Friday Book: The 20th century seen from Oxford

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THERE IS no good reason why centuries - let alone millennia - should be considered as meaningful units of time. They do not correspond to any of the patterns of change historians have claimed to discover: not the rise and fall of empires, nor the "long waves" of economic boom and bust, nor the slower tides of climatic alteration. And a century is just a bit too long for the terms of a human lifespan. If Pacific redwood trees or Galapagos tortoises wrote history books, they might find meaning in the idea of a century, but why should we?

A general history of the 20th century might thus be thought an impossible and meaningless enterprise. But it is also a challenge historians cannot resist. Oxford has got in early with its version and, as attempts at the impossible go, Michael Howard and Wm Roger Louis have made a better shot than most of their rivals are likely to manage.

The volume is uneven, patchy, partial and full of gaping holes: it could not be otherwise. There seems no obvious reason, for instance, why the visual arts should have a chapter while music, literature, the cinema and architecture do not. Yet it is also intelligently organised, imaginatively illustrated, accessible, lucid and - so far as one can judge across such a vast canvas - factually ultra-reliable. In places, as with Alan Ryan's and Ralf Dahrendorf's contributions, it goes beyond the solid survey to offer genuinely bold and provocative argument about where the world is now going.

So what is in it, and what is not? First, the book is what the title says: the century as seen from Oxford University and a few other prestigious academies of the Anglophone world. The contributors are almost all British or US-born white males who have spent most of their careers working in that rather special milieu. To note this is not to engage in a trivial piece of "PC" whingeing. All the contributors are globally respected experts, and no one could complain that, say, Terence Ranger on Africa or Roger Owen on the Middle East take narrowly Eurocentric views of their subjects. Rather, it is to underline that this is a view from a very particular place. That matters because, from other perspectives, a central part of the century's story has been a gradual decline in the relative importance of that place.

One could go further, and float the suggestion that across most of recorded history East Asia - above all China - has been the real centre of the world on every level, from sheer population, through technological sophistication, to international trade. During the last two centuries - a mere blip in historical time - that dominant position was usurped by the countries of the North Atlantic seaboard. Are we now, despite the even briefer blip of recent market panics, seeing the return of Pacific Asia to its hegemonic status? Jonathan Spence, in the China chapter, gives a fairly straight narrative of political events and does not have the space even to raise such questions.

China, of course, still has a long way to go. But the most dramatic success story of the century's second half is not the global reach of the US, nor Germany's recovery, nor Japan's renewed dynamism - but the rise of South Korea. For the first half of the century, Korea was a victim first of colonial subjugation, then of devastating war. Within a generation, an industrial giant has risen from the ashes. Akira Iriye (not, coincidentally, the only non-North Atlantic contributor) briefly notes that astounding transformation, but the possible messages do not permeate to other parts of the book. A history of the century written from China or Korea would look dramatically different from this mainly Atlantic version. The editors ask "Has it... been a good century or will it be remembered as one of the most murderous in human history?" They must know the question is unanswerable, except via such banalities as "Depends where you were sitting".

An almost equally striking bias is that this is overwhelmingly a political and cultural history. There is some economics - Robert Skidelsky has a valiant go at summarising global economic change in 13 pages - and some demography, but little social history. One can imagine a very different history whose chapter headings would be not "The Confrontation of the Superpowers" or "The Visual Arts", but things such as "The Spread of Contraception" and "The Rise of the Teenager". Probably, someone will produce it before the end of 1999.

Nor do any of the contributors even nod towards the crisis of confidence that has afflicted so many historians at century's end, under the impact of post-modernist ideas. Yet another kind of history could be devoted to denouncing the very idea of History, arguing that the subject of historical writing can only be language itself, not some reality outside it. There are no such things as "society" or "the economy"; only texts about texts. No centuries, only sentences. No doubt someone, somewhere is writing that book too - but hardly anyone outside university Cultural Studies departments will read it.

Stephen Howe