Das Zeitalter der Extreme: Weltgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts (1994)
THE AGE OF EXTREMES is eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm's personal vision of the twentieth century. Remarkable in its scope, and breathtaking in its depth of knowledge, this immensely rewarding book reviews the uniquely destructive and creative nature of the troubled twentieth century and makes challenging predicitions for the future.… (mehr)
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On the 28 June 1992 President Mitterrand of France made a sudden, unannounced and unexpected appearance in Sarajevo, already the centre of a Balkan war that was to cost many thousands of lives during the remainder of the year.
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Only the temporary and bizzare alliance of liberal capitalism and communism in self-defence against this challenger saved democracy, for the victory over Hitler's Germany was essentially won, and could only have been won, by the Red Army. In many ways this period of capitalist-communist alliance against fascism – essentially the 1930s and 1940s – forms the hinge of twentieth-century history and its decisive moment. In many ways it is a moment of historical paradox in the relations of capitalism and communism, placed, for most of the century – except for the brief period of antifascism – in a posture of irreconcilable antagonism. The victory of the Soviet Union over Hitler was the achievement of the regime installed there by the October Revolution, as a comparison of the performance of the Russian Tsarist economy in the First World War and the Soviet economy in the Second World War demonstrates… Without it the Western world today would probably consist (outside the USA) of a set of variations on authoritarian and fascist themes rather than a set of variations on liberal parliamentary ones. It is one of the ironies of this strange century that the most lasting results of the October revolution, whose object was the global overthrow of capitalism, was to save its antagonist, both in war and in peace – that is to say, by providing it with the incentive, fear, to reform itself after the Second World War, and, by establishing the popularity of economic planning, furnishing it with some of the procedures for its reform.
Still, even when liberal capitalism had – and only just – survived the triple challenge of slump, fascism and war, it still seemed to face the global advance of revolution, which could now rally round the USSR which had emerged from the Second World War as a superpower.
And yet, as we can now see in retrospect, the strength of the global socialist challenge to capitalism was that of the weakness of its opponent. Without the breakdown of nineteenth-century bourgeois society in the Age of Catastrophe, there would have been no October revolution and no USSR. The economic system improvised in the ruined rural Eurasian hulk of the former Tsarist Empire under the name of socialism would not have considered itself, nor been considered elsewhere, as a realistic global alternative to the capitalist economy. It was the Great Slump of the 1930s that made it look as though it was so, as it was the challenge of fascism which made the USSR into the indispensable instrument of Hitler’s defeat, and therefore into one of the two superpowers whose confrontations dominated and terrified the second half of the Short Twentieth Century, while – as we can also now see – in many respects stabilizing its political structure. The USSR would not have found itself, for a decade-and-a-half in the middle of the century, at the head of a ‘socialist camp’ comprising a third of the human race, and an economy that briefly looked as though it might out-race capitalist economic growth.
How did the world of the 1990s compare with the world of 1914? It contained five or six billion human beings, perhaps three times as many people as at the outbreak of the First World War, and this in spite of the fact that during the Short Century more human beings had been killed or allowed to die by human decision than ever before in history. A recent estimate of the century’s ‘megadeaths’ is 187 millions…, which is the equivalent of more than one in ten of the total world population in 1900. Most people in the 1990s were taller and heavier than their parents, better fed, and far longer-lived, though the catastrophes of the 1980s and 1990s in Africa, Latin America and the ex-USSR may make this difficult to believe. The world was incomparably richer than ever before in its capacity to produce goods and services and in their endless variety. It could not have managed otherwise to maintain a global population several times larger than ever before in the world’s history. Most people until the 1980s lived better than their parents, and, in the advanced economies, better than they had ever expected to live or even imagined it possible to live. For some decades in the middle of the century it even looked as though ways had been found of distributing at least some of this enormous wealth with a degree of fairness to the working people of the richer countries, but at the end of the century inequality had once again the upper hand. It had also made a massive entry into the former ‘socialist’ countries where a certain equality of poverty had previously reigned. Humanity was far better educated than in 1914. Indeed, probably for the first time in history most human beings could be described as literate, at least in official statistics, though the significance of this achievement was far less clear at the end of the century than it would have been in 1914, given the enormous and probably growing gap between the minimum of competence officially accepted as literacy, often shading into ‘functional illiteracy’, and the command of reading and writing still expected at elite levels.
The world was filled with a revolutionary and constantly advancing technology, based on triumphs of natural science which could be anticipated in 1914, but had then barely begun to be pioneered. Perhaps the most dramatic practical consequence of these was a revolution in transport and communications which virtually annihilated time and distance. It was a world which could bring more information and entertainment than had been available to emperors in 1914, daily, hourly, into every household. It let people speak to one another across oceans and continents at the touch of a few buttons, and, for most practical purposes, abolished the cultural advantages of city over countryside.
Why, then, did the century end, not with a celebration of this unparalleled and marvellous progress, but in a mood of uneasiness? Why, as the epigraphs to this chapter show, did so many reflective minds look back upon it without satisfaction, and certainly without confidence in the future? Not only because it was without doubt the most murderous century of which we have record, both by the scale, frequency and length of the warfare which filled it, barely ceasing for a moment in the 1920s, but also by the unparalleled scale of the human catastrophes it produced, from the greatest famines in history to systematic genocide. Unlike the ‘long nineteenth century’, which seemed, and actually was, a period of almost unbroken material, intellectual and moral
progress, that is to say of improvement in the conditions of civilized life, there has, since 1914, been a marked regression from the standards then regarded as normal in the developed countries and in the milieus of the middle classes and which were confidently believed to be spreading to the more backward regions and the less enlightened strata of the population.
Since this century has taught us, and continues to teach us, that human beings can learn to live under the most brutalized and theoretically intolerable conditions, it is not easy to grasp the extent of the, unfortunately accelerating, return to what our nineteenth-century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism. We forget that the old revolutionary Frederick Engels was horrified at the explosion of an Irish Republican bomb in Westminster Hall, because, as an old soldier, he held that war was waged against combatants and not non-combatants. We forget that the pogroms in Tsarist Russia which (justifiably) outraged world opinion and drove Russian Jews across the Atlantic in their millions between 1881 and 1914, were small, almost negligible, by the standards of modern massacre: the dead were counted in dozens, not hundreds, let alone millions. We forget that an international Convention once provided that hostilities in war ‘must not commence without previous and explicit warning in the form of a reasoned declaration of war or of an ultimatum with conditional declaration of war’, for when was the last war that began with such an explicit or implicit declaration? Or one that ended with a formal treaty of peace negotiated between the belligerent states? In the course of the twentieth century, wars have been increasingly waged against the economy and infrastructure of states and against their civilian populations. Since the First World War the number of civilian casualties in war has been far greater than that of military casualties in all belligerent countries except the USA. How many of us recall that it was taken for granted in 1914 that:
Civilized warfare, the textbooks tell us, is confined, as far as possible, to disablement of the armed forces of the enemy; otherwise war would continue till one of the parties was exterminated. ‘It is that this practice has grown into a custom with good reason with the nations of Europe’. (Encyclopedia Britannica, XI ed., 1911, art: War.)
We do not quite overlook the revival of torture or even murder as a normal part of the operations of public security in modern states, but we probably fail to appreciate quite how dramatic a reversal this constitutes of the long era of legal development, from the first formal abolition of torture in a Western country in the 1780s to 1914.
And yet, the world at the end of the Short Twentieth Century cannot be compared with the world at its beginning in the terms of the historical accountancy of ‘more’ and ‘less’. It was a qualitatively different world in at least three respects.
First, it was no longer Eurocentric. It had brought the decline and fall of Europe, still the unquestioned centre of power, wealth, intellect and ‘Western civilization’ when the century began. Europeans and their descendants were now reduced from perhaps a third of humanity to at most one sixth, a diminishing minority living in countries which barely, if at all, reproduced their populations, surrounded by, and in most cases – with some shining exceptions such as the USA (until the 1990s) barricading themselves against the pressure of immigration from the regions of the poor. The industries Europe had pioneered were migrating elsewhere. The countries which had once looked across the oceans to Europe looked elsewhere. Australia, New Zealand, even the bi-oceanic USA, saw the future in the Pacific, whatever exactly this meant.
The ‘great powers’ of 1914, all of them European, had disappeared, like the USSR, inheritor of Tsarist Russia, or were reduced to regional or provincial status, with the possible exception of Germany. The very effort to create a single supranational ‘European Community’ and to invent a sense of European identity to correspond to it, replacing the old loyalties to historic nations and states, demonstrated the depth of this decline.
Was this a change of major significance, except for political historians? Perhaps not, since it reflected only minor changes in the economic, intellectual and cultural configuration of the world. Even in 1914 the USA had been the major industrial economy, and the major pioneer, model and propulsive force of the mass production and mass culture which conquered the globe during the Short Twentieth Century, and the USA, in spite of its many peculiarities, was the overseas extension of Europe, and bracketed itself with the old continent under the heading ‘western civilization’. Whatever its future prospects, the USA looked back from the 1990s on ‘The American Century’, an age of its rise and triumph. The ensemble of the countries of nineteenth-century industrialization remained, collectively, by far the greatest concentration of wealth, economic and scientific-technological power on the globe, as well as the one whose peoples enjoyed by far the highest standard of living. At the end of the century this still more than compensated for de-industrialization and the shift of production to other continents. To this extent the impression of an old Eurocentric or ‘Western’ world in full decline was superficial.
The second transformation was more significant. Between 1914 and the early 1990s the globe has become far more of a single operational unit, as it was not, and could not have been in 1914. In fact, for many purposes, notably in economic affairs, the globe is now the primary operational unit and older units such as the ‘national economies’, defined by the politics of territorial states, are reduced to complications of transnational activities. The stage reached by the 1990s in the construction of the ‘global village’ – the phrase was coined in the 1960s … – will not seem very advanced to observers in the mid-twenty-first century, but it had already transformed not only certain economic and technical activities, and the operations of science, but important aspects of private life, mainly by the unimaginable acceleration of communication and transport. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the end of the twentieth century is the tension between this accelerating process of globalization and the inability of both public institutions and the collective behaviour of human beings to come to terms with it. Curiously enough, private human behaviour has had less trouble in adjusting to the world of satellite television, E-mail, holidays in the Seychelles and trans-oceanic commuting.
The third transformation, and in some ways the most disturbing, is the disintegration of the old patterns of human social relationships, and with it, incidentally, the snapping of the links between generations, that is to say, between past and present. This has been particularly evident in the most developed countries of the western version of capitalism, in which the values of an absolute a-social individualism have been dominant, both in official and unofficial ideologies, though those who hold them often deplore their social consequences. Nevertheless, the tendencies were to be found elsewhere, reinforced by the erosion of traditional societies and religions, as well as by the destruction, or autodestruction, of the societies of ‘real socialism’.
Such a society consisting of an otherwise unconnected assemblage of self-centred individuals pursuing only their own gratification (whether this is called profit, pleasure or by some other name) was always implicit in the theory of the capitalist economy. Ever since the Age of Revolution, observers of all ideological colours predicted the consequent disintegration of the old social bonds in practice and monitored its progress. The Communist Manifesto’s eloquent tribute to the revolutionary role of capitalism is familiar (‘The bourgeoisie ... has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest’). But that is not quite how the new and revolutionary capitalist society had worked in practice.
In practice, the new society operated not by the wholesale destruction of all that it had inherited from the old society, but by selectively adapting the heritage of the past for its own use. There is no ‘sociological puzzle’ about the readiness of bourgeois society to introduce ‘a radical individualism in economics and to tear up all traditional social relations in the process’ (i.e. where they got in its way), while fearing ‘radical experimental individualism’ in culture (or in the field of behaviour and morality) …. The most effective way to build an industrial economy based on private enterprise was to combine it with motivations which had nothing to do with the logic of the free market – for instance with the Protestant ethic; with the abstention from immediate gratification; with the ethic of hard work; with family duty and trust; but certainly not with the antinomian rebellion of individuals.
The peace-settlement, imposed by the major surviving victorious powers (USA, Britain, France, Italy) and usually, if inaccurately, known as the Treaty of Versailles, was dominated by five considerations. The most immediate was the breakdown of so many regimes in Europe, and the emergence in Russia of an alternative revolutionary Bolshevik regime dedicated to universal subversion, and a magnet for revolutionary forces everywhere else …. Second, there was the need to control Germany which had, after all, almost defeated the entire Allied coalition singlehanded. For obvious reasons this was, and has ever since remained, the major concern of France. Third, the map of Europe had to be re-divided and re-drawn, both to weaken Germany and to fill the large empty spaces left in Europe and the Middle East by the simultaneous defeat and collapse of the Russian, Habsburg and Ottoman empires. The main claimants to the succession, at least in Europe, were various nationalist movements which the victors tended to encourage insofar as they were adequately anti-Bolshevik. In fact, in Europe the basic principle of re-ordering the map was to create ethnic-linguistic nation states, according to the belief that nations had the ‘right to self-determination’. President Wilson of the USA, whose opinions were seen as expressing those of the power without whom the war would have been lost, was passionately committed to this belief, which was (and is) more easily held by those far from the ethnic and linguistic realities of the regions which were to be divided into neat nation-states. The attempt was a disaster, as can still be seen in the Europe of the 1990s. The national conflicts tearing the continent apart in the 1990s were the old chickens of Versailles once again coming home to roost. The remapping of the Middle East was along conventional imperialist lines – division between Britain and France – except for Palestine, where the British government, anxious for international Jewish support during the war, had incautiously and ambiguously promised to establish ‘a national home’ for the Jews. This was to be another problematic and unforgotten relic of the First World War.
The fourth set of considerations were those of domestic politics within the victor countries – which meant, in practice, Britain, France and the USA – and frictions between them. The most important consequence of such internal politicking was that the US Congress refused to ratify a peace settlement largely written by or for its President, and the USA consequently withdrew from it, with far-reaching results.
Finally, the victor powers desperately searched for the kind of peace settlement which would make impossible another war like the one that had just devastated the world, and whose after-effects were all around them. They failed in the most spectacular manner. Within twenty years the world was once again at war.
Making the world safe from Bolshevism and re-mapping Europe overlapped, since the most immediate way to deal with revolutionary Russia, if by any chance it survived – this was by no means certain in 1919 – was to isolate it behind a ‘quarantine belt’ (cordon sanitaire, in the contemporary language of diplomacy) of anti-communist states. Since the territory of these was largely or wholly carved out of the formerly Russian lands, their hostility to Moscow could be guaranteed. Going from north to south, these were: Finland, an autonomous region that had been allowed to secede by Lenin; three new little Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), for which there was no historical precedent; Poland, restored to independent statehood after 120 years, and an enormously enlarged Rumania, its size doubled by accessions from the Hungarian and Austrian parts of the Habsburg empire and ex-Russian Bessarabia. Most of these territories had actually been detached from Russia by Germany and, but for the Bolshevik Revolution, would certainly have been returned to that state. The attempt to continue this isolation belt into the Caucasus, failed, essentially because revolutionary Russia came to terms with non-communist but revolutionary Turkey, which had no fondness for the British and French imperialists. Hence the briefly independent Armenian and Georgian states, set up after Brest Litowsk, and attempts under the British to detach oil-rich Azerbaijan, did not survive the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War of 1918–20 and the Soviet-Turkish treaty of 1921. In short, in the East the Allies accepted the frontiers imposed by Germany on revolutionary Russia, insofar as these were not made inoperative by forces beyond their control.
This still left large parts, mainly of formerly Austro-Hungarian Europe, to be re-mapped. Austria and Hungary were reduced to German and Magyar rumps, Serbia was expanded into a large new Yugoslavia by a merger with the (formerly Austrian) Slovenia and the (formerly Hungarian) Croatia, as well as with the formerly independent small tribal kingdom of herdsmen and raiders, Montenegro, a bleak mass of mountains whose inhabitants reacted to the unprecedented loss of independence by converting en masse to communism, which, they felt, appreciated the heroic virtue. It was also associated with orthodox Russia, whose faith the unconquered men of the Black Mountain had defended against the Turkish unbelievers for so many centuries. A new Czechoslovakia was also formed by joining the former industrial core of the Habsburg empire, the Czech lands, to the areas of Slovak and Ruthenian country people once belonging to Hungary. Rumania was enlarged into a multinational conglomerate, while Poland and Italy also benefited. There was absolutely no historical precedent for or logic in the Yugoslav and Czechoslovak combinations, which were constructs of a nationalist ideology which believed in both the force of common ethnicity and the undesirability of excessively small nation-states. All the southern Slavs (= Yugoslavs) belonged to one state, as did the western Slavs of the Czech and Slovak lands. As might have been expected, these shotgun political marriages did not prove very firm. Incidentally, except for rump Austria and rump Hungary, shorn of most – but in practice not entirely of all – their minorities, the new succession states, whether carved out of Russia or the Habsburg Empire, were no less multinational than their predecessors.
It seemed obvious that the old world was doomed. The old society, the old economy, the old political systems had, as the Chinese phrase put it, ‘lost the mandate of heaven’. Humanity was waiting for an alternative. Such as alternative was familiar in 1914. Socialist parties, resting on the support of the expanding working classes of their countries and inspired by a belief in the historic inevitability of their victory, represented this alternative in most countries of Europe …. It looked as though only a signal was needed for the peoples to rise, to replace capitalism by socialism, and thus to transform the meaningless sufferings of world war into something more positive: the bloody birth-pains and convulsions of a new world. The Russian Revolution or, more precisely, the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, set out to give the world this signal. It therefore became an event as central to the history of this century as the French revolution of 1789 was to the nineteenth. Indeed, it is not an accident that the history of the Short Twentieth Century, as defined in this book, virtually coincides with the lifetime of the state born of the October revolution.
However, the October revolution had far more profound and global repercussions than its ancestor. For, if the ideas of the French revolution have, as is now evident, outlasted Bolshevism, the practical consequences of 1917 were far greater and more lasting than those of 1789. The October revolution produced by far the most formidable organized revolutionary movement in modern history. Its global expansion has no parallel since the conquests of Islam in its first century. A mere thirty to forty years after Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in Petrograd, one third of humanity found itself living under regimes directly derived from the ‘Ten Days That Shook the World
’ (Reed, 1919), and Lenin’s organizational model, the Communist Party. Most of them followed the USSR in a second wave of revolutions which emerged two-part revolution, although it naturally concentrates on the original and formative revolution of 1917 and the special house-style it imposed on its successors.
In any case, it largely dominated these from the second phase of the long world war of 1914–45.
The world revolution, which justified Lenin’s decision to commit Russia to socialism, did not take place, and with it Soviet Russia was committed to a generation of impoverished and backward isolation. The options for its future development were determined, or at least narrowly circumscribed …. Yet a wave of revolution swept across the globe in the two years after October, and the hopes of the embattled Bolsheviks did not seem unrealistic. ‘Völker hört die Signale’ (‘Peoples, hear the signals’) was the first line of the refrain of the Internationale in German. The signals came, loud and clear, from Petrograd and, after their capital had been transferred to a safer location in 1918, Moscow; they were heard wherever labour and socialist movements operated, irrespective of their ideology, and even beyond. ‘Soviets’ were formed by the tobacco workers in Cuba where few knew where Russia was. The years from 1917–19 in Spain came to be known as ‘the Bolshevik biennium’, though the local left was passionately anarchist, i.e. politically at the opposite pole from Lenin. Revolutionary student movements erupted in Peking (Beijing) in 1919 and Córdoba (Argentina) in 1918, soon to spread across Latin America and to generate local revolutionary Marxist leaders and parties. The Indian nationalist militant M.N. Roy immediately fell under its spell in Mexico, where the local revolution, entering its most radical phase in 1917, naturally recognized its affinity with revolutionary Russia: Marx and Lenin became its icons, together with Moctezuma, Emiliano Zapata and assorted labouring Indians, and can still be seen on the great murals of its official artists. Within a few months Roy was in Moscow to play a major role in forming the new Communist International’s policy for colonial liberation. Partly through resident Dutch socialists like Henk Sneevliet, the October revolution immediately made its mark on the Indonesian national liberation movement’s main mass organization, Sarekat Islam. ‘This action of the Russian people’, wrote a provincial Turkish paper, ‘someday in the future will turn into a sun and illuminate all humanity’. In the distant interior of Australia, tough (and largely Irish Catholic) sheep–shearers, with no discernible interest in political theory, cheered the Soviets as a workers’ state. In the USA the Finns, long the most strongly socialist of immigrant communities, converted to communism en masse, filling the bleak mining settlements of Minnesota with meetings ‘where the mentioning of the name of Lenin made the heart throb In mystic silence, almost in religious ecstasy, did we admire everything that came from Russia’ (Koivisto, 1983). In short, the October revolution was universally recognized as a world-shaking event.
Unemployment was conceived, not surprisingly, as a deep and potentially mortal wound in the body politic. ‘Next to war’ wrote an editorialist in the London Times in the middle of the Second World War, ‘unemployment has been the most widespread, the most insidious, and the most corroding malady of our generation: it is the specific social disease of Western civilization in our time’ …. Never before in the history of industrialization could such a passage have been written. It explains more about post-war Western governments’ policies than prolonged archival researches.
Curiously enough, the sense of catastrophe and disorientation caused by the Great Slump was perhaps greater among businessmen, economists and politicians than among the masses. Mass unemployment, the collapse of agrarian prices, hit them hard, but they had no doubt that some political solution for these unexpected injustices was available – on the left or on the right – in so far as poor people could ever expect their modest needs to be satisfied. It was precisely the absence of any solutions within the framework of the old liberal economy that made the predicament of the economic decision-makers so dramatic. To meet immediate, short-term crises, they had, as they saw it, to undermine the long-term basis of a flourishing world economy. At a time when world trade fell by 60 per cent in four years (1929–32), states found themselves building increasingly high barriers to protect their national markets and currencies against the world economic hurricanes, knowing quite well that this meant the dismantling of the world system of multilateral trade on which, they believed, world prosperity must rest. The keystone of such a system, the so–called ‘most favoured nation status’ disappeared from almost 60 per cent of 510 commercial agreements signed between 1931 and 1939 and, where it remained, it was usually in a limited form …. Where would it end? Was there an exit from the vicious circle?
…. However, its most significant long-term implication must be mentioned immediately. In a single sentence: the Great Slump destroyed economic liberalism for half a century. In 1931–32 Britain, Canada, all of Scandinavia and the USA abandoned the gold standard, always regarded as the foundation of stable international exchanges and by 1936 they had been joined even by those impassioned believers in bullion, the Belgians and Dutch, and finally the very French. Almost symbolically, Great Britain in 1931 abandoned Free Trade, which had been as central to the British economic identity since the 1840s as the American Constitution is to US political identity. Britain’s retreat from the principles of free transactions in a single world economy dramatises the general rush into national self-protection at the time. More specifically, the Great Slump forced Western governments to give social considerations priority over economic ones in their state policies. The dangers of failing to do so – radicalization of the Left and, as Germany and other countries now proved, of the Right – were too menacing.
So governments no longer protected agriculture simply by tariffs against foreign competition, though, where they had done so before, they raised tariff barriers even higher. During the Depression they took to subsidising it by guaranteeing farm prices, buying up surpluses or paying farmers not to produce, as in the USA after 1933. The origins of the bizarre paradoxes of the European Community’s ‘Common Agricultural Policy’, through which in the 1970s and 1980s increasingly exiguous minorities of farmers threatened to bankrupt the Community through the subsidies they enjoyed, go back to the Great Slump.
As for the workers, after the war ‘full employment’, i.e. the elimination of mass unemployment, became the keystone of economic policy in the countries of a reformed democratic capitalism, whose most celebrated prophet and pioneer, though not the only one, was the British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946). The Keynesian argument for the benefits of eliminating permanent mass unemployment was economic as well as political. Keynesians held, correctly, that the demand which the incomes of fully employed workers must generate, would have the most stimulating effect on depressed economies. Nevertheless, the reason why this means of increasing demand was given such urgent priority – the British government committed itself to it even before the end of the Second World War – was that mass unemployment was believed to be politically and socially explosive, as indeed it had proved to be in the Slump. This belief was so powerful that, when many years later mass unemployment returned, and especially during the serious depression of the early 1980s, observers (including the present author) confidently expected social unrest to occur, and were surprised when it did not ….
This was, of course, largely due to another prophylactic measure taken during, after and as a consequence of the Great Slump: the installation of modern welfare systems. Who can be surprised that the US passed its Social Security Act in 1935? We have become so used to the universal prevalence of ambitious welfare systems in developed states of industrial capitalism – with some exceptions, such as Japan, Switzerland and the USA – that we forget how few ‘welfare states’ in the modern sense there were before the Second World War. Even the Scandinavian countries were only just beginning to develop them. Indeed, the very term welfare state did not come into use before the 1940s.
The trauma of the Great Slump was underlined by the fact that the one country that had clamorously broken with capitalism appeared to be immune to it: the Soviet Union. While the rest of the world, or at least liberal Western capitalism, stagnated, the USSR was engaged in massive ultra-rapid industrialization under its new Five Year Plans. From 1929 to 1940 Soviet industrial production tripled, at the very least. It rose from 5 per cent of the world’s manufactured products in 1929 to 18 per cent in 1938, while during the same period the joint share of the USA, Britain and France, fell from 59 per cent to 52 per cent of the world’s total. What was more, there was no unemployment. These achievements impressed foreign observers of all ideologies, including a small but influential flow of socio-economic tourists to Moscow in 1930–35, more than the visible primitiveness and inefficiency of the Soviet economy, or the ruthlessness and brutality of Stalin’s collectivisation and mass repression. For what they were trying to come to terms with was not the actual phenomenon of the USSR but the breakdown of their own economic system, the depth of the failure of Western capitalism. What was the secret of the Soviet system? Could anything be learned from it? Echoing Russia’s Five Year Plans, ‘Plan’ and ‘Planning’ became buzz-words in politics. Social Democratic parties adopted ‘plans’, as in Belgium and Norway. Sir Arthur Salter, a British civil servant of the utmost distinction and respectability, and a pillar of the Establishment, wrote a book, Recovery
to demonstrate that a planned society was essential, if the country and the world were to escape from the vicious cycle of the Great Slump. Other British middle-of-the-road civil servants and functionaries set up a nonpartisan think-tank called PEP (Political and Economic Planning). Young Conservative politicians like the future prime minister Harold Macmillan (1894–1986) made themselves spokesmen for ‘planning’. Even the very Nazis plagiarized the idea, as Hitler introduced a ‘Four Year Plan’ in 1933.
Why did the capitalist economy between the wars fail to work? The situation of the USA is a central part of any answer to this question. For if the disruptions of war and post-war Europe, or at least the belligerent countries of Europe, could be made at least partly responsible for the economic troubles there, the USA had been far away from the war, though briefly, if decisively, involved in it. So far from disrupting its economy, the First World War I, like the Second World War, benefited it spectacularly. By 1913 the USA had already become the largest economy in the world, producing over one third of its industrial output – just under the combined total for Germany, Great Britain and France. In 1929 it produced over 42 per cent of the total world output, as against just under 28 per cent for the three European industrial powers. … This is a truly astonishing figure. Concretely, while US steel production rose by about one quarter between 1913 and 1920, steel production in the rest of the world fell by about one third. … In short, after the end of the first World War the USA was in many ways as internationally dominant an economy as it once again became after the Second World War. It was the Great Slump which temporarily interrupted this ascendancy.
Moreover, the war had not only reinforced its position as the world’s greatest industrial producer, but turned it into the world’s greatest creditor. The British had lost about a quarter of their global investments during the war, mainly those in the USA, which they had to sell to buy war supplies; the French lost about half of theirs, mainly through revolution and breakdown in Europe. Meanwhile the Americans, who had begun the war as a debtor country, ended it as the main international lender. Since the USA concentrated its operations in Europe and the western hemisphere (the British were still by far the biggest investors in Asia and Africa) their impact on Europe was decisive.
In short, there is no explanation of the world economic crisis without the USA. It was, after all, both the premier exporting nation of the world in the 1920s and, after Great Britain, the premier importing nation. As for raw materials and foodstuffs, it imported almost 40 per cent of all the imports of the fifteen most commercial nations, a fact which goes a long way to explaining the disastrous impact of the slump on the producers of commodities like wheat, cotton, sugar, rubber, silk, copper, tin and coffee …. By the same token, it was to become the principal victim of the Slump. If its imports fell by 70 per cent between 1929 and 1932, its exports fell at the same rate. World trade dipped by less than a third from 1929 to 1939, but US exports crashed by almost half.
When the collapse came, it was of course all the more drastic in the USA because in fact a lagging expansion of demand had been beefed up by means of an enormous expansion of consumer credit. (Readers who remember the later 1980s may find themselves on familiar territory.) Banks, already hurt by the speculative real-estate boom which, with the usual help of self-deluding optimists and mushrooming financial crookery, had reached its peak some years before the Big Crash, loaded with bad debts, refused new housing loans or to refinance existing ones. This did not stop them from failing by the thousands, while (in 1933) nearly half of all US home mortgages were in default and a thousand properties a day were being foreclosed …. Automobile purchasers alone owed $1,400 million out of a total personal indebtedness of $6,500 million in short- and medium-term loans …. What made the economy so much more vulnerable to this credit boom was that customers did not use their loans to buy the traditional mass consumption goods which kept body and soul together, and were therefore pretty inelastic: food, clothing and the like. However poor one is, one can’t reduce one’s demand for groceries below a certain point; and that demand will not double if one’s income doubles. Instead they bought the durable consumer goods of the modern consumer society which the USA was even then pioneering. But the purchase of cars and houses could be readily postponed, and, in any case, they had and have a very high income elasticity of demand.
In short, political liberalism was in full retreat throughout the Age of Catastrophe, a retreat which accelerated sharply after Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor in 1933. Taking the world as a whole, there had been perhaps thirty-five or more constitutional and elected governments in 1920 (depending on where we situate some Latin American republics). Until 1938 there were perhaps seventeen such states, in 1944 perhaps twelve out of the global total of sixty-four. The world trend seemed clear.
It may be worth reminding ourselves that in this period the threat to liberal institutions came exclusively from the political right, for between 1945 and 1989 it was assumed, almost as a matter of course, that it came essentially from communism. Until then the term ‘totalitarianism’, originally invented as a description or self-description of Italian Fascism, was applied virtually only to such regimes. Soviet Russia (from 1922: the USSR) was isolated and neither able nor, after the rise of Stalin, willing to extend communism. Social revolution under Leninist (or any) leadership ceased to spread after the initial post-war wave had ebbed. The (Marxist) social-democratic movements had turned into state-sustaining rather than subversive forces, and their commitment to democracy was unquestioned. In most countries’ labour movements communists were minorities, and where they were strong, in most cases they were, or had been, or were about to be, suppressed. The fear of social revolution, and the communists’ role in it, was realistic enough, as the second wave of revolution during and after the Second World War proved, but in the twenty years of liberal retreat not a single regime that could be reasonably called liberal-democratic had been overthrown from the left. . . The danger came exclusively from the Right. And that Right represented not merely a threat to constitutional and representative government, but an ideological threat to liberal civilization as such, and a potentially world-wide movement, for which the label ‘fascism’ is both insufficient and not wholly irrelevant. It is insufficient, because by no means all the forces overthrowing liberal regimes were fascist. It is relevant, because fascism, first in its original Italian form, later in its German form of National Socialism, both inspired other anti-liberal forces, supported them and lent the international Right a sense of historic confidence: in the 1930s it looked like the wave of the future. As has been said, by an expert in the field: ‘It is no accident that . . . the eastern European royal dictators, bureaucrats, and officers, and Franco (in Spain) should have mimicked fascism.’
The major difference between the fascist and the non-fascist Right was that fascism existed by mobilizing masses from below. It belonged essentially to the era of democratic and popular politics which traditional reactionaries deplored and which the champions of the ‘organic state’ tried to by-pass. Fascism gloried in the mobilization of masses, and maintained it symbolically in the form of public theatre – the Nuremberg rallies, the masses on the Piazza Venezia looking up to Mussolini’s gestures on his balcony – even when it came to power; as also did Communist movements. Fascists were the revolutionaries of counter-revolution: in their rhetoric, in their appeal to those who considered themselves victims of society, in their call for a total transformation of society, even in their deliberate adaptation of the symbols and names of the social revolutionaries, which is so obvious in Hitler’s ‘National Socialist Workers Party’ with its (modified) red flag and its immediate institution of the Reds’ First of May as an official holiday in 1933.
Similarly, though fascism also specialized in the rhetoric of return to the traditional past, and received much support from classes of people who would genuinely have preferred to wipe out the past century if they could, it was in no real sense a traditionalist movement like, say, the Carlists of Navarra, who formed one of the main bodies of Franco’s support in the Civil War or Gandhi’s campaigns for a return to handlooms and village ideals. It stressed many traditional values, which is another matter. They denounced liberal emancipation – women should stay at home and bear a great many children – and they distrusted the corroding influence of modern culture, and especially of the modernist arts, which the German National Socialists described as ‘cultural bolshevism’ and degenerate. Yet the central fascist movements – the Italian and the German – did not appeal to those historic guardians of the conservative order, Church and King, but on the contrary sought to supplant them by an entirely non-traditional leadership principle embodied in self-made men legitimized by their mass support, and by secular ideologies, and sometimes cults.
The past to which they appealed was an artefact. Their traditions were invented. Even Hitler’s racism was not the pride in an unbroken and unmixed line of kinship descent which provides genealogists with commissions from Americans who hope to prove their descent from some sixteenth-century Suffolk yeoman, but a late nineteenth-century post-Darwinian farrago claiming (and, alas, in Germany often receiving) the support of the new science of genetics, or more precisely of that branch of applied genetics (‘eugenics’) which dreamed of creating a human super-race by selective breeding and the elimination of the unfit. The race destined through Hitler to dominate the world did not even have a name until 1898 when an anthropologist coined the term ‘Nordic’. Hostile as it was on principle to the heritage of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the French revolution, fascism could not formally believe in modernity and progress, but it had no difficulty in combining a lunatic set of beliefs with technological modernity in practical matters, except where it crippled its basic scientific research on ideological grounds…. Fascism was triumphantly anti-liberal. It also provided the proof that men can, without difficulty, combine crack-brained beliefs about the world with a confident mastery of contemporary high technology. The late twentieth century, with its fundamentalist sects wielding the weapons of television and computer-programmed fund-raising, have made us more familiar with this phenomenon.
Would fascism have become very significant in world history but for the Great Slump? Probably not. Italy alone was not a promising base from which to shake the world. In the 1920s no other European movement of radical Right counter-revolution looked as though it had much of a future, for much the same reason as insurrectionary attempts at communist social revolution failed: the post-1917 revolutionary wave had ebbed, and the economy seemed to recover. In Germany the pillars of imperial society, generals, civil servants and the rest, had indeed given some backing to the free-lance paramilitaries and other wild men of the Right after the November revolution, though (understandably) putting their main effort in keeping the new republic conservative, anti-revolutionary and, above all, a state capable of maintaining some international room for manoeuvre. However, when forced to choose, as during the Right-wing Kapp Putsch of 1920 and the Munich revolt of 1923, in which Adolf Hitler first found himself in the headlines, they unhesitatingly backed the status quo. After the economic upturn of 1924, the National Social Workers’ Party was reduced to a rump of 2.5–3 per cent of the electorate, scoring little more than half of even the small and civilised German Democratic Party, little more than a fifth of the communists and well under a tenth of the Social Democrats in the elections of 1928. Yet two years later it had risen to over 18 per cent of the electorate, the second-strongest party in German politics. Four years later, in the summer of 1932, it was by far the strongest, with over 37 per cent of the total vote, though it did not maintain this support while democratic elections lasted. It was patently the Great Slump which turned Hitler from a phenomenon of the political fringe into the potential, and eventually the actual, master of the country.
Why did liberalism recede between the wars, even in states which did not accept fascism? Western radicals, socialists and communists who lived through this period were inclined to see the era of global crisis as the final agony of the capitalist system. Capitalism, they argued, could no longer afford the luxury of ruling through parliamentary democracy, and under liberal freedoms, which, incidentally, had provided the power-base for moderate, reformist labour movements. Faced with insoluble economic problems and/or an increasingly revolutionary working class, the bourgeoisie now had to fall back on force and coercion, that is to say, on something like fascism.
As both capitalism and liberal democracy were to make a triumphant comeback in 1945, it is easy to forget that there was a core of truth in this view, as well as rather too much agitational rhetoric. Democratic systems do not work unless there is a basic consensus among most citizens about the acceptability of their state and social system, or at least a readiness to bargain for compromise settlements. This, in turn, is much facilitated by prosperity. In most of Europe these conditions were simply not present between 1918 and the Second World War. Social cataclysm seemed to be impending or had happened. The fear of revolution was such that over most of eastern and south-eastern Europe as well as part of the Mediterranean, communist parties were barely ever allowed to emerge from illegality. The unbridgeable gap between the ideological Right and even the moderate Left wrecked Austrian democracy in 1930–34, though it has flourished in that country since 1945 under exactly the same two-party system of Catholics and Socialists …. Spanish democracy broke under the same tensions in the 1930s. The contrast with the negotiated transition from the Franco dictatorship to a pluralist democracy in the 1970s is dramatic.
What chances of stability there were in such regimes could not survive the Great Depression. The Weimar Republic fell largely because the Great Slump made it impossible to keep the tacit bargain between state, employers and organized workers, which had kept it afloat. Industry and government felt they had no choice but to impose economic and social cuts and mass unemployment did the rest. In mid-1932 National Socialists and communists between them polled an absolute majority of all German votes, and the parties committed to the Republic were reduced to little more than a third. Conversely, it it is undeniable that the stability of democratic regimes after the second World War, not least that of the new German Federal Republic, rested on the economic miracles of those decades …. Where governments have enough to distribute to satisfy all claimants, and most citizens’ standard of life is steadily rising in any case, the temperature of democratic politics rarely rises to fever-pitch. Compromise and consensus tended to prevail, as even the most impassioned believers in the overthrow of capitalism found the status quo less intolerable in practice than in theory, and even the most uncompromising champions of capitalism took social security systems and regular negotiations of wage rises and fringe benefits with labour unions for granted.
Yet, as the Great Slump itself showed, this is only part of the answer. A very similar situation – the refusal of the organized workers to accept Depression cuts – led to the collapse of parliamentary government and, eventually, to the nomination of Hitler as head of government in Germany, but in Britain merely to a sharp shift from a Labour to a (Conservative) ‘National Government’ within a stable and quite unshaken parliamentary system. The Depression did not automatically lead to the suspension or abolition of representative democracy, as is also evident from the political consequences in the USA (Roosevelt’s New Deal) and Scandinavia (the triumph of social democracy). Only in Latin America, where government finances depended, for the most part, on the exports of one or two primary products, whose price collapsed suddenly and dramatically …, did the Slump produce the almost immediate and automatic fall of whatever governments were in being, mainly by military coups. It should be added that political change in the opposite direction also took place then in Chile and Colombia.
At bottom liberal politics was vulnerable because its characteristic form of government, representative democracy, was rarely a convincing way of running states, and the conditions of the Age of Catastrophe rarely guaranteed the conditions that made it viable, let alone effective.
Nevertheless, the political dilemma of the Left cannot be used to explain the failure of governments, if only because effective preparations for war did not depend on resolutions passed (or not passed) at party congresses; or even, for a period of several years, on the fear of elections. Yet governments, and in particular the French and the British, had also been indelibly scarred by the Great War. France had emerged from it bled white, and still potentially a smaller and a weaker power than a defeated Germany. France was nothing without allies against a revived Germany, and the only European countries which had an equal interest in allying with France, Poland and the Habsburg succession states, were plainly too weak for the purpose. The French put their money on a line of fortifications (the ‘Maginot Line’, named after a soon-forgotten minister) which, they hoped, would deter the attacking Germans by the prospect of losses like those of Verdun …. Beyond this they could only look to Britain and, after 1933, the USSR.
The British governments were equally conscious of fundamental weakness. Financially they could not afford another war. Strategically, they no longer had a navy capable of simultaneously operating in the three great oceans and in the Mediterranean. At the same time, the problem that really worried them was not what happened in Europe, but how to hold together, with patently insufficient forces, a global empire geographically larger than ever before, but also and visibly on the verge of decomposition.
Both states thus knew themselves to be too weak to defend a status quo largely established in 1919 to suit them. Both also knew that this status quo was unstable, and impossible to maintain. Neither had anything to gain from another war, and plenty to lose. The obvious and logical policy was to negotiate with a revived Germany in order to establish a more durable European pattern, and this, beyond any doubt, meant making concessions to Germany's growing power. Unfortunately the revived Germany was Adolf Hitler’s.
The so-called policy of ‘appeasement’ has had such a bad press since 1939 that we must remember how sensible it seemed to so many Western politicians who were not viscerally anti-German or passionately anti-fascist on principle, and especially in Britain, where changes on the continental map, especially in ‘far-off countries of which we know little’ (Chamberlain on Czechoslovakia in 1938), did not raise the blood pressure. (The French were understandably far more nervous about any initiatives favouring Germany, which must sooner or later turn against themselves, but France was weak.) A Second World War, it could safely be predicted, would ruin the British economy, and disband large parts of the British Empire. Indeed, this is what happened. Though it was a price socialists, communists, colonial liberation movements and President F.D. Roosevelt were only too ready to pay for the defeat of fascism, let us not forget that it was excessive from the point of view of rational British imperialists.
Yet compromise and negotiation with Hitler’s Germany were impossible, because the policy objectives of National Socialism were irrational and unlimited. Expansion and aggression were built into the system and, short of accepting German domination in advance, i.e. choosing not to resist the Nazi advance, war was unavoidable, sooner rather than later. Hence the central role of ideology in the formation of policy in the 1930s: if it determined the aims of Nazi Germany, it excluded realpolitik for the other side. Those who recognized that there could be no compromise with Hitler, which was a realistic assessment of the situation, did so for entirely unpragmatic reasons. They regarded fascism as intolerable on principle and a priori, or (as in the case of Winston Churchill) they were driven by an equally a priori idea of what their country and empire ‘stood for’, and could not sacrifice. The paradox of Winston Churchill was that this great romantic, whose political judgment had been almost consistently wrong on every matter since 1914 – including the assessment of military strategy on which he prided himself – was realistic on the one question of Germany.
Conversely, the political realists of appeasement were entirely unrealistic in their assessment of the situation, even when the impossibility of a negotiated settlement with Hitler became obvious to any reasonable observer in 1938–39. This was the reason for the black tragicomedy of March–September 1939, which ended in a war nobody wanted at a time and in a place nobody wanted it (not even Germany), and which actually left Britain and France without any idea of what, as belligerents, they were supposed to do, until the blitzkrieg of 1940 swept them aside. In the face of the evidence they themselves accepted, the appeasers in Britain and France still could not bring themselves to negotiate seriously for an alliance with the USSR, without which war could neither be postponed nor won, and without which the guarantees against German attack suddenly and heedlessly scattered around Eastern Europe by Neville Chamberlain – without, incredible as it may seem, consulting or even adequately informing the USSR – were waste paper. London and Paris did not want to fight, but at most to deter by a show of strength. This did not look plausible for a moment to Hitler, or for that matter to Stalin, whose negotiators asked vainly for proposals for joint strategic operations in the Baltic. Even as the German armies marched into Poland, Neville Chamberlain's government was still prepared to do a deal with Hitler, as Hitler had calculated he would ….
Hitler miscalculated, and the Western states declared war, not because their statesmen wanted it, but because Hitler’s own policy after Munich cut the ground from under the appeasers’ feet. It was he who mobilized the hitherto uncommitted masses against fascism. Essentially the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 converted British public opinion to resistance, and in doing so forced the hand of a reluctant government; which in turn forced the hand of a French government that had no other option except to go along with its only effective ally. For the first time the fight against Hitler Germany united rather than divided the British, but – as yet – to no purpose. As the Germans quickly and ruthlessly destroyed Poland, and partitioned its remains with Stalin, who retreated into a doomed neutrality, a ‘phony war’ succeeded an implausible peace in the West.
No kind of realpolitik can explain the appeasers’ policy after Munich. Once a war seemed sufficiently likely – and who in 1939 doubted this? – the only thing to do was to prepare for it as effectively as possible, and this was not done. For Britain, even Chamberlain’s Britain, was certainly not prepared to accept a Hitler-dominated Europe before it happened, even if after the collapse of France there was some serious support for a negotiated peace i.e. for accepting defeat. Even in France, where pessimism verging on defeatism was far more common among politicians and military men, the government did not intend to give up the ghost, or do so, until the army had collapsed in June 1940. Their policy was half-hearted, because they neither dared follow the logic of power-politics, nor the a priori convictions of resisters, to whom nothing could be more important than fighting fascism (as fascism or as Hitler Germany) or those of anti-communists, to whom ‘Hitler’s defeat would mean the collapse of the authoritarian systems which constitute the principle rampart against communist revolution’ …. It is not easy to say what determined these statesmen’s actions, since they were moved not only by intellect, but by prejudices, preconceptions, hopes and fears which silently skewed their vision. There were the memories of the First World War and the self-doubt of politicians who saw their liberal democratic political systems and economies in what might well be final retreat; a state of mind more typical of the Continent than of Britain. There was the genuine uncertainty about whether, under such circumstances, the unpredictable results of a successful policy of resistance could justify the prohibitive costs that it might entail. For, after all, for most British and French politicians the best that could be achieved was to preserve a not very satisfactory and probably unsustainable status quo. And behind all this there was the question whether, if the status quo was doomed anyway, fascism was not better than the alternative, social revolution and Bolshevism. If the only kind of fascism on offer had been the Italian kind, few conservative or moderate politicians would have hesitated. Even Winston Churchill was pro-Italian.
The problem was, that they faced not Mussolini but Hitler. Still, it is not without significance that the main hope of so many governments and diplomats of the 1930s, was to stabilize Europe by coming to terms with Italy, or at least to detach Mussolini from the alliance with his disciple. It did not work, even though Mussolini himself was sufficiently realistic to keep some freedom of action until, in June 1940, he then concluded, mistakenly but not altogether unreasonably, that the Germans had won and declared war himself.
Except in their Balkan guerrilla strongholds, the communists made no attempt to establish revolutionary regimes. It is true that they were in no position to do so anywhere west of Trieste even had they wanted to make a bid for power, but also that the USSR, to which their parties were utterly loyal, strongly discouraged such unilateral bids for power. The communist revolutions actually made (Yugoslavia, Albania, later China) were made against Stalin’s advice. The Soviet view was that, both internationally and within each country, post-war politics should continue within the framework of the all-embracing anti-fascist alliance, i.e. it looked forward to a long-term coexistence, or rather symbiosis, of capitalist and communist systems, and further social and political change, presumably occurring by shifts within the ‘democracies of a new type’ which would emerge out of the wartime coalitions. This optimistic scenario soon disappeared into the night of Cold War, so completely that few remember that Stalin urged the Yugoslav communists to keep the monarchy or that in 1945 British communists were opposed to the break-up of the Churchill wartime coalition, i.e. to the electoral campaign which was to bring the Labour government to power. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Stalin meant all this seriously, and tried to prove it by dissolving the Comintern in 1943, and the Communist Party of the USA in 1944.
Stalin’s decision, expressed in the words of an American communist leader ‘that we will not raise the issue of socialism in such a form and manner as to endanger or weaken unity’ … made his intentions clear. For practical purposes, as dissident revolutionaries recognized, it was a permanent goodbye to world revolution. Socialism would be confined to the USSR and the area assigned by diplomatic negotiation as its zone of influence, i.e. basically that occupied by the Red Army at the end of the war. Even within that zone of influence it would remain an undefined prospect for the future rather than an immediate programme for the new ‘people’s democracies’. History, which takes little notice of policy intentions, went another way – except in one respect. The division of the globe, or a large part of it, into two zones of influence, negotiated in 1944–45, remained stable. Neither side overstepped the line dividing them more than momentarily for thirty years. Both withdrew from open confrontation, thus guaranteeing that cold world wars never became hot ones.
That the leaders and spokesmen for colonial liberation were, so often, minorities untypical of the population they set out to emancipate actually made convergence with anti-fascism easier, for the bulk of the colonial populations were moved, or at least mobilisable, by feelings and ideas to which (but for its commitment to racial superiority) fascism might have made some appeal: traditionalism; religious and ethnic exclusiveness; a suspicion of the modern world. In fact, these sentiments were not yet mobilized to any substantial extent or, if mobilized, they did not yet become politically dominant. Islamic mass mobilization did develop very strongly in the Moslem world between 1918 and 1945. Thus Hassan al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood (1928), a fundamentalist movement strongly hostile to liberalism and communism, became the main standard-bearer of Egyptian mass grievances in the 1940s, and its potential affinities with the Axis ideologies were more than tactical, especially given its hostility to Zionism. Yet the movements and politicians which actually came to the top in Islamic countries, sometimes carried on the backs of the fundamentalist masses, were secular and modernizing. The Egyptian colonels who were to make the revolution of 1952, were emancipated intellectuals, who had been in contact with the small Egyptian communist groups, whose leadership, incidentally, was largely Jewish (Perrault, 1987). On the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan (a child of the 1930s and 1940s) has been correctly described as ‘the program of secularized elites who were forced by the [territorial] disunity of the Muslim population and by competition with the Hindu majorities to call their political society ‘Islamic’ rather than nationally separatist …. In Syria the running was made by the Ba’ath Party, founded in the 1940s by two Paris-educated schoolteachers who, with all their Arab mysticism, were ideologically anti-imperialist and socialist. The Syrian constitution contains no mention of Islam. Iraqi politics (until the Gulf War of 1991) was determined by various combinations of nationalist officers, communists and Ba’athists, all devoted to Arab unity and socialism (at least in theory), but distinctly not to the Law of the Koran. Both for local reasons and because the Algerian revolutionary movement had a wide mass base (not least among the large emigration of labourers to France) there was a strong Islamic element in the Algerian revolution. However, the revolutionaries specifically agreed (in 1956) that ‘theirs was a struggle to destroy an anachronistic colonization but not a war of religion’ … and proposed to form a social and democratic republic, which became constitutionally a one-party socialist republic. Indeed, the period of anti-fascism is the only one in which actual communist parties acquired substantial support and influence within some parts of the Islamic world, notably in Syria, Iraq and Iran. It was only much later that the secular and modernizing voices of political leadership were drowned and silenced by the mass politics of fundamentalist revival…
In spite of their conflicts of interest, which were to re-emerge after the war, the anti-fascism of the developed Western countries and the anti-imperialism of their colonies found themselves converging towards what both envisaged as a post-war future of social transformation. The USSR and local communism helped to bridge the gap, since they meant anti-imperialism to one world, total commitment to victory to the other. However, unlike the European theatres of war, the non-European ones did not bring the communists major political triumphs, except in the special cases where (as in Europe) anti-fascism and national/social liberation coincided: in China and Korea, where the colonialists were the Japanese, and in Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos), where the immediate enemy of freedom remained the French, whose local administration had subordinated itself to the Japanese, when these overran South-east Asia. These were the countries where communism was destined to triumph in the post-war era, under Mao, Kim Il Sung and Ho Chi Minh. Elsewhere the leaders of the states about to be decolonised came from movements, generally of the Left, but less hampered in 1941–45 by the need to give the defeat of the Axis priority over all else. Still, even these could not but look at the world situation after the Axis defeat with some optimism. The two super-powers were no friends to the old colonialism, at least on paper. A known anti-colonialist party had come to power in the heart of the largest empire of all. The force and legitimacy of the old colonialism had been severely undermined. The chances for freedom seemed better than ever before. This proved to be the case, but not without some savage rearguard actions by the old empires.
In other respects common aspirations were not so remote from common reality. Western constitutional capitalism, communist systems and the third world were equally committed to equal rights for all races and both sexes, i.e. they all fell short of the common target, but not in ways that systematically distinguished one lot from another. They were all secular states. More to the point, after 1945 they were virtually all states which, deliberately and actively, rejected the supremacy of the market and believed in the active management and planning of the economy by the state. Difficult though it might be to recall in the age of neoliberal economic theology, between the early 1940s and the 1970s the most prestigious and formerly influential champions of complete market freedom, e.g. Friedrich von Hayek, saw themselves and their like as prophets in the wilderness vainly warning a heedless Western capitalism that it was rushing along the ‘Road to Serfdom
’ …. In fact, it was advancing into an era of economic miracles …. Capitalist governments were convinced that only economic interventionism could prevent a return to the economic catastrophes between the wars, and avoid the political dangers of people radicalized to the point of choosing communism, as they had once chosen Hitler. Third-world countries believed only public action could lift their economies out of backwardness and dependency. In the decolonised world, following the inspiration of the Soviet Union, they were to see the way forward as socialism. The Soviet Union and its newly extended family believed in nothing but central planning. And all three regions of the world advanced into the post-war world with the conviction that victory over the Axis, achieved by political mobilisation and revolutionary policies as well as by blood and iron, opened a new era of social transformation.
In a sense they were right. Never has the face of the globe and human life been so dramatically transformed as in the era which began under the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But as always history took only marginal notice of human intentions, even those of the national decision-makers. The real social transformation was neither intended nor planned. And in any case, the first contingency they had to face was the almost immediate breakdown of the great anti-fascist alliance. As soon as there was no longer a fascism to unite against, capitalism and communism once again got ready to face each other as one another’s mortal enemies.
The immediate post-war situation in many of the liberated and occupied countries seemed to undermine the situation of moderate politicians, with little to support them except the Western allies, and beset within and outside their governments by the communists, who emerged from the war everywhere far stronger than at any time in the past, and sometimes as the largest parties and electoral forces of their countries. The (socialist) premier of France came to Washington to warn that, without economic support, he was likely to fall to the communists. The terrible harvest of 1946, followed by the appalling winter of 1946–47, made both European politicians and American presidential advisers even more nervous.
Under the circumstances it is not surprising that the wartime alliance between the major capitalist and the socialist power now at the head of its own zone of influence should have broken down, as even less heterogeneous coalitions so often do at the end of wars. However, this is clearly not enough to explain why US policy – Washington’s allies and clients, with the possible exception of Britain, were considerably less overheated should have been based, at least in its public statements, on a nightmare scenario of the Muscovite super-power poised for the immediate conquest of the globe, and directing a godless ‘communist world conspiracy’ ever ready to overthrow the realms of freedom. It is even more inadequate to explain the campaign rhetoric of a J.F. Kennedy in 1960, at a time when what the British premier Harold Macmillan called ‘our modern free society – the new form of capitalism’ … could not conceivably have been said to be in any immediate trouble.
Why could the outlook of ‘the State Department professionals’ in the aftermath of the war be described as ‘apocalyptic’? … Why did even the calm British diplomat who rejected any comparison of the USSR with Nazi Germany then report from Moscow that the world was ‘now faced with the danger of a modern equivalent of the religious wars of the sixteenth century, in which Soviet communism will struggle with Western social democracy and the American version of capitalism for domination of the world’? … For it is now evident, and was reasonably probable even in 1945–47 that the USSR was neither expansionist – still less aggressive – nor counting on any further extension of the communist advance beyond what is assumed had been agreed at the summits of 1943—45. Indeed, where Moscow controlled its client regimes and communist movements, these were specifically committed to not building states on the model of the USSR, but mixed economies under multi-party parliamentary democracies, which were specifically distinguished from ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, and ‘still more’ of a single party. These were described in inner-party documents as ‘neither useful nor necessary’ … (The only communist regimes that refused to follow this line were those whose revolutions, actively discouraged by Stalin, escaped from Moscow’s control, e.g. Yugoslavia.) Moreover, though this has not been much noticed, the Soviet Union demobilized its troops – its major military asset – almost as fast as the USA, reducing the Red Army from a 1945 peak strength of almost twelve millions to three millions by late 1948 …
On any rational assessment, the USSR presented no immediate danger to anyone outside the reach of the Red Army’s occupation forces. It emerged from war in ruins, drained and exhausted, its peacetime economy in shreds, its government distrustful of a population much of which, outside Great Russia, had shown a distinct and understandable lack of commitment to the regime. On its western fringe, it continued to have trouble with Ukrainian and other nationalist guerrillas for some years. It was ruled by a dictator who had demonstrated that he was as risk-averse outside the territory he controlled directly as he was ruthless within it: J. V. Stalin … It needed all the economic aid it could get, and, therefore, had no short-term interest in antagonising the only power that could give it, the USA. No doubt Stalin, as a communist, believed that capitalism would inevitably be replaced by communism, and to this extent any coexistence of the two systems would not be permanent. However, Soviet planners did not see capitalism as such in crisis at the end of the Second World War. They had no doubt that it would continue for a long time under the hegemony of the USA, whose enormously increased wealth and power was only too obvious … That, in fact, is what the USSR suspected and was afraid of. Its basic posture after the war was not aggressive but defensive.
For the Soviet government, though it also demonized the global antagonist, did not have to bother about winning votes in Congress, or in presidential and congressional elections. The US government did. For both purposes an apocalyptic anti-communism was useful, and therefore tempting, even for politicians who were not sincerely convinced of their own rhetoric, or, like President Truman’s Secretary of State for the Navy, James Forrestal (1882–1949) clinically mad enough to commit suicide because he saw the Russians coming from his window in the hospital. An external enemy who threatened the USA was convenient for American governments which had concluded, correctly, that the USA was now a world power – in fact, the greatest world power by far – and which still saw ‘isolationism’ or a defensive protectionism as its major domestic obstacle. If America itself was not safe, then there could be no withdrawal from the responsibilities – and rewards – of world leadership, as after the First World War. More concretely, public hysteria made it easier for presidents to raise the vast sums required for American policy from a citizenry notorious for its disinclination to pay taxes. And anti-communism was genuinely and viscerally popular in a country built on individualism and private enterprise where the nation itself was defined in exclusively ideological terms (‘Americanism’) which could be virtually defined as the polar opposite of communism. (Nor should we forget the votes of immigrants from Sovietised Eastern Europe.) It was not the American government which initiated the squalid and irrational frenzy of the anti-Red witch-hunt, but otherwise insignificant demagogues – some of them, like the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy, not even particularly anti-communist – who discovered the political potential of wholesale denunciation of the enemy within. The bureaucratic potential had long since been discovered by J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972), the virtually irremoveable chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). What one of the main architects of the Cold War called ‘the attack of the Primitives’ … both facilitated and constrained Washington policy by pushing it to extremes, especially in the years following the victory of the communists in China, for which Moscow was naturally blamed.
At the same time the schizoid demand of the vote-sensitive politicians for a policy that should both roll back the tide of ‘communist aggression’, save money and interfere as little as possible with Americans’ comfort, committed Washington, and with it the rest of the alliance, not only to an essentially nuclear strategy of bombs rather than men, but to the ominous strategy of ‘massive retaliation’, announced in 1954. The potential aggressor was to be threatened with nuclear weapons even in the case of a limited conventional attack. In short, the USA found itself committed to an aggressive stance, with minimal tactical flexibility.
Both sides thus found themselves committed to an insane arms race to mutual destruction, and to the sort of nuclear generals and nuclear intellectuals whose profession required them not to notice this insanity. Both also found themselves committed to what the retiring President Eisenhower, a moderate military man of the old school who found himself presiding over this descent into lunacy, without being quite infected by it, called ‘the military-industrial complex’, i.e. the increasingly vast agglomeration of men and resources which lived by the preparation of war. It was a larger vested interest than ever before in times of stable peace between the powers. As might be expected, both military-industrial complexes were encouraged by their governments to use their excess capacity to attract and arm allies and clients, and, not least, to win profitable export markets, while keeping their most up-to-date armaments to themselves; and, of course, their nuclear weapons. For in practice the superpowers retained their nuclear monopoly. The British acquired bombs of their own in 1952, ironically with the object of lessening their dependence on the USA; the French (whose nuclear arsenal was actually independent of the USA) and the Chinese in the 1960s. While the Cold War lasted, none of these counted. In the course of the 1970s and 1980s some other countries acquired the capacity to make nuclear weapons, notably Israel, South Africa, and probably India, but such nuclear proliferation did not become a serious international problem until after the end of the bi-polar superpower world order in 1989.
So who was responsible for the Cold War? Since the debate on this question was for long an ideological tennis-match between those who put the blame exclusively on the USSR and the (mainly, it must be said, American) dissidents who said it was primarily the fault of the USA, it is tempting to join the historical mediators who put it down to mutual fear escalating from confrontation until the two ‘armed camps began to mobilize under their two opposing banners’ … This is plainly true, but it is not the whole truth. It explains what has been called the ‘congealing’ of the fronts in 1947–49; the step-by-step partition of Germany, from 1947 to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961; the failure of the anti-communists on the Western side to avoid complete involvement in the US-dominated military alliance (except for General de Gaulle in France); and the failure of those on the Eastern side of the divide to escape complete subordination to Moscow (except for Marshall Tito in Yugoslavia). But it does not explain the apocalyptic tone of the Cold War. That came from America. All Western European governments, with or without large communist parties, were without exception wholeheartedly anti-communist, and determined to protect themselves against possible Soviet military attack. None would have hesitated if asked to choose between the USA and the USSR, even those committed by history, policy or negotiation to neutrality. Yet the ‘communist world conspiracy’ was not a serious part of the domestic politics of any of those who had some claim to being political democracies, at least after the immediate post-war years. Among democratic countries it was only in the USA that presidents were elected (like John F. Kennedy in 1960) against communism, which in terms of domestic politics was as insignificant in that country as Buddhism in Ireland. If anyone put the crusading element into the realpolitik of international power confrontation, and kept it there, it was Washington. In fact, as the rhetoric of J. F. Kennedy’s electioneering demonstrates with the clarity of good oratory, the issue was not the academic threat of communist world domination, but the maintenance of a real US supremacy. It must, however, be added that the governments of the NATO alliance, though far from happy about American policy, were ready to accept American supremacy as the price of protection against the military power of an abhorrent political system, while that system continued in existence. They were as unprepared as Washington to trust the USSR. In short, ‘containment’ was everyone’s policy; the destruction of communism was not.
Some time in the early 1960s the Cold War appeared to move a few tentative steps in the direction of sanity. The dangerous years from 1947 to the dramatic events of the Korean War (1950–53) had passed without a world explosion. So had the seismic upheavals which shook the Soviet bloc after Stalin’s death (1953), especially in the middle fifties. So far from fighting off social crisis, the countries of western Europe began to notice that they were actually living through an era of unexpected and general prosperity, ... In the traditional jargon of old-style diplomats, slackening tension was ‘détente’. The word now became familiar.
It had first surfaced in the last years of the 1950s, when N.S. Khrushchev established his supremacy in the USSR after post-Stalinist alarums and excursions (1958–64). This admirable rough diamond, a believer in reform and peaceful coexistence, who incidentally emptied Stalin’s concentration camps, dominated the international scene in the next few years. He was also perhaps the only peasant boy ever to rule a major state. However, détente had first to survive what looked like an unusually tense spell of confrontations between Khrushchev's taste for bluff and impulsive decisions and the gesture politics of John F. Kennedy (1960–63), the most overrated US president of the century. The two superpowers were thus led by two high-risk operators at a time when – it is hard to recall – the capitalist West felt itself to be losing ground to the communist economies, which had grown faster than its own in the 1950s. Had they not just demonstrated a (short-lived) technological superiority to the USA by the dramatic triumph of Soviet satellites and cosmonauts? Moreover, had not – to everyone’s surprise – communism just triumphed in Cuba, a country only a few dozen miles from Florida? …
Conversely, the USSR was worried not only by Washington’s ambiguous, but often only too bellicose rhetoric, but by the fundamental rupture with China, which now accused Moscow of going soft on capitalism, thus forcing the pacifically-minded Khrushchev into a more uncompromising public stance towards the West. At the same time the sudden acceleration of decolonisation and Third World revolution … seemed to favour the Soviets. A nervous but confident USA thus confronted a confident but nervous USSR over Berlin, over the Congo, over Cuba.
The policy of Ronald Reagan, elected to the presidency in 1980, can be understood only as an attempt to wipe out the stain of felt humiliation by demonstrating the unchallengeable supremacy and invulnerability of the USA, if need be by gestures of military power against sitting targets, like the invasion of the small Caribbean island of Grenada (1983), the massive naval and air attack on Libya (1986) and the even more massive and pointless invasion of Panama (1989). Reagan, perhaps just because he was a run-of-the-mill Hollywood actor, understood the mood of his people and the depth of the wounds to its self-esteem. In the end the trauma was only healed by the final, unpredicted and unexpected collapse of the great antagonist, which left the USA alone as a global power. Even then, we may detect in the Gulf War of 1991 against Iraq a belated compensation for the awful moments in 1973 and 1979 when the greatest power on the earth could find no response to a consortium of feeble Third World states which threatened to strangle its oil supplies.
The crusade against the ‘Evil Empire’ to which – at least in public – President Reagan’s government devoted its energies, was thus designed as therapy for the USA rather than as a practical attempt to re-establish the world power balance. This had, in fact, been done quietly in the later 1970s, when NATO – under a Democratic US president and Social-Democratic Labour governments in Germany and Britain – had begun its own rearmament, and the new Left-wing states in Africa had been kept in check from the beginning by US-backed movements or states, fairly successfully in Central and southern Africa, where the US could act together with the formidable apartheid
regime of the Republic of South Africa, less so in the Horn of Africa. (In both areas the Russians had the invaluable assistance of expeditionary forces from Cuba, testifying to Fidel Castro’s commitment to Third World revolution as well as to his alliance with the USSR.) The Reaganite contribution to the Cold War was of a different kind.
It was not so much practical as ideological – part of the Western reaction to the troubles of the era of troubles and uncertainties into which the world had seemed to drift after the end of the Golden Age … A lengthy period of centrist and moderately social-democratic rule ended, as the economic and social policies of the Golden Age seemed to fail. Governments of the ideological right, committed to an extreme form of business egoism and laissez-faire
, came to power in several countries around 1980. Among these Reagan and the confident and formidable Mrs Thatcher in Britain (1979—90) were the most prominent. For this new Right the state-sponsored welfare capitalism of the 1950s and 1960s, no longer buttressed, since 1973, by economic success, had always looked like a sub-variety of that socialism (‘the road to serfdom
’, as the economist and ideologue von Hayek called it) of which they saw the USSR as the logical end-product. The Reaganite Cold War was directed not only against the ‘evil empire’ abroad, but against the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt at home: against the Welfare State as well as any other intrusive state. Its enemy was liberalism (the ‘L-word’ used to good effect in presidential election campaigns) as much as communism.
Since the USSR was to collapse just after the end of the Reagan era, American publicists were naturally to claim that it had been overthrown by a militant campaign to break and destroy it. The USA had waged and won the Cold War and utterly defeated its enemy. We need not take this crusaders’ version of the 1980s seriously. There is no sign that the US government expected or envisaged the impending collapse of the USSR or was in any way prepared for it when it happened. While it certainly hoped to put the Soviet economy under pressure, it was informed (mistakenly) by its own intelligence that it was in good shape and capable of sustaining the arms race with the USA. In the early 1980s the USSR was still seen (also mistakenly) as engaged on a confident global offensive. In fact, President Reagan himself, whatever the rhetoric put before him by his speech writers, and whatever went on in his not always lucid mind, actually believed in the coexistence of the USA and the USSR, but one which should not be based on an abhorrent balance of mutual nuclear terror. What he dreamed of was a world entirely without nuclear arms. And so, as became clear at their strange and excited summit meeting in the sub-arctic gloom of autumnal Iceland in 1986, did the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.
The Cold War ended when one or both the superpowers recognized the sinister absurdity of the nuclear arms race, and when one or both accepted the other’s sincerity in wishing to end it. It was probably easier for a Soviet leader to take this initiative than for an American, because the Cold War had never been seen by Moscow in the crusading terms common in Washington, perhaps because an excited public opinion did not have to be considered. On the other hand, just for this reason, it would be harder for a Soviet leader to convince the West that he meant business. That is why the world owes so enormous a debt to Mikhail Gorbachev, who not only took this initiative but succeeded, singlehanded, in convincing the US government and others in the West that he meant what he said. However, let us not underestimate the contribution of President Reagan whose simple-minded idealism broke through the unusually dense screen of ideologists, fanatics, careerists, desperados and professional warriors around him to let himself be convinced. For practical purposes the Cold War ended at the two summits of Reykjavik (1986) and Washington (1987).
The newly extended field of publicly acceptable behaviour, including the sexual, probably increased experimentation and the frequency of behaviour hitherto considered unacceptable or deviant, and certainly increased its visibility. Thus in the U.S.A. the public emergence of an openly practised homosexual subculture, even in the two trend-setting cities of San Francisco and New York, which influenced one another, did not occur until well into the 1960s, its emergence as a political pressure group in these two cities not until the 1970s. However, the major significance of these changes was that, implicitly or explicitly, they rejected the long-established and historical ordering of human relations in society, which the social conventions and prohibitions expressed, sanctioned and symbolized.
What is even more significant is that this rejection was not in the name of some other pattern of ordering society, though the new libertarianism was given ideological justification by those who felt it needed such labels, but in the name of the unlimited autonomy of individual desire. It assumed a world of self-regarding individualism pushed to its limits. Paradoxically the rebels against the conventions and restrictions shared the assumptions on which mass consumer society was built, or at least the psychological motivations which those who sold consumers goods and services found most effective in selling them.
The world was now tacitly assumed to consist of several billion human beings defined by their pursuit of individual desire, including desires hitherto prohibited or frowned on, but now permitted—not because they had now become morally acceptable but because so many egos had them. Thus until the 1990s official liberalization stopped short of legalizing drugs. These continued to be prohibited with varying degrees of severity and a high degree of inefficacy. For from the later 1960s an enormous market for cocaine developed with great rapidity, primarily among the prosperous middle classes of North America and, a little later, western Europe. This, like the somewhat earlier and more plebeian growth in the market for heroin (also primarily North American) turned crime for the first time into genuinely big business …
The cultural revolution of the later twentieth century can thus best be understood as the triumph of the individual over society, or rather, the breaking of the threads which in the past had woven human beings into social textures. For such textures had consisted not only of the actual relations between human beings and their forms of organization but also of the general models of such relations and the expected patterns of people’s behaviour towards each other; their roles were prescribed, though not always written. Hence the often traumatic insecurity when older conventions of behaviour were either overturned or lost their rationale, or the incomprehension between those who felt this loss and those too young to have known anything but anomic society.
Thus a Brazilian anthropologist in the 1980s described the tension of a middle-class male, raised in his country’s Mediterranean culture of honour and shame, faced with the increasingly common contingency of a group of robbers who asked for his money and threatened to rape his girl-friend. Under such circumstances a gentleman had always been expected to defend the woman, if not the money, at the cost of his life; a lady, to prefer death to a fate proverbially ‘worse than death’. Yet in the reality of late twentieth century big cities it was unlikely that resistance would save either the woman’s ‘honour’ or the money. The rational policy in such circumstances was to yield, so as to prevent the aggressors from losing their tempers and committing real mayhem or even murder. As for female honour, traditionally defined as virginity before marriage and total marital fidelity thereafter, what exactly was being defended in the light of the assumptions about, and the realities of, sexual behaviour by both men and women which were current among the educated and emancipated in the 1980s? And yet, as the anthropologist’s enquiries showed, not surprisingly this did not make the predicament less traumatic. Less extreme situations could produce comparable insecurity and mental suffering – for instance ordinary sexual encounters. The alternative to an old convention, however unreasonable, might turn out to be not some new convention or rational behaviour, but no rules at all, or at least no consensus about what should be done.
Over most of the world the old social textures and conventions, though undermined by a quarter of a century of unparalleled social and economic transformation, were strained, but not yet in disintegration. This was fortunate for most of humanity, especially the poor, since the network of kin, community and neighbourhood was essential to economic survival and especially to success in a changing world. In much of the Third World it functioned as a combination of information service, labour exchange, a pool of labour and capital, a savings mechanism and a social security system. Indeed, without cohesive families the economic successes of some parts of the world – e.g. the Far East – are difficult to explain.
In the West, the decades of social revolution had created far greater havoc. The extremes of such breakdown are most easily visible in the public ideological discourse of the occidental fin de siècle, especially in the kind of public statements which, while laying no claim to analytical depth, were formulated in terms of widely held beliefs. One thinks of the argument, at one time common in some feminist circles, that women’s domestic work should be calculated (and where necessary, paid) at a market rate, or the justification of abortion reform in terms of an abstract and unlimited ‘right to choose’ of the individual (woman). The pervasive influence of neo-classical economics, which in secular Western societies increasingly took the place of theology, and (via the cultural hegemony of the USA) the influence of the ultra-individualist American jurisprudence, encouraged such rhetoric. It found political expression in the British premier Margaret Thatcher’s: ‘There is no society, only individuals.’
Yet, whatever the excesses of theory, practice was often equally extreme. Sometime in the 1970s, social reformers in the Anglo-Saxon countries, rightly shocked (as enquirers periodically were) by the effects of institutionalization on the mentally ill or impaired, successfully campaigned to have as many of them as possible let out of confinement ‘to be cared for in the community’. But in the cities of the West there no longer was a community to care for them. There was no kin. Nobody knew them. There were only the streets of cities like New York filled with homeless beggars with plastic bags who gestured and talked to themselves. If they were lucky or unlucky (it depended on the point of view) they eventually moved from the hospitals that had expelled them to the jails which, in the USA, became the main receptacle of the social problems of American society, especially its black part. In 1991 15 per cent of what was proportionately the largest prison population in the world – 426 prisoners per 100,000 population — were said to be mentally ill….
Yet just these non-economic group bonds and solidarities were now being undermined, as were the moral systems that went with them. These had also been older than modern bourgeois industrial society, but they had also been adapted to form an essential part of it. The old moral vocabulary of rights and duties, mutual obligations, sin and virtue, sacrifice, conscience, rewards and penalties, could no longer be translated into the new language of desired gratification. Once such practices and institutions were no longer accepted as part of a way of ordering society that linked people to each other and ensured social cooperation and reproduction, most of their capacity to structure human social life vanished. They were reduced simply to expressions of individuals’ preferences, and claims that the law should recognize the supremacy of these preferences. Uncertainty and unpredictability impended. Compass needles no longer had a North, maps became useless. This is what became increasingly evident in the most developed countries from the 1960s on. It found ideological expression in a variety of theories, from extreme free-market liberalism to ‘postmodernism’ and its like, which tried to sidestep the problem of judgment and values altogether, or rather to reduce them to the single denominator of the unrestricted freedom of the individual.
Initially, of course, the advantages of wholesale social liberalization had seemed enormous to all except ingrained reactionaries, and its costs minimal; nor did it seem to imply economic liberalization. The great tide of prosperity washing across the populations of the favoured regions of the world, reinforced by the increasingly comprehensive and generous public social security systems, appeared to remove the debris of social disintegration. Being a single parent (i.e. overwhelmingly a single mother) was still by far the best guarantee of a life of poverty, but in modern welfare states it also guaranteed a minimum of livelihood and shelter. Pensions, welfare services and, in the end, geriatric wards took care of the isolated old, whose sons and daughters could not, or no longer felt the obligation to, look after parents in their decline. It seemed natural to deal with other contingencies that had once been part of the family order in the same way, for instance by shifting the burden of caring for infants from mothers to public crèches and nurseries, as socialists, concerned with the needs of wage-earning mothers, had long demanded.
The poor parts of the native-born urban Negro population in the USA, that is to say, the majority of US Negroes, became the standard example of such an ‘underclass’, a body of citizens virtually extruded from official society, forming no real part of it or – in the case of many of its young males – of the labour market. Indeed, many of its young, especially the males, virtually considered themselves an outlaw society or anti-society. The phenomenon was not confined to people of any skin-colour. With the decline and fall of the labour-employing industries of the (nineteenth and early twentieth) century, such ‘underclasses’ began to appear in a number of countries. Yet in the housing projects built by socially responsible public authorities for all who could not afford market rents or house purchase, but now inhabited by ‘the underclass’, there was no community either, and little enough regular kin mutuality. Even ‘neighbourliness’, the last relic of community, could hardly survive the universal fear, generally of wild adolescent males, now increasingly armed, that stalked these Hobbesian jungles.
Only in those parts of the world that had not yet entered the universe where human beings lived side by side but not as social beings did community survive to some extent, and with it a social order, though, for most human beings, a desperately poor one. Who could talk of a minority ‘underclass’ in a country like Brazil where, in the mid-1980s, the top 20 per cent of the population received over 60 per cent of their country’s income while the bottom 40 per cent received 10 per cent or even less? …. It was generally a life of unequal status as well as income. Yet, for the most part, it still lacked the pervasive insecurity of urban life in the ‘developed’ societies, their old guides to behaviour dismantled, and replaced by an uncertain void. The sad paradox of the twentieth century fin de siècle was that, by all the measurable criteria of social well-being and stability, living in socially retrograde but traditionally structured Northern Ireland, unemployed and after twenty unbroken years of something like civil war, was better, and actually safer, than living in most of the great cities of the United Kingdom.
The drama of collapsed traditions and values lay not so much in the material disadvantages of doing without the social and personal services once supplied by family and community. These could be replaced in the prosperous welfare states, although not in the poor parts of the world, where the great majority of humanity still had little to rely on except kin, patronage and mutual aid …. It lay in the disintegration both of the old value systems and the customs and conventions which controlled human behaviour. This loss was felt. It was reflected in the rise of what came to be called (again in the USA where the phenomenon became noticeable from the end of the 1960s) ‘identity politics’, generally ethnic/national or religious, and of militantly nostalgic movements seeking to recover a hypothetical past age of unproblematic order and security. Such movements were cries for help rather than carriers of programmes – calls for some ‘community’ to belong to in an anomic world; some family to belong to in a world of social isolates; some refuge in the jungle. Every realistic observer and most governments knew that crime was not diminished or even controlled by executing criminals or by deterrence through long penal sentences, but every politician knew the enormous, emotionally loaded strength, rational or not, of the mass demand of ordinary citizens to punish the anti-social.
These were the political dangers of the fraying and snapping of the old social textures and value systems. However, as the 1980s advanced, generally under the banner of pure market sovereignty, it became increasingly obvious that it also constituted a danger to the triumphant capitalist economy.
For the capitalist system, even while built on the operations of the market, had relied on a number of proclivities which had no intrinsic connection with that pursuit of the individual’s advantage which, according to Adam Smith, fuelled its engine. It relied on ‘the habit of labour’, which Adam Smith assumed to be one of the fundamental motives of human behaviour, on the willingness of human beings to postpone immediate gratification for a long period, i.e. to save and invest for future rewards, on pride in achievement, on customs of mutual trust, and on other attitudes which were not implicit in the rational maximisation of anyone’s utilities. The family became an integral part of early capitalism because it supplied it with a number of these motivations. So did ‘the habit of labour’, the habits of obedience and loyalty, including the loyalty of executives to their firm, and other forms of behaviour which could not readily be fitted into rational choice theory based on maximisation. Capitalism could function in the absence of these, but, when it did, it became strange and problematic even for businessmen themselves. This happened during the fashion for piratical ‘take-overs’ of business corporations and other financial speculations which swept the financial districts of ultra-free-market states like the USA and Britain in the 1980s, and which virtually broke all links between the pursuit of profit and the economy as a system of production. That is why capitalist countries which had not forgotten that growth is not achieved by profit maximisation alone (Germany, Japan, France), made such raiding difficult or impossible.
Karl Polanyi, surveying the ruins of nineteenth-century civilization during the Second World War, pointed out how extraordinary and unprecedented were the assumptions on which it had been constructed: those of the self-regulating and universal system of markets. He argued that Adam Smith’s ‘propensity to barter, truck and exchange one thing for another’ had inspired ‘an industrial system . . . which practically and theoretically, implied that the human race was swayed in all its economic activities, if not also in its political, intellectual and spiritual pursuits, by that one particular propensity.’ … Yet Polanyi exaggerated the logic of capitalism in his time, just as Adam Smith had exaggerated the extent to which, taken by itself, the pursuit by all men of their economic advantage would automatically maximize the wealth of nations.
As we take for granted the air we breathe, and which makes possible all our activities, so capitalism took for granted the atmosphere in which it operated, and which it had inherited from the past. It only discovered how essential it had been, when the air became thin. In other words, capitalism had succeeded because it was not just capitalist. Profit maximization and accumulation were necessary conditions for its success but not sufficient ones. It was the cultural revolution of the last third of the century which began to erode the inherited historical assets of capitalism and to demonstrate the difficulties of operating without them. It was the historic irony of the neo-liberalism that became fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s, and looked down on the ruins of the communist regimes, that it triumphed at the very moment when it ceased to be as plausible as it had once seemed. The market claimed to triumph as its nakedness and inadequacy could no longer be concealed.
The main force of the cultural revolution was naturally felt in the urbanised ‘industrial market economies’ of the old capitalist heartlands. However, … the extraordinary economic and social forces released in later twentieth century also transformed what now came to be called the ‘Third World’.
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THE AGE OF EXTREMES is eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm's personal vision of the twentieth century. Remarkable in its scope, and breathtaking in its depth of knowledge, this immensely rewarding book reviews the uniquely destructive and creative nature of the troubled twentieth century and makes challenging predicitions for the future.
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History World history 1800- 1900-1999, 20th century
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