A Book of Holistic History

May 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

Europe and the People Without History (Wolf, Eric)

“Historians writing in aristocratic times usually attribute all events to the individual will and character of particular men and are quite willing to link the most significant revolutions to slight accidents. They shrewdly highlight the smallest causes with no awareness of the greatest.
Historians in democratic periods exhibit quite the opposite tendencies.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America Volume II

The aim of historians is to narrate, to describe, and sometimes, to judge; but above all, it is to interpret and explain the past in a coherent framework. Historical explanation is broadly of two kinds: reductionist and holistic. A rather extreme example of reductionist explanation is the following tongue-in-cheek piece, by Bertrand Russell, in Freedom and Organisation:

“…if Henry VIII had not fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, the United States would not now exist. For it was owing to this event that England broke with the Papacy, and therefore it did not acknowledge the Pope’s gift of the Americas to Spain and Portugal. If England had remained Catholic, it is probable that what is now the United States would have been part of Spanish America.”

Colonial Map of Africa, 1914 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In short, reductionists believe in simple, linear cause-effect chains, which, while being easy to understand and therefore popular, could be incomplete at best and grossly inaccurate at worst. Textbooks (and movies) that depict Greco-Persian wars as pitting brave Greeks defending democracy against tyrannical Persian invaders gloss over the inconvenient fact that more Greeks fought in the Persian ranks than under the flag of the Hellenistic Alliance.

Nowhere, as Wolf points out despairingly, is this myth-making scheme more apparent than in schoolbook versions of the history of the United States. This of course, is dangerous. Schoolbook history is a powerful weapon of propaganda. On the one hand it polarizes political opinion, and on the other, it encourages analytical laziness.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are post-modernists who reject history as meaningless chaos, a sequence of arbitrary accidents, any analysis of which is deceiving.

Europe and the People Without History, on the other hand, ploughs a careful furrow in the complex space between chaos and reductionist determinism. Eric Wolf has synthesized a lifetime’s worth of multi-disciplinary erudition into this formidable magnum opus (the bibliographical notes at the end of the book alone occupy 80 pages). Synthesis, indeed, is the operative word, as Wolf’s fundamental argument is a categorical rejection of studies in isolation.

History has traditionally been written (and taught) as a sequential torrent of battles, treaties, coronations and assassinations, all from the perspective of the fortunes of a single nation or people. We are taught that great men – and women, but mostly men – bestrode the narrow world like colossuses, drawing and re-drawing political maps to suit their whims.

Economics, on the other hand, restricts its focus to a dry study of demand and supply, capital and labor, currencies and commodities. It is fundamentally anhistoric – it doesn’t ask how things got the way they did – and apolitical, remaining silent on the question of how economics influences, or is influenced by, political events. In fact, in its obsession with equilibrium and central tendency, it tends to ignore “events” altogether.

Anthropology and sociology, meanwhile, ignore both history and economics, and attempt to portray societies and cultures, not as responses to political and economic stimuli, but as standalone static phenomena.

Wolf’s world, on the contrary, is a web of intricate political, cultural and trade networks connecting peoples and nations around the world since pre-history, a “totality of interconnected processes”, the examination of each link of which is necessary in order to obtain a clear understanding of any of the parts. In a similar vein, he argues for the rigorous examination of causal chains connecting economics, sociology, politics, history and anthropology, no single one of which disciplines adequately explains reality.

For instance, just to cite one of an interminable set of threads he reels off: thanks to technological advances, clippers were replaced by the faster and more capacious steamships of the Blue Funnel line (launched in 1865) as preferred modes of freight transport. Meanwhile Mehmet Ali, the Albanian-born Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, buoyed by a sudden huge demand for Egyptian cotton by the temporary world shortage caused by the American Civil War, had put his country on an aggressive path of modernization. Egypt used French technological assistance and British (and Rothschild) capital to build the Suez Canal. (Later, civil war ended in the US and the price of cotton plummeted, Egypt defaulted on its loans and Britain seized control, but that’s a different thread). With the Suez open, clipper-borne trade in Chinese tea came under threat – steamships could get more tea into London via the Suez and much faster, from plantations in Ceylon and India. Huge areas of land were cleared for new plantations in North Ceylon, unilaterally declared ‘royal lands’ by the enterprising colonial masters, displacing Sinhala farmers from their land and livelihood. Cheap labor for the plantation was provided by a wave of indentured workers imported from Tamil Nadu in India.

Surely this background, combining technology, political history, labor mobility and commodity trade linking Britain, USA, Egypt, Ceylon, India and China helps us understand better the 150-year tension between the predominantly Hindu Tamils, speaking a Dravidian tongue, and the predominantly Buddhist Indo-European language speaking Sinhalas they displaced from their land? Note, however, that it is easier (and lazier) to label the parties into aggressors and defenders, heroes and villains, freedom fighters and oppressors, or terrorists and victims.

Wolf himself steers scrupulously clear of value judgments throughout the book, describing in dispassionate detail, and from every angle, major world events like the slave trade, the genocide of American tribes and the vast number of cultures and lives turned upside down by the advent of Western capitalism. His principal lesson is that comprehensive understanding takes away from the simplistic satisfaction of finger-pointing. This isn’t an easy lesson. When you eschew value judgments, you risk being labeled insensitive and politically incorrect. For example, Wolf points out that it was African tribes like the Ashante that ran the slave trade – raiding villages, kidnapping prospective slaves, transporting them to the coast, and selling them to traders in exchange for wealth and social prestige. Or that fratricidal wars between Native American tribes of North America had a huge hand in wiping out several tribes (the Huronia, the Erie, the Illinois). He explains these actions, not as those of monsters, but as local responses to changes in the prevalent social equations and modes of production, brought about by the sudden advent of European trade, arms and money.

Which is the moral reaction? The calm, matter-of-fact, balanced narration of ancient horrors, or the visceral anger that says it is a crime to remain balanced in the face of such evils – the bitterness of Howard Zinn or even that of Alexis de Tocqueville, who documented the gradual extinction of the American Indian in 1831 with the following words:

“By weakening the patriotism of North American Indians, by dispersing their families, by obscuring their traditions, by disrupting their chain of memories, by changing all their habits and by increasing their needs beyond measure, European tyranny has made them more unruly and less civilized than they were before…The Spanish, using unparalleled atrocities which bring an indelible shame upon themselves, have not succeeded in exterminating the Indian race, nor even in preventing them from sharing their rights; the Americans of the United States have attained both these results with amazing ease, quietly, legally and generously, with no spilling of blood, with no violations to the great moral principles in the eyes of the world. Men could not be destroyed with more respect for the laws of humanity”

I cannot say which approach is more moral. I understand the need for anger, and also that for equanimity. But there are books that are designed to make its readers angry, and there are those that make its readers think.  This is the latter kind of book.

In short, if you are the sort that prefers simple answers to all questions, especially simple answers that conveniently advance your pet political agenda, if you instinctively separate the world into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, regardless of whether you call yourself a conservative or a liberal: do not bother reading this book. I recommend it strongly to the rest.


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