Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Niall Ferguson: The Historian as Warmonger

After glorifying the British Empire, Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and an unrepentant champion of American power around the world, is back with a new book, The War of the World: History's Age of Hatred. I say he is back but in fact Ferguson 'wrote' his latest book with the help of fourteen (count 'em) research assistants - and couldn't even manage to come up with the title himself. 'We struggled and struggled to find the right title. For a long time it was just 'The War'...In the end, it was one of the young creative hotshots at Penguin who came up with The War of the World, inspired perhaps by the Spielberg movie based on Wells's The War of the Worlds'. Perhaps that was the inspiration, yes.

Anyway, the Right wing pro- war press have already wet themselves in excitement. 'This is a big, bold and brilliantly belligerent book (the Sunday Telegraph), 'It is Niall Ferguson's masterpiece' (Penguin books), 'Ferguson more than justifies his lofty reputation in a book that fizzes with revisionist insights... it is wonderfully bracing, provocative stuff...Brilliant...revealing … something challenging, amusing or fresh on almost every page' (Daily Telegraph), 'Well researched, highly readable and occasionally deeply revisionist... Ferguson's writing is full of epigrams, witticisms and thought-provoking paradoxes and ironies,' (FT Magazine). The Times describes Ferguson as 'The most brilliant British Historian of his generation … he writes with splendid panache and seemingly effortless, debonair wit'.

Debonair wit - but also a profound modesty. Faced with such reviews Ferguson simply claims that 'The War of the World is the Everest of my career...the most important book I've written so far.' Surely such an eminent historian would not just say such a thing to boost sales, so what is it about? It is, in short, an overview of the twentieth century. Here is an extract:

'The hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era. Significantly larger percentages of the world's population were killed in the two world wars that dominated the century than had been killed in any previous conflict of comparable geopolitical magnitude. Although wars between 'great powers' were more frequent in earlier centuries, the world wars were unparalleled in their severity (battle deaths per year) and concentration (battle deaths per nation-year). By any measure, the Second World War was the greatest man-made catastrophe of all time. And yet, for all the attention they have attracted from historians, the world wars were only two of many twentieth-century conflicts. Death tolls quite probably passed the million mark in at least a dozen others.* Comparable fatalities were caused by the genocidal or 'politicidal' wars waged against civilian populations by the 'Young Turk' regime during the First World War, the Soviet regime from the 1920s until the 1950s and the National Socialist regime in Germany between 1933 and 1945, to say nothing of the tyrannies of Kim Il Sung in North Korea and Pol Pot in Cambodia. There was not a single year before, between or after the world wars that did not see large-scale organized violence in one part of the world or another.'

*The Mexican Revolutionary War (1910-20), the Russian Civil War (1917-21), the civil wars in China (1926-37), the Korean War (1950-53), the intermittent civil wars in Rwanda and Burundi (1963-95), the post-colonial wars in Indochina (1960-75), the Nigerian Civil War (1966-70), the Bangladeshi war of independence (1971), the civil war in Mozambique (1975-93), the war in Afghanistan (1979-2001) and the on-going civil wars in Sudan (since 1983) and Congo (since 1998).'

We know this already - one might be thinking - after works like Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes. But why was the twentieth century so violent? Might it have had something to do with the domination of global capitalism around the world in the twentieth century, spread by powerful nation states? No, says Ferguson. No, no, no. Capitalism had nothing to do with it. As Tristram Hunt - yes, the Tristram Hunt - notes, 'the old textbook explanations of economic crises, class warfare, nationalism or ideological fervour' don't get a look in.

'According to Ferguson, the 20th-century bloodbath was down to the dreadful concatenation of ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline. Despite genetic advances that revealed man's essential biological similarities, the 1900s saw wave upon wave of ethnic strife thanks (pace Richard Dawkins) to a race "meme" entering public discourse. Across the world, the idea of biologically distinct races took hold of the 20th century mindset to deadly effect. Tensions along increasingly conscious ethnic faultlines (in regions such as the eastern edges of Germany) frequently spilt over into conflict during periods of economic volatility...When ethnicity and financial turbulence then occurred in the context of retreating or expanding empires - British, German, or Soviet - the capacity for bloodshed proved even greater. And, as a final thought, the 20th century witnessed not the triumph of the west, but its inexorable descent...The War of the World ends predictably with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and (inevitably) China.'

Here we get onto the real agenda of Ferguson - and see why he is so fetted by the rich and powerful in America and Britain. He is not only trying to feed off the popular race hatred of Muslims - he is also consciously stirring up new forms of racism against the Chinese. Actually, he is simply updating the notion of the 'yellow peril', tapping into fears that long haunted British colonial officials and arguing they should now give us new nightmares today. Tristram Hunt - incidently a member of New Labour - doesn't think Ferguson's thesis is racist at all - indeed he praises Ferguson's work as 'deftly paced', 'continent-crossing' and in 'good historical fashion'.

Ferguson spelled out how he sees the new century ahead in an article for the Telegraph earlier this year - entitled 'The Origins of the Great War of 2007' - 'the Great Gulf War' Here Ferguson brought together all the themes that concern him, spelling out the dangers of conflict if the West dropped its white man's burden of civilising the new barbarians:

'With every passing year after the turn of the century, the instability of the Gulf region grew. By the beginning of 2006, nearly all the combustible ingredients for a conflict - far bigger in its scale and scope than the wars of 1991 or 2003 - were in place...the breakneck growth of the Asian economies had caused a huge surge in global demand for energy... While European fertility had fallen below the natural replacement rate in the 1970s, the decline in the Islamic world had been much slower. By the late 1990s the fertility rate in the eight Muslim countries to the south and east of the European Union was two and half times higher than the European figure...This tendency was especially pronounced in Iran, where...by the first decade of the new century, a quite extraordinary surplus of young men. More than two fifths of the population of Iran in 1995 had been aged 14 or younger. This was the generation that was ready to fight in 2007...This not only gave Islamic societies a youthful energy that contrasted markedly with the slothful senescence of Europe. It also signified a profound shift in the balance of world population. In 1950, there had three times as many people in Britain as in Iran. By 1995, the population of Iran had overtaken that of Britain and was forecast to be 50 per cent higher by 2050...The ideological cocktail that produced 'Islamism' was as potent as either of the extreme ideologies the West had produced in the previous century, communism and fascism. Islamism was anti-Western, anti-capitalist and anti-Semitic...Prior to 2007, the Islamists had seen no alternative but to wage war against their enemies by means of terrorism. From the Gaza to Manhattan, the hero of 2001 was the suicide bomber. Yet Ahmadinejad, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, craved a more serious weapon than strapped-on explosives. His decision to accelerate Iran's nuclear weapons programme was intended to give Iran the kind of power North Korea already wielded in East Asia: the power to defy the United States; the power to obliterate America's closest regional ally.'

What to do about Iran?

'Under different circumstances, it would not have been difficult to thwart Ahmadinejad's ambitions. The Israelis had shown themselves capable of pre-emptive air strikes against Iraq's nuclear facilities in 1981. Similar strikes against Iran's were urged on President Bush by neo-conservative commentators throughout 2006. The United States, they argued, was perfectly placed to carry out such strikes. It had the bases in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan. It had the intelligence proving Iran's contravention of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the President was advised by his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to opt instead for diplomacy.'

Peaceful diplomacy thus leads to war, predicted Ferguson:

'So history repeated itself. As in the 1930s, an anti-Semitic demagogue broke his country's treaty obligations and armed for war...As in the 1930s, too, the West fell back on wishful thinking... So in Washington and in London people crossed their fingers, hoping for the deus ex machina of a home-grown regime change in Teheran....This gave the Iranians all the time they needed to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium at Natanz. The dream of nuclear non-proliferation, already interrupted by Israel, Pakistan and India, was definitively shattered. Now Teheran had a nuclear missile pointed at Tel-Aviv. And the new Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu had a missile pointed right back at Teheran....The optimists argued that the Cuban Missile Crisis would replay itself in the Middle East. Both sides would threaten war - and then both sides would blink. That was Secretary Rice's hope - indeed, her prayer - as she shuttled between the capitals. But it was not to be. The devastating nuclear exchange of August 2007 represented not only the failure of diplomacy, it marked the end of the oil age. Some even said it marked the twilight of the West. Certainly, that was one way of interpreting the subsequent spread of the conflict as Iraq's Shi'ite population overran the remaining American bases in their country and the Chinese threatened to intervene on the side of Teheran. Yet the historian is bound to ask whether or not the true significance of the 2007-2011 war was to vindicate the Bush administration's original principle of pre-emption. For, if that principle had been adhered to in 2006, Iran's nuclear bid might have been thwarted at minimal cost. And the Great Gulf War might never have happened.'

If only the West can muster up the moral courage and willpower to wage war on Iran - then we would have global peace. This is Ferguson's argument - and his intellect and logic here is truly dazzling. Yet this racist pro-war fantasy underpins Ferguson's new book, and so The War of the World helps set humanity up for yet another bloody century of imperialism and war. Still, I expect Ferguson will do alright out of it, as wars sell racist pro-war books like his. It is not surprising to learn that Ferguson's next work will be a biography of, yes, you guessed it - Henry Kissinger. Given Ferguson's The War of the World is being made into a TV series, perhaps the same thing will happen to his biography of war criminal Kissinger. Then again, perhaps we don't need to see Ferguson on our TV screens praising warlords like Kissinger. After all, we already have a show called 'The Apprentice'.

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At 4:30 am, Blogger syndicalist81 said...

Niall Ferguson's enlightened British Empire tried but failed to set the record for body counts during the 19th century. The millions who died under the rule of redcoats in India, Ireland and elsewhere were noble attempts but fell far short of what was needed. But as Niall explains, the 20th century had the advantage of racism to fuel the killing - something the British Empire just didn't have at its disposal.

I'd like to see a history of imperialist historians. The day I get tenure, perhaps I'll start...I can try to incorporate it into my idea of doing a university course on the role of universities under capitalism (assuming it would be approved).

At 2:39 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Doug - I would also like to see such a history of imperialist historians - Eric Williams's 'British Historians and the West Indies' only really skims the surface of what has passed for British academic discourse about the Empire.

One of the central theses of the 'Oxford school' that Ferguson represents is that there is no link between Empire and the rise of racism. The two have to be distinguished completely and utterly. Which, as you note, explains why Ferguson insists it is with the decline of the British Empire at the start of the 20th century that racist killing comes into its own - and suggests that only a strengthening of American imperial power in the 21st century can allow humanity to avoid new holocausts.

Unfortunately for Ferguson, and his supporters, there is a quite clear link between American imperialism and racist massacres - as testified by, for example, Haditha last November.

At 2:58 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Clarification - While the fact that there is a link between Imperialism and racial genocide is unfortunate for the theories of Ferguson and the Oxford school, it is of course also utterly disasterous for humanity in general.

At 2:24 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Niall Ferguson gives good quotes, 'sound bites', as my prof would say.
The reification of certain races as distinct (otherwise not) during the colonial period definitely contributed to racism. Perhaps Ferguson would only be convinced if the British meant to fuel racism, and even that is debatable. A certain lack of solidarity within the colony is the age-old ideal situation for colonial rule, isn't it?

At 7:10 am, Blogger Cie Cheesemeister said...

Hi Snowball,
I'm surprised and very pleased to see that someone so committed to intelligent blogging has linked to my ridiculous home of the world's worst death metal band! I'm glad you like it. I really wish I had something intelligent to say but I fear that the biology course I'm currently enrolled in has fried my brain! I always find a good read when I come here even if I rarely have anything astute to say, so keep at it!
Cie the Cheesemeister

At 11:14 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Fadzilah - good points.

Cheesemeister - no worries - if people are kind enough to link to me I will try to reciprocate where possible.

At 6:02 am, Blogger Comandante Gringo said...

So this fascist twit is a product of Oxford, eh? Then there is indeed something to be said for the proletarian nature of community colleges...

When does utter bourgeois reaction officially become open admitted fascism, then..?

At 1:41 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I quite liked the book despite the fact it has absolutely no focus or organisation at all. I teach from the turn of the 20th century to end of Cold War so it provided a great counterpoint to the orthodox history I have to get through to kids (as well as those "good quotes" and "sound bites" Fadzilah mentioned).
Living in China, I also appreciated his focus on the thousands of Chinese killed through imperialism which no one, not even the Chinese themselves, are aware of. The section on the pogroms is worth the price alone, putting the origins of the Holocaust into perspective.

At 3:22 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)

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