Rana Mitter: A post-modern history?

June 30, 2006


Channel 4, 8pm, Mondays, until July 24

Niall Ferguson has gathered plenty of media attention with his television series and accompanying book, The War of the World . In recent years, the Harvard University professor of history has argued in favour of empires, suggesting that the US should stay in Iraq for decades, and that the economic record of the British Empire was positive overall. Media debates about The War of the World have followed similar lines: Ferguson has argued with Eric Hobsbawm on Start the Week , and Johann Hari condemned the book as a dangerous right-wing polemic on Newsnight Review . All good knockabout stuff.

What is odd is that this discussion has little to do with the actual content of either the series or book. To someone who had never heard of Ferguson's right-wing reputation, The War of the World would seem largely to be in the liberal mainstream. Its major ideas are as follows: in the 20th century, fraying empires produced toxic nationalism and imperialism in new forms; economic volatility caused social dislocation; socially constructed ideas of race were more powerful than class as an ideological force; and, by the century's end, the non-European world was no longer subservient to the West. All these ideas are solidly grounded, if open to dispute; none is particularly right wing.

True there are outcrops of harrumphery in the book that do not make it into the TV series, such as a sweeping declaration that non-European empires had become "decadent" by the late 19th century, allowing Western imperialism to triumph. But it is right-wing figures who come in for the most detailed dissection:the late Alan Clark, who argued that the war with Nazi Germany was none of Britain's business; and the world-weary diplomats and Tory politicians who used racist cliches about "ancient hatreds" and "tribalism" to justify non-intervention during the Bosnian War and Rwandan genocide of the 1990s. Ferguson exposes both positions as ahistorical and complacent.

The media debate about left versus right-wing historians misses a wider reality: in the post-Cold War world, the terms have lost much of their old meaning. Ferguson draws some moral equivalence between Stalin and Hitler as totalitarians, a position that would have once been on the Right. But he later suggests a level of equivalence between Axis and Allied atrocities in wartime, a position more associated with the Left. Rather than taking its place in a battle between Left and Right, The War of the World seems to confirm a sort of postmodernism, which questions all the grand narratives of progress and inevitability that informed the century - whether racial, economic or moral - while still acknowledging their power. I cannot imagine Channel 4 wanting to promote The War of the World as a postmodern history of the century. But that is what it is.

The book is a pleasure to read: well-informed analysis in bracing, jargon-free prose (although, infuriatingly, the footnotes are not included, but are forthcoming on a website). As a television presenter, Ferguson is sympathetic and engaging, and the series is beautifully produced. Those who want a stimulating, revisionist take on the 20th century can watch and read with profit. But the media hype has concealed a clean little secret: if you are expecting a right-wing rant or an intellectual justification of the invasion of Iraq, you will be disappointed.

Rana Mitter is lecturer in the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University and author of A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World , published by Oxford University Press, £18.99.

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