Schell’s terrific re-reading of the great events of recent history shows the extent to which the role of force has been overplayed. Gandhi is central to the story. His conception and practice of satyagraha – non-violence, or ‘living in truth’ – not only helped end British rule in India, it resurfaced in the actions and writings of activists in Eastern Europe who helped precipitate the collapse of the Soviet empire.
The hearts and minds of peoples intent on liberating themselves from imperialism has been another limit on the success of overwhelming force. China, Vietnam and Algeria provided object lessons on the power of politically mobilized people. Schell shows that the principal events in the French and Russian revolutions were bloodless, even if the consolidation of rule by a minority subsequently involved an extremely ruthless repression.
A lot has been written about the imperial temptations of the current US administration. Schell too looks these problems directly in the eye but also goes on to plot a way forward which builds on the successes and strengths he has witnessed in the last century. He proposes extending international law, securing an agreement to abolish nuclear weapons and the founding of a democratic league to limit imperial ambitions as well as offering solutions for ending long-running wars of self-determination.
Schell’s insightful and thoughtful work is not just a seed that needs to be sowed widely but a radical reappraisal of our times which offers real hope for the future.Phil England