WHERE does mankind stand in the year 1947 of the Christian era? This question no doubt concerns the whole living generation throughout the world; but, if it were made the subject of a world-wide Gallup Poll, there would be no unanimity in the answer. On this matter, if any, quot homines, tot sententiae; so we must ask ourselves in the same breath: To whom is our question being addressed? For example, the writer of the present paper is a middle-class Englishman of 58. Evidently his nationality, his social milieu and his age, between them, will in large measure determine the standpoint from which he views the world panorama. In fact, like each and all of us, he is more or less the slave of historical relativity. The only personal advantage that he can claim to possess is that he happens also to be a historian, and is therefore at least aware that he himself is a piece of sentient flotsam on the eddying surface of the stream of time. Realizing this, he knows that his fleeting and fragmentary vision of the passing scene is no more than a caricature of the surveyor's chart. God alone knows the true picture. Our individual human aperçus are shots in the dark.

The writer's mind runs back 50 years, to an afternoon in London in the year 1897. He is sitting with his father at a window in Fleet Street, watching a procession of Canadian and Australian mounted troops who have come to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. He can still remember his excitement at the unfamiliar, picturesque uniforms of these magnificent "colonial" troops, as they were still called in England then: slouch hats instead of brass helmets, grey tunics instead of red. To an English child, this sight gave a sense of new life astir in the world. A philosopher, perhaps, might have reflected that, where there is growth, there is likely also to be decay. A poet, watching the same scene, did, in fact, catch and express an intimation of something of the kind. Yet few in the English crowd gazing at that march past of overseas troops in London in 1897 were in the mood of Kipling's "Recessional." They saw their sun standing at its zenith and assumed that it was there to stay -- without their even needing to give it the magically compelling word of command which Joshua had uttered on a famous occasion.

The author of the tenth chapter of the Book of Joshua was at any rate aware that a standstill of time was something unusual. "There was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man." Yet the middle-class English in 1897, who thought of themselves as Wellsian rationalists living in a scientific age, took their imaginary miracle for granted. As they saw it, the evolution of history, for them, was accomplished. It had come to an end in foreign affairs in 1815, with the battle of Waterloo; in home affairs in 1832, with the Great Reform Bill; and in imperial affairs in 1859, with the suppression of the Indian Mutiny. And they had every reason to congratulate themselves on the permanent state of felicity which this ending of history had conferred on them. "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage."

Viewed from the historical vantage point of A.D. 1947, this fin de siècle middle-class English hallucination seems sheer lunacy, yet it was shared by contemporary western middle-class people of other nationalities. In the United States, for instance, in the North, history, for the middle class, had come to an end with the winning of the West and the Federal victory in the Civil War; and in Germany, or at any rate in Prussia, for the same class, the same permanent consummation had been reached with the overthrow of France and foundation of the Second Reich in 1871. For these three batches of western middle-class people 50 years ago, God's work of creation was completed, "and behold it was very good." Yet, though in 1897 the English, American and German middle class, between them, were the political and economic masters of the world, they did not amount, in numbers, to more than a very small fraction of the living generation of mankind, and there were other people abroad who saw things differently -- even though they might be impotent and inarticulate.

In the South, for example, and in France, there were in 1897 some people who agreed with their late conquerors that history had come to an end. The Confederacy would never rise from the dead; Alsace-Lorraine would never be recovered. But this sense of finality, which was so gratifying to top dog, did not warm a defeated people's heart. For them it was nothing but a nightmare. The Austrians, still smarting from their defeat in 1866, might have felt the same if the stirrings of submerged nationalities inside an empire whose territory Bismarck had left intact had not begun, by this time, to make the Austrians feel that history was once more on the move and might have still worse blows than Königgratz in store for them. English liberals at the time were indeed talking freely, and with approval, of a coming liberation of subject nationalities in Austria-Hungary and the Balkans. But, in spite of the specter of Home Rule and the stirrings of "Indian unrest," it did not occur to them that in southeastern Europe they were greeting the first symptoms of a process of political liquidation which was to spread, in their lifetime, to both India and Ireland and, in its irresistible progress round the world, was to break up other empires besides the Hapsburg monarchy.

All over the world, in fact, though at that time still under the surface, there were peoples and classes who were just as discontented as the French or the Southerners were with the latest deal of history's cards, but who were quite unwilling to agree that the game was over. There were all the subject peoples and all the depressed classes, and what millions they amounted to! They included the whole vast population of the Russian Empire of the day, from Warsaw to Vladivostok: Poles and Finns determined to win their national independence; Russian peasants determined to gain possession of the rest of the land of which they had been given so meager a slice in the reforms of the 1860's; Russian intellectuals and businessmen who dreamed of one day governing their own country through parliamentary institutions, as people of their kind had long been governing the United States, Great Britain and France; and a young and still small Russian industrial proletariat that was being turned revolutionary-minded by living conditions which made those of early nineteenth-century Manchester look like paradise by comparison. The industrial working class in England had, of course, improved their position very notably since the opening of the nineteenth century, thanks to the factory acts, the trades unions and the vote (they had been enfranchised by Disraeli in 1867). Still, in 1897, they could not, and did not, look back on the Poor Law Act of 1834, as the middle class did look back on the Reform Bill of 1832, as history's last word in wisdom and beneficence. They were not revolutionary, but, on constitutional lines, they were resolved to make the wheels of history move on. As for the Continental European working class, they were capable of going to extremes, as the Paris Commune of 1871 had shown in an ominous lightning flash.

This deep desire for changes, and strong resolve to bring them about by one means or another, was not, after all, surprising in an underdog, as represented by under-privileged classes and defeated or unliberated peoples. It was strange, though, that the apple-cart should be upset, as it was in 1914, by the Prussian militarists, who in truth had as little to gain and as much to lose as the German, English and American middle class by deliberately tearing open again history's insecurely closed book.

The subterranean movements that could have been detected even as far back as 1897 by a social seismologist go far to explain the upheavals and eruptions that have signalized the resumption of history's Juggernaut march during the past half-century. Today, in 1947, the western middle class which 50 years ago was sitting carefree on the volcano's crust, is suffering something like the tribulation which 100 to 150 years ago was inflicted by Juggernaut's car on the English industrial working class. This is the situation of the middle class today not only in Germany, France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia and Great Britain, but also in some degree in Switzerland and Sweden, and even in the United States and Canada. The future of the western middle class is in question now in all western countries; but the outcome is not simply the concern of the small fraction of mankind directly affected; for this western middle class -- this tiny minority -- is the leaven that in recent times has leavened the lump and has thereby created the modern world. Could the creature survive its creator? If the western middle class broke down, would it bring humanity's house down with it in its fall? Whatever the answer to this fateful question may be, it is clear that what is a crisis for this key minority is inevitably also a crisis for the rest of the world.

It is always a test of character to be baffled and "up against it," but the test is particularly severe when the adversity comes suddenly at the noon of a halcyon day which one has fatuously expected to endure to eternity. In straits like these, the wrestler with destiny is tempted to look for bugbears and scapegoats to carry the burden of his own inadequacy. Yet to do this in adversity is still more dangerous than to persuade oneself that prosperity is everlasting. In the divided world of 1947 Communism and capitalism are each performing this insidious office for one another. Whenever things go awry in circumstances that seem ever more intractable, we tend to accuse the enemy of having sown tares in our field and thereby implicitly excuse ourselves for the faults in our own husbandry. This is, of course, an old story. Centuries before Communism was heard of, our ancestors found their bugbear in Islam. As lately as the sixteenth century, Islam inspired the same hysteria in western hearts as Communism does in the twentieth, and this essentially for the same reasons. Like Communism, Islam was an anti-western movement which was at the same time a heretical version of a western faith; and, like Communism, it wielded a sword of the spirit against which there was no defense in material armaments.

The present western fear of Communism is not a fear of military aggression such as we felt in face of a Nazi Germany and a militant Japan. The United States, at any rate, with her overwhelming superiority in industrial potential and her monopoly of the "know-how" of the atom bomb, is at present impregnable against military attack by the Soviet Union. For Moscow, it would be sheer suicide to make the attempt, and there is no evidence that the Kremlin has any intention of committing such a folly. The Communist weapon that is making America so jumpy (and, oddly enough, she is reacting more temperamentally to this threat than the less sheltered countries of western Europe) is the spiritual engine of propaganda. Communist propaganda has a "know-how" of its own for showing up and magnifying the seamy side of our western civilization and for making Communism appear a desirable alternative way of life to a dissatisfied faction of western men and women. Communism is also a competitor for the allegiance of that great majority of mankind that is neither Communist nor capitalist, neither Russian nor western, but is living at present in an uneasy no-man's land between the opposing citadels of the two rival ideologies. Both nondescripts and westerners are in danger of turning Communist today, as they were of turning Turk 400 years ago, and, though Communists are in similar danger of turning capitalist -- as sensational instances have shown -- the fact that one's rival witch doctor is as much afraid of one's own medicine as one is afraid, oneself, of his does not do anything to relieve the tension of the situation.

Yet the fact that our adversary threatens us by showing up our defects, rather than by forcibly suppressing our virtues, is proof that the challenge he presents to us comes ultimately not from him but from ourselves. It comes, in fact, from that recent huge increase in western man's technological command over non-human nature -- his stupendous progress in "know-how" -- which was just what gave our fathers the confidence to delude themselves into imagining that, for them, history was comfortably over. Through these triumphs of clockwork, the western middle class has produced three undesigned results -- unprecedented in history -- whose cumulative impetus has set Juggernaut's car rolling on again with a vengeance. Our western "knowhow" has unified the whole world in the literal sense of the whole habitable and traversable surface of the globe; and it has inflamed the institutions of War and Class, which are the two congenital diseases of Civilization, into utterly fatal maladies. This trio of unintentional achievements presents us with a challenge that is formidable indeed.

War and Class have been with us ever since the first civilizations emerged above the level of primitive human life some five or six thousand years ago, and they have always been serious complaints. Of the 20 or so civilizations known to modern western historians, all except our own appear to be dead or moribund, and, when we diagnose each case, in extremis or post mortem, we invariably find that the cause of death has been either War or Class or some combination of the two. These two plagues have been deadly enough, in partnership, to kill off 19 out of 20 representatives, to date, of this recently evolved species of human society; but, up to now, the deadliness of these scourges has had a saving limit. While they have been able to destroy individual specimens, they have failed to destroy the species itself. Civilizations have come and gone, but Civilization (with a big "C") has succeeded, each time, in reincarnating itself in fresh exemplars of the type; for, immense though the social ravages of War and Class have been, they have not ever yet been all-embracing. When they have shattered the top strata of a society, they have usually failed to prevent the underlying strata from surviving more or less intact and clothing themselves with spring flowers on exposure to the light and air. And when one society has collapsed in one quarter of the world it has not, in the past, necessarily dragged down others with it. When the early civilization of China broke down in the seventh century B.C., this did not prevent the contemporary Greek civilization, at the other end of the Old World, from continuing to rise towards its zenith. And when the Graeco-Roman civilization finally died of the twin diseases of War and Class in the course of the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries of the Christian era, this did not prevent a new nascent civilization from successfully coming to birth in the Far East during those same 300 years.

Why cannot Civilization go on shambling along, from failure to failure, in the painful, degrading but not utterly suicidal way in which it has kept going for the first few thousand years of its existence? The answer lies in the recent technological inventions of the modern western middle class. These gadgets for harnessing the physical forces of non-human nature have left human nature unchanged. The institutions of War and Class are social reflections of the seamy side of human nature -- of what the theologians call original sin -- in the kind of society that we call Civilization. These social effects of individual human sinfulness have not been abolished by the recent portentous advance in our technological "know-how," but they have not been left unaffected by it either. Not having been abolished, they have been enormously keyed up, like the rest of human life, in respect of their physical potency. Class has now become capable of irrevocably disintegrating society, and War of annihilating the entire human race. Evils which hitherto have been merely disgraceful and grievous have now become intolerable and lethal, and therefore we in this westernized world in our generation are confronted with a choice of alternatives which the ruling elements in other societies in the past have always been able to shirk -- with dire consequences, invariably, for themselves, but not at the extreme price of bringing to an end the history of mankind on this planet. We are thus confronted with a challenge that our predecessors never had to face: We have to abolish War and Class -- and abolish them now -- under pain, if we flinch or fail, of seeing them win a victory over man which, this time, would be conclusive.

The new aspect of War is already familiar to western minds. We are aware that the atom bomb and our many other new lethal weapons are capable, in another war, of wiping out not merely the belligerents but the whole of the human race. But how has the evil of Class been heightened by technology? Has not technology already notably raised the minimum standard of living -- at any rate in countries that have been specially efficient or specially fortunate in being endowed with the riches of nature and being spared the ravages of war? Can we not look forward to seeing this rapidly rising minimum standard raised to so high a level, and enjoyed by so large a percentage of the human race, that the even greater riches of a still more highly favored minority will cease to be a cause of heart-burning? The flaw in this line of reasoning is that it leaves out of account the vital truth that man does not live by bread alone. However high the minimum standard of his material living may be raised, that will not cure his soul of demanding social justice; and the unequal distribution of this world's goods between a privileged minority and an underprivileged majority has been transformed from an unavoidable evil into an intolerable injustice by the latest technological inventions of western man.

When we admire aesthetically the marvellous masonry and architecture of the Great Pyramid, or the exquisite furniture and jewelry of Tut-ankh-Amen's tomb, there is a conflict in our hearts between our pride and pleasure in such triumphs of human art and our moral condemnation of the human price at which these triumphs have been bought: the hard labor unjustly imposed on the many to produce the fine flowers of civilization for the exclusive enjoyment of a few who reap where they have not sown. During these last five or six thousand years, the masters of the civilizations have robbed their slaves of their share in the fruits of society's corporate labors as cold-bloodedly as we rob our bees of their honey. The moral ugliness of the unjust act mars the aesthetic beauty of the artistic result; yet, up till now, the few favored beneficiaries of Civilization have had one obvious common-sense plea to put forward in their own defense.

"It has been a choice," they have been able to plead, "between fruits of civilization for the few and no fruits at all. Our technological command over nature is severely limited. We have at our command neither sufficient muscle-power nor sufficient labor to turn out our amenities in more than minute quantities. If I am to deny these to myself just because you cannot all have them too, we shall have to shut up shop and allow one of the finest talents of human nature to rust away buried in a napkin; and, while that is certainly not in my interest, it is surely not in yours either on a longer view. For I am not enjoying this monopoly of amenities exclusively for my own benefit. My enjoyment is at least partly vicarious. In indulging myself at your expense, I am in some sense serving as a kind of trustee for all future generations of the whole human race." This plea was a plausible one, even in our technologically go-ahead western world, down to the eighteenth century inclusive, but our unprecedented technological progress in the last 150 years has made the same plea invalid today. In a society that has discovered the "know-how" of Amalthea's cornucopia, the always ugly inequality in the distribution of this world's goods has become a moral enormity in ceasing to be a practical necessity.

Thus the problems that have beset and worsted other civilizations have come to a head in our world today. We have invented the atomic weapon in a world partitioned between two supremely Great Powers; and the United States and the Soviet Union stand respectively for two opposing ideologies whose antithesis is so extreme that, as it stands, it seems irreconcilable. Along what path are we to look for salvation in this parlous plight, in which we hold in our hands the choice of life or death not only for ourselves but for the whole human race? Salvation perhaps lies, as so often, in finding a middle way. And beyond the political and the economic elements there is another. As one middle-aged middle-class west European observer sees the world today, salvation cometh neither from the east nor from the west. In A.D. 1947, the United States and the Soviet Union are alternative embodiments of contemporary man's tremendous material power; "their line is gone out through all the Earth, and their words to the end of the World." But in the mouths of these loud-speakers one does not hear the still small voice. Our cue may still be given us by the message of Christianity and the other higher religions, and the saving words and deeds may come from unexpected quarters.

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  • ARNOLD J. TOYNBEE, Director of Studies, Royal Institute of International Affairs; Director of Research Department, Foreign Office, 1943; author of "A Study of History," "Survey of International Affairs" and other works
  • More By Arnold J. Toynbee