World Order in History: Russia and the West
London, Routledge, 1995, ISBN: 9780415129367; 208pp.; Price: £65.00
School of Slavonic & East European Studies
Date accessed: 24 March, 2023
This is a very puzzling book. To judge by its title and some of its contents, its subject is the attempt to create a world order on the basis of two competing principles, adumbrated respectively in the West and in Russia. Those two principles are summed up in the figures of Montesquieu and Marx, whose ideas on social order are briefly set out in the first two chapters. Then we jump, with minimal explanation, to an examination of the views of certain 20th-century historians on their own craft and in particular, on the possibility of writing a universal history. The book then ends with a plea for a pure history, comparative and open-minded in its approach, to avoid the rude xenophobia which has plagued the 20th century.
The introduction and the conclusion are both rambling and inconsequential - indeed the conclusion on its own occupies a fifth of the book's entire length - and do not help the reader to pin down just what the theme of the book is supposed to be.
Allowing for this impenetrability, let me just point up one problem which seems to knock the book off course. Montesquieu and Marx cannot be presented as equivalents in the search for principles of world order. Montesquieu had a theory of social order - one resting on the division of powers and the importance of strong intermediary institutions - which was to prove extremely influential in the American and French revolutions, and which inspired Catherine II in her programme of establishing a framework of law for Russian society.
In Marx one can find nothing equivalent. His work consists of a detailed description of the workings of a capitalist system, followed by an apocalyptic vision of the socialist revolution which will sweep it aside. Nowhere did Marx set forth the structural principles of a socialist society. The nearest approach which Dukes an cite is the familiar passage about
'... society regulating the general production, making it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I like without ever becoming a hunter, a fisher, a herdsman or a critic'.
As a prescription for a world order this is rather thin, and anyway does not differ from that of Montesquieu. As Dukes remarks in his footnote, 'Communist society here seems bourgeois or even feudal'.
In view of the vapidity of Marx on the subject, it is scarcely surprising that by the second half of the 20th century, as Dukes notes 'The USA had ... established hegemony in the world system; in other words it had become the 'universal indicator' to which Europe and the USSR would react.' The Soviet union, at least from its Marxist heritage, had nothing equivalent to offer.
Comparing Montesquieu with Marx, in short, turns out to be an unprofitable activity. This is a pity, as I think I see a potentially fruitful theme lurking behind the book. The Soviet Union took as its social model, not the theories of Marx or even of Lenin, but the practice of Asiatic societies, deployed by the Tsars and revived by Stalin, which combined authoritarian state direction with social units or cells based on mutual responsibility and mutual surveillance. These social cells are remarkably resilient and over the centuries have enabled human beings to survive long periods of extreme adversity. At the moment state socialism seems discredited, above all as an economic system, but the cells on which it rests can be detached from it and steered in a different direction. Given a non-Marxist framework, the Asiatic model seems to be proving highly successful in generating economic growth and social cohesion in the Pacific Rim countries. What this development bodes for the world's future, I do not know, but in considering it, as Huntington, Fukuyama and others have done, one would at least be dealing genuine alternatives for a future world order.
As Patrick O'Brien says in Reviewers and Reviewing: a Manifesto for a New Electronic Journal, 'Historians are all aware that the conceptual framework for the construction of historical knowledge is changing rapidly.' It was my own awareness of such change that had driven me to write my book World Order in History: Russia and the West, concerned with the problem of the study of history in the 1990s. And so I was delighted as well as flattered when Professor O'Brien informed me that this book would be among the first to receive attention in the new journal, particularly since the invitation to write a review of up to 3000 words had been accepted by Geoffrey Hosking, who I understood was completing what would be an important book on the Russian empire in comparative perspective, and would therefore have no difficulty in getting to grips with at least some aspects of World Order in History. I also thought how appropriate for a former postgraduate at the Slavonic School to join with one of its present professors in a new venture celebrating the 75th birthday of its near neighbour, especially at a time when the study of history in both institutions is increasingly open to interchange.
While remaining grateful to the reviewer for taking the time to read and write about my book, however, I am disappointed that he finds it 'very puzzling' and needs no more than about 675 out of the 3000 words offered to present other reactions. A ll I can do in response is to go through his review point by point, with some further observations. Yes indeed, as he says, the first two chapters consider attempts to create a world order on the basis of two competing principles, exemplified by the figur es of Montesquieu and Marx. Since one of these principles is the constitutional and the other is the revolutionary, I am perplexed that the reviewer finds that the fact that they cannot be presented as equivalents 'seems to knock the book off course', sin ce they were meant to be first and foremost antitheses. If he found me puzzling, I suggest that he should at least have found Robespierre (as quoted on p. 7) clear enough: 'The goal of the constitutional government is to maintain the Republic; that of the revolutionary government, to found it.' By definition, the structure of a revolutionary order cannot be set out in such detail as a constitutional.
In Chapters 3 and 4, the reviewer states, 'we jump, with minimal explanation, to an examination of the views of certain twentieth century historians'. Yet, more than once, I point out that my reason for moving to around the year 1900 at the beginn ing of Chapter 3 is because it was from approximately that time that members of the fairly new historical profession began to move beyond the national framework in the international congresses of 1898, 1900, 1903 and 1908, before the meeting in London in 1913, to which I give special attention after a consideration of the views of some outstanding individuals at the beginning of the twentieth century - Karl Lamprecht, Henri Berr and Lord Acton. I quote Acton on p. 84 - 'French Revolution - pathology, Amer ican - normal development of ideas' as an explicit development of the themes of Chapters 1 and 2. Admittedly, I argue that constitutional and revolutionary principles are not always explicitly discussed in the early twentieth century, but also point out that, embodied by Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin in 1917 ('the antipodes of our time' in the evaluation of one contemporary), they could not fail to escape the attention of even the most introverted occupants of the ivory tower. I am surprised that Geo ffrey Hosking, whose major historical monograph is The Russian Constitutional Experiment: Government and Duma, 1907-1914 and who has written illuminatingly on the Russian Revolutions, would want more explanation of 'From European towards Atlantic Order, 1900-1922'. From 1923 to 1962, Chapter 4 sets out a natural enough progression in 'Some Approaches to World Order'. Against the background of the inter-war period, the Second World War and the Cold War, historians could not ignore the constitut ional-revolutionary antithesis as they moved towards an intimation of globalisation. I examine this process through the work of a series of individuals, Henri Pirenne, E V. Tarle, C. A. Beard and Jan Romein. Realising that not all their colleagues would find these practitioners of our craft representative, any more than Lamprecht, Berr and Acton, I added some observations about the further development of the International Congress of Historical Sciences (gathered mostly in the IHR, incidentally) to both Chapters 3 and 4.
The reviewer finds the Introduction and the Conclusion 'both rambling and inconsequential'. I am sorry about this. My teacher, the late E. N. Williams, drilled into me the necessity for pointing out what you were going to say, then to say it and finally to say what you have said, and in a book of this nature that injunction seemed especially necessary to follow, however imperfectly. The reviewer also expresses surprise that the Conclusion 'occupies a fifth of the book's entire length'. Counting t he pages of the book's five chapters, I find that Chapters 5 and 2 are both 34 pages long, while Chapters 1, 3 and 4 occupy 30, 29 and 31 pages respectively. I see no extraordinary imbalance here, especially since, as a Conclusion, Chapter 5 has two main aims: to recapitulate some of the main arguments of its predecessors, but also to make some observations about the process of globalisation from the 1960s onwards. Geoffrey Hosking correctly states that the book ends with 'a plea for a pure history, comp arative and open-minded in its approach, to avoid the rude xenophobia which has plagued the twentieth century'. He might have added that I propose several candidates for such treatment, for example: the period of the Thirty Years' War ( following the su ggestions of the Soviet historian B. F. Porshnev - see the translation by Brian Pearce of part of his work under the title Muscovy and Sweden in The Thirty Years' War; and the process of imperial expansion (along the lines of the tsarist Chancellor Gorchakov's assertion that: 'The United States in America, France in Africa, Holland in her colonies, England in India, were all forced to take the road of expansion dictated by necessity rather than ambition, a road on which the chief difficulty is to k now where to stop.') To revert to the Introduction, I suggest in it that the following words of Descartes could serve as an epigraph for the book as a whole:
- For to converse with those of other centuries is almost the same as to travel. It is a good thing to know something of the customs and manners of various peoples in order to judge of our own more objectively and so not think everything which is co ntrary to our ways is ridiculous and irrational, as those who have seen nothing are in the habit of doing. But when one spends too much time travelling, one becomes eventually a stranger in one's own country; and when one is too interested in what went on in past centuries, one usually remains ignorant of what is happening in this century.
Conversing with the constitutional Montesquieu in the eighteenth century and the revolutionary Marx in the nineteenth century, I then explore ways in which they speak to us, both loudly and softly, in the twentieth century.
The reviewer correctly quotes from pp. 136-7 to the effect that by the second half of the twentieth century 'The USA had... established hegemony in the world system; in other words it had become the 'universal indicator' to which Europe and the US SR would react.' But he makes no comment on my use of the term 'universal indicator', which is in need of some explanation. On p. 43, I observe that The Spirit of the Laws enables us to conduct 'a kind of laboratory test', continuing:
- Historians often talk metaphorically of the litmus test, for example of the manner in which a tendency or movement may become more acidic - that is, redder - or more alkaline - that is, bluer. Here, I shall use in a similar way the more refined 'u niversal indicator' of the 'pH test'. That is, in drawing up their constitutions, the American Founding Fathers and the Russian Empress made use of the great work for their own purposes. Thus, Montesquieu's book is the 'neutral': over the Atlantic, Americ an 'alkali' affected it in the creation of a basis for the federal republic; over the continent, Russian 'acid' worked upon the emerging structure of enlightened absolutism. In this case, by 'alkali', I mean the inbuilt tendency in the USA towards represe ntative government, ultimately democracy, the political culture formed by the immigrants from Europe in their new setting. On the other hand, I take 'acid' to be the political culture evolving in Russia in its particular environment. Thus, we have pointed out the relationship between Montesquieu's Western world order on the one hand and the stage reached at the end of the eighteenth century by Russian history and our selected principal comparator, American history, on the other.
A similar pH test works for Marx, although in a different way. Here, we need to recall that he took a serious interest in Russia only towards the end of his life, bequeathing some not altogether clear remarks about how Russia would find its way to revo lution: and that, while not being completely explicit about how the USA related to the capitalist phenomenon first arising in Europe, he wrote very little about how the American 'bourgeois' revolution might be followed by a proletarian. But, especially if we include later developments in the experiment, the pH test on Marx is acidic red. Comparative American-Russian history retains its relevance into the twentieth century, as has been pointed out by a number of authorities including Colin White in his Russia and America: The Roots of Economic Divergence.
In the concluding paragraph of his review, Geoffrey Hosking departs from a consideration of the relationship between Russia and the West to find as a 'social model' for the Soviet Union 'not the theories of Marx or even of Lenin, but the practice[his italics] of Asiatic societies, deployed by the Tsars and revived by Stalin, which combined authoritarian state direction with social units or cells based on mutual responsibility and mutual surveillance.' Here I presume to say very lit tle, except that there is a vast number of cells in Asia, and I am not sure that they all conform to the pattern just outlined, suspecting that the reviewer here is transforming a broad anthropological hypothesis into a specific historical assertion.. A s far as I am aware, and I readily confess that I am open to correction here, there is very little evidence to support the Eurasian interpretation of Russian history, either in its original form following the Revolution of 1917 or its more recent reappear ance in the 1980s and 1990s. The bulk of the evidence supports the argument that Russian civilisation is best viewed as frontier European. I must say too that I find the reviewer's approval of the recent 'Asiatic model' disturbing, given the negative impa ct on tsarist and Stalinist Russia that he ascribes to its earlier versions, and some of the methods of achieving 'social cohesion' in significant parts of Asia today. On the other hand, I could not agree more that at the present time when, to repeat, ' Historians are all aware that the conceptual framework for the construction of historical knowledge is changing rapidly', we must leave no stone unturned in an interdisciplinary, even a pandisciplinary search for suitable foundations for an objective his torical world order, and that this search involves the determination of the affiliation of that order's components.
Moving into the final thousand of the words allowed me, I should like to quote at some length from an article published in Petersburg in 1922 by E. V.Tarle and entitled 'The Next Task'. In a manner appropriate five years after 1991 as well as fiv e years after 1917, Tarle describes the impact on historians of the experience of revolution in the following manner:
- The old fabric is torn, ends and beginnings are laid bare, and an element appears, which at other times cannot be seen, and whose presence can only be implied. The main point is that you observe the worthlessness of the historical significance of the rational foundation, [as well as] all the particular, inhuman, but somehow different boundless logic, which, to be sure, is dominant even in ordinary times, but is overshadowed by the public platform and the press, in words, in gestures, in shouts , arguments, discussions, articles - in a word, by everything which masks with such success and hides from our view - in normal epochs - the true motivating forces of the historical process. States, apparently eternal, fly into pieces, the state culture t urns out to be a superficial covering, primeval chaos envelops and overwhelms the shell, which has only just seemed an unbreakable and majestic ark. It seems to some nervous people caught up in such a cyclone that they are going out of their minds and bec oming delirious. On the contrary, they were previously delirious, lulled by a false security , forgetting that under the elegant carpet of their cabin there is a dark and fathomless abyss ready to engulf them, and that this abyss is the age-old natural re ality, and that their cabin is a fragile and artificial invention; that the abyss existed before the cabin, and will remain after the cabin, and they themselves may study the abyss, if only imperfectly, but they may in no way control it. The most they can do is to try to delay the wreck of their ark.[quoted in World Order in History, p. 73]
Strong stuff for those taking tea in the Institute of Historical Research, but the fact that we are travelling first-class should not disguise the further fact that we are nevertheless on the Titanic! I thank my fellow passenger again for his stimulating if brief review. Having disagreed with most of what he has to say, I would at least like to concur with his negative assessment of the 'Marxist heritage' of the Soviet Union if by that he mean s 'Marxism-Leninism', which is significant mostly as the 'state religion' under Stalin and his successors. However, I also continue to believe that the original Marx is among the authorities of the past who can give us some guidance. To reject him entirel y is also to abandon much of the Enlightenment and other significant components of the West's intellectual heritage. But we can by no means look to Marx, Montesquieu and other dead thinkers alone: we need fresh bearings on world order if we are to avoid c atastrophe. At least some of these may be found through the study of the past, among them re-evaluations of aspects of Russia's historical relationship to the West.