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Albert Gates

A Telescopic History

(November 1941)

From The New International, Vol. VII No. 10, November 1941, pp. 285–6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan.

A Generation of Materialism, 1871–1900
by Carlton J.H. Hayes
390 pp., Harper & Brothers, $3.75

HARPER & BROTHERS is now sponsoring a historical series entitled, The Rise of Modern Europe, which is being edited by Professor William L. Langer, of Harvard University. When completed, the series will consist of about 20 volumes recording the history of Europe from 1250 A.D. to and including the present epoch. It is the intention of the publishing company merely to “set forth in broad lines the leading currents in the political, social, economic, military, religious, intellectual, scientific and artistic history of Europe”! In such an event, the books may become, if the present volume is followed, summarizations of the various historical periods to be treated.

The instant volume by Professor Hayes, an experienced and authoritative writer in European history, is such a summarization of the latter period of the 19th century. The author of The Political and Social History of Modern Europe and The Political and Cultural History of Modern Europe has sought, within the covers of a volume consisting of 390 pages, to describe the dawn of modern imperialism emerging from the rise in the European industrial curve, the effect of Darwinism upon the philosophical, political and economic questions of the day, the significance of liberalism in a consolidating bourgeois order, mechanization and trustification in industry and the natural consequences of this development, the process of urbanization, the triumph of science, the struggle for universal education, the appearance of the labor and socialist (Marxian) movements, and, finally, the crowning of “nationalist” imperialism, the national state in the “Victorian Age,” and the seeds of modern totalitarianism!

Having described the main content of the volume, one will no doubt wonder about its title. A Generation of Materialism is obviously a misleading cognomen, since the book has nothing essentially to do with the philosophical disputes of the 19th century. Professor Hayes makes his meaning partially clear when he says: “I seldom use it in the strict philosophical sense. Generally I use it in what I conceive to be the popular, common-sense way, as denoting a marked interest in, and devotion to, material concerns and material things.” The great material development of a rising capitalism is the main theme of the book.

The “Victorian Age”

The author begins his volume with the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and its aftermath, the defeat of the Paris Commune. There follows a graphic description of the diplomatic intrigue and struggle accompanying the imperialist urge which dominated the leading European nations. Stated briefly and succinctly, the reader cannot help but grasp the future explosions inherent in the contending alliances which were passing through their preliminary stages: Germany, Russia and Austria; Germany, Austria and Rumania; Germany, Austria and Italy; France and Russia; and always the crafty British hovering around, pitting one nation against the other, bearing always in mind her main objective – maintaining a balance of power upon the continent. All the alliances were secret! This did not prevent, however, their being the common property of all the rival powers.

What is striking in Hayes’ review of this particular aspect of European history is its similarity to the diplomatic struggle attendant upon World War I and World War II. The problem, except that is has grown in magnitude, is the same: how to overcome the contradictions of capitalist production in a world divided by national boundaries. Just as now, war was the inescapable measure of “relief” adopted by all the countries. With few exceptions, universal compulsory military training and the permanent army became the vogue. For “arms in preparation” was the means of maintaining bourgeois state relations. The author is at his best in this section of the book, for he describes the permanently perilous conditions under which capitalism exists.

Hayes errs in attributing to Marxism a narrow, economic determinist, analysis of modern imperialism. His failure to properly assess the nature of the Marxist movement and its theories becomes at once obvious by the fact that he does not understand the place of historical materialism in Marxist doctrine. Marxists are not economic determinists, nor does the true Marxian movement approach social, economic and political problems from the point of view of the “self-interest” of the classes. What the Marxists do say about imperialism is that it results from the economic character of modern capitalism; that imperialism is not merely the seizure of territories, i.e., a policy of conquest, but, above all, economic, political and military measures by which one nation dominates another. Modern imperialism is a specific type of imperialism. It is marked by the export of capital (something quite impossible in pre-capitalist or industrial capitalist society), distinct and apart from the export of commodities; it is marked by a struggle for raw materials, for cheap labor, for control of the world markets, and finally, for divisions and redivisions of the world among the great powers. This struggle grows more fierce with the decay of the social order. But to do as the professor does, deny the Marxist concept simply because imperialism existed before the era of finance capital, is to prevent a fundamental understanding of this stage of capitalism.

Too Much and Yet Too Little

The other sections of the book, as outlined above, are treated in such a manner that the problem of mechanization, trustification and cartelization in modern industry, receive the same attention as the place of religion in modern society, and the role of the arts. Yet, the specific gravity of the structural changes which occurred in bourgeois society is so overwhelmingly preponderant in influencing the course of the twentieth century that they are in truth not to be discussed simultaneously. As is clear in this book, it leads neither to clarity in understanding capitalism, nor allows for a correct understanding of superstructural phenomenon.

The book is especially weak in its analysis of the trade unions and socialist movements. Through implication, at least, Hayes records the progressive character of the Marxist movement and Marxist theory as the inspirer of that movement, but his treatment of the place which this movement occupies in society is extremely superficial and indicates not merely a lack of intrinsic knowledge as to its real history, but an unmistakable prejudice which disallows him to make an objective appraisal of its true role and strength. He dismisses the Marxist movement as never really having any strength; that its reputation was primarily the result of claims made for it by Marx and Engels and the great, but natural, fear of the bourgeoisie in observing the character of the socialist aim. Thus, the rise of the socialist movement is explained by the fact that it was “timely,” coinciding with the rise of liberalism and occupying an extremist position in the general liberal movement. The key to the author’s understanding of the most significant world movement under capitalism, is his declaration that “self-interest (is the) ... essence ... of Marxism.”

Finally, the professor poses the thesis that “national imperialism” is the forerunner to totalitarianism. Unquestionably the current world situation greatly influenced him in the development of what is by and large an obvious thesis. Capitalism is, despite its economic interdependence and world character, composed of national states; the states are in sharp conflict with each other; such a condition in the midst of recurrent crises gives rise to blatant nationalism and war. These, in turn, give rise to dictators, a more rabid nationalism, anti-Semitism, racialism, and totalitarianism. But we need not have awaited Hayes’s simple thesis. The Marxists described the real process of imperialist capitalism many years ago and forecast the development of totalitarianism and fascist rule.

The value of this book lies in its aid to a study of European history. In many parts there is brilliant writing. But the author attempted too much with the result that important phases of social development have been sketchily presented, and in a manner which prevents genuine historical clarification.

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