Politics today presses in upon a world that once, for the artisan as well as the peasant, had some privacy, some prescript of decent refuge from the all-encompassing claims of the political life of the state. Now politics is everything, it seems.
The obsession with politics, not in the immediate sense of an absorption in the governmental processes close at hand, but as a much deeper trait of character—an inability to see the unfolding of world history other than in passionate moral terms—is the concern of this coruscating and unsettling book. For it is the author’s contention that precisely this obsession with politics, this insistence on forcing the events of history into preconceived and dogmatic “meanings” gives to our age so much of its special capacity for historic mischief. Other ages have had their share of misery and brutality, their conquests, disasters, successes, disintegrations. But only in the modern age has the process been sanctified by pleading that these terrors and tragedies were justified in terms of their political (i.e., historic and ideological) content.
This ideological suffusion (which originates in the French Revolution) has frequently been remarked upon. Indeed it is the commonplace premise of our current political orientation that we live in a time in which “two great systems of thought” (etc., etc.) collide. But it is to the credit of the authors that when they pin down the specific villain of modern history, they do not find it to be that arch-enemy, Russia. Instead, the source of this overwhelming ideological fixation is the West itself. To repeat a joke in point: We have met the enemy and they are us. For the unique “contribution” of the West to history, Stillman and Pfaff point out, is that it alone has infused its enormously dynamic technological and administrative thrust with the fervor of political rectitude. No other religion, including Islam, no other military system, including that of Genghis Khan, no other economic structure, including the Egyptian, no other popular culture, including the Roman, has been so proselytizing, so fire-eating, so zealous, as that of the West. Those sacrosanct symbols of the West to which every “serious” work must pay homage—the Judeo-Christian ethic, democracy, the Faustian spirit—all turn out to be, upon dispassionate scrutiny, banners which have all too frequently led bloody processions down the paths of history. “When the intransigeance of human history has balked change and action,” write the authors, “the West has been capable of violence on an appalling scale, and has justified that violence as indispensable to a heroic reform of society or of mankind.”
Thus Stillman and Pfaff have the courage to place the West in an historic illumination that reveals the full depth of its shadows as well as the lustre of its highlights. Yet this book is in no wise a diatribe against the West. It is rather an attempt to explain the condition of modern times as a consequence of the tremendous penetrative power of the violent West upon the passively resisting, yet actively succumbing bodies of non-Western societies. That the West is the triumphant world force is beyond doubt. Exactly what its triumph entails, however, is another thing. “No society,” write Stillman and Pfaff, “has achieved the transition to modern Western technology without paying its price—not even the West itself.” It is this price, now revealed as fearful social disequilibrium, now as wild political animus, now as mass violence or mass political hallucination, which is the very hallmark of our present historic situation.
Thus the West, and especially America, has ridden into the maelstrom of the present under the power of an essentially delusive idea—that its mission is a “civilizing” one which the “uncivilized” peoples of the world will sooner or later accept with thanks. What it has not seen is that along with its undoubted gifts goes a demonic power for evil as well as for good, a terrible force for dislocation as well as for growth, a source of excruciating disappointments as well as of great aspiration.
But the West—and again especially America—does not see this darker side to its own historic influence. Cheered up by a mechanical optimism that blots out all that is incomprehensible about history, spurred on by the easy equation of material achievement with progress, buoyed by the unchallenged assumption that the proper scale for its thought and action is universal, that what is right for the West must be right for all mankind, the West carries on its great crusade without awareness that it is itself the cause of the evils it fights. Thus we have an age in which every policy fails—the alliances, the deterrents, the bold new approaches—because all begin with grandiose fantasies as to what the West can and should do, and without sober thought as to what the West has done and should stop doing.
This is a book of diagnosis and not remedy, but it is clear where the authors think the West should move—or at least the direction in which its wiser minds should now seek to bend their influence. The terrible ideological crusade with its stale and meaningless Cold War and its repetitive slogans of world justice draped in the American flag must come to an end. A new politics of sanity must replace that of hysteria—a politics of finite and limited goals rather than misty global imperatives. The neglected reality of the American people must take precedence over malign brooding about the “enemy’s” people. Russia must be viewed not as a vast ideological menace but as a moderately unsuccessful foreign power, itself an unhappy victim of the Westernization process. The rhetoric of conquest—material, military, or moral—must give way to the speech of pragmatic goals and tangible hopes.
One is hard put to criticize this often brilliant, sometimes annoying, but unfailingly provocative book. It does not argue its case; it states it, and one can disagree with large sections, as I do. (The future of Russia, for instance, is written off with more disdain than logic, at least for me.) But criticisms are hardly to the point. This is not a treatise but a pronunciamento, not a text but a dictum about the world. Internally consistent, deeply felt, cogently stated. It is a powerful view of world history from a conservative vantage point—not conservative in the small sense of opposing renovations in the status quo, which surely it does not, but in the much deeper sense of emphasizing the destructive capacities of human nature and the ineffectiveness of institutional change rapidly to alter those capacities.
It is foolish to argue with books like this, or to worry individual pages to death, or to dispute particular interpretations. Whether it is “right” or “wrong,” the Stillman and Pfaff book should be read. No doubt its bitter message will prove uncongenial to many readers, for if it were taken “seriously” it would enjoin a wrenching reorientation of thought for the majority of us, including not least those in government or academic life. This is no doubt too much to be expected: the conservativism of the vested interest is as nothing to the conservatism of the vested idea. Yet I suspect that in the future it will no longer be possible to qualify as a wholly serious thinker if one has not, to whatever small degree, made one’s peace or accomodation with the harsh message of The Politics of Hysteria.
February 20, 1964