This article was initially written as a letter to the members of the Italian Society for the Study of Contemporary [Modern] History (SISSCO).
At the roots of today’s intense debate is an event that can be defined as a momentous one not only because of its nature. In fact, many as and more important events took place in the past decades, from the reforms implemented by Deng Xiaoping to the collapse of the USSR, to the demographic crisis that occurs in all countries after they achieve a certain degree of prosperity etc.
This war, however, shows us at a glance how much things have changed, by making it clear that the categories we grew up with and through which we have interpreted the twentieth century and our own lives are now blurry. Not that all of them were wrong previously, when they were vibrant and forceful, but rather because even categories and interpretations, just as all historical phenomena, and human beings, do perish, somehow disappear, or they change their meaning to such an extent that they become something new, regardless of their old name. All this can arouse deep intellectual and moral grief, and I believe it helps explain the tenacity and passion of our debates, often implicitly expressing our longing for our own past, and youth.
This is what I would like to discuss, with those of you having some time and interest.
It all began for me in the 1980s, when I realized that the ideas of the “progressive and modern” Left (which in Italy largely rotated around the Italian Communist Party) among which I was born, had undergone a profound change (this being my personal experience, but I think it wouldn’t be that difficult to tell a similar one tied to the conservative or the religious milieux). On the one hand, their transformational project had lost its rational nucleus (plan, nationalization of productive forces, modernization/development, collectivism, party, use of force); on the other hand, those ideas were turning into a group of “benevolent feelings” with which it is by definition impossible to disagree: who can ever be against peace, against the growing affirmation of rights for everyone, the respect for the planet, universal brotherhood etc.?
The aforementioned change hid a deeper process, namely the replacement of some parts of those ideas’ original content with other concepts and categories of highly different political and ideological origin: peoples rather than classes (as Berlin realized, in a world dominated by “peoples’ rights”, Herder prevailed over Marx); the individual and not the collective (the triumph of the ideology of individual rights, that socialist theoreticians had despised, is particularly impressive); the limits to and the critique of development rather than development; ecology and not electrification and gigantic dams; the “small is beautiful” idea prevailing over that of great projects, etc., in a list that could go on and that specifically but not only in Italy also opened the door for the encounter with religious traditions.
From this perspective, the 1970s were a crucial decade that included the collapse of colonial empires and saw the beginning of the US separation (also an “ethnic” one) from Europe after the immigration reform of 1965. It did not casually end with the Chinese reforms and the renewed visibility of a never-extinguished Islam. However, I now believe that the real shift started manifesting itself earlier and that it is deeply rooted in two basic demographic processes that occur progressively and alongside the achievement of a certain degree of prosperity in all countries and among all populations of the world, thus confirming the basic unity of mankind and human beings.
These processes are the sharp drop in birthrate and the great leap forward in terms of life expectancy that makes societies older and less dynamic, and makes us live (even emotionally) in a completely different society from the one experienced by young Werther, by the Young Italy, by the Fascists singing “Giovinezza”, by the Young Turks, or by the leaders of Young Indonesia.
As a result, we have been progressively led to live in a world dramatically different from the one in which I was born and raised, and in whose categories others much younger than me perhaps have also grown up and still continue to form themselves. This is particularly true as regards what still exists of a “mental” West that no longer exists in reality, at least in the shape and terms that we have known and experienced after 1945.
In this perspective, 1991 still marks the defeat of what I call the Soviet “Minor Modernity” (that of socialism, state, planned economy etc.) and the triumph of the Major Modernity based on the market economy, whose great viability was confirmed by the outstanding success of the Asian Tigers and the Chinese reforms. However, the above-mentioned triumph concealed -even in China- the demographic as well as ecological poison that could erode, if correctives were non introduced, also the winners. Therefore, to those who wanted and were able to see, 1991 also announced the crisis of the Major Modernity itself and of the peculiar version of the West that had initially embodied it.
Back then, this crisis was concealed by a triumph both undeniable and delusional, and by the easy condemnations of a uniform or “single” thought and of an “end of history” ideology everyone was, instead, actually sharing. This was testified by the fact that the concept of “continuous improvement” prevailed in the Italian Constitution as in the documents of the European Union or in many American texts, as if it was a possible option in a world where aging and finally death is everyone’s destiny, and where life can only arise and flourish from the acceptance of human mortality (it comes naturally here to mention our reactions to Covid-19, through which we tried to stop life in order to save it, and sacrificed younger generations for older ones). At the same time, it was also testified by the continuous and blinding referral to the constant broadening of permanently acquired rights (Jeremy Bentham did know better), to eternal peace, or to a universal brotherhood whose actual achievement is supposedly prevented only by the unrighteousness of a few. By their constant repeating of “How is this possible?”, “We could never imagine” etc. many young friends and students of mine have lately confirmed to me how strong this naïve “do-goodism” is, whose main limitation and problem is the inability to see and to listen to a reality which includes Evil, which exists.
And yet the Yugoslav wars, soon reduced to minor events, clearly announced to anyone willing to remember what happened in the Balkans, that something similar could also happen in the former Soviet lands (it also indicated that Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Kravchuk, nowadays often despised for their “naivety”, did perform a miracle). Those wars also testified to the intrinsic falsehood of the dominant ideas, however pleasant and soothing they could be: the great and violent subdivision of the world into more or less “national” States kept and still keeps burning not only in Africa, the continent where the great acceleration that started in Europe arrived later, and where human life is today at its most intense, but also in at least two other particular areas other than the former soviet ones, the largest of which is, unsurprisingly, related to the Islamic world.
For those like me who studied the post-Soviet space, by early 2004 it was clear that something new was taking shape – even at the ideological level – around Putin in Russia as well as around other key figures in other countries. We could refer as an example to the case of Modi’s India or to the post-Dengist élite’s evolution in China, to Trumpism or to the “newer” left in the US, and also to the Five Stars Movement and the specific forms of neo social-nationalism in Italy. It became clear that this “something” found support in, and drew strength from, a “West” in deep crisis. Inverted commas are necessary because the West is an intellectual and historical concept, NOT a geographical or fixed one. It is tied to the values of a freedom that has many declinations, that has always evolved alongside and together with oppression and injustice and may therefore be understandably accused of hypocrisy if no attention is paid to the fact that, at least in this “West”, this freedom somehow and anyway survived.
In my opinion (and unfortunately so, but that is a personal judgment) the West that is currently in a phase of terminal crisis is the one born in 1945 from the US and western Europe’s “union” that dominated the non-socialist world until the 1960s. Before it, there had been other Wests: in classical Greece, in Roman stoicism, in Christianity, in the medieval Communes or in the Renaissance, in the Anglo-French Illuminism, as well as in the great German, and Russian, culture and science whose decline Spengler bitterly announced during the First World War.
Our post-1945 West’s crisis, apparent during the 1970s and later concealed by the 1991 triumph, was plain to all, Putin included, in the first decade of our century. From a certain point of view, Bush Jr. was its last “President” and Obama the first of a new era. Syria was rightfully mentioned in our debates. For instance, there is no doubt that Obama’s threats to Assad in 2012 (formally announced first but later not implemented) played a major part in convincing Putin that America’s hegemony was over, also because the real interest of the new Obama administration was the construction of a better America rather than guiding the “free world.” An America, moreover, that was no more the country of Italo-, Jewish- or Polish-Americans, but rather of Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and African ones.
It was the obvious crisis and decline –economic and demographic (the figures are impressive) as well as political and partly cultural – of this last embodiment of a West that many will long for despite its hypocrisy, its faults, and its mistakes, NOT the fear of the threat of a NATO that he is not afraid of, to actually convince Putin that he had a chance to act. The above crisis also led many élites from other continents to believe that there was the possibility and the need to rewrite the world order, although not at the hands of a country like Russia, which is actually too “small” for it, demographically, economically, and culturally, and whose defeat in 1917 was a crucial factor in the “Spenglerian” West’s decline. It also is a Russia that was unable to rejoin Europe in the 1990s, primarily but not solely due to the burden of the Soviet past (A. Graziosi, “The Weight of the Soviet Legacy in post-1991 Russia,” Journal of Cold War Studies, 23, 1 (2021): 89-125).
This brings us to Putin. War is always and anywhere atrocious, but Putin’s war is different not only for its scale in Europe – the real risk in the wake of Putin’s announcements is that the Yugoslav Wars might soon seem “minor” to us – but also, as I previously said, because it reveals and defines our decline and firmly shows us the need to rethink our own ideas, our own categories, our understanding of the past as well as of the present. On the one hand, it tells us that a beautiful fairytale is over and must be abandoned, yet to leave fairytales behind is difficult and one could easily die indulging them; on the other hand, it shows us the need to come up with a new “place” of freedom, a new “West” that is, maybe together with Africa or with anyone else that would be willing.
Putin’s war is also different because of another feature that has been publicly announced and that I very much hope won’t be realized: it is the first war officially intended to convince a people, and a country, that it does not have the right to exist except as a secondary expression of another one. This leads us back to Herderism as the successful ideology of the second half of the twentieth century also via one of the foremost “herderians” of that age, namely Rafael Lemkin, who made the partial or total annihilation (cultural and not just physical) of a people the worst conceivable crime, that of genocide, a term he invented (on the strength and problems of this concept see A. Graziosi e F. Sysyn, eds., Genocide: The Power and Problems of a Concept, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022).
In conclusion, I recall here that Ukraine already witnessed something similar in 1932-1934 during the Holodomor, when approximately four million people were starved to death in less than six months (Lemkin did consider it a genocide with no hesitation). Stalin’s Moscow then coupled hunger with the repression and the partial liquidation of the political and cultural Ukrainian national-communist elite, possibly anticipating Putin’s “denazification” (a term that, as did decossackization in 1919 or dekulakization in 1930, explicitly refers to the extermination of a specific category of people, something to which we should all be alerted). As a matter of fact, it must be added here that Stalin, in contrast to what Putin is saying, never stopped claiming that Lenin had been right in 1922 and that Ukraine and Ukrainians did actually exist. Hence, in this respect, and I say this with torment, Putin could be possibly worse.
I would appreciate if we could at least think critically in front of all of this.
Andrea Graziosi is professor of Contemporary History at University of Naples Federico II.
Cover Photo: A Ukrainian serviceman in the window of a damaged residential building in the suburbs of Kyiv – February 25, 2022 (Daniel Leal / AFP).
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