COLD WAR OVERSEAS - WORLD CIVIL WAR
World Civil War
historians would agree that it is too soon to sum up the twentieth
century. Yet we all do so. The publisher of Time,
Life and Fortune, Henry Luce, declared in 1940 that the twentieth century
would be the American century.
way of summing up the twentieth century is to call it the New Hundred
Years War. Its battlelines were laid down during the decade leading up
to the Great European War of 1914 to 1919. The settlement from conflict
set the field for the anti-fascist wars of 1941-45. The victors in that
world war, in turn, became the antagonist in the Cold War with its
continuing threat of annihilation.
and between those three conflicts, there have been hundreds of
“limited” wars. “Limited” applies to destruction that does not
threaten to extinguish all life. Thus Korean, Indo-China and Gulf were
limited wards, because most of the world was not involved directly. Yet
there destructiveness was in no sense limited if you were where the
bombs were falling. Moreover, those in the firing line are civilians at
least as often as the combatants.
fact that civilians have become prime targets looks like further
evidence for saying that the twentieth century was another hundred years
an historian, whose work is largely about Australia since the 1880s, I
have something of a professional interest in conceptualising the drift
of the past century. There is a more pressing reason why my writing is
concerned about the shape and direction of our times.
explain that connection is to turn to a different summation of the
twentieth century. By 1940, Thomas Mann had recognised that he was
living through – not a second world war – but a world civil war. On
the one side were the rich, protected by the armed power their state,
and on the other were the poor who organised to defend themselves. Mann
acknowledged that many of his fellows could not bring themselves to
oppose fascism out of fear of strengthening communism. So rather than
thinking in terms of a new hundred years war, let’s take up Mann’s
insight about a world civil war.
question then becomes: “Whose side are we on?”
of the continuing appeal of the 1942 film Casablanca
comes from its presentation of one of those occasions when our choice
was clear cut. My eye still goes damp whenever I watch the bargirl
Yvette stand up from among the Nazis to join in singing of Le
Marseillaise. Before the
closing scene, the adventurer and the corrupt policeman form ranks with
the anti-fascist writer.
choice appeared clear cut again during the 1960s. My first book, A
New Britannia, grew out of an attempt to understand why the
Australian electorate in 1966 had not supported Arthur Calwell’s
opposition to the war against the Vietnamese. Why had the
anti-conscription victories of 1916-17 not been repeated? Why was
Australia not as radical and as anti-Imperialist as the “Legend”
would have had to believe?
then, my writing has had the political purpose of contributing to the
establishing of social equality and national independence. If they were
impossible goals, I do not know what I would write about. Without their
inspiration, I would have to break the first rule of good style which is
to have something to say.
the catastrophe ever comes, my words will perish sooner than they are
doomed to do anyway. Writing in the shadow of global war keeps another
matter to the fore in my prose. I write because I want to contribute to
a world in which there is greater equality between peoples and between
countries. If we thought that the human species were going to end this
century. I wonder whether we would find the resources to tie ourselves
to the world process when there is so much please to be had in talking
with friends, strolling while parrots splash their colour, or from
reading grave consolations. Unless we can fashion a better world, why
“scorn delights, and live laborious days”?
persevere with my thirty-year apprenticeship to the trade of finding the
apposite world for the corrected thought, I need two dollops of optimism
in my muesli. First, I need to believe that our species will survive.
More importantly, I need to be optimistic enough to believe that the
system that has produced this world civil war will not survive, as Ford
Maddox Ford put it.
this world civil war, the fate of socialism has not been one of
uninterrupted joy. Indeed, on one reading, the socialist experiment has
failed utterly. Capitalist democracies such as Australia are the best
that the world will ever know. By this account, future historians will
note that the twentieth century was a time in which socialism was tried
but proved, at best, to be unworkable, or, at worst, as monstrous as the
system it had overthrown.
we have acknowledged the defeats and disasters that have accompanied the
building of socialism, there is no reason to conclude that the attempt
is futile, It is a mistake to assume that history must move at the same
rate as our bodies age. Let us for a moment make a comparison with the
mergence of capitalism which had a very difficult birth. For centuries,
it clung to the margins of a feudal order. In several ways, l’Ancien
Regime did not disappear until it was ravaged from within during the
Great European War. In short, it took almost 500 years before capitalism
triumphed. Remember too that capitalism had never sought to end
exploitation, but to intensify it. Thus, we should not be discouraged
when we find obstacles arising as we try to move from a system of
exploitation towards a society where social equality prevails.
if the threat of annihilation is so great, is it worth writing about any
other topic? Talk about socialism could be seen as a diversion from the
struggle for survival. Surely all concerned people must devote all our
energies to the prevention of nuclear war?
one sense, we must. But we must also be careful not to fall for the
culture of death. If we think about nothing except the bomb, we will
install the mentality of the grave. Faced with death, it is vital to be
playful, to keep alive the arts and sciences, to be sometimes frivolous
and, on occasion, idle. In a word, to persist with the variety that is
our humanity. By reducing our concerns to any one issue, we add to the
foreshortening of possibility that is epitomised by nuclear war.
White has reminded us of this need in his most recent novel, The
Memoirs of Many in One. Alex refuses to accept that she is confined
to her house, her bed, her life. When all other escapes fail, she goes
on using her imagination.
no limited war from the twentieth century had more impact on the Western
imagination than the Spanish Civil War. From his experience as a soldier
in Spain, the Mexican diplomat and poet, Octavio Paz, understood why
“Anyone who has looked Hope in the face will never forget it”. When
the history of the passing century is written, its reality will be seen
as the era during which humankind began to realise our eternal hopes.
are the lucky ones who are alive at the moment when the first steps are
being taken to rearrange society along the lines of social equality. We
are fortunate enough to be part of a century in which all countries
claimed the right to run themselves. Above all, we are privileged to
belong to the century during which people have begun to rise up to
overthrow those systems that thrive upon destruction.