This dry-sounding pelican book revealed to me a lot of very misleading ideas I had, until finishing it, been labouring under. Despite being first publThis dry-sounding pelican book revealed to me a lot of very misleading ideas I had, until finishing it, been labouring under. Despite being first published 1964, its perspective on contemporary history seems no less relevant to how later decades have transpired. Barraclough and other contemporary historians make the cleavage between "Modern" an "Contemporary" at a period around the end of the 19th century. Barraclough takes a skeptical stance towards reformulations of a European-centred historiography, however acknowledges that the impossibility of continuing with older formulations are one of the things that make the Contemporary Period a very different object of study for the historian:
[New formulas] have been made by historians who have perceived, quite correctly, how rickety the conventional threefold division of history into "ancient", "medieval" and "modern" has become. In particular, it has been suggested that, just as the Mediterranean was succeeded by a European age, so now the European has been, or is being, succeeded by an Atlantic age. This scheme, which implies that the central theme of contemporary history is the formation of an Atlantic community, is plausible and attractive; but there are three reasons why we may hesitate before endorsing it. First of all [...] it took shape as a projection backwards from the Atlantic Charter of 1941 and was not current [...] among historians before the Second World War. Secondly, the sequence "Mediterranean-European-Atlantic" is as much a reflection of a European point of view as the sequence "ancient-medieval-modern" which it is intended to replace, and for that reason alone it is a dubious appellation for a period one of the most obvious characteristics of which has been a decline in European predominance and a shift of emphasis away from Europe. And, finally, [...] the trend in recent times has been for this economic community to get weaker rather than stronger. p.21-23
Barraclough assures us that he does not impose these distinctions in retrospect; rather if anything the description is a return to the profound feeling by Europeans of discontinuity, well-documented in the writings of that generation, that we dyed-in-the-wool moderns have lost or become acclimatized to:
It is in the years immediately preceding and succeeding 1890 that most of the developments distinguishing "contemporary" from "modern" history first begin to be visible. [...] Before the nineteenth century had closed, new forces were bringing about fundamental changes at practically every level of living and in practically every quarter of the inhabited globe, and it is remarkable, if we examine the literature of the period, how many people were aware of the way things were moving. The ageing Burckhardt in Basel, the English journalist W. T. Stead, with his vision of the "Americanization of the world," Americans such as Brooks Adams, even Kipling in the sombre "Recessional" he wrote for Queen Victoria's jubilee in 1897, are only a few of the more outstanding figures among a multitude who sensed the unsettling impact of new forces: their particular prognostications, the fears and hopes they attached to the changes going on around them, may have proved wrong, but their perception, often dim but sometimes acute, that the world was moving into a new epoch was not simply an illusion. p.24-5
[...]Finally Europe, which had tried to make the world its appendage, became the appendage of the two world-powers, The United States and the Soviet Union. [...]They were a turning-point in the process by which the system of balance of power, European in origin and dependent for its continuance upon the pre-eminance of Europe, gave way to the system of world polarity, division among a multiplicity of competing and self-balancing interests to the establishment of great self-contained, continent-wide power blocks, from which rigid iron curtains excluded all extraneous powers. At the end of this development, and symbolizing the change, stand the Berlin wall of 1961 and the United States' action to enforce the withdrawal of Russian rocket bases from CUba in 1962.p.108
After drawing attention to the diminishment of European hegemony internationally, the book asks us to consider the full significance of the major discontinuities within the internal political systems of European nations. After universal franchise, an entire political tradition was not so much transformed as deserted, in Barraclough's view. Here, his analysis of the word "party" in politics was a major revelation to me:
The effect of [universal franchise], stated shortly, was to make unworkable the old system of parliamentary democracy that had developed in Europe out of the "estates" of late medieval and early modern times, and to inaugurate a series of structural innovations which resulted in a short space of time in the displacement of the liberal, individualist representative system by a new form of democracy: the party state. A number of factors have combined to conceal the revolutionary nature of this transformation. The first is terminological. In England, in particular, the mere fact that the history of political parties, and the term "party" itself, reach back in apparent continuity into the seventeenth century, has been sufficient to create the illusion that all that occurred was a process of adaptation which broadened the foundation but left the essence of the old structure standing. In the second place, current ideological conflicts have obscured the issue [...] by comparison with the one-party system prevalent in fascist and communist countries [...] it has seemed almost treasonable to inquire how far all the modern forms of government mark a breach with the representative democracy of a century ago. In this respect the currently popular distinction between liberal and totalitarian democracy is not altogether satisfactory, since [...] it fails to take account of the fact that communism, fascism, and the modern western multiparty system are all different responses to the breakdown of nineteenth-century liberal democracy under the pressure of mass society.
[...]To speak of defense of democracy as if we were defending something we had possessed for generations, or even for centuries, is wide of the mark. The type of democracy prevalent today in western Europe - what we summarily call "mass democracy" - is a new type of democracy, created for the most part in the last sixty or seventy years and different in essential points from the liberal democracy of the nineteenth century. It is new because the politically active elements today no longer consist of a relatively small body of equals, all economically secure and sharing the same social background, but are drawn from a vast amorphous society, comprising all levels of wealth and education, for the most part fully occupied with the business of earning a daily living, who can be mobilized for political action by the highly integrated political machines we call "parties." In some cases - for example, in the "people's democracies" of eastern Europe - there may be only one, elsewhere there will be two or more parties; in either case the fact remains that the party is not only the characteristic form of modern political organization, but also its hub. [...] The essential point is that ultimate control, which during the period of libral democracy was vested in parliament, has slipped, or is slipping, from parliament to party - at different speeds and by different routes in different lands, but everywhere along a one-way road. p.130
Despite this being a mildly titled pelican introduction to a subject, this is a discomforting conclusion that undermines the extant consensus that our democracy, in comparison with the "extreme" ideologies, has the vindication of a long history behind it. The clear conclusion, and the full working significance of mass participation and Party Politics, is one that very few people show awareness of when they talk about "democracy." Barraclough continues to rather rub this point in, explaining the political presumptions of the brave new world that we have naturalized ourselves to:
The transition from sedate liberalism, with its respect for birth, property and influence, to mass democracy, which was an accomplished fact in the United States by 1850, was a far more hesitant process on the European side of the Atlantic. Here only the impact of industrialization in the period after 1870 was strong enough to override conservative resistance and carry the change through. The new political attitudes and methods manifested themselves first of all in England, immediately after the passing of the Second Reform Bill in 1867, though it was only after the passing of the Ballot Act in 1872, the Corrupt Practices Act of 1883, and the Third Reform Bill of 1885, which raised the electorate to around five millions, that democratization of the franchise could be said to have been secured. p.134
The position of the deputy, the representative or member of parliament, has altered in funamental ways. Although lip-service is still paid to the theory which makes him the representative of the whole nation, bound only by his conscience, it is obvious that the actual position is very different. In reality, as M. Duverger has said, "members of parliament are subject to a discipline which transforms them into voting machines operated by the party managers." They cannot vote against their party; they cannot even abstain; they have no right to independent judgement on questions of substance, and they know that if they fail to follow the party line they can have no expectation of re-election. The one indispensible quality demanded of them, in short, is party loyalty, and the theory of classical representative democracy, that the electors should choose a candidate for his ability and personality, has ceased to count. p.148-9
The ideological conflict is neither so distinctive a feature of contemporary history as it is often assumed, nor is it always much more than useful propaganda for the pursuit of other objectives. The spread of literacy and the rise in its wake of new methods of mass indoctrination led, without doubt, to a marked increase in the power of propaganda framed on crude ideological lines; but throughout the nineteenth century western Europeans had launched diatribes against the "Asiatic despotism" of the Tsars no less virulent than those later launched against the communists, and there was no aspect of the hatred of the "godless Reds" which had not already been expressed a century earlier regarding the French revolutionaries. Nevertheless there is no doubt that the rise of a new ideology which came after 1917 to be identified with Soviet Russia, and the ensuing conflict between the new ideology and the old, profoundly affected the character of contemporary history. What is misleading is to regard it as the central issue to which all else must be subordinated. Marxism was less the cause than a product of a new world situation. [...]We shall hardly be wrong if we describe the emergence of a new ideology as the last component of the new world situation that was coming into existence during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. It was the final proof that a new period of history was beginning. Just as liberalism had emerged after 1789 as the ideology of the bourgeois revolution and a challenge to autocracy and priviledge, so at the beginning of the twentieth century Marxism-Leninism emerged as the ideology of the expected proletarian revolution and a challenge to dominant liberal values. p.200-1
Yet more topsy-turvy (at least to me) is how Barraclough points out that this was the real revolution of the 20th century: the uniform destruction of the bouregois-aristocratic democratic rule and its replacement by party politics. With it, the change from politicans addressing themselves to an informed elite, to addressing a mass audience.
A conventional overview of the bridge between the 19th and early 20th centuries would give significant retrospective agency to the marxist intellectual tradition. Barraclough does not outright deny that revolutionary movements generally were the signs of this radically new contemporary age, however he is more likely to stress the aforementioned revolution within parliamentary democracy writ large. And with regards to communism, points out how they themselves were, in the majority, a very sedate group of intellectuals in comparison with the wave of terrorism that shocked the precarious political establishment. Instead, Barraclough highlights the intellectual divison between the defenders of the humanist tradition of the aristocratic and bourgeois rule, and the attackers of this tradition:
For the historian it is easier to trace the distintergration of old attitudes and patterns than the formation of new ones. The central fact marking a break between two periods was the collapse - except in formal education, which was thereby increasingly cut off from the mainstream of social development - of the humanist tradition which had dominated European thought since the Renaissance. The attack on humanism took many forms and came from many directions; but at its heart was disillusion with humanism itself, and it was the discrepancy between its professions - namely, respect for the dignity and value of the individual - and its practice - namely the dehumanization and depersonalization of the working classes - that initiated the revolt. p.235
Nietzsche's disruptive influence on the nineteenth century's picture of intellectual man, the purposive master of his own fate, was reinforced by the work of the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, with his assertion of the superiority of intuition over intelligence. It was reinforced also by new trends in the physical sciences and by the impact of new psychological insights. Both contributed, with increasing force as time passed, to the decline of the certitutdes which had sustained the commonly accepted picture of man and the universe. Science, in the first place, dissolved the old concept both of nature and of man's place in nature. The French mathematician, Henri Poincaré, denied that science could ever know anything of reality; all it could, he asserted, was to determine the relationship between things. In England a similar view of the world as a structure of emergent relationships was put forward in F. H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality (1893) and developed by Whitehead and the realitivsts. "Nature by itself," Bradley maintained, "has no reality"; the idea that nature was "made up of solid matter interspaced with an absolute void", which had been inherited from Greek metaphysics, was untenable and must be discarded. Space, Bradley asserted, was only "a relation between terms which can never be found." [...] The trend of modern science was to suggest that the universe is unintelligible, senseless and accidental, and that man, in Eddington's phrase, is "no more than a fortuitous concourse of atoms." Such views, as they passed into wider circulation, could not but have a dissolving effect, and the same was true of the new psychology of Pavlov and Freud. p.237-8
In an interesting digression on writers in the self-consciously "modernist" era, Barraclough frames the vaunted experimentation of authors like Joyce by connecting their alienated, outsider sensibility with the reaction against the cultural naivite of the masses:
For the most part the experimentation which was characteristic of the first half of the twentieth century failed to arrive at positive results; certainly it failed to produce a new synthesis. It would be a mistake to take this failure too tragically. Many of the writers and artists of the period were frankly destructive in purpose and had no ambition to build anew; their object was simply to clear the ground and break with the past. The result neverthekless is that much of their work has retained only historical interest.
It was this sense of alienation, of disinheritance, of the individual's incommunicable solitude, that was the framework of art and writing in the years before and after the First World War. [...] Since [the writer] falls by the wayside becasue life is meaningless or because he is a purposeless bundle of atoms thrown haphazardly into the dark emptiness of space - nothing remains but to communicate, seemingly at random, whatever the writer's sensibility brings to the surface. The ultimate refinement - some would say the reductio ad absurdum - was the surrealistic word sequences of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and E. E. Cummings. A not unsympathetic writer said that Getrude Stein, in using words for pure purposes of suggestion, had "gone so far that she no longer even suggests." It was a criticism which applied more generally. Of Shönberg similarly it was said that his music had "become so abstract, so indivudal and so divorced from all relation to humanity as to be almost unintelligible." Some of the greatest artists, sensing that they were heading for a dead end, drew back. Stravinsky, for example, recoiled after 1923 from his early "dynamism" to neo-classicism.; Picasso quickly returned from his "adventures on the borderline of the impossible" and refused to be bound by any single forumla. But in general, there was an evident tendency for art to degenerate into a mannerism, and for artists and writers to break up into coteries whose thoughts were too esoteric to strike a responsive chord. p.245
This cultural pesimism [...] was comprehensible as a reaction against the complacent assumption, common among liberal-minded intellectuals at the beginning of the century, that the spread of literacy would automatically bring about the dissemination of the existing culture through the whole of society. There was never any reason why it should. The expectation that the new activated classes would simply absorb the literary, artistic , and moral standards of the old was contrary to all historical experience. [...]It was easy to accuse the masses of indifference to serious literary and artistic activites and to blame them for the alleged gap between culture and civilization; but it was equally important to ask whether artists and wrtiers had anything to say that was relevant to their new audience, or whether they had lost touch. [...] What was certain [...] was that the new public, which the spread of literacy had created on a world-wide scale, was different in its tastes and preoccupations from the fairly homogenous educated elite to which writers and artists had hitherto addressed themselves. p.252
This book is my favourite pelican of all time. It is densely factual, original, clearheaded and profound beyond its remit. ...more
I picked up a lesser known Orwell novel (sold 2000 copies on first pressing), Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and I think it's ripe for reappraisal - writI picked up a lesser known Orwell novel (sold 2000 copies on first pressing), Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and I think it's ripe for reappraisal - written during the depression, it follows the downfall of Gordon Comstock, like Orwell a "lower upper middle class" public school boy with no money and few contacts in the literary world he feigns to belong to. His only friend is a socialist upper class editor of a poetry journal (who is, to Comstock's chagrin, always offering the penniless poet money) and the only things which maintain his pride are his girlfriend of two years (who won't have sex with him), his 40shilling a week job, his one published book of poetry "Mice," occasional visits to literary parties of dim prestige, and his potted aspidistra (symbolic of all middle class aspiration).
The character is a terrifying portrait of self-hatred, obviously semi-autobiographical, specifically of the self-pity of those just outside of the elite." Parallels could be drawn to the situation of many graduates such as myself who realise that, after all, the world doesn't owe them a living. Gordon both hates his books who have made him who he is, yet has in them his only comfort, and the only mark of his shattered self-worth: describing his interactions with proud patrons of high-brow literature, he sarcastically calls this sort of talk "the freemasonry of highbrows."
The book repeatedly dwells upon Gordon's tedious but understandable obsession with money. He pretentiously claims to have "declared war on money," whilst still being unable to think about anything but his lack of it. He once refused to "sell out" by accepting a job in the advertising industry and secretly (never explicitly said) hates himself for it. He believes that being poor is more than being cold and malnourished, if you were brought up to imagine yourself as better:
pg39 Gran'pa Comstock was one of those people who even from the grave exerted a powerful influence. In life he was a tough old scoundrel. He plundered the proletariat and the foreigner of the fifty thousand pounds, he built himself a redbrick mansion as durable as a pyramid, and he begot twelve children, of whom eleven survived. pg43 Since [today] the Comstocks were genteel as well as shabby, it was considered necessary to waste huge sums on gordon's "education". What a fearful thing it is, the incubus of "education"! It means that in order to send his son to the right kind of school (that is, a public school or an imitation of one) a middle-class man is obliged to live for years on end in a style that would be scorned by a jobbing plumber. pg166 Something deep below made the stone street shiver. The tube train, sliding through middle earth. He had a vision of London, of the western world; he saw a thousand million slaves toiling and grovelling about the throne of money. The earth is ploughed, ships sail, miners sweat in dripping tunnels underground, clerks hurry for the eight-fifteen with fear of the boss eating at their vitals. And even in bed with their wives they tremble and obey. Obey whom? The money-priesthood, the pink-faced masters of the world. The Upper Crust. A welter of sleek young rabbits in thousand-guinea motor cars, of golfing stockbrokers and cosmopolitan financiers, ofChancery lawyers and fashionable Nancy boys, of bankers, newspaper peers, novelists of all four sexes, American pugilists, lady aviators, film stars, bishops, titled poets and Chicago gorillas.
Gordon enjoys scorning civilisation in a highbrow, fashionably Modernist way, but realizes eventually that this too is a shrinking comfort:
pg92 Ravelston murmured agreement, with a curious air of guilt. And now they were off upon their favourite subject - Gordon's favourite subject, anyway; the futility, the bloodiness, the deathliness ofm odern life. They never met without talking for at least half an hour in this vein. But it always made Ravelston feel rather uncomfortable. In way, of course, he knew - it was precisely this that Antichrist [his journal] existed to point out - that life under a decaying capitalism is deathly and meaningless. But this knowledge was only theoretical. You can't really feel that kind of thing when your income is eight hundred a year. "Oh well it's merely a temporary phenomenon. Capitalism is in its last phase. I doubt whether it's worth worrying about." pg99 "This is all b------s that we've been talking. All this talk we make - we're only objectifying our own feelings. It's all dictated by what we've got in our pockets. I go up and down London saying it's a city of the dead, and our civilisation's dying, and I wish war would break out, and God knows what; and all it means is that my wages are two quid a week and I wish they were five.
Maybe that last line could be updated to "13k and I wish it were 30k."
The upper class is represented satirically in the form of Ravelston, the editor, and his girlfriend Hermione. Ravelston's kind is fairly represented as open-hearted, generous but dim, and he is troubled by the complacent views of the rest of his class. In a way he is as impotent as Gordon, only living a more pampered life:
pg108 "Philip, why do you have to live in such a dreadful way?" "But I don't live in a dreadful way." "Yes you do. Pretending you're poor when you're not, and living in that pokey flat with no servants, and going about with all these beastly people." "What beastly people?" "Oh, people like this poet friend of yours. All those people who write for your paper. They only do it to cadge from you. Of course I know you're a Socialist. So am I. I mean we're all Socialists nowadays. But I don't see why you have to give all your money away and make friends with the lower classes. You can be a Socialist and have a good time, you know." "Hermione dear, please don't call them the lower classes!" "Why not? They are the lower classes, aren't they?" "It's such a hateful expression. Call them the working class, can't you?" "The working class, if you like, then. But they smell just the same." "You oughtn't say that kind of thing," he protested weakly. "Do you know, Philip, sometimes I think you like the lower classes." "Of course I like them." She lay quiet, content to argue no longer, her arms round him, like a sleepy siren. The woman-scent breathed out of her, a powerful wordless argument against all altruism and justice.
The book is strikingly relevant to those in a similar position today, and the differences are interesting for historical reasons. Gordon is a public school boy but not a graduate - today people in his position would be graduates but not public school boys. Gordon makes less than today's minimum wage in a book shop which today would be the equivalent of a huge Odeon or even a smutty video shop. Gordon's fight to stay relevant in the literary world is very similar to some people's desire to make networking connections in the "creative industries" these days. Gordon fights for the integrity he feels he deserves by virtue of his apparent high-mindedness, when in reality the best life he could hope for was offered to him in the form of a surrender of all integrity: a job in advertising. Today, advertising is seen as a noble and creative career pursuit, where all the smartest and most talented artist minds of our generation head.
Orwell is influenced by Miller, but writes with less purple language and pays attention to the menial suffering and status-obsession which eludes Miller's self-portrait in Paris. Shades of The Road to Wigan Pier are prescient when Gordon sees a tramp on a park bench, but looks past it, preferring to dwell where "real sympathy" is deserved: for those just at the edge of the Haves, and not with the desolute Have-Nots. In fact Gordon finds a deluded comfort in the idea of falling absolutely into the Have-Nots, where no one would expect any better of him (until they heard his accent)....more
Loses one star for the annoyingly prissy tone the author takes, but on the whole this is a great book for the outsider to economics. It explains withLoses one star for the annoyingly prissy tone the author takes, but on the whole this is a great book for the outsider to economics. It explains with just the right pace and repetition the core concepts behind the world of finance and the last few chapters, which detail the political obstacles to change in our current circumstances, were very eye-opening for me. I will gladly read another non fiction book by this author....more