Barraclough’s Overview

C.B. Macpherson

  • Turning-Points in World History by Geoffrey Barraclough
    Thames and Hudson, 96 pp, £4.50, November 1979, ISBN 0 500 25067 7

Historians are subject to a peculiar occupational hazard. Not only must they, like other scholars and scientists, leave no stone unturned until they have reached a satisfying conclusion to whatever problems they have set themselves: they must also – or so the convention of their craft seems to require – take the reader through most of their sifting of the evidence. This convention is perennially reinforced by the academic training of those who are to become professional historians. They must primarily be taught to search and sift evidence, and be tested by their skill in doing so. That skill is most readily judged, at both the apprentice and journeyman levels, by judging the candidate’s written ability to take the reader through the whole process. The effect of this training lingers. The historian, so trained, is apt not to see that the order of presentation of a theory need not be the same as the order of discovery. The natural scientists do see this. So have, at least in the past, the most outstanding social scientists: one need think only of Hobbes and Marx, who, while they did write some long books, could and did proffer succinct theoretical formulations without demanding that the reader follow them through the whole order of discovery of their theorems. So on the score of brevity historians are naturally, or culturally, under a handicap.

But what is so good about brevity? Why should it be thought a particular merit in historians? Whether it is or not depends on their ultimate purpose. Those who follow Thucydides in thinking that the benefit of their craft is in turning up lessons for the present, and who want the lessons to be heeded by present rulers, are well advised to cultivate brevity, at least if they live in societies with some pretensions to democracy. As long as ordinary citizens, as voters and members of pressure groups, have some influence, however indirect and marginal, on the formation of state policy, it is clearly important to get through to as many as possible of them. And in the culture of the late 20th century in which the mass media have reduced the attention-span of that not entirely unreal person, the intelligent general reader (who is also a voter), the advantage of brevity is evident. True, the same media have rendered other voters incapable of reading at all, but one may still hope for a trickle-down effect on them.

A second merit of brevity is that it demands clarity. There is no room for the pretentious jargon which still afflicts much writing in the social sciences. Here the historian, who generally writes prose, is at some advantage: this does something to offset the handicap referred to above.

In any case, the problem for policy-minded historians is to induce their readers to think beyond immediate electoral issues and personalities, to look at the long-run and medium-run implications of policy choices. The same problem faces social scientists, and those natural scientists who are concerned with the social implications of science and technology. It is an uphill task, but no one is better qualified than the historian to instil a longer perspective of this kind: indeed, the scientists with social concerns are strongly historically oriented.

The publishing scene is encouraging. Publishers and editors have sensed a demand for short clear books and have responded with many series (and single volumes), mostly in paperback, aimed at the general reader and at students in the open universities and the community colleges as well as in more traditional centres of learning. Turning-Points in World History is, more directly than most volumes of this sort, an exercise attuned to the media-programmed mind, it originated, as we are told in the author’s preface, in a television series he broadcast in Japan. His four broadcast talks, slightly revised, make up the first four chapters, and he has added a fifth chapter on the broadest implications of his theme.

He begins by challenging as misleading the prevailing Eurocentric view of the world and its history. We are, he holds, generally guilty of treating the whole of the past as the unfolding of the undoubted pre-eminence of European civilisation which by the 19th century had established its dominance over the whole world. When we divide history into ancient, medieval and modern, our turning-points are all European: the rise and fall of Greece and Rome, the medieval Papacy and Empire, the Renaissance and the Reformation, and so on. Other civilisations, seemingly destined to be subordinated by ours, are thus of little account except as they contributed to or impinged on ours. The tendency then is to attribute it all to some inherent quality of the European mind or character.

Professor Barraclough has no difficulty in showing that this will not do. Nor is he satisfied with other reasons commonly offered. European dominance of the world by the 19th century may well be attributed to its superiority in science and technology, but that in turn needs explaining. It cannot be explained simply by such purely economic factors as the amount of capital accumulation, for other civilisations which did not experience the economic take-off had had plenty of accumulated wealth which might have been used as capital. Barraclough then argues very persuasively that we must look comparatively at the whole social structure, including such things as the structure of the family with its obvious effect on demographic trends, and, of central importance, the presence in Europe and absence elsewhere, from the 16th century on, of a class which would use the new wealth of the Indies as capital – ‘a mercantile capitalist class’. Its appearance uniquely in Europe may in turn be ascribed to the failure of any imperial bureaucracy to unify Europe, so that there was room for communities of burghers to win an area of freedom and to exploit it. To anyone in search of a monocausal explanation of history this will not seem satisfactory: in the end it seems to come down to an accident of political organisation, and to involve us in either infinite causal regress or circular reasoning. But at least it anchors the causes in comparative social structures. And it does give the general reader a much enlarged view and a much longer perspective. All this Professor Barraclough does admirably.

How is this related to the education of the general reader as a voter? More than a general enlargement of perspective is needed. Somehow the general reader as voter must be enabled to get, from this broader perspective, some help about current policy issues. Where, in a world divided several ways – East v. West, developed v. underdeveloped countries, with rifts within each division – should he or she stand? What can they realistically demand? Barraclough devotes his third and fourth lectures to an assessment of these divisions. He points out that the very domination of the economically advanced over the underdeveloped countries has set up a backlash in the latter, which the former, being themselves divided, may be in a poor position to resist. He foresees a new power balance which will be regional rather than simply West v. East or North v. South. And on that basis he reaches in his final chapter a mildly optimistic conclusion. Noting the many active movements, in Europe and Asia and America, seeking national independence for cultural entities – the Basques, the Québecois and so on – he suggests that the claims of culture are not, and are not certainly about to be, subordinated to the imperatives of material civilisation.

Barraclough’s long view of world history has moved us from the rise of European dominance through science and technology, to the counter-forces which that dominance has brought into being in the late 20th century – cultural nationalisms, sub-cultures within the most advanced nations, regional power groupings replacing the straight East-West confrontation. The voter who sees that this is the way the world is will not be easily stampeded into panic policies. That is all to the good. And it would be too much to ask that such a historical overview should provide positive as well as negative guidance. But even on the negative score there is something missing.

Barraclough has rightly insisted that both the dominance of European civilisation and the present reactions against it are due not to science and technology in themselves but to the social structure, essentially capitalism, which gave them their head and has determined the uses we have made of them. Surely, then, attention should in the end at least have been drawn to the currently much-debated question of structural changes within late 20th-century capitalism. A good deal of work has been done on this – by, for example, Jürgen Habermas, James O’Connor, Claus Offe and Alan Wolfe – which could have been brought into even the very brief summary view that Turning-Points affords, but it is not mentioned. Without it, the picture of the world we live in, the forces at work in it, and the limits of the policy choices we may make, lacks something essential. But Professor Barraclough has provided so much food for thought in such a brief compass that we should be grateful for what he has done. The non-specialist reader, and not a few specialists, can benefit from it.