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The New International, February 1946


George W. Tobin

Book Review

Modern Man Is Obsolete


From New International, Vol XII No. 4, April 1946, pp. 122–124.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Modern Man Is Obsolete
by Norman Cousins
The Viking Press, New York 1945. 48 pages & Appendix. $1.00

The opening of the Atomic Age has produced a flood of articles, books, pamphlets and magazines dealing with both the technical aspects of atomic energy and with its effect on society. An editorial dealing with the latter, by Norman Cousins in the Saturday Review of Literature, aroused nationwide acclaim on the part of many sections of American society, from members of the Supreme Court downward. This book, an expansion of that editorial, has likewise aroused wide attention in the United States and abroad. This book reveals the impact of the new Atomic Age on bourgeois-democratic public opinion, and at the same time shows the inability of the bourgeois mind to answer the problems posed.

Cousins’ thesis is that modern man is obsolete. By “modern man” he means (although he is not too clear about it in his own mind) the modern social order, its economy, its relations of human beings to each other, its politics, its philosophy, its culture. By “obsolete” he means to say that this social order cannot prevent the self-extinction of the human species. Therefore this social order will be abolished, either by mankind, or by the atomic Third World War which will abolish it together with mankind.

World Fear

The beginning of the Atomic Age has brought less hope than fear ... This fear is not new; ... But overnight it has become intensified, magnified. It has burst out of the subconscious and into the conscious, filling the mind with primordial apprehensions.

So the volume begins, expressing the terrible fear which has gripped humanity of what will happen with this weapon in the hands of the present rulers of the world, should another war come. The author realizes that the enemy is not atomic energy itself, but modern war which would use this energy for the destruction of mankind; he therefore proceeds to search for the cause of war. In so doing, he arrives at some near-Marxist ideas, but also reveals his bourgeois limitations.

After satisfying himself, by quotations from biologists, anthropologists and entomologists, that war is not the inevitable result of human nature, he says that war is an expression of his extreme competitive impulses, which have been acquired basically from his environment.

Dominating this environment has always been an insufficiency of the goods and the needs of life. From Biblical days up through the present, there was never a time when starvation and economic suffering were not acute somewhere in the world, leading to conflict not only within nations but among nations.

To avoid an atomic war, therefore, it is necessary that man curb his competitive impulses. At the same time this change has become so necessary, it has also become more possible:

Yet all this has been – or can be – changed by the new age. Man now has it within his grasp to emancipate himself economically. If he wills it, he is in a position to redirect his competitive impulses; he can take the step from competitive man to cooperative man. He has at last unlocked enough of the earth’s secrets to provide for his needs on a world scale. The same atomic and electrical energy that can destroy a continent can also usher in an age of economic sufficiency. It need no longer be a question as to which peoples shall prosper and which shall be deprived. There are resources enough and power enough for all.

Cousins says that “The change now impending is in many ways more sweeping than that of the Indust!ial Revolution itself.” The dropping of the first atomic bomb “marked the violent death of one stage in man’s history and the beginning of another. Nor should it be necessary to prove the saturating effect of the new age, permeating every aspect of man’s activities, from machines to morals, from physics to philosophy, from politics to poetry ...” In confused and often contradictory formulations, he, nevertheless, sees the tremendous revolution [1] in the productive forces constituted by the opening of the Atomic Age, facing society with such problems as to imperatively require the overthrow of the present social order for their solution.

Not being a Marxist, Cousins does not see the class character of modern society. For him, therefore, society is “Man,” a Jekyll-Hyde entity. “Man” (the good) fears what “Man” (his evil alter ego) may do with the atomic bomb. Listen to the following:

It is here that man’s survey of himself needs the severest scrutiny, for he is his own greatest obstacle to the achievement of those attainable and necessary goals. While he is willing to mobilize all his scientific and intellectual energies for purposes of death, he has so far been unwilling to undertake any comparable mobilization for purposes of life. He has opened the atom and harnessed its fabulous power to a bomb, but he balks – or allows himself to be balked – when it comes to harnessing that power for human progress. Already, he has been given words of synthetic caution. Even as he stands on the threshold of a new age, he is pulled back by his coat-tails and told to look the other way, told that he will not see the practical application of atomic energy for general use in our lifetime. If it works out this way, it will not be because of any lack of knowledge or skill, but only because of the reluctance in certain quarters to face up to the full implications of the Atomic Age which does not exempt the economic structure any more than it exempts man himself.

Now, abstractly, this is true. However, it is of little use, in deciding how we shall act, to say merely that “man is his own greatest obstacle.” The point which Cousins doesn’t see is that this obstacle to mankind’s progress is represented by the handful of capitalist monopolists, a class which in its desperate attempt to maintain its power is willy-nilly pushing man toward a new World War. It is this class which is revealing itself to humanity as the force which mobilizes science for the purpose of death, and which impedes the use of science for the purpose of life.

World Government

What change is required to bring man’s social structure into harmony with his newly found ability to create sun-power on earth? Cousins’ answer: Man must curb his competitive impulses. And since the competition which expresses itself in war is competition among nations, the author concludes that the most crucial aspect of the necessary change is “the transformation or adjustment from national man to world man.” He continues:

At present he is a world warrior; it is time for him to grow up and to become a world citizen. This is not vaporous idealism, but sheer driving necessity. It bears directly on the prospects of his own survival. He will have to recognize the fiat truth that the greatest obsolescence of all in the Atomic Age is national sovereignty. Even back in the old-fashioned Rocket Age before August 6, 1945, strict national sovereignty was an anomalous hold-over from the tribal instinct in nations. If it were anomalous then, it is preposterous now.

It is preposterous because we have invested it with non-existent powers. We assume that national sovereignty is still the same as it always was, that it still offers security and freedom of national decision. We assume it still means national independence, the right to get into war or to stay out of it. We even debate the question of “surrendering” some of our sovereignty, as though there is still something to surrender. There is nothing left to surrender. There is only something to gain. A common world sovereignty ...

Can it be that we do not realize that ... no longer is security to be found in armies and navies, however large and mighty? ... That in an Atomic Age all nations are directly accessible to each other – for better or worse? ... That the only really effective influence between peoples is such influence as they are able to exert morally, politically, ideologically upon each other? That the use of disproportionate wealth and abundance of resources by any nation, when applied for bargaining purposes, do not constitute influence by the type of coercion against which severe reaction is inevitable? ...

The need for world government was clear long before August 6, 1945, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki raised the need to such dimensions that it can no longer be ignored.

In a world where it takes less time to get from New York to Chungking than it took to get from New York to Philadelphia in 1787 ... all natural distances and barriers vanish. Never before in history has the phrase, the human family, had such a precise meaning. This much all of us – American, European, African, Asiatic, Australian – have in common: Whether we like it or not, we have been brought together or thrust together as member of a world unit. albeit an unorganized world unit.

Marxists have said for decades that modern technology has unified the planet’s economy and made national states obsolete. It required this colossal technological” revolution, the unlocking of the energy of the atom’s nucleus, to reveal this fact to wide layers outside of Marxist circles. No national defense, no national security is possible. We are all one world.

This is so commonplace for Marxists that we but dimly realize the enormous revolution in the thinking of society revealed when a respectable bourgeois-democratic editor writes, in effect: “We can not longer be patriots of the U.S.A., we must be world-citizens,” and is acclaimed by thousands of respectable industrialists, legislators, scientists et al. There is now a growing movement for world government, and its representatives in Congress have even introduced bills to achieve this purpose!

The Atomic Age has in effect dealt an ideological death-blow to national separatism, chauvinism and patriotism, to the ideological walls separating the people of the various nations.

The author then proceeds to answer eloquently and effectively various objections to world government, and various less drastic alternatives proposed to prevent atomic war. We cannot go into these here, except to mention one argument often heard: the fear that world government can become a world tyranny. Cousins correctly points out that man faces this problem in the creation or operation of government on any level. Limited as he is by bourgeois ideology, he sees, however, that just as a national government can be either democratic or fascist, so can a world government be either of these. A socialist would add that a world government, like a national one, can be controlled by either the capitalist class or the working class. The former would mean world tyranny; the latter, world freedom.

World Socialism

The widespread that world feeling control and planning are necessary is accompanied by popular concern that this control be democratic, subject to the people’s will. The basis for this is a distrust of any group monopolizing power, especially that power resulting from its control of atomic weapons. The bourgeois liberal, who does not understand the class nature of modern society, imagines that if you have the political forms of democracy such as exist in the United States today, the people will rule. He wants to extend such democracy to the world government. Cousins draws heavily on the experience of the thirteen American colonies in the formation of the United States, devoting an Appendix to excerpts from The Federalist. He proposes a similar procedure in the formation of a World Federation, advocating. as against a conference of governments (such as the UNO), a “Constitutional Convention of the United Nations,” in effect a World Constituent Assembly.

Marxists regard hopes of a world bourgeois democracy as utopian. Even if it were realized, Wall Street would dominate it through its economic power (supplemented where necessary by naked force and “democracy” of the Rankin-Bilbo variety). For this reason Moscow violently opposes the idea of world government, preferring its present “sovereignty” through the veto power in the UNO.

Yet Marxists should support demands for a World Constituent Assembly, by which we mean an assembly of the elected representatives of the people of the world. However, we always point out that: to prevent making of atomic bombs, there must be inspection of every factory, power plant, laboratory and storage facility in every country in the world. This would necessitate such an army of police inspectors armed with tyrannical powers as would mean the greatest bureaucracy the world has ever seen, serving the world dictatorship of a One Big imperialist power; or such inspection can be accomplished by workers’ control on a world scale, since only the working class is numerous enough and so situated in the economy as to be able to detect anti-social uses of atomic energy, anywhere in the world. The only alternative to world imperialist dictatorship is the Socialist United States of the World. If a World Constituent Assembly were ever realized. Marxists should propose the foregoing program to that body.

World Bomb

The atomic arms race is on, beneath the diplomatic double-talk. A few years from now, if not stopped by revolution, it will result in the whole world sitting on – not a powder keg (that is a horse-and-buggy concept) – but on a pile of plutonium. This idea is permeating and will saturate the consciousness of millions. It is bound to be followed by the recognition that the national state and the monopolistic production-relations of modem capitalism are responsible. Says Cousins:

Change requires stimulation; and mankind today need look no further for stimulus than its own desire to stay alive. The critical power of change, says Spengler, is directly linked to the survival drive. Once the instinct for survival is stimulated, the basic condition for change can be met.

That is why the power of total destruction as potentially represented by modern science must be dramatized and kept in the forefront of public opinion. The full dimensions of the peril must be seen and recognized. Only then will man realize that the first order of business is the question of continued existence. Only then will he be prepared to make the decisions necessary to assure that survival.

The value of this book for Marxists, aside from serving as a barometer of bourgeois public opinion under the impact of the Atomic Age, is to prove once again the impotence of the bourgeoisie, and the inability of the best of its liberal spokesmen, to cope effectively with the crisis. Modern liberalism, too, is obsolete. The labor movement will have to deal with this literally life-or-death question and take a stand on it. It is the duty of Marxists to urge and guide such action by the labor movement. And those advanced workers who realize that the issue is Socialism or Atomic Death, and who want to do something about it, must not delay in joining and building the revolutionary vanguard party so necessary if we are to prevent the world explosion of the plutonium pile.

Note by ETOL

1. In the printed edition “resolution”.

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