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Marx and Huizinga: Jan Romein As Historian

ISSUE:  Winter 1980
The Watershed of Two Eras. Europe in 1900. By Jan Romein. Translated by Arnold Pomerans. Wesleyan. $25.00.

Admittedly, as E.H. Carr has noted, the argument over the nature of history as art or science can be considered an artificial linguistic one which disappears, for example, if translated into French or German where science and Wissenschaft do not carry the exclusive methodological implications of the English equivalents. Nevertheless, these terms stand as useful labels for two approaches to history which could also be called the humanistic and the social-scientific, the descriptive, and the theoretical.

History must, of course, hew to a middle position between the extremes of mere chronicling without interpretation, on the one hand, and a totally theoretical discipline divorced from the particular or subordinating it to general principles, on the other. The theoretical must be expressed through the concrete and the concrete ordered and explained through the theoretical.

By his intellectual formation, the Dutch historian Jan Romein was ideally suited to synthesize these two currents. Though a convinced Marxist and a very theoretically conscious scholar, he was also deeply influenced by his intense but ambivalent intellectual relationship with the great cultural historian Johan Huizinga. But this mixture of qualities also limited Romein’s audience. Excluded from the Dutch Communist Party in 1927 for his heterodox views, he was nevertheless denied an entrance visa to lecture in the U.S. in 1949.

The crowning achievement of Romein’s career was to be his encyclopedic study of European civilization between 1889 and 1914. But as he himself wrote, “we all tend to shelve our best work until we have time to perfect it.” (p. 157) Though most of the first two sections of the work was completed in draft, the third and theoretical part was not. The text, published posthumously as Op het breukvlak van twee eeuwen in 1967, has had to wait eleven years to be translated. It is, therefore, long since time that Jan Romein received his due: The Watershed of Two Eras is a brilliantly executed work of history.

Reviewing a more recent work on Europe in 1900 for the Journal of Modern History (50/3), R. Stromberg noted that the author of his book, by eschewing statistics in favor of isolated examples, had preserved the concrete at the expense of more intellectually convincing quantitative evidence. Rigor, he suggested, was sacrificed to color. Romein’s statistics, however, are eloquent, and their use is often impressionistic in the best sense of the term. A favorite technique of the Dutch Marxist was to emphasize the strength of a generalization by arguing from its weakest case. First, Romein magnifies the importance of the rise in Europe’s population by adding that it was accompanied by massive emigration. Then, after aggregate figures for European emigration, Romein notes that even France, notorious for its demographic stagnation, exported 31,000 people in 1889.

Similarly, statistical generalizations and colorful anecdotes are mutually supporting. In his chapter on the aristocracy Romein follows several astounding examples of conspicuous consumption with the observation that the ratio between the income of the richest Englishman and a coalminer, which was 12 to 15 to one in 1950, had been between 1,000 and 1,500 to one in 1900. In the same discussion he avoids overgeneralization and illustrates through contrast by sketching the lives and noting the rarity of the few socially responsible nobles.

As these examples show, Romein used juxtapositions creatively. Moreover, he exploited them as organizational and stylistic principles to show the interrelationship of different historical developments or to integrate secondary themes as counterpoint. This can be seen on several levels of composition. It is not unusual that the first two and the last chapter are synoptic and echo one another. Common also is Romein’s habit of including allusions or digressions within a chapter which reflect the preoccupations of another. The most effective, because the most compact, use of this principle, however, is on the level of individual sentences. Here Romein uses parenthetical comments or serially linked clauses not only to juxtapose but also to effect a rapid shift in perspective. In his discussions of imperialism, among the most engrossing of the work, the perspective of the subject peoples is thus subtly but insistently invoked. Speaking of Madagascar, Romein noted that though French claims were much older, “it was not until 1890 that Britain, though not the native population of some two million inhabitants, consented to recognize a French protectorate over that island.” (p. 9) Again, when discussing the background of the Boxer Rebellion, the author refers to “a host of other encroachments by the growing number of foreign firms with names no honest man could pronounce even if he could have read them.” (p. 42) A little earlier in the same paragraph Romein had performed an opposite shift in perspective with the same general purpose, combating implicit racism, when he wrote: “The railways themselves terrified the Chinese peasants, much as they had earlier terrified European peasants.” The greater prevalence of such juxtapositions in the first half of The Watershed may be due either to the more exclusively intellectual emphases of the second part or to the unfinished nature of the text.

Not unlike the Pointillist painters he described, whose style was justified through contemporary optical theories, Romein’s techniques are intimately linked to his Marxism. He characterized the history of technology in his period, for example, as reflecting the dialectical possibilities for good and evil of any new invention and illustrated this with the following list: “. . .in 1910 the vacuum cleaner, the anti-rolling tank and the mine-thrower . . . The Deutsche Machinenfabrik built its first mobile crane in 1914, the year in which Britain produced the first armored car.” [312]

This dialecticalism permitted Romein to see the potential dualism of phenomena like anarchism which he correctly diagnosed as being more closely bound to the state than conservatism. Only this approach makes sense of the alternations between anarchistic principles and state-worship of men like Valois and Berth or the less dramatic ambivalence of Georges Sorel. Finally, this use of the dialectic as an analytical tool, like the tendency to argue from the weakest case, freed Romein from the trap of the Zeitgeist historians whom Geyl charged, in the Use and Abuse of History, with overgeneralizing the dominant trends of an age.

Romein’s Marxism served synthetic roles as well: the economic and social structure, for example, was never far below the surface of his interpretations. No dogmatist, however, he consciously eschewed a simplistic determinism of the ideological superstructure by the economic substructure, arguing instead for a dynamic interaction between the two. In effect, though he never used the terminology, Romein treated these interrelationships as structures which gave coherence without causality or, as Gerard Genette noted in Figures I, provided “une sorte de rationalite de comprehension qui remplacerait la rationalite d’explication abandonnee avec la recherche des causes.” [156—57] Romein described this interaction in a discussion of the relation of economic theory to reality when he stated that, “every society has the science it deserves, just another example of supply and demand.” [383]

Such an approach, of course, has a synchronic bias. This is appropriate to Romein’s task: to write an integral history of European civilization at a given historical moment. But Romein, as both an historian and a Marxist, could not be content with a static vision. Instead he put the dialectic at the service of a Marxist teleology. Events, and even institutions, were seen as pointing to the two linked cataclysms of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. The immanence of the future in the present, which was also reflected in colonial revolts, was accompanied by survivals of the past. Romein noted with humor and understanding that leading feminists, clearly the heroines in this case, were concerned that the press give adequate coverage to their flowing gowns. By combining immanence with survival, Romein inserts the maximum diachrony into an essentially synchronic survey.

As the title of Watershed was meant to suggest, however, Romein considered his period to be uniquely caught in a dramatic tension between past and future: that is, as a period of transition. Characterizing a period as being one of transition is almost an historical cliche. Viewed from the proper angle, almost any span of years can be so described. Romein adds specificity to his interpretation, once again, by casting it in a Marxist mold.

The quarter century before the war, he argues, marked a turning point in the class struggle. The 19th century had seen the zenith of the bourgeoisie. The proletariat, which had been slowly growing in strength, was only now, in this period, becoming a serious contender for power. 1900 was thus the turning point in the fortunes of the European bourgeoisie, about to be thrown on the defensive. Romein’s transition, thus, is that of a sea at peak tide, a civilization carefully balanced in the moment between ebb and flow.

Probably Romein’s finest application of this thesis was his discussion of the rise of the mass circulation press at the end of the 19th century. While on the one hand, Romein notes, the new journalism imitated trends pioneered in the U.S., it also should be understood as a natural outgrowth of European developments. These were technological improvements, concentration of capital, and a newly educated and concentrated lower class market. But when analyzing the class role of this new phenomenon Romein shied away from either extreme. Certainly the mass press, financed by big capital, acted as a means of control, both opiate and indoctrination, over the masses. But the opposite proposition was also true. The existence of the new journalism suited to popular tastes was also a sign of the growing power of the urban lower classes. The public opinion which it both created and catered to had to be tailored, at least partly, to the ideas of the working man. This embryonic mass culture had a true lower-class element and was resented by the contemporary upper classes for that reason. The popular press is thus seen as a social intermediary reflecting a new balance of forces typical of the age. This equivocal role was similar to that attributed to the press by a French journalist who described the Third Republic as a regime in which financiers control the press, which controls public opinion, which controls the government, which controls the financiers.

Finally, Romein showed that the new role of the press had other, more dangerous, effects. The jingoism and sensationalism of the mass press contributed to a new type of foreign relations, one in which an explosive mixture of popular nationalism and the imperial ambitions of financiers and industrialists helped pave the way to the First World War.

Romein used his transitional model to explain other class related phenomena as well. The rise of the labor and Socialist movements was not the sign of the impoverishment of the proletariat but of its relative, and relatively recent, prosperity. Hungry men could not be organized. Similarly, the same piecemeal reforms which had improved the lot of the working man, Romein argued, also served to show the essential perniciousness of the whole system.

In another context he explained that the middle class was neither declining nor growing as opposing observers had suggested. Instead, a declining traditional middle class of artisans and shopkeepers was being replaced by a rising class of civil servants and managers. Naturally, the new class brought new, less individualistic attitudes with it. Similarly, the Dutchman attributed the crisis in Christianity to a dual desertion caused by industrialization. The bourgeois were still too smug to seek the aid of the Church, while the workers were too angry.

This uncertain balance of forces is also related to the psychological climate of the age. Here Huizinga’s influence can most easily be seen as Romein sketches the mood of the times with a sophistication worthy of his mentor.

This mood was an unstable mixture of confidence, even smugness, and growing anxiety. The confidence was that of the victorious bourgeoisie at the apogee of its power after a century of progress. The anxiety was the reaction of this same class (or other parts of it?) to the rise of the masses and the accompanying social changes. Romein’s interpretation, thus, attempts to combine two well-known aspects of this period. One, of course, is that of the Belle Epoque basking in complacent optimism, while the other is the cultural and intellectual ferment which foreshadowed the anomie of the postwar period.

The confidence of European civilization was shown by manifestations ranging from the Paris exhibition of 1900 to the race to the poles. Progress and the conquest of the globe by the white race seemed to go hand in hand.

The anxiety emerged in more subtle ways. Romein considered the turn of the century a time of religious ferment and emotional anarchy. Certain phenomena like the rising interest in the occult could be seen optimistically, and Romein even compared this interest to the polar expeditions: both represented attempts to explore new frontiers. But occultism was also a protest against the mechanization of contemporary society. Theosophy and the new interest in Buddhism, especially strong in Germany where it fed on racist anti-semitism, were likewise balms for a frightened age. These and the similar developments of spiritualism and salvationism were taken by Romein as signs of the “bad conscience of a ruling class that was no longer convinced of its divine right to rule.” [507] Even the optimistic suppositions of Harmsworth’s Daily Mail were considered by Romein, quoting H. G. Wells, as reflecting a prevailing sense of instability, which in turn explained the paper’s success.

Evasion was a response to anxiety by the most sensitive among the upper classes, the artists, and intellectuals. Romein adds a class-conscious twist to the artistic revolt against industrial society by interpreting it as that of a class frightened by the rise of the masses. The author groups actions ranging from Yeats’ fascination with the Celtic past to Gaugin’s physical escape to Tahiti through his concept of the Common Human Pattern. This pattern of culture could be said, according to Romein, to characterize all human societies other than the West while the West’s divergence from this pattern explained its world conquest. Though this model can be criticized for a Europocentrism which dehistorifies other cultures, Romein uses it effectively here to note a commonly perceived distance from the modern West.

The author of The Watershed also sought to show the transitional or critical aspects of developments in a wide range of intellectual areas. One of the distinctive qualities of the work is Romein’s addition of academic disciplines like history, economics, sociology, mathematics, and linguistics and applied fields like jurisprudence to the more familiar preoccupation of the intellectual historian with major social or philosophical theories.

These discussions are not tied as closely as were the social ones to Romein’s Marxist themes. The divisions in economics are explained as reflecting class divisions but most other fields are brought within the general interpretation of the decline of liberalism and positivism with a corresponding search for integration. On the one hand, this includes the socialization of jurisprudence and medicine. On the other hand, Romein saw developments in biology, economics, and sociology as reflecting a search for unity and a spirit of organization he considered characteristic of the 20th century. Similarly, Romein perceived the attempt to integrate the arts as an antidote to social disintegration.

Romein was aware, however, that not all subjects could be fitted easily into such a scheme, and it is to his credit that he did not attempt to force them into one. He noted that history, for example, was taking to positivism with Lamprecht while other subjects were leaving it. For this reason, Romein’s discussions are valuable even when they cannot be integrated into any of his larger themes. He thus gives a lucid description of the Saussurian revolution in linguistics, though Saussure’s contribution ran counter to Romein’s general themes: it was both supremely positivist and based on the separation of language from its social context.

Such an inclusion was characteristic. Romein’s interpretations always maintained the flexibility to account for diverse phenomena just as his analytical tools found a place for exceptions and his generalizations for details. Pervading Romein’s historical judgments and informing his techniques is a broad and compassionate humanism. He shows his political allegiance, for example, not in slogan-filled denunciations of capitalists, many of whom he characterized as the condottieri of the epoch, but in a genuine compassion for the urban lower classes. The reader is led effortlessly to see the immorality of a civilization in which such opportunity and such splendor coexisted with such squalor. Nor was this compassion withheld from the upper classes. Romein looked behind their masks with a fine sense of both the irony and the tragedy of history. Indeed, his entire work reflects the irony of a civilization whose confidence began to be undermined just as it had climbed to its highest peak.

The breadth of Romein’s vision and the ambition of his work can be linked to his two masters, Huizinga and Marx. Romein attempted, and to a considerable extent succeeded, in fusing Marx’s emphasis on the social and economic motors of change with Huizinga’s sensitive cultural overview.

But Romein’s catholic outlook was also related to a particularity, his Dutch origin. This brought with it a familiarity with Dutch affairs all too rare among European historians. But rather than remaining within an even narrower provincialism, Romein, like the best of his countrymen, was conversant with the intellectual traditions of France, England, Germany, Italy, and to a lesser degree, Eastern Europe. This is reflected not only in his sources but also in the truly European scope of his work. In this sense Romein stands not only with Huizinga but also with Henri Pirenne. Like Pirenne, he has brought forth a new vision of European civilization, and though specialists will surely challenge many of his conclusions, his formulations have permanently enriched our understanding of European history. At the same time, Romein has shown us that theoretically conscious history need not be artless and that a sensitive, even colorful, account need not be unscientific.

* Except for an inexplicable lapse on p. 494 in which a relative date is substituted for an absolute one, Pomerans’ translation is generally both faithful and flowing. The text could have been improved however by the correction of Romein’s original onomastic errors, e.g. Robert [sic] Shattuck (p. 552), and Lur-Saluzes for Lur-Saluces (p. 78), which were copied into the translation and its index.


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