Ideas for the Ice Age

By Max Lerner
PERIODS of violent, intense action, eras of war and revolution, are seldom prolific in the field of thought. Too much energy is channeled into the fields of war and politics and too many people are in the position of the witty Abbé Sievès, who felt that his supreme achievement, amid the chameleon-like terror of the French Revolution, was simply to live. On the other hand, the years which immediately precede profound social upheavals are often rich in speculative thought. The course of the French Revolution was predetermined, in no small degree, by the books that were written and the talk that flowed in Paris while the monarchy still stood in apparently undiminished strength. The United States had debated the issues of the Civil War pretty thoroughly before the shooting actually began.
At a time when America is in the process of being drawn into a war which many observers identify with a revolt against civilization, there is a natural tendency to turn the country into a vast forum of discussion, the final outcome of which, to be sure, will most probably be determined by the swift current of events. There is a maximum of scoring of debating points and a minimum of clear original thinking. Mr. Lerner’s book, a collection of essays which also includes a number of book reviews and personality studies, is a welcome and definite enlargement of this minimum. While he is on the interventionist side of the current American political controversy, his analysis of the causes and aspects of the crisis of contemporary civilization rises above the atmosphere of immediate partisan argument. He fully and fairly recognizes the dangers of the course which he himself advocates. As he writes: ‘Labor rights will be endangered, civil liberties will suffer. Governmentally as well as economically, America is on the threshold of changes vaster than any since the Civil War.’ And he recognizes, to quote his own eloquent phrase, that ‘we live today in a period of incomparable bleakness for the whole human spirit.’ But, convinced that Hitler must be crushed, he believes that the war may lead to the realization and not to the frustration of the American democratic dream if the country takes the road of what he calls democratic collectivism. As false roads he characterizes the attempt to preserve business as usual in the midst of a gigantic armament effort and the idea of ‘a frank corporate and military dictatorship.’
The author believes that the world, like America, will be changed almost beyond recognition in politics and economics after the end of the war. Now, as he feels, is the time of ‘the breaking of nations,’ to quote an appropriate phrase from Thomas Hardy. The day of the nation-state is over, that of the continental, even hemispheric economy is at hand. And, while Mr. Lerner does not attempt to draw frontiers or to make up precise economic blueprints, he has many stimulating and suggestive ideas about the means of implementing the more closely integrated world polity of the future.
It is typical of the catholicity of the author’s mind that one of the most sympathetic and understanding of his personal sketches is that of Randolph Bourne, America’s uncompromising nonconformist of the last war. Bourne’s bitter, brilliant ideas are worthy of reconsideration at the present time, and his phrase, ‘war is the health of the state,’ is startlingly prophetic.
W. H. C.