Commentary Magazine

The Wave of the Past

One of the more interesting side-effects of the crisis of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has been the discredit into which the socialist idea has suddenly fallen in what used to be called the Third World. It was in these countries, after all—Algeria, Guinea, Cuba, Sri Lanka—that the socialist model of development, as embodied first and foremost in the Soviet Union itself, was supposed to have particular relevance, since (we were often told) in less than two generations it had transformed the semi-Asiatic peasant society of Russia into a global superpower. For non-Western countries, or, rather, for the leaders of their successful anti-colonial movements, the Bolshevik Revolution was therefore not merely an episode in the history of an individual European country, but a new chapter in the evolution of mankind.

Of course, one of the things which made the socialist model so compelling in the years since World War II was precisely the fact that it was endorsed (for non-Western countries) by a liberal “development establishment” in Western Europe and the United States. It was the advanced West—prosperous, well-ordered, and decidedly non-socialist—which devised most of the post-colonial prescriptions for the “developing” countries, and dispensed them through international agencies, foundations, and study groups which they also generally funded and staffed, and to some extent still do.

Between 1945 and 1965 the principal ideologists of this movement were Western Europeans—René Dumont and Claude Julien in France, Joan Robinson and Dudley Seers in Britain, Gunnar Myrdal in Sweden. For quite a time American culture remained remarkably resistant to this kind of revolutionary romanticism; it was, in fact, one of the things which visiting European intellectuals found most provincial and troubling about us. But by 1968, the war in Vietnam had provoked a drastic intellectual sea-change and virtually the entire American foreign-policy establishment surrendered to what might be called the European consensus on the Third World.

A key signpost was a shift in the frame of reference and even the language in which Third World issues now came to be discussed in the United States. Although no single book can claim to have changed American thinking about these matters, one in particular—published, as it happens, during the heady revolutionary days of 1968—became the prototype of an entire genre that exercised a decisive influence on a generation of journalists, academics, clergy, and “development” specialists. The book in question was Struggle Against History: United States Foreign Policy in an Age of Revolution.1 Essentially a collection of papers from an academic conference held at Michigan State University, it was introduced by no less a personage than Arnold J. Toynbee and was dedicated “to the 70 percent of the people of the world who live in the underdeveloped areas of Asia, Africa, and Latin America—to the people who bear the burden of what has come to be called the ‘American Century.’”



The nineteen chapters of Struggle Against History did not pretend to offer a synoptic view of their subject. Rather, the book combined in a rather disorganized fashion three basic outlooks—Marxian notions of imperialism, liberal Protestant pietism, and anti-Americanism. Sometimes these perspectives overlapped, sometimes not. In this way, the volume foreshadowed much of current American liberal thinking on Third World issues, which is typically satisfied to collate (in no particular order) sentimentality, self-hatred, and false statistics.

While some of the authors of Struggle Against History frankly avowed that Communism was the only solution for the Third World, others, like Toynbee in his introduction, simply believed that underdeveloped countries, to the extent that they freed themselves from American influence, were bound to find an authentic and better road to national development. Still others seemed to use the occasion to criticize certain aspects of American culture and public life, of which they saw our foreign policy as nothing more than a particularly obnoxious extension. And one author, William Appleman Williams, the late dean of American revisionist (New Left) historians, could not quite decide if the alleged U.S. thrust for global hegemony responded to deep-seated moral and cultural drives or to the imperatives of our political and economic system.

But the book’s centerpiece, and the essay that established the tone and content of more than half the chapters, was by the American economist Robert Heilbroner.2 This piece boldly asserted that only some form of “National Collectivism or Communism” would ignite the development revolution which the more backward peoples of the Third World required. What made Heilbroner’s argument particularly powerful was his frank admission that the human cost of such systems would be “horrendous”—yet, he insisted, there was no other way for many countries to avoid mass starvation and chaos:

If Communism is the great modernizer, it is certainly not a benign agent of change. . . . Yet one must count the gains as well as the losses. Hundreds of millions who would have been confined to the narrow cells of changeless lives have been liberated from prisons they did not even know existed. . . . Economic systems that gave rise to luxury and poverty have given way to systems that provide a rough distributional justice. Above all, the prospect of a new future has been opened.

For Heilbroner, the basic tension in the world was not, in fact, between Communist and non-Communist nations at all, but between “wealth and poverty, rich nations and poor nations.” To the extent that Communist countries succeeded in their war against backwardness, he suggested, they would become less dangerous to the West. But even if they did not, they would still constitute no real threat to the West. Moreover, were the United States to resist this onward trend of history, it would be confronted with the necessity of fighting repeated Vietnams. And even if it succeeded in its objective of preventing or containing such revolutions, the result would be “eventual human catastrophe on an unimaginable scale,” since the failure to modernize would then lead to overpopulation and mass starvation.

Americans, Heilbroner concluded, needed to recognize that “Communism, which may indeed represent a retrogressive movement in the West, where it should continue to be resisted with full energies, may nonetheless represent a progressive movement in the backward areas, where its advent may be the only chance these areas have of escaping misery.” What followed from this, for those with the honesty and the courage to face the facts, was “a more isolationist policy for the United States vis-à-vis the developing continents, and a greater willingness to permit revolutions there to work their way without our influence.”



The argument was audacious to a fault, even as it rested upon monumental presumptions about not only the economic success of Communism in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and Vietnam (the principal exemplars of the era in which Heilbroner was writing) but also the failure of capitalism everywhere outside Western Europe and the United States. In these presumptions, however, Heilbroner was at one with most of his fellow contributors to Struggle Against History, for all made their case largely by comparing the alleged accomplishments of Communism with the evident failures of other models of development in the Third World.

A particularly pointed example concerned the comparative performances of China and India, discussed in a clever chapter by the Cambridge economist Joan Robinson. The terms of the comparison allowed for no equivocation: for Robinson, the Chinese economy was on the road to equality, the Indian economy on the road away from it. Moreover, in China (“for the time being”) food supplies were running ahead of the population; the contrast with India “needs no elaboration.” The secret of China’s success was its preference for a command as opposed to a market economy, as well as the priority it gave to heavy over light industry—precisely the inverse of the case of India.

A somewhat similar contrast, this time between North and South Korea, was offered by the Canadian political scientist C.S. Burchill. According to him, in 1963 the Communist North as compared with the non-Communist South was producing on a per-capita basis “twice the tonnage of food grains, three times the tonnage of fish, four times the yardage of cloth, four times the tonnage of coal, eight times the output of cement, twelve times as much electrical power, and fourteen times the tonnage of steel.” One might have thought that these figures (if accurate, which they almost certainly were not) could be at least partly explained by the fact that prior to partition in 1945, the northern half of Korea possessed most of the country’s existing industrial plant. But Burchill, throwing caution to the winds, affirmed simply that “North Korea seems to have solved the problem of freedom from want more satisfactorily than the free Republic of Korea.”

North Korea also had the good fortune, Burchill argued, to be exempt from the kind of political manipulation to which the South was subjected by the United States. Indeed, for him this might even explain its economic success better than any intrinsic superiority of the Communist system. Joan Robinson put the same idea in a superficially more rigorous fashion:

It is obvious enough that the United States’s crusade against Communism is a campaign against development. . . . In those countries whose governments have been prepared to accept American support, “aid” is given in a form which may do more to inhibit development than to promote it. . . . America seems bent on terrorizing any people who start to find a way onto the path [of development], to head them off it.

That U.S. policy toward the Third World was motivated by a singleminded war against “development” was also the theme of N.B. Miller, the pseudonym of “a political scientist . . . in close contact with [leaders] in the struggle against imperialism.” For him, this “fact” explained U.S. military intervention in “Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Iran, the Congo, Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos.” Think of it: the landing of American troops in the Dominican Republic in 1965 had nothing whatever to do with Fidel Castro or fears of expanded Soviet influence in the Caribbean, but rather was intended to prevent that tiny country—whose gross national product was then smaller than most of the poorest counties in the American South—from becoming economically independent of U.S. investors, markets, and suppliers!

This became, as well, an explanation for American involvement in Vietnam. For the expatriate South Korean academic Young Hum Kim, the struggle of the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam was intended “to consummate a basic social revolution—a human-welfare revolution—and to unify an independent nation of Vietnam.” That, he concluded, “is the kind of revolution which the United States leadership is committed to thwart by war-making—under the guise of stopping ‘external aggression’ against, and protecting the ‘freedom’ of, ‘the people of South Vietnam.’” In opposing that revolution, in Vietnam and elsewhere, the United States was simply setting itself against the struggles of the vast majority of humanity for a better life.



Though Struggle Against History obviously reflected the influence of an extensive Marxist literature on economics and world affairs, it departed from orthodox Communist thinking in at least one crucial respect: it did not claim that a social revolution in the developed West was the necessary condition for the amelioration of the ills of the underdeveloped world. While several of the contributors—particularly the volume’s editor, Neal D. Houghton—did make pointed references to social injustice and racism at home, by and large they confined themselves to urging simply that the United States accept as a fact that outside its own borders, “history” was going in another direction. Our job was either to step aside and let it complete its task, or to lend a helping hand.

The contributors seemed convinced, moreover, that such a major shift in foreign policy was merely a matter of mental adjustment. In the penultimate chapter (“Can Pax Americana Succeed?”), the historian D.F. Fleming even provided a helpful list of suggestions, among them that we should accept the United Nations “at last, as our best hope of living in a tolerable world”; “cease our efforts to impose our will on Asia”; normalize relations with China; and widen “the détente with the Soviet Union, which meant so much to so many people.” And Neal D. Houghton concluded, in ringing tones:

We must direct our efforts not toward stopping the clock of history and not in any major degree “to shape history in our favor.” Rather, our enlightened concern must be directed toward adjusting to and living in this great convulsive—and normal—course of history, as helpfully and constructively as we may.



By 1978—that is, a mere decade after Struggle Against History was published—most of its arguments had been accepted by the then-regnant administration in Washington. In the meantime, the United States had withdrawn from Vietnam and normalized relations with China, and the U.S. Congress had facilitated Marxist seizures of power in the former Portuguese colonies in southern Africa, as well as the success of a combined Soviet-Cuban military expedition in Ethiopia. At the same time, the United States was in the process of definitively withdrawing support for long-time clients in Central America and Iran. A new détente with the Soviet Union was in full flower.

Yet within another five years the braver new world which Heilbroner and his colleagues could so easily imagine in 1968 was nowhere to be found. Détente led not to a more peaceful Soviet Union, but to a massive program of rearmament, and to the invasion of Afghanistan and the imposition of martial law in Poland. Nor did clients departing the U.S. sphere of influence automatically enter the progressive kingdom of heaven. Iran descended into the dark night of Islamic fundamentalism and tribal war. Ethiopia, the most “revolutionary” of the new African regimes and the one which most consistently attempted to apply the most ruthless recipes for “modernization”—including the forced relocation of entire peasant populations—provoked a famine which in its scale and its ruthlessness can only be compared to the Cambodian holocaust. Nicaragua swerved from one dictatorship to another and much worse one, losing total economic viability in the process. Vietnam, liberating itself from American influence, expressed its newly independent role not by undertaking a “human-welfare revolution” but by invading and occupying its neighbors. Cuba was barely surviving on a Soviet pension, for which it was required to provide legions to fight Moscow’s battles in more troubled regions of Africa.

Then, after still another five-year period—that is, by 1988—“history” had not only abandoned the progressive new forces but had unexpectedly veered in the direction of the anti-examples of Struggle Against History. South Korea and Taiwan were becoming major financial and industrial powers in their own right, and Japan (not even mentioned in the book) had become the dominant force in international financial markets. There was no more talk of a North Korean miracle, but in India and much of South Asia a green revolution had preempted the mass starvation which Heilbroner and his colleagues firmly predicted in 1968. Even the tiny Dominican Republic had surpassed Cuba in social, political, and economic well-being. More to the point, most of the major “socialist” economies were now in the process of rethinking their own development models: not merely China, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union, but even Vietnam, which in 1986 legalized private property and sought new foreign investment. Only Cuba and North Korea, hostages to cruel and implacable dictators, continued to defend the propositions advanced by Heilbroner, Houghton, and their colleagues.

Of course, the situation of many Third World countries—Egypt, Argentina, Pakistan, Brazil, Peru, the Philippines, not to mention most of sub-Saharan Africa—remained as dismal in 1988 as in 1968, if not, in some cases, more so. The cause, however, was a penchant for remaining permanently suspended between two diametrically opposed models of development. Such countries typically possessed a private sector just large enough to prevent them from losing economic viability altogether, but suffered from so much state intervention (combined with corruption, jobbery, and abuse of political patronage) as to make it impossible for the market to do its work and provide sufficient propulsion for a genuine economic takeoff.3 Their only good fortune was to have escaped the worst by declining to take Joan Robinson’s counsel to avoid all contact with the United States.



The “struggle against history,” then, has been won, somewhat surprisingly, by the wrong side. Have the surviving prophets admitted that they were mistaken? With the significant exception of Robert Heilbroner, who has proclaimed the death of socialism and the triumph of capitalism, they have not. Echoes of Struggle Against History continue to resound on the editorial pages of the prestige press, and in the “spin” which network journalists put on their reports. Meanwhile, the same flawed concepts, in the same flawed language, are being retailed by many in today’s “development establishment” to describe the situation of the “poor” countries of the “South” as well as the continued historic culpability of the rich “North.” And a new generation of doomsday theoreticians, propelled by similar political impulses and cultural drives, stands ready to launch other causes, from animal rights to a ban on atomic energy, each destined in its own way to retard the economic advancement of the world’s poor. We are already hearing new apocalyptic predictions of the catastrophe awaiting us if these causes are not adopted forthwith.

Contemplating the carnage of the 60’s and 70’s, one can only hope that this time such claims will be met with a skepticism informed by the experience of the recent past.


1 Edited by N.D. Houghton, Washington Square Press. The paperback edition was published by Clarion (Simon & Schuster).

2 Under the title “Counterrevolutionary America,” this chapter originally appeared in COMMENTARY (April 1967) as part of a three-sided debate on “The Effects of American Intervention.”

3 In the case of Peru, see my article, “The Only Hope for Latin America,” COMMENTARY, April 1989.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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