An Accelerating Divergence? the Revisionist Model of World History and the Question of Eurasian Military Parity: Data from East Asia

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Over the past few years, this journal has hosted a debate central to the fields of world history and historical sociology: Joseph M. Bryant's bold assault on the revisionist model of global history and the revisionists' equally trenchant defense (Bryant 2006; 2008; Elvin 2008; Goldstone 2008; Langlois 2008). (1) According to the revisionist model, the most advanced societies of Asia were developing along paths similar to Western Europe, and the great divergence between Europe and Asia came much later than traditionally believed (Frank 1998; Goldstone 2000; Goody 2004; Pomeranz 2000; Wong 1997). It wasn't 1492, when Columbus sailed, or 1497, when da Gama sailed. It wasn't the Renaissance or the Scientific Revolution or the foundation of the English and Dutch East India Companies. It wasn't even 1757, when the Englishman Clive defeated a huge Bengali army at the famous battle at Plassey, inaugurating the British Empire in India. No, the revisionists argue, there was relative parity, both economically and technologically, between western Europe and developed regions of Asia until the late 18th century, when industrialization and its concomitant economic revolutions changed the game.

Bryant argues that "the revisionist position is both empirically suspect and analytically incoherent" (2006: 403). (2) He accuses the revisionists of distorting data and making ahistorical arguments, frustrated because he feels they are thinking ideologically, motivated not by a quest for knowledge but by political correctness, reacting to a perceived Eurocentrism (Bryant 2006:418). The revisionists, for their part, feel that the standard model of world history is indeed Eurocentric because it was formed during a time when we knew next to nothing about Asian history. They believe that the tremendous proliferation of data in Asian history over the past several decades must be reflected in new models and theories. Each side buttresses its position with impressive statistics and copious examples, but the argument seems no closer to resolution or even clarification today than when Bryant fired his first broadside in 2006. is huge and growing fast. A good place to start is Maddison 2003. See also Duchesne 2005; Vries 2005; and Broadberry and Gupta 2006.

One of the key points on which the two sides disagree has to do with a putative coercive advantage Bryant attributes to Europeans in the early modern period, the three centuries preceding the supposed great divergence between Europe and Asia. Bryant asks,

   If decisive European advantages in social capabilities only arose
   in the wake of industrialization, how are we to account for the
   preceding three centuries of European encroachment and conquest,
   and the increasingly manifest incapacity of the Asian powers to
   repulse the predatory intrusions of an unwelcome interloper?
   (2006:410)

Bryant feels that the revisionist model cannot answer this question, but revisionist Jack Goldstone offers compelling counterarguments (2008).

First, Goldstone argues that Bryant is wrong to suggest that Europeans were able to encroach significantly on Asian powers, many of which proved eminently capable of resisting European incursions. Second, Goldstone concedes that Europeans held a slight military advantage but denies that it was primarily a technological advantage. Instead, he compares Europeans to roving barbarian hordes whose victories over more powerful and advanced Asian states were due to the latters' internal weakness.

The Europeans certainly had some striking tactical advantages in superior artillery and drill, but these did them absolutely no good against the Japanese (who developed superior firearms in the 16th century) or the Chinese.... They succeeded in India much as the Vandals had succeeded against Rome, or the Mongols had succeeded against China--relatively small groups of warriors, using superior battle-tactics and bent on plunder, have often conquered much larger, richer, and more sophisticated civilizations if those civilizations were undergoing their own processes of internal division and decay. …