Dominic Sachsenmaier, Reflections on Bruce Mazlish

In late October, I paid Bruce a visit, and it was obvious that it would be our last encounter. He was pale, thin and bound to a wheelchair. His hearing had become so bad that it was better to write messages on a notepad. He had to put all his remaining mental power together to keep up a conversation for about half an hour.

And yet, while his body was hardly able to sustain itself any longer, there was still something boyish about him, even at the age of 93, at the very final stage of his life. I only got to know him at an advanced age, about twenty years ago. But from the beginning, I was impressed by his youthful spirit and the aura of daring – and at the same time politically concerned — independence he exuded.

When I first met him in 1996, Bruce could already look back at a rather long and productive career as a historian. By then, he had taught at MIT for almost half a century, and he had written a bestseller (“The Western Intellectual Tradition”, together with Ron Bronowski) decades before. His books were numerous and translated into multifarious languages; his articles had been published in top journals, and he had been one of founding figures of psychohistory.

And still, he was not resting on these glories. Rather, in the 1990s, entering the eighth decade of his life, Bruce was among of group scholars striving for the buildup of another field: global history. As a term, “global history” had appeared in some book titles during the 1960s but afterwards it had been widely forgotten. Actually the volume “Conceptualizing Global History”, edited by Bruce Mazlish and Ralph Buultjens in 1993, was one of the first book publications that would again use this expression on its cover.

In the aftermath, Bruce followed up with an amazing string of activities. He built what probably became the first foundation specifically dedicated to the promotion of global history. The Toynbee Prize Foundation had already been an institution during the Cold War Period but it was during Bruce’s presidency that its focus was set on global historical research. Under the foundation’s umbrella, Bruce organized international conferences on a variety of themes related to global history, he authored books and articles, and together with Akira Iriye he edited a global history reader.

Moreover, he engaged in fierce debates in which he defended his specific take on the field. Unforgotten are his fierce attacks on the field of world history which he regarded as ultimately incompatible with the agenda of global historical scholarship. Bruce’s uncompromising position on this question drew the ire of many of his colleagues, and yet the ensuing debates certainly became a landmark in the development of global history in the United States.

Over the past twenty years, the field of global history has prospered – a regular google search for “global history” generates millions of hits, leading to a pluriverse of publications, institutes, graduate programs and research projects. Similar things can be said about its equivalents in other languages such as, for instance, the German “Globalgeschichte” or the Chinese “quanqiu lishi.” In many academic communities around the world, global history has come to occupy a rather influential place within the historians’ guildhall.

All this was hardly foreseeable during the 1990s when historians like Bruce were struggling to make the term more visible. Neither could one expect that many critics of Eurocentrism and experts in world regions outside of the West would come to self-identify with the term “global history.” True, during the 1990s the social sciences in the US and some other countries were debating the implications of “globalization” for their fields, but historians seemed to be lagging behind. The majority of historians long remained attached to the idea of the nation as a quasi-given container of the past. Moreover, the field long struggled to find a balance between its predilection for local knowledge and archival work on one hand and the necessity to think big on the other hand. In some regards, global history can now be regarded as a trend testing out this very balance. Much of it seeks to combine regional expertise with new, decentered visions of the world and its rich past of entanglements.

Bruce’s visions for the field were definitely shaped by the debates on globalization during the 1990s and their predecessors. He deeply believed in the power of reason and the potentials of progress – so much that he defined the landing on the moon not only as the beginning of a new epoch in history but as the onset of a new species. He had great confidence in technology, and he accepted secularism and scientism as true, or at least as the main pathways to truth and human flourishing. He was unmusical to religions and religiosity, and I think he was rather proud to be so.

Bruce Mazlish was convinced that scientific advancement ultimately formed the core of human history but his faith in reason and technology was not as unidirectional linear, naïve and perhaps somewhat cold as the worldviews of many other thinkers sharing a similar outlook. Bruce remained a humanist at heart, and particularly in his last works he expressed his concern about the future of mankind, beautifully and forcefully. We have lost a powerful writer, a clear mind, and a great heart.

Dominic Sachsenmaier

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