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"The Twentieth Century: Darkness at Noon?"

by Immanuel Wallerstein

[Keynote address at PEWS XXIV, "The Modern World-System in the Twentieth Century," Boston College, Mar. 24, 2000]

In the middle of the twentieth century, Arthur Koestler wrote a novel about the Soviet regime and its show trials, which he entitled "Darkness at Noon." I would like to take this as my metaphor for the entire twentieth century, not just the Soviet regime. But at the same time, the century was in many ways also "Bright Sun at Midnight." Indeed, the way we think about this century so difficult to assess has depended very much on the place from which and the moment at which we were observing it. We have been on something of a rollercoaster ride. We should remember that rollercoaster rides end in one of two ways. Usually, they return to their starting point, more or less, although the riders may have been either exhilarated or very frightened. But sometimes, they derail.

Henry Luce called the twentieth century "the American century." He was unquestionably right, although this is only part of the story. The rise of the United States to hegemony in the world-system started circa 1870 in the wake of the beginning of the decline of the United Kingdom from its erstwhile heights. The United States and Germany competed with each other as contenders for the succession to the U.K. What happened is well-known and straightforward. Both the United States and Germany greatly expanded their industrial base between 1870 and 1914, both surpassing Great Britain. One, however, was a sea/air power and the other a land power. Their lines of economic expansion were correspondingly different, as was the nature of their military investment. The U.S. was allied economically and politically with the declining erstwhile hegemonic power, Great Britain. Eventually, there were the two world wars, which one can best think of a single "thirty years' war," one essentially between the U.S. and Germany, to determine hegemony in the world-system.

Germany tried the path of transforming the world-system into a world-empire, what they called a tausendjähriges Reich. The path of imperial conquest has never worked as a viable path to dominance within the framework of the capitalist world-economy, as Napoleon had previously learned. The world-imperial thrust has the short-term advantage of its military vigor and precipitateness. It has the middle-term disadvantage of being very expensive and uniting all the opposition forces. As the constitutional and quasi-liberal monarchy of Great Britain had rallied autocratic, Tsarist Russia again Napoleon, so the quasi-liberal representative republic of the United States rallied the Stalinist Soviet Union against Hitler, or rather both Napoleon and Hitler did good jobs in uniting the two ends of the European land mass against the voracious power structure located between them.

But how shall we assess the consequences of this struggle? Let us start with the material outcome. In 1945, after what was incredibly destructive warfare everywhere on the European continent and similarly destructive warfare in East Asia - destructive in terms both of lives and of infrastructure - the United States was the only major industrial power to emerge unscathed economically, even strengthened as the result of wartime build-up. For several years after 1945, there was actual hunger in all the other previously economically advanced regions, and in any case there was a difficult process of basic reconstruction of these zones.

It was quite easy in such a situation for United States industries to dominate the world market. Their major problem initially was not too much competitive sellers but too little effective demand, two few buyers worldwide because of the decline of purchasing power in western Europe and East Asia. This required more than relief; it required reconstruction. And however profitable such reconstruction would be for U.S. industry, it was costly from the point of view of U.S. taxpayers. Meeting the short-run costs posed an internal political problem for the U.S. government.

Meanwhile, there seemed to be a political-military problem as well. The U.S.S.R., despite the destruction, loomed large as a military power, occupying half of Europe. It proclaimed itself a socialist state with a theoretical mission to lead the whole world to socialism (and then, in theory again, to communism). Between 1945-1948, so-called popular democracies, under the aegis of the Communist Party, were put into place, one by one, in the zones where the Red Army was to be found at the end of the Second World War. By 1946, Winston Churchill would speak of an "iron curtain" that had fallen on Europe from Stettin to Trieste.

In addition, in the immediate post-1945 years, Communist parties showed themselves to be extremely strong in a large number of European countries. We tend to forget today that Communist parties won 25-40% of the vote in the early postwar elections in France, Italy, Belgium, Finland, and Czechoslovakia - the result both of their previous strength in the interwar years and of their wartime role in animating a good part of the resistance against Nazism/fascism. The same was true in Asia. In China, the Communist Party was marching on Shanghai against a Nationalist government that had lost its legitimacy. Communist parties and/or guerillas were remarkably strong as well in Japan, the Philippines, Indochina, and the Dutch East Indies, and not negligible elsewhere.

Communist movements had, as the French say, le vent en poupe. They claimed that history was on their side, and they acted as though they believed it. So did a lot of others believe it, ranging from conservative movements to center-left movements, and most particularly the majority of the social-democrats. These others were afraid that, in a few years, their countries too would become popular democracies. And they didn't wish this to happen. More emphatically, they were ready to resist actively what now was rhetorically called a Communist menace to the free world.

In the last thirty years, there has been a large amount of revisionist historiography, coming from both the left and from the right. The left revisionists have tended to claim that the so-called Communist menace was a bogeyman, erected by the U.S. government and world right forces, both to ensure U.S. hegemony in the world-system and to put down (or at least limit) the strength of left and workers' movements in the Western liberal states. The right-wing revisionists have tended to claim, especially since the availability of Soviet documents after 1989, that there was indeed a worldwide network of spies for the Soviet Union, which did indeed have every intention of subverting non-Communist states and transforming them into popular democracies.

The fact is that both the left and the right historiographical revisionists are probably largely right in the empirical assertions and fundamentally wrong in their historical interpretation. No doubt, both sides asserted both publicly and even more in private what the revisionists said they had asserted. Probably, most individuals in the key agencies of each side believed the rhetoric, or at least believed much of it. No doubt too, both sides engaged in actions that went in the direction of carrying out the rhetoric. And no doubt finally, both sides would have been delighted to see the other side collapse, and were for the most part even hoping for it.

Still we need a little sangfroid and a little Realpolitik in our appreciation of what really went on. It seems clear, in retrospect, that the Cold War was a highly restrained, carefully constructed and monitored exercise, that never got out of hand and never led to the world war of which everyone was afraid. I have called it a minuet. Furthermore, in retrospect, nothing much happened, in the sense that the boundary lines as of 1989 were pretty much the boundary lines as of 1945, and there was in the end neither Soviet aggression in western Europe nor U.S. "rollback" in eastern Europe. Furthermore, there were many points at which each side showed restraint above and beyond the call of rhetoric. Of course, we can say none of this was the intent, merely the result of a stalemate, and to some extent that may be true. Still, stalemates are abetted by lassitudes that result from tacit intents.

Such a historical scenario calls for caution in assessing the motives and the priorities of each side. Let us look at two codewords: Yalta and containment. Yalta was the name of a meeting of the heads of state of the U.S., the U.S.S.R., and Great Britain in February, 1945. Yalta ostensibly fixed the boundaries of the prospective postwar garrisoning of troops and therefore of geopolitical influence, as well as the modalities of constituting governments in liberated countries. Containment was a doctrine invented by George Kennan a few years later. Kennan, speaking for himself but indirectly for the U.S. establishment, advocated just that, containment by the U.S. of the Soviet Union - not, however, containment in place of welcome but containment in place of rollback, a cold war that would not and should not become a hot one. Before John Foster Dulles became Secretary of State under Eisenhower in 1953, he had advocated, against Kennan, rollback. But, once in power, Dulles in fact practiced containment (most notably in 1956 in relation to the Hungarian Revolution), and rollback was relegated to the discourse of marginal politicians.

What Yalta/containment achieved (who will ever know the inner motives of all the actors?) is quite clear. The Soviet Union had a zone under its absolute control (most of what we call east and central Europe). The U.S. claimed all the rest of the world. The U.S. never interfered in the Soviet zone (except by propaganda). See U.S. actions (or rather inaction) in 1953, 1956, 1968, and 1981 in response to various versions of what later came to be called the Brezhnev Doctrine - the right claimed by the U.S.S.R. to maintain forcibly within its bloc any state that was part of it. On the other hand, the U.S.S.R. never really interfered in any zone outside its sphere with more than political propaganda and a little money, with the sole serious exception of Afghanistan (a big mistake, as they were to learn). To be sure, some countries ignored this nice bilateral U.S.-Soviet arrangement, and we will come to that.

What had Yalta to do with the issue of U.S. world economic priorities in the immediate postwar period? As we have said, the U.S. needed to create world effective demand; however, the U.S. did not have unlimited money with which to do that. In the allocation of its resources, the U.S. gave priority to western Europe for both economic and political reasons. The result was the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan, let us nonetheless remember, was offered by Marshall to all the allies. Did the U.S. really want the Soviet Union to accept? I doubt it very much, and remember hearing a State Department spokesman admit as much publicly at the time.

In any case, the Soviet Union declined to be part of the proposal, and made sure none of the countries in its zone responded favorably. This was a bonanza for the U.S. government for two reasons. Had the Soviet Union come in on the plan, it would have become too expensive, and in addition the U.S. Congress would never have voted it. The main argument that obtained bipartisan Congressional support for the Marshall Plan was the need to contain Communism. So what in fact was happening? Marshall Plan aid was the other side of the Yalta arrangements. The Soviet Union was free to establish a mercantilist bloc within the world-economy, but then it get no economic aid in its reconstruction. No interference, but no aid. The only time these nice arrangements seemed threatened was the moment of the Berlin Blockade. But the net result of the blockade was a truce at the point where it started, giving the U.S. the excuse to launch NATO and the Soviet Union the excuse to create the Warsaw Pact. It also gave each side the excuse to spend a lot more on their military, which was actually beneficial economically in the short run, if not in the longer run.

Of course, Asia was a bit left out in these arrangements. And the Chinese Communists had no intention of being left out. So they marched on Shanghai, contra Stalin's wishes. In the U.S., the right said that the U.S. lost China, but actually it was the Soviet Union that lost China, and that turned out to be more important in the long run. Then came the Korean War. Whatever the real story about who started what and when, it seems clear, again in retrospect, that neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union wanted to start such a war. And after a long and nasty involvement, in which the U.S. lost lives but the Soviet Union did not, the war ended with a truce more or less at the starting point, a result very similar to that of the Berlin Blockade. But once again, this war gave the needed excuse for the U.S. to bolster enormously the Japanese economy and to sign a defense pact. So East Asia, from a U.S.-Soviet viewpoint, was in on the Yalta arrangement. And China now de facto accepted it as well after the Quemoy-Matsu imbroglio in 1955.

The American century was a geopolitical reality, one in which the other so-called superpower, the U.S.S.R. had a role, a voice, but not really the power to do anything but strut around in its cage, until the cage imploded in 1989. With however this implosion, the underlying political justification for U.S. hegemony disappeared as well, and the geopolitics of the world-system would now change, a subject to which we shall return.

Let us turn to the second great happening of the twentieth century, the exact opposite of United States hegemony - the slow but steady pushback by the non-Western world of pan-European dominance. The height of the "expansion of Europe" was actually circa 1900, a full century ago. It was then that W.E.B. DuBois was proclaiming that "the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line." No one believed him at the time, but he was absolutely right. Even before the First World War, there were a number of so-called revolutions that should have made analysts take notice: Mexico, Afghanistan, Persia, China, and not least the Japanese defeat of Russia in 1905. There was already then a pan-extrawestern world mutual cheering society such that these events were noticed far and wide and served to encourage further action against pan-European dominance.

Indeed, I believe we should think of the Russian Revolution not as a proletarian revolution which it clearly was not but as the most successful and spectacular of the efforts to pushback pan-European dominance. To be sure, many Russians insisted they were Europeans. And the Bolsheviks were on that side of the long-standing debate in Russia between Westernizers and Slavophiles. But this only points to the central ambivalence of the movements to pushback pan-European dominance. They were demanding separation and integration at the same time, both in the name of equality. In any case, the Bolsheviks realized, after the non-occurrence of the fabled German revolution, that their survival and world role was linked to the world anti-imperialist struggle. This was the meaning of the Baku Congress in 1920.

In the post-1945 period, decolonization became the order of the day. This was in part intelligent and timely withdrawal by the colonizing powers. But this wisdom on their part was very largely the result of some heroic struggles by national liberation movements across three continents. The three that had the greatest geopolitical impact were Vietnam, Algeria, and Cuba. In none of these cases can it be argued that these movements were agents of the Soviet Union. Quite the opposite. These movements essentially were defying the Yalta arrangements, and imposing another set of priorities in the geopolitical arena, one to which both the Soviet Union and the United States had to bend, eventually.

Now, if we compare 2000 and 1900, we see the degree to which the anti-imperialist struggle was magnificently successful and yet changed much less of the realities of the world-system than its participants had hoped, intended, and expected it to do. In 2000, there are no significant formal colonies left. We have an African Secretary-General of the United Nations. And formal, avowed racism has become taboo rhetoric. On the other hand, we know the degree to which neo-colonialism (in Nkrumah's now forgotten but apt phrase) is rampant. An African may be Secretary-General of the U.N. but an American heads the more important World Bank, and a western European the International Monetary Fund. And while the rhetoric of racism is taboo, the reality is as great as ever, and everyone understands the unavowed code words that permit it to operate.

Indeed, the very success of the antisystemic movements has been the major cause of their undoing. In the late nineteenth century, the various antisystemic movements, all politically weak, evolved their strategy for social transformation, the famous two-step plan: first, mobilize to achieve state power in each state; then use state power to transform society. This was the strategy adopted by the Marxists in the name of the workers' movement. This was the strategy adopted by the political nationalists. This was even the strategy adopted by the women's movements as well as movements of so-called minorities insofar as they concentrated on suffrage and other political rights. In 1900, this strategy seemed the only plausible road for these movements, and probably it was. It certainly seemed to be a difficult road. By the 1960's, the mobilizations had achieved step one all over the world. The antisystemic movements were in power, or at least partial power, almost everywhere. Step two, transforming society, could now be undertaken and its results could be assessed. It was the militants and the masses who ultimately found the results to be so far below their expectations that they would come to vent their disillusionment upon the movements themselves and their leaders, first in the 1968 world revolution and then in the follow-up of the next three decades.

The two twentieth-century trends became conjoined in the last decades of this century. The collapse of the Communisms in 1989-1991 was the climax of the process of disillusionment that had surfaced in 1968. It was however also and simultaneously the knell of U.S. global power, removing its political underpinnings in two ways. On the one hand, it ended the political justification for a continuing subordination to U.S. leadership of its two main economic rivals, a now revitalized western Europe and Japan. And on the other hand, it ended the constraints that the antisystemic movements had placed on mass political activity, which they had been channelling and in reality largely depoliticizing. So, we can say that, in 2000 by comparison with 1900, the pan-European world was actually much weaker geopolitically and culturally, but the rest of the world had spent the ammunition they had mobilized and was wallowing in economic and political distress without the certainty that they had once had, that history was on their side. Hence, darkness at noon for both the pan-European world and the rest of the world, after a long period (especially 1945-1970) of bright sun at midnight.

In this story that I am telling, I have not mentioned the Nazi/fascist onslaught in the interwar years nor the so-called ethnic purifications we have been undergoing of late nor the Gulag horrors of the Communist regimes (but of course also of many other regimes). Are they not important? Yes, of course, in the sense that horrendous suffering is always important and always morally repugnant. But how do we assess first the causes of these horrors and secondly the trajectory? The dominant centrist myth is that these horrors were caused by ideological presumption and collective social deviance from the moderate, steady path laid out for the world-system by those who have had the most power in it. Auschwitz is said to have been the result of irrational racism, Gulags the consequence of arrogant imposition (and expectation) of utopias, ethnic purification the result of atavistic, culturally ingrained xenophobias.

Even without looking at the details, this is an implausible form of analysis. Auschwitz, Gulags, and ethnic purification all occurred within the framework of a historical social system, the capitalist world-economy. We have to ask what it is about this system that produced such phenomena, and allowed them to flourish in the twentieth century, in ways and to a degree that hadn't occurred before. We live in a system in which there has been a continuing class struggle. We live in a system that has involved the steady polarization of the populations - economically, politically, socially, and now even demographically. We live in a system that has built racism and sexism into its structures from the outset. And of course we live in a system that has structured the very antisystemic movements that have challenged the legitimacy and viability of the system itself.

One of the ways in which 1900 was different from 1800, a fortiori from 1700 or 1600, is that the stakes of the global casino had become much higher. Winning and losing had greater consequences for the combatants, both because the possibility of mobility (upward and downward) for individuals and collectivities was ever greater and because the gap was ever greater and growing steadily at a geometric and not arithmetic pace. I shall not attempt here an explication of the particulars of any of these phenomena. I wish merely to insist that the explanation must be found in the functioning of the system and not in some supposed deviance from its proper functioning. I wish also to insist that, however terrible these happenings were for all those who suffered from them, they mattered less to the historical evolution of the modern world-system than the two central realities of the twentieth century, the rise and beginning of the decline of U.S. hegemony and the spectacular political reassertion of the extra-European world, which changed less than everyone had supposed it would.

If one compares the twentieth-century capitalist world-economy with the nineteenth-century capitalist world-economy, there is really one remarkable difference. The nineteenth century was the century of progress, in which the capitalist system seemed at last to be bearing its technological fruits and its potential for capital accumulation. It was the century in which the new ascendant geoculture of liberalism seemed to sweep away the last cultural vestiges of the Ancien Régime. It was the century in which the citizen was at last enthroned as the bearer of sovereignty. It was the century of pax Britannica in the core zones (or at least people were deluded into ignoring the occasional ruptures) and of the final imperial conquests in the extra-European zones. It was the period in which to be bourgeois, White, male, Christian, and skilled were proof of civilization, and guaranteed progress. This is why the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 was such a cultural shock within the pan-European zones.

The twentieth century, as we said at the outset, has been a rollercoaster. On the one hand, the technological advances in all fields have outstripped the anticipation of the nineteenth century by far. We live amidst a Jules Verne fantasy, and we are promised far more in the next thirty years. So has capital accumulation, even if we subtract all the capital stock destroyed in the multiple conflagrations. The democratization of the world has also proceeded apace, in the sense that the demands of full citizenship have been taken up by all and sundry, and have gone far beyond the imaginations of even the most daring nineteenth-century advocates. So there we are, bright sun at midnight.

Yet, as we all know, in the year 2000, we are surrounded by fear, confusion, desperate scrambling again by all and sundry. We are discouraged by the horrors of the twentieth century. We are discouraged even more by the failures: the failure of the United States to fulfill the world liberal utopia their ideologists have been constantly promising; the failure of the antisystemic movements to create the new society they had constantly promised, at least until very recently, les lendemains qui chantent. It is as though the incredible and ever faster growth of the capitalist system had gotten out of hand, and created cancers which are metastasizing all over the place.

We are face to face with uncertainty. It is all very well for Prigogine to tell us that uncertainty is the central reality of the universe, and not merely of our present historical situation. We still do not like it, and we find it very hard to handle - psychologically and politically. And yet we must. We find ourselves in the terminal phase of an historical system, an age of transition as I have argued elsewhere.(1) We must turn to our intellectual, moral, and hence political duties in an age of transition. The first in line is the search for lucidity about where we are. Rosa Luxemburg said already at the beginning of the twentieth century that "the most revolutionary thing one can do al-ways is to proclaim loudly what is happening."(2)

But once we've done that, we must discuss with our friends, with our allies, with all those who seem to want a more democratic and egalitarian world what kinds of new structures we might want, at least in broad outline, and what kinds of strategies we might use in the very intense, but inevitably confused, struggle of a major historical transition. We have to conduct such a discussion without hierarchy, with much openness, and with a certain amount of humility, but on the other hand with some clarity about minimal standards of inclusiveness and some insistence on a long-term historical view.

This will not be easy. Such discussion is of course already going on. But not enough. We need to add our voices, both in scholarly arenas and in more public arenas. We must be serious. We must be committed. We must be cool-headed. And we must be imaginative. No small order. But as Hillel said two thousand years ago, if not I, who? if not now, when?

1. See Terence K. Hopkins & Immanuel Wallerstein, coords., The Age of Transition: Trajectory of the World-System, 1945-2025, London: Zed Books, 1996; see also I. Wallerstein, Utopistics, or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century, New York: New Press, 1998.

2. "Wie Lasalle sagte, ist und bleibt die revolutionärste Tät, immer das laut zu sagen, was ist."


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