The Enlightenment’s Limited Light

Life Without Culture

by Gwydion M. Williams

Propagandists of globalisation keep telling us to admire the European Enlightenment. So too do many of globalisation’s opponents. Now ‘enlightenment’ means ‘bringing of light’. So just what was the darkness?

For Voltaire, Diderot and the other pioneers, the matter was clear enough. Christianity was a dark and ignorant creed that had mysteriously overturned the civilised values of Greece and Rome. China and India were shining examples of how life could be much better, happier and cleaner in lands where Christianity had never been.

But the Enlightenment looked to the wrong models. Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism and even Islam were sometimes cited with admiration. But Classical Greek and Roman culture was the main inspiration. Not a wise choice, since Classical Greek and Roman culture had been seriously unstable, full of a crazy competitiveness. Its favourite hero was Odysseus, strong bold and clever, but also a cheat and a cold-blooded killer.

Classical Greek and Roman culture lacked sympathy. That was the missing element in a brilliant culture, the thing that allowed it to be captured by a Christian underground that educated people had long viewed with contempt. There was much to be contemptuous of, superstition and dirt and ignorance, but Christianity also filled a gap. Offered content of a human sort for the dead hollowness at the heart of Classical Greek and Roman culture. Valued kindness and rejected European paganism’s cult of brutality.

Rome was the most brutal Old World empire since the fall of Assyria. There was also no equivalent anywhere else of the slaughter-as-entertainment of the Roman amphitheatres. All ancient cultures had slavery, but most of them gave slaves rights as an inferior sort of human. Roman Law was exceptional in that it originally gave slave-owners absolute rights. Roman society had a mass of slaves used purely as ‘instruments of production’, vastly worse off than the household slaves. This was peculiar to Rome, until Europeans recreated it in the New World. Hard-line Catholic Spaniards began it, but the mostly-skeptical French and English were happy to copy and continue the system.

The ‘Enlightenment’ in its actual development was much darker than people suppose it to be. It was anti-democratic as well as anti-Christian, an eminently logical combination at the time, when popular piety was extremely strong. John Locke says things that can seem very modern – maybe because modern politics has taken over his language. I doubt that John Locke would have accepted the ‘levelling’ meanings that we nowadays put on his words.

John Locke spoke for ‘liberty; but he was comfortable with a parliament was elected by maybe a tenth of the adult males. Elected very unevenly: a majority of House of Commons seats were controlled by a rich elite of a couple of hundred families. He was a major investor in the English slave-trade through the Royal Africa Company. As Secretary to the Earl of Shaftsbury, he drafted a Constitution for the ‘Province of Carolina’ that would have established feudalism in British North America. The British setters rejected feudal control but eagerly embraced black slavery. London was also happy for the ‘Province of Georgia’ to be founded as slave-free, intended as a buffer between slave-owners in the Carolinas and the Spanish colony of Florida, viewed a place of refuge by escaped slaves. As white settlers got control, they demanded and got the legalisation of slavery, while Spain was eventually intimidated into selling Florida to the growing USA.

Errors in Enlightenment Europe were not only or even mainly a matter of personal imperfections. In looking primarily to Europe’s pre-Christian traditions, the Enlightenment was moving from one abnormality to another. Compared to other world-empires, Classical Greece and Rome were exceptional in largely abolishing the free peasantry and splitting society into a small number of rich, a larger stratum of urban idlers and vast mass of agricultural slaves. Classical Greek and Roman culture were also seriously unstable, full of a crazy competitiveness. It was not enough to be living a good or useful life, you had to be praised for it. Although it is called ‘individualism’, it is individualism of a sort that can’t live its own life without other people to be dominated and turned into an admiring audience for one particular superior individual.

If you need an audience but also feel scorn for that audience for allowing itself to be dominated into admiring you, then you are utterly screwed up. That was the big problem for the Classical Greeks and Romans. A nonsense that the Enlightenment brought back, not that it had ever been completely eliminated from Christian tradition.

Though I can see how the ‘pursuit of excellence’ could get a grip on people, I think it’s a soul-destroying approach to life. Religions of one sort or another allow life to be enjoyed, or at least a harmonious religion will do so. Christianity has been rather pathological for most of its existence, but the worst craziness was what it included in the creed during its historic compromise with Late Paganism.


A couple of decades back, I was an avowed atheist. These days I am less certain of the underlying nature of the universe, which is clearly more complex than what I believed I saw in my 20s and 30s. But to find a sensible alternative is rather harder. Astrology is junk, as are most ‘New Age’ beliefs. Ex-Communist Doris Lessing produced a gripping highbrow drama in Shikasta, a 1979 vision of past and future that was absurdly inaccurate about both. She wrote it as part of a series she called Canopus in Argos: Argos is an ancient Greek city. Canopus was traditionally placed with some unrelated stars in the constellation Argo Navis, split into four separate constellations in modern times. Canopus is also a relatively young star, wildly unsuitable as the home of an ancient civilisation.

[It is an F-type supergiant, which means it is much younger than a G-type dwarf like our sun, or even an F-type dwarf star.  The best estimate is that it is 20 million years old and will last another 10 million years.  Our sun is maybe 5000 million years old and is probably halfway through its lifetime.]

Even saying Canopus in Argo Navis would have been ignorant: planets do appear to pass through the constellations of the zodiac, actually moving along the ecliptic, the flatness of the solar system, just appearing to be close to unrelated stars that are enormously further away. Babylonians organised these stars as a zodiac, a system that the Greeks took over, using the unique Babylonia base-60 arithmetic as part of the cultural package. The zodiac as such means nothing, and modern definitions of the constellation put part of the ecliptic within the old but non-Zodiac constellation of Ophiuchus.

The apparent movements of actual stars are vastly more slow. The whole sky-pattern would have utterly changed before distant Canopus moved from its line-of-sight constellation, as defined from Earth. Being big and bright, it will also be short-lived by stellar standards. A few tens of millions of years, whereas the sun has maybe five thousand million more years of existence. Astrophysics is a weird world, equivalent to elephants being born and dying in a single day while mayflies last for centuries. The really small stars age so slowly that none have yet exhausted their hydrogen cores and it is not certain that they will end their days as red-giant stars, which will definitely be the final stage for our own sun.

There is a lot of nonsense talked about ‘powers in the sky’: there are also some real mysteries. No one has found a sensible explanation as to why we happen to be living in an era when the moon exactly eclipses the sun, as seen from Earth. In the past – maybe 100 million years ago, long in the history of life but about a 45th of the Earth’s long history – the moon would have been closer, would have seemed larger and would have simply blotted out the sun like a cloud passing in front of it. In another 100 million years or so, the moon will be more distant and will seem smaller, too small ever to wholly blot out the sun’s light. As things are, the moon can exactly blot out the sun’s bright surface and lets the remarkable solar atmosphere be briefly seen.

There are several other oddities that I’ve not seen anyone draw attention to. The ‘zodiac’ is an unrelated band of stars that are in line with Earth’s orbit round the sun, so that both the sun and the planets seem to pass through the zodiac, actually the plane of the ecliptic. The apparent movement of planets through the ‘zodiac’ is no more significant than a child looking out of a window and seeing a bus appear to transit a distant mountain. It has no inherent connection with the solar system’s own gigantic 250-million-year orbit round the galaxy. But the unseen centre of the galaxy is in the direction of the ancient constellation of Sagittarius, the archer.

Another ancient constellation crossed by the ecliptic is Virgo, and that too is a significant direction for the entire galaxy. Our galaxy and neighbours like Andromeda and the Magellanic Clouds are part of a minor Local Group that is outlying component of a gigantic ‘local supercluster’ which is centred around the huge Virgo cluster, an assembly of more than a thousand galaxies. From our current line-of-sight, this assembly is largely within Virgo, including the three biggest galaxies: M87, M86, and M49. Part of the extended cluster spills over the modern constellation of Coma Berenices, which used to be viewed as part of Leo. Coma Berenices also contains the North Galactic Pole.

This could all be coincidence. But if it isn’t coincidence, what else might it be?

When people think of extraterrestrial intelligences, they mostly think of a jacked-up version of European colonialism, explorers arriving in ships and ill-treating the natives. What about something vastly older, more powerful and more alien? Creatures able to watch us comfortably from light-years away – our own technology has since the 1990s been able to detect planets round other stars and is now edging towards getting actual images of them. A really advanced civilisation might need perhaps one observatory every 100 cubic light-years to know everything major that is happening in the galaxy. They might have fine-tuned the solar system as a place suitable for an intelligent species to develop, for reasons as enigmatic to us as electronics would be to all humans before the 19th century. The material resources of a single planet might be of no interest to such beings, information might be much more valuable. Even in modern-day human culture, information is becoming at least as valuable as physical goods. The more advanced the culture, the more information is likely to matter and the greater the incentive to watch rather than try to dominate.


Or the real explanation may be something much stranger. I have put forward one suggestion and will leave it at that, without claiming to know what must be true. Claiming definite knowledge where the real facts are uncertain is an excess that alienates people from science. In the hands of characters like Dawkins, Darwinism becomes an alternative creed, much as Marxism did in its Leninist form. A refuge for people convinced that Leninism failed – they don’t notice that Leninism successfully transmitted its cultural values into Western society. Female equality, multi-racism, free love, classlessness and the abolition of empires were once ‘red’ slogans. And under all the talk of ‘free markets’, the economy retains the Keynesian controls that stop another Great Slump.

Creationism and Dawkins’s blend of Darwinism are two variants on the New Right creed, both of them untrue to their roots. The ‘Fundamentalists’ who push Creationism ignore most of what Jesus actually taught, pushing violence when he taught pacifism, pushing prohibition when he was a regular drinker who repeatedly used wine as the best mundane model of spiritual values. Jesus said very little about homosexuality: his big emphasis was against fornication, adultery and divorce. I don’t myself think his program makes much sense in the modern world, I think it was a small offshoot of Judaism as it was before the fall of the Second Temple, becoming a very different thing in the hands of Greek converts. But anyone who was serious about biblical Christianity would be taking on the collective might of the fornicators, adulterers and divorcees rather than venting their spleen on harassed homosexuals.

Of course Mrs Thatcher was wed to a divorced man and Ronald Reagan was himself divorced, wed to a former Hollywood actress whose mother was also divorced. You’d need to really believe in your vision of God to tackle these New Right heroes for their own failings, in the way John the Baptist moved beyond acceptable popular preaching and started denouncing the moral failings of the region’s rulers, who naturally killed him for it. I can’t see that the ‘Fundamentalists’ have that much faith. They make a fervour against well-established scientific facts, to hide their lack of commitment on more serious articles of faith.

As for Dawkins’s ‘Darwinism’, it is actually rooted in Neo-Darwinism, the 20th century blend of Natural Selection and Genetics. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck should be credited for putting forward the first systematic argument for biological evolution, the emergence of complex creatures from simpler beginnings. The notion goes back as far as the Greek philosopher Anaximander: one of many ‘pre-Socratic’ philosophers whose work is known only from fragments, though often they seem much wiser than Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Others mentioned it across the centuries, including Erasmus Darwin who had it as an aside in his Zoonomia, where it could be viewed as an eccentricity.

Lamarck was different, he an established biologist, an authority, often credited as the inventor of the name ‘biology’. He wrote an entire book arguing that all modern creatures had originated from worm-like creatures that in turn had developed from micro-organisms. He made many mistakes, of course, most notably the belief in some mysterious ‘progressive force’ that caused simple organisms to become more complex. But he was rejected because of the correct core notions, not because of incidental errors and certainly not because of ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’, which was still a respectable notion. It was the idea of complex animals having simple ancestors that was not respectable, not acceptable. Most biologists preferred Cuvier’s notion of God as a ‘Serial Creationist’, successively creating and wiping out several separate biological worlds. This idea allowed Cuvier to explain the fossils he found in the Paris Basin without denying the conventional idea of God the Creator.

Half a century after Lamarck and Cuvier, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace independently came up with natural selection as the mechanism for evolution, which in the meantime had become widely accepted by the public. A major popularisation was Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously by Robert Chambres. Chambres had a public presence that he wanted to protect: along with his brother and others he was the creator of Chambers’s Encyclopaedia. Vestiges was wrong on a lot of points, but it cleared the way.

The lack of immediate reaction to the Darwin-Wallace Theory of Natural Selection was not as foolish as it is sometimes presented. The idea of evolution was known. It was not immediately obvious that natural selection was the missing mechanism that removed the need for Lamarck’s mysterious ‘progressive force’.

‘Darwin-Wallace Theory of Natural Selection’ is the proper term for the discovery. But in the course of polemics, ‘Darwinism’ became a rallying-call. Wallace himself contributed, using Darwinism as the title of one of his books. Of course at that time everyone beleived in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Proof of non-occurence was the work of August Weismann, and then Mendel’s forgotten work was rediscovered and merged with older ideas to produce ‘Neo-Darwinism’, which fought and won a bitter battle with Neo-Lamarkism. The justified defeat of Neo-Lamarkism cast an unjusitifed slur on Lamarck’s pioneering role, and gradually Charles Darwin has been elevated to a cultural icon. Darwinism was originally a name for the ideas of Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather. You can get this from the Oxford English Dictionary, and the fact that it has been missed by all debaters on the subject makes me think that they are trapped within a worn-out framework.

19th century Europeans had inherited from their pre-Christian past what could be called a ‘Victor Ludorum’ attitude, huge attention for a small number of winners who are artificially separated from others who were almost as good. This was imposed on the new discoveries in biology, without much regard for facts that did not fit. ‘Survival of the fittest’ became the new creed, with a rejection of the better part of Christian teaching, the notion that everyone had some importance and that the strong should use their power to help the weak rather than grabbing more.

The real rule of Natural Selection is the most reproduction for the least food, which is why most animals remain small and stupid, and why animals as a whole are a minority amidst a vast mass of plants and bacteria. All living creatures are equally descendants of an unknown common ancestor, sometimes known as ‘LUCA’, the last universal common ancestor. It is estimated to have lived some 3.5 billion years ago and would be ancestral to all animals, plants, fungi, ‘protozoans’, bacteria and also the recently-discovered archaea. For the vast majority of organisms, ‘natural selection’ has meant no change in body-plan or way of life. Only in a large and flourishing biosphere do you get a minority of organisms option for becoming large and complex, the equivalent to specialist shops for photography or sports equipment appearing in a big city. Small towns may have nothing more specialised than a shoe-shop and a village will have just a general store. Thinking of ‘natural selection’ as a bunch of shop-keepers struggling to make a living is much less misleading than thinking of it as a grand boxing match for the big prize, the sort of image Dawkins prefers.

‘The most reproduction for the least food’ is related to a deeper physical law, the Principle of Least Action. Whatever needs the least energy is what will happen. This can include events that appear like a dramatic outburst of energy from a human viewpoint, setting fire to some inflammable liquid, for instance. But what’s happening from a physical viewpoint is that energy stored in the inflammable liquid is dispersed into the environment.

Even more remarkably, ‘least action’ can occasionally cause patterns to appear without a template or creator. One good example is the fern-like patterns of ice that appear sometimes on windowpanes. Tradition ascribed it to the ‘invisible hand’ of Jack Frost, or similar supernatural creatures. Physics has studied the matter and found that atoms getting together with the minimum of energy can occasionally form a fancy pattern. Likewise in biology, most creatures stay crude and stupid but a few get complex and a fractional number gain some sort of intelligence.

‘The most reproduction for the least food’ is plainly not a principle with any sort of morality, good or bad. But it is the principle that I see as applying to almost all life: nature rambles and the moon don’t care.

The moon don’t care: even if my earlier speculations were valid and the moon were carefully shunted by aliens into an orbit that gives aesthetically pleasing solar eclipses. Such an arrangement wouldn’t mean the moon itself could care, any more than a piece of marble would care whether it had been carved into a toilet wall or into a statue by Michelangelo. Likewise a tree don’t care, not unless you want to believe in dryads, and I would sooner believe in the crazy power of human imagination. Rats don’t care, except that they sniff each other’s breath and learn which new food is good to eat. A mother rat has an instinct to feed and protect baby rats, but doesn’t seem to notice if more baby rats are added or if some of them vanish. But we are human, we do care. We are the least selfish ape.


When I unpicked the logic of ‘economic rationalism’, I discovered that it was ‘Magic Rationalism’. When they say ‘rational’, they are not just supposing that human emotions are a pointless interference with sensible logical decision-making. They also suppose that we have an inherently perfect knowledge of our own best interests – real market traders may get the price wildly wrong but collectively they are perfect. Market bubbles are sometimes logic-chopped into ‘rational’ events, on the grounds that large numbers of people cannot actually be acting in a way that hurts them all. If these characters were willing to follow their own logic wherever it led, they would also be arguing that there are no such things as traffic-jams.

Adam Smith noticed that British industrialists and merchants were doing very nicely with limited government control. They must also have told him that they would like greater freedom of action, freedom to follow profit without the need to worry about whether the rest of the nation would suffer. He obligingly raised it to the level of a philosophy: it is rational to suppose that rich people looking after their own interests are actually good for the nation. It is rational because he said it was rational: no specific chain of reasoning is ever put forward in The Wealth of Nations or anywhere else.

In my book Adam Smith: Wealth Without Nations, I detailed how Smith repeatedly ignored facts that did not fit—including the complex social regulation of the pin industry, his classic example of the benefits of Division of Labour. Smith also refused to look at the astonishing growth in slavery in the New World. Not a primitive hold-over, but a new development within sophisticated commercial agriculture raising crops for European consumption. It is data that would refute his notion that private profit led to social good, so it is data he does not want to know about.

We must suppose Adam Smith wanted morality kept out of economics, because morality at that time could hardly have been anything else but Christian morality. He never spoke frankly about his own beliefs, citing ‘God’ in a hazy manner that Christians could easily confuse with their own vision of a wrathful or paternal Jehovah. Smith had been raised as a moderate member of the Scottish Presbyterian Church, but during his time at Oxford he was converted to Deism and probably came to see Christianity as an odious superstition. Political Economy – not then called Economics – became an alternative creed.

An alternative creed that is not fit for humans to live by. That is the tragedy of the Enlightenment: philosophers supposed that their own habits were something supremely rational and that they could lead by good example. But the actual examples were mostly not good and people refused to be led by them. Even when the Enlightenment thinker was moral at a personal level, the creed was inhuman.

Would you prefer modest amounts of money and lots of reliable friends? Or a whole lot of money, but your friends will be few and perhaps unreliable? Most of us would choose the first, given a clear choice (the sort of choice that gets obscured in actual life). And we would expect most other people to make the same choice. But ‘rational economics’ expects the second option to be preferred.

The accumulation of money is relatively easy to measure. The development of social networks is an enormously more complex matter. Who are friends? Who is reliable? How do we differentiate between thousands of individual and distinct choices? Actual human welfare depends much less on money than on the right choice of friends, but it’s also not an easy matter for an outsider to pontificate about. People can choose very different friends and have very different ideas of mutual obligations and yet be quite content with their different choices.

But it can’t all be personal. Anarchism sounds like a nice creed, but it depends on the various individual choices happening to mesh, which doesn’t often happen. Anarchism won’t work of people have a mind of their own, and it is notable that tribes with no strong central government also have great uniformity of thinking of people in the various categories of age and gender. A tribe depends on all of its members upholding the particular tribal values. A ruler can be content with people being very different from one another, so long as they pay their taxes and keep within agreed rules of morality.

But what are ‘within agreed rules of morality’? If someone kills your brother, are you entitled to kill them in retaliation? Are you obliged to kill them in retaliation, even if it was a fair fight that both of them chose? Alternatively, are you obliged to forgive? Or at the other extreme, do you kill a brother of the offender, someone with no personal guilt but whose death will balance the losses of the two families? Systems of morality give different answers on such matters. Also on what types of food are legitimate, and when. Which varieties of sex are allowed, which are forbidden and whether celibacy is the highest holiest state, a personal choice, treason against your kin-group and / or a peculiar aberration.

A religion is a way of defining the obligatory duties between friends and between relatives, and also between strangers. You are forbidden to cheat or harm those you don’t like, if it is just your own dislike. But you are also obliged to act against those who are doing something wrong. You shouldn’t give shelter to criminals, even though they will pay well for it.

If you’ve accepted that slavery is wrong, you have an obligation to act against it, maybe at great personal cost. If you are convinced racism is an evil, you need to take a stand against it, as the Left in the USA did, with the Communist Party playing a major role and sincere Christians like Martin Luther King risked much and suffered much. Right-wingers and business interests needed the support of racists, where they were not racists themselves. They shut up until it became electorally necessary to do something. Then they did as little as possible, making use of those who claimed that state action was not necessary and creating a creed that could bundle genuine conservatives with the greedy and the prejudiced, always a big chunk of the electorate.

The New Right like to claim that both slavery and racism would ‘naturally’ have perished due to economic forces. The historic record suggests otherwise. Slavery extended itself from its original heartland in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, across the Appalachian mountains and as far west and South-West as Anglo power could extend. The slave system was spread into the new US states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Florida and Missouri.

(I’ve not forgotten Louisiana. Louisiana was a special case, a French heritage and a different culture that may have contributed to the early fall of New Orleans in the Civil War, captured in 1862 with zero casualties on either side. I’ve also not forgotten Maryland, a slave state that refused to secede and where Confederate enthusiasm was limited. Likewise tiny Delaware, but it was the much larger border-slave states of Kentucky and Missouri that were the key to the Union’s victory.)

Slavery was a flourishing system in conditions of ‘economic freedom’, freedom for white citizens to be slave-owners. It had needed a strict legal ban (the ‘Northwest Ordinance’ of 1787) to keep slavery south of the Ohio river. There were serious attempts to legalise slavery in Ohio and Illinois, once these became full states within the USA. It needed a local civil war to drive slavery out of Kansas. Elsewhere, the Federal Government would have let it continue for decades if the slave states had been less stubborn. Lincoln in 1862 offered a deal to the non-seceded slave-owning border states that would have seen slavery gradually abolished with compensation for the owners and not fully vanishing till 1900.

Had the Confederacy not been determined to fight to the bitter end, they might have kept the slave system alive till 1900, maybe even longer. The victorious North thought slavery an abomination, but was largely sympathetic to racism. They allowed segregation after a brief attempt at equality in the Reconstruction era. Segregation got rather more intense in the years up until 1916, till the USA took a wider role and gross racism became an embarrassment.

The Confederacy’s motivation included a lot of religion, of course. Religion is a determinant of culture, good and bad. It is very convenient for characters like Dawkins to be able to set their own dogmatism against that of the ‘Fundamentalists’. Who largely overlap with the pathological religion of Southern Racists, that is what the Southern Baptists were originally about. They are the largest US Protestant congregation and one of the fastest-growing. In the absence of socialism – socialism was successfully branded as foreign in the Cold War – religion offers some sort of comfort in a world were profits are allowed to override human values.


We are the least selfish ape, much less likely to be violent to our own species than most mammals. Humans are the most social creatures who can also live independently. In most social mammals, breeding is restructured to a dominant male or maybe a dominant pair. Human communities are an exception: the majority of adults form independent breeding pairs, and the norm is to be moderately kind to the children of strangers. True, we mostly don’t feed strangers when our own people are hungry. True, dominant males in a human community get rather more than their share of women—but that’s a worn-down remnant of the advantage that alpha males have among gorillas or baboons.

West European culture and its global offshoots are particularly strict in discouraging their alpha males from doing too much breeding or fornicating. Bill Clinton got into trouble over that, and it remains a factor than can ruin US political candidates. It might be a cultural aberration, but also it might have helped the emergence of industrial society. The same ‘Darwinians’ who bang a drum for European values when the answer suits them are very happy to praise non-European values when that suits their prejudices better. It is arguable that Europe had an advantage in that the rich were encouraged to invest a lot in just a few children rather than disperse it among a crowd of wives and offspring.

Sex is one fundamental, food is the other. Humans are much more willing than most animals to share their food. You’d feed a hungry child unless you or your children were seriously short. This would apply even if you were totally certain that there would be no benefit from doing so and no penalty from not doing so.

But supposing you are yourself short of food, as will definitely happen in a pre-industrial society. Does everyone then pool, or do they hoard? Or steal from each other? Are the rich obliged to feed the starving poor? Or can they demand that the poor sell their children or even themselves as a test of their desperation? That’s where religion comes into it. Religion helps maintain standards in tough times. Defines the obligations and holds most people to them. Suggests intangible benefits for good behaviour that is obviously not profitable in the short term.


I mentioned earlier that to 18th century Europeans, China and India were shining examples of how life could be much better, happier and cleaner in lands where Christianity had never been. Adam Smith noted this in The Wealth of Nations, but did also note that China was static whereas Europe was advancing, that China was not much different from the land Marco Polo had described. China remained broadly static till Mao took over in 1949, despite some superficial modernisation.

I suspect most readers aren’t aware of Adam Smith’s comments on China. They’re not exactly hard to find: the Glasgow Edition of 1976 has them nicely indexed. This hasn’t stopped a whole swarm of Adam Smith enthusiasts ignoring Smith’s accurate observations and scraping around for other opinions that fit their prejudices better. It is just the same with China’s massive advance under Mao. I followed China quite closely through the 1960s and 1970s and at the time no one disputed that China’s material well-being had advanced enormously. There was a period of food shortage when the weather turned bad during the dislocations of the Great Leap Forward. Visitors noticed that there was a food shortage but none of the classic signs of famine: they also noticed that the Yellow River had dried up, which is a very uncommon event.

We know now that China was suffering the backwash of an El Nino, an unknown entity at the time but since understood to be associated with Chinese famines across the centuries. Under Mao there were serious food shortages and China’ death rate briefly doubled, which merely took it back to the pre-Mao level. It then fell again and fell significantly below the death-rate in the Republic of India, itself a success story. Nehru and his heirs have done well, but Mao did better.

Facts are only a starting-point, of course. A theory that contradicts the known facts is obviously wrong, which won’t stop it being Received Wisdom if it suits the immediate needs of the ‘Anglosphere’. Western visitors to China are surprised to find that Mao is still vastly popular among ordinary people. They will consider almost any explanation except that people who lived through it know what actually happened, a small Westernised elite losing its privileges and a vast mass of ordinary people seeing a vast improvement over the Warlord era.

Solid facts are a foundation that could support many different interpretations. I like to look at various different cultures to see what they have in common. One thing they all have in common is that none of them modernised or uprooted its old way of life under a liberal-democratic government. Not even Britain: English ‘Constitutional Monarchy’ was established after half a century of intermittent civil war between the English Parliament, Puritan factions within the ‘New Model Army’, various Scottish and Irish factions and the Stewart kings, lawful rulers of the Three Kingdoms. (That’s from the First Bishops War in 1639 to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.)

The expulsion of James the Second and then the replacement of his dynasty by some minor Protestant German princes led to seven generations of rule by an oligarchy. The King as the strongest member of this oligarchy, but never fully in control. In that era, one-tenth of the adult males had the vote, but piled up in a scattering of fairly democratic constituencies and with most seats in the House of Commons controlled by the oligarchy up until 1832. From 1832 to 1884, there was a half-century expansion of democracy. Only from 1884 did a majority of men living in Britain have the vote, maybe 60% of the adult males.

Britain’s North American colonies hived off as the USA, part-way through this process and with the approval of a lot of Britons. Had the British Army burnt Boston to the ground when they decided they could not hold it, Washington could not have claimed a victory. His later defeats around New York would probably have finished him and the whole rebellion. But a lot of Britons were inhibited from treating white Protestants in the way they treated non-whites, the way they had treated Catholic Ireland in the past and might have done again had the occasion arose. Washington’s army was actually less scrupulous: the idea of burning New York was seriously discussed when they realised that they could not hold it, New York had a lot of Loyalists in it. The creation of the USA was seen as a victory for democracy, but democracy of a rather limited sort. The US constitution did not lay down any rules about ‘one man one vote’, not even ‘one white man, one vote’. Rules were mixed and property qualifications were widespread.

The USA was broadly democratic by the 1830s, democratic in the sense that white males dominated. This made it very difficult for the US to abolish slavery, or even to stop it spreading westwards – the US Civil War was about slavery’s westward expansion. The USA has also kept the popular Puritanism that used to exist in Britain and which vanished during the 20th century, everywhere except Northern Ireland where religion was the symbol of the separation of two very different ways of life.

The relevance of this is that liberal-democracy is not an alternative to religion, in the way that most people suppose it to be. It is one possible configuration for a society that has already been massively transformed by very different methods.


You can tone your religion down to conventional piety once it has done its job in transforming the society, or once society had been transformed by a secular elite with religion ensuring stability. Both China and India needed a quasi-religious movement to pull them through into the modern world. A process that began in the 20th century and is far from complete in either society.

In India, the British Raj provided efficient government, but had surrendered to the petty racism of its officials. There was a considerable stratum of educated Hindus and Muslims ready to work within the British structures, but the general rule was that every white man was above every non-white. This might be breached in Britain, where Indian princes were accepted by British aristocrats who’d have had no time for Indian civil servants and mid-ranking officers. But in India itself the two world were kept separate, and naturally this was unacceptable. Gandhi, Nehru and the other leaders of Indian Nationalism were the people who could just as easily have been part of an empire-wide elite, had the British Empire opted for multi-racialism. It didn’t: the home population would have felt doubtful, but the big resistance came from the white elite ruling a non-white empire. People not bright enough to give up part of what they had so as to keep the rest. The white elite were kicked back home, but they were replaced by people already trained in British ways and who largely came from the existing ruling class, so something like the British system could continue. (Rather similar in the 18th century USA and the 20th century Republic of India, though I’ve not seen the comparison made.)

China was a different case: a local elite of scholar-gentry was determined to maintain values that held good since the Bronze Age, and were indeed an optimum for managing a society in the absence of industrialisation. It was not an unchanging order, China quickly adopted various useful crops that Europeans had found in the New World. Growing maize etc. does not overturn your cultural values. Industrialism overturns cultural values. A society of active citizens overturns cultural values. In China there were not many large landowners, but there were absolutely no improving landlords, no equivalent of the British gentry that most places (though not Ireland) were a dynamic factor rather than rent-collecting parasites.

Real world history needs a theory of development that can explain why both Mahatma Ghandi and Mao Zedong could be successful as ‘fathers of the nation’, which means you have to think in a radically new way and be prepared to mix ideas that supposedly do not belong together. In material terms, Mao and his heirs have been much more successful. China had been maybe twice as rich as India in the 18th century. British rule, though full of exploitation and racism, had made India about equal to China at the start of the 20th century. In the 1930s China was maybe a little ahead, but by 1950 they were about even, despite India being reduced to the Republic of India and losing what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh.


China under one-party rule had an advantage all along. Before 1949, it had been a dismal failure in its efforts to copy the West. Or rather it failed when it tried to do what the West had never done, leap in one generation from traditional hierarchical politics to a multi-party Republic. At the time of the 1911 Chinese Revolution, Mao Zedong was a believer in Western liberalism, as were many other young Chinese. The new Chinese Republic tried a wholesale copy of Western politics, and it was a disaster. A repressive but orderly Empire was replaced by incoherent bands of warlords. It needed Soviet help to turn the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) into half-effective force. Western influence managed to stop them becoming serious reformers: kept them half-effective to a degree that disgusted visiting US citizens who had supposed that the Kuomintang were allies in the war against Japan. Ordinary Chinese were often very brave and keen to fight, but the leaders of the Kuomintang ‘nationalists’ preferred to sit out the war and let the USA win it for them.

One needs to ask, why was Japan able to modernise under its traditional rulers and China utterly unable even to imitate? This is a large question in itself, and also not much asked. A good book about China’s development is very much needed. So far, only a flock of mostly-mediocre books have been produced, few worse than Chiang & Halliday’s Mao, the Unknown Story.

Chang & Halliday have the least accurate summary of recent Chinese history the I’ve ever encountered. The May Fourth Movement gets half a sentence and is not in the index: that’s rather like Ireland without the Easter Rising. They describe Chinese President Yuan Shikai’s career without mentioning his attempt to make himself Emperor—rather as if one were to summarise Hitler by saying “he was President of Germany from 1934-45”. They ignore Yuan Shikai’s role in the coup against a reforming Emperor in 1898, and his servile willingness to submit to Japan’s ‘Twenty-One Demands’, the start of the Japanese campaign to conquer China. They also show a bizarre fondness for the warlord regimes that succeeded Yuan Shikai’s failed leadership, the warlords whom Chiang Kai-shek compromised with when he broke the Kuomintang-Communist alliance.

Chang & Halliday claim some original discoveries, including that the Chinese Communist Party was actually founded in July 1920, with the date later shifted to the First Congress of June 1921 to boost Mao’s importance. They cite reports in Moscow of such a foundation. Robert Payne’s Mao Tse Tung: Ruler Of Red China gives an account of this 1920 meeting (page 71). It was a mix of assorted Chinese left-wingers, not all of them Marxists and with little wish to found a Communist Party. It got wrongly reported in Moscow, but Comintern delegate Pavel Miff investigated and found that no party had in fact been created. Which also explains why the 1921 meeting was called the First Congress, puzzling if it had been the second such gathering.

Chang & Halliday miss this, but they do cite Payne in another context, as the source for Peng Dehuai supposedly not remembering the famous skirmish at the Luding Bridge, a strategic crossing that could have bottled up the Red Army if the bridge had been properly held. Edgar Snow’s account in Red Star Over China makes it clear that the defenders hadn’t expected the Red Army vanguard to go swinging across bare chains after the wooden cross-slats had been removed, and that they failed to put up a decent fight in the face of enemies who were clearly ready to die rather than retreat. But Chang & Halliday ridicule this heroism and claim that the Red Army was let cross and that no fight actually occurred.

Their claim is based on a ludicrous misreading of Payne’s book. Peng was apologising after having confused two different battles on the Long March. Earlier in the same paragraph, Payne remarks about the different versions of the Luding Bridge crossing that people remember “The crossing of the Tatu River [Dadu River], told by three separate people, seemed to be three separate crossings…” He then says “The stories of the battles were even more difficult to piece together”, and it is in this context that he mentions Peng’s error. (Mao Tse Tung: Ruler Of Red China, page 139).

Chang & Halliday make a case based on numbers: if there were 22 attackers and 22 survivors were rewarded, how can there have been a battle? This is made as a criticism of Edgar, but if you read Snow he says that there were thirty attackers. The figure of 22 attackers comes from Yang Cheng-wu’s Lightning Attack on Luting Bridge, Yang Cheng-wu being the commander of the actual attack. Or a bare-faced liar if there was no attack, but Chang and Halliday don’t call him a liar and don’t in fact mention him at all, though he is there in the bibliography.

Chang & Halliday’s book is full of such nonsense and is totally useless. Not a single thing they say can be trusted. Though they have worked through a gigantic mass of source material, some of it available to no one else, they have re-worked it into a huge mound of ignorance.


Payne’s Mao Tse Tung: Ruler Of Red China is good for a lot more than just exposing the faults of Chang & Halliday. Fifteen years before the Cultural Revolution, he correctly anticipated Mao’s wider interests:

“Mao holds all the arts of China in his hands. Lenin had neither the learning nor the inclination to assume the role of transformer of culture. Mao, far more widely read and with a comparable subtlety of mind, has clearly determined to accept the position thrust on him, and no one can foresee the changes in the basic structure of Chinese culture which will derive ultimately from his will. (Chapter Ten, The Wind and the Sand).

I’m not sure he’s right about what Lenin would have done if he’d lasted as long as Mao. Leninism in the former Tsarist Empire was hampered by Lenin dying so soon after his grand success, meaning that positions he’d have probably changed became Holy Writ. We can be fairly sure he’d have changed because he was continuously changing and re-thinking as circumstances changed. Stalin did his best, adapting policies while claiming continuity. Stalin left behind a strong Leninist movement with a quasi-religious enthusiasm for its own past. Decline set in when Khrushchev broke the continuity and hideously damaged the faith, causing a downward spiral that ended with total collapse.

China’s rulers have not been such fools. Western journalists tell them off about it, and most Chinese sensibly ignore them. In as far as China looked to an outside model in the 1980s and 1990s, it was Japan and South Korea. Korea was a Japanese colony up until 1945, having been conquered by them between 1895 and 1910, thwarting a home-grown modernisation. Japan had modernised very successfully after Commodore Perry of the USA made it clear that they were not going to be allowed to live their own lives without harming anyone, Japanese policy since the 17th century. Japan copied European Imperialism, got defeated and then resumed modernising on a US model. Japan in the 1980s and still today seems to think that it was guilty of nothing much in World War Two except being on the losing side. China disagrees, obviously, but China must also have noticed that the West accepted Japan as an ally after punishing those Japanese who had mistreated Westerners. Much worse Japanese mistreatment of other Asians was mostly ignored, including the medical experiments at ‘Unit 731’. The West has never practiced what it preaches except as a cover for self-interest, so why take it seriously?

The economic set-backs of Japan, South Korea etc. after they accepted Western advice and speculative money have surely convinced them that it is a good idea for Asians to stick to their own values. (Hanging Saddam Hussein for crimes that were well-known at the time and ignored by Western governments at the time also sends no messages other than ‘don’t get defeated’.)

Something like Chinese Communism was almost bound to happen, given that no Western power was allowed to take over China and transform it in the way that Britain transformed India, in the way other imperial powers transformed their own colonies.

As it happens, something rather like Chinese Communism did indeed happen a century earlier: the Taipings. The ‘Taiping Heavenly Kingdom’ was an heretical variant of Christianity, with the founder claiming to be a new Messiah and younger brother of Jesus Christ. From small beginnings it became a very serious contender for power. It was one way in which China might have entered the modern world: this much has been widely noticed, along with the shameful role of nominally Christian Western nations in backing up a weak and declining dynasty.

What I’ve never seen noticed or remarked upon is how similar the Taipings were to something twelve hundred years earlier and thousands of miles away. Early Islam was also a sect that was forced to defend itself and then went on the offensive. In the case of Islam, there was only a rather haphazard state at Medina to overthrow, with the surrounding Empires having no idea what was happening until Islam was too strong to stop. The Taipings were noticed much earlier, were continuously at war with a Chinese Empire that was still very strong and also the hostility of Western powers. But there is a concurrence, with the Taiping founder rewriting the Bible to remove elements that seemed wrong.

Muhammad said and undoubtedly believed that his own Koran was a pre-existing message given to him by God. But unless you actually believe this – which would logically mean you should also become a Muslim and accept all of the disciplines of the faith – then you have to see it as a similar process. Take the creed of outsiders and adapt it to your own culture. Muhammad did it with Christianity, the Taiping founder would have done something similar if his movement had not been defeated. The Taiping creed has no surviving followers, as far as I know. But the necessary social task was done by Mao adapting Leninism.

Right now, Islam is regenerating. 50 years ago it would have seemed unlikely: socialism and secularism were the dominant forces among Muslims. But ‘life without culture’ is not human life. Money economics is a way of linking people who have no social ties, but humans live within their social ties and value them above all else. The reaction to a money economy is either an anti-modernist religious upsurge, as in Islam and with the USA’s fundamentalists. Or else it is socialism, and Europe including Ireland seems much more likely to go that way.


I’ve avoided using a lot quotes, preferring to point to different interpretations of well-known facts. You can check details like the Virgo Cluster or the First Bishops War in lots of standard references, if you want to know more.

In the case of China, I’m covering points that most reference works ignore – they prefer to start with economic growth under Deng and imply that Mao’s era was stagnant, though no one actually says this,, since it was blatantly not so. Back in the 1970s there was even a premature acceptance of China as a third Superpower, which it was not and still isn’t. China is the leading hold-out against SubAmericanisation: if China succumbed or disintegrated then attention would switch to the Republic of India, just as it switched to China and also Yugoslavia once the Cold War ended.

The chart of economic growth uses the tables in Angus Maddison’s The World Economy: Historical Statistics. These give GNP as millions of inflation-adjusted dollars: I’ve lumped these as thousands of millions. I’ve also shown the figure for each fifth year rather than each year. GNP for China is very uncertain in the early period: the figure for 1915 is actually a 1913 estimate

Robert Payne’s Mao Tse Tung: Ruler Of Red China was published in 1950 and is long out of print. (Well meriting a reprint, but I doubt it will ever get one.) A revised and updated edition was published in 1961 as Portrait of a Revolutionary: Mao Tse-tung. There is disappointingly little extra in the later book.

[There actually has been a reprint, including a Kindle edition.]

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2007.  More about Mao and China here.

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