An Introduction to Contemporary History
Power and Human Destiny
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, which has forced competing changes upon the capitalist world. What is most distorting in Barraclough’s account is his failure to reckon with Marx’s insight that “in our day everything seems pregnant with its contrary,” that progress and destruction can be inseparable in such a way that the very techniques and structures of power which men create to control the environment can themselves become an environment which we do not know how to control. The illusions which this failure engenders are increased by a willingness to write off large issues with brief, but only half-true or even wholly false assertions. Consider some of Mr. Barraclough’s unargued theses:
As Mr. E. H. Carr has said “if we are all planners now, this is largely the result, conscious or unconscious, of the impact of Soviet practice and Soviet achievement.” In Hoyle’s expanding universe the underlying anthropomorphism of the humanist tradition ceased to be credible, and with it the old personality cult. People no longer imbued liberty of external action or freedom of internal judgment with the same transcendant value as in the past…
As Alfred Weber has pointed out, it is simply not true, “despite all ideas to the contrary,” that the industrial worker in the United States or England has been “depersonalized” and the transformation in barely more than a generation, of the Russian muzhik into a receptive, skilful, self-respecting industrial worker, with an immense appetite for literature, indicates the enormous human potentialities which lie to hand.
In the post-Hitler, post-Hiroshima world Mondrian’s search for a harmonious balance was no longer acceptable.
These statements scarcely require comment. They not only exhibit an ignorance of the recent history of the working class and of industrial capitalism (the belief for example that planning within capitalism on either a small scale or on the scale of the national economy is largely the result of the “impact of the Soviet Union” can only rest on ignorance). They also imply the existence of definite connections between scientific and artistic development on the one hand, and moral and political life on the other. They employ imprecision as if it were a formidable weapon.
The importance of Barraclough’s book is of course not merely that it is full of errors and confusion (and how unlike his other works it is in this respect). It also gives ideological expression to a climate shared in Washington, Moscow, and Accra by those for whom modern history is composed of exercises in bureaucratic manipulation. For them technology stands at the center of human development, and the human price paid is excluded from view. Not people, but organizations matter. Thus individual liberty is radically devalued in a way that makes a break with Marx as much as with Mill.
THIS book is bound to inspire in many of those who read it precisely that pessimism which it seeks to condemn. In this it contrasts sharply with the late Herbert Rosinski’s modest, and uninspired, study of the history of power. Rosinski’s central insight might have seemed a platitude but for Barraclough’s book; for Rosinski’s book, a lucid, straightforward, and very unexciting survey of history from the Greeks and Romans to agricultural and industrial societies, develops the thesis that liberation from the constraints of power requires an ability to create institutions and social forms which do not acquire a life of their own. Otherwise he fears we will be forced into alien and unwelcome patterns of behavior which we can neither acknowledge as our own nor yet transform. The difficulty is that Rosinski deals in large statements the rhetorical effect of which is won at the cost of sociological precision. (And at the cost of stylistic clarity: He speaks of the “world-historical achievement of the Greeks” as being “the discovery and development of man’s rational power.”) When he writes of the contemporary world he speaks of the “frozen rationality” of the institutions of industrial society, and of how this “rationality” fails to penetrate the individual consciousness. Thus there is a social gap between the norms that govern industrial development and the norms by which the individual is guided. Weber wrote more pointedly to similar effect; so did Marx. But now generalizations of this kind are of no interest unless they can be translated into sociological and political particulars.
When Rosinski speaks of the “frozen rationality” of our institutions, are they all frozen in the same way? Clearly not. It is clear in fact that when Rosinski, like Barraclough, asserts that “free choice” no longer has the role in social life that it once had, he is comparing the role of decision within the loosely structured ruling groups of the nineteenth century with its role among the bureaucratized ruling groups of today. He is not contrasting the past opportunities of ordinary working people to exercise democratic control over their ruling groups with their present opportunities to do so.
YET one important fact about advanced industrial societies is the gradual emergence of groups that are both educated and deprived, that will have the ability to make choices and yet lack the power to implement them. There have been such groups in the past, but they were always numerically small, the Russian intelligentsia for example. Mass education is now creating groups whose standards cannot be maintained nor their ambitions fulfilled within the very society which has of necessity accelerated their education. Where are these groups becoming visible? Not merely among the young campus radicals, but, more significantly, among the apparently growing proportion of students who dislike the thought of a business career and, quite unrealistically, envisage “a career in the arts”; most of all among those who simply cannot bear the thought of leaving the university at all. The discrepancy between the values of the university and the values of society is going to present an increasing problem of social control, when a new educated proletariat tries to claim the rights which modern society finds it equally difficult to deny in theory or to concede in practice.
Alienation, at least in the vulgar form in which that notion has acquired currency, is not the most useful notion here. The new educated proletariat may not hanker nostalgically for a return to older forms of democratic liberties; such nostalgia is after all part of a tradition which they reject. But they will not come upon the political scene as have those who are simply deprived and exploited, who have nothing, and have had no right to anything. They will come instead to claim what they see as rightfully theirs. Just because of this it may be harder for society to tame and absorb them than it was to tame and absorb the economically deprived. David Hume saw that the permanent paradox of politics is that the rulers are always less powerful than the ruled. The point is that, until now, the ruled did not realize this.
Yet the new ruled, as and when they revolt, will not necessarily be enlightened. There are unhappy signs of a new populism of the Left in which the old Narodnik illusions about the peasants are being applied to students and the poor. The emergence of those who are both educated and deprived will create a new set of frustrations; and these frustrations could breed either renewal or destruction. Everything depends on the quality of the understanding that they acquire. It follows that neither the gross optimism of Barraclough nor the cautious, would-be realism of Rosinski is likely to help us. For both speak as though a Zeitgeist were among us already and that all that need be done is to define it for us. The spirit of this age remains to be determined.