Monday, January 12, 2015

Eras and Titles

The practice of dividing time into discreet eras goes back a long way.  The Greeks were already talking about the Age of Gold and Age of Silver in what we now call Classical Antiquity.  The eras are always somewhat arbitrary, but useful for keeping the exuberance of the past in manageable and memorable pigeonholes.

It was the mention in the last post of the English historian Eric Hobsbawm that got me to thinking about this use of "ages" and "eras."  Hobsbawm was a true and lifelong disciple of Marx.  And with Marx (as with St. Augustine), history has a meaning, each age having its own particular role and responsibility in the procession of time.

The four volumes I am thinking of I purchased from the Folio Society back in 2005.  They share a common format, and sit in a handsome single slipcase, emblazoned with a series title, "The Making of the Modern World."

But Hobsbawm didn't mean, at first, to write a four-volume account of recent history.  As is so often the case, one thing led to another, and we are now fortunate to have the the following:

The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848
The Age of Capital, 1848-1875
The Age of Empire, 1875-1914
The Age of Extremes, 1914-1991

These are books I can heartily recommend.  God knows I'm no Communist, but I honestly know of no series that compares for conveying the sense of breathtaking change that has overwhelmed the world these last few centuries.  One need not share Hobsbawm's Marxist hopes to get caught up in the drama of this story.

And yet I come back to those titles--especially the incongruity of the last one.  Marxist history, as I said above, has a definite shape.  Class conflict gives rise to revolution, then to a new orientation of class relationships, based on newly emerging forms of the means of production.  The nineteenth century form, bourgeois industrial capitalism, begins to crack when untrammeled competition forces it to make increasingly crushing demands on the industrial proletariat.  Lenin's assertion that imperialism is the final last stage of capitalism then gives a plausibly Marxist rationale for capitalism's unexpected reprieve, the interval in which the entire world is roped into the system.

So far, so good.  We have in the titles of Hobsbawm's first three volumes the three stages that Marxism-Leninism considers the prelude to the triumph of socialism.  So why, I wonder, was the last volume not called The Age of Socialism.

After all, the period chosen encompasses, almost exactly, the lifespan of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the first and most powerful of the "workers' states," and the unchallenged leader of the international Communist movement.  This period also sees the rise of the British Labour Party, the adoption of social democracy and the welfare state as the predominant form of government in Western Europe, and, even in the resisting United States, a vast expansion of the regulatory apparatus and the so-called "safety net":  social security, mandatory unemployment insurance, the federal reserve, medicare, and the like.  And fascism?  We tend to forget that fascism was not an ideology of laissez faire capitalism or material consumption, but a corporate and centralized movement for collective effort;  we overlook the fact that Hitler's "Nazism" was short for "National Socialism."

So why didn't the next stage in Marx's schema, which fits so well the world of 1914-1991, supply the title to Hobsbawm's last volume?  Perhaps because it wasn't supposed to end that way...or even end at all.  There is a certain sense to the Marxist eras.  But history is not that clean or precise.  Socialism, though denied in name, is a growing omnipresence.  But revolutions have not ceased.  Capitalism and imperialism, far from being abolished by socialism, aufgehoben out of existence, seem to be getting along quite well with socialism.  Our syntheses are much muddier than the Hegelian-Marxist model might suggest.

This should not be a surprise.  The future doesn't, and ought not, to yield so easily to our scrutiny.  "No man knows the day or the hour."  We really, really realize that the future is, essentially, surprise.  Thus our own "Age of Anxiety," as we wonder where the next wonders, the next disasters, will arise.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Creating History: A Follow-up

In my post of October 18 I was thinking about how we all create a particular past by, to some extent, choosing the objects that populate it.

A related idea was very commonly voiced during the recent midterm elections.  Some significant number of voters have their own favored news sources.  The choice of a single source may perpetuate itself; the accuracy of a unique source of news is apparently confirmed by a lack of engagement in self-criticism or self-correction.  In this circumstance the electorate can therefore develop (or be manipulated into) discreet outlooks that are politically useful, but at the cost of increasingly alienating them from those others with a different viewpoint--to the extent, even, that any other viewpoint becomes so incomprehensible that the only explanation for it must be stupidity or malice.

That's something we can see practically every day in our politics.  But I thought of another example.

I have been interested for some time in reading a Spanish account of the Spanish Civil War.  Twenty to twenty five years ago I read Antony Beevor's account of it, and it struck me as fairly balanced.  I had the bad judgment to lend the book to a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and I never got it back.  So I was thinking, my Spanish is much improved these last two decades, maybe I should tackle ithe subject in Spanish.

So I was looking on Amazon Spain and ran across what looked like a pretty good general account of the war, a Historia de la Guerra Civil Española, by Ricardo de la Cierva.  As is sometimes the case, after ordering a book I became curious about the author.  Now the literature of the Spanish Civil War is still fiercely heated, and soon I became aware of rather bitter animosity on the part of some against de la Cierva.  I learned that he was, and remains, a franquista, a Franco partisan who served as a cultural minister in some of the last Franco governments.  His partisanship is arguably understandable, since his father, a supporter of the Nationalists, was imprisoned and then murdered by the Republicans as the Nationalists closed in on Madrid.  

That's not to say that de la Cierva is a fascist.  "Reactionary" is a word that would probably be used by his more polite opponents.  He seems to characterize himself as one who values the "old Spain," the Spain of Catholic monarchy over a more traditionalist society of peasant farmers and middle class artisans and merchants.  His more vocal critics call him only a "historian" (in quotation marks); his own great criticism of writing about the war, especially that written in English,  is that it too often ignores primary documents (to which he, as a government insider, has had some advantage of access).

These are not things that will put me off reading him.  One of the interesting things about Spain--not exactly unique, but perhaps more pronounced than elsewhere--has been its ambivalence about the modern enterprise, its alleged backwardness in the face of a challenges from bourgeois capitalists, anarchists, socialists and communists.  Spain seems now to have "caught up" with the rest of Europe--for better or for worse--but the civil war seems to have been fought, in part, over that whole issue of the implications of modernity, and I think, therefore, it could be enlightening to hear the story from what was, militarily, the winning side, but, culturally, the side that is probably now losing. 

In doing so I will undoubtedly be given to sympathizing with those whom many think beyond the pale.  Franco is associated with fascism, and it was, and has been, the work of the Spanish left to paint him so.  I'm not so sure myself,  The English Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose leftist credentials are surely impeccable, states right out that Franco was not a fascist (though his coalition undoubtedly included them).  

In any case, Hobsbawm raises the interesting issue that, though I give second thoughts to reading a historian tagged by some as a fascist, as, in any case, an unreconstructed franquista, it never occurred to me to be particularly "on guard" with a communist like Hobsbawm.  Perhaps it's because I've read quite a bit of Marxism, and though I can't accept it as a real science, or as defensible ideology in practice, I can certainly respect its implicit promotion of those who labor so that the few can live at ease.  It is one of the great virtues of Hobsbawm's four volumes on the making of the modern world that they pay attention to the obscure as well as the great, the suffering of the many as well as the triumphs of the few, the price paid by the voiceless for the "progress" of the world.  One would think that those topics should be more front-and-center in Christian historiography.

The upshot is the same.  In a world filled with angels and devils, who all write their own books, we owe it to ourselves not to confine ourselves to our own little tribe, but to also sup occasionally with the angels and with the devils, hoping thereby not to become trapped in our own untested assumptions--but also keeping one's own long spoon handy, just in case.