History’s Locomotives: Revolution and the Making of the Modern World (Yale University Press, 2006), 320 pp., $30.
Once upon a time, in 1876, a Jewish teenager from German-occupied Alsace arrived in Paris and found a job as an errand boy in a bank. Abraham Kahn (1860–1940), better known as Albert Kahn, spent his evenings studying, guided by a necessitous tutor two years his senior named Henri Bergson, who would remain ever his closest friend. Kahn earned a law degree and rose in the bank’s hierarchy until, within a few years, he became a partner and, soon, a multimillionaire.
A strong believer in meritocratic democracy (or self-selected elitism), Kahn endowed a program of travel fellowships called “Around the World” to broaden the horizons of bright young men. Initiated in 1898, the fellowships were soon expanded to serve Germany, Britain, Russia, Japan and the United States. In 1910 Kahn endowed a chair of Human Geography at the Collège de France; in 1928 he created centers of preventive medicine in Paris and Strasbourg, then centers of pedagogical documentation in several universities. Finally, he set up “The Archives of the Planet”, a vast collection of photographic and cinematic images gathered between 1910 and 1931 (and still visitable today) as a testament to the diversity and complexity of a rapidly changing world.
Ruined in the Depression, by 1931 Kahn had lost everything. But the local authorities bought his estate beside the Seine, the Archives, and the magnificent gardens surrounding them; they opened them to the public and let Kahn live in a small corner of his one-time property. Then, in a twisted way, fortune smiled upon him again. Eighty years old, he died in 1940 just before the invading Germans or their Vichyite catspaws could harm him for being a Jew.
Kahn’s pilgrim’s progress colors the first of Jay Winter’s cameos of utopian moments—moments when “dreams of peace and freedom”, as his book’s title describes them, were hatched in the 20th century. Almost all of Winter’s six subsequent chapters are framed like the first around similarly iconic individuals, representative of the fantasies they limn.
My Shorter Oxford Dictionary, not really as short as all that, defines utopia (“no place”, etymologically speaking) as “an imaginary or hypothetical place or state of things considered to be perfect”, or as “an impossible ideal scheme, especially for social improvement.” Either definition implies root-and-branch transformation of what is into what ought to be. But Winter, the Charles J. Stille Professor of History at Yale University, believes that utopianism has been discredited “through association with the crimes of the great killers of the 20th century”, dark dreamers whose pursuit of alleged perfection involved the elimination of all they denounced as “malevolent elements blocking the path to a beneficent future.” We need no more grand sweeping schemes, then, crushing all in their path; no social engineering projects likely to turn into nightmares. But we do need, suggests Winter, piecemeal improvements that might alleviate the ravages of war, the worst abuses of human rights, the sharpest pains of exploitation and violence. We do need the “minor utopias” that, while as prone to fail as grander, bloodier ones, at least do not incite to murder. Pacifism, leagues of nations, declarations of human rights and their like abort, miscarry, disappoint, come to grief. But they do less damage than more glorious, grueling and gory visions of perfection, and they may even occasionally do some good.
We shall see whether more modest aspirations turn out to be more feasible, or simply less destructive when their champions tumble from less lofty heights. Meanwhile, the title of Winter’s book raises a question: Was the 20th century a particularly utopian epoch, more prone than others to blunder into pipe dreams and their pratfalls? Winter’s introduction begins by calling attention to the frequent depiction of the 20th century as a series of catastrophes. Were other centuries much different? Four score or so years ago, Georges Clemençeau had said as much of war: “a series of catastrophes that results in a victory.” Victory is an entrée that doesn’t grace most utopian menus, but allowing for the equivocal nature of real as opposed to utopian victories, that is what Winter serves up: a string of 20th-century fantasies, not prodigious or terrifying mutations, but “partial transformations, steps on the way to a less violent and unjust society.”
After Albert Kahn, Winter’s next minor utopian is familiar to American readers: Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), the high-minded son of a stern Presbyterian father, whose early career confirmed the silly saw that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. Wilson did not do well when he tried to study law at the University of Virginia or to practice it in Atlanta, so he turned to Johns Hopkins University for a doctorate in history and government. He then followed the junior faculty slalom through Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan to Princeton, where he taught until he became the university’s president in 1902. In 1910 his progressive zeal won him tenure as Democratic governor of New Jersey and, two years later, as president of the United States. His Administration oversaw the ratification of the federal income tax (16th Amendment) and the direct election of the U.S. Senate (17th Amendment), invented the Federal Reserve Board, established the Federal Trade Commission, assumed a virtual protectorate over Haiti, went to war with Mexico, and, after much forbearance that “kept us out of the war” and got the President re-elected in 1916, resorted to arms against Germany in 1917.
Ill-prepared for war, Wilson was well-prepared for peace—at least rhetorically. The 14 lofty points that he had listed in early 1918 as crucial to a just and lasting peace were ignored by most combatants until invoked at year’s end as a basis for negotiations. In December 1918, when he landed in France on his way to Versailles, Wilson’s reputation stood at its height. Nathan Söderblom, Archbishop of the Swedish Lutheran Church and professor of the history of religion at Uppsala University, sent him a cable quoting Isaiah and appearing to address him as the Lord’s anointed—a prince of peace come to save and rebuild Europe. Some who read Söderblum’s address in the press objected to the prelate’s apparent reference to Wilson’s messianic role and suggested that the American President could as easily be the Antichrist. That was going a bit far in the other direction. But this emeritus president of a distinguished university could perhaps have passed for a prince of confusion, worshiping at the altar of utopia.
Incapacitated by a heart attack in 1919 and unconsoled by the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded that same year, Wilson died in 1924—a charismatic figure for some, a mischief-maker for others. His 14 points had revolved around national liberation and self-determination, and around a peace that would endure thanks to a League of Nations “affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” (In 1917, Albert Kahn had also pleaded for world federation, a rational league of nations to keep mankind from mayhem, and a federal military force to bar yet another plunge into barbarism. But though an ecumenical thinker who liked to bring together in his mansion the Archbishop of Paris, the president of the Protestant federation and the Grand Rabbi, Kahn lacked political clout.)
Wilson’s peace, a mess of concessions, compromises and disillusions, was not even ratified in his own homeland. Self-determination turned out a lure to hope and mischief-making in equal proportions. The League of Nations proved little more than a talk shop. Its most effective component was the International Labor Office, whose first director, Albert Thomas, was an alumnus of Kahn’s “Around the World” fellowships. The ILO endures under the aegis of the United Nations, another talk shop that steadfastly expects live rabbits to rise from empty hats. At least the United Nations is now endowed with something like the federal military force that Kahn had called for in the guise of its Blue Helmets, but also with a bureaucracy larger and costlier than that of the League of Nations—and a well-earned reputation even more dubious than that of its predecessor.
Attempts to compose concerts of nations tend to founder into cantankerous cacophonies. Significantly, Winter’s third chapter begins with a glancing reference to a lesser foozle that punctuates the parenthesis between Wilson’s League and its latter day afterthought in the UN. In 1928, French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand and U.S. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg signed a pact—soon joined by three score other well-intentioned nations—prohibiting war as an instrument of national policy. They had evidently not heard of King Canute ordering back the tide to no avail; nor had the Nobel Committee, which awarded yet one more Peace Prize to the Kellogg-Briand fiasco.
Within a very few years Japan embarked on its conquest of China, and Germany began to prepare the next war. By 1937, the title of Winter’s third chapter—when my mother and I admired the International Exhibition meant to mark “the triumph of Paris, of peace and of international solidarity”—concord was hard to find. Strikes and demonstrations marred Paris; warfare rent China, Palestine, Abyssinia and Spain, the latter war inspiring Picasso’s harrowing Guernica, the artist’s contribution to the Spanish Pavillion.
As it happens, the centrally dominant luminary of Guernica, unmoved by the contortions and distortions that surround it, is an electric light bulb. Equally representative of an International Exposition supposed to celebrate the marriage of technology and art, Winter tells us, was Raoul Dufy’s vast mural, commissioned by the Paris Electricity Company and representing “The Spirit of Electricity.” Eventually displayed in the capital’s Museum of Modern Art, it turned out that its magnificent spirit and colors rested on panels coated in asbestos. Dufy’s encomium to science, a “carcinogenic vision”, Winter calls it, had to be removed from public display for extensive restoration. Utopia turned into dystopia, as seems to have been the fate of other minor utopias—and of utopians, too.
It is a relief, then, to come across one of Winter’s heroes who did not end badly. René-Samuel Cassin (1887–1976) studied law before World War I and was severely wounded in the fighting. He nevertheless survived to teach law in Paris and to serve as a French delegate both to the League of Nations and to several disarmament conferences. He provided more concrete services, too. He helped set up a center for international intellectual cooperation sponsored by Henri Bergson. Later he joined Charles de Gaulle in London and became a member of the Free French Government when that body did not seem to have much of a future. The war over, Cassin held high legal and administrative offices in the Fourth Republic, served as a delegate to the UN from 1946 to 1968, helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, presided over the European Court of Human Rights, and was rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1968, the 20th anniversary of the Human Rights Declaration. A satisfying trajectory.
Winter observes that the human rights Cassin defined were not about civil rights, which have been won or lost, doled out or denied since the ancient Greek city-states. Cassin’s rights were about individuals “as the common denominator of humanity.” Suggestive when claimed in international law, this pregnant point of view is too often ignored in contentions designed to argue individual responsibility away. On the other hand, no one has ever really explained why one particular animal race distinguished by its creativity, but also by the destruction it perpetrates upon itself, other animal races and the world around it, should be more privileged than, say, canaries or cats.
Another of Winter’s heroes knows the answer: God created man in His image, so none should make a shambles of him. That was the message of Gustavo Gutierrez of Lima, Peru. He, with other Latin American theologians in the 1960s, launched an offensive against poverty, violence, oppression and against the conspiracy of the Church and the dominant classes hell-bent on pretending that the tribulations of South America’s masses were part of God’s plan. The Church of Christ, Gutierrez argued, is above all about the poor. Eliminate exploitation, misery, injustice; liberate the poor, the mauled and the oppressed from want and humiliation—and the Messiah will come. That millenarian message was the gist of “liberation theology.”
Curiously, Winter’s eloquent presentation of an admirable movement makes no mention of its roots in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount; in the enthusiasm of unorthodox social activists whom Christ’s message inspired from Thomas Münzer to Léon Harmel and Berdiaev; in the travails of heretics, Protestants, progressives, social Christians, Christian existentialists and others who also read the Scriptures with eschatology in mind. But neither, happily, does Winter let “liberation” go before including in its remit other doings of the 1960s, above all the year 1968 with its ludic aspect, its Groucho-oriented Marxism (Daniel Cohn-Bendit dixit), and its quest for the beach beneath the paving stones (note that metaphor’s recent realization in the very minor utopia of Paris-Plage, the now three-year-old man-made beach beside the Seine).
Here, as elsewhere in a worthy book, authorial sobriety abets a degree of humorlessness, even in reprising the shenanigans of 1968, offspring of 1967 and of that year’s demonstrations against the Vietnam War. But student demonstrations in Berlin and Paris, soon echoed elsewhere, reflected more than mere political and pacifist fervors. Issues closer to home stimulated student ardencies: specifically, oppressive campus administrations prohibiting sexual fraternization in dormitories. That was where countercultural exuberance challenged bureaucratic desiccation and won—briefly, anyway. And the direct democracy of civic disorder soon bore out Bismarck’s view of it: the government of a house by its nursery. Some of this was, after all, funny in its own way, but it rarely comes through in Winter’s prose.
Mention of nurseries evokes an older contemporary of Albert Kahn: Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875), many of whose fairy tales carry an optimistic message of goodness and beauty, peace and freedom. Missing from Winter’s pantheon of minor utopians, Andersen was more beneficent and better known than most of Winter’s cast. Fairy tales, some of which end badly, caution that utopian tidings may come before a fall. That’s how it goes, too, with the revolutions that the late Martin Malia handled with elegance and thoughtfulness.
Malia’s aim was a grand one. He saw a line of continuity over more than 500 years from Hussite Bohemia to Lenin’s Moscow and sought to trace the trajectory of what he believed was a particularly Western revolutionary impulse. A distinguished historian of Russia and inter alia of The Soviet Tragedy (1994), Malia died in November 2004, the text of his final work essentially complete, as its editor, Terence Emmons, tells us.
Malia’s working title had been “The Pattern and Escalation of Western Revolution: From the Hussites to the Bolsheviks, 1415–1991”, which conveys pretty much what the book is about. History’s Locomotives, the present title, as Emmons, an equally distinguished historian of Russia, relates in a lucid foreword, was inspired by a metaphor Marx coined, and it is certainly more engaging than pedantic patter about patterns and escalations. But the image it evokes is wrong because, while revolutions may move history forward, they as often derail or set it back. Tumbrils of History might have worked, but I would opt for “switchback”, which also conveys the pulsions of a railway, but one that proceeds in zigzags and advances only when changing direction.
Destined to usher in a new world and generate a “new man”, the French Revolution skidded into terror and bloodshed. The peace it brought, when it finally brought one, was the numbness of conquest and exhaustion. The economies it disrupted took a long time to recover. The suspicions and resentments it animated simmered on and on. Those enmeshed in the Revolution or who came close to it often did not retain pleasurable impressions. The son of one of Napoleon’s generals, Victor Hugo, derided its promises of Progress always around the corner. Simón Bolivar was convinced that those who served the cause of revolution plowed the sea. George Orwell, who fought and was wounded in Spain, pictured the future as a boot stamping on a human face—forever. This evidently does not exhaust the diversity of opinions. Mazzini and Marx believed the future would witness a culmination of the past. Nietzsche and the Futurists expected its shattering. Was it better to carry cartridges into battle, or chocolate?1 Was pacifism more than simply Christian for those Christians who were pacifists, but convenient, too? Or was war another creative revolution, an opportunity to tap sources of energy and renewal before they dried up, an invigorating jolt out of decline, as the Futurists argued, a hygienic (and eugenic) pulsion of creative destruction, the necessary tearing down before the triumphant rebuilding to come?
In August and September 1914, were the enthusiasts or the cheerlessly surly proven right? Did the utopia that the Bolsheviks built after 1917 bear out Shaw’s opinion that a lifetime of happiness (or of alleged happiness) would be hell on earth? Or did other versions of utopia suggest that mutations were possible, as demonstrated perhaps by the Oneida Community founded in 1848 in upstate New York? Oneida’s “Perfectionists” had sought sinlessness through communion with Christ, communal marriage and industrious Christian communism reminiscent of much earlier chiliastic sects. But Hussites, Adamites and Anabaptists who, like the Perfectionists of Oneida, aspired to live in the flow of love had lurched into violence. The Christian communists of Oneida, for their part, found prosperity in the manufacture of silverware, embroidered silks and Oneida steel traps, highly regarded as the best in the States. In 1881 the sodality became a joint-stock company, Oneida Community, Ltd. So there were alternatives to revolution and violence: prosperous craftsmanship.
Generally, however, most revolutions follow the yellow brick road to the solution of all pains, problems and conundrums. Whether in Oz, Paris or Moscow, they teem with edenic promises and millenarian expectations waiting to miscarry. Malia, who knew this well, connects their dynamics to the anticipations of salvation that such expectations spur or justify. He identifies the revolutionary impulse “in the sacred sedition of heresy, particularly in its . . . apocalyptic form”; he traces the continuity of European radicalism “from religious to political sedition, and on to overt revolution”; and he concludes on a millennial trajectory “from salvation religion as surrogate politics to salvation politics as surrogate religion.”
That, indeed, is how the book finds its structure. After beginning in what Malia calls “The Medieval Matrix”, part one’s four chapters examine revolution as religious heresy in Hussite Bohemia, Lutheran Germany, Hugenot France and the Netherlands’ Revolt. Part two’s three chapters cover what he calls the “classic Atlantic revolutions” in England, America and France. Part three’s three chapters are on the socialist revolutions, starting at the beginning of the 19th century and taking the story to 1917.
This makes good sense when you remember that religion is a bond that ties believers together; that 19th-century socialist leaders like Jules Guesde regarded fin-de-siècle social revolution as “the natural daughter of 16th-century religious revolution and 18th-century political revolution”; and that H.L. Mencken’s definition of faith as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable would justify Malia’s Hussites, Robespierre’s Jacobins, Lenin’s Bolsheviks and other crazed and costly fantastications like James Jones’ People’s Temple, Aum Shinrikyo and the Branch Davidians.
When Malia claims to find the roots of socialism in political development, he ignores the enduring influence of Matthew, chapters 5–7 (the Sermon on the Mount). He must have been thinking of politics as surrogate religion because it is impossible to completely distinguish religious yearnings from political ones. In this light, Malia’s “revolution” could be the surrogate Second Coming meant to usher in humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. That’s what Engels called it. But don’t hold your breath.
Or perhaps you should. For Winter’s and especially Malia’s depressing findings prove not only engaging, but true to facts. Jan Hus, burnt at the stake in 1415, and his Hussite followers helped to usher in one of the great and more lasting revolutions of early modern Europe: the Reformation. Their struggle for ecclesiastic reform, and the radical social doctrines they affirmed by force of arms, justify Malia’s opening his tale with them. Chateaubriand dismissed Protestantism as just another aborted revolution. He was wrong. Protestantism was a revolution, one of many that soon swerved into bloodshed. It was also a kind of millenarianism whose utopian appetite for virulent revelations demonstrated the kinship of religious and utopian zeal, and the ease with which either could turn deadly.
Ecstatic visions are but one step from nightmares, a step revolutions negotiate with ease. For French revolutionaries in the 18th century or Bolsheviks in the 20th, the road to the paradise they envisioned was marked by massacres. No wonder that Winter’s minor utopians are most easily praised when proving ineffectual, while the gory legacies of Malia’s revolutionary protagonists inspired utopias more ominous than seductive.
Symptomatically, many of the technological and scientific projections of the future that we call science fiction turn into threatening dystopias (or anti-utopias, as in Orwell’s 1984): Wars of all shapes and sizes, atomic dooms, ecocatastrophes, hectic cataclysms, apocalyptic imminences abound. More sanguine utopias tend to draw inspiration from Cockaigne, where exquisite food grows like flowers, roast pigeons fly through the air, and cakes rain from the heavens; or from Cuccagna, the Italian version, that knows no cold or rain or summer heat, but enjoys winters that leave elevations covered with cream cheese. Mountains of parmesan surround volcanoes that spill over with broth in which pasta boils; and truffles grow as big as houses.
Unfortunately, dystopias appear more convincing than utopias or their comical distortions, which may be why neither Winter nor Malia pays any heed to cockaignes. Scholarship is a stern mistress. So both our authors prefer to tackle less savory but more realistic permutations of utopia/dystopia, along with the revolutionary impulses they inform, whose bleak excesses color worlds where hope and desperation are liable to join forces with unpredictable consequences. Major or minor, though, the utopian impulse remains ever present. Its high-minded roadmaps hold out the promise of more crashes to come. ?
As George Bernard Shaw’s Chocolate Cream Soldier prefers in Act I of Arms and the Man.