Principal Ideologies in the Age of Extremes: Liberalism, Conservatism, Communism, Fascism 1914-1991

Ideologies in the Age of Extremes: Liberalism, Conservatism, Communism, Fascism 1914-1991

This is a history of political ideologies during the period famously described by Eric Hobsbawn as ‘The Age of Extremes’ - from the First World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ideologies in the Age of Extremes introduces the key ideologies of the age; liberalism, conservatism, communism and fascism. Willie Thompson identifies the political influence of mass movements as a key feature. He uses a powerful approach that considers the different ideologies in relation to each other. This allows him to shows that they often emerged from a common root or merged into a common future, stealing each other’s clothes and reinventing themselves as the stark opposite of a competing ideology.

This sophisticated yet accessible analysis will be of great interest to students of 20th century history and political theory.

Categories:
Año:
2011
Editorial:
Pluto Press
Idioma:
english
Páginas:
288 / 289
ISBN 10:
0745327117
ISBN 13:
9780745327112
File:
PDF, 3.34 MB
Descarga (pdf, 3.34 MB)

You may be interested in Powered by Rec2Me

 

A History of Fascism, 1914-1945

Año:
1995
Idioma:
english
File:
PDF, 9.96 MB

Most frequently terms

 
 
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
Ideologies in the Age of Extremes

Thompson T01771 00 pre 1

28/10/2010 12:53

KEEP IN TOUCH WITH PLUTO PRESS
For special offers, author updates, new title info and more
there are plenty of ways to stay in touch with Pluto Press.
Our Website: http://www.plutobooks.com
Our Blog: http://plutopress.wordpress.com
Our Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/PlutoPress
Our Twitter: http://twitter.com/plutopress

Thompson T01771 00 pre 2

28/10/2010 12:53

IDEOLOGIES IN THE
AGE OF EXTREMES
Liberalism, Conservatism, Communism,
Fascism 1914–91

Willie Thompson

Thompson T01771 00 pre 3

28/10/2010 12:53

First published 2011 by Pluto Press
345 Archway Road, London N6 5AA and
175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010
www.plutobooks.com
Distributed in the United States of America exclusively by
Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press LLC,
175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010
Copyright © Willie Thompson 2011
The right of Willie Thompson to be identified as the author of this work has been
asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN
ISBN

978 0 7453 2712 9
978 0 7453 2711 2

Hardback
Paperback

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data applied for

This book is printed on paper suitable for recycling and made from fully managed
and sustained forest sources. Logging, pulping and manufacturing processes are
expected to conform to the environmental standards of the country of origin.
10

9

8

7

6

5

4

3 2 1

Designed and produced for Pluto Press by
Chase Publishing Services Ltd, 33 Livonia Road, Sidmouth, EX10 9JB, England
Typeset from disk by Stanford DTP Services, Northampton, England
Printed and bound in the European Union by
CPI Antony Rowe, Chippenham and Eastbourne

Thompson T01771 00 pre 4

28/10/2010 12:53

To the memory of Douglas Bain
1939–2010
Friend and comrade

Thompson T01771 00 pre 5

28/10/2010 12:53

Thompson T01771 00 pre 6

28; /10/2010 12:53

Contents

Acknowledgementsviii
Abbreviationsix
Introduction: Definitions and argument
I

1

Age of catastrophe 1914–45
1.	Economic and social developments
2. Liberalism
3.	Conservatism
4.	Communism
5.	Fascism

15
29
43
64
85

II Golden years 1945–73
6.	Economic and social conditions
7. Liberalism on the right
8. Liberalism on the left
9.	Communism
10.	Conservatism and fascism

105
118
138
151
169

III Crisis 1973–91
11.	Economic and social conditions
12. Liberalism and conservatism coalesce
13.	Communism
14.	Fascism
15. Aftermath

187
196
214
231
244

Notes257
Index270

Thompson T01771 00 pre 7

28/10/2010 12:53

Acknowledgements

The idea for this volume emerged out of a History module that I designed
and taught at Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. My thanks are
therefore due to my former colleagues and students, and others outside the
university with whom I discussed the ideas developed here. In this connection,
thanks are especially due to Professor Keith Shaw for the organisational
assistance which enabled the volume to be completed.
I am extremely grateful for the encouragement and assistance of David
Castle, my editor and perceptive critic, at Pluto Press, as well as Anne Beech,
Pluto’s Managing Director. Thanks also to Myra Macdonald who read the
text and made many valuable improving suggestions. All errors of fact and
interpretation are, of course, my own.

viii

Thompson T01771 00 pre 8

28/10/2010 12:53

Abbreviations

AIB
AKEL

Ação Integralista Brasileira (Brazilian Integralist Action)
Anorthotikó Kómma Ergazómenou Laoú (Progressive Party
of Working People)
AKS	
Akateeminen Karjala-Seura (Academic Karelia Society)
ANI
Associazione Nazionalista Italiana (Italian National
Association)
BBC	
British Broadcasting Corporation
BJP	
Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party)
BNP	
British National Party
BUF	
British Union of Fascists
CCF	Congress for Cultural Freedom
CD	Christian Democracy
CDU	Christian Democratic Union
CIA	Central Intelligence Agency
CIO	Congress of Industrial Organizations
CP	Communist Party
CPC 	Communist Party of China
CPCz 	Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (Komunistická strana
Československa, KSČ)
CPGB	Communist Party of Great Britain
CPI (M–L)	Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist)
CPSU(B)	Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks),
(Kommunisticheskaya Partiya Sovetskogo Soyuza)
CPUSA 	Communist Party USA
DC
Democrazia Christiana (Christian Democracy)
DNVP	
Deutschnationale Volkspartei (German National People’s
Party)
ECCI 	Executive Committee of the Communist International
EEC	European Economic Community
ELAS	Ellinikós Laïkós Apeleftherotikós Stratós (Greek People’s
Liberation Army)
EU	European Union
FBI	Federal Bureau of Investigation
G7	Group of Seven (industrialised nations, including Canada,
France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the USA)
GATT	General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
GDR	German Democratic Republic
GRECE	Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation
européenne (Research and Study Group for European
Civilization)
ix

Thompson T01771 00 pre 9

28/10/2010 12:53

x  ideologies in the age of extremes

IKL
IMF	
IRA
KGB

Isänmaallinen Kansanliike (Patriotic People’s Movement)
International Monetary Fund
Irish Republican Army
Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti (Committee for State
Security)
KPD
Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (Communist Party of
Germany)
LO-S	
Landsorganisationen i Sverige (Swedish Trade Union
Confederation)
Member of Parliament
MP	
Mouvement Républicain Populaire
MRP	
Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement)
MSI
NATO 	North Atlantic Treaty Organization
NEP	New Economic Policy
NLF	National Liberation Front
NSDAP	Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National
Socialist German Workers’ Party, Nazi Party)
NSM	National Socialist Movement
OAS	Organisation de l’armée secrete (Organisation of the Secret
Army)
OPEC	Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries
PCE	Partido Communista de España (Communist Party of Spain)
PCF	Parti Communiste Français (French Communist Party)
PEN	Poets, Essayists and Novelists
PNF 	Partito Nazionale Fascista (National Fascist Party)
PSI	Partita Socialista Italiano (Socialist Party of Italy)
RSDLP	Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party
SA 	Sturmabteilung (Storm or Assault Division)
SAP	
socialdemokratiska arbetareparti (Social Democratic Labour
Party of Sweden)
SPD	Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic
Party of Germany)
SR	Social Revolutionary
SS	Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron)
UN	
United Nations
USA
United States of America
USSR	
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
WACL
World Anti-Communist League
WTO	
World Trade Organization

Thompson T01771 00 pre 10

28/10/2010 12:53

Introduction
Definitions and argument

Definitions
This volume is concerned with ideology not in general, but in a specific sense
– the four dominant political ideologies of the twentieth century – and at a
specific time – not the century as a whole, but what Eric Hobsbawm has called
‘the short twentieth century’, the ‘Age of Extremes’, the years between the
onset of the First World War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
The very concept of ideology, an eighteenth-century coinage, is itself highly
ambiguous. When originally used by Destutt de Tracy in the late eighteenth
century, it was simply intended to mean a science of ideas; subsequently it
acquired very different connotations, both positive and negative.
Neutrally defined, ideology could be regarded as an interconnected system
or structure of basic belief applicable to particular social or cultural collectives
– one which incorporates conscious beliefs, assumptions and unthinking
modes of perception – through which its adherents view the world around
them, the interactions and the life processes in which they are engaged. The
concept is certainly sometimes employed in that sense, but it must be admitted
that this is not the most frequent usage or, as Terry Eagleton expresses it,
‘Nobody would claim that their own thinking was ideological, just as nobody
would habitually refer to themselves as Fatso. Ideology, like halitosis, is in
this sense what the other person has.’1
Karl Marx in the nineteenth century used it to mean a false consciousness,
generally in the sense of the misperception of human creations for natural
realities, ‘a solution in the mind to contradictions which cannot be solved in
practice’;2 in other words, mystification – yet the twentieth-century state which
claimed him as its historical inspiration, the Soviet Union, used the term in
a positive sense when applied to its own forms of perception and thinking.
‘The falsity of bourgeois ideology is not due to its ideological character but
rather to its bourgeois origin.’3 One of communism’s bitterest enemies, the
rather spooky organisation Moral Re-Armament, took the mirror-image
position, declaring around 1960 that the West must adopt an equivalently
powerful ideology (that is, Moral Re-Armament) in order to successfully
oppose communism.
If ideology is to be treated as a neutral concept, there is a strong argument
that the ‘commonsense’ of any culture – the taken-for-granted framework
of assumptions, habits, metaphysical, social and political beliefs – could be
regarded as ideology, a mode of consciousness therefore which is all-pervasive,
which none of us can escape, no matter whether we are on the left or right
of politics, religious believers or committed secularists, cultural sophisticates,
1

Thompson T01771 01 text 1

28/10/2010 09:33

2  id eolog ies i n th e age o f e xtre m e s

football fanatics or celebrity obsessives – or even if we never give a thought
to any of these matters.
However, the notion that ideology is a concept that can be applied to
anybody anywhere at anytime in all history is something very different from
the meaning which it came to take on in the twentieth century, mostly one of
negative connotations – and the particular dimension here is one of politics
and, more specifically, of political contestation in an arena where what is
at stake is not simply the issue of who will ride on the gravy train, but of
challenge to or defence of entire social orders.
In the most general and benign sense, ideology is organized thought –
complements of values, orientations, and predispositions forming ideational
perspectives expressed through technologically mediated and interpersonal
communication … But organized thought is never innocent. [Emphasis
added]4
Rather, it relates to a will to power.
Such a belief-system, in addition to its political thrust, naturally incorporates
economic, social and cultural dimensions. For example (although it is not
an invariable rule), political conservatives are on the whole likely to favour
stability in social relations and traditional forms of artistic production, while
political revolutionaries are likely to affirm social and cultural novelty.
The Short Twentieth Century
It is four twentieth-century political ideologies that are our concern here –
although they necessarily have earlier ancestries. The four that are addressed
all lie on the right–left spectrum and each incorporates – in very different
ways – what could also be regarded as ideological outlooks such as varieties
of religious belief or its absence, misogyny or feminism and, in particular,
nationalism. The latter is certainly a pervasive ideological fact of the twentieth
century; in some respects, it can be regarded as the most powerful and
pervasive modern ideology of them all – when nationalism comes into collision
with any competitor, the outcome is usually one of ‘no contest’. In 1914, it
instantly swamped international socialism; it has been the standby resource
of governments and ruling elites facing a serious challenge, and often, too, a
ready weapon of their opponents; Ian Kershaw judges ‘integral nationalism’
to be the chief culprit of the hyper-violent years between 1914 and 1945.5
However, my argument will be that those ideologies under consideration here
are the key political ones; for example, politicised religion may lie either on
the left or the right, motivate either biblical conservatives or proponents of
liberation theology, and the same is true of nationalism, the property both of
Nazis and the Resistance movements which fought them.
Nationalism is far from being overlooked in this volume. The reason it
does not have a separate categorisation is that it permeates all the others, and
so is constantly being referred to. Ultra-nationalism was invariably a distin-

Thompson T01771 01 text 2

28/10/2010 09:33

i n t ro d uc ti o n: d e fi n i t i o n s a n d a rg u m e n t

3

guishing mark, with only one minor exception, of all fascist and quasi-fascist
movements. Nationalism had been intrinsic to conservative governments and
parties throughout Europe – Bismarck used it to outflank his political rivals in
the nineteenth century – and in the UK as well, where it took primarily the form
of imperial sentiment. Liberalism, with its commitment to the development of
civil society and economic if not political internationalism, was perhaps less
addicted to the nationalist drug, but this was only a relative difference and
what could be more nationalistic than the predominantly liberal (in economic
if not in political or cultural terms) society of the USA? Nor was communism
exempt. Not only did nationalism, in the years following 1945, provide the
main strength of the communist parties in China and South East Asia, but in
the USSR itself Stalin mobilised it to support the war effort between 1941 and
1945 (as did the communist resistance movements in occupied Europe), and
afterwards did not scruple to use Great Russian nationalism to underpin his
politics. Communist parties in Western Europe during the Cold War appealed
to anti-American national sentiment.
Readers will also note that the discussion of left wing ideology in this volume
is referred to as communism rather than socialism or Marxism, and that by
communism is meant the ideology of the regimes emerging from the Russian
revolution and/or claiming attachment to its principles, and the non-ruling
parties that were ideologically attached to them. That definition is admittedly
contentious, and indeed it has been and continues to be fiercely disputed by
a variety of parties, groups and individuals that regarded communism as
distorted and slighted by the regimes that claimed to embody it.
However, for better or very possibly for worse it was the definition that
dominated the age of extremes and is therefore the one which I am using.
Moreover, space does not permit an exploration of the dissident collectives
that denied the legitimacy of the franchise on the term claimed by the regimes
of ‘actually existing socialism’, though these are referred to where relevant.
Equivalent considerations apply to Marxism.
Readers may also feel some initial surprise that communism’s principal rival
in the left-wing camp, namely social democracy, does not feature in the list.
The argument for this is a controversial one, though not entirely novel. It is
that what came to be known as social democracy (the term had a very different
meaning prior to 1914) evolved during and immediately following the First
World War into a species of liberalism and formed the liberal ideology’s left
wing, carrying with it until the later years of the century some remnants of
its origins and oppositional character, but nevertheless firmly fixed within the
liberal tradition. The argument will be developed in what follows.
It goes without saying that political definitions of this sort are inevitably
fuzzy and can be compared in this respect to the colours of the visible spectrum
– at their edges they merge into one another. The terms ‘left wing’ and ‘right
wing’ are also contentious, but their continued use despite repeated attempts
to discard them demonstrates that they apply to real forms of political
relationship and are essential to historical understanding.

Thompson T01771 01 text 3

28/10/2010 09:33

4  id eolog i es i n th e age o f e xtre m e s

In addition to parties and ideologies of the left or right, each of these
contains within itself a left and a right wing. In the interwar years the interpenetration of fascists and right-wing conservatives was notorious yet, for
example, the dominant elements within British conservatism could hardly be
distinguished from right-wing liberals, nor most British social democrats of
the Labour Party from left-wing ones. Within social democracy itself, right
and left wings co-existed and quarrelled bitterly.
Nevertheless, I shall argue, there are relevant markers that distinguish
adherents of these ideologies from each other. Of the four, communism was
the most tightly defined. Until the late 1940s, either you accepted the definition
of political reality propounded by the Soviet leadership (although desirable,
it was not necessary to adopt Marxist theory) or you were no communist –
although in 1948 the Yugoslav and, from the 1960s, the Chinese leadership
offered an alternative and rival version of communism.
This volume deals with the intellectual foundations of the ideologies
under consideration, but its principal concern is to consider their historical
application and operation. Theory is discussed, but it is praxis which is
emphasised.
The revolt of the masses
The centuries of the modern world have been referred to as ‘the age of
ideology’ and those of the twentieth century were over a hundred years in
gestation. The left-wing/right-wing distinction derives from a purely accidental
circumstance that occurred during the French Revolution and appeared at first
sight to be of no great significance. In the revolutionary Convention of 1792,
which initiated the Terror, the more radical deputies sat on the high benches
to the left of the chairman, and the more traditionalist ones to the right.
The great French Revolution of 1789–94 was not only the culmination
of centuries of popular dissension and upper-class infighting, it also set an
agenda. For the first time in history the unwashed masses, Edmund Burke’s
swinish multitude, not only appeared on the scene of social upheaval – they
had done so often enough in the past – but emerged, although briefly, as its
driving force, with their spokespeople assuming a leading role.
Most centrally, they claimed political equality. The social reverberations
were felt around the world. A hundred centuries of subordination and
exploitation were denounced and challenged in the name of liberty, equality
and fraternity.6 Of course these concepts were anything but straightforward.
If the democratic constitution adopted in 1793 had ever been applied, it is
far from certain that the Jacobin revolutionaries would have won the vote.
Accordingly, because these had control of the government, it was not applied.
Large elements of the masses, both rural and urban, were appalled by the
turn of events, so traditional deference and loyalties combined with material
shortages and the demands of the revolutionary regime, both material and
ideological, to ignite widespread revolts and uprisings in the name of church
and monarch.

Thompson T01771 01 text 4

28/10/2010 09:33

in t ro d uc ti o n: d e fi n i t io n s a n d a rg u m e n t

5

Revolutionary ideology did not exist when the upheaval commenced in
1789. The elements from which such an ideology could be fashioned, however,
were already in the public domain. In symbolism and rhetoric, the revolutionaries were fond of looking back to the classical world – ancient Greece
and Rome, especially the latter. More concretely though, the ideas of seventeenth-century opponents of autocracy such as John Locke, the American
revolutionaries of two decades beforehand and, eventually, the writings of
Jean Jacques Rousseau were structured into a coherent ideology of liberalism.7
Liberalism
The strength and appeal of liberalism as a revolutionary ideology has to be
appreciated. Ultimately it rests on a foundation of the ‘possessive individualism’
that emerged in seventeenth-century England as a sophisticated commercial
society emerged there with legal and political structures to match. In the
words of C. B. Macpherson, ‘Society consists of relations of exchange between
proprietors. Political society becomes a calculated device for the protection of
property and the maintenance of an orderly relation of exchange.’8
John Locke is generally regarded as having laid the ideological (or
philosophical) foundations of liberalism in the late seventeenth century,
and it was in his argument closely entwined with economic considerations.
According to Macpherson, ‘the aim of mercantile policy and of individual
economic enterprise was to Locke the employment of land and money as
capital’.9 However, although economic, political and social liberalism can
co-exist (and even be declared by their spokespeople to be interdependent),
there is an inherent tension between them.
In societies subjected to unaccountable authority, liberalism as an opposition
project has extraordinary ideological power. Logically it repudiates, except
under tightly defined circumstances, intrusion on citizens’ personal behaviour
whether by government, private monopoly or self-appointed moral arbitrators.
Liberal ideology therefore holds out many tempting attractions – freedom to
live one’s own life secure from arbitrary impositions or inflictions by social
superiors or compulsory deference to them; free choice of personal lifestyles,
of occupation, of sexual partners, of ideological commitment; the possibility
of bringing pressure upon unsatisfactory government; and, if one is interested
in such things, of entry into the market to enhance one’s wealth and status.
Not surprisingly then, mass movements demanding far-reaching changes have
often enough mobilised under liberal banners. Historically, it has been the
opposition ideology of first resort. Liberalism’s animating principle is that
government is essentially contractual – and in principle that contract can be
forcibly annulled if government abuses its authority and violates its terms.
Liberalism was therefore the initial ideology of general emancipation from
arbitrary government and hereditary privilege, and continued for many
decades to fulfil that role. Liberalism’s contradictions as an emancipatory
ideology, however, were apparent even during the revolutionary years – even
more than with an absolutist monarchy, its implications were to put the

Thompson T01771 01 text 5

28/10/2010 09:33

6  id e olog ies i n t h e age o f e xtre m e s

propertyless at the mercy of property owners, and amongst the first actions
of the Jacobins’ predecessors and successors was to lock the masses out of the
political nation10 by restricting the franchise to significant property-owners.
Much of the contradiction arises from the reality of liberalism’s two dimensions
– as economic liberalism on the one hand and social liberalism on the other.
Liberalism and democracy
The issue of democracy and the demand for a universal (male) franchise
therefore represented the first major ideological rift among the opponents of
Europe’s ancien régime, the issue of course being the question of what the
masses might do with the vote once they possessed it. In the early nineteenth
century this antagonism was at its most apparent and liberals were seldom,
if ever, democrats. However, the political scene promises to be a quieter one
if the citizenry at large at least believe that they have ultimate control over
the government and are enabled to vote a different party into office – even if
that choice is limited to different wings of the property party. Therefore, so
long as universal franchise does not threaten property it can be tolerated and
even has distinct advantages. Over the course of the nineteenth century, elites
learned to control the extension of the franchise so that it never threatened
property relations or even systems of elite government, and therefore by 1914
several states, including the major ones of France and Germany, operated a
universal male franchise in such a manner that what the rulers regarded as
public order was not disturbed.
In the twentieth-century liberalism has tended to have a strong association
with democracy, and in nineteenth-century Britain the newly-minted Liberal
party was characterised jointly by its embrace of free trade on the one hand
and franchise extension on the other. However, the relationship of liberalism
and democracy has always been an ambiguous and conflictual one. The issue
of democracy in the sense of universal franchise was never as simple as was
represented either by its proponents or by its enemies.
Economic liberalism can manage perfectly well without democracy and
has often done so, starting with the British Empire and the Dixie states of
the USA, and working its way through the twentieth century in formations
such as fascist Italy, the apartheid South African regime and other regimes
of a dictatorial nature. Moreover, economic liberalism tends to generate
monopoly and annul the reality of economic liberty both for workforces
and consumers. For giant concentrations of capital, political democracy tends
to be an inconvenience because it can interfere with their operations, and
while it can be controlled by media manipulation, lobbying and other such
techniques, resources still have to be devoted to doing that.
On the other hand, the problems of the democratic concept itself are not
inconsiderable. So far as direct democracy is concerned, a lynch mob could
be regarded as an example. For representative democracy the point is well
made that for it to work at state level a basic level of consensus is needed
– the losers must have secure confidence not only that the winners will not
cut off their heads or reduce them to penury but that after the due passage

Thompson T01771 01 text 6

28/10/2010 09:33

i n tro d uc t i o n: d e f i n i t i o n s a n d a rg u m e n t

7

of time they will have the opportunity to persuade the voters to change the
government. As a rule, that degree of consensus is achievable only in societies
with significant all-round levels of material prosperity (although the Indian
case is an exception). Otherwise the struggle over resources is likely to generate
political segmentation in the form of political collectives or parties which
regard their rivals not as opponents to debate with but as enemies to be
annihilated. This was the basis of the argument developed against democracy
in the interwar years by the German conservative jurist Carl Schmitt as Weimar
liberalism appeared to be heading towards social collapse and/or communist
takeover via electoral processes. The present-day rulers of China might well
use it too if they did not feel obliged to continue with a Marxist rhetoric.
These issues by no means exhaust the range of problems. Even under the
most favourable circumstances the sheer complexity of modern government,
the existence of party machines, internal or external pressures, intrigues or
lobbying, all of which are sanctioned by liberal ideology, may act to frustrate
the democratic will. The imperfections cannot be denied. However, the last
word is probably Churchill’s rather disillusioned observation that representative democracy, the epitome of liberal politics, is the worst possible system of
government – apart from all the others.
Conservatism
Prior to 1914, in Europe, the UK and to some extent also in the states of Latin
America, all to a greater or lesser degree economically liberal societies, the
principal political contender against the liberal ideology was conservatism.
The term itself was invented only in the 1830s, but its reality had existed for
several decades beforehand. To a significant extent it could be characterised
as the politics of nostalgia,11 and the conservative counterpart to Locke,
writing over a century later, was Edmund Burke, most famously in his 1790
Reflections on the Revolution in France. It was indeed in the reaction of
terrified ruling classes and their followers, such as the English ‘church and
king’ mobs, to the events and promise of the French Revolution – particularly
the regicide and the episode of the Jacobin Terror – that the mode of thinking
that was to become known as conservatism had its origins.
At bottom, conservatism originated in an ideology of social classes and
status groups whose income was derived from landownership and/or the
connected traditional institutions such as the church or officer corps, and for
whom alteration of the status quo was anathema. As a party name, however,
‘Conservative’ was devised in the mid-1830s by Robert Peel,12 following the use
of the term ‘conservative’ by French reactionaries, to signify that his Tory Party
would not try to reverse the constitutional innovations made in the aristocratic
British constitutional system by its proto-liberal Whig rivals. Instead it would
‘conserve’ as much as possible of the existing social and as much as feasible of
the political structures while being prepared to acknowledge some necessity for
minimal reform when scandals became particularly outrageous. Conservatives,

Thompson T01771 01 text 7

28/10/2010 09:33

8  id eolog ie s i n t h e age o f e xtre m e s

too, were happy enough in the main to uphold the sanctity of market relations
against objections from the lower orders.13
Except in the UK and in Germany (where it was dropped after 1918) the
term was not much used as a party label, but the sentiments embodied in
it were prevalent among substantial minorities in all of the leading states.
Depending on local peculiarities, conservatism might have a distinctively
liberal tinge (as in the UK) or an intensely reactionary one (as in France).
Its basic principle could be defined as a reverence for traditional hierarchies
(preferably validated by divine sanction) and a dislike of economic or social
change which might disturb them and lead on to revolutionary horrors. The
more intelligent conservatives of all countries, recognising that these changes
were unstoppable, followed Peel’s prescription and tried to adjust to them
politically and to minimise their social impact. Not surprisingly, liberals
and conservatives alike hated and dreaded the insurgent labour movement
of the turn of the century and frequently formed uneasy coalitions to resist
its demands; the great exception – again – being the UK, where both the
Liberal and Conservative parties strove to co-opt it, the former with much
greater success.
A bird in the hand
Keeping in mind the attraction of liberalism as a political and social
emancipatory ideology, it is important not to neglect the appeal, (so far as
it is rational, for obscurantist prejudice is very important too) of popular
conservatism. Essentially it is based on the ‘bird in the hand’ principle. If
people are living on the margin, significant change to their life circumstances
may well be for the worse; even the possibility of a better outcome may not
be enough to outweigh the risk of disaster if things go badly. Peasant societies,
unless in exceptional circumstances, are as a rule notoriously traditional and
conservative both socially and technologically – and they have reason to be,
for unsuccessful experimentation there can mean starvation.
The modern world is one of constant and perpetual change, which is
why we regard it as the modern world, and far-reaching change whether in
hunter-gatherer, peasant or industrial societies usually means bad news for
a lot of people – and it is not only material change which is in question. If
institutions and practices that provide meaning to life, explain the universe
and the individual’s place within it, or even simply supply recreation and
enjoyment, are uprooted or placed under threat in the name of progress or
emancipation, the reaction is likely to be fierce and determined. The same
is particularly true if immemorial relations between parents and children or
men and women are challenged.
In the European medieval centuries, or many peasant societies into the early
twentieth century, landlord oppression precipitated revolt and rural uprisings.
As often as not (there were exceptions, for the Christian religion also had
a heritage of apocalyptic expectation) these insurrections focused upon the
demand for restoration of the ‘good old times’ (and usually appealed to the

Thompson T01771 01 text 8

28/10/2010 09:33

i n t ro d uc t i o n : d e fi n i t io n s a n d a rg u m e n t

9

monarch over the head of the local oppressor). In other words, they exhibited
a conservative frame of mind.
The strategy of modern conservatism has been to link such fears and
mentalities with defence of a social structure which retains authority (and
property) in the hands of the powers-that-be, and advance a rhetoric that
connects elite privilege with concern for the welfare of the common people
and promises change, if change there must be, within recognised and
therefore apparently ‘safe’ structures. An underlying theme of twentiethcentury conservatism has been ‘integralism’, frequently in connection with
the Catholic church, a vision of a society based on mutual obligation between
social classes so that the lower orders would fulfil their duties towards god and
the church, society and their betters, and these in turn, animated by religion
and/or honour, would protect the welfare of their charges against material or
cultural disruption. This particular theme is examined in greater detail below.
Communism/Socialism
The contradictions in liberal ideology even at its most democratic resulted by
the middle of the nineteenth century in the appearance in Europe of a new
ideology which stigmatised liberalism as the class ideology of the propertyowning bourgeoisie and proclaimed itself to be openly class-based while also
claiming universality. That was socialism, particularly in its Marxist variant.
In the middle of the century Marx and Engels’s famous Communist Manifesto
proclaimed the approaching political rule of the industrial proletariat, with
their political vanguard being the communists, whom they distinguished from
the socialists of the time, regarded as utopians unaware of class conflict. With
the fierce reaction by establishments to the unsuccessful 1848 revolutions
‘communist’ was too dangerous or provocative a term to use and was replaced
with ‘social democracy’ (that is, democracy was not to be purely political) or,
more simply, with the older term, ‘socialism’.
Industrialisation throughout Europe in the second half of the nineteenth
century, while varying in intensity, everywhere produced an industrial labour
movement among whom the socialist ideology was principally based, though
it has to be emphasised that significant numbers of industrial workers, even
in Germany, where it was most solidly grounded, remained outside that
ideology’s orbit and many socialists, especially among the leadership of its
parties, were not industrial workers.
Throughout continental Europe, with the exception of the Russian Empire
where it remained outlawed and underground, the labour movement, though
politically oppositional, had been co-opted and culturally incorporated. At
the same time it continued to maintain the posture of intransigent political
confrontation, with democracy proclaimed as a mere stepping-stone to the
ultimate socialist commonwealth. Appearances, however, were deceptive.
The individual labour movements in the different countries had grown in
size, had acquired property, had established legal political parties, trade
unions, retail and manufacturing co-operatives, newspapers and journals,

Thompson T01771 01 text 9

28/10/2010 09:33

10  id eolog ies i n t h e age o f e xtre m e s

youth organisations, women’s organisations, organisations for every manner
of social activity – each of which had generated extensive bureaucracies and
resources and all of which would be severely jeopardised by any kind of
serious revolutionary threat or endeavour.
Naturally their leaders, whether they admitted it or not, were forced to
take account of these realities. In Germany, at the beginning of the twentieth
century, Eduard Bernstein, the intellectual father of what came to be known
as revisionism, wanted them to admit it and accept that Marx’s schemata were
out of date: the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, German Social
Democratic Party) and the labour movement’s international organisation,
the Socialist International condemned his ideas. The leading theoretician of
German socialism, Karl Kautsky, tried to square the circle by declaring that
his party, the SPD, was certainly revolutionary – but not revolution-making.
Others recognised and bitterly resisted this drift of events. Apart from the
still lively anarchist tradition, continuing strong in southern Europe and the
Russian empire, the tendency within the SPD represented most forcefully by
Rosa Luxemburg14 fought vehemently against the quiet sidelining of Marx’s
revolutionary perspectives. Both factions of Russian Social Democracy,
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, remained committed to uncompromising
revolution though they disagreed radically on what that should mean. Minor
socialist parties elsewhere such as the Socialist Labor Party in the USA and its
namesake in the UK shared similar attitudes. However, in certain countries,
and most especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, easily the most formidable
revolutionaries of the early century were the syndicalists. They despised
orthodox trade unionism and orthodox politics. Their focus was upon
industrial workers – they aimed at industrial in place of trade unionism and
the eventual formation of ‘one big union’ which by means of the general strike
would overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish workers’ power, exercised
by councils of workers, in the workers’ state. In the USA, France, the UK
and Australia, they established a serious degree of support, either directly
or through influence inside existing unions, especially those of the British
miners. Their outlook made a significant contribution to twentieth-century
communism, which emerged from the crucible of the war.
Fascism
Another challenger emerging from the war was fascism. The concept and
the name were destined to have a far-reaching and infamous future, though
very few of the parties and movements which history recognises as belonging
to the fascist category actually used that title (the British example was an
exception). Representing something dramatically new (the alternative name
for the British Union of Fascists was the Modern Movement) – even newer
than Leninism, which was a development of Second International socialism –
though the prejudices which it mobilised were anything but modern, above all,
fascism was the outcome of crisis – the crisis of the war and subsequent social
turmoil, of economic collapse and cultural angst. However, it had proto-fascist

Thompson T01771 01 text 10

28/10/2010 09:33

i n t ro d u c t i o n : d e f i n i t i o n s a n d a rg u m e n t

11

predecessors and, because few organisations actually used the fascist name, it
is notoriously difficult to draw the boundaries between fascist ideology and
that of ultra-right-wing conservatism – readers may disagree with some of my
placements of particular ideologies and movements in this respect.
The deluge and after
Prior to 1914 three great political ideologies of the day, which also incorporated
social and cultural values, were the only ones of much consequence, although
bitter conflict could well exist inside their respective frameworks. The war
that erupted in that year was not ideological in any sense. With the exception
of Russia, all the European states involved were more or less liberal in their
economic order and to a degree in their social structures. In its representative
institutions, Germany was in form if not in substance hardly less democratic
than the UK. The British and French governments felt no discomfort in allying
themselves with the autocratic and ultra-reactionary Tsar.
It has been a frequent trope of twentieth-century historians to call into
question many of the popularly recognised turning points in history – to
demonstrate that they were much less sudden and much more drawn out than
previously assumed, and that possibly not a great deal changed in any case.
Not even the most sceptical, however, doubt that the year 1914 really did
initiate a new era in world history. Five years later, at least 30 million people
had died in the conflict and its violent aftermath; vast social and cultural
changes followed in its wake. Europe and Asia echoed to the crash of falling
empires, four in all, three of them centuries old; the world’s economy was
wrenched from its sockets; the overseas empires of the west European powers
(apparently at their apogee) were fatally undermined; the dreaded forces of
the industrial labour movement, infected with revolutionary fervour, were
on the march across the globe – or at least appeared to be. The world of the
previous era was gone forever, though of course many parts of it remained
standing even if severely battered.
Did it have to be like that? Probably not. Between 1815 and 1914, Europe
was afflicted by no general war; those which did occur were brief, confined to
few belligerents, and civilian casualties were relatively light. At the outbreak
of what was to become the Great War a repeat was expected, and that was
very nearly what happened. The Germans came very close to winning the war
in the first few weeks, and had they succeeded the history of the remaining
century would have been very different.
What made the difference was that neither side could win outright,
industrialised military technology not only produced unprecedented casualties
running into millions on the front lines but also drew the entire populations of
the belligerent powers into the vortex – enforcing their mobilisation to supply
the sacrifice of their young men for cannon fodder and their labour for the
manufacture of munitions, to cause their economies, their social habits and
their expectations to suffer disruption and their civil liberties to be dispensed
with to suppress complaint. In short, total war.

Thompson T01771 01 text 11

28/10/2010 09:33

12  id eolog i es i n t h e age o f e xtre m e s

In the end the UK and France with the eventual support of American troops
emerged as the military winners, but whatever the outcome and whichever
side had been the victor, the framework of European society and politics
was shattered beyond repair and the experience had generated profound
transformations in social mentality and culture. ‘[T]he First World War broke
the liberal order into pieces’, is how John Gray puts it. The war profoundly
altered and influenced mentalities along with material and social realities. In
the circumstances of the time liberal ideology lost its aura as a self-evident
interpretation of reality to its adherents (as did traditional conservatism) –
what had been the dominant ideologies of pre-war Europe were subjected to
forceful challenge.
Ideologies and the years of catastrophe
In little more than 20 years, the Great War became the First World War, the
Second, between 1939 (or 1941) and 1945 being one fought with even greater
ferocity in Europe and across the globe, with scores of millions of untimely
deaths, the majority non-combatants. Following this, the planet lived for
four and a half decades with the imminent prospect of nuclear calamity and
extermination (not yet entirely vanished).
During the time between the collapse of the nineteenth-century world-order
and the emergence of the ‘New World Order’ (the phrase was briefly and optimistically in circulation) following the final collapse of the USSR and its bloc
together with the submission of the other major communist power, China, to
market-driven globalisation, world affairs were dominated by political and
social movements which were, in historical terms, unusually self-conscious
regarding their ideological foundations and character (though they might not
like to recognise them as such). These were embodied not only in political
parties and their auxiliary collectives but also through cultural formations,
intellectual disseminators and – in many cases – states, which had as their
purpose the transformation of the world on a universal or at least geopolitical
basis. At the same time they were opposed by similar institutions defending
the status quo, which were compelled by that challenge to define more clearly
their own ideological character. The characterisation by J. Arch Getty of
ideologies of this sort is apposite (it is written with particular reference to
the Stalinist Terror):
Like religion, ideologies are ‘systems of interacting symbols, as patterns
of interworking meanings.’ Ideology is, therefore, a kind of template or
a ‘perspective’ or ‘orientational necessity’ for organizing and shaping a
complicated reality. And because ideologies are inherently advocative, they
‘transform sentiment into significance and so make it socially available.’15
Our concern in the following chapters will be to explore and interpret the
ideologies referred to above, which dominated the age of extremes and
especially to establish the realities of social action which link them to the
circumstances of their time.

Thompson T01771 01 text 12

28/10/2010 09:33

I
Age of catastrophe 1914–45

Thompson T01771 01 text 13

28/10/2010 09:33

Thompson T01771 01 text 14

28/10/2010 09:33

1
Economic and social developments

The guns of international conflict and slaughter finally fell silent in November
1918, but certainly not those of revolution (both social and national), counterrevolution and bilateral national bloodlettings. Sometimes these conflicts
were combined – Romanian troops invaded Hungary both to help suppress
a communist regime and to seize large territories. The Poles, having already
fought the Germans on their western frontier, invaded Soviet Russia aiming to
do the same as the Romanians in Hungary; in response, the Soviets counterinvaded Poland with the purpose of spreading the Revolution (and, had the
Red Army been successful, would have carried on to Berlin). The Habsburg
Empire broke apart – very roughly into its national components; contrariwise,
the Serb monarchy established what was in effect a Balkan empire in the guise
of a national state. All the new national states contained significant minorities
of alien and/or hostile ethnicity.1
Social-revolutionary and counter-revolutionary conflicts were if anything
even more desperate and bloody than predominantly national ones. The
Bolsheviks, having established their power, immediately found themselves faced
with civil war and foreign invasion intent on destroying them. Fighting and
massacre cost millions of lives, to be followed by famine and even cannibalism,
and the Soviets had to solicit foreign charitable assistance. Contrary to every
expectation on the part of the Soviet leaders the Revolution failed to spread
westwards, although it inspired sufficient emulation to result in ramshackle
Soviet regimes seizing power in Bavaria and Hungary. Both were crushed with
the utmost savagery, the Hungarian counter-revolutionaries executing, in the
words of an American author, everyone they could catch ‘who was red or
pink or just a little bit too flesh-coloured’.2 Elsewhere in Germany, including
the capital, attempted left-wing uprisings were repressed with much slaughter.
Outright civil war raged in newly-independent Finland, with, in proportion
to its population, a massive death-roll.
Even the victorious belligerents of Western Europe did not escape the
national, political and social upheavals. Guerrilla war, rural and urban,
erupted in Ireland, with the loss of three quarters of the island to the revolutionaries, apart from some bitterly resented concessions by them which were
subsequently annulled. The mainland was rocked by industrial unrest, army
mutiny3 and police strikes, all of which the government overcame only by a
well-devised mixture of manoeuvre and coercion. The country’s political map
was redrawn and one of its great parties irretrievably wrecked. France, apart
from the armed nationalist insurrection, experienced similar developments;
15

Thompson T01771 01 text 15

28/10/2010 09:33

16

ag e of c ata s t ro ph e 1 9 1 4 – 4 5

the defeat of a threatening labour movement even being described as an
‘industrial Marne’.4
It is a striking irony of history that it was at this point that, following the
peace settlement of 1919 (intended as much to isolate Soviet Russia as to
conclude the war), the formal empires of the victorious Entente powers, Britain
and France, were enhanced to the maximum extent they ever reached. This
was achieved at the expense of the defeated Central Powers, Germany and
Turkey. The former was stripped of all its colonies, which were then divided
among the victors – as well as a significant proportion of its metropolitan
territory, population and economic potential, these to the gain of Poland,
France, Denmark and Belgium. Turkey, now a republic, lost all its Arab
imperial provinces and was left only with the relatively ethnically homogenous
Anatolian core and corner of the southeast Balkans. Yet it was the same war
that had produced these colonial spoils, along with the war’s by-product, the
Russian Revolution, which nevertheless focused and propelled the growth
of the colonial nationalist movements which would eventually destroy the
empires and of which the Irish events were a foretaste; while in Europe the
redrawn borders stoked up the fury of national resentment on the part of
the losers and constituted a longstanding pretext for the threat or actuality
of military action.
The world economy
Into this maelstrom of blood and disruption exploded an economic crisis
the likes of which had not been experienced since the industrialisation
process transformed the globe. The European victors had accumulated vast
war-related debts; the USA was the universal creditor and it was not disposed
to be indulgent. Not only did it insist on repayment, it raised tariff barriers
and choked off immigration, thus shutting off the social safety valve which
had helped to preserve European stability during the nineteenth century. The
victor powers tried to cover their debts by exacting reparations from their
late enemies (or, in the Austrian case, what was left of it), thereby driving the
latter’s economies into total ruin and triggering the notorious hyperflation
which destroyed the German currency in 1923 and left a residue of middle-class
social bitterness that contributed to the strength of the political ultra-right,
represented at this stage principally by the German National People’s Party,
the Deutschnationale Volkspartei (DNVP).
The economic devastation of Soviet Russia was immeasurably greater than
anything encountered in central or western Europe and, in addition, it largely
withdrew from the world economy in order to pursue its own course. It also
repudiated all of the Tsarist-era debts, with devastating effect on the investors
who had financed them (which in France included a substantial swathe of the
lower middle classes as well as the wealthy).
An undercurrent in the world economy which might well have prevailed
anyway, regardless of the war or its outcome, was a long-term cheapening
(or, in market terms, over-production) of primary (agricultural and extractive)

Thompson T01771 01 text 16

28/10/2010 09:33

e c o n o m ic a n d so ci a l d e ve lo p m e n t s

17

products in relation to industrial goods. The outcome was a vicious circle in
the exchange relations between the two sectors. Thanks to falling incomes,
the primary producers could not expand their consumption of manufactured
products and the industrial producers consequently could not expand their
sales. For capitalism, growth is everything; stagnation means disaster.
In the course of the 1920s much of the world was gripped in a decade-long
recession, with the primary producers the worst hit. Of course this was not
uniform in place or time, and there were exceptions. The USA experienced a
few years of overheated and precarious stock-market boom. Some industries
enjoyed relative success by capturing the markets of less efficient producers
– Indian cotton manufacture and Japanese shipbuilding were examples.
Germany made a partial recovery from 1924 until 1929 by means of US loans
on special terms. In Britain, the older, inefficient export industries of coal,
shipbuilding, cotton manufacture, steel making and locomotive manufacture
were crippled, with severe unemployment resulting, while newer industries
dependent on internal consumer markets, such as chemicals and chemical
products, electricity and electrical goods and motor vehicles, did moderately
well thanks to rising middle-class real incomes consequent on cheapened
foodstuffs and raw materials.
Economic catastrophe
In October 1929, economic disaster toppled over into catastrophe when
the Wall Street stock market, overstuffed with dodgy paper assets,5 crashed
spectacularly. The banking system, overhung with unsound loans based on
nothing but rapidly evaporating confidence, was the first to feel the impact as
their creditors defaulted and bank failures spread across the USA. Before long,
the calamity extended to Central Europe where short-term loans offered after
the restoration of the German currency were now called in without notice and
the collapse of major Austrian and German banks duly followed. Industry
and agriculture on a massive scale soon collapsed into bankruptcy. Farmers
overloaded with debt6 found their farms foreclosed as securities; industrial
and white-collar unemployment rocketed. In the words of Franz Neumann’s
classic analysis of the Nazi regime, Behemoth,
Only a small fraction received unemployment insurance and an ever larger
proportion received no support at all.
…
[T]here were hundreds of thousands who had never held jobs. Unemployment
became a status, and, in a society where success is paramount, a stigma.
Peasants revolted in the north where large estate owners cried for
financial assistance. Small businessmen and craftsmen faced destruction.
House-owners could not collect their rents. Banks crashed and were taken
over by the federal government. Even the stronghold of industrial reaction,
the United Steel Trust was near collapse and its shares were purchased
by the federal government at prices far above the market quotation. The
budget situation became precarious. The reactionaries refused to support a

Thompson T01771 01 text 17

28/10/2010 09:33

18

ag e of c ata s tro ph e 1 9 1 4 – 4 5

large-scale works programme lest it revive the declining power of the trade
unions, whose funds were dwindling and whose membership was declining.7
With American and Central European markets in slump and total disarray,
primary product prices plummeted around the world; primary producers
strove to offset collapsing prices by stepping up production, a counter-productive endeavour, for that only cheapened these products even more. In all
the industrial countries, unemployment grew prodigiously. In the UK during
the worst year, 1932, it reached a quarter of the workforce and in Germany
it was even more severe. Even so, the advantages that the UK enjoyed in the
1920s continued to cushion it against the worst, whereas Germany enjoyed
none of those. The Soviet Union, of course, was the only large area of the
world’s surface completely unaffected by what was going on outside its
borders, because it was pursuing a wholly different economic path and, on
the face of things, enjoying great success in its industrial drive and growth.
That naturally was part of its attraction to many outside its territory who
reckoned that such a system might be worth copying, while equally repelling
others who dreaded such a prospect.
Rickety recovery
Elsewhere, following three years of utter global economic chaos, a degree
of recovery began to show itself; a part of this – although it is impossible to
say how great a part – being due to intervention by governments inspired
by a range of different motives and coming from different and even hostile
ideological directions. The United States saw the institution of the New
Deal programmes following Roosevelt’s assumption of the presidency in
January 1933; in Sweden, Social Democrat-dominated coalitions operated
counter-cyclical economic policies; even in the UK a very modest measure
of government intervention was tried – for example, the establishment of
agricultural marketing boards. Most spectacularly, the German economy was
switched from deep slump to rapid growth, based on the destruction of the
labour movement both trade union and political, and a drive to war-preparedness with imperial objectives, a drive based on very unsound foundations that
might be described as a kind of autarchic militarised Keynesianism. A good
part of the Swedish success was due to the markets (especially for iron ore)
created in Germany. The Italian and Japanese regimes had already embarked
on imperial adventures, destabilising the rickety structure of international
relations put in place following the Great War.
By 1939, the recovery everywhere was running out of steam and a new
cycle of slump was on the horizon, while the German war-orientated economic
‘miracle’ was running into insuperable contradictions only resolvable by new
acquisitions of cheap land, labour and raw materials. Given the ideological
outlook of the Nazi rulers, it was all too apparent where this was leading:
German colonisation in Eastern Europe was absolutely central to Hitler’s
mental framework.8 Had he not been in power in Germany and compelled his

Thompson T01771 01 text 18

28/10/2010 09:33

e c o n o m ic a n d so ci a l d e ve lo p m e n t s

19

enemies to mobilise their own resources for war, further economic disruption
and intense social conflict were highly predictable in Europe and the USA.
World War
In the event, however, a different and even more deadly form of conflict was
the outcome of the Nazis’ imperial ambitions, with the paradoxical result that
while the First World War had triggered the ruin of a flourishing and stable
global economic system, the Second restored to ultimate prosperity one which
was in a state of chronic paralysis.
All the main belligerents resorted to central direction and allocation of
resources – raw materials, plant and labour – to support the war effort,
even to a degree in the USA. For the Soviet Union of course the principles
were the same as those which had been applied for over a decade previously
with war production now the priority. The other belligerent which came
closest to the command economy model was actually the UK, in spite of the
framework of private ownership being maintained, with production, raw
materials, consumption and labour being strictly regulated The regulation
included the conscription of categories of single young women either to labour
or the auxiliary military services.
A war economy certainly solved the unemployment problem in the UK,
as had a militarised one in 1930s Germany. The problem was now labour
shortage rather than its opposite. War demand also pulled the USA out of
depression and threatened slump. Even before the USA entered the war, it had
been a vital supplier of foodstuffs and raw materials as well as manufactures
to the British war economy – not neglecting to strip British capitalism of its
overseas assets in payment.9 After December 1941, this was greatly extended
and, in addition to the USA’s own war effort, the British and Soviet allies were
being supplied as well through the mechanism of lend-lease – essentially free
deliveries paid for by the US government. US industry recovered and thrived,
and, of course, it also avoided the severe damage inflicted on the UK and the
utter devastation that overtook Central Europe and the USSR. Indeed, the
conclusion of the war left the USA even more the universal creditor than it
had been in 1919 and the only major state with a flourishing industrial base,
as well as enjoying total military dominance over everyone else apart form
the severely battered USSR.
The social context
Not since the seventeenth century had Europe, let alone the wider world,
experienced anything remotely similar to the social disruption and horror
produced by these events – indeed, the Judeocide carried out by the Nazis
during the Second World War has no parallel anywhere in history even in
the holocausts of Genghis Khan, Timur the Lame or the exterminations
of pre-twentieth-century imperialism. Somewhere between 80 million and
100 million people had their lives prematurely terminated between 1914
and 1945 as a direct consequence of political-military actions. The nearest

Thompson T01771 01 text 19

28/10/2010 09:33

20

ag e of c ata s t ro ph e 1 9 1 4 – 4 5

equivalent in proportional, though not absolute, terms was the Black Death
of the fourteenth century.
The novel feature, however, was that in the main these catastrophes fell
upon societies that were industrialised, highly integrated and with advanced
levels of social culture in terms of literacy and education; not societies
that were basically agricultural, generally illiterate and loosely integrated.
Unprecedented pressures of hunger, distress, fear, insecurity and disillusionment, combined at times with fervent and apocalyptic hope, produced novel
forms of perception and thinking, many of them previously unthinkable and
unimaginable. Previously unknown and marginal organisations and figures
emerged from obscurity to occupy centre stage.
Germany
Because Germany was to be the storm centre of the first half of the twentieth
century, it is appropriate to begin the examination there. There is some degree
of historical argument over how extensive enthusiasm really was for the
declaration of war in August 1914, but it seems beyond question that nationalist
indoctrination in the schoolroom10 and barracks (Imperial Germany, like most
European states, used peacetime conscription) had produced a general popular
sentiment of warm support. The majority of Social Democrats fell into line,
portraying it as a defensive war against Russian imperial tyranny. Certainly
all the elements of the ruling classes and considerable layers of the middle
classes were thirsting for conquest and envisaged enormous territorial gains.
Among the elites, plans were drawn up for extensive territorial acquisitions
in both western and central Europe and the imposition of German hegemony
over the continent – a project evidenced both in the documentary record11
and in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty they imposed upon defeated Russia in the
spring of 1918.
Great success was indeed gained upon the Eastern Front, but the stalemate
and slaughter in the west continued relentlessly and the allied blockade
combined with the material demands of the war exposed the population to
severe shortages and hunger12 – although nothing so extreme as the century
was to see later in other theatres of war. War weariness and discontent built
up, expressed in extensive strikes from the early months of 1918 and exploding
finally in the revolution of November 1918 that ended the war and overthrew
the monarchy.
The Russian precedent was only a year old, and further developments made it
apparent that a thoroughgoing revolutionary mood existed among substantial
sections of the urban workforce. Nevertheless, events made it equally clear that
this mood was not shared even by the overwhelming majority of the proletariat
let alone other social classes. That majority continued to adhere to the socialist
leaders who had used patriotic rhetoric to support the war from the first day,
abandoning the earlier commitments of the International to strive to bring
it to an end as speedily as possible (the war was no unexpected cataclysm –
it had been foreseen for at least a decade). These leaders, prompted by the

Thompson T01771 01 text 20

28/10/2010 09:33

e c o n o m ic a n d so ci a l d e ve lo p m e n t s

21

military, were reluctantly pushed into responsibility for the state – most of
them did not even want to dispense with the monarchy. Their horizons were
limited to a fully democratic political system and less restrictive conditions
for the labour movement, especially a legally enforceable eight-hour working
day and the right to consultation on managerial decisions.
Their hesitation is understandable. The German labour movement, as
indicated in the Introduction, had built up enormous assets, all of which
would be seriously imperilled by further social upheavals. Moreover, all-out
revolution is a very dangerous business for the participants and their families,
easily resulting in death or long-term imprisonment, exile and destitution
if things go wrong. Even if they go right, revolutions have a nasty habit of
devouring their own children, so there was every personal incentive to calm
things down, conciliate the classes which had been immediately disadvantaged
by events and restore a measure of stability. The Räte, the councils set up
in imitation of the Russian soviets, were soon marginalised, sidelined and
dissolved without much difficulty.
After the conclusion of hostilities, the rank and file of the army largely
disintegrated – not to pursue revolutionary courses, but to get home for
Christmas. The high command, however, drawn almost exclusively from the
landowning classes, remained intact – even if its moving spirit, Ludendorff,
fled in panic – and from the most intransigent elements of the frontline
officers (again, principally of a landowning background) recruited a corps of
trained and well-armed counter-revolutionaries, the Freikorps, which the new
Social Democrat government used, along with such disciplined army units
as remained, to crush the attempted left-wing revolutions in Berlin, Bavaria
and elsewhere.13 From 1919 onwards, the army, to the extent allowed by the
Versailles treaty, was soon reconstituted – small, but perfectly adequate for
shooting communists, which it did in the suppression of further revolutionary
attempts in 1921 and 1923.
Outside the cities, the peasantry – except, perhaps, the landless labourers
on the Junker estates of eastern Prussia ­– remained solidly reactionary in their
social outlook and deeply attached to their Protestant or Catholic conservative
religious sentiments. Of all the disadvantages the German revolutionaries
faced, this, so much in contrast to Russian conditions, was probably the
greatest and it is clear in hindsight that social conditions gave them no chance.
The position in the truncated Austrian and Hungarian states was no different,
and history in Germany repeated itself in Hungary in even bloodier form, this
time taking the form of full-scale civil war. Once again the revolutionary social
base, confined largely to Budapest, was wholly inadequate and the communist
revolutionaries had no hope of winning, even without the intervention of the
Romanian forces against them. Austria at this time avoided actual full-scale
armed conflict, but events left behind a legacy of social antagonism exceeded
only in Germany.
That was severe enough in the immediate aftermath. The frontline soldiers
who felt themselves cheated of victory, were incapable of accepting that the
magnificent German army could have been militarily defeated. The officer

Thompson T01771 01 text 21

28/10/2010 09:33

22

ag e of c ata s t ro ph e 1 9 1 4 – 4 5

corps particularly, but plenty of others as well – Hitler, after all, was only a
lance corporal – did not take long to embrace the Dolchenstoss legend, that
victory was within the army’s grasp when it had been stabbed in the back by
treacherous communists and Jews, the ‘November criminals’ in Hitler’s elegant
phrase, which made them boil with hatred against all associated with that
abortive revolution. Apart from their ‘we wuz robbed’ obsession, they also
faced, in place of anticipated victory honours and promotion, the material
reality of unemployment and hardship – only 100,000 soldiers were permitted
by the Allies – and, for the officers, a humiliating loss of caste.
Their sentiments were easily shared by all levels of the German middle
classes, who, apart from the brief phase of national solidarity at the war’s
outbreak, had always detested the labour movement – and worse was to come.
Political turbulence including frequent assassinations, violent private armies,
re-invasion by the French in 1923 (to enforce reparations), currency collapse
followed by semi-recovery and renewed economic collapse, parliamentary
deadlock – all led to a polarisation of hatred between right and left such as
was seen in no other major country.
Between 1929 and 1933, forces basing themselves on total rejection of
the republic advanced rapidly in support. On the right, Hitler’s National
Socialists were an essentially lower-middle-class phenomenon,14 although
they managed to incorporate a substantial working-class element, especially
in their paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung (SA), and an upper-class one
as well – these men predominated among the second-rank leaders. Their gains
were made largely at the expense of the ‘respectable’ reactionary party, the
DNVP, especially when the Nazis won the support of the peasantry suffering
large-scale eviction, and for whom the DNVP, committed to market dogma,
could do or promise nothing. This gave them in 1930 their parliamentary
breakthrough and signalled the beginning of the end for the republic. On the
left, the communists, the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD), made
steady gains at the expense of the Social Democrats, outvoting them in Berlin
by 1932, and would have been even more successful but for their own errors.
Their growth had a lot to do with the growing unemployment crisis, for the
unemployed proved to be the communists’ main constituency – the SPD tended
to retain the loyalties of those manual workers who held on to their jobs. In
the last analysis it was more than anything else fear of the communist success
which produced the deal between the social elites and the Nazi leaders which
manoeuvred Hitler into power in January 1933.
Having seized the state, the Nazis proceeded to utterly annihilate the labour
movement, abolish all other parties (even those of their right-wing allies) and
outlaw any kind of political activity apart from their own. Nevertheless Hitler,
mindful of November 1918, was at pains to maintain at least a minimal level
of consumer satisfaction for all social classes (full employment helped greatly
with this) and that policy was even maintained up to the closing stages of the
war; while for the educated and upper layers of German society magnificent
job opportunities opened up in the ever-expanding state bureaucracy.15

Thompson T01771 01 text 22

28/10/2010 09:33

ec o n o m ic a n d so ci a l d e ve lo p m e n t s

23

Other European states
No other country in Europe had an experience comparable to the German
one, not even the only other indigenous – and indeed the original – fascist
regime, namely Italy. What they all faced, in one manner or another and
in the context of generalised economic breakdown, was a political, social
and cultural challenge from the ‘lower orders’ to the social elites which had
dominated European economy, society and politics until 1914 in spite of all
the advances in formal democracy which had taken place in the context of
industrial transformation.16 The challenge was worked out in a variety of
developments – much depending on the respective degrees of economic stability
and character of the political system. Three examples: the Scandinavian
countries, with relatively high living standards and relatively modest social
differentiation managed, with the exception of Finland, an unusually (though
not entirely) peaceful resolution; the UK (apart from Ireland), a constitutional
though conflict-ridden outcome; while in Hungary, Finland, the Irish Free
State and Spain, it meant civil war. The others experienced various degrees
of violence – moderate in France, despite its revolutionary traditions, intense
in Italy, Austria and Romania.
The Soviet Union
Matters were totally different in the former Russian Empire, from 1924 termed
the Soviet Union. This was not only because of the enormous losses from
the civil war and subsequent famine, estimated to have been as much as five
million, but urban society had been torn apart. The two principal cities – and
these had been spared the worst of the fighting – St Petersburg/Petrograd/
Leningrad and Moscow had lost from 40 to 60 per cent of their populations
through death, military conscription and abandonment by the citizens to take
refuge with their rural relatives. Industry had virtually come to a standstill;
inflation was rampant. Yet the country was overwhelmingly a peasant one
and the peasantry, in spite of massacre, famine, seizure of their goods and
product remained, following their centuries-old rhythms and routines – and
it was their marginal preference for the Bolsheviks over their enemies which
was the principal reason for the former’s victory.
At the end of the war, and having then shown their teeth with peasant
insurrections, they got their reward: possession of the land (formally it belonged
to the state) and an open although regulated market in their product.17 Social
differentiation rapidly followed – a minority of the more successful soon came
to control larger acreages than their neighbours, accumulate assets, dominate
the villages, employ their less fortunate or less diligent brethren and become
the principal mainstay of the country’s agriculture. They were known as
‘kulaks’, a Russian word meaning ‘a fist’.
In what was left of the country’s industry, ‘workers’ control’ proved a
disaster, as the leading Bolshevik A. G. Shlyapnikov complained in March
1918, ‘The disorganization and demoralization that prevail in the railway

Thompson T01771 01 text 23

28/10/2010 09:33

24

ag e of cata s t ro ph e 1 9 1 4 – 4 5

shops defy description …. In a word, the moment the railway employees
were granted a minimum wage they ceased to display any minimum degree
of efficiency.’
‘One man management’ was therefore reinstituted – not that there were
many capable managers to be found, and those that were naturally had to
be rewarded appropriately. Trotsky wanted to put the workforce under
military discipline, but this proposal was rejected. Trade unions were, of
course, regarded as indispensable in a workers’ state, so they were given
a high formal status but were in reality more a means of controlling the
workforce than representing it. Nevertheless, they had at this stage a certain
degree of manoeuvre and their leaders, like Tomsky, if they were energetic and
committed, could exercise some influence with management and the Party.
‘War Communism’ was the term applied to the regime prevailing in
Soviet-controlled areas during the Civil War. It gave the Party-controlled
government total control over all food surpluses and total direction over all
other production and over distribution, with a strict system of rationing. The
market was effectively abolished. It was intended by most Bolshevik leaders
as an emergency measure since they lived in expectation of revolution in the
West which would solve their problems (though they had no clear idea of
exactly how they would organise rebuilding of the country supposing the
expectation was realised).
There were some in the Party leadership, however, who argued that this
form of organisation could be made permanent and thereby, once the material
basis was restored, open the door to a full-blown communist society, as
‘welcome and timely steps on the road to socialism’, in the words of E.
H. Carr.18 What ensured their political defeat was less the quality of their
argument than peasant revolts and the mutiny by the Kronsdadt sailors in
1921. The New Economic Policy (NEP) of the same year – no better name
could be thought of – was hurriedly put into place instead. It was a form of
state capitalism (Lenin himself so described it) whereby agriculture and petty
production and trade were handed over to the market, the state reserving
to itself ultimate control over foreign trade and banking operations and,
naturally, heavy industry – though that had to operate according to market
criteria, which could mean unemployment. With some difficulty, the currency
was stabilised – enough at least to allow it to function adequately.
If the NEP coped with the immediate economic crisis, the chronic problems
confronting the new regime did not go away. These, in their barest essence,
sprung from the imbalance in a closed economy19 between the very weak
industrial base and the overwhelmingly predominant agricultural character
of the country. How, in these circumstances, to satisfy the demand of the
peasantry for manufactured goods and so provide incentives for them to
produce sufficient grain and livestock to supply the towns in addition to
their own needs?
As with every major dilemma in Soviet Russia, the problem assumed the
form of an ideological conflict and in the mid-1920s this came to focus on the
alternatives of ‘socialism in one country’ as against a continuing commitment

Thompson T01771 01 text 24

28/10/2010 09:33

e c o n o m ic a n d so ci a l d e ve lo p m e n t s

25

to world revolution, designated as ‘permanent revolution’. For a variety of
reasons, the former, with Stalin and Bukharin as its principal spokespersons,
won out – but the dilemma remained: if ‘socialism in one country’ was the
project, then how to achieve it?
At first a continuation of the NEP was adopted, with the hope that industrialisation could be developed by means of a slow shift of peasant-generated
surpluses into the manufacturing, mining, urbanisation and transport sectors
to create a modernised economy. This attempt was not successful, for the
peasantry, or rather the kulaks, on whom the state depended for the grain
supply, refused to co-operate since the rewards offered were too meagre. In
1928, they effectively instituted a supply strike, demanding the freeing-up
of the agricultural market and a better supply of manufactures, only to be
achieved by joining the world economy (which might not have been in any
case a very happy move given what was about to happen in the United States).
The state’s response, with Stalin now the predominant leader and Bukharin
sidelined, was to dispossess the peasantry, ‘eliminate the kulaks as a class’,20
and turn the rural landscape into one of agricultural factories run either
directly by the state or else by ‘co-operatives’ which were effectively state
instruments, a process termed ‘collectivisation’. Naturally the peasants resisted
desperately, the mass destruction of their livestock representing a frequent
mode of protest. The government ruthlessly seized grain surpluses or often
the entire stock. Famine ravaged the Ukraine. In some cases, resistance was
subdued by armed police formations using machine guns. The impact on
Soviet agriculture was catastrophic, the output of grain and other agricultural
products plummeted and Soviet agriculture never fully recovered from the
trauma, yet the objective was achieved – the state secured control over the
grain supply.
Simultaneously, a breakneck programme of industrialisation was launched
in the form of the Five Year Plan, state-directed development plans hastily
compiled at Stalin’s behest and regarded by the experts as wildly unrealistic.
The vastly expanded workforce required was recruited from part of the
population in the collectivised villages, the displaced individuals now surplus
to agricultural requirements. Social conditions in the urbanised areas grew
desperate in consequence. With the food supply disrupted, severe rationing
prevailed and all social amenities were put under colossal strain as provision of
urban transport, housing (especially), medical services and so forth desperately
strove to keep up and inevitably failed. Naturally, an extensive black market
in goods and services was the consequence. In the workplace itself, hours
were long with additional ‘voluntary’ labour required; where output could
be measured, individual quotas were fixed with sanctions if these were not
fulfilled; damage to plant or equipment, whether deliberate or accidental,
resulted in severe penalties. Such minimal trade union rights as workers still
possessed now vanished as the trade unions became, in Stalin’s words, mere
‘transmission belts’ for the state and the Party.
Yet the industrialisation drive, in contrast to collectivisation, was not
universally unpopular among those affected by it. The Soviet industrial

Thompson T01771 01 text 25

28/10/2010 09:33

26

ag e of cata s t ro ph e 1 9 1 4 – 4 5

workforce in previous years had had plenty of reason for grievance. Its
members could find themselves unemployed if their enterprise failed by market
criteria, consumer goods above the essential minimum were very scarce – and
expensive and shoddy in addition. Social amenities were primitive, work
discipline was tight. The trade unions, although not yet entirely helpless,
were incomparably weaker than their Western counterparts and, moreover,
the workers were living in a police state even if it was at that stage an only
moderately repressive one. Not surprisingly, many of them openly demanded
to know what the Revolution had been for.
Under the Stalin revolution, beginning in 1928, most of these features
worsened very substantially, but there was now no unemployment problem;
on the contrary, there was instead a serious labour shortage and, provided
one had the right class credentials, it was possible to flourish. Surprisingly,
perhaps, the regime did not resort to direction of labour and so it was not out
of the question to change jobs, and although wages were regulated along with
everything else, managers desperate for reliable and hardworking employees
were willing to offer underhand inducements. For those who had the talent
and the willingness to improve their educational-level highly-skilled manual
or administrative and managerial jobs were on plentiful offer. To encourage
this process, the regime deliberately widened income differentials and fringe
benefits and denounced objectors as petty-bourgeois romantics. In the young
communist organisation (Komsomols) especially, genuine enthusiasm and
sacrificial commitment were also manifested.
Contrary to the official statistics, the first Five-Year-Plan missed most of its
intended objectives (particularly in the output of consumer goods), yet again
the essential purpose was achieved. The country was industrialised, albeit
at the basic level of heavy industry – although needless to say acute social
problems, such as alcoholism, prostitution, crime, domestic violence, all of
which had been intensified by low income levels and gross overcrowding,
continued to flourish unreported.
By the mid-1930s, therefore, the agricultural surplus had been brought
under state control and an industrial economy was in place. Stalin even went
so far as to promulgate a new constitution (inevitably referred to as the ‘Stalin
Constitution’), although it was largely drafted by Bukharin, guaranteeing
all sorts of civic rights, and to proclaim that the project of ‘socialism in one
country’ was now accomplished. It was at just this time that the Great Terror
began and continued for the remainder of the decade. Its most high-profile
aspect was the show trials of the Old Bolsheviks, Stalin’s former opponents in
the Party and also his associates who had offended him or knew too much, as
well as the dramatic purge of the military and execution of most of its senior
commanders. Much more far-reaching, however, was the arrest of millions
of Soviet citizens who, if not executed, went to form the slave labour force
of the Gulag.
All of the accused, regardless of whether they appeared in the dock of the
highly publicised show trials or else before a local magistrate, where they left
no record beyond the official documentation, were coerced into confessing

Thompson T01771 01 text 26

28/10/2010 09:33

e c o n o m ic a n d so ci a l d e ve lo p m e n t s

27

to imaginary crimes of counter-revolutionary treason, spying, sabotage or
whatever. The procedures and proprieties had to be observed, however
unnecessary to the eventual outcome.
War society
By the time of the German invasion in 1941, the Terror had begun to ease off,
although it was far from discontinued and the Gulag remained well supplied
with fresh inputs – necessary (from the regime’s viewpoint) to provide a
workforce toiling under conditions which would never have been acceptable
to free labour. Once the country was under attack and fighting for its existence,
though material conditions were harsher still, the scale of the repression
(except for groups or nationalities thought to be sympathetic to the enemy –
some Caucasian nationalities and the Crimean Tatars) had to be relaxed yet
further in order to sustain public morale and achieve the greatest possible
level of dedication to victory. Naturally there was widespread public hope and
expectation that victory would bring with it better times in all aspects of life.
Two and a half years earlier, the declaration in September 1939 by Britain
and France of war against Germany was received by the German public,
according to all accounts, with foreboding and apprehension, yet public
morale, stimulated by Nazi victories in the first two years of the conflict,
appears never to have wavered up to the end, despite the military disasters
which subsequently followed, and the destruction and mass casualties resulting
from the aerial bombardment of German cities. Compared with Britain or
the Soviet Union, the Nazi regime, mindful of what had happened in 1918,
and with conquered territories to plunder mercilessly, went to great pains to
maintain consumption levels and retain as far as possible the framework of
a consumer society within the Reich, and middle-class homes were supplied
with domestic slave-labour from among the conquered populations of
Eastern Europe. Not until very late in the day was the civilian population,
on Goebbels’s initiative, mobilised for total war.
The British coalition government of 1940–45 by contrast, building on
the foundation of experience gained during the First World War, as well as
economic controls noted above, went out of its way to involve the trade unions
and the organisational capacities of its workforce in the production drive, by
means of production councils. For the general public, a comprehensive system
of rationing was instituted for most basic necessities, especially foodstuffs,
and many sorts of consumer items either disappeared from the shops or were
only occasionally obtainable. The result was that, on average, the population
was better fed and healthier than it had ever previously been.
Evidence – not least the outcome of by-elections (for while there existed
a truce among the three main parties so that they did not oppose each other
in such elections, outsiders could do so) – suggests that there was much
more discontent with the government than was publicly admitted at the
time. Naturally, for all the belligerent governments control and regulation of
information and public discourse took on a high priority. In occupied Europe

Thompson T01771 01 text 27

28/10/2010 09:33

28

ag e of cata s t ro ph e 1 9 1 4 – 4 5

and the Soviet Union control was as near total as the respective regimes could
make it over press, radio and cinema. The British government established a
Ministry of Information and the BBC, the only broadcaster easily available,
acted in effect as a government agency. It usually refrained from outright
lying, controlling its news broadcasting instead by suppression and what
would now be termed ‘spin’. The government assumed powers to regulate
the press, but used them discriminatingly. It banned the Communist Party’s
daily newspaper – though not the party’s other publications – and only fascist
groups were outlawed. Although the government had a fierce row with the
Daily Mirror and actively considered its suppression, in the end it decided
against doing so on account of that paper’s general popularity.
In varying degrees, all of the European belligerents (and the same was
largely true for Japan) experienced a regime of consumer shortages and tight
state control over social life – for some an intensification of familiar realities,
for others a new experience. The great exception, as ever, was the USA. The
war, as noted, had brought the country out of the depression and, as in all
sectors of the economy, thrived and generated increasing labour demand.
Women – ‘Rosie the Riveter’ – entered industrial employment on a significant
scale to replace men serving in the forces, employers and workforce gained
the benefits. Trade unions strengthened their position and leverage, as did
the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), but only marginally, while evoking
official hostility, and civilian life otherwise continued much as before. It was
a portent, and the foundation for what was to come in the following phase
of the age of extremes.

Thompson T01771 01 text 28

28/10/2010 09:33

2
Liberalism

At the opening of the twentieth century, liberalism was the hegemonic world
ideology – or at least that of its ruling sectors, ‘spreading right across the
political spectrum to encompass nearly the entire political class’, as John Gray
writes with reference to Britain, but in fact this description applied much more
widely. Even the Russian Empire had been obliged to make some concessions,
socially if not politically. It is important not to misunderstand: liberalism did
not necessarily imply a humanitarian or cuddly outlook. On the contrary,
depending upon how it was understood, liberalism left plenty of room for
violence, racism, authoritarianism, lightly disguised slavery, even genocide.1
Nineteenth-century liberalism sought to combine a doctrine of human
emancipation with a central concern for the protection of property and the
freedom of exchanging it, and clearly in both of these dimensions it represented
an outlook favourable to economic actors – agricultural, industrial, commercial
or financial – who relied on the unimpeded operation of market forces to
promote their accumulation and profit. Consequently the security of property,
the reliability of contract, an impartial judiciary operating a well-defined
and even-handed system of civil law, relatively transparent systems of public
communication, careers largely open to talent and a general culture of open
competition were all either essential or at least highly desirable objectives.
The first, and most vital of these, security of commercial property, implied a
political system insulated from interference both from arbitrary governments
and also the propertyless masses who might regard such property as less than
sacred. Liberal attitudes to freedom and property contradicted each other
particularly as far as women were concerned, for the question of inheritance
implied tight control over sexual behaviour. It may well be thought essential
to keep the masses disenfranchised lest their representatives set about redistributing property by legislative decree or passing laws restricting inheritance
controls. Liberalism therefore did not necessarily object to authoritarian
government so long as it had a constitutional basis, observed a rule of law, and
was therefore rule-governed rather than arbitrary in its authoritarian actions.2
Liberalism could therefore define the condition of most European states at
the beginning of the twentieth century – and in that sense even early-twentiethcentury Japan could be regarded as liberal in essence. It is important to keep
in mind the disjunction that could occur between liberalism in the sense of
economic arrangements and in that of civil and personal rights. In emergency
situations both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when threats from
the masses were especially menacing, dictatorship of one sort or another would
be found acceptable. Nevertheless a liberal social order remained, so to speak,
29

Thompson T01771 01 text 29

28/10/2010 09:33

30

ag e of cata s t ro ph e 1 9 1 4 – 4 5

the default option for a liberal economy. It has the additional advantage that
in societies where governmental powers are limited on principle, the market
rather than the political authorities can take the blame for social distress or
economic breakdown. Yet from the late nineteenth century a trend of ‘social
liberalism’ was emerging, particularly in the UK (in the USA it was known
as Populism), which advocated significant state interventions to amend the
adverse social effects of uncontrolled market relations.
Liberalism triumphant and challenged
On the face of things, during the last months of 1918 and earlier part of 1919
liberal triumph, effectively under US leadership, appeared to be complete and
liberalism in a broad sense to have been historically consolidated despite a
rash of communist revolts and labour turbulence in Europe. It was the more
autocratic of the belligerent coalitions which had suffered defeat and two
of its elements, the empires of Austria−Hungary and Turkey, had dissolved
altogether. The German imperial state was overthrown and replaced with an
impeccably liberal regime (so it appeared) under the temporary management
of the reformed social democrats. Admittedly liberalism had suffered total
eclipse in the former Russian Empire, but that was expected to be as temporary
as any astronomical eclipse, for in early 1919 the Bolsheviks seemed on the
verge of extinction. There was even a short-lived economic surge in 1919 as
consumer demand, restricted during the war, ballooned briefly.
Above all, the great liberal exemplar, the USA, now risen to dominate the
world economy, for some months became central to world politics as well,
and this through the actions of the US President, Woodrow Wilson, a liberal
ideologue. Wilson’s two central projects, propounded in his ‘Fourteen Points’
at the beginning of 1918, as a response and challenge to the Soviet Decree
on Peace issued at the end of 1917, were to promote policies of national selfdetermination in Central and Eastern Europe, ‘Self-determination is not a mere
phrase. It is an imperative principle of action which statesmen will henceforth
ignore at their peril... Every territorial settlement involved in this war must
be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned,
and not as a part of any mere adjustment or compromise of claims amongst
rival States.’3 His second main objective was to institute an international
organisation of member states, ‘A general association of nations’ to make
war a thing of the past – though ‘the removal of economic barriers’ was also
very high up on the list (number three, in fact).
Wilson personally attended the negotiations in Paris which led up to the
Versailles Treaty and, although he did not always get his own way and was
obliged to accept drastic compromises, so that the eventual treaty would
be wildly different from the Fourteen Points and his related declarations,
nevertheless, his was still the dominant influence and the Treaty had his stamp.
Without his insistence it is unlikely that the League of Nations would ever
have come into being. It was not a question of Wilson’s personality – his fellow

Thompson T01771 01 text 30

28/10/2010 09:33

li b e r a l i sm

31

negotiators, the other Allied leaders, had little time for him – but of the power
(financial and otherwise) which the United States was in a position to exert.
Liberal expectations unravelled soon enough as economic depression,
impoverishment, national persecution and international conflict took over,
while the Bolshevik victory removed the former empire, a sixth of the world’s
land surface, from the liberal order. Although liberal societies at the end of the
Great War still had plenty in reserve, notably the economic and institutional
strengths of the British Empire and above all the USA, to meet the ideologies
old and new which contended with it, for almost the next quarter century it
was unquestionably on the defensive.
Certainly it was the politics and social order of liberalism which, explicitly
or by implication, were indicted most severely for the catastrophe of the war
and its aftermath, both from the left and from the right. The cynical remark
of José Ortega y Gasset that liberty was a burden humanity was only too
anxious to throw off, was, however, entirely misplaced and revealing of a
very selective view of liberty.
Both liberty and liberalism were indeed under attack, liberty from interests
who believed that the masses had too much of it, the same as attacked liberalism
for the liberty it guaranteed or because or was unable to ensure security for
property, the two things being connected in their eyes. But liberalism was also
challenged from different political direction because it failed to guarantee
meaningful liberty or basic material needs. Politicians, adhering to the values
of liberalism in its general sense, in the UK and France (and even to an extent
in Germany) had led their nations into the inferno while their publicists and
propagandists had drummed the message of no compromise and total victory.
The scale of their losses and the aftermath of social turmoil and disillusion
occluded eventual victory celebrations in these two countries.
In every major belligerent country, even the USA, the war on the ‘home
front’ was mobilised in a highly authoritarian manner. Not only were resources
organised through central control, in addition dissent was briskly suppressed,
and media and academic outlets were induced to propagandise on behalf of
the war effort and maintain civilian morale. By the end of the war, while in
the Allied countries intransigent opponents of the war were locked up and
publications suppressed, in the most extreme case German civilians were
effectively living under a military dictatorship. Throughout Europe the lesson
of authoritarian efficiency was not forgotten.
In Russia, liberalism had proved a dismal failure from any point of view.
Following the Tsar’s overthrow in March 19174 the Russian liberals had
had their chance, dominating as they did the early months of the Provisional
Government. Wishing to establish, eventually, a constitutional system based
on that of Western Europe and heavily influenced by the Entente diplomats
in their capital, they proved wholly incapable of coping with the pressing
demands of the Russian population. At the behest of the British and French
they insisted on continuing participation in the war, which was, from the
Russian point of view, clearly lost, and so multiplied human losses with futile
military offensives. They restrained the peasantry, both by persuasion and

Thompson T01771 01 text 31

28/10/2010 09:33

32

ag e of cata s t ro ph e 1 9 1 4 – 4 5

force, from accomplishing their centuries-old ambition of seizing the land they
regarded as stolen by the landlords from their ancestors. The government’s
administration was unable to cope with the disintegrating supply system,
especially in urban areas, and shortages were universal.
Disliked and disdained on all sides, the Provisional Government was
easily displaced by the Bolsheviks in November. The Russian experiment
in liberalism proved to be far from able to cope with the exigencies of
war and social disruption, and, if it had not fallen to Lenin’s intransigent
revolutionary socialists, would certainly have been overwhelmed by right-wing
authoritarians.
Versailles and the League of Nations
For four years, Europe, apart from the neutral states, had been steeped in
militarism. The structure and functioning of armed forces represent the very
antithesis of liberalism. The memory of the war, of the authoritarianism
which had prevailed throughout society, in combination with the economic
crisis, put the continuation of liberal principles in government at a discount
wherever they were not very firmly entrenched. The measures taken towards
the political reconstruction of Europe at the war’s end did nothing to help.
Despite this, the treaties put in place in the course of 1919, collectively
known as the Versailles system – after the Versailles Treaty proper – were
supposedly based for the most part upon liberal principles, even if the word
was not explicitly used. This is not to exclude the dimension of Realpolitik,
which played a significant part, but a settlement based purely on that
conception would have looked very different from what did actually emerge
from the negotiations between the allies (the defeated states were allowed
no input into the discussion). As it happened, the liberal principles integral
to the settlement fitted in very well and very conveniently with the victors’
determination to isolate and weaken as far as possible the distinctly anti-liberal
regime ruling Soviet Russia.
The ‘Carthaginian’ peace which would have been imposed on Germany
if French political and military sentiment had had its way was blocked by
the USA and British leaders. The country, though drastically weakened and
mutilated, was left as an intact, coherent and formally sovereign state (albeit
that its sovereignty was limited) with enough of a military establishment
remaining to repress internal insurrection. The US president, Woodrow
Wilson, was the very embodiment of early-twentieth-century liberalism. Prior
to the Armistice, he had insisted on guarantees regarding the ‘representative
character’ of the German government. Being the most influential participant
and genuinely believing in national self-determination, he was not prepared
to agree to Germany being broken up or even to create ‘an Alsace−Lorraine
in reverse’ by detaching the Rhineland. Nor were the British willing to see