Now, what did I learn half a century ago?

07 Oct

mix 001 I happened to browse one of my older books last night, one that is special in its way…

… as you may see on the right. Mind you, I did crash and burn a bit the following year. I was a great guesser of what would be in exam papers, tailoring my revision accordingly, and got lucky in 1958. Unfortunately I was off in my predictions for 1959.

Europe in the XIX Century was first published in 1940, then revised in 1952. That revision is the one you see on the left. I chose it as part of my prize because it covered the then Leaving Certificate course rather well with lots of neat summaries, maps and diagrams, and is written in a style that is refreshingly lacking in pomposity. It still has its uses.

mix 002There are some things about it that bring a grin or a cringe when read today, however. Take the following:

The second great field for European expansion in the nineteenth century was the Far East. The countries in the Pacific were far more wealthy and attractive than the savage no man’s land of Africa, but they were also for that reason more difficult to penetrate, and quite impossible to retain as colonies. For a time guns and machines gave the Europeans their own way, and China and Japan had to  do what they were told. European supremacy, however, was only temporary because the people of the east were quite as intelligent as their conquerors, and soon learned to turn the new mechanical inventions against their inventors. In central and south Africa, on the other hand, Europeans have never lost control because the black races are too backward to combine against them…

Oh the things people took for granted! I would not call Ayerst out for egregious racism, though it might appear that way; rather he was reflecting what was then “common sense” — that is, beliefs very widely shared and rarely questioned. His sang-froid about Africans was shortly to be tested, wasn’t it?

There is a handy glossary of political terms in the back. Here are some choice examples:

  • COMMUNISM, COMMUNIST: Originally the same as socialism (q.v.). Thus Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto’ of 1848 might equally have been called ‘The Socialist Manifesto’. Since the war it has been applied to those extreme socialist parties which are in agreement with Russia.
  • SOCIALISM, SOCIALIST: A society in which the means of production (e.g. mines, farms, factories), distribution (e.g. railways) and exchange (e.g. shops, banks) are owned by the whole community and not by private individuals. It is usually said that in a socialist state everybody would do the work for which they were best fitted and everybody would receive whatever they needed, as far as the resources of the community went.
  • CAPITAL, CAPITALIST: A capitalist is one who owns capital, i.e. the means of production such as factories, machines or money with which he employs people to work for him.
  • FASCISM: Fascism has two meanings: 1) the present Italian system of government [That escaped the 1952 revision!]; 2) any roughly similar system of government, e.g. the National Socialist system in Germany. Fascism differs from (a) Conservatism (q.v.) because it endeavours by government interference to improve the position of the wage earner at the expense of the private capitalist; (b) Socialism (q.v.), because it is strongly nationalist (q.v.) and allows private property; (c) Democracy (q.v.) because it replaces parliamentary or responsible government (q.v.) by unquestioning obedience to a dictator.
  • DEMOCRACY, DEMOCRAT: That form of society in which everybody has an equal share through their votes in the choice of a government and in which all men are treated equally by the government irrespective of their race, religion or wealth.
  • REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT, RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT: Representative Government exists where the citizens are consulted through a parliament which makes the laws. Responsible government exists only where the citizen through parliament can get rid of a government or minister of whom tey disapprove. It is possible to have representative government without responsible government, e.g. in Germany before the war, but not vice-versa.
  • SEPARATION OF POWERS: The system by which the executive, legislative and judiciary are each independent of the other and of equal status, as in the U.S.A. In England and most other countries either the executive or the legislative is usually supreme.
  • CONSERVATISM, CONSERVATIVE: A person, political party or belief aiming at keeping things as they are or restoring them to their former condition. The objects of conservatism, therefore, differ from country to country and from generation to generation, e.g. European conservatives in 1820 were opposed to nationalism (q.v.); today they encourage it. [He may also have noted that in the 19th century conservatives were opposed to democracy; it may also be noted, by this definition, that Chinese adhering today to the position of the Communist Party and the memory of Mao are conservatives — which indeed they are, in that context.]
  • LIBERALISM, LIBERAL: When spelled with a small ‘l’ liberal means one who believes in the greatest possible freedom for the individual — particularly freedom (a) to carry out his business as he likes; (b) to express in speech and writing what views he likes; (c) to have a share by his vote in the government of his country. When spelled with a capital ‘L’ Liberal is the name of a political party, usually a middle-class party, which tries to secure these privileges.
  • INTELLIGENTSIA: The highly educated part of a nation. Often used as a term of abuse.

Fascinating stuff, I think. And yes, I spotted all those generic third person singular masculine gender pronouns… Another of those unquestioned assumptions of the period.

I note here that Ayerst went on to write in 1971 a history of The [Manchester] Guardian newspaper, and that he lived from 1904 to 1992. On reflection, that means that he was 55 when I was trawling his book for the Leaving, ten years younger than I am now…

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Posted by on October 7, 2008 in curriculum, historiography, History, nostalgia, personal, Political, politics


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