Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Greatest Revolution in History

Consider the following. If we examine the world around the years 1450-1500 we find half a dozen different civilizations, completely separate from each other or only marginally in touch. These are: Europe (or, as people of the time might have said, Christendom), Islam, India, China, the Aztecs and the Incas: and we might also wish to add Japan and some other places to the list. These civilizations do not differ greatly in terms of technological development or economic structures, and I doubt whether a Martian observer would have predicted what was going to happen. Indeed, such a Martian might have deduced that it was Christendom which was most under pressure: the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453 and pressed on up through the Balkans, eventually reaching as as Vienna. But the Martian would have been wrong, for if we then fast-forward to around 1900, we find the world-picture has changed beyond recognition. The Aztec and Inca civilizations have vanished, and the Islamic world, India and China are in the process of being penetrated and taken over, European civilizations have been established in the Americas and Australia, Siberia has been occupied by the Russians and Africa carved up between the European imperial powers. Only Japan has retained its independence, and has achieved this by copying European methods as fast as it can. This has been without doubt the greatest transformation of the world in recorded history. How and why did it happen?

By the end of the 15th century certain key inventions had been developed: gunpowder, printing, ocean-going ships, and the blast furnace, which reached temperatures high enough to reduce iron to a liquid. Interestingly enough, none of these could be proved to have originated in Europe, but there is no doubt that the Europeans exploited them far more effectively than did the other civilizations. In the 16th century came entirely new developments, as the Europeans sent the first ships to circle the globe and planted colonies and trading bases in distant lands. Then in the 17th and 18th centuries came the "Scientific Revolution" and the Enlightenment, which produced not only new technical devices, such as the telescope and the microscope, but also new ways of looking at the world. Henceforth everything would become known through observation and logical inference from the data collected, priests lost their power over the human mind and the dictates of the ancient sacred texts could be disregarded. This was a revolution in human thought, and it was unique to western Europe. It had no equivalent in other civilizations, or in the world of classical antiquity. Although this revolution ultimately stemmed from the Italian Renaissance, and the first great voyages of discovery came from Spain and Portugal, by the late 17th century the initiative had shifted northwards, to Britain, France and the Netherlands. It may be a coincidence that at the same time there was the creation of professional armies and fighting navies, which gave the Europeans a huge military advantage.

The greatest change, however, began in Britain in the 18th century and spread from there to Europe, America and right round the world. This was the Industrial Revolution; its most spectacular aspect being the building of the railways in the 19th century. A great economic historian once explained it to me in these terms:

"Only four things have really changed human history. The first is the use of fire, which is the one thing that distinguishes human from animals. The second is the coming of farming in the Stone Age. The third is the use of metals, particularly iron. The fourth is the Industrial Revolution".

Industrialisation transformed society for ever. Before this time, in any civilization, the vast majority of the population lived in the countryside and worked as peasant farmers. This was inevitable, since productivity was so low; and it was also inevitable that they would always be very poor, probably illiterate, and facing the threat of starvation in bad years. The productivity of 17th century western Europe was perhaps twice that of the Roman Empire; scarcely a great advance for 1500 years of history. By the 20th century there had been a complete transformation: the population had multiplied as never before, and for the first time in human history most people now lived in towns. It cannot be stressed too much that the society which emerged, and which we live in today, was unlike anything that had ever previously existed.

It was the Industrial Revolution which enabled the European to take over the world. Their industrially-produced weaponry (rifles, machine-guns and quick-firing artilery, instead of single-shot muskets and cannon) gave them an irresistible advantage over all other civilizations, and wherever the Europeans went, they built railways. At the same time there was an intellectual revolution, centred on the notion of "Progress". In all previous societies, it was generally believed that the past had been better than the present, and that the human race had degenerated over the centuries. A theologian would believe that the absolute truth of the sacred texts must be accepted without question, because the people in the past who wrote them were closer to God. Edward Gibbon, in his monumental history of the Roman Empire, famously thought that Rome under the Antonine Emperors in the early 2nd century was "the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous". But the Industrial Revolution changed this attitude for ever. It was obvious that the achievements of the modern Europeans surpassed anything the Romans had done. Even the blindest reactionary knew that the Romans never built railways, and would be compelled to ask: why not? The new attitude, the gospel of the Victorian age, was Progress. We know more about the world than our ancestors did, we can do things that were wholly beyond them; everything is getting better.

The importance of this development was recognised by two contemporary philosophers of the mid-19th century: Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. The first chapter of the "Communist Manifesto" (1848) is in fact a hymn of praise for the achievements of capitalism. Marx says, "It has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals; it has expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades". Marx also noted that capitalism had rescued the great majority of people from the "idiocy of rural life", and predicted that other civilizations were now faced with a stark choice: they could adopt capitalist systems themselves, or they would inevitably perish. He was, of course, quite correct. In a similar vein, Mill in chapter 3 of his "On Liberty" (1859) looks at India and China and says, "These nations must once have had originality; they did not start out of the ground prosperous, lettered and versed in many of the arts of life; they made themselves all this, and were then the greatest and most powerful nations of the world. What are they now? The subjects or dependants of tribes whose forefathers wandered in the forests when theirs had magnificent palaces and gorgeous temples". It can be seen that Marx and Mill had similar views on Progress and its importance; though Mill thought that free individualism was always crucial in ensuring continued progress, whereas Marx believed that individualistic capitalism would soon be succeeded by a superior system, namely, Communist society.

The debate on the reasons for the European triumph has continued ever since, from classics like R. H. Tawney's "Religion and the Rise of Capitalism" to modern works by such writers as Paul Kennedy, Francis Fukuyama and Andrew Roberts.

1 comment:

  1. "the Romans never built railways"

    Agreed. But they did have a profound influence on railway development! [Explanation here]

    I think that Mill's assessment of China is very shallow. Although the country was at a low ebb in the 19th century and was easily exploited by expansionist European powers, at the time of the Han Dynasty it was unquestionably the most technologically advanced civilization in the world. Mill was correct to that point, but does he have anything to say about why this should be? I do. It was that old fraud Confucius!