Bruce Mazlish: A Tribute

As readers of the Toynbee Prize Foundation’s blog will have learned from our earlier postings, Bruce Mazlish, Professor Emeritus of History and the President of the Toynbee Prize Foundation from 1986 to the late 1990s, passed away on November 27, 2016.

Since news of Mazlish’s death was reported, media from The New York Times to MIT News have engaged with Mazlish’s legacy and his contributions to the study of Western civilization and psychohistory. Indeed, many readers may be familiar with Mazlish’s ouevre primarily through works like The Western Intellectual Tradition: From Leonardo to Hegel (co-authored with Jacob Bronowski in 1960) or In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Inquiry, published a month before the break-ins into the Watergate complex. Yet perhaps less immediate attention has gone to Mazlish’s contributions to the development of the field of global history – the focus of this short tribute.

Given the lively state of the field of global history today, it is easy to forget how relatively recently “global history” as such was constituted within Western academia. With very few earlier exceptions, the term “global history” started appearing in publication titles only during the 1990s, and Bruce Mazlish was one of its proponents during that first hour. Certainly, the global history movement of the 1990s had been preceded by a growing number of scholars who did not self-identify with the older field of world history but at the same time were looking for alternatives to national historical container thinking. There had also been a growing number of scholars who pushed for more proactive, bordercrossing roles of regional expertise.

Having already published a series of books on psychohistory, by the 1980s Mazlish became convinced of the need to pursue global history approaches that could address the problems of the era. As Mazlish wrote, the 1970s and 1980s were a period marked by any number of new basic facts that demanded a global historical sensibility: the exploration of space; a global consciousness of “Spaceship Earth” as a shared home for all nations and peoples; the threat of nuclear war; “environmental problems that refuse to conform to lines drawn on a map”; and the growing power of multinational corporations. In Mazlish’s view,

These and other signs require us to design a new perspective to guide our understanding of what is happening around us. A new consciousness is needed to help us view these developments along with other more traditional ones and to give meaning to them. A new subfield of history must be created. Global history as a new perspective, consciousness, and discipline must be conceptualized and then exemplified.

That Mazlish endorsed this view meant certainly a decided step beyond his earlier work in fields like Western intellectual tradition and psychohistory. But Mazlish’s election to the Toynbee Prize in 1986 – and his subsequent reformation of the Toynbee Prize Foundation into a more formalized foundation – provided one platform through which he and the Trustees could begin to support the work of intellectuals focused on “global” problems. The need to do so became clearer and clearer with the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and as some pronounced the dawn of a “new world order.”

All the same, there were still relatively few actual monographs that embodied a global history perspective. Hence, in 1991, Mazlish, in conjunction with Ralph Buultjens, organized one of, if not the first, conference on global history (held in Bellagio, Italy) to consider the theory and practice of global history. The conference papers were published in 1993 as Conceptualizing Global History, and this volume would become an important reference point for debates on global history, for many years to come. In his essay below, Raymond Grew recalls of the Bellagio Conference and others that followed in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Twenty-five years later, many of the topics broached in Conceptualizing Global History as well as the publications that resulted from the ensuing global history conferences still form lively debates for global historians. Mazlish and colleagues thus helped to theorize global history as a discipline and to begin to sketch out what an “applied global history” would look like. He himself did so not only through a whole range of publications in the new field but also through organizing conferences in different countries on both sides of the Atlantic. On these and their impact, see the essays by Roland Benedikter and Dominic Sachsenmaier below.

Mazlish made a whole range of written contributions to the field of global history. Among the most important ones are his essay “Comparing World History to Global History” in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History or the 2005 Global History Reader (London: Routledge) edited by Mazlish and Akira Iriye. Likewise, Mazlish’s monograph, The New Global History (London: Routledge, 2006) provides a vista into the field at this moment of its coalescing. Students who are new to the field would do well to survey the breadth of issues that Mazlish and other scholars engaged in these early works, outlining what a concrete global history research agenda for (for example) the study of diseases, terrorism, or internationalism would look like. Readers of the Global History Forum who pay close attention to the intellectual biographies of many of our participants will recognize how many of the works we have surveyed would have been unthinkable without this earlier agenda-setting work.

Beyond his publications, however, throughout these years Mazlish played an important role as a mentor to many younger scholars of international and global history. See the accounts by Kenneth Weisbrode and David Ekbladh below, for example.

Even as Mazlish withdrew from active teaching at MIT, he continued to develop his thoughts on the field of global history. As the tribute by Alice Bullard emphasizes, Mazlish’s emphasis on the need for a global history perspective was very much informed by a moral imperative. His 2009 book, The Idea of Humanity in a Global Era (London: Palgrave) stressed that global history could not merely be a triumphalist history of globalization. In that book, Mazlish sought to explore the various ways in which “humanity” as a collectivity distinct from “humankind” had been mobilized politically in the past, in order to gain perspective on how “humanity” in the 21st century could confront threats to its own existence, such as global warming. Indeed, throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s, Mazlish was at work on a manuscript entitled Where are We Going? The Project of Humanity.

It was thanks to Bruce’s contributions to the field that the Toynbee Prize Foundation was able to continue to grow and evolve into an organization dedicated to the field of global history. Bruce handed over leadership of the Foundation to Raymond Grew, and, later, Grew was succeeded by current President Dominic Sachsenmaier in 2014. Yet that the Foundation is now able to engage with such a wide range of global history approaches – whether the work of senior scholars like Christopher Bayly, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Jürgen Osterhammel or the newer wave of global history work surveyed in the Global History Forum – owes much to Bruce’s two-and-a-half decades of activism. While the Toynbee Prize Foundation remains engaged in documenting and fostering the field as it grows both in size and diversity, we also remain mindful of Mazlish’s words on the need for global history approaches in an age of interconnections:

Whether consciously we admit it or not, our writing of history is, overtly or covertly, in part an attempt to situate ourselves correctly in regard to current problems. Thus it is in regard to our effort to understand globalization today. While employing a multi-disciplinary approach, we must comprehend that process in a wide ranging historical perspective. In doing so, we help create what will become our own past, is now our present, and is unfolding before us as our future.

Readers may be interested in reading the full tributes to Bruce Mazlish by some of our Trustees, as well as former colleagues, students, and friends. A list of contributions follows below:

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