The Great Ascent
by Robert L. Heilbroner
Harper & Row, $4.00
We have here a superb primer—that is, the first book to read—on the dominant subject of the coming decades, if there are to be any. In polite circles and other careful places, the subject is referred to as foreign aid, the economic development of the underdeveloped countries, and so on. The subject is in candid fact an old and honorable one—world revolution. It appears that there is one, whether or not stimulated or led by the Communists, and whether we admit it or not. The news is shocking. Mr. Heilbroner is very persuasive in suggesting that it will shortly become more shocking, and then again get worse before it gets better—whatever we do by way of foreign aid, and that, he tells us, is not the road to heaven by way of Christian charity that we have thought it to be. I can think of a lot of people this tight little book would and should disturb. It pleased me immensely.
So we have an interminable if not permanent world revolution, viewed from the disad vantage point of the West—even farther West than usual, namely, general American attitudes. Slowly, carefully, without rancor, and without fumbling, Mr. Heilbroner lays it on the line: We are talking, he says, of “the first real act of world history.” The world’s misérables, about a billion and a half of them in the non-Communist areas, believe they can and should be developed out of their ageless misery; the thin Christian gift of Western medicine has made it immediately imperative that they develop faster than anyone ever has before, if only to forestall a drastic worsening of their condition; the basic barrier to development is neither technical nor even economic, but profoundly social. And breaching it must include, at the very least, administered revolutions directed against the traditional classes, especially peasants and landowners. The leadership and the conscious masses throughout the newly avid areas want a planned, directed development which they all have decided to call “socialism”—and they are right, because the early forms of exploitative capitalism are neither a true political nor economic alternative; they do not have our noble distaste for authoritarianism because they did not go to our schools—and hunger is a bad substitute teacher. In other words, the whole south and east of the planet has embarked on a quarter-century (at least) of the primitive accumulation of capital—that is, hard growth with benefits for the masses postponed. And this monumental disruption cannot possibly be easy or antiseptic for anyone in the world, including us. (Possibly no adult alive today will survive to the time of full fruition.)
The process which we call economic development is…a process through which the social, political, and economic institutions of the future are being shaped for the great majority of mankind. On the outcome of this enormous act will depend the character of the civilization of the world for many generations to come…
This human earthquake is more important historically even than the eventualities of the Soviet-American confrontation, since at best the latter can contributed constructively to the former, and at worst it will leave a partially destroyed planet as an heirloom to the “backward” nations.
The subject, you see, can be discussed endlessly. But Mr. Heilbroner’s little book does not summarize easily or well—which testifies to his achievement. If this book does not end up being the most widely read popular exposition of this biggest of all big issues, I will be very much interested in knowing the n why. Because Robert Heilbroner is very likely the most accomplished popular writer on his subject. He simplifies, without embarrassing us, and with extraordinary effect. I would imagine that he could be a superlative teacher—one who fulfills himself not by marching at the head of an intellectual parade—and certainly not by that evil kind of posturing before young minds which is so typical of teachers in our better schools—but by planting the right idea in the right mind, for that time and that place, and with loving husbandry.
He is not, for example, as strongly original on the development issue as W.W. Rostow; but he is almost alone with Galbraith in the effective prose of economics. (It is very significant that, in the examples of Veblen, Keynes, and Gailbraith, at least, so many of the better economists have been such cunning rhetoricians.) His style is based on balance and careful measured movement, rather than intensity; and very much unlike Veblen or Galbraith, he is humorless. But so much tender solicitude for the reader, such a serious eagerness to explain! A manuscript of his is typically punctuated with phrases like “And so we must set ourselves two questions to answer” and “Of that, more later”—lots of little summations and didactic questions, reminders of what’s been going on and indications of what’s to come. When he is failing, he tends to be pietistic or even incantatory. But he doesn’t fail that often. More people can read him than can Galbraith; he is very possibly, as I’ve said, our best popular educational writer.
I notice that I have remarked more on the literary issue raised by this book than on its substance. That is because the substance is so good that I have no argument with it, and the writing so well-woven that all I could do would be to snip off a piece here and there and mail it to you. For instance: he re-emphasizes the very important insight that, just by doing away with the fragmentation of peasant ownership, the same agricultural product could be created in many areas, with a greatly reduced work-force and without tractors, fertilizers, or other fancy items. But just imagine what this simple bit of technical rationalizing would mean in social and political terms. Or notice the new meaning of the new luxury and inequality which appears ubiquitously in developing nations—meat enough right there for a few vengeful revolutions, or vengeful suppressions of same, even though it may not be a substantial economic (developmental) issue. Or notice the monumental irony of the bread-line financing the West practices in regard to the commodity-producing countries, whereby foreign aid may not even make up what is taken away by means of flexible commodity prices tied to inflexible industrial ones. And did you know, for example, that in Latin America “20 per cent of all taxes are paid by American companies”?
The author makes dozens of similar points, all tending to deepen and refresh our perception of development and its difficulties. I don’t know whether they add up to a big “program” for development policy. But they—and the whole book—certainly constitute a well-worked attitude toward development, which naturally includes implications for policy on every page. Mr. Heilbroner has set himself the task of criticizing current American illusions by exposing the character of the reality they deny: program enough for one writer I would say.
If I wanted to argue, I would insist to Mr. Heilbroner that the same limited American vision which worries him so much when it fastens on the outward scene is equally worrisome when it keeps us from seeing ourselves as we are. Indeed, solving some of our domestic problems and thereby freeing resource, both material and intellectual, to participate well in the Great Ascent, are one and the same problem. But I don’t want to argue—I want to recommend this book to everyone so that, after it is read, we can then get a really good argument going.
The true subject of the cold war is the emerging character of world civilization. The nuclear part may be terrifying but it is not really very interesting: either side can unleash a salvo, and neither side can survive the event. It’s a standoff. So we are stuck with politics, since war is no longer the idiot’s extension of it by any means. The political part of the cold war is fought on three fronts: (1) against the nuclear idiocy; (2) quality development domestically; and (3) quantity development elsewhere. I wish we had such excellent primers on the first two fronts as we now have on the third.