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

‘The clarity of Greek light,’ he remarks in similar vein, ‘explains the clarity of Greek philosophy in ways which historians who primarily interest themselves in the “economic and social forces which underlie the history of people” may overlook.’ Here the situation is a little different. There is a historian of Antiquity who has argued lucidly and at length on the possible relationship between early Greek commerce and coinage, and the capacity for abstract thinking which found ultimate expression in Aristotle and Plato. It would be ridiculous to say George Thomson’s ideas are refuted, or even contested, by such an argument (and he is unmentioned in the book’s bibliography). But the turn of thought is characteristic of An Unfinished History. Its writer emerges from his thickets of trivia only to muse like a Daily Telegraph editorial, or to pontificate like a back-bench MP. One need not be a Marxist bookworm to think that, in any intellectually vigorous perspective, the history of the world consists mainly of problems. Some are partly understood, others a mystery, others still may never be resolvable. None of them are questions of ‘fact’ in Mr Thomas’s chosen sense. If his beserk magpie flew hither and thither for centuries depositing these tit-bits, we would still not know whether or not there was an Asiatic mode of production, why slave-civilisation disintegrated or the institution of serfdom arose, how the transition from feudal society to capitalism occurred, or why it took place only in Europe.

No one historian could be expected to answer these and similar questions in a single book. However, no general historian can simply ignore or sidestep them either. Unless he takes up some position regarding crucial controversies, his history will have no recognisable form. It will give the reader no sense of consequent, articulated development. One need not defend stereotyped ‘Ages’ of this or that to believe that history has definable phases, generally operative causes or contradictions, transitions between epochs and underlying meanings. Without them, the subject dissolves into the slowly-moving bog of Mr Thomas’s book. Things just vaguely move on from Neanderthal men until the nebulous conclusion of the agricultural period, when (the reader is almost glad for such a firm verdict) ‘the idea of liberty shone brighter in England by 1215 than it did in more sophisticated places’ like China or Italy.

Spengler’s philosophy of history was a comic-book version of German Idealism. He invented cultures to illustrate a grandiose master-plan of destiny. Hugh Thomas’s anti-philosophy of history is English empiricism gone mad. He dissolves cultures into a kind of common, jocular mud in order to show that all those theories about destiny are a bit much. History is actually chaps doing their best, often against frightful odds. But if they try hard enough they can often reverse tendencies, even at a late hour. If they don’t (failure of nerve etc) things can get out of hand, for prolonged periods of time. In our times (about two-thirds of the text bears the title ‘Our Times’, from c.1750 to the present) this is caused by ideological oversubscription to abstract entities like ‘class’ and ‘the State’.

Anglo-British culture is less susceptible to the disease than others. It is in this sense that it may be considered exemplary, and indeed a model for the salvation of world history. True, Great Britain did not succeed in maintaining its dominion over the world. It did not have enough time to get things running properly, before educated natives turned into nationalists and things got out of hand again. Still, a nation need not rule to be an example. In 1215, the English were already showing other, more showy places a thing or two. The same may be true once more if only ‘the present leader of the British Conservative Party’ is granted time sufficient to revive the noblest political lineage of Europe, that of ‘Dr Johnson, Pitt the Younger, Burke, Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury’.

Some other recent world-histories have taken a stand against Euro-centrism, notably William McNeill’s A World History (1971) and J.M. Roberts’s The Hutchinson History of the World (1976). In this regard, Mr Thomas is a self-conscious reactionary. He will have none of what he calls ‘well-intentioned complaints about the parochiality’ of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. What such historical do-gooders fail to grasp is an obvious truth: ‘Western Europe with North America … since the 15th century at least, for good or evil, has provided the world’s dynamism.’ ‘North America is also, of course, a Europe-over-the-water,’ he adds as an afterthought, lest Americans feel carried away by so much credit.

This recrudescence of cliches reposes, in fact, upon a wilful misunderstanding which suits the mood of the contemporary European Right. To give other civilisations their due, or write history from a Black African point of view, does not mean denying that Europe transformed the world between the 15th and 20th centuries. The most fanatical of those Third World vulgar Marxists who (in the Thomas world-view) are now at civilisation’s throat will admit that his country was forced into its present state by European influences. The point, surely, is the judgment he is passing upon this truism. In his view, the tendency of European empire, had it not been checked and turned back, was to transform the globe (as Ernest Gellner put it in a memorable phrase) into a series of South Africas, or even into one unified system of forced underdevelopment and apartheid. Euro-centrism is failure to perceive the limits and contradictions of an Enlightened culture that issued in Winston Churchill and Dr Kissinger. A world-history which does not take firm account of these limits and depict European hegemony as one episode (albeit the most important to date) is no longer worthy of its title.

Proudly brandishing this failure, Hugh Thomas informs his reader at the start that ‘the world’s demoralisation … derives from the demoralisation of Europe,’ and that he plans to do something about it. England is his chief weapon in this crusade. After all, it is the land which, in the later 18th century, attained near-perfection in its social arrangements. It was ruled by landlords, ‘grand outposts of resistance to central power’ in the Western-feudal tradition, already preparing the terrain for the stuggle against Fascism-Communism. It possessed a responsible, rather than a fractious, intelligentsia. Its state power concentrated on cannonading foreigners, and interfered little at home. There reigned (in the words of F. von Hayek, ‘that acute modern observer of its affairs’) both respect for custom and tradition, and a healthy suspicion of power and authority. ‘In short, a marvellous country,’ concludes the author, where practical fellows kept ideologues and loony scientists well under control.

Before going on to consider Mr Thomas’s morale-boosting cure, some remarks upon the form of his book may be in order.

Though emblazoned with periodic showers of quotation. An Unfinished History of the World has no pictures or maps. Their very absence betokens a work of reflection, rather than divulgation, in a genre which has always lent itself well to illustration. Most world-histories have their drawings of palaeolithic tools, diagrams of migrations and trade-routes, and reproductions of famous master-pieces. As has often been noticed, H.G. Wells’s The Outline of History was particularly favoured in this respect, being illustrated throughout by a graphic artist of great talent, J.F. Horrabin.

That sort of thing is inappropriate on the Spenglerian level, where it is the glow of pure Vernunft which fills the disciple’s mind. But in Mr Thomas’s case, even believers must concede that Spirit has a lot to contend with. Some malign curse – could it be the shade of the author’s own radical past? – has evidently gripped the writer, proof-reader, indexer and publisher alike, leaving behind it a minefield of gaffes. Beginning with ‘Capitilism’ in the Table of Contents down to ‘Giovanni Villani’ on the last page of the bibliography, few pages are without their misprint, their mistaken reference or their footnote helplessly adrift from its moorings. Priests of the cause like Leonard Schapiro, Hayek and Carlos Rangel are caught and mangled like everybody else. The author’s lengthy meditations at II Trebbio (responsible for much of the book’s message, we learn in the Preface) did not leave him time to learn the correct Tuscan for the share-croppers glimpsed toiling from the castle window (mezzaiuoli), or recognise the plural form of buffone.

Where they have escaped the curse, the references are frequently so peremptory as to be useless. Attempts to use the index (whose extreme haste of construction is admitted) end as often as not in defeat. Before anyone buys it as a Christmas gift (rather than, say, Sharman and Wilson’s delightful Illustrated Book of World History) they should reflect that for this volume it is certainly the inspirational content which is all, or nothing.

The best way to approach the latter is via another bizarre feature of the textual lay-out. Straining across Mr Thomas’s wide Sargasso, through (as he warns the voyager himself) ‘such often neglected topics as the history of brandy, of the thermometer and of the radish’, one occasionally beaches, as if by accident, upon small islets of italic print. These contain valuable indications of where one is bound. The reader is well advised to parachute down upon as many of these as he can locate, before risking the major crossings head on (they appear at the ends or beginnings of chapters).

Whether placed by afterthought, or at the behest of a desperate editor, their function is all too clear: to lend a minimum of coherence and thrust to the narrative. They are the author’s grudging concession of the truth of Hegel’s dictum about global history, in which one is compelled to ‘make do with abstractions, summaries and abridgments’ to some extent. It is in these that ‘thought or understanding, the most effective means of abridgment, must intervene’ and avert the perils of pure ‘Sir Walter Scott history’ (Lectures on the Philosophy of World History). After all, a history which was pure liveliness would also be pure nonsense.

The use of these more generalising link-passages as signposts would lead one to the 13 lines on page 588, before tackling all 147 pages of Mr Thomas’s key section, ‘Our Times II – Political Failures’. There one would see that ‘the essence of the argument’ is merely that, since the Renaissance, technical and scientific progress has outpaced moral and political development and ‘exacerbated some of the world’s ancient troubles’. The reader may then judge for himself whether or not the pursuit of this hoary opinion is worth that expenditure of energy.

The author greatly enjoyed composing An Unfinished History of the World. Many will enjoy reading it, largely because of its faults. In Hegel’s tart verdict on this brand of history, there is only one word requiring alteration to make it fit Mr Thomas like a Savile Row suit: ‘Then there is the moralising pragmatist, also a compiler but one who sporadically awakens from his weary ramblings to utter edifying Christian reflections, attacking events and individuals in the flank with his moral onslaughts, and throwing in an edifying thought, a word of exhortation, a moral doctrine, or the like’ (‘The Varieties of Historical Writing’, in Lectures, op.cit.). The word which will not do is ‘weary’. Hugh Thomas is sprightly, and so naturally cheerful about the whole business it is hard to take his sunset gloom too seriously. He has deftly combined two ingredients into a more or less irresistible mix. On one side, the kind of mildly eccentric, squirely insouciance that still appeals powerfully to our ruling class. On the other, a sufficient dose of homilies and bugle-calls echoing their as yet uncertain feeling that, before another generation passes, they may have to fight for their lives. Nothing too extreme is called for on this second count, of course. The United Kingdom is merely slithering into a worse crisis, well this side of apocalypse; and Mr Thomas is only half-way to Spengler.

Such is the mood of the moment on the Right. The author has captured it so ably that it would be surprising if there were not calls for An Unfinished History to be made Government issue for all schools, chained up in every Reading Room, shot off into outer space in the next probe, and made into a 26-part TV series.

In the worsening situation we inhabit, however, this mood will not endure too long. Any reader who has not entirely given up his critical faculties in the way the book demands will suspect this, as he arrives at the closing peroration. After the brontosaural mass which has lumbered past, this is hesistant, sandy stuff. The tide will soon out-date it. ‘Let us be cautious,’ quavers our pragmatist. ‘Caution spells wisdom. Wisdom is rare.’ The wise course for Europeans is to stop flagellating ourselves, and sit more upright at our desks. Slave trade and Imperialism? The benefits of European expansion have been brushed aside too easily. The sufferings of capitalist industrialisation? Much exaggerated: in regretting that children were employed by even the greatest potters, we should not forget the pots. Capitalism generally? May have warts, and has often been ‘its own worst enemy’, but these warts are minor compared to the tumours of collectivism owed (mainly) to Karl Marx, ‘a German polemicist who lived in London’. As a result of the chain of political failures in which ‘Our Times’ since 1789 largely consist, Fascisto-Communism, ‘unrecognised everywhere’, is now the strongest political movement of the century. Even, adds Mr Thomas with a rather ungentlemanly nudge, ‘in several democracies’ which the Fascists regarded as decadent in the 1930s’.

Thus does he wobble to a standstill, in a paragraph of more than usual immensity, pleading that his public recall this, not forget that, and ‘know’ (in the exhortatory sense) this, that and the other. God is fumbling about somewhere in the wings. Freedom may depend not on capitalism alone, but also on ‘the absolute value which Christianity gives to the soul’. The very last of Mr Thomas’s log-jam of quotations comes from Matthew Arnold, and is about half-hearted, ineffectual folk in need of a word from On High: ‘Light half-believers of our casual creeds’,

Who hesitate and falter life away,
And lose tomorrow the ground won today.

But the author, too, is still rather casual. Perhaps he is only acquiring the trade of reactionary, and has not yet wholly sloughed off that irreverent liberal conscience which made him such an alert critic of the Establishment he has turned to serve. At any rate, it is a pity he has chosen to project the rite de passage onto the largest screen available, that of world-history, for the inevitable consequence is the monstrous dilation of everything half-baked, frivolous and generally Public Schoolish about the English New Right. This is not a nouvelle histoire able to look the nouveaux philosophes in the face. As yet, it feels more like the ideology of a conspiracy among the Lower Fifth, determined to administer a hiding to all those left-wing swots and trade-union bullies who have been lording it for far too long.

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