One World Divisible: A Global History
London, Allen Lane, 2000, ISBN: 9780813904614; 889pp.
University of Birmingham
Date accessed: 10 June, 2023
Once in a long while a work of such scope and magnitude is published that our assumptions about history - its events, its causes, its effects - are fundamentally challenged.
This is not such a work.
David Reynolds is a superb historian. He has made vital contributions to international history with publications like The Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance, 1937-41 and has integrated social, cultural, and international history in his book Rich Relations: the American Occupation of Britain,1942-1945. One World Divisible ostensibly writes Reynolds' interpretation large 'to highlight people as much as process'. (xix) Chapters on 'cultures and families' and 'color, creed, and coups' sit next to more orthodox (at least from the standpoint of diplomatic history) counterparts on the East-West conflict, Arab-Israeli disputes, and the post-Cold War world.
This objective is creditable. Nor should one dismiss Reynolds' forthright declaration that the narrative of history, incorporating social, cultural, and ideological dimensions at all levels, is constructed 'around...the central, political mechanism of the dialectic', the building of the State. Whatever the virtues of evaluating a 'mass' history, avoiding concentration upon elites, or of considering class, religion, race, ethnicity, and geography, Reynolds' case - that it is the effort to organise and maintain the strength of the central authority against challenges from within and without - is a strong one.
Yet the challenge remains to integrate these considerations into a dynamic conception of how movements outside the formal political process modify and affect State activity, and it is clear that, in practice, that this is not Reynolds' main concern. What is offered is not a 'global' history but an 'international' history in which not all States are equal. By the 21st of 880 pages, Reynolds has fallen back upon the comfortable, bipolar framework of post-1945 history: 'fundamental contrasts between the United States and the Soviet Union, between democratic localism and bureaucratic centralism, between capitalism and communism'. Even Britain, which arguably should occupy a key position in the traditional narrative of the early Cold War, is an onlooker, entering the story only after 'a change of [US] policy' because of 'the awareness that the Europeans could not cope with the [1947 economic] crisis alone'. (27)
Leaving aside other omissions in this standard tale of diplomatic history - NSC 68, the most important US document of the early Cold War as the blueprint for global victory over Soviet Communism, is never mentioned - what is striking is how Reynolds' 'social' sections sit uneasily in his history. After four chapters on the economic, political, and military exchanges between 'East' and 'West', Reynolds abruptly shifts to a section on 'Cities and Consumers'. What follows is a narrative of progress for both the developed and developing worlds. The opportunity to critique that narrative is always eschewed: Reynolds offers a table to emphasise the decline, in absolute terms, in infant mortality rates throughout the world since 1925. Another reader might note the sharp increase in disparity in relative terms between countries - India had a rate approximately three times that of the United Kingdom in 1925; the rate is now eight times greater. Reynolds, instead of grappling with the issue, wanders into a discussion of 'self-build' among squatter communities, a comforting 'reminder that most of the world's population still created their own living spaces, unaffected by trends in formal architecture'. (153)
'Culture' exists in this book as anecdote amidst. 'The Consumption of Culture' has two paragraphs on 'concern about American economic and cultural penetration' of Europe with blithe comment such as 'for most Frenchmen and women, civilisation did mean bathtubs and Frigidaires, rather than Molière and Monet'. (290) Then we're off to television, abstract expressionism, and classical music: culture marches on.
Similarly we have 'women on the move' with the US story of housewife to feminist to 'mainstream' political activist extended around the world and then the conclusion: 'the principal catalyst for women's liberation was economic development'. (320) Race is a bit more problematic for Reynolds, given that continued tensions within countries such as the US and between countries such as in Africa threaten a tale of uplift, so after 15 pages early in the book, the issue disappears except for concluding references such as 'African Americans remained a special case'. (649)
Perhaps this is unfair, given that Reynolds has taken on all of global history since 1945. The topic is too large to be handled in any one volume. Those authors who have written 'broad' histories have succeeded by focusing on a single concept to organise their histories. Thus Paul Kennedy could structure his narrative about the cyclical Rise and Fall of the Great Powers - those areas which did not touch upon the thesis were not covered.
Yet Reynolds has also set out organising concepts. First, he wants to know 'whether liberal traditions of representative government could cope with democracy', in this case, the challenges from the 'vanguard democracy' of the Soviet Union and the 'militarised mass democracy' of Nazi Germany. Second, he seeks to discover 'whether the management of modern industrial economies could be left to market forces'. In short, Reynolds' quest is that of the 'Western', anti-Communist liberal since 1945.
And where that liberalism is vulnerable, so is Reynolds. He frets in the concluding chapter, 'Culture wars and immigration: race, poverty, and violence - these were just a few of the problems facing America in the 1990s' and, more significantly, 'black poverty and unemployment reflected a general marginalisation of unskilled workers in a globalising economy'. Looking beyond the US, he considers 'globalization and its contents' and ponders, 'The biggest losers from expanded world markets in finance and trade were those outside the triad' of North America, the European Union, and Japan.
Now you might think that this would be the opportunity for Reynolds to test his hypothesis on 'modern industrialised economies' and 'market forces'. No, that might raise some very tricky issues about increasing inequality in income and living standards, even within 'developed' countries, and about the incompatibility between 'progress' and domination of the global economy by elites within a few key national and multinational systems. Reynolds reassures us, 'The technologies of globalization could also encourage localisation,' (655) and then leaves the issue, never to return.
There are two telling passages in this book. At the outset, Reynolds makes clear, 'A Marxist historiography is in retreat.' For Reynolds, Marxism is the theory of 'class struggle' and 'socialists, it seems, are turning into capitalists, workers are becoming consumers'. (3) Well, that's that, then.
Seven hundred pages later, Reynolds ends his book with a summary of warfare, abortion, and global 'structural change' - 'The mechanism of historical change is human suffering.' But, to ensure we're not too depressed, he cites two demographers on the African famine: 'The real lessons were not how easily man succumbed to the drought but how tenacious he was in managing he was in managing his survival.' (701) Reynolds soothes, 'Human beings are uniquely capable of transcending their current predicament by thought and creativity.' (702) Culture and liberalism march on.
Reynolds' grand themes are illusory because testing them would require a more rigorous examination of 'history' than he is prepared to offer. One does not need to be a Marxist to know that the control of economic power is still the primary force in this world and to observe that, amidst issues such as crippling 'Third World' debt and the threat to millions on the African continent from AIDS (mentioned in one brief paragraph by Reynolds), history is often an attempt to evade this issue. This may not be class struggle. It may not even be a struggle - that implies the victims have the possibility to fight - but it certainly deserves consideration in any 'global' history.
The July 1961 issue of Encounter printed a review by Hugh Trevor-Roper of A.J.P. Taylor's Origins of the Second World War. The following September, Taylor published a rejoinder entitled 'How to Quote - Exercises for Beginners'.
This is not such a rejoinder. I would, however, like to correct what seem to me a number of misrepresentations of One World Divisible in the review by Scott Lucas. Since corrections make tedious reading, I shall intersperse them with some reflections on how I tried to address the challenges of writing global history.
By page 21 (only thirteen pages into the first chapter) Scott Lucas throws up his hands in disgust: 'Reynolds has fallen back on the comfortable, bipolar framework of post-1945 history' in which 'East' is pitted against 'West'. My periodic forays into social history are, he claims, simply 'a narrative of progress for both the developed and developing world' and the 'opportunity to critique that narrative is always eschewed.' Painful topics such as race quickly disappear down a black hole; 'tricky issues' of globalization and inequality are dismissed with a cheery reference to localization, 'never to return'. Apart from a few soothing platitudes, the victims of economic change are systematically ignored. In short, he argues, the approach of 'this standard diplomatic history' is 'that of the "Western", anti-communist liberal since 1945.'
I'm glad that Scott Lucas refers to me by name: otherwise I wouldn't be sure we were talking about the same book. In the introduction I repudiate the idea, popular on the American right all through the 1990s, that the organizing principle for a history of the last half-century should be a 'We Won' victor's history of the Cold War. Nor do I accept the teleology of globalization as a grand narrative. Although both of these concepts have been used to frame global histories, neither, it seems to me, does justice to the vast diversity of international experience. Nor do they take account of the themes thrown up by the efflorescence of social and cultural history in the last few decades. Bipolarity and globalization are 'top-down' organizing principles; much of the most fertile recent historical writing is written from the 'bottom up'.
Yet Marxism, the classic bottom-up historical philosophy, has bottomed out. In any case, it was procrustean: as I stress in the introduction, the concept of 'class' is too crude to embrace the profusion of cultural identities uncovered by the new social history. Among these, in the last half-century, distinctions of gender, age, race, ethnicity and (unfashionably) religion bulk large in my book. But, I also argue, following Theda Skocpol and others, it is important to bring the state back into social history. The way that the various global forces of our time, such as the Cold War and globalization, took shape in human lives depended to a considerable degree on the particular polity in which individuals happened to live. Since 1945, the number of independent polities in the world has exploded, from 51 members of the UN at its foundation to around 190 today. At the heart of this book, therefore, is the break-up of large empires (particularly European but also Russia's) and the proliferation of new states, in varying degrees of fragility. The 'state' here is not merely a constitutional box (democratic, totalitarian, or other Cold War labels) but a political economy in which the locus and regulation of economic power matter as much as electoral norms and forms.
That is the approach set out in the introduction. But intention is not achievement. How far I follow it through? According to Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books (21 September 2000), 'Reynolds is impressive in his command of the history of the non-western world, particularly the Indian sub-continent and Latin America.' And, '[b]y de-emphasising the universal impact of the cold war and by paying close attention to trends working against globalization at the national level, he has written a truly general history.' Mark Mazower in the Times Literary Supplement (6 October 2000), who considers the Cold War to be a more central theme of my book than does Tony Judt, commends my 'genuinely global coverage of events' and sensitivity to 'the diversity of national experiences in all parts of the world.' Unlike Scott Lucas, he finds me 'a forceful and perceptive critic' of 'the globalization brigade' and someone who is 'critical, often extremely so, of American foreign policy delusions'. While praising my 'admirably comprehensive and judicious account' of the last half-century, Mazower, like Judt, offers measured and thoughtful criticisms of my book. While I don't necessarily agree with all they say, I commend their reviews to those interested in reflecting on some of the larger issues raised by One World Divisible.
But I digress. Scott Lucas sums up my first four chapters as being about 'the economic, political, and military exchanges' between 'East' and 'West'. Chapters one and four certainly concentrate on the construction of bipolarity, especially in Europe. But chapter two deals with the recession of European imperialism in the late 1940s and the very varied outcomes that resulted, particularly across Asia. Why, for instance, was the Vietnamese synthesis of nationalism and communism not replicated in Indonesia or the Philippines? In chapter three, the Cold War is even less central. Entitled 'Legacies of Imperialism', this chapter examines the projects of nation- and state-building in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America after 1945, highlighting themes such as the centrality of religion in India and Palestine and the consequences of continued economic dependence for the states of Latin America, where formal political independence had existed for more than a century.
After chapter four, we are told, there is an abrupt shift to consumerism - treated, as is apparently my wont, with complacent superficiality. The possession of consumer durables and the effect they had on daily living (refrigeration of food, use of electricity for cooking, the impact of radio and television on leisure and family life) are major developments of the last half-century. The consumer society is therefore the main theme of chapter five. As I argue in the transition to chapter six, it was also an important weapon in the Cold War, as illustrated by the 'kitchen debate' between Nixon and Khrushchev in Moscow in 1959. And it was a weapon in the transatlantic culture wars, notably between the United States and France. Incidentally, my 'blithe' reference to 'bathtubs and Frigidaires' near the bottom of p. 290 refers back to a quotation from Louis Aragon, as will be clear if one reads the whole paragraph.
But this is not an exercise in quotation. Let's return to my 'abrupt' transition to chapter five. How to integrate the new social history into a narrative framed around the politico-economic was a challenge. I don't pretend to have solved it. One could certainly have tried to write, essentially, a global social history, but that was neither my brief nor my intention. I decided to take account of the fact that the rhythms of social, cultural and technological change are often slower than those of high politics (p. 7). I therefore interrupted my politically framed narrative at certain points to examine some of these deeper forces. Chapter five, located in chapters dealing with the 1950s, is about demography, urbanization and American consumer culture. Once enunciated, those themes are then picked up in the narrative of subsequent chapters. Chapter nine, positioned in the late 1960s, looks at the increased consumption of culture (both 'high' and 'low') made possible by the culture of consumption. The development and marketing of records and cassettes, of TVs, VCRs and CDs, massively enlarged access to music and film, information and images. Chapter nine is also about the revolutions in child education and female labour (both productive and reproductive) that loosened up family life. That discussion helps to make sense of the political turbulence of 1968.
If this were a standard diplomatic history of the Cold War, it would be hard to explain my account of its dénouement in the 1980s (chapters 13-15). The first of these chapters takes as its theme the pervasive sense in the early 1980s that the 'West' was on the skids, with the apparently imminent break-up of NATO over Cruise, Pershings and Star Wars and fears that the debt crisis had brought the international banking system near to collapse. It is only in chapter 15 that we turn to the more familiar story of the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s, setting it against the survival of the Communist party in China. In between, chapter 14 (entitled Chips and Genes) highlights the development of computers, transistors and microprocessors, of modern genetics and genetic engineering, that pulled the struggling U.S. economy of the 1970s into a post-Fordist era and left the Soviet bloc, to quote Charles Maier (p. 519), in a 'race between computers and collapse'. Hence my account of 1989 as being 'as much the triumph of communication as the failure of Communism' (p. 550). Contrary to most Cold War historians, I argue in chapter 14 that our obsession with the nuclear age has blinded us to these quieter, but more fundamental, technological revolutions of the last half-century. You would not guess any of this from Scott Lucas's review, where the chapter on Chips and Genes does not merit a mention, let alone a quotation. Yet the point was so striking to Alex Danchev, reviewing the book for the Times Higher Education Supplement (15 September 2000), as to prompt the headline '20th-century hero: the transistor'.
In this supposedly standard diplomatic history of the Cold War, you may be surprised to learn, a whole chapter is devoted to the varieties of Asian capitalism, emphasizing the importance of culture and governance in explaining the contrasting stories of, say, Japan and India, South Korea and Hong Kong. This chapter serves also to question the complacent American assumption that the world is converging along U.S. economic norms. In this supposedly standard diplomatic history, another chapter is devoted to the transformation of the Middle East in the 1970s through the dual impacts of oil and Islam. If this was really a work of cosy Western liberalism, why is there an extended discussion of the impact of the debt crisis on Latin America? In that (pages 459-71), I stress the culpability of the banks as promiscuous lenders, the devastating cost of the crisis to the people of Latin America and also their response in the form of so-called New Social Movements. These created the basis for alternative political parties that gradually toppled the old regimes. Here is a case study of what Scott Lucas claims to be missing from the book: the 'victims' of history fighting back.
But what about AIDS? In Scott Lucas's account, this is the final evidence of my heartless Western liberalism. He says that the disease is only 'mentioned in one brief paragraph by Reynolds'. I assume he is referring to page 608, where six lines are devoted to the impact of AIDS in the late 1990s. A glance at the index will show that there is another reference to AIDS on page 481. Here the discussion covers most of the page, as the grim culmination of a section on the collapse of economy, state and society in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s and the resulting poverty, wars and famines. The account on page 608 naturally assumes that the material on page 481 does not need to be repeated. But, as I said, this is not an exercise in quotation.
Near the end of his review, Scott Lucas states: 'There are two telling passages in this book.' One, he says, is on page 3 where I talk about the erosion of class identities-'workers are becoming consumers'. The other is at the end, on page 701, where I refer to the resilience of Africans in the face of famine. The first comment headlines a theme for subsequent examination. The second harks back to the extended discussions of Africans as victims of imperialism, Cold War and globalization in chapters 14 and 16. Between pages 3 and 701, there are a lot of words and, I like to think, a few more 'telling' passages. Perhaps this response to Scott Lucas's review will encourage others to read One World Divisible from cover to cover.