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Historian at the End of His Tether

The Era of Tyrannies

by Elie Halévy, translated by R.K. Webb
Anchor Books, 324 pp., $1.45

The reputation of Elie Halévy rests firmly on his history of the English people in the nineteenth century, a work with which, in scope and concept, only Franz Schnabel’s history of Germany in the same period (still, unaccountably, untranslated) can compare. But there was another Halévy as well, which this volume of essays and lectures, put together after his death, admirably illustrates; and although the translator, Professor R.K. Webb, is right in saying that, for readers already acquainted with Halévy’s other work, these papers reflect the “remarkable unity” of his “intellectual concern,” it is also true that they carry him, significantly, out of the ranks of the great narrative historians and range him among the notable speculative sociologists of his day. Here, one immediately recognizes, is a man whose processes of thought entitle him to the same respectful attention as his better known German contemporary, Max Weber.

Halévy’s life-long concern with English history in the first half of the nineteenth century was not accidental or incidental. It expressed, as he was well aware, his own inherent bent of mind, an essential liberalism and an instinctive horror of the encroaching state which reflected both his temperament and his family tradition. “I was a liberal in the sense that I was an anticlerical, a democrat and a republican,” he wrote, recalling his youth, in 1936; and he commented on the strange accident that, if he had been five years younger and a student after 1895, instead of after 1889, he would almost certainly have been a socialist, “free to develop in a direction it is impossible for me to imagine.”

If Halévy’s work centered around Bentham, the English Utilitarians, and the social and political structure of Benthamite England, it was, in the last analysis, because it was here that he found a confirmation of the individualist tendencies imprinted in his own temperament. It was also because he believed—until doubt overtook him in the last decade of his life—that England in those years had found an equilibrium which, though it could not solve, might provide a means of avoiding what he regarded as the central problem of his age: the “internal contradiction” within socialism between the liberal and the authoritarian. Halévy’s own intellectual history is the story of an evolution from an early belief in the efficacy of the “English miracle” to a final, resigned and regretful acceptance of a new “era of tyrannies.” As Professor Webb says, there was no sudden disillusion:

The classically calm propositions of “The Era of Tyrannies” are the utterances of the Greek chorus, recognizing what it foresaw but could not prevent.

For Halévy, though no socialist, was well aware that socialism in its broadest sense, as a complete philosophy of history opposed to the liberal conception of society, was a creed destined to mould the future. Socialism, he wrote as early as 1888, is “a great, powerful, and formidable doctrine which we in France cannot appreciate”; and it is characteristic of the seriousness with which he viewed it that, from 1901 onwards, he lectured alternate years on the history of European socialism and on nineteenth-century England. It is characteristic also that he approached the enigma of socialism without prejudice, favorable or unfavorable, as a phenomenon which required dispassionate analysis. Prepared, unlike most English and American historians, by a rigorous training in philosophy and logic, Halévy (who hated the vague and anything that was “mere literature”) was not content simply to describe socialism as an historical force. Using methods which were essentially dialectical, he pared away the irrelevant until he came to the core, and there he found a contradiction around which he organized his exposition and criticism.

This contradiction, central to Halévy’s whole conception of socialism and its historical role, is set out plainly in the conclusion he added, in 1924, to his earlier articles on Saint-Simon. Socialism, he there wrote, is at one and the same time “a doctrine of emancipation, which aims at abolishing the last traces of slavery remaining in industrialism, and a doctrine of organization, which, to protect the freedom of the weak against the strong, needs a restored and strengthened social power.” But though the contradiction was inherent in socialism from its earliest Saint-Simonian days, it needed a major convulsion to bring it into the open and turn it into a central political issue. That convulsion was the conflict we call the First World War. For that reason the lectures he delivered in Oxford in 1929 on The World Crisis of 1914-1918 have a pivotal place in Halévy’s thought. Halévy was, with Lenin, one of the first to see that war and revolution were merely two aspects of a single phenomenon. He realized at once that the dream of a return to “normalcy” was illusory. He grasped immediately, what has become a commonplace today, the overshadowing importance of the year 1917 and the ideological rivalry between America and Russia which it portended. But above all else he was impressed by the revolutionary effects of the wartime controls exercised by all the belligerents over the means of production, distribution and exchange. “It belonged to the world war of 1914,” he wrote, “to show the men of revolution and the men of action that the modern structure of the state put almost unlimited powers at their command.”

It was against this background that Halévy viewed the new era that opened in 1919. He had little patience with the common run of historians who searched the diplomatic records—as, alas, they still do—for the immediate causes of the catastrophe, because for him the war was significant, above all else, as “the grim harbinger of tyrannical socialism.” His view could be summed up in one sentence: “postwar socialism derives much more from the wartime regime than from Marxist doctrine.” This was what he saw in Bolshevik Russia, then in Fascist Italy, during the last years of his life in Nazi Germany; and when he turned to England, which he knew best of all, he found little to comfort him. In 1919 he still thought it possible that in England the “class struggle” might be “acclimatized” to “the traditional party system.” By 1936 he accused the English Labor Party of trying “to speak the language of Gladstone and the language of Lenin at the same time,” which (he said) was not possible. And, he added, “when the war begins again”—which it was to do within three years—“it will consolidate the ‘tyrannical’ idea in Europe.”

This pessimistic prediction, so reminiscent of Jakob Burckhardt half a century earlier, follows directly from Halévy’s analysis of the social situation; but it also throws a sharp light on the limitations of his diagnosis. In certain respects—above all, in his perception of the dislocating impact of nationalism on the socialist movement—his vision was acute. “National fanaticism,” he wrote, “is something far more formidable than class fanaticism.” But in other respects he was wide of the mark. It was not true, as we all know, that the war which began in 1939 was destined to “consolidate the tyrannical idea in Europe”; and the class struggle in England has been “acclimatized” with a good deal of success to the traditional party system. If Halévy was so far out in his predictions, we are entitled to look with skepticism, if not with suspicion, at the analysis on which they rest; and when we do so, we find a systematization which, for all its acuteness, is fundamentally unsound. In the great debate with which this volume ends it is not Halévy but his critics who come nearest to the truth.

The problem Halévy raised was real; it was its formulation that was faulty. There is no doubt that the power of the state emerged greatly enhanced after 1918; the question is in what way this enhanced power was related to socialism. For Halévy the two were for all practical purposes identical. Socialism was étatisme, and he had no hesitation in classifying Fascism in all its manifestations as socialism. Here again, as Professor Fritz Stern observes, his “exceptional sagacity failed him.” The essential point was immediately made by Roger Lacombe:

National Socialism is not a synthesis retaining one of the contradictory elements in socialism as one of its essential components. It is a movement directly opposed to socialism, resembling it only because, like socialism, it has been adapted to the modern world.

And was not Parodi right when he questioned whether “the conflict of the two tendencies, liberal and authoritarian, is peculiar to socialism,” whether it does not occur in all forms of government, including liberal democracy, and whether “the connection, long believed indissoluble, between economic liberalism and political and moral liberalism” was ever more than an “historical accident”? Looking back today, it is clear that Maurice Blondel was nearer the truth than Halévy when he maintained that “the concentration of authority demanded by the war of 1914-1918” was not linked in any logical way with “the idea either of tyranny, or of Fascism, or of proletarian domination.” It was one of “the facts which impose themselves on every doctrine,” including liberal democracy.

The other central ambiguity in Halévy’s diagnosis springs from his failure to define what he means by “freedom”; but he certainly took too little account, as Lacombe pointed out, of the fact that “the state can play and, historically, has effectively played a liberating role vis-à-vis the individual.” In fact, it is clear that he thought of liberty according to the “liberal individualism” he found in nineteenth-century England and identified it with “the cause of the middle classes.” What he did not stop to ask himself was whether this concept of “liberty” was adequate for the twentieth century. If we attempt to answer the question: “Freedom from what?” in terms more consonant with contemporary conditions—freedom, for example, from want—who can doubt that a great many more people are more free today, not merely in spite of but because of the directing power of government, than they were when Halévy aired his fears of the encroaching state in 1936? And it does not seem, as we look around over our affluent society, that the “middle class” has much to complain about, either.

The fact is that Halévy’s diagnosis has been overtaken by events; history, as so often, has had its revenge on the historian. There are plenty of things about the contemporary world which we may dislike and deplore; but the “era of tyrannies” which Halévy predicted has turned out to be a chimera. It may be objected that there is plenty of tyranny in the world today, in the form of oppression, terrorism, arbitrary imprisonment, mob rule, and military dictatorship; and this, of course, is true. But when Halévy spoke of an “era of tyrannies” he had something very different in mind. For him tyranny was not merely oppression or dictatorship but “a lasting regime arising from the degeneracy of democracy.” He compared it with “the great world tyranny of the Roman Empire” and saw it as “the pivotal feature” of “a new age…with new characteristics” which was just emerging. But if Halévy was right in thinking that the world in his day was on the threshold of a new age, it is also clear that the society which has emerged from the crucible of war is not a bit like that which he foretold. There is something disquietingly reminiscent of the fantasies of Spengler and Toynbee in his apocalyptic vision, and something equally remote from reality.

It is not difficult to see why Halévy’s diagnosis failed to match up to the facts. For one thing, he underestimated the resilience of democracy and exaggerated the potentialities of Fascism, and therefore concluded that war, when it came, would be fatal to “the parliamentary and liberal democracies”—a judgment that proved to be wide of the mark. Secondly, he was misled by his own logic. As a historian Halévy should have known that events rarely conform to intellectual formulae. Instead, he constructed a logical antithesis between liberalism and socialism which, apart from other inadequacies, left no room for what have been some of the most characteristic developments of the postwar world—for example, the emergence of “mixed economies” with strong “public” and “private” sectors, and of forms of government which have deliberately steered a middle course between the extremes of individualism and socialism. The third factor was his preoccupation with Europe and with the crisis of European liberalism which the slump of 1929 brought to a head. Like many others, Halévy failed to distinguish between the death agonies of the old European-centered world and the birth pangs of a new global civilization. He never appreciated that the end of laissez-faire liberal individualism might, for large numbers of people in Europe and elsewhere, be the beginning of liberation—of freedom from want, insecurity, low wages, and long hours. How significant that nowhere, among the tyrannies he decries, does he mention the tyranny of colonialism—perhaps the worst tyranny of all! In short, he failed to appreciate the force of the demand for social justice which, however imperfectly realized, has been the mark of the contemporary era.

It is true, of course, that this revolution is only at its start, and its progress halting. All too often, for example, the ending of European imperialism has seen new despotisms follow hard on its heels, and it is certainly true that the balance between liberty and authority remains fragile and precarious. Halévy had every reason to emphasize this fragility. Where he was wrong was in arguing that the characteristic feature of the contemporary age was the tilting of the balance decisively and permanently against the former and in favor of the latter. What has happened is less dramatic. As the texture of society has become more complex, the old problem of liberty—which will be with us, a matter of eternal vigilance, so long as man rules over man—has taken on new forms, the areas of conflict have shifted, the freedoms for which we contend are no longer necessarily those which most concerned him. In some ways—the freedom, for example, of whites to exploit and maltreat blacks, or of employers to dispose as they think fit of employees—the area of human liberty has been circumscribed; in others it is immeasurably wider. But whatever reservations we may make—and they are many—the grounds for optimism are solider than the grounds for Halévy’s pessimism. By any measurable standard the world today is a better place to be alive in—even for Asians and Africans and American Negroes—than it was in 1937 when Halévy died; and if the potentialities are wasted and an “era of tyrannies” descends on us after all, we shall have only ourselves to blame.

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