BETWEEN the orderly Europe that we used to know and the distracted Europe of today is fixed the great gulf of the World War. We remember the old Europe with its riches, its flourishing trade, its abundance of goods, its ease of life, its bold sense of security; we see today the new Europe -- impoverished, discouraged, crisscrossed with high tariff walls, each nation occupied solely with its own affairs, too distraught to pay heed to the things of the spirit and tormented by the fear of worse to come. Gone is the gay international society once the pride of Europe's capitals; extinct, or almost so, is the old community of thought, art, civilization. How many astounding changes there have been in frontiers and in political relationships! In the place of the Germany of the Hohenzollerns we see the German Republic; Austria-Hungary has been dismembered and cut up into new states; French sway has been reëstablished over the provinces lost in 1870, and the Italian frontiers now include the unredeemed territories and extend to the Brenner; Poland has been reconstituted; Russia is ruled, not by the Tsars but by the Soviets; and the United States has become a dominant factor in European policy.

Yet if we pass from externals to essentials and try to identify the controlling forces now at work, we soon discern that these two Europes, so dissimilar in appearance, have continuity and homogeneity. When we leave out superficial impressions and make a careful analysis we detect the same characteristics in both, though in the Europe of today they have been exaggerated by the war. The same proclivities and the same spiritual conflicts are there, though aggravated by the general intellectual decay which was to be expected after a war which counted its victims by the millions, accustomed its survivors to violence, and destroyed the habit of critical, constructive and concentrated mental labor.

Nationalistic and imperialistic impulses have seized the victorious nations because they are victors, and the vanquished because they are vanquished; while the new states add new nationalisms, new imperialisms to the list. Impatience with free institutions has led to open or masked dictatorships, and, where dictatorships do not exist, to the desire for them. Liberty, which before the war was a faith, or at least a routine acceptance, has now departed from the hearts of men even if it still survives in certain institutions. In its place is an atavistic libertarism which more than ever ponders disorder and destruction, gives rein to extravagant impulses, and produces spectacular and sterile works. Indifferent and contemptuous, its followers scorn meditative and loving labor, labor with a reverent affection for the past and a courageous mastery of the future. They scorn actions which spring from the heart and speak to the heart, speculations which hold the germs of truth, history based on a realization of all that man has achieved by painful struggle, poetry which is beautiful.

Under the name of socialism, communism had already been introduced into the political life and institutions of Europe before the war. Now it has reappeared, crude and disruptive. Liberalism it ridicules as something naively moralistic. Like atavism, into which it often blends, this communism is a sterile thing that kills thought, religion and art: seeking to subjugate them to its own purposes, it can only destroy them. All the distortions and decrepit sophistries of historical materialism have reappeared in the current opinions and theories of the day as if they were new and full of promise, although any man with a slight knowledge of criticism and the history of ideas passed judgment upon them long ago. They have taken on an air of novelty and modernness merely because, although originally introduced by Europe to Russia, they now come out of Russia; if anything they are more immature and shallow than ever; but in this age of unprecedented callowness and crudity they gain unprecedented credence. Catholicism, moreover, which before the war sought to draw new strength from the forces of irrationalism and mysticism, has been gathering into its fold many weak and bewildered souls. Thus once again is heard that chorus of pessimism and decadence which echoed through pre-war literature, this time announcing the decline of western civilization and of the human race itself. According to these prophets it is about to sink back to the level of beasts after having failed to reach the estate of man.

All these are facts, and it is useless to deny them or to say that they are true only of certain people in certain countries. Like the situation from which they spring they are common to all Europe and all the world. And since they are facts, they must have a function to fill in the development of the human spirit and in social and human progress -- if not as direct creators of new values, then at least as resources and stimuli for the deepening and broadening of old values. This function, whatever it may be, will be understood and described only by the future historian. He will have before him as a completed story the movement in which we are now involved and its subsequent developments. We cannot understand it or even attempt to describe it as a whole because we are part of it. Being in it, moving with it, we can, it is true, observe and understand many of its aspects, but that is all.

And what practical moral is there for each of us in the fact that we cannot know the future? This: that we must take part in what is going on about us, and not waste our forces in the contemplation of the unknowable, that we must act, to the degree that each of us can, as our conscience and duty command. Those who in disregard of the ancient admonition of Solon strive to understand and judge a life "before it is finished," and who lose themselves in conjecture and surmise, should be on their guard lest these digressions into the unknown prove a snare set by a bad demon to keep them from their goal.

Not " a history of the future" (as the old thinkers used to define prophecy), but a history of the past which is summed up in the present, is what we need for our work, for our action. And what we need most at the moment is to examine, or at least to review, those ideals which are generally accepted today. We must discover whether they contain the power to dissolve or surpass or correct the ideals which we ourselves hold; so that thereafter we may change or modify our ideals, and in any event reëstablish them upon a surer, sounder foundation.

The ideal of a transcendental system of truth, and, corollary to it, of a system of government from on high, exercised on earth by a vicar and represented by a church, has not yet acquired the intellectual proof which past ages found it to lack. Like all obvious statements this one runs the risk of seeming ungenerous. None the less, it is a fact that the spiritual impulse which has prompted many persons to return to Catholicism or to take refuge in it (or in similar if less venerable and authoritative havens) is merely a craving, amid the turmoil of clashing and changing ideals, for a truth that is fixed and a rule of life that is imposed from above. In some cases it may have no nobler basis than fear and renunciation, a childish terror in the presence of the perception that all truth is absolute and at the same time relative. But a moral ideal cannot conform to the needs of the discouraged and the fearful.

Nor can a moral ideal conform to the purposes of those who are drunk with action for action's sake; for action thus conceived leaves only nausea, a profound indifference toward all that has stirred the human race, and an incapacity for objective work. Humanity has drunk deep of nationalism and imperialism and the taste of them is already bitter as gall: inveni amariorem felle. Those who love action for its own sake still rage on. But where is their serenity of soul, their joy in life? The best of them are enveloped in gloom; the great mass of them are merely raw and stupid.

Communism, it is the fashion to claim, has passed from theory to practice and is being applied in Russia. But it is being practised not as communism but -- in keeping with its inner contradiction -- as a form of autocracy, as its critics had always predicted would be the case. Under it the people of Russia are denied even that faint breath of freedom which they managed to obtain under the autocracy of the Tsars. The abolition of the State, that "transition from the régime of necessity to the régime of liberty" about which Marx theorized, has not taken place. Communism has not abolished the State -- it could not and never will be able to do so -- but, as irony would have it, has forged for itself one of the most oppressive state systems which it is possible to imagine. In saying this we are not trying to deny that perhaps there were circumstances which forced the Russian revolutionists to choose the course they did and no other. Neither do we wish to detract from the immensity of their endeavors to develop, under these circumstances, the productive forces of the country. Neither do we minimize the importance of the lessons to be learned from their endeavors, or fail to admire the mystic enthusiasm, materialistic though it be, which inspires them and keeps them from sinking beneath the load which they have put on their own backs. It is this enthusiasm which gives them courage to trample on religion, thought, poetry, on everything in a word which we in the West revere as sacred or noble.

Nevertheless the Russian Communists have not solved, nor will their violent and repressive methods ever enable them to solve, the fundamental problem of human society, the problem of freedom. For in freedom only can human society flourish and bear fruit. Freedom alone gives meaning to life: without it life is unbearable. Here is an inescapable problem. It cannot be eliminated. It springs from the very vitals of things and stirs in the souls of all those countless human beings whom the Communists are trying to control and reshape in accordance with their arbitrary concepts. And on the day that this problem is faced, the materialistic foundations of the Soviet structure will crumble and new and very different supports will have to be found for it. Then, even as now, pure communism will not be practised in Russia.

Outside of Russia this pseudo-communism has not gained much ground in spite of the fascination that always attaches to things remote in time and space -- as the old adage has it, maior e longinquo reverentia. Two conditions present in Russia are indeed lacking in Western and Central Europe: the Tsarist tradition and mysticism. Miliukov was not far from the truth when he wrote of Lenin some twelve or more years ago that "in Russia he was building on the solid foundations of the good old autocratic tradition, but that as far as other countries were concerned he was merely building castles in the air." Even if such experiments should develop in other parts of Europe, the fact that other countries differ so from Russia in religion, civilization, education, customs, traditions -- in historical background, in short -- would produce something quite new, whatever its name and appearance; or else, after an indeterminate period of blind groping and struggle, there would sooner or later emerge that liberty which is only another name for humanity.

For liberty is the only ideal which unites the stability that Catholicism once possessed with the flexibility which it could never attain, the only ideal which faces the future without proposing to mould it to some particular form, the only ideal that can survive criticism and give human society a fixed point by which from time to time to reëstablish its balance. There are those who question the future of the ideal of freedom. To them we answer that it has more than a future: it has eternity. And today, despite the contempt and ridicule heaped upon it, liberty still endures in many of our institutions and customs and still exercises a beneficent influence upon them. More significant still, it abides in the hearts and minds of many noble men all over the world, men who though scattered and isolated, reduced to a small but aristocratic res publica literaria, still keep faith with it, reverently hallow its name, and love it more truly than ever they did in the days when no one denied or questioned its absolute sovereignty, when the mob proclaimed its glory and contaminated it with a vulgarity of which it is now purged.

And not only does freedom abide in such men, and not only does it exist and persist in the constitutions of many important countries and in institutions and customs. Its virtue is operative in things themselves and is gradually opening a way through many difficulties. We see it at work in the present wish for a truce in suspicions, a reduction in armaments and a peaceful settlement among the nations of Europe. That this is true is apparent in the general feeling that somehow these nations must contrive to harmonize their plans and efforts if they are to retain not their political and economic supremacy only, but even their leadership as creators of civilization and the aptitudes for this unending task which they have acquired through centuries of labor and experience.

Disarmament and world peace are the only statesmanlike projects among the many put forward since the war which have not faded out or been dissipated; rather are they gaining ground from year to year and converting many who were once antagonistic or incredulous or faint-hearted. We are entitled to hope that they will not be allowed to fail but will be carried forward to fulfilment in the face of all opposition. It is true that the World War, which future historians may well regard as the reductio ad absurdum of nationalism, has embittered the relations of certain states as a result of an unjust and foolish peace treaty; but it also has made the peoples aware in their innermost consciousness that they have common virtues and defects, common strengths and weaknesses, that they share a common destiny, are inspired by the same affections, afflicted by the same sorrows, glory in the same patrimony of ideals. This explains why already in all parts of Europe we are witnessing the birth of a new consciousness, a new nationality -- for nations are not, as has been imagined, data of nature but results of conscious acts, historical formations. Just as seventy years ago the Neapolitans and the Piedmontese decided to become Italians, not by abjuring their original nationality but by exalting and merging it in the new one, so Frenchmen and Germans and Italians and all the others will rise to becoming Europeans; they will think as Europeans, their hearts will beat for Europe as they now do for their smaller countries, not forgetting them but loving them the better.

This process of amalgamation is directly opposed to competitive nationalism and will in time destroy it entirely; meanwhile it tends to free Europe from the psychology of nationalism and its attendant habits of thought and action. If and when this happens, the liberal ideal will again prevail in the European mind and resume its sway over European hearts. But we must not see in this rebirth of liberalism merely a way to bring back the "old times" for which the Romantics idly yearn. Present events, those still to take place, will have their due effect; certain institutions of the old liberalism will have to be modified and replaced by ones better adapted to their tasks; new governing classes, made up of different elements, will arise; and experience will bring forth new concepts and give a new direction to the popular will.

In this new mental and moral atmosphere it will be imperative to take up again the so-called "social" problems. They are certainly not of recent making; thinkers and statesmen have struggled with them for centuries, dealing with them as they arose, case by case and in the spirit of the times. During the nineteenth century they were the object of deep attention and most heroic remedies, and were dealt with in such a way as to improve greatly the conditions of the working classes, to raise their standards of living and to better their legal and moral status. "Planned" economy, as it is now being called, although it holds a foremost position in talk today is not essentially new; and the question cannot be seriously raised of finding a collective substitute for individual economy or free individual initiative, both of themselves necessary to human life and economic progress. Discussion can turn only on the proportions, great or small, to be assigned to one form of economic organization rather than to another, differing with different means, places, times and other circumstances. This is primarily a question for technical experts and statesmen, who will have to devise solutions suitable to the times and favorable to an increase of wealth and its more equitable distribution. It is a question for experts and statesmen; but they will be unable to fulfil their function or attain their ends unless liberty be there to prepare and maintain the intellectual and moral atmosphere indispensable to labors so arduous, and to quicken the legal systems within which their duties must be performed.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • BENEDETTO CROCE, Italian Senator, former Minister for Public Instruction, author of "Filosofia dello Spirito," a philosophic system translated into many languages
  • More By Benedetto Croce