Thursday Book: Our debt is to Bilbo, not Plato

Stephen Howe
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:36




DAVID GRESS'S book is a staggeringly ambitious attempt to rethink the whole of human history. Patchily brilliant and profoundly perverse, it poses as an intervention in America's "culture wars" but far transcends that parochial context, offering us something much wider, much deeper and much darker.

Gress's aim is to re-examine the history of "the West" and what the idea of a "Western tradition" has meant to its supporters and enemies. The conventional story was, he suggests, an idealised history of continuity, of unfolding freedom and democracy from ancient Greece to the present western European and north Atlantic world. Hence the title - intended to be ironic, though it also borrows from the late Brian Redhead's useful little history of political thought.

This "grand narrative of the West" is all wrong, says Gress. Assuming continuity from the ancient Greeks to modern Natopolis, historians of ideas have mistakenly ignored everything between. He feels able to dismiss virtually everyone who has pontificated on the idea of the West, from Arnold Toynbee or John Gray to Vaclav Havel, as historically ignorant and philosophically inept.

The real "Old West", he says, did not begin with the Greeks, but evolved from Roman, early Christian and, crucially, German sources about 1500 years ago. The stress on ancient Germanic tribes as the main source of our ideas of freedom was popular in the 19th century and, according to Gress, was unfairly discredited by the anti-German prejudice fostered during the world wars.

He seeks to rehabilitate it, and places German thinkers - often anti- democratic and romantic-nationalist - at the heart of his history of thought. This German-centred view of world history involves Gress in some very strange arguments indeed.

Because the conventional story was so inaccurate, it was - Gress goes on - all too easy a target for lefties, feminists, multiculturalists, postmodernists and other villains. By offering a better history, Gress believes he is also providing a stronger defence against such attacks. Yet his depiction of everything he thinks "anti-Western" is a crude and often silly caricature. Environmentalism is merely "the green superstition", invented by devious ex-Marxists. Post-modernism has no other meaning than "to sow further confusion by combining anticapitalist and antimodern resentments" into "a barely camouflaged anti-Western ideology".

Perhaps oddest of all, what Gress calls "the anti-Fascist mindset" from the 1930s onwards was a disguise for pro-Sovietism, so that even to use the word "Fascism" reveals one as a Stalinist. This is palpable nonsense. Probably the most influential of all modern theorists of Fascism has been the German Ernst Nolte, an ultra-conservative whose later writings shaded close to apologias for Hitler.

In an even stranger move, Gress avoids the label "Nazi" because it is a "derogatory acronym". Well, God forbid that anyone should want to be "derogatory" about Hitler's movement, but the abbreviation has been used by almost all historians. Gress is not, of course, some sort of crypto Nazi himself; he makes the proper noises of support for democracy and disgust at anti-Semitism.

We do, though, get a very peculiar new pantheon of intellectual history here. There are, bluntly, almost no Jews or left-wingers in it (except Marx, as ultra-villain) and no women or non-whites. This is a German intellectual world with ultra-rightists and ex-Nazis such as Ernst Junger, Oswald Spengler and Martin Heidegger at its centre, but with no mention at all of Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin or Karl Popper. There's not the slightest hint that figures such as Frantz Fanon, WEB DuBois and Rabindranath Tagore might have had something important to say about the idea of the West.

Gress's only comments on non-Western history are (to use his own abusive language) just ignorant cliches about Islam and China. He gestures towards the value of "macrohistorical" structural analyses such as those of Jean Baechler and Ernest Gellner, but does not use them.

Gress is a fellow at the Danish Institute of International Affairs, a Director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in Philadelphia, and co-author of a history of West Germany. Another of his past achievements, though, may provide a better clue to his world view. He is, it seems, the leading translator of JRR Tolkien into Danish.

For all the book's bowing to ideals of liberty and rationality, it is Tolkien's Nordic-Germanic fantasy world of gods, heroes and magic that most shapes Gress's imagination. He argues that the "Grand Narrative" tracing Western development is a myth. He is right; but he has substituted an even less plausible narrative - one that runs from Beowulf to Bilbo Baggins, taking in right-wing German romantics on the way. I'll cheerfully admit to being a Lord of the Rings fan since childhood and even to quite liking Wagner. Yet, if being part of "the West" has to mean identifying with Gress's idiosyncratic version of a cultural inheritance, his disdain for other traditions and his ferocious anti-egalitarianism, then count me out.

The reviewer's book `Afrocentrism: mythical pasts and imagined homes' is published by Verso

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