Modern Times

An Introduction to Contemporary History

by Geoffrey Barraclough
Basic Books, 272 pp., $4.95

Power and Human Destiny

by Herbert Rosinski
Praeger, 224 pp., $5.95

Historical optimism and pessimism can be equally sentimental. Until recently pessimism seemed to be, in this century, the more likely sentimentality. For the sentimental optimism of the last century, apparent in such writers as Macaulay and Mrs. Markham, was based upon an assumption which, it seemed, could scarcely survive the brutal realities of contemporary history: the assumption, seemingly banal, but actually somewhat sinister, that power and right coincide. We have had to learn to live in an age in which power and right, far from converging, are inexorably set in opposition. The only appropriate attitude has been a kind of tough-mindedness, exhibited in the past by writers as different as Stendhal and Trotsky, which could well be called a “tragic optimism”; this is surely the appropriate antidote to historical sentimentalism of either kind, but it has had few contemporary adherents. Instead, Pangloss’s old doctrines of the lesser evil, the larger good, and the long run, have been enjoying a revival.

There are a growing number of examples of non-tragic optimism of this kind. Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Stalin is certainly one of these, in that he claims that, although Trotsky may have been right, one must weigh this against Stalin’s achievements. Lord Snow too, in his Rede lecture, shares the essentially bureaucratic spirit of modern Panglossism, while E. H. Carr’s What Is History? scolds those who lapse from a faith in Progress. But these examples pale before the voice of Pangloss Redivivus himself: “Those who rebel against the modern mass party and hanker for a return to earlier forms of representative democracy are indulging in a dangerous form of nostalgia…” The author is Geoffrey Barraclough, the distinguished historian of medieval Germany, formerly a professor at London University and now, under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation, writing the history of the world in this century. The present volume is presumably a compendium of what is to come.

BARRACLOUGH is frank about his point of view. Nazism and Fascism, he argues, were relatively unimportant episodes, and thus Hitler’s concentration camps never appear in his narrative. For less explicit reasons Stalin’s labor camps disappear from view, as does the systematic falsification of history by totalitarian regimes. The suffering of humanity in this century, whether as the result of the breakthrough from older social patterns, or of decolonializing, or of technological advance—almost none of it appears here. The Jews and the American Negroes are notable absentees from Barraclough’s history. What is the perspective that results in these omissions?

Barraclough devotes most of his book to four principal changes, which together define his perspective: Science and technology are no longer marginal activities, but central agencies of social transformation; history is now made not only or mainly in Europe, but in America and Russia and in the Afro-Asian countries; liberal individualism has given way to mass democracy; and communism has set a pace, both by its achievement of a planned economy and by its propagation of Marxism-Leninism …

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