Commentary Magazine


A History of the World, by Hugh Thomas

The Works of Man

A History of the World.
by Hugh Thomas.
Harper & Row. 700 pp. $17.95.

Hugh Thomas is best known as the author of the magisterial The Spanish Civil War, Cuba, and numerous biting and perceptive articles on political developments in Hispanic countries. He now appears as a world historian, one of that rare breed who find the time, in the middle of a working life, to sit back and take stock of the labors and triumphs of man, and to point out the dangers and challenges that lie ahead.

In his preface, Thomas explains that this history must be unfinished, incomplete, as the possibilities and hopes of the future are not yet entirely foreclosed. It must also be incomplete in the more general sense that no individual can treat all aspects of human social life, no matter how diligent he may be or how many volumes he may write. For this reason it is odd that the American publisher should have made a change in the title of the original British edition: An Unfinished History of the World.

The interpretative scheme adopted by Thomas, also described briefly in his preface, involves an emphasis on the history of technology and “culture” in the widest sense—human habits, forms of organization, the history of nutrition, of medicine and sanitation, and only secondarily of the intellect. Furthermore, the greatest attention is paid to modernity—to the period from about 1750 onward. Thus, without being too explicit about it, Thomas lays his work squarely in the tradition that sees world history as the “rise of the West” (as in the famous work of that title by the Chicago historian William McNeill, first published in 1963 and in preparation for thirty years prior to that).

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Thomas is not a Hegel or a Jacob Burckhardt; he does not offer a philosophical “justification” of what happened in history by referring to the mysterious operations of a “world spirit.” Nor is he a cultural pessimist, cataloguing the decline of a once-glorious movement into the vulgarities of mass society. His work is, primarily, a fascinating catalogue of inventions, ideas, developments, habits, and forms of organization, the massive paraphernalia of human social existence which make up what one might call the framework of history, the tools that make things work. As such it may be seen as an Anglo-Saxon attempt at the sort of “total history” associated with the work of the French historian Fernand Braudel (whose The Mediterranean and Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1700 appear in Thomas’s bibliography and are relatively frequently quoted). Braudel speaks of such factors as climate, travel, and trade, the administration of cities and states, crops, droughts, and epidemics. His approach is learned and laborious. Thomas has succeeded very well in transferring this “total” approach to history to the easier, more open and accessible Anglo-Saxon mode, in which world history for a general audience becomes more than a selection of fashionable platitudes (of whatever variety), but less daunting than the learned apparatus of a Braudel or his disciples.

The comparison with Braudel and his school breaks down, however, as soon as one reaches the question of the normative or interpretative. The danger of the strict Braudel method is that while pretending to be value-free and objective, it in fact implicitly asserts the priority of material conditions (if in a non-Marxist sense). Thomas never claims to follow any methodological rules to the exclusion of any others. His criterion is simply one of interest and general significance. No one would quarrel with the judgment that the history of communications is vital to an understanding of the modern world; Thomas therefore sensibly includes two chapters on the subject. At the same time, a normative element undoubtedly emerges, particularly in the last chapters, with such titles as “The Democratic Alternative”; “Democracy: Internal Anxieties”; and “Causes of the Cold War: Notions of Imperialism.”

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The targets of Thomas’s criticism are easy to detect: they are, first of all, Marxist demands for revolution and the overthrow of “bourgeois” democracy, whether in South America or in Europe; and, secondly, the generalized beliefs that the West is evil and its past dominance and present preeminence unjustified. Thomas does not seek to gloss over the costs of Western progress, but he constantly asserts that progress was, and is, not only possible but real.

Thomas might very well have been more vehement on this subject. He might, and with some justification, have presented a political tract on behalf of the “new Conservatism” of Margaret Thatcher, especially as he is now a member of the London think-tank (the Center for Policy Studies), which harbors Mrs. Thatcher’s redoubtable, if not always consistent, Industry Secretary, Sir Keith Joseph. At the Center’s 1978 conference, Thomas gave a paper entitled “History, Capitalism, and Freedom,” in which he rehearsed Friedrich Hayek’s and Milton Friedman’s argument that the free-market economy, despite its alleged “immoralism,” ultimately provides a greater degree of liberty and more life chances than any centralized system designed to further the “common good.” The cultural version of this view, namely, that capitalist democracy also provides the best guarantee for freedom of conscience and expression and for civilized political activity, was presented eloquently by Paul Johnson in his The Enemies of Society (1977). Johnson, like Thomas, is a disillusioned Labor intellectual, a social democrat who finds intolerable the current rhetoric of envy and hatred, of fear and violence, which controls the Labor party today.

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For Thomas, the core of the 20th century’s problems is that the technical and material progress of the late 18th and 19th centuries was not followed by the development of an industrial world culture united by a common interest in liberty and democracy. Instead, the very technical opportunities that gave mankind such hope have been used to extend the powers of coercion and oppression far beyond the wildest imaginings of any ancient emperor or tyrant. “In the late 1970’s, it seemed possible that Western civilization might collapse before the end of the century, either from the onslaught of irrationality without or the failure of nerve within.” This is, indeed, the crucial problem of the post-modern era, and one not foreseen at all by Marx or any other of the economic theorists of capitalism. Rather, one finds insight into it in the social criticism of Tocqueville (often quoted by Thomas), in the understanding that, in the absence of religion or other strong social cohesive factors, mass society will inevitably become homogenized, latently coercive, and profoundly hostile to individual excellence.

It seems that the psychological root of this distrust of excellence, which often masquerades as a concern for equality, is the belief that achievement by individuals will inevitably be used to oppress others unless some ideology or an external coercive power prevents it. And that belief is in turn related to the anonymity of mass democratic society: if I know personally the people who exercise control over the conditions of my life, it is some-how easier to accept setbacks and problems than if such difficulties can be attributed only to faceless “market forces.” This is the basis of the sentimental and emotional radical critique of the market and the belief in the need for either a strong external state or a powerful inner censor to prevent the perilous eruption of individual spontaneity and talent.

Tocqueville understood this as few since him have done; indeed, it is hard to think of any critiques of radicalism which take up this argument (one exception is the French “new philosopher,” Bernard-Henri Lévy). Thomas does not drive very deep here, either; it is one weakness of his superb and impressive account that he simply records the unpleasant facts—the rise of totalitarianism, the extension of state power, mass psychoses, the “failure of nerve” of liberalism—in a way which does not relate them to one another or provide a historical explanation of their genesis.

Perhaps one should not blame Thomas for leaving the dimension of morals and motivation out of his work; it would have made it twice as massive and would have detracted from the thrust and vigor of his account as it stands. For Thomas, the values of the West are self-transparent and self-motivating. Who can doubt that the industrial organization of production is best for all, or that individual liberty and a fair measure of social equality are self-justifying goals which are best guaranteed in Western society? But the problem here is that the majority of the world’s people live under systems of government and of economic organization which, implicitly or explicitly, do deny these assumptions, and this denial must be explained.

The closest Thomas comes to acknowledging the vipers’ nest of problems and dilemmas at which I have hinted is in his epilogue, where he attributes a large measure of the irrationality of totalitarian governments to a false understanding of history. With the decline of religious standards of judgment, appeals to “history” have become the main justification for unpleasant actions by government. But if this is so, says Thomas, then a truer understanding of history will help us undermine these appeals. This is not question-begging—in practical terms, and without having to enter into laborious discussions of how one validates historical accounts, no sane person would doubt, for example, that Thomas’s world history is far truer than that of Joseph Stalin. One way to test the truth of history is in terms of its subject—is it true to what it describes, does it respect and understand the inner logic of its material, whether it be a life, the history of a war, a government, or an institution? Such a notion of truthfulness entails an open commitment to understand the workings of reality, of other people, of groups, political cultures and systems, and entire civilizations. And that is not an impossible enterprise in our era of freely available information and interpretations.

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Thomas has done a great job of presenting innumerable more or less well-known facts and bits of information about “the works of man.” The next task for a world history must be to relate all this to the inner workings of cultures and individuals which alone “make sense” of the facts and show us what man is capable of, in both the good and the bad sense.

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