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READ: The Rise of the West?

A respected historian described the last 250 years as the “Rise of the West.” Then twenty-five years later his premise was disputed in an important article, written by the same historian. What changed?

The Rise of the West?

By Trevor Getz
A respected historian described the last 250 years as the “Rise of the West.” Then twenty-five years later his premise was disputed in an important article, written by the same historian. What changed?

The Rise of the West?

Humans make sense of the past by telling stories. Some stories are about small events. Your grandmother explains the origins of a family tradition, or you see a historical marker by the side of the road describing something that happened there—small, meaningful stories. Other stories try to give us a sense of a greater sweep of national or human history. These narratives help us understand our shared, global past.
Before the last 50 years or so, most professional historians told stories that were tied to the history of a nation-state. They might be historians writing about Britain, or the U.S., or China. Their stories explained the origins and the development of a country. Not many tried to relate the history of the world in a digestible way. But in the 1960s, this began to change as historians started thinking about the world differently. They saw a world that was increasingly tied together by phones, jet airplanes, and a booming intercontinental trade. One of the most important of these historians was William McNeill, who is now widely recognized as one of the founders of the scholarly subject we call “world history.”
Image of Earth taken from Apollo 17, 1972. Some historians credit these early images of Earth from space with changing the way people thought about our world, its connections, and their place on it. By NASA, public domain.
Believe it or not, world history in the academic sense didn’t really exist before the 1960s. People tried to write on this topic individually, but world history is—to put it mildly—a group project. It took a long time before historians would get together to debate how to write about the history of the world. The World History Association only dates back to 1982. The Journal of World History was only founded in 1990. By contrast, the journal of German history, Historische Zeitschrift, dates back to 1859. The English Historical Review began publishing in 1886, and the American Historical Review in 1895. Each of these journals focused on their nation’s corner of the globe, not the world as a whole.

The rise of the West? (1963)

William McNeill was an American. But in the 1940s, he trained in European history. During this era, American universities only taught U.S. and European history. In the 1960s, after many years of work on ancient and medieval Europe, McNeill wrote his first book that tried to capture a more global past—The Rise of the West:1 A History of the Human Community. It explained an important and now well-known factor in world history: societies affect each other through trade and exchange of ideas, people, and goods. McNeill wrote this book in 1963, when the “West” (mostly Europe, the United States, and Canada) was economically the most powerful region of the world. So writing a history that tried to explain why the most important trade went from the “West” to other parts of the world seemed like a great topic. As a result, McNeill’s world history narrative was all about how the West was the center of the most important ideas in world history. For McNeill, these ideas included: “industrialism, science, and ... democratic political faiths.” These ideas had spread around the world, especially after 1750, as Europe and the rest of the “West” became the most powerful region. Indeed, he predicted, the world of the future would “surely bear a Western imprint.”
Front cover of The Rise of the West, 1963. Fair use.
So really, the West is sort of an invention of those who tell these stories, but it wasn’t McNeill who invented it. Scholars and politicians in Western Europe have been talking about “Western civilization” since at least the nineteenth century. It was a story about the past that served a political purpose. Authors used the idea of the West to both justify and explain the dominance of some European nations over other parts of the world. They were creating a narrative of world history that centered the role of a Western culture that was better than other cultures.
The concept of the West—and the question of who is “western” and who is not—is flexible. In the early twentieth century, U.S. schools started teaching history courses about Western civilization. These courses told how the modern West inherited its traditions from the Renaissance and ancient Rome and Greece. But Egypt and Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) were also part of this story. Yet both places were definitely considered to be outside the West by McNeill and others writing in 1963!
Historian William McNeill in 2004. By Berkshire Publishing,CC BY-SA 3.0.
To understand why McNeill and other historians of his generation were focused on the “rise of the West,” we have to try to understand the time and place in which they were writing. It was a period when it seemed that Western ideas were triumphant. The early 1960s in the United States were a time of rapid industrial growth. Western-style capitalist economies seemed to have no boundaries. For many Americans, American-style democratic government seemed to be working just great. Around the world, everyone wanted to be “modern,” which really meant “Western” to most people. Moreover, McNeill was writing during the Cold War, when Americans were largely opposed to Soviet communism. They generally believed communism was authoritarian, and un-democratic. Most Europeans were “Western” allies, while some seemed to live unhappily under Soviet rule. Meanwhile, most Americans considered other parts of the world—large areas like China, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America—to be backward. Americans believed these societies could slowly be modernized only by making them more like the West.

" 'The Rise of the West' after Twenty-Five Years", (1990)

But in 1990, William McNeill wrote another work, an article called “’The Rise of the West’ after Twenty-Five Years.” This article was startling. One of the world’s most respected historians wrote that he was wrong. He no longer believed, as he’d said in The Rise of the West, that the West had always been the biggest and most important factor in human history. Instead he pointed out that China had frequently had the biggest impact on changes in culture and technology in many eras of the past. He implied that he had undervalued the contributions of other regions as well.
This article, like the earlier book, was also shaped by the context in which it was written. By 1990, the Soviet Union had begun to collapse. The lines between the “West” and the “rest” were fuzzier. McNeill could see that Japan had risen, by 1980, to become the second biggest industrial producer in the world. China was not far behind. It no longer seemed clear that the future of the world was purely Western. At the same time, McNeill could see that this industrial growth in Asia was partly based on Western developments in earlier decades. He wrote that “if Japan’s post-World War II economic record turns out to be the presage [prediction] of further triumphs for the Pacific rim, it is no less clear that this success, too, will depend on prior borrowings of European (and American) skills.”
By making this connection, McNeill became open to new and more global explanations for the era many had characterized as Western dominance. All that Western success in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries was now being questioned. Wasn’t this success due in some ways to contributions from all over the world? Shouldn’t he have looked at global contributions to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Atlantic democracies? Why not consider the importance of ideas from the Islamic world, or technologies Europeans learned from visiting eighteenth-century China? What was the role of labor and the intellectual ideas of Africans, or the resources and technologies of the people of the Americas? The importance of these questions for understanding the making of the contemporary world in which we live now became clear. What stories should we tell about the last two and a half centuries?
Why does any of this matter? In seeking to understand the period from 1750 to the present, we have to build narratives, which become stories. After all, that’s how humans make sense of the past. Once, a narrative that focused on the rise of the United States and western Europe felt like the biggest, truest, and most important story of this era. But things have changed. We now have a lot more evidence to suggest that this history is much more complex, and more global.
This doesn’t mean that the “West” was not important to the creation of modernity. In many ways it was central! For example:
  • Enlightenment ideas of personal and national sovereignty were first fully laid out in Europe and its American colonies.
  • Political revolutions in the United States and France were central to the development of the modern nation-state.
  • The Industrial Revolution, which really began in Britain (and its empire), changed the way we work, live, and relate to the world around us.
  • Europeans, and European settlers in the Americas, ruled most of the world for much of this era through imperialism and colonialism.
  • Even the idea of the “West” was born in this era. (People in Europe before 1750 didn’t really think of themselves as “Western.”)
This idea helped to define the systems of race and the categorization of people that still haunts the world today. But although these points are all accurate, there are three major problems with telling the story of this era purely as a story of the “Rise of the West.”
The first problem is that most of the ideas and changes described above weren’t exclusively invented in the West. Europeans studied Asian “manufactories” as well as plantations in the Caribbean. Then they developed their own modern factories. Enlightenment philosophers in France and Britain read works of Arabic and Indian philosophy, which influenced their thinking. Some of the most important “Western” revolutions of this period were deeply inspired by African or Indigenous American cultures and peoples. Haiti, Mexico, and South America all had revolutions, not just France and the United States. The major events of the long nineteenth century were the result of connections linking multiple places, rather than the product of just one region. But local conditions in Europe probably still mattered. So we need to know: How important were local factors, and how significant were global ones?
The second problem is that none of the ideas that we think of as modern have had only one, Western way of expression. We just can’t say “one size fits all” across the whole world in politics, business, or culture. In the world today, there are several different styles of democratic governance, some of them very influenced by local ideas about how to govern. Similarly, industry works differently in Japan than in the United States (for example). In other words, although innovations that emerged first in the “West” have spread to many regions, they have in many cases been adapted and changed to suit local needs.
The final problem is that we now sit at a time in which the accuracy of the “Rise of the West” model is far from clear. China’s current dominance in manufacturing is one key example of a shift in power away from Europe and the United States. But we can also look at many “Western” societies and ask whether that word even fits. The United States, and increasingly Europe, are multi-cultural, with large and diverse ethnic and religious communities from many different regions. In the future, these societies will succeed or fail depending on how they manage this multi-culturalism. That may, in fact, be one of the most important stories for us to tell.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African and World History at San Francisco State University. He has written or edited eleven books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and co-produced several prize-winning documentaries. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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