William Hardy McNeill, the noted historian, died in July 2016 at the age of 98.
McNeill’s book The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community was first published in 1963 and went through multiple editions which presented the author’s constantly changing perspectives, but with the constant message that cross-fertilisation between different cultures resulting from “contact with foreign civilizations is the primary force in driving historical change.”
McNeill was both praised and criticised for his allegedly “Eurocentric” views and his development of “world history” – even though the two approaches are rather contradictory.
Critics condemned McNeill and other world historians for their denigration and relegation of the West, which, in McNeill ‘s view, “copied” from other cultures, as did every other civilisation, or, to the less charitable, actually “stole” all its best ideas from the East, such as paper, gunpowder and the compass.
This view is of course highly questionable. It denies the West any agency at all – on this view, the West could not have built the magnificent mediaeval cathedrals on its own, but must have stolen the designs from elsewhere, even though none of the other proximate cultures, Byzantium, Rome and Islam, were capable of constructing these soaring structures of light. Nor can this approach explain why the cultures from which the West allegedly borrowed or stole were themselves unable to develop as did the mediaeval Occident.
However, as his former student Walter A. McDougall points out, McNeill also offered penetrating observations about the present and prophetic insights about the future:
Inevitably, McNeill was quizzed throughout life about “where history is going.” Invariably, he would speak in terms of probabilities based on grand trends, but never certainties because in the end human beings wielding their mighty symbols (e.g., language, art, mathematics, cybernetics) have mastered their environments far more than been mastered by them. That is why, as the McNeills wrote in The Human Web, “despite innumerable failures and local disasters – environmental, biological, and sociopolitical – the net effect was to expand human life by sporadically enlarging our species’ consumption and control of energy….” But do evolutionary patterns still apply in our own century, an era when the global population has suddenly expanded from 2 billion people in 1930 to 7 billion, when the 80 exajoules of energy consumed in 1930 have soared to 600 today, and when the IT revolution has put 7 billion cell phones into the hands of rich and poor all over the world in just twenty years? How can this century fail to be plagued by violent political and religious rebellions born of ferocious resentment of inequality and impuissance on the part of poor and middling folk? How will the world’s patricians tame its plebeians?
Way back in 1990 McNeill speculated on what the 21st century might bring in an article for Foreign Affairs called “The Winds of Change.” He wrote that “Human affairs never stand still for long” and that “The travail of the U.S.S.R. and its satellites ought not to be counted as a clear and definitive victory for the United States and the American way of life. Freedom has not definitively triumphed, nor has history achieved its appointed end, despite recent assertions to that effect.” On the contrary, he noted that American society also had grave difficulties, not least its persistent racial divides and increasingly unassimilated immigrants. He also rued “the halfheartedness of official response to ecological problems and a military policy preoccupied with preparing for high-tech international war when low-grade local violence – both at home and abroad – is a more likely occasion for American military action.” By contrast, McNeill observed, “If China’s enormous bulk should ever begin to attain efficient modernity, it is hard to doubt that the Far East would reassert a world primacy like that it enjoyed between 1000 and 1450….” But all nations would face enormous challenges due to new forms of infectious disease and crises in food production such that massive die-offs and ecological disasters could occur even in the absence of armed conflicts. “Clearly, what is needed is a global effort at ecologically and politically sustainable development. Somehow worldwide management of capital flows, migration flows, pollution, energy use, and exchange of goods needs to become explicit – and efficient as well.” But a “world government, exercising mandatory and presumably dictatorial power over all of humankind, is anything but attractive to anyone who is heir to the liberal tradition.”
Four years later McNeill elaborated in a lecture on “The Changing Shape of World History.” He said, “Human groups, even while borrowing from outsiders, cherish a keen sense of their uniqueness. The more they share, the more each group focuses attention on residual differences, since only then can the cohesion and morale of the community sustain itself. The upshot has always been conflict, rivalry and chronic collision among human groups, both great and small. Even if world government were to come, such rivalries would not cease…. In all probability, human genetic inheritance is attuned to membership in a small, primary community. Only so can life have meaning and purpose…. But how firm adhesion to primary communities can be reconciled with participation in global economic and political processes is yet to be discovered.” He suspected that the human race trembles on the verge of a great transformation, with risks greater than ever before, but so, too, great possibilities.
Walter A. McDougall, In Memoriam: William H. McNeill, 11 August, 2016
McDougall is Professor of History and Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania.
But even the best historians err. McNeill is yet another intellectual who has scoffed at Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 bestseller The End of History and the Last Man and the 1989 essay on which it was based, “The End of History?” – note the omission of the question mark from the book version.
Contrary to popular and much academic belief, however, Fukuyama did not quite forecast “The End of History.”
What he did say was that événements would certainly continue, but that western liberal democracy was the epitome of man’s political development and that no other system could improve on it, and certainly not competitors such as communism or Islam(ism).
In that sense, History really had Ended – a view Fukuyama derived from Hegel.
Like so many others, McNeill either never read Fukuyama or failed to understand him.
It would be odd if it were the former, for historians above all are trained to read the sources.
Nevertheless, Fukuyama got it right – we know of no better system.
But Samuel Huntington was also right in The Clash of Civilisations – that cultures and identity would be the basis of politics and future wars.
Now, the liberal system is under attack not merely from other powers, civilisations and religions, but also from within, from the extreme right and the extreme left. The West’s culture wars have resurfaced with a vengeance and other cultures are facing their own culture wars, which are often tied up with their attitude to Western civilisation, modernity and capitalism.
The world’s patricians will indeed have their work cut out if they wish to tame its plebeians.