Wednesday, May 22, 2013

John Kenneth Galbraith's "Age of Uncertainty: Lenin and The Great Ungluing"

Today's episode of John Kenneth Galbraith's 1977 The Age of Uncertainty is Episode 5 Lenin and The Great Ungluing, which deals with the First World War and its aftermath:

Galbraith in the companion book notes, "No subject known to history, not even the reasons for the long decline of Rome (the more interesting question is how it lasted so long), has been so much debated as the causes of World War I."

But that doesn't stop him from offering his own observations. This is an important one. He takes issue with Marxist theories of imperialism that held capitalism to be especially prone to generating wars, and the First World War more specifically:

The better explanation lies in the traditional territorial attitudes of predominantly rural societies. Their governments, at least in that time, were dangerously belligerent - more so, Marx notwithstanding, than those of the capitalist world.

Ever since the beginning of historical experience, land and men had been the basis of both wealth and military power; the two went together. The wealth of a prince had always been in proportion to the extent and quality of the land be controlled. For varying with the extent and quality of the land were the number, and perhaps also the quality, of the peasantry it supported and therewith of the soldiers he could muster. Thus his military power. Thus the territorial imperative, the belief that nothing should stand in the way of acquisition or defense of territory.

In 1914, the belief in land and men- this territorial imperative - was part of the deepest instinct of the old ruling houses. It was a factor as between France and Germany. Had Germany won, something more of France would have been added to Alsace and Lorraine. Between the Hapsburgs and the Romanovs, and in the Balkans, it was mortal. It was for this reason that the rulers eyed each other with suspicion; each believed that his neighbor wanted the territory that was decisive for wealth and power. [my emphasis]
He also spends some time to discuss Lenin's leadership, including the following:

Marx, no one could doubt, was a revolutionary; the free-flowing beard, piercing eye, exceptionally untidy appearance were all in keeping. It may, indeed, be Marx who has given us our mental image of how a revolutionary should look. Far more than Marx, Lenin was a revolutionary. Marx wrote; Lenin led . He remains the revolutionary colossus who stands astride a whole age, the point of reference still for the long, slowly moving lines beside the Kremlin Wall. With his high for ehead greatly accented by the bald dome above, his neat mustache, dark, quiet suit and something very near a VanDyck beard, he looked like the head of a firm of chartered accountants. Leon Trotsky, with his fi erce and glittering eye and much less disciplined beard, was a man of far more satisfactory aspect.

Once quite a few years ago a Soviet historian visited Harvard. He was an old man and had served in Budenny's cavalry during the Revolution. He had known Lenin well and told with amused pride that Lenin had once paid him a high compliment; he was, Lenin had said, the world's only known case of a cavalryman with brains. I asked him the source of Lenin's leadership - a man so tidy, looking so much like a clerk. He replied: "When Lenin spoke, we marched."
Galbraith also relates this anecdote, which he presents as like apocryphal, talking about the time Lenin spent at the library in the British Museum while in exile: "Years later [after the Boshevik Revolution], according to legend, it occurred to someone to ask one of the library attendants if he remembered Lenin. He did, a most diligent little man. The librarian wondered whatever had become of him."

He also discusses the vexatious issue of the adjustments made by capitalist countries in their method of rule after the First World War:

In the West the war ended, Germany was defeated but the glue seemed to hold. In Germany Friedrich Ebert, a Social Democrat, became President. Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht led a militant minority whose view of revolution was as Lenin's. But the moderate opposition in Germany, the counterpart of the Mensheviks, was far stronger than in Russia. Gustav Noske, a Social Democrat, became Minister of Defense and put down their revolt. Luxembourg and Liebknecht were both killed by anti-Communists. But in the Western countries too, the United States partly excepted , there was a quiet revolution, one that deserves the name.

In all European countries the old coalition of capitalists and traditional rulers [aristocratic landowners, more or less] was at an end. There would still be a ruling coalition; it would be of business interests, large and small, and the trade unions and their parties. Sometimes these joined in power. More often they traded it back and forth, increasingly sharing it with yet other groups. So it was in Britain, France and the British Dominions. And so, with the passage of time, it would be in the United States. It was a prospect that Marx did not foresee.
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