New Internationalist

The Radical Twentieth Century

Issue 309

Battle has already commenced over the meaning of the century, as Chris Brazier explains.

A century, like a work of art, has as many meanings as the observer wishes to project on to it. It is worth reminding ourselves of this now since, as 1999 wears on, the noise of people pronouncing upon the meaning of the century is likely to become cacophonous. Most of them will not issue an accompanying health warning – an admission that their view is partial, that it emerges from their own personal and political agenda, and that the meaning of the twentieth century is contested ground.

Indeed the dominant voice likely to emerge from the cacophony, like the megaphone that was the quaint tool of political campaigning in the first half of the century, will undoubtedly see the century as a battleground in which the forces of light and truth triumphed.

This megaphone, now doubtless rendered in perfect digital sound quality, has already started pumping up the propaganda level. The New Internationalist is not wont to offer a platform for the views of Time magazine, which has quite enough pages and readers without any help from us. But it is worth quoting at some length from Time’s first attempt at distilling the meaning of the twentieth century because its unabashed triumphalism is so extreme and so illuminating.

According to Time, this was:

'The century of freedom

If you had to pick a two-word summation, it would be: freedom won. It beat back the two totalitarian alternatives that arose to challenge it, fascism and communism. By the 1990s, the ideals developed by centuries of philosophers from Plato to Locke to Mill to Jefferson – individual rights, civil liberties, personal freedoms and democratic participation in the choice of leaders – held sway over more than half the world’s population.’

It was also, Time believes:

'The century of capitalism

Democracy can exist without capitalism, and capitalism without democracy, but probably not for very long. Political and economic freedom tend to go together. Early in the century, Theodore Roosevelt laid the foundation for a government-guided free market, one that encouraged individual initiative while protecting people against cartels and the colder faces of capitalism. His cousin Franklin confronted capitalism’s greatest challenge, the Great Depression, by following these principles. Half a world away, Lenin laid the groundwork for a command economy, and his successor, Stalin, showed how brutal it could be. They ended up on the ash heap of history.’

More illuminating still, it was, for Time:

'The American Century

Some countries base their foreign policy on realism or its Prussian-accented cousin, realpolitik: a cold and careful calculation of strategic interests. America is unique in that it is equally motivated by idealism. Whether it is the fight against fascism or communism, or even misconceived interventions like Vietnam, America’s mission is to further not only its interests but also its values. And that idealist streak is a source of its global influence, even more than its battleships.’

The unshakeable complacency is extraordinary. The multifarious struggles of the world’s people for greater control over their own lives, for decent standards of health, education, nutrition, for social justice, for peace and civil rights, are here reduced to one central story: the ultimate victory of the particular model of democracy and capitalism patented and promoted by the United States of America.

There is another view of US foreign policy which might be thought rather closer to the mark than Time’s, one memorably characterized by the eminent playwright Harold Pinter as ‘Do as we say – or else.’ But let’s leave that aside for now.

The important thing to recognize is that Time and its Murdochian media allies are already working hard to represent the primary meaning of the century as residing in the victory of capitalism over communism in the Cold War between 1945 and 1990. Early in the 1990s some American pundits began crowing about ‘the end of history’ – they meant by this that the collapse of the Soviet Union had proved the inadequacy of any alternative model to capitalism, which would thereafter rule unchallenged for all eternity.

The unlikelihood of this notion will strike anyone who has even the smallest knowledge of history. Empires seem eternal when they are at their height but they always contain the seeds of their own decay. The American Empire, riven with agonizing self-doubt only two decades ago in the wake of defeat in Vietnam and Nixon’s Watergate disgrace, is nothing like as qualified to feel secure as, say, imperial Rome at the beginning of the first millennium of the Christian era.

It is precisely this absence of any sense of history which is one of the most worrying things about the end of our century. I have a friend who considers that there is no point in reading anything written before about 1960. He feels that anything written since then will contain any necessary wisdom from the past and will screen out for him all ‘unnecessary’ information and archaic preoccupations. I used to see him as an oddity, an aberration. But as the consumerist culture of instantaneous gratification takes ever deeper hold, as traditional wisdom is swept aside by the bulldozers of globalization, as history in schools becomes just an aspect of ‘the humanities’ rather than a core subject, the tables have turned. I am beginning to think my own interest in what we can learn from history to be the real oddity.

History’s lessons can be vital and the Washington triumphalists should have been the first to take heed of one lesson in particular. There have been three world wars in this century, two of them extremely hot and one which thankfully remained Cold. The first of those wars produced the second as certainly and inevitably as night follows day. When the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were imposed on the German losers in 1919, mainly out of the understandable bitterness of the French, whose country had been occupied and ravaged beyond recognition, it made an even greater whirlwind inevitable. This was recognized at the time by British Prime Minister Lloyd George, who said the terms and reparations demanded were so harsh that ‘we shall have to fight another war all over again in 25 years at three times the cost’. The economist John Maynard Keynes, meanwhile, predicted that the peace treaty would depress European economies to starvation point.

The crippling terms exacted at Versailles duly produced hyper-inflation, destroyed Germany’s Weimar Republic and created the circumstances in which Hitler’s vicious scapegoat-hunting ideology could flourish. And Hitler was not alone: one of the most terrifying things about journeying through the events of the century to research this magazine has been to experience anew the 1930s and see country after country fall to fascist ‘strong men’. After the Second World War the lesson had been learned and US aid via the Marshall Plan reconstructed Western Europe, effectively creating the conditions for the Golden Age of economic boom between 1950 and 1975.

But by the time the Cold War was over and it was time for the victorious West to dictate terms to a crumbling post-Communist empire, all the lessons of Versailles were forgotten. All was triumphalism. There could be no mercy for the losers. A system of free enterprise without controls was imposed on the new East European states and Russia, the like of which had never been tried before, even at the heart of the capitalist world. The US, for all its bleating about free trade, remains instinctively protectionist. Its own response to severe economic depression in the 1930s, as even Time’s worldview acknowledges between the lines, was to invest in Federal programmes involving strong state intervention and the introduction of a welfare safety net under Roosevelt’s New Deal. Even the fundamentalist crusade of Margaret Thatcher in Britain between 1979 and 1991 left intact many key elements of the old welfare state.

Russia and its satellite states, however, were not to be allowed such props – here the free market had to reign in all its magnificent implacability. Right-wing economists like Harvard’s Jeffrey Sachs were sent in as consultants to ensure that the rules were followed and no soft options adopted. The glorious results of this ‘peace settlement’ were manifest last year, following the collapse of the rouble, in the sight of Russians begging for food in the streets in scenes that might have embarrassed even Tsar Nicholas II. The resurgence of extremist nationalism and fascism in Russia and Eastern Europe may yet be harbingers of another whirlwind that will engulf us all.

The freedom–fighters and the Fenians, the terrorists and the tortured, became the statespeople and the saints

History, then, is important, and the lessons of this century need to be carried into the next rather than lost in the babble of the information age with its indefatigable pursuit of ‘now’. But if the Time magazine version of the twentieth century is one that should be challenged, what should be put in its place? There are a multitude of such histories to be written. But the one this issue of New Internationalist chooses to advance – wearing its partiality on its sleeve – emphasizes the place of social and political resistance in human progress.

The whole notion of ‘progress’ is problematic, something to which I will return at the end of this magazine. But in most areas of progress and democratic rights, where we are sure we are ‘farther on’ in the year 2000 than we were in 1900, we owe it to the politics of dissent. We have only advanced because people have stood up to the dominant worldview, chancing their arms and their hearts in the struggle against oppression, in the aspiration for a true liberty or equality.

Two cases demonstrate this with absolute clarity. In 1900 the idea that all women should have the right to vote was one held only by a tiny minority considered to be on the lunatic fringe. In all the world, with odd exceptions such as New Zealand and the US state of Wyoming, men were complacent in their monopoly of the political process. When the battle for the vote was first joined in earnest, in Edwardian Britain, the term ‘battle’ was no rhetorical exaggeration. This was a campaign of a ferocity that would probably surprise people misled by sepia photographs of suffragettes in prim middle-class hats and dresses. In the militant suffragette campaigns – from bombings of male politicians’ country houses to vandalizations of famous paintings, from smashing the windows of public buildings to hunger strikes while in prison – one can see many of the tactics of modern ‘terrorism’, though their targets were generally property rather than human lives.

At the end of the century we are still far from political equality, and women’s rights still need promoting and defending by a feminist movement that has from the first been global in scope, as Urvashi Butalia shows on Page 18. But the idea of women’s right to political participation has been unchallenged and unchallengeable in most of the world for decades, even if Switzerland only conceded in 1971 and the Afghanistan of the Taliban has reneged today.

Something similar might be said about the idea that people of colour might be capable of self-rule – an apparent absurdity in the colonial world of 1900. The notion of African liberation, in particular, had barely rippled the surface: the first Pan-African Congress was, it is true, held in London in 1900, but it had no delegates from the African continent itself, only from the diaspora. Yet, as the century ends, no-one in their right minds would suggest that Africans or Indians should not rule themselves and even the bitter, long-festering wound of apartheid South Africa has at last been treated.

There is certainly a good case for saying that the anti-colonial struggle has been far from won, that direct rule by white men in pith helmets has been traded for indirect dominion by white men in pinstripes – a case examined in the light of long experience by Julius Nyerere and Ikaweba Bunting on Page 12. But the principle of self-rule, so extreme and marginal in 1900, so reviled by the authorities in the India of the 1930s, the Kenya of the 1950s or the South Africa of the 1970s, is now part of the established pattern of our world. The freedom-fighters and the Fenians, the terrorists and the tortured, became the statespeople and the saints – from Michael Collins right through to Nelson Mandela.

The ‘march of history’ does not have only one drumbeat. At every point in the century it has been taken down side-alleys by seditionaries and run up against the barricades of dissent. The Radical Twentieth Century celebrates the contribution to our collective heritage of the Resistance – while also looking for signposts on the road ahead.

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