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The War and the Future

ISSUE:  Spring 1942

Economic Consequences of the Second World War, By Lewis L. Lorwin. Random House. $3.00. The World’s Iron Age, By William Henry Chamberlin. The Macmillan Company. $3.00. This Age of Fable. By Gustav Stolper. Rey-nal and Hitchcock. $3.00. Ideas for the Ice Age, By Max Lerner. The Viking Press. $3.00. The Balance Sheet of the Future. By Ernest Bevin. Robert M, McBride and Company. $2.75.

How did we get this way? What went wrong with the nineteenth century, with the years of growing political democracy and spectacular economic progress, to bring us in 1942 to the Second World War, with political democracy challenged to the death, and the forces of violence riding the world like mechanized cavalry?

The first parts of the first three books in this group are concerned with the answer to that question. Lewis L. Lorwin’s “Economic Consequences of the Second World War” is a close packed record of fact, with the names and dates of international maneuvers duly noted; as a quick compendium it should do for the current college generation what Hazen’s “Europe Since 1815” did for those of us who faced the question of how we got this way twenty-five years ago. The book has five well documented sections on the Nazi background, the democratic background, the consequences of Nazi victory, the consequences of a democratic victory, and factors in post-war readjustment. In each case the roots of current programs and proposals are traced back to specific sources in governments, in economic companies, and in private institutions concerned with the shape of things to come. It ought to be useful not only in colleges but for political commentators searching for a ready means of filling in the background of current news.

William Henry Chamberlin’s “The World’s Iron Age” and Gustav Stolper’s “The Age of Fable” are of a different character. Under their points of view the liberal age—the world of the century that came to an end in August, 1914— takes on all the radiance of a Turner etching. Mr. Stolper says that the age of fable began the day that world disappeared. His description of the preceding period may not be a fable, but it certainly is cast in the heroic proportions of a myth. Mr. Chamberlin quite frankly calls it a golden age, by which he symbolizes more than the simple fact that the three freedoms by which Mr. Stolper characterizes the time, —freedom of movement for men, for goods, and for money —were based on gold as an international medium. (This tendency to value the people of the Age of Innocence as they valued themselves—Forsytes, Buddenbrooks, Quesnays— rather than to view them in terms of “Life with Father” is psychologically interesting. Commentators have been saying that peacemaking, this time, would be less hampered than it was in the 1920’s by nostalgia for normalcy because the 1930’s were a period that few would wish to summon back; the thesis that there has been no peace since 1914 revives the problem!)

According to Mr. Chamberlin, “the golden age of European civilization passed with the World War. An iron age set in and gradually tightened its grip on every part of the world.” Mr. Lerner demurs; he says the threat is not iron but ice, and that the ice can be melted by the heat of ideas. Their difference in point of departure shows throughout their respective books. Mr. Chamberlin with Spenglerian pessimism anticipates “an infernal cycle of wars and revolutions and counter-revolutions, of infections and ever spreading violence and hatred and fear, of a descending spiral of humanity.” He is therefore wholly skeptical of plans for the post-war world like the “World New Deal” proposed by Mr. Lorwin in his final chapter, and like the nine steps in world leadership outlined by Mr. Lerner in his opening essay, “The War as Revolution.” In 1919, the plans for a post-war world that were comparably advertised turned into the Big Four’s “forcible-feeble” settlement; post-war destiny was shaped by three wartime obscurities: Lenin, Hitler, and Mussolini. After reviewing the new Leviathan set up by the first two of these (the third gets lost in the shuffle) and the revolutionary currents flowing in the Orient, Mr. Chamberlin reviews the war of steel against gold through all its phases up to the time of writing, which was midsummer 1941. The chapter on “America Faces the Iron Age” is notable for its Before Pearl Harbor flavor: he foresaw “ultimate American intervention, unless there is some unforeseeable miracle like a Soviet successful resistance or an internal collapse in one or more of the dictatorships. How the awkward hurdle of unmistakable popular reluctance to repeat the experiment of 1917 is to be surmounted remains to be seen. But perhaps the necessary preliminary bloodletting will emerge from the occupation of Iceland or from some other overseas adventure,” Again: “It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to name one alien who exerted any perceptible influence in favor of isolation from war.” The time for polemics on this subject is past, but Mr. Chamberlin offers one opening which is provocatively tempting. At various points, he wonders what all this has to do with the future of Kansas and Nebraska. Back in the golden age of liberalism wasn’t there a Kansas-Nebraska Act because of which the future of those two territories had a widespread and not too peaceful repercussion on large areas in various continents around the world?

Mr. Chamberlin’s book is negative because he starts from a negative premise. Dr. Stolper’s book is negative, he says, because the positive half hasn’t gone to press yet (but we may expect it shortly). The part that is currently available is a debunking of the debunkers. The new fables that have explained the years since the golden age ended are here put through the wringer; and it appears that most of them were made up out of whole cloth with false colors. The chapter headings are indicative: “Of Perfect Planning”; “Of Poverty Amidst Plenty”; “Of Have and Have Not Nations”; “Of Decadent Democracy and Efficient Dictatorship.” Much of this neo-debunking is excellently done—where the book misses, it is from overanxiety lest the reader believe the wrong thing. That weakness is not hard to understand if one reads the book’s preface, called “Letter to a Friend.” A more accurate title would be “To Dumbo, or the Professor Unbends.” It begins: “You are bewildered. You are not an historian or an economist or a sociologist but simply an honest person who takes life seriously and wants to understand the political and economic world we live in. . . . You are not even aware how easily you become prey to propaganda because certain slogans, by virtue of endless repetition, are eventually taken for granted.”

Dr. Stolper attributes the rise of fable to the revolt of the masses: “to their understanding, that of the simplest of them, the argument had to be reduced.” The title of Mr. Lerner’s final essay is “The Left: End and Beginning”; the book is a record of the running commentary of an intellectual of the Left on recent events and ideas. It has the graphic character which always gives a collection of cases an advantage over a textbook. Even the essays of longer range, like those on Machiavelli and Holmes, have a contemporary pertinence; pieces such as “The People’s Century”—a reply to Henry Luce—and almost any of the “Notes on the Two-front War” are like pictures taken with a speed graflex, with the dust and the movement of the market place showing. A great deal of the case for the Left, which is the link connecting the essays, is well defended, usually by the well advised tactic of taking the offensive. Mr. Lerner has a few sentences on Lincoln that are pertinent: “He was no great Leftist. Yet the American progressives have made a mistake not to claim him as one of them. Why have they, with a few exceptions, steered shy of him? Has it been some curious snobbishness—the knowledge that Lincoln is in the very stream of the American tradition, and the feeling that the Left needs something more esoteric and marginal before it recognized the stuff of heroism?”

Of the public figures of our time, Ernest Bevin has been the left-of-center hero, particularly to Americans. “The Balance Sheet of the Future,” a collection of speeches, is about evenly divided between the period before Mr. Bevin’s entry into the cabinet, when he was General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and a leader in the Trades Union Congress, and the period after his acceptance of the Ministry of Labor and National Service. The speeches of the first period are the more interesting. When it comes to statements of the general objectives of the war effort, the inevitable comparison with Mr. Churchill’s speeches makes Mr. Bevin’s statements suffer; and the current-progress accounts of a Minister’s routine are unlikely to be more electrifying than the parallel speeches of our War Production Board officials. (Again, speeches are a necessarily inadequate measure of a man whose main preoccupation has been to get things done.)

Most interesting of the statements from Mr. Bevin’s pre-cabinet period is the chapter on “The Britain I Want to See.” The dates of this material are in themselves noteworthy—the earlier part was prepared in 1920 and the latter in early 1933. The objectives of the First New Deal are specifically anticipated: “Why should we go to the ends of the earth for the power to drive our industry by oil when we could develop a great national gas grid? Why should we have slums or unfit housing when we possess the best clay, the best slates, tiles and labor, and all the essentials to house our people properly?”

His summary of international objectives lists: “A clear and bold lead for world peace. A definite lead to the world to establish an international currency.

A willingness not only to seek equality abroad but to be ready to give it.

A bold lead to curb the concession hunters, who are the source of so much mischief, and to bring under public ownership and control, through an international organization, the essential raw material resources of the world, making them available for human needs and development. A bold step to curb the power and influence of high finance and to relegate speculation to the limbs of the past.”

Comparison of this summary with the post-war organization proposed at the end of “The Economic Consequences of the Second World War” calls to mind the fact that Mr. Lorwin has been Economic Advisor to the International Labor Office and Mr. Bevin an active participant in its work. The measure of agreement on fundamental purposes shared by those who worked together during the Geneva years is an asset to the future. And no one realizes better than they that the future will be either steamrollered by the iron of the dictators or put on ice indefinitely unless broad popular purpose is mobilized behind the men of good will.


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