The World Civil War
[This talk was given at the Writers Against Nuclear Armaments seminar on 11 November 1986, and published in Imagining the Real, edited by Dorothy Green and David Headon, Penguin, 1987, pp. 85-88.]

Many 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.

Another 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.

Around 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.

The fact that civilians have become prime targets looks like further evidence for saying that the twentieth century was another hundred years war.

As 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.

To 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.

Our question then becomes: “Whose side are we on?”

Part 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.

The 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?

Since 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.

If 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”?

To 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.

Within 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.

After 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.

Yet, 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?

In 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.

Patrick 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.

Perhaps 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.

We 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.