Paul Mattick 1956

Arnold Toynbee and History — Review

Source: Western Socialist, Boston, USA, September-October 1956;
Transcribed: by Adam Buick.

Toynbee and History. Critical Essays and Reviews. Edited by M. F. Ashley Montagu. Porter Sargent Publishers, Boston, 1956, pp. 285; $5.00

Thirty experts in fields related to A Study of History here give their critical appraisals of Toynbee’s monumental work. They all admire Toynbee’s great erudition and industry even though he is full of misinterpretations, factual errors and “proves exactly nothing.” For one reviewer, the Study is “a house of many mansions, all impressive, many beautiful, but built on sand.” Although Toynbee speaks in the name of science and empiricism, he bases his work “on values that are subjective and unverifiable.” Toynbee’s depreciation of the material aspects of civilizations and his mystical orientation, it is said, deprive him of any set of objective criteria for judging the progress and decline of civilizations. The secret of his great popular success may lie in his being the “prophet” of a new cult; a kind of “Billy Graham of the eggheads.”

No Marxist is to be found among these experts. Their arguments against, as well as their reverence for Toynbee relate to philosophical and methodological differences within the camp of bourgeois history. They disagree on definitions, wonder about Toynbee’s distinction between civilization and society and speculate on whether civilizations are the historian’s proper field. Criticism is directed not so much at Toynbee’s meaningless developmental scheme — “challenge and response,” which are carried on by “creative minorities” whose spiritual decline leads to the destruction of civilizations — as at Toynbee’s distaste for the modern nation-state and his desire for a world civilization based on the major religions.

Although Toynbee’s philosophy of history is ridiculous, national sovereignty is as obsolete as he regards it to be despite the apparent renaissance of nationalism. This is merely a sign of the decline of old, and the formation of new, empires — accompaniments of the further development and transformation of capitalism. Yet some of these critics attack Toynbee solely on the ground of his anti-nationalism. In contrast to Toynbee’s insistence that “mankind must become one family or destroy itself,” they regard the nation-state, and Israel in particular, as “the greatest triumph of this epoch and the burial ground of broader associations and groupings.”

Compared with this kind of criticism, even Toynbee’s mystical speculations toward a universal religious civilization — nonsensical as they are — appear to be more human and of greater relevance to the trend and the needs of the state. But just as a considerable part of the accumulated data in Toynbee’s work may be read without regard to his subjective frame, so much of this criticism may serve to correct false impressions derived from an uncritical reading of this data. The theoretical constructions of both Toynbee and his critics, however, have no meaning for the Marxist student of history.