The Silent Revolution
BARBARA WARD early established her reputation in her brilliant editorials in the London Economist. Last spring she left her desk to be married and to live in Australia. She has promised the Atlantic a new series of articles. Meantime, she writes, “Life here continues to be strewn with lotus. After all the hurly-burly of the Economist and London and the BBC and a hundred other things, it is bliss to sit and savor the passing of time. I am reading Newman and the Fathers and my next book will have nothing to do with economics.“
by BARBARA WARD
BEHIND the war of words and weapons, the war of ideas goes on inexorably. In theory’ the Western Powers have the far more elevated and moving conception of ideas as forces molding human destiny. Indeed, in the United States the West presents the unique spectacle of a community based upon an idea, a people “dedicated to a proposition,” a state founded not upon geography or history or race, but upon certain postulates about the nature of man. Anyone considering this contrast between Western idealism and Communist materialism in the abstract might assume that the Western world would have every advantage in the war of ideas. But he would be wrong. One of the most mysterious facts about the last hundred years in Western history is the extent to which Marxism has been the attacker and Western thought the beleaguered defendant in the battle of ideas.
How is this to be explained? Part of the answer may lie in the fact that the Communists, unlike the Nazis, talk the language of the west. They speak of brotherhood, not of the “leadership” principle. They offer peace, not war. Another partial answer may be that Communism, in attacking wealth and property, stirs an uneasy chord in the Christian soul brought up to believe that you cannot serve God and mammon. But possibly the chief explanation of the West’s strange weakness in the secular struggle against Communist ideas lies in the fact that for a considerable part of the time that has passed since Marx first published his challenge in 1848, the Western world has unconsciously acted and thought as though some of Marx’s fundamental ideas were true. This is the greatest paradox of all. During many decisive decades, the Western peoples, the supposed prophets of idealism and freedom, acted and thought as though they had become economic determinists. The argument was forever recurring in a context shaped not by the West but by Marx.
In theory, this should never have occurred. The starting point of most philosophical and political systems is their view of the nature of man, and the gap between the Marxist and the Western view of human nature could hardly be more wide. From Marx’s fundamental view of man as a mere center of physical energy reacting to a physical environment must flow a doctrine of complete historical and economic determinism. From Marx’s notion that only the unequal distribution of physical assets — private property — creates any dynamism, contradictions, or problems in society must follow the extraordinary indifference of Marxists to problems of a political and moral nature. The attitude apparently is that once private ownership is abolished by inexorable economic forces, political liberty and moral order will look after themselves.
But for the West, man is a divided nature, part reason and spirit, part body and instinct. Reason and spiril give him free choice and moral responsibility. Therefore, no economic and historical fatalism hems him in. He can rise above both his interests and his environment. But these interests and these instincts, the pressure of passion and desire, can also dominate him. he can become “determined” by being a slave of his own cravings. Worse still, there is no system he cannot corrupt, just as there is none that he cannot transcend. In Western thought, therefore, immense emphasis has been placed upon political order and moral discipline to keep in check the unruly side of man.
Above all, Western thought has never been incurably naive (as are the Marxists) about the problem of power. The essence of political order in the West has been the attempt to prevent the concentration of power in a single fallible human instrument. Yet for Marx the West’s constitutional effort, the struggle for the rule of law, the teaching of moral responsibility, were no more than “bourgeois shams,” designed to hide the naked exploitation and the private concentration of wealth upon which the system was allegedly based.
From the day Marx launched his new evangel, there was plenty of evidence to confound the Marxists and to confirm the correctness of the Western view. The supposed fatality of history was tempered again and again by the political and moral actions and decisions of the West. Marx foresaw nothing but slumps, growing misery for the workers, colonial and imperial exploitation, further concentrations of ownership, all unfolded by the inexorable dialectic of history. The Western world immediately demonstrated that freedom of choice and policy and the effectiveness of political and moral action were undiminished. Trade unions began to grow in strength and responsibility and to secure more, not less, wealth for the workers; working conditions were protected by legislation; the concept of the welfare state began to grow; taxation created a new pattern of distribution; reforming spirits were at work in factories and slums; and popular education began a slow revolution from below. Western society refused to conform to any set predictions. The thrust of liberty, of free choice, of moral and political responsibility, went on.
Yet at this point comes the paradox. While so much in Western practice belied the charge of economic determinism, a dangerous surrender to that very idea took place in the decisive centers of Western society — in Britain and in the United States. When Marxists attacked Western society on the grounds of its property relations, its inequalities, its exploitation, men in the West began to counter the accusation not so much with political or moral reasoning as with economic arguments which had on them the same stamp of economic determinism. Private enterprise and private property, they said, were the basis of the Western system, Western liberty depended upon this particular form of society; destroy private enterprise and you would destroy all the West’s rights and liberties.
A moment’s reflection will show that this line of argument came perilously close to a Marxist type of analysis. The Marxists had announced the dogma that the fundamental factor in society was its economic structure. Here were Western apologists affirming exactly the same belief. The hardfought, long-contested rights of Western man suddenly dwindled to the by-product of the private conduct of business affairs. The Western defendants did not apparently reflect that possibly they had inverted historical reality—that responsible private enterprise had grown up in Britain, and later in the United States, precisely because in both communities individual liberty, moral responsibility, and free government had been fought for and won. It never struck them that in communities where the traditions of civil liberty and responsibility were lacking — in Eastern Europe, for instance, or throughout Asia — the system that went by the name of private enterprise would tend to be the preserve of the usurer, the speculator, and the profiteer. They allowed the political and the moral issue to go by default.
EVEN more serious, however, was the extent to which for a hundred years the Western world did indeed behave as though human destiny lay exposed to a series of economic fatalities. No sane man will deny that certain physical limitations circumscribe economic advance. No one will doubt that, at some point, the laws of supply and demand will make themselves felt and that wise statesmen and business leaders will take such laws into account.
But this prudence is very different from the idolization of the market with which Manchester Liberalism sent the industrial system on its way. When Cobden and Bright protested against the reduction of working hours and the regulation of child labor, they genuinely believed that such interventions contravened iron economic laws, and in each new generation, in spite of all t he modifications introduced by political action and social reform, men would go on invoking these same economic laws in order to prevent remedial measures, to counter political safeguards, and to discourage social change. Those who thus invoked the iron gods of economic necessity did not realize that they were committing themselves, fully as much as any Communist, to the tenets of economic determinism — that, for both, the supremacy of economics had become a ruling idea.
This attitude of mind persisted in the West, in part, undoubtedly, because of t he complexities and obscurit ies of the new world-wide economic system. Men tend to regard as fatalities the things they do not understand, and t he grasp of Western economists, thinkers, politicians, and business leaders upon t he vast tumultuous system they had created was, to say the least of it, slender. The collection of statistics had hardly begun. Detailed information about world economic trends only began to be available on a large and systematic scale after the First World War; the annual official presentation of the economic facts within each community was started as late as the Second, and then only in advanced industrial communities.
To a large extent, the world economy ran blind, the forces moving it were unanalyzed, and, once the whole vast enterprise began to founder, as it seemed to be doing in 1929, no one knew how to float it back into quieter waters. The economic fatalities, which no one understood, held the mastery. The West found itself “economically determined,'' even if it hotly denied the principles of economic determinism.
One of the most striking chapters in the recently published life of Lord Keynes by Roy Harrod describes the frustration experienced by Keynes when he acted upon an official committee set up at the beginning of the thirties to inquire into Britain’s desperate economic situation. Witnesses were called from every field of industry and finance, among them Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England. To every suggestion that remedial action might be taken — for instance, by greatly stimulating internal investment or undertaking a large program of public works—the answer was invariable: that any economic advantage gained by “artificial measures’' in one direction would be offset by losses in others. In other words, nothing could be done.
It was, incidentally, in the course of the hearings of that committee that Keynes determined to find the theoretical justification for anti-deflationary policies, a determination which led five years later to the publication of his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, a book whose full influence on Western development cannot yet be gauged. Significantly, however, one of the purposes which helped in its making was a resolve to overcome the fatalism, the complete economic determinism, which had dictated the belief that in the Britain of 1931 “ nothing could be done.“ And not only in Britain. In Europe, the orlhodox wont on arguing that action was impossible, until in Germany the Nazis gave their violent answer and showed what a supposedly bankrupt people could accomplish on the basis of political, not economic, decisions. There, determinism was broken by something worse.
This was the decade of Marxism’s most effective onslaught on the mind of the West — the decade of the Left Book Club, of the volunteers for the Spanish Civil War, of enthusiasm for the Soviet experiment, for what Sidney and Beatrice Webb called “the new civilisation.” The Soviet Union was ihe great unknown. It was impossible to test by actual experience its claim to have suppressed instability, and unemployment, and exploitation, and imperialism simply by abolishing private property. But what could be tested by actual experience was the state of affairs in the West, where ten million unemployed men lived in America’s saturated economy"; where the shipbuilders of Jarrow and the miners of Rhondda heard from the Chamberlain Government excellent reasons why there had been no work for them for the last ten years. Defensiveness, doubt, division, estrangement —such were the dominant feelings in the Weslern camp as the thirties closed and appeasement petered out into war.
Twelve years have passed, full of war and a turbulent semblance of peace. Quietly a revolution has taken place. Divisions and doubts may persist, but the Western community today is almost unrecognizably different from the demoralized huddle of states which Hitler nearly defeated. A great shift in the war of ideas has occurred, and although future historians will no doubt uncov er many more facets and interpretations than are visible now, it is already safe to say two things: that the Western world is sloughing off its mood of economic determinism, and that it is returning with new insight to the political and moral aspects of human order.
For this change we have in part to thank the Communists themselves. For a hundred years they hypnotized the world with the vision of a society in which full employment, social justice, the rights and dignity of labor, the abolition of colonial status, and the establishment of brotherhood between the nations would all be accomplished by doing away with the frictions, contradictions, the inequalities inherent in private ownership. For close on a hundred years, it was impossible to test this utopian claim, at first because no Communist state existed, and later because its experiment was too new and its secrets too well guarded to make judgment possible. Since 1945, however, the Soviet system has been exposed to clinical examination by pressing out beyond its own frontiers and extending its control to peoples such as the Czechs, whose traditions and way of life bear the Western stamp. The resull of this exposure has been catastrophic to Soviet claims.
THE economic stability offered has proved to be the stability of a total war or prison economy. The status of the worker is reduced to that of a helot under trade unions that act as slave masters for the state, or, worse still, under ihe inhuman regimentation of the labor camp. The vaunted brotherhood between nations has ended in the ugly nationalist brawl with Yugoslavia. The claim to abolish imperialism has degenerated into an imperialist control over all Eastern Europe’s resources that even Britain in its imperialist heyday never ventured in Asia. Above all. the older wisdom of the West which, before the nineteenth century’s obsession with economics, warned men of the infinite dangers of absolute power has been proved all over again (and most horribly) by the excesses of the Soviet dictatorship. The temptations of mammon seem, after all, less destructive than the temptation of Lucifer. Absolute power still corrupts absolutely even though the tyrant calls himself a Commissar.
While the Soviet Union demonstrates this rake’s progress of absolutism, the Western world is feeling its way towards a new mastery and freedom in economic affairs. The starting point must surely be reckoned Lord Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. It ended the inexplicability of the phenomenon of the trade cycle, and by ending mystery it exploded fatality. The concepts of maintaining a high level of demand and of securing stable programs of investment put instruments of control into the hands of Western leaders which had been lacking before.
But its importance in destroying ihe blind force of economic circumstance may lie even more in the fact that the instruments of control proposed by Keynes were ones which either progressives or conservatives could use equally well. No conservative has ever denied the justification of state action in fiscal matters. Here was Keynes stressing, above all, fiscal methods of direction and guidance which either side might accept. It is a remarkable byproduct of his new approach that, whereas most theoretical writing on economics before the war could be divided according to its acceptability to Right or Left, economic thinking since 1945 has shown a moving together of the conservative and progressive points of view, and the emergence of a common — and Keynesian — measure of unity and understanding.
This reconciliation in the world of ideas has undoubtedly been hastened and its implications more speedily accepted because of the striking demonstration during the war that the Keynesian concept worked in practice. There has never been such a “planned expansion” of a nation’s economy as that which occurred during the American war effort. The saturated economy of 1939 was twice its size by 1945. The chief factor had been an immense extension of basic capacity; and since 1945 this extended economy has not only maintained the highest living standards in history: it has given away some 80 billion dollars in economic aid and been instrumental in rebuilding war-shattered Europe to a level 25 per cent above its pre-war scale. Today, in the new challenge of rearmament, some practical business leaders such as Charles E. Wilson predict that a further expansion of the base of the economy — steel production expanding, for instance, from 103 million tons to 117 million tons a year — will permit arms and the civilian economy both to be liberally supplied by 1953.
The importance of these developments in the war of ideas is quite simply that they mark a decisive break with economic fatalism. The expansion of the American and of the European economy has taken place as a result of political forces and decisions. Economics have provided techniques and methods, but they have lost their old determining character.
Similarly, the question whether, once exceptional circumstances have passed, the immense American economy can be maintained in full operation is likewise largely a political and indeed a moral question. Most of the demand sustaining American business will always exist in the home market , provided prosperity is maintained. The future question will be whether any falling off in demand, particularly for capital goods, will be allowed to set off the v icious spiral of deflation. If government and political leaders, businessmen and trade unionists, are agreed that investment shall be maintained — for instance, by initiating a fifty-year development plan for Africa, Latin America, or the American South — undoubtedly demand can he sustained, as it is today, by the political decision to achieve rearmament, as it was yesterday in part by Marshall Aid, as it was the day before by the war effort. These are no longer economic questions. They are political. They are moral. The day of fatality and of economic determinism is done.
These illustrations show, too, that the old-style imperialism has gone with it. In the thirties, such concepts of neighborly aid as the Marshall Plan, as the Military Aid Program, as the British Colombo Plan for Asia, or the projects under discussion in America for assisting underdeveloped areas, would all have been inconceivable. It would have been decided that economically such schemes were impossible. Nations that only two or three years later were spending millions of dollars and pounds a day upon tanks and aircraft could not in the thirties “afford” the gift of a single plow to the farmers of Asia.
Today that type of determinism is giving ground in the West. Today, as we have seen, it is the Soviet Union, controlling Rumanian and Austrian oil, Polish industry, Czech and German uranium, Danubian shipping, and East European air transport, that must answer the charge of imperialist exploitation. In the West, new patterns of mutual aid and of increasingly disinterested help are taking the place of the old relationships. The EGA has become the symbol of the first nation in the world to achieve economic leadership without imposing any form of imperial control.
One could trace this break with fatality to other fields — lor instance, the vital field of American labor-management relations, where in so many firms and factories cooperation in pursuit of productivity and the sense of the common enterprise are taking the place of earlier mistrust. Any British writer is specially tempted to dwell on this example, since in t he last t wo years the workings of t he AngloAmerican Productivity Council have carried the results of changed American thinking to Britain and started to work a revolution there.
But it is necessary, while stressing in every possible way the significance of the Western rejection of determinism — this silent revolution that has come upon us in the last decade— to avoid any possible complacency, for the revolution is not completed, the changes have hardly been digested. Nothing dies more painfully than old ideas and old habits, and any sustained effort to restore the primacy of political and moral values is the most testing experiment upon which states and peoples can embark. The Western world has turned a corner. It has got to prove that it can stay the course.
This fact has little to do with the risk of war that hangs over the Western community, for if a possible war were to be fought successfully and its ghastly aftereffects repaired, the pattern of maximum production, of a maximum use of resources, of the closest collaboration between friendly governments and between management and labor, would be even more urgent — if that were possible—than it is today. The reasons for laying aside all complacency go deeper even than the threat of war. They drive down into the foundations of our society, to the West’s understanding of man himself.
The difference between the Western and Soviet ways of life lies chiefly, as was suggested earlier, in their fundamentally divergent views of man. For the Soviet, man is the pawn of economic forces. For the West, he is free and responsible. Rut the West admits equally that both freedom and responsibility sit uneasily upon him and he has blind plunges back into the determined world of blind interest, blind hatred, and blind instinct. Man is not necessarily economically determined. But he can by self-interest, by narrow class conditioning, by undeviating nationalism, make himself so. The slip into fatalism is perilously easy, and the new possibilities of freedom which have been opened to the West in the last twelve years call in a particularly high degree for the practice of clear-sightedness, for generosity between men and between nations, for trust and courage.
These facts were not unknown in the eighteenth century, before the Western world intoxicated itself with the new economics. The great French philosopher, Montesquieu, declared virtue to be the sustaining element of republic regimes, and George Washington once reminded the people of America that “morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” By choosing freedom, the Western peoples are committed to the harder way, and one may sometimes question whether, in the educational systems, in the universities, in the organizations for youth, in fact in all the great institutions which mold the national life, the faith, the steadfastness, and the plain unvarnished virtue needed to sustain the West in a new effort to achieve a free society receive the emphasis that should be theirs.