral basis for conservatism. Pernicious fantasies like socialism are tracked down and castigated. Though the decay is advanced, there are still healthy, traditional forces – mercifully prominent in the writer’s own nation – which can be rallied and nourished with intellectual fodder. ‘Those who wish to revive the West,’ concludes Mr Thomas, ‘should recognise that one of the benefits of a study of history is that it is always possible to reverse, as Plato put it, an apparently fatal tendency towards decay, however late the hour …’

The weight of our planet’s unfinished history is, apparently, marshalled behind this concluding gesture. But of course, it is the gesture itself that counts. It has dictated the selection of events and personalities leading (in the author’s own words) to a ‘crepuscular vision’ of ‘Western civilisation collapsing before the end of the century, either from the onslaught or irrationality without or the failure of nerve within’. I say ‘dictated’, but the word is quite wrong for Mr Thomas’s style. There is no trace of the remorseless in his mode of argument. ‘Hummed and ha’d’ would be more fitting. He has assembled an indiscriminate alp of facts and anecdotes, with only the bare minimum of sculpturing to point the thing vaguely in the direction of the desired prophetic stance. Not surprisingly, the latter emerges as largely unsupported.

Classification is a basic problem for global histories. The bigger the canvas, the more vital it is to get the elementary proportions correct. In this case, the author has gone for the broadest and baggiest categories in the wardrobe. Thus, everything from the later Stone Age up to the Renaissance fits into the ‘Age of Agriculture’. More familiar textbook entities like the Bronze Age, Egypt, Antiquity and Feudalism are still there all right, but curiously shaken up like dice in a box. The reader never knows which he will stumble over next. As he pursues one amorphous motif after another (‘Early Social Bonds’, ‘The horse makes its bow’, ‘Climate and History’), the author ranges without effort from Catal Hüyük to the Scottish propensity for family prayers.

All history is ransacked and piled up to give an overview of its development. The justification advanced for this procedure is what Mr Thomas calls ‘a fresh look’. Down with stale stereotypes and tedious preconceptions. ‘To most people,’ he observes, ‘those years were indeed really the age of grain, or the age of rice rather than the age of Egypt, Rome or Chivalry.’ What they ate, how they were clothed, matters more than the ‘-isms’ which theory has imposed retrospectively on history.

Such feigned earthiness frees the author from concern with historical problems. It opens the floodgates of anecdote and quaint observation. The Florentine painter Piero di Cosimo lived only on hard-boiled eggs. Sumerian workmen were sometimes given beer in lieu of wages. Ships’ biscuits remained edible, when mixed with water, for up to fifty years. The fore-stomach of the flea becomes blackened by ‘a solid mass of bacilli’ in the transmission of bubonic plague. Crocodile dung was used as a contraceptive in Ancient Egypt. And so on, and on. Pursuing this meandering course through the undergrowth of the human story, the reader feels the ‘facts’ gradually obtain a clinging grip on his legs. Progress slows, the intellectual muscles cramp with disuse, and he finds himself longing for a machete to dispel the sensation of drowning. It comes almost as a relief when his guide turns round for a moment to defend this picayune materialism against the other (historical) kind. After all those constipated fleas, he sniffs, bubonic plague simply went away: ‘No change in technology and no great sudden turn in the “class struggle” was the explanation.’ One is left wondering, in vain, just who was responsible for the notorious class-struggle theory of plague.

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