Russia’s Repeat Failures
Moscow’s New Strategy in Ukraine Is Just as Bad as the Old One
IT has often been pointed out that revolutions make strangely little difference to a country's foreign policy. Each new set of rulers, however much it may differ from its predecessors in everything else, sees the national interest in very much the same way. Communist Russian diplomacy, for example, pursues the same broad aims as Tsarist diplomacy--only with more skill and success. Whatever régime rules in Russia, access to the Mediterranean will seem a glittering prize. Similarly, French revolutionary leaders after 1789 were as concerned to expand their country's frontiers as Louis XIV ever was. Faith in the brotherhood of man in no way precluded belief in a frontier on the Rhine. The reasons for this diplomatic continuity are obvious. A nation's foreign policy is aimed at preserving and increasing the power of the state. Since the purpose of revolution is to seize control of this power there is no necessary reason why a new régime, however much it may differ internally from its predecessor, should alter its basic attitudes to the world outside.
Revolutions, nevertheless, do have an immense influence on foreign policy--not on its aims but on its ability to achieve them. If as a result of revolution a country is racked with civil strife, its enemies will seize this opportunity to limit its power, as happened in 1917 to the Soviet Union. On the other hand, if as a result of revolution a nation is invigorated with a new dynamism, as happened to France in 1789, this will add enormously to the momentum of its traditional foreign policy. The inspiration of the Marseillaise was a major card in the hands of post-revolutionary French diplomacy, just as the appeal of Marxism-Leninism today enables Soviet Russia's present rulers to set their diplomatic sights far higher than did the Romanovs. The same, of course, is true of revolutionary China and Egypt today. Communist China's basic diplomatic aims show marked similarities to those of Imperial China down the ages. Farouk claimed to be leader of the Arab world no less than Nasser does today. But in each case revolution provided a new popular backing for historic national aims. In the same way, General de Gaulle's revolution last year, while in no major way changing the direction of France's foreign policy, seems to have substantially improved its chance of success.
Why is it, therefore, that Britain's postwar social revolution, far from re-animating British foreign policy, seems rather to have dulled its urgency and blunted its purpose? It is difficult to recall a period in modern British history when the nation felt so passive about its rôle in the world. There are, of course, a great number of purely external reasons which explain this passivity: the polarization of power between the United States and the Soviet Union, the collapse of empire in the face of Afro-Asian nationalism, the psychological difficulties of adjustment from a leading to a secondary power. But none of these reasons adequately explains Britain's particular malaise. The French Fifth Republic, after all, appears able to show a new buoyancy and purpose, in spite of external difficulties greatly in excess of those that face Great Britain. The answer, it seems to me, is that Britain's postwar revolution, although apparently so mild and moderate, has in fact placed a far greater strain on the body politic than the far more spectacular upheavals which have taken place elsewhere.
In contrast to revolutions which turn society on its head, like those in Russia or China, or bring a new man or men to power, like those in Egypt or France, the British revolution merely confused the existing hierarchy without in any radical way reversing its order. Those previously on top remained on top--although less securely so--while those underneath remained underneath--although less uncomfortably so. My point is that although such modifications look very much less dramatic than the violent revolutions elsewhere, and certainly involve fewer changes in the lives of those concerned, the effect is likely to be much greater. For if you turn society completely upside down, the "downs" become the "ups" and vice versa. But to lean slightly to the Left, which is what Britain did, although it looks less dramatic, in fact places a far greater strain on the national muscles. The whole balance of the body politic is upset, without any new equilibrium being acquired. Unlike the somersault revolutions in 1917 Russia or 1789 France, which brought a rush of new blood to the national head, and stirred up every organ in the system, the British shift to the Left merely cramped the old national posture without releasing any new energies. Britain's postwar revolution weakened the old ruling class without replacing it, and strengthened the economic condition of the working class without giving it real political power. As a result, British leadership has lost its former intense concern in promoting the national interest, while the masses, enjoying their newly won comforts, see no reason to make sacrifices which their leaders feel too insecure to demand.
Contemporary Britain has rightly been described as a "stalemate state." The conservative elements in the nation have accepted a modicum of redistribution of wealth on the condition that the socialists drop their crusade for an egalitarian society; and the socialists have reconciled themselves to the continuation of social privileges on condition that those who enjoy the privileges renounce their belief in an aristocratic system of government. Both sides, in short, have sacrificed the content of their faith, its essential virtue, in return for certain short-term concessions. In return for conservatism's acceptance of the Welfare State, the socialists have agreed to preserve the public schools, the preëminence of Oxford and Cambridge, upper and middle-class domination of finance and industry, the armed forces and the civil service. In return for socialist toleration of the old order's de facto enjoyment of its traditional privileges, the conservatives have agreed to jettison its de jure claim to enjoy these privileges by right. What the postwar revolution amounts to in effect is the status quo called by a different name. Whereas before the war the situation was regarded by the Left as diabolical and by the Right as divinely ordained--a source of moral passion as much for the one as the other--today it is passively accepted as a makeshift bargain which nobody loves or hates but everybody exploits as best they may. This shoddy hodgepodge is often praised as a truly splendid example of the British gift for compromise. My own view is that it leaves Britain with the worst of both social worlds: the stultifying materialism of socialism without its idealistic leaven and the privileges of conservatism without its aristocratic leaven.
I quite realize that this description of contemporary Britain may seem fanciful both to residents and foreigners alike. But this is because it is so easy to be deceived by appearances. Because our institutions have not changed it is assumed that the basic attitudes with which they were associated remain the same. Because Britain still boasts a Queen it is assumed that her subjects are still prepared to die in her service; because the Foreign Office is still peopled by public school gentlemen, it is assumed that they share the faith of their fathers; because ministers still talk in the traditional language of nineteenth century diplomacy, it is assumed that their audiences understand what they are saying; because the man in the street still enjoys singing "Land of Hope and Glory," it is assumed that he still feels intensely proud to be British. Because, in short, John Bull still looks so astonishingly unchanged, it is assumed that he is basically the same as he always was.
This view is as misleading as was the assumption in the 1920s and 1930s that, because all the institutions in Russia had changed, her basic attitude to the world must necessarily have altered as well. Because post-revolutionary Russia looked so different from imperial Russia, because her leaders used different language and dressed in different clothes, the outside world imagined that she had renounced all her classical foreign policy aims. My point is that just as it was foolish to exaggerate the degree to which institutional change would affect foreign policy in Russia, so it is wrong to exaggerate the degree to which absence of institutional change is likely to preserve intact classical foreign policy attitudes in Britain. The Russians stopped talking power politics but went on practicing it. Britain has stopped practicing it, but goes on talking as though it did. I suppose the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact awoke the world to the fact that Communist Russia could play power politics in the classical manner, just as the total collapse of Eden's Suez adventure awoke the world to the fact that Britain no longer could. But just as the Allies' wartime solidarity with the Soviet Union made it easy to forget the Molotov-Ribbentrop lesson--that Moscow would stop at nothing--so Mr. Macmillan's skillful recovery from Suez has disguised its true lesson: that Britain would stop at anything. I cannot, however, forget the glimpse of Britain which Suez momentarily revealed. The classical aims were there, all right. So were the traditional actors. Etonians were in the Cabinet; Sandhurst-trained generals at the War Office; the gentlemen of England rallied to the cause, as, by and large, did the rank and file. The intellectuals complained, but even that was nothing new. Yet somehow the body politic refused to function. The well-known tableau of the "British Lion Aroused" failed to come alive.
No point would be served by going over again all the immediate causes--diplomatic, economic and military--of the Suez failure. Far more revealing, in my opinion, are the social causes which hitherto have been almost entirely ignored. The significance of Suez was not the evidence it supplied of Britain's military and diplomatic vulnerability. This, after all, was well known. What was not well known was the grave condition of Britain's body politic. The fruits of ten years of social revolution were revealed: a faltering government, an inefficient armed force, a confused public opinion and a younger generation whose most articulate members clearly felt a profound contempt for the country of their birth. How had this happened?
The answer, it seems to me, lies in the nature of Britain's postwar revolution which has destroyed Toryism without creating Socialism; which has disheartened the middle class without invigorating the lower class; which has drained the blood out of the class system while leaving its outward form intact. Both Left and Right, looking at contemporary Britain, can only see reflected a caricature of their respective social images. Because neither side was strong enough to promote its ideals, both agreed to compromise on a Britain reflecting the lowest common denominator of the philosophy of each.
The case against contemporary British socialism was well put recently by Mr. Paul Johnson, assistant editor of the left-wing weekly, the New Statesman:
Labour . . . after 1945 thought that vertical nationalisation of key industries could place the centres of economic power in the control of the public, and that a limited redistribution of incomes would destroy the class structure. Neither of these things happened. Nationalisation gave the State only a marginal increase in control over the direction of the economy, whilst high income tax merely increased the power and importance of capital. Public ownership became discredited as a social objective because it was presented as merely an alternative system of management. Under high taxation, possession of inherited wealth, or any form of property, became not less but more valuable. Labour effectively prevented the poor or the hard working from becoming rich, while allowing the rich to become richer. Nor has even the limited redistribution of income in the years 1945-58 produced any corresponding changes in the social structure. Where economic barriers between the classes were lowered or demolished, they have been speedily and effectively replaced by social ones . . . more solid by their very nature, for they are largely immune to legislative attack. Social behaviour, as opposed to the distribution of wealth, is not a legitimate or even practicable field for political policy, but it is a vital factor in the distribution of political power. In this metaphysical citadel, which Marx and all his followers had ignored, the British class system was able to rest, recuperate and emerge stronger than before.
Our class structure has survived for two reasons. First, it is complex and finely graduated: the yawning chasms which breed violent jealousies, and therefore violent changes, have never been allowed to emerge. Second, it is inclusive, not exclusive. Rising economic groups have always been allowed to find their natural level in the social hierarchy, and the upper tiers have always taken care to come to terms with, and subsequently annex, emergent institutions. This dual process has been hard at work since the war. As full employment and high investment have increased the national income, so the dominant classes have welcomed new recruits and thus broadened their basis of acceptance. Equally, they have accepted and neutralized the new centres of power. The leaders of the Labour Party and the trade-union movement have been given their natural places in the establishment. The new graduates of the Welfare State were slowly and carefully digested. Many of them, of course, went into science and technology, still totally excluded from social and political power. But a number--too few to dilute the spirit of the existing structure, but enough when converted to bring it a perceptible accession of strength--went into those central citadels: the executive grades of industry, the Press, wireless and television, the Treasury, the Foreign Service and the law. As with working class entrants to public schools, the proportion was never allowed to exceed 10 percent. For, although the higher classes have always opened their ranks to new recruits, they will never tolerate an influx of sufficient magnitude to produce a real change of character.[i]
From the way Mr. Johnson puts it, of course, one might assume that the conservative elements in the country had completely reversed the socialist tide and had no further reason to fear. Conservative publicists, however, paint a very different picture. While agreeing that the Tory counter-revolution has nipped socialism in the bud they emphasize the high cost which the Tories have had to pay. The essential quality of Toryism, they pointed out, is that it guarantees a ruling class sufficient security of tenure to enable it to perform its proper function of national leadership. It can afford to plan for the future, in every field, because its present is guaranteed. It can afford to take the long view because it can reasonably expect to be there to inherit the long-term blessings.
This surely is the basic argument for making property, birth and upbringing, rather than merit or ability, the determinants of status, power and income. It may mean that at any particular moment society is less well governed than it could be--in that the best brains and characters will not necessarily be on top--but at least there will be those essential elements of continuity and security which in the long run are even more important for the health of the body politic.
Continuity and security, however, are precisely what socialism has succeeded in undermining. Britain's old order has won a reprieve but not an acquittal. It is allowed to exist, but denied the climate in which it can function. As a result, although birth and upbringing still determine the composition of those who govern Britain--with all the disadvantages which this implies--they do so without any of the advantages to society which such a system should entail. The virtue of a hereditary system is not so much that the men in power should have succeeded from their fathers but that they should feel confident of being able to bequeath to their sons. Under the present conservative-socialist compromise Britain has the disadvantage of the former without the advantages of the latter. There is, therefore, quite as much dissatisfaction on the Right as on the Left. The Tory counter-revolution has run into as frustrating a dead end as the socialist revolution.
The essence of a class system is that its various grades should accept the basic hierarchy as reasonable and right and permanent. It is no good allowing a duke to be a duke, a capitalist to be a capitalist, a landowner to be a landowner, or a working man to remain a working man if in fact the values which such a stratified society reflects are no longer held to be valid. If you allow a duke to call himself a duke, but deny him the authority which gives any function to his title; if you allow a capitalist to hang on to his millions but deny him the freedom to use them as he thinks fit; if you allow the landowner to enjoy his land, but take away the sense of responsibility that should go with it; and if you allow the worker to work but assure him that he ought to be enjoying power, then you get a society in which nobody can feel inclined to dig deep roots. Nobody is doing what they feel they ought to be doing. Guilt and resentment become the dominating emotions. Everybody feels out of place, insecure and on the move. Britain's social revolution, in other words, has killed the class system in theory without killing it in fact; has left the edifice standing but removed the cement which gave it solidity and endurance.
As a result, a generation is growing up which finds Britain a peculiarly uninspiring society in which to live. The best known manifestation of this mood of dissatisfaction is the cult of the "angry young men," exemplified by the Jimmy Porter of John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger." Jimmy Porter accurately reflects the bitter disillusion of those thousands of working-class or lower-middle-class young people who feel that their talents, sedulously developed by Welfare State education, can find no satisfying outlet in the contemporary social system. Led to believe that they would inherit a new socialist Jerusalem, where demon snobbery had been exorcised and class barriers destroyed, they find themselves living in a society where snobbery and class barriers have never been so conspicuous. Although, thanks to the redistribution of incomes, they have more money in their pockets than their fathers ever had, and thanks to the state educational system, more brains in their heads, they still cannot scale the citadels of social privilege. There is certainly some truth in this complaint. Precisely because the upper and middle class have been reduced economically in relation to the rest of the country they have more and more fallen back on the last-ditch defense: social superiority.
This is why, of course, the whole weight of the angry young men's ire is directed against the social and not the economic system. Their hatred of the monarchy, for example, arises from the Queen's position as head of a social pyramid allegedly blocking working-class access to social prestige and status. This same basic social frustration also explains their antipathy to all the traditional institutions and values which the deeply rooted class system has evolved. The danger here is that in Britain, more perhaps than in any other country, this kind of social bitterness leads to a rejection of the national image itself. It is very difficult to hate the British social system and love Britain, because the two are so inextricably interwoven. All the sights and sounds and memories which strike chords of patriotism in British breasts are bound up with aristocratic England. Her pantheon of heroes is filled with kings and nobles; her monuments and symbols of glory and power are all deeply embedded in the old order. Unlike France, for example, where the ancient régime was replaced by a revolutionary order which raised France to its pinnacle of power, or America where the national legend draws its strength from a successful revolution, Britain's postwar revolution is essentially unheroic. If anything, it is associated with the decline of British power. Those, therefore, who reject the old order have no alternative national image in which their patriotism can find its natural outlet. Patriotism in France and America means pride in revolutionary achievements. Rejection of the old order is synonymous with love of country. But in Britain, if you reject the old order, you are cut off from the main links which bind you to your national heritage. So long as the socialist crusade carried conviction it was possible to replace contempt for the past by hope for the future. But today the angry young men are as critical of socialism as a means for improving the future as they are opposed to conservatism as a means of preserving the past. They find the Red flag as irrelevant to their problems as the Union Jack.
It is often argued that the angry young men are only a small minority, who happen to include amongst their numbers a few exceptionally able writers. I should be more inclined to write their views off as those of a harmless minority if there was not an almost equally negative attitude in their public-school counterparts. It is negative for quite different reasons, of course, but negative all the same. With them the problem is not one of being cut off from the fruits of power and position, but of finding the fruits just not worth eating.
Take, for example, the public-school son of a senior industrial executive. His upbringing will not differ much from his father's or grandfather's--Eton, Oxford, perhaps the Guards, with an assured partnership in the family firm waiting in the background. Privilege will still smooth his way to the top. But the climate of values in which this process takes place will be profoundly different from that which shaped his father and grandfather. He will not regard these advantages as in any way imposing on him a debt of social responsibility. In the first place the existence of the Welfare State makes any such feeling of paternalism seem absurdly old-fashioned. Secondly, because he will be clever enough to realize that his advantages contradict the basic doctrinal assumptions of the society in which he lives, he will regard them as a piece of good fortune, like winning a football pool, which requires neither gratitude nor repayment. Privilege today has a black-market flavor. Those who are lucky enough to enjoy it do not like to rationalize their good fortune, or to attempt to justify it by accepting its obligations. It is regarded as a "perk" which society dispenses for no particular reason. The less said or done about it the less likely society will be to have second thoughts. This privileged section of British youth enjoys life, but in a spirit of indulgent skepticism. In so far as they are interested in politics, it is as a means of protecting a cozy billet. But to sacrifice anything for a cozy billet is clearly a contradiction in terms, like dying for a standard of living.
There is, I should say, something in common between this kind of privileged negation and the attitude of the angry young men. Both these wings of the younger generation enjoy material well-being, the one nearly as great as that of their fathers and the other infinitely greater. But neither feels at all strongly about society itself.
Any discussion of Britain's rôle in the world in the years ahead must, I think, take this grave symptom of the health of the body politic very much into consideration. Speeches by statesmen and all other forms of articulation of the national mood by officials or members of "the Establishment" ignore its gravity or draw false comforts from a comparison with the famous prewar resolution of the Oxford Union. In 1935 the young men of Oxford resolved that they would not die for King or Country, only to eat their words with heroic zeal a few years later. Why should not contemporary cynicism prove an equally superficial phase? The answer is really very simple. In the first place the young men who took part in the Oxford resolution were protesting against war, not against King or Country. It was a pacifist manifestation pure and very simple. They did not say they would not fight for King or Country because they did not care a damn for King or Country, but merely that they would not fight. Naturally enough, the menace of Hitlerian aggression soon changed this tune. The contemporary mood I have been attempting to describe represents a social malaise which has nothing to do with emotional pacifism. It has to do with King and Country, and not war. Furthermore, we obviously cannot assume that some direct act of military aggression will dramatically put an end to the complaint. We have to consider the contemporary mood not in relation to hot war--which changes everything overnight--but in relation to a protracted period of cold war, where morale cannot rely upon the artificial boost of intense and visible danger.
Seen in this context the contemporary mood can be said to have significantly influenced the way Britain looks at the world. Internally, Britain has reached a condition of social stalemate. The impulse towards socialist egalitarianism and the weight of conservatism have reached a point of balance. Although neither element feels satisfied with the compromise, each sees no hope of overthrowing the balance in its favor or having the balance overthrown to its disadvantage through internal political means. But precisely because there seems little immediate opportunity for far-reaching internal change--socialism has lost confidence in being able to forge a new basis of society and conservatism has no hope of truly re-animating the old--the attention of both is more and more turning to the outside world which the Left is beginning to see as its real opportunity and the Right as its real danger. This interest in the outside world, however, is of quite a new kind. It is not concerned with what Britain can do to or for other countries, but what others can do to or for Britain. On the one hand, the Left is beginning to look to the outside world as the deus ex machina which will impose on Britain the revolutionary changes which socialism has failed to achieve, and, on the other, the Right sees in the outside world a far more immediate threat to their privileges than anything they need fear at home. This is why you have the remarkable spectacle of the Left welcoming the forces of nationalism in the world at large, which they rightly see as more likely to undermine the old order in Britain than anything they can do themselves, and the Right reacting against nationalism with a fierceness and passion which in the past would have been aroused only by internal threats. Not since the days of the French Revolution, which the radicals welcomed as a Godgiven ally in their reformist struggle at home and the Tories feared as a far more deadly virus than any native germ, has Britain been so acutely concerned with what is going on abroad. No domestic political argument in Britain today is half so intense as that aroused by the activities of Colonel Nasser, for the good reason that what Nasser stands for seems far more significant in its effect on Britain than anything being said or done by British politicians themselves.
Take as another example the highly important field of Anglo-American relations. The last few years have witnessed an astonishing change in the attitude of the British Left to the United States, particularly amongst its intellectuals. Instead of being represented as the main fortress of the capitalist enemy, it is now held up as the shining example of classless egalitarianism, of the open society. C. A. R. Crosland's latest book, which is the only major pronouncement on the future of socialism written since the war, amounted in effect to a plea for the "Americanization" of Britain. Social equality, he argued, rather than any major change in economic organization, should be the new aim, and the United States was enthusiastically held up as the model which Britain should seek to emulate. As a result, close links with the New World are welcomed by the Left as one more means of facilitating changes in Britain. At the same time, because American foreign policy is also regarded on the Left as the principal buttress of British power, thereby giving succor and support to the old order, the United States is as much disliked--at least below the official surface--for its power and diplomacy as it is admired for its social accomplishments. The same ambivalence to the United States is evident on the Right. While placing great emphasis on the Anglo-American alliance as the only available method of supporting British power, there is very real suspicion about the social and cultural influence on Britain of the American way of life.
It is, therefore, no longer entirely relevant in any foreign affairs discussion to measure what Britain ought or ought not to do by using the yardstick of the national interest. National interest assumes the existence of a cohesive nation with a common concern in maintaining its security and power. But today, at least among the younger generation, there is no such cohesion. The angry young men positively welcome the disintegration of empire, the humiliation of the British raj, the expropriation of British property abroad, even the defeat of British troops, because each blow helps to undermine a social system which they find intensely antipathetic. The argument, for example, that Britain must intervene in Jordan to protect British interests gets turned on its head. Why should she intervene, since successful intervention will merely help to maintain the status quo in Britain, whereas if Nasser is allowed to succeed this will help to sweep away the old order which depends on maintenance of British power in the world?
Heretical as it may seem, this attitude on the Left is really very similar to the attitude of the French Right before the last war. Having come to regard the Republican image with disgust, they welcomed the Germans as an ally. Only through national defeat could the revolutionary institutions be overthrown. The collapse of the Third Republic was hailed as an opportunity to rebuild France as if the revolution had never taken place. I would not go so far as to allege that the angry young men consciously hope for Britain's defeat. Nor, indeed, did the French Right hope for France's defeat until it had actually happened. But in both cases disgust with the status quo, combined with inability to do anything effective to change it, results in a tragic clash between patriotism and political conviction.
A somewhat different but equally disturbing dilemma faces those who wish to defend the status quo in Britain. Just as the Left find their desire for change in Britain tempting them to jeopardize the national interest abroad, so the Right find their fear of change in Britain tempting them to be unduly zealous--indeed hysterical--in their defense of the national interest abroad. The Right is acutely aware that the kind of Britain it wishes to preserve very largely depends on Britain remaining a great power. Certainly the Conservative Party's main appeal to the great mass of the voters is its close association with national greatness. It is as the "conserver" of the land of Hope and Glory--with the emphasis very much on the glory--that it wins elections. And it is because the class system is so closely associated in the public mind with the greatness of England that it is so hard to shake. The decline of Britain as a great power, therefore, would undermine the basic conservative appeal far more effectively than socialist legislation. A social system that seemed right and proper while it produced a nation capable of leading the world will look very different when that nation is in decline. What is the point of maintaining a Queen Empress without an empire to rule over? Or a public school system designed to produce a race of colonial administrators without any colonies to administer? Or an Eton on whose playing fields battles are won, if Britain can no longer afford to win battles without relying on the Americans? Everything about the British class system begins to look foolish and tacky when related to a second-class power on the decline, like a ceremonial robe cut for a young Apollo hanging loosely around his shrunken limbs in old age. It is in no way surprising, therefore, that conservative-minded Englishmen should resist so strongly the emerging nationalism abroad which seems to threaten their country's position and by implication the whole structure of British society. Nor, by the same token, is it at all surprising that those who wish to see a basic change in the structure of British society should put more faith in Colonel Nasser than in Mr. Gaitskell. Nor, finally, is it at all surprising that British foreign policy, so increasingly motivated by opposing aims, neither of which depends on objective analysis of the national interest, should lack central purpose and effective direction.
[i] "Conviction," ed. by N. I. Mackenzie (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1958).