The Illusion of Power

“The really significant division in this age.”savs BARBARA ”is no longer better Right and Left, or pregressives and conservatives, or radicals and traditionalists. It is between those who. consciously or not. accept the new inhuman totalitarian order and those trim do not. In the following article Miss Ward, a leading Roman Catholic and formerly the Foreign Editor of the London Economist. traces the trends in the ff estern world which have shattered the dreams of Marxists, Liberals, and Conservatives alike.


IT MAY seem curious to call the nineteenth century an age of tremendous certainties. It witnessed controversies as personally tragic and institutionally far-reaching as the weakening of traditional Christ Sanity before the onslaught of rationalism, Darwinism, and the higher criticism. Nor does it seem possible to put together in the same broad flood of confidence views of society as apparently opposite as those of the Marxists and of the Manchester school. But an age is marked not by those who fight the rearguard actions — which, on the whole, the Christians and the traditionalists did a century ago. The stamp of an epoch is given by those who look forward, and the remarkable proof of the underlying certainty of the nineteenth century is that the prophets, whether they were the liberal prophets of laissez faire or the Marxist prophets of the exact opposite, were more strongly united by certain underlying beliefs, prejudices, and indeed blindnesses than they were divided by their bitter quarrel over property and social organization.

Liberals and left-wing revolutionaries shared t lie same faith in a world which science would completely lay bare and in a species of history which moved inexorably from a less satisfactory past to a more satisfactory future. The content of this progress might be different but the sense of direction was identical. Even their quarrel over the ownership of property had a curious family resemblance. For the Marxists the good of society depended upon common ownership. For the liberals, the good of society and freedom itself depended upon private ownership. The form of their controversy thus excluded the possibility that decent social forms might not depend exclusively upon ownership at all. Behind their bitter dispute, they shared a profound materialism.

Even more remarkable than these shared beliefs were perhaps the shared indifferences. The “new thinkers" of last century shared the same kind of blind eye. It is true that the Communists foresaw all sorts of disasters so long as capitalism survived. Imperialisms, wars, depressions, dictaatorships would follow in catastrophic flood. In this, the Communists had more prescience than the liberal reformers who expected a painlessly progressive future. But Marxist thought must be judged not only for its insights into society under private ownership but for its prophecies of society under public ownership, and here liberal and Marxist were significantly alike in what they ignored.

The liberal assumed that the working of economic laws, with the minimum of state intervention, would lead to a peaceful international division of labor, to harmony and plenty within society, and to a growing unity of humanity—to Tennyson’s federation of the world and parliament of man. Equally Marx foresaw, once public economics had replaced private interest, the unity of mankind, the withering away of the state, and the reign of peace and brotherhood.

Copyright 1952, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

The profound issues which both systems virtually ignored were the nature of power, its effect on human personality, its congealing at the level of the nation-state, and the conflict or reconciliation of national and international interests. Equally both systems glossed over the relation of power to the kind of institutions industrialism was likely to create and to the kind of means of control — by radio, by rapid transport, by armament—which science was placing in the hands of institutions. Marx could recognize evils and dangers in a society based on private property, but his acuteness vanished in a rosy haze at the prospect of public ownership. The liberals hardly oven recognized the dangers. The extraordinary sense of progress, of history thrusting forward from “precedent to precedent,‘’ of knowledge growing and mastery increasing, kept the eye of prophecy—liberal or Marxist —hard down on the single common track.


THIS peculiar fellowship in optimism is quite enough to explain the quality and the extent of the frustration that has overtaken so many men and women in the Western world during the last two or three decades. The liberal has seen his dream of progress shattered by disasters fully as horrible as the most avid Marxist could foretell. For a time, particularly in the thirties, some liberals took refuge from their broken dream by turning to Marxism—just as other liberals, the liberal businessmen of Europe, for instance, resorted instead to Fascism.

But the respite was brief, for Communist society has shown itself to be even more disastrous and repellent than the catastrophe-ridden world of the decade before the war. Not only has the vision of progress faded. it is precisely those potentialities of modern society to which progressive thought in the nineteenth century devoted almost no attention that now make a mockery of the earlier dream.

No one fully foresaw the mass state, the mass city, mass production, mass entertainment. No one foretold the sudden blowing up of the old market and seaport towns into monstrous “conurbations" packed as tight as ant heaps. The organization of factory life in factory towns, the coming of largescale agriculture, the advent of total war — the significance of all these things lay below the horizon of confident nineteenth-century thought. Only a few prophets and seers — men of the stamp of a Thoreau or a buskin —could know by intuition to what belittling of man the coming of all these vastnesses might lead.

Institutions on such a scale were bound to pass beyond the capacity of ordinary individuals to control. The need to manipulate mass organizations called for new types of managerial technique. The civil servant, the executive director, the union leader, the party boss found that the threads of power were collecting in their hands. It was the power which in other contexts became the strangle hold on society of the Commissar and the secret police.

This concentration of power which now bears Burnham’s title “the managerial revolution” can be understood by hindsight to be inseparable from the new techniques of industry and science. It was not foreseen and perhaps even we, with the evidence before us, can still be startled by at least one singular feature of our contemporary centralizing of authority. It has a phenomenally impersonal quality. Power has been seized in the past and tyranny is the oldest form of government. Such despots as Frederick I lohenstaufen even created bodies with a familY likeness to the Black Shirts or the NKVD of modern times. But the brutality, the power, the flamboyance and display, were all intensely personal and the groups and organizations were subordinate to the astonishingly individual character of the prince or duke or condottiere they obeyed and served —or betrayed. The dictators of today are of a very different stamp. As Edmund Wilson has pointed out: “It is no age of authentic leaders in the departments of statesmanship or thought; Stalin and Hitler were produced by the swarm, in the manner of queen bees.”

Confronted with these realities of a social order so alien to human personality and human freedom, men and women in this century have, not surprisingly, lost their sense of the old certainties. Science is known as both liberator and destroyer, the outcome depending upon the decisions of men to whose behavior science provides only the most unspecific clues. Trust in progress has undergone a similar modification. Progress in the sense of progression no one doubts, for society does not stand still. But the direction may be up or down. Perhaps one of the clearest statements of the changed attitude towards progress can be found in the New Fabian Essays recently published in Britain by members of the Fabian Society — the group that has long acted as the brains trust of the Labor Party. There Mr. R. H. S. Crossman writes: “So far from viewing history as a steady advance towards freedom, we should regard exploitation and slavery as the normal state of man and view the brief epochs of liberty as tremendous achievements.” And in the same paragraph, Crossman throws overboard the basic materialism of so much earlier Socialist thinking when he says: “Social morals, freedom and equality do not grow by any law of economics or politics but only with the most careful cultivation.” Material conditions cannot be relied on to produce the good life. Its achievement must depend upon the social conscience of an active minority, and this conscience will be dormant if reformers base their policy “on the materialist fallacy that material progress makes men either free or equal.”


IT IS not only on the Left that the old dogmatisms have weakened. In Europe today there are only scattered remnants of the old crusading liberal faith. It is true that there has been a considerable revival of liberal economics since the war, with the old reliance on the market as an economic regulator and on competition. But this is not so much the revival of a philosophy as a revulsion against Nazi and Fascist—and Petainist — state control, wartime economics, and socialist pressure. The remarkable point about the Liberal parties in Europe is their lack of philosophic principle and their dependence upon the Christian Conservative parties with which, in the main, they have formed coalitions. There is undoubtedly a good deal of hardheaded practical materialism in European business today. Hut it has no philosophical pretensions.

In fact, only in the United States does the old belief seem to survive that free enterprise is the source and not the product of free institutions. But this outlook cannot be accounted liberal in the nineteenth-century sense. A hundred years ago the. liberals who demanded freedom for enterprise asked it as confidently for ideas, for education, for speech and publication. Confidence in progress and knowledge and scientific discovery accompanied the desire to limit government intervention in all spheres. Today, however, many of those who seek to limit state interference in business appear to welcome it in most other act ivities—particularly in the sphere of thought and education. In this they seem, therefore, to have taken on the old outlook of nineteenthcentury conservatism with its deep distrust ol popular enlightenment, and Its urgent drive for political conformity The spirit is rather of Mctternieh than of Cobden or John Hright.

Perhaps the most obvious prool that the old dogmatisms are passing is in the reaction ol both the Right and the Left, particularly in Europe, to what used to he the touchstone of politics the question of state control of industry. The Socialist parties in Europe, in their last international manifesto, abandoned the aim of public ownership over the whole of the economy. Each issue, they decided, should be settled on ils merits. In this. hoy were greatly influenced by the British Labor Party, whose second thoughts on nationalization are little short of revolutionary. The aranf-garde ot Labor thinking — the Fabians and the Socialist Union— both published statements last summer limiting the scope and importance of nationalization and attacking the notion that it is the central, essential fact of Socialist policy.

The important Labor parties of Scandinavia and Australasia have never put nationalization high on their programs. And the second thoughts in Hritain are certain to have an effect in Asia. In such countries as India or Hurrna. state action will undoubtedly play a very large part in the future, since there is no large middle class of potential entrepreneurs upon whom free enterprise can be built up — another proof that free enterprise, far from creating freedom itself, can only exist under certain preexisting social and political conditions. But in the last eighteen months, both governments have underlined the need to cooperate with foreign enterprise, and in India the Minister of Commerce has even praised private Hritish firms as models and pacesetters for local industry.

In spite of fervent affirmations to the contrary, supporters of free enterprise have also changed their ground. It is not simply that the established democracies of the free world fundamentally accept the idea of state-directed social welfare with all its ramifications. They believe, too, in state intervention to prevent catastrophic unemployment or to regulate the intricate problems of foreign trade.

it is also significant that the most conservative governments m Europe are those which are taking the load in transferring Europe’s iron and steel and coal — the whole basis of the economy — to a ne’ type of public authority under the So hum an Plan. However much the old tight for and against the state may still haunt parly platforms and programs, the substance of the disagreement has changed unrecognizably, the Right conceding the state more power, the Lefl withdrawing in alarm from excessive state control. The gap that remains is no more than experience, changing conditions, varying problems and pragmatic solutions can adjust. Dogma does not enter in.

Vet if all the landmarks — of certainty or dispute have vanished, what is left? Are we reduced, as Matthew Arnold foresaw, to “a darkling plain . . . Where ignorant armies clash by night “? To a measure of darkness and confusion, we must he reconciled. It is the burden of the time. But there is more than that If, eighty years ago, men of insight could sense the coming of disaster underneath the brilliant surface of their society, so today there scent to be signs of new thoughts stirring behind the implacable visage of this century. They are, in a sense, implicit in what has already been said about our disillusion and loss of certainty. Men lose faith and confidence because what has happened does not, match with their ideals. But the ideals remain, as yardsticks, as judgments, and as clues to new lines of action and attack. It is where t he disillusion is greatest that one may expect to trace the beginnings of a new approach.

The core of contemporary disillusion is the conspiracy of industrialism, nationalism, science, and mass communication to produce an inhuman order of society. Probably the really significant division in this age is no longer between Right and Left, or progressives and conservatives, or radicals and traditionalists. It is belween those who, consciously or not, accepl the new inhuman totalitarian order and those who do not.

This is by no means a straightforward division, for we know that the totalitarian order can be reached as well from the Right—via Nazism — as from the Left via Communism. We also know that men and indeed whole societies can fall into one type of totalitarianism by the very extremism of their resistance to another brand. Hitler’s master card in the early thirties was anti-Communism. It is one of the most sinking characteristics of so much anti-Communism today, particularly when conducted by ex-Communists, that it brings totalitarian energies, attitudes, and methods to the fight against totalitarianism. The literature written by many ex-Communists is full of such phrases as “total choice,” “absolute crisis,” and “historical necessity.” It gives the nightmare impression of belonging to the thing it attacks.

Nor is this proneness to totalitarian infection simply a matter of ideology. There are men and women who are what one might call natural totalitarians — those whose passion for power and whose strength and ambition are satisfied, not repelled, by the opportunities for control and manipulation offered by modern mass organization and means of communication. In business, in trade union activity, within the civil service, they are the active agents of centralization and dictatorial conlrol. A newspaper owner, for instance, who uses the megaphone which has been attached to his mouth by the extent of his publications in order to distort, twist, conceal, and manipulate the news or to lash up public moods of fear and violence is a totalitarian. A politician who exploits a radio personality to get mass hysteria on his side is a little Hitler. Trade union bosses who fake branch voting, business leaders who exploit a protected market to extort monopoly prices — they have the tinge of absolutism in them and contribute, like the hidden workers of a coral reef, to the building up, cell by cell, of an inhuman centralized mass society.

It is therefore of little use to apply existing labels to the new division in society. It cuts across them all and is itself, so far, without definitions or slogans. But it can perhaps be given body by an attempt to describe some of the policies which it seems to inspire and the principles upon which it appears to draw. Such a survey must inevitably be fragmentary and lacking in definition. Only hindsight gives certainty and the full vision. But even hints and premonitions are significant. The cloud no bigger than a man’s hand at last brings the rain.

It was to the industrial worker that Marx looked for the revolt that would bring about the classless society, and although the development of the Western working class has very largely belied Marx’s predictions, he was not wrong in foreseeing that their dissatisfaction and protest would play a central part in the development of industrial society. Without properly, without stake in the community, exposed to the hazards of unemployment and to meaningless repetitive work, they were the anonymous units out of which the ant society seemed most likely to be built. It was in fact the unemployed workers of Germany who, in their millions, turned to Nazism and Communism after 1929.


IN the free world, the belief that employment must be secured and better conditions created can be counted as one of the new imperatives in our thinking. Certainly, the techniques of maintaining high and steady employment had to be laid bare before the policy could be made a fact; and Lord Keynes’s fruitful discovery of the limited measure of state intervention which can probably be relied upon to secure stable conditions has helped to blur the old dogmatic division between absolute state control and absolute laissez faire. In this sense, full-employment policies are an integral part of contemjxrary thought about society. Yet they are probably not ihe most significant. After all, a totalitarian society also is totally employed.

The most significant change is surely in the question of the worker’s status. He must have work, he must have bread, he must have leisure, but all those can be secured under tyranny. The real problem is how, in an industrial order, to give him the status of a free and responsible man. From the so-called Right — in other words, from the capitalist order of America — has come the revolution in workermanager relations of the last decade, a revolution incidentally almost ignored in Europe until the Marshall Aid authorities began to make it known. The belief that the plant itself can be a genuinely human community and that the worker can share in what Peter Drucker calls “the managerial attitude” is perhaps only at the beginning of its influence; but the interest in profit-sharing, in t he association of t he worker by bonuses and incentive schemes with increases in productivity, in the possibilities of joint consultation and in the general effort to make the ordinary citizen a shareholder in business enterprise — all this can no longer be dismissed as outside the main stream of American industrial practice.

Nor is the new approach confined to America. In France, officials of the Mutual Security Administration are carriers of the idea when they arrange loans to private industry only on condition that the workers share in the gains secured by increased productivity and that consultation and pension schemes are introduced. In Germany, the Conservative Government of Dr. Adenauer has introduced legislation to give permanent workers representation on the boards of management of major industries. In some states of Federal Germany, workers already have a 50 per cent representation.

Perhaps the most interesting confirmation of this development as a genuine trend in modern thinking lies in the evidence that, within the British Labor Party, there is movement in the same direction. In 1951, two outstanding younger leaders of the party, Mr. Hugh Gaitskell and Mr. James Callaghan, suggested profit-sharing as a possible alternative to nationalization. In the statements of principle published by the Fabians and by the Socialist Union this year, the reason the idea of “nationalizatio” as an end in itself was considerably modified lay in the fact that state ownership does not necessarily affect or improve the worker’s sense of “belonging” and of playing a significant part in his daily work. Indeed, the Socialist Union now makes “responsible participation” the fundamental aim of left-wing policy in our growing managerial society.


THE instrument of totalitarian rule has invariably been the state — the state, captured by a single party and making absolute claims first on its own citizens and then, where power allowed, on its neighbors. It is therefore not surprising that deeper reflection on the state and on its responsibilities is another thread in the web of this century’s new thinking. The change in mental climate is naturally more noticeable on the Left, where acceptance of state action has long been almost automatic. There are many symptoms of this new approach —the interest in decentralization, the turning away from direct physical controls and planning to the more flexible methods of financial control, the decline in nationalization as a dogma.. It implies no retreat from t he belief that t he power of government must be used purposefully for the welfare of the community. It does imply far more caution about the manner in which the power can best be exercised.

But in the matter of the sovereign state’s external relations, it must be admitted that both Right and Left, conservatives and radicals, have all had in them a strong strain of absolutism. It is not only the totalitarians who accept no claims beyond those of their own nation-state. They may have pushed the notion of sovereignty to hideous lengths. But the exclusive rights of the sovereign nation has also been and still is a thoroughly democratic fallacy. May one not discern here too, however, the beginnings of a new trend of thought? One strand is the renunciation of imperialism in which Britain has been the pace-setter for the old colonial empires of Europe. Another is the urge towards federation, which is already producing its first concrete achievement in the pooling of Europe’s iron and steel under the Schuman Plan — a movement which has undoubtedly owed much to American enthusiasm for the federal principle and the example, from the federal United States, of what benefits the federation of a wide area can bring in terms of prosperity, freedom of movement, extended horizons, and courage for new ventures.

Another strand in our new international thinking is the new sense of mutual interdependence which helped to create the Marshall Plan and may yet solve the problem of long-term equilibrium in international trade and make a fact of Western assistance to backward areas. The not ion of each state being sufficient to itself and securing its own interests by unilateral action dies hard—just as, no doubt, five or six millennia ago, the primitive tribal instinct died even harder. But once the West had been forced to abandon the optimistic nineteenth-century confidence that each man and each nation, by serving his own interests, automatically served the good of all, there were only two roads ahead: either to assert the primacy of power and of selfish nationalism or to seek a system of cooperation. The totalitarians have chosen the former way. With confusion of mind and perturbation of spirit, the Western powers are edging towards the other.

These points of new growth in modern society still lack coherence and they have not yet been strikingly expressed either in a political program or in the full development of a masterwork — a book of the weight of a Discourse on Method, a Wealth of Nations, or Das Kapital. Indeed, it may well be that no strikingly original work will crystallize the new thinking since one of its most remarkable characteristics is its turning back to earlier ideas and older wisdom in the very process of trying to create a tolerable society in the post-atomic age. Somerset Maugham once remarked that “great ideas are too important to be new” and there is no doubt that, in strong reaction against the facile rationalism and naive confidence in science and material progress of the last century, men are turning from institutions and abstractions — such as class, dialectic, conditioning, group interest, and all the jargon of superficial sociology—to the central and eternal problem of man himself.

After a century of interest in conditioning and environment — an interest which has added permanent insights to our knowledge of human behavior— the pendulum is swinging back to the human being upon whom the external influences go to work. He is profoundly affected by his society — but in turn it bears his mark, and the more men strive to overcome the anonymity and irresponsibility of mass civilization, the more urgently they have to consider the quality of the individual citizens in it. As the New Fabian Essays suggest: “Every economic system, whether capitalist or socialist, degenerates into a system of privilege and exploitation unless it is policed by a social morality which can only reside in a minority of citizens.” Or, as a considerably shrewder observer of human nature once put it, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves” — not in our environment, our conditioning, our collective excuses for individual irresponsibility, but in the choice of our moral will.

If, however, the crucial importance of individual will and individual action is recognized again, there can be no escape from the further problem of how men are to be persuaded to accept social responsibility and to become the conscience of the community. In other words, how can society guarantee that supply of good men on whose integrity, generosity, forbearance, and charity the wholesomeness of the community depends? Bertrand Russell can say, on his eightieth birthday, looking back over a life spent in the vanguard of rationalist thought, “What the world needs is more charity, more Christian compassion, more love.”But how are the springs of love to be unsealed? Self-interest is not the answer. Social conformity is not the answer. Education is only a part of the answer since, before you educate, you must know what principles are to be taught. Here is the last and fundamental break from nineteenth-century thinking. Neither material progress nor science nor environment automatically generates good men and women. How is it to be done?

It would be tempting to give the answer in terms of religion. It is true that Catholicism has recovered great inlluenee in Europe and is one of the main forces behind the efforts at federation. It is also true that the British Labor Party has become steadily more aware of its Methodist roots. One can also point to notable conversions and to a far greater general interest in religious thought. But what seems still to be lacking is one of the fundamentals of any genuine religious revival — the sense of the need for help. There were as many honest men at the time of Augustus as there are today who said that only a revival of integrity and charity and pietas could save the Commonwealth. There were us many men then as now who accepted the Golden Rule and believed that men should be ruled by love. But it seems that they were more agonized and more despairing than we are at the capacity of man, as man, to pull himself up, as it were, by his own spiritual bootstraps, to shake off the weight of custom and sin and encrusted selfinterest. So it was that the beginning of Christ iatiity came, not as an injunction to “loveone another,” but as the tremendous news of Cod Himself coming to the rescue, dying and rising and conquering sin and death.

Of this type of awareness, our modern world shows not much trace. The revival of interest is in ethics rather than religion. It is the age of the Stoics, noble, well-intentioned, capable of immense good. We do not yet know whether humility will follow, and with humility, grace.