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A Reader’s Guide to the Century

Almost all these nations are, nominally at least, democracies. Though most countries in the early part of this century still had kings—seven of them, on various thrones, the grandchildren of Queen Victoria—monarchy has been as discredited as empire. Authority, it is felt, can be legitimated only from below, not from above. The failure of empire loosened the hold of racist theories that had always accompanied it. Theodore Roosevelt, the American champion of imperialism, had contempt for blacks (“a perfectly stupid race”), Indians, and Chinese (admitting them to America in any numbers would be “race suicide”). Winston Churchill, on the other side of the Atlantic, argued for mandatory sterilization of 100,000 “mental degenerates” who posed “a national and race danger.” The shrinking number of white people on earth, and their shrinking bases of power, make it hard to maintain these cruel dogmas.

The national and international challenges to authority were bound to affect private, voluntary, and domestic life as well. The changes so far noticed all affect the structure of the family. The rural family was a discrete unit, relatively contained, its children a workforce with a vertical (patriar-chal) relation to mother (intermediately) and to father (ultimately). Urban living calls for fewer children, for more intensive and extended education outside the family, for horizontal ties of adults with adults for work and entertainment and of the young with the young for education and companionship and entertainment. Education is both extended in duration and expanding in inclusiveness. In the 1970s alone, “the number of the world’s universities more than doubled,” as Hobsbawm notes. The number of college students in Europe increased seven- to ninefold in Spain and Norway, five- to sevenfold in Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Italy. Even in the less industrialized nations, the numbers shot up. Before World War II, even countries like Britain and Germany had only one tenth of one percent of their total population in universities. Now, 3.2 percent attend in Ecuador, 2.7 in the Philippines, 2 percent in Peru.

The time invested in education delays children’s entrance into horizontal relations with adult workers and prolongs a period that creates, to fill the gap, a “youth culture.” This culture is no longer a mere transit from point to point but a large and growing part of a person’s life, demanding its own measure of fulfillment. Servicing this time of life—with education, activities, music, fashions, and diversions—is a large commercial project. The horizontal ties formed within it are now worldwide, as was proved when ripples from the 1968 student uprising in Paris spread to the young around the globe. Besides, young people’s education and experience are now so different from those of their elders that the young can reverse certain old patterns of learning, since they sometimes know more about modern discoveries and technology than their parents. (My children have to show me how computers work.)

It is an apparent paradox, but only apparent, that our population growth is accompanied by a declining birth rate. With lower infant mortality, there is no need to assure descendants by multiple births. Urban costs and crowding penalize large families. Extended education is not affordable for many offspring. Improved contraception and abortion procedures make it easier to limit families. Reduced urgency to beget children affects the outlook and role of women, whose task becomes less the bearing and raising of children and more the raising of extra money to educate the ones that have been borne. The undermining of patriarchal authority frees not only children from patriarchy’s vertical authority structure, but women as well.

Women began this century excluded from politics and virtually excluded from most professions. They had limited property rights and few forms of legal equality with men. The change in their status, accelerating dramatically over the last thirty years, has no parallel in history. And to change the status of women is to invade the most intimate nexus of society, its central node—the relation of husband with wife, mother with child, sister with sibling, female worker with colleague. The decolonization of society reaches its most potentially disorienting level here, where the nature of authority is recast. As the horizontal relations of the parents with their peers float freer of the horizontal activities of their children, diversity and choice are sought by men as well as women, leading to the skyrocketing rates of divorce, or of cohabitation without marriage. Divorces in Britain increased five times over between 1960 and 1980. Half the children born in America during the 1970s saw their parents divorce before they reached the age of sixteen.

These are some of the most obviously measurable changes that have occurred over the last one hundred years. They affected (and were affected by) the century’s events—our wars and ideologies, religions and philosophies, businesses and labor, arts and sciences, fashions and sports. But how are the relations of all these things to be traced in any detail over the arc of these years? A single pattern would be hopelessly reductive. And so, probably, would a single narrative. Yet some writers have attempted a narrative synthesis. Others, despairing of that, take an analytic approach, giving separate treatment to different aspects of the period. Still others—most of those trying to make a commercially useful product—simply chronicle the century’s passing years. I have a table piled high with examples of these approaches.

1. Narrative

Despite the reservations I have expressed about his book, Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes is a master historian’s synthesis. It weighs factors judiciously, relates events economically, and throws new light on everything it treats. It is written with clarity, conviction, and wit. It is narrative history of a very high order. There is real passion in his description of the horrible wars of this century, which go far to justify his label for this as an “age of extremes.” Hobsbawm arranges his mass of materials as a drama—a tragedy, to judge from its unhappy ending—in three acts: The Age of Catastrophe (1917-1945), The Golden Age (1945-1973), The Landslide (1973-1993). Admittedly he does not confine his story to his three main themes with rigidity; but they are the leading motifs nonetheless.

The Age of Catastrophe is marked by the breakdown of the liberal dream of the nineteenth century, signaled primarily by the capitalist crisis of the Great Slump. Liberalism’s failure gave rise to the socialist dream, strengthened by the fact that the Soviet Union, thanks in part to its isolation from other parts of the world economy, escaped the worst effects of the Slump. Visitors to the Soviet Union who saw a revolution “working” were not simply blinded by ideology. They were reacting to the fact that “during the 1930s, the rate of growth of the Soviet economy outpaced all other countries except Japan.” An anti-bourgeois avant garde in the arts further delegitimated liberal ideals, but fed the fears that led to a rise of dictators (a process on which Hobsbawm is especially good).

The Golden Age, in this scheme, reflects the postwar prosperity of an American-led economy and the hopeful birth of new nations out of the falling empires. Capitalism recovered its balance by tempering laissez faire with regulation and controls. The socialist ideal was rekindled in the third world, only to crash with the fall of the Soviet Empire at the end of the period. Renewed troubles in capitalism combine with that fall to deprive the current world of any coherent project, leading to Hobsbawm’s gloomy current assessment of the Landslide.

Why did the socialist revolution, in which Hobsbawm had invested his own hopes, fail so dramatically? He believes that the Soviet Union’s leadership was a disaster from the outset. The revolution occurred in the wrong place (rural Russia, not industrial Germany) and adopted the wrong tactics for its spread (secret cadres rather than open organization of the workers). The superficiality of communism’s hold on the mass of people in its regimes is reflected in the suddenness of its disappearance when the Party elite failed. Hobsbawm tempers his great historical disappointment with the reflection that the revolution saved capitalism’s bacon—first by the huge Soviet sacrifices that made the defeat of Hitler possible, and then by so scaring the West that it had to modulate its economies with regulation.

The gloominess of Hobsbawm’s reading of this century is matched or surpassed by a very different kind of book, Modern Times, Modern Places, by the Australian writer Peter Conrad. Though this purports to be a history only of the arts, Conrad interprets their context in such a way that the whole history of the period is encompassed—or at least one very jaundiced view of the period is sketched in. He gets a running start by beginning with the pessimism of the nineteenth century’s fin-de-siècle art. This whimpering end was an appropriate continuation from Impressionism, that bright and sunny movement that, Conrad declares, “elegiacally blinked at life through a waterfall of tears.” The twentieth century began with a tragic heritage: “The execution of the gods was the nineteenth century’s most splendidly arrogant achievement.” This sets the tone for what follows. Modernism is treated as “a systematic assault on reality.” Freud provided a patent medicine by which therapists “administered doses of conformity, unkinking heads as if nipping and tucking double chins.”

Each successive art form of the century is made to provide its dreary testimony to human failure. Conrad is especially harsh on “cinema’s burgling of our unconscious minds.” Chaplin was a nihilist who showed his true colors in Monsieur Verdoux: “The common man had incubated a monster.” The Bogart character in Casablanca is such a cynic that he will not join up with the Resistance after the movie ends: “Why should he contribute to the ‘hill of beans’?” Conrad, whose previous book was on opera (A Song of Love and Death), makes of the century one prolonged fit of hysteria, matching his style to the occasion. His overwrought prose produces things like this description of Marlene Dietrich’s character in The Blue Angel: “She is a pianola frantically pedaled by men, and asks them only to indulge her with an occasional pianissimo.” One ends the book with the same demand.

One goes from extreme subjectivity in Conrad to what might be considered extreme objectivity in J.A.S. Grenville’s A History of the World in the Twentieth Century. It is laid out like a textbook, but of an old-fashioned sort, concerned mainly with politics and war. There is little on the social changes I have mentioned. The status of women is mentioned when they gain the suffrage. The challenge of overpopulation merits one paragraph in a book of 973 large pages with dense printing. Interpretation is kept to a minimum. On controversial matters (the dropping of the atom bomb, for instance, or the Cuban missile crisis), Grenville accepts the official line of the Truman or Kennedy administrations. Statistics are used mainly for GNP and trade. It is not a book one goes to for ideas or good prose, but its low price and inclusiveness make it useful for those of us who have trouble keeping straight the political chronology of every country in Africa or Latin America.

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