Next year’s date probably doesn’t remind most on-line readers of anything in particular, whether we’re talking about the millennial generation or the baby-boomers. But for someone who was a child during World War II, 2014 inevitably calls up 1914, when the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off World War I. Today, we associate that city in the former Yugoslavia with the mass killing of Muslim men and boys by Serbs, as the country invented after that war fell apart.
A hundred years ago the killing of one person started a war so savage that it ended with a shared vow: “Never again!” And yet, that senseless butchery of thousands of young men in trenches by the newly invented machine gun merely paved the way for the use of other new technologies to assassinate Jews, Gays and Communists by the millions in Hitler’s crematoria. This was followed by the dropping of two atom bombs in Japan, the Khmer Rouge killing by starvation or assassination between one and two million people, and on and on.
As the American media focuses tirelessly on the mid-term elections that will determine whether the needle on the political spectrum moves slightly left or right, it continues to turn its back on the struggle for equity marked indelibly by the milestone that followed 1914, 1917, the date of the Russian Revolution.
In the hundred years since 1917, notwithstanding two world wars and countless “minor” wars resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, humanity has failed to solve the problem of equity. Coming at the height of robber baron capitalism, the Russian Revolution gave rise to capitalism’s most extreme incarnation, fascism, the alliance of state and oligarchy to squelch popular demands for economic justice. Although Russian peasants were still living under a form of feudalism, the workers and peasants in Eastern Europe were scarcely better off, and the October Revolution spread briefly to Hungary and to heavily indebted post-war Germany, allowing Hitler’s rise.
In response, resigned to the fact that World War I had not been ‘the war to end all wars’, the liberal democracies banded together to protect their interests against those of a resurgent Germany. They sided temporarily with the Soviet Union in order to achieve this (nor could they have succeeded otherwise). However, the two sides in the alliance had different aims: the capitalist world didn’t want its pursuit of wealth subservient to Germany’s, while the communist regime didn’t want Hitler to turn back the clock to the time when oligarchs ruled. Given that dichotomy, the postwar world could only lead to a full fledged standoff between two systems that competed for the allegiance of third world client states.
Several important things happened over the next fifty years: the number of client states increased as Third World countries achieved independence from their colonial masters, Eastern Europe came out from under the Soviet grip, and the Soviet Union itself broke apart, leaving Moscow to complete Peter the Great’s Westernization and achieve a major power status that went beyond ICBM’s. Almost simultaneously China reached a level of development that put it too in the running for major power status, and the two former communist allies which had for a time been enemies, realized they again shared a common goal: the defeat of financial capitalism in favor of worldwide development that would not throw the socialist baby out with the Communist bathwater.
Largely under-reported by America’s mainstream media, China offers no-strings attached development aid to Latin America and Africa, while Russia challenges the United States in the oil-rich Middle East (though it has plenty of oil of its own, as well as a cornucopia of other precious minerals). While Beijing acts as Washington’s banker of last resort, Russia burnishes its legal and civil credentials, with one big advantage over its lesson-giving rival: Russia’s executive is closer to FDR’s than Obama’s. While gradually developing the ‘rule of law’ and ‘representative democracy’, Putin doesn’t have to coddle a Duma intent on sabotaging his Presidency, and he has the power to keep his oligarchs in check. His relationship with the later is not only about power, but about a determination that consumption not become the supreme value, nor eliminate old fashioned morality. In response to attacks by radical Islamists from Russia’s periphery, Putin supports a modernization that is compatible with family values – as important in Islam as in other religions. This gives him a decided advantage in the Muslim world, whose opposition to ‘the West’ is precisely about life-style and morality.
What does all this bode for 2014? The strife in the Muslim world should be viewed as one overarching phenomenon, even if each country is unique. It is a systemic upheaval in which the antagonism between the haves and the have-nots overlaps with a conflict between secular and religious world views, that is likely to require at least one generation to overcome. In that respect, 2014 also harks back to another fateful date in the teens: 1517, when Martin Luther posted his critique of Catholicism on the door of a church in Germany, setting off what would become the Protestant Reformation. As I’ve written before, I do not believe it to be far-fetched to describe the what is happening in the Muslim world as a sort of Reformation. The Christian Reformation coincided with the Renaissance, when modern science was born. Today, many Muslims, while not rejecting science, condemn the society that it has inspired.
If a hundred years from now humanity is able to look back with more hope than we have today, it will be partly thanks to a worldwide questioning of that society’s lifestyle that threatens the planet.
Painting by Ferdinand Pauwels