Sunday, October 4, 2009

Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914, by Gabriel Kolko

New York: The New Press, 1994, pp. 546.

In Century of War, noted historian and foreign policy commentator Gabriel Kolko focuses on the effect of war on civilian populations, and the political consequences of those effects. Predictably it devotes considerable attention to writing history from the "bottom-up," not a new idea by any means (a hundred years ago, Peter Kropotkin was offering such a take on the events of 1789 in The Great French Revolution), but it remains the rarity-too rare, to go by the content of pop history, which is absolutely dominated by "great man history" and "gentlemen's history." Military history (a robust, if incomplete, critique of which can be found in Jeremy Black's study of the field) has been perhaps more wide-ranging, but has only rarely taken this tack.

Kolko is wary of offering general theories, and stresses the need to pay attention to the specifics of historical situations. Nonetheless, he identifies significant recurring patterns, not least of them the impact of domestic class structures on policymaking, and in particular that:

* The pursuit of concrete foreign and defense policy objectives of states necessarily interacts with the domestic (e.g., class) interests of national elites.
* Careerist pressures, and the socialization of decisionmakers more broadly, tend to weed out those capable of seeing the holes in the "conventional wisdom," and willing to call it, so as to sharply narrow the range of ideas and options regarded as "realistic" and "serious"-and to undermine any institutional learning processes, and lead to the repetition of the same mistakes.
* The remainder of society (e.g. the working classes) acquiesces to the lead of elites out of apathy (or risk-avoidance) at least as much as approval, their primary concern being their own private lives.

In the twentieth century, war has been the great accelerant of otherwise slow social processes, because it disrupts the day-to-day lives of the usually passive majority, frequently making politicization a matter of life or death, without which it is difficult to understand crucial developments in this period, such as the rise of fascism, or the wave of decolonization which followed the end of World War II. Kolko notes as particularly significant the effects of military mobilization, inflation-the great traumatizer of the middle class-and demographic shifts that may ensue as a result of related economic developments, or deliberate military action. He also points to the role that war has played in concentrating business, a process Kolko has long described as not simply a reflection of Marxist "laws of economics," but also of state action (as in his classic study of the Progressive era, The Triumph of Conservatism), the military build-ups involved leading to government-assisted consolidations of industrial enterprises and contributing powerfully to their accumulation of capital through government orders.

In Kolko's view these patterns have much to do with the nature of twentieth century warfare, and in particular its tendency to defy the expectations of leaders (typically exemplifying the worst of what Kolko describes in their socialization process, and frequently obsessed with their "credibility") planning on quick, cheap victory. Time and again those leaders instead find their countries embroiled in conflicts that escape their control--despite their increasingly developed technology and expanded firepower, which serve only to make war more expensive, more destructive and more brutal (as in its explicit targeting of civilians). The result is that not only do the wars started by such elites prove much more costly in economic, human and political terms than they imagined, but they drive the consensus within their societies to (and often beyond) the breaking point.

The revolutions that followed in the wake of these disasters (as in Russia, Germany, China and Vietnam, all examined in some depth) have tended to be less a matter of a group bringing down an order through its actions than the collapse of that order, following which a new group (typically that most capable of articulating the desires of their countrymen, and making fewer tactical and strategic mistakes than its rivals) steps in. They typically fail to deliver the changes they promise, however, because political movements such as these too draw their fair share of ambitious, self-serving, opportunist careerists; while Kolko also sees the elitism of the Leninist political model (centered on a small "vanguard party" of activists rather than really mass-based movements) as having been a poor foundation for deep, broad, progressive change.

Indeed, in his view they have been such a drag on these movements that where at this time Francis Fukuyama was proclaiming "the end of history" (essentially, the victory of capitalism-democracy over all other social models), Kolko saw the "bankruptcy" of Marxism and Leninism at the end of the Cold War as clearing the way for a reconstruction of socialism along new lines-even going so far as to speculate that socialism may have had a better track record of success without the 1917 Russian Revolution.

It is putting it mildly to say that a great many readers will find that prognosis doubtful (more now, perhaps, than at the time of the book's writing). However, Kolko's book-which is meticulously researched and argued, combines great breadth with great attention to detail, and for all that highly readable-still offers a great deal that should be of interest to readers of all ideological persuasions for its attention to the interactions between war and the rest of social, political and economic life. Those interested in Kolko's larger body of work will find this a particularly significant piece of his longstanding project of critiquing the Marxist legacy from the left.

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