The shot heard round the world 1
The latter part of Toynbee’s public lecture at the University of Pennsylvania in spring 1961.
In the first part he looked at the impact of America’s revolution in other countries. But how direct was its influence? How did it affect the French revolution, which would have happened anyway? The American revolution’s roots were equally in the Enlightenment.
It was an inspiration, an exemplar for overturning a régime, like the Dutch Revolt and the English revolution.
The Marquis de Lafayette helped the Americans in the war of 1775-83 and was in America from 1777 to ’82, with a break in France in 1779. He returned as a hero in 1824-5, visiting every state. The Declaration of Independence influenced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was adopted by the National Constituent Assembly in 1789.
In the first extract, Toynbee, who was so aware of the temptations of nationalism, fails, like many nineteenth-century liberals, to distinguish carefully between nationalist and social revolutions, as if freedom from foreign oppression were itself Liberty. He speaks like an old-fashioned man of that century.
The American revolution was social first, national second. The Americans were overthrowing an oppressor, but it was their government and society that these colonies professed to be seeking to reform. What kinds of societies would the peoples who had heard the American “shot” produce?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Once America had separated itself, it became clear that the fragment continued to oppress many of its members.
Toynbee is romantically unrealistic when he recalls the America of 1961, that “leader of a world-wide anti-revolutionary movement in defence of vested interests”, to its revolutionary traditions in its foreign policy. At one point he seems to defend revolutionary violence. He was especially provocative in implying a sympathy for Castro.
This lecture was, perhaps, a turning-point in his relationship with America, the country that had welcomed him with something like adulation in the late ’40s and the ’50s. His Study of History had seemed to have important things to say to America during its “rise to globalism”. He supported the civil rights movement, and opposed the Vietnam War in the ’60s and ’70s, and his later and bleak view of American foreign policy is reflected here in posts called Neo-colonialism: The view from 1969 and The frontier spirit.
What we are hearing now, above the echoing sound of that American shot, is the answering voice of the mass of mankind. This two-thirds – or is it three-quarters? – of the World’s population is still living only just above the starvation line and is still frequently falling below even that wretched line into death-dealing famine. Since the time when our pre-human ancestors became human, this majority of the human race has never dreamed, before today, that there would ever be any change for the better in its hard lot. Since the dawn of civilization, about 5000 years ago, the World’s peasantry has carried the load of civilization on its back without receiving any appreciable share in civilization’s benefits. These benefits have been monopolized by a tiny privileged minority, and, until yesterday, this injustice was inevitable. Till the modern industrial revolution began to get up steam, technology was not capable of producing more than a tiny surplus after meeting the requirements of bare subsistence. In our time, technology is coming within sight of being able to produce enough of civilization’s material benefits to provide for the whole human race. If technology does make it possible to get rid of the odious ancient difference in fortune between the few rich and the innumerable poor, future generations will perhaps bless the Industrial Revolution in retrospect, and will think kindly of its British, American and German pioneers.
We already have the means for making a start in improving the lot of the great depressed majority of our fellow human beings. But, in the last resort, we human beings have to do things for ourselves. The World’s peasantry cannot hope to improve its lot substantially unless it can awake from its age-old lethargy. It is being awakened at this moment by the sound of that American shot as that sound circles the globe for the third time. That sound has now been heard by the World’s whole depressed majority, and we, the affluent minority, are now hearing the majority’s reply. At last, the majority is shaking off the fatalism that has been paralysing it since the beginning of time. It is becoming alive to the truth that an improvement in its lot is now possible. More than that, it is realizing that it can do something towards this by its own efforts. Go to India; visit some of the thousands of villages there in which the Community Development Plan is already in operation; and you will see, with your own eyes, this new hope and purposefulness and energy breaking into flower. This is, to my mind, the most wonderful sight that there is to be seen in the present-day world. And this world-revolution of the peasantry is the most glorious revolution that there has been in the World’s history so far.
Well, perhaps I ought to have said “the most glorious secular revolution”; for the religious revolutions may have been more glorious; and these may also, in the long run, prove to have had still greater and more beneficent effects. By the religious revolutions I mean the advent of the World’s missionary religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the others. The new world revolution of the peasantry perhaps cannot properly be called a religious revolution. At the same time it is unquestionably a spiritual one. It is true that the objectives that are its first aim are of a material kind. These material objectives are as elementary as they are indispensable for making a start. They are such fundamental things as a concrete lining and lip for the village well, to protect the water from being contaminated; a concrete surface for the village lanes, to redeem them from being wallows of pestilent filth; a dirt-road to link the village up with the nearest main road; and, after that, a village school. When a village reaches the stage of building a school and finding the means to provide a living for a schoolmaster, it is already beginning to raise a spiritual mansion on the preliminary material foundations. Without the foundations, the building could not go up. But the material foundations are a means to a spiritual end. And what could be more obviously spiritual than the awakening of hope and purposefulness and energy that is the driving force behind the whole of this glorious revolution? This driving force is the last and greatest of the revolutionary forces that have been released, all round the World, by the sound of a shot that was fired, on an April day, by embattled American farmers.
This exhilarating sound has not only roused the peoples of the World to action in their own homelands; it has also drawn them, like a magnet, to the land in which the shot was fired and from which the sound has gone forth. For a century, European farmers flocked to the United States in order to become American farmers, and, as the Industrial Revolution got up steam on both sides of the Atlantic, European industrial workers were soon crossing the Atlantic westward in the farmers’ wake. The tide of immigration into the United States began to flow mightily within a few years of the end of the Napoleonic Wars [when there was a severe depression in Europe]. It went on flowing till the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. And, as it flowed, it gathered volume. Before it was abruptly checked in 1914 by the action of the belligerent European governments that were concerned to conserve their cannon-fodder, the annual total of immigrants had risen to about two million in more than one year after the turn of the century.
When I think of this century of massive immigration from Europe into Europe’s American promised land, my mind focuses on my memory’s picture of an old farmer, Bavarian-born, whom I met on my first visit to this country, now nearly thirty-six years ago. His farm was in East Central Kentucky, where I was staying with a college friend of mine. At home in Bavaria, this farmer had had no farm of his own and no prospect of ever acquiring one there. It had been the hope of winning one in the New World that had lured him across the Atlantic. Though he had emigrated while he was still a young man, he had not arrived till some year in the eighteen-nineties, and by that time, of course, all the best land in the state had been taken up long ago. In Kentucky by the eighteen-nineties, settlement had been going on for more than a hundred years. All the same, this Bavarian farmer had come in time still to be a pioneer. In the western foothills of the Appalachians – “the Knobs” is their local name – he had hit upon a valley that was still unreclaimed because no predecessor of his had found it sufficiently inviting. The Bavarian had seized on that valley and had made it fruitful. To transform it had been his life-work. He had not only made it yield him enough for raising a family. By the time his sons were grown up – and there were several of them – the father had also saved enough to be able to buy for each son a better farm than the father’s own. But the old man would never buy a better farm for himself. The valley-farm had been his life-work, and, more than that, it had been his European dream translated into an American reality. As a boy in Bavaria he had dreamed of one day having a farm of his own if he could screw up his courage to pull up his roots and cross the Ocean. In this unpromising valley in Kentucky he had made his farm and his farm had made him. Nothing this side of death would part him from it.
Multiply this Bavarian-American farmer by some millions and you have a revolution inside America to match those revolutions all round the World of which I have given you a breathless catalogue. America’s revolution on her own ground and her revolutions abroad have been like each other in everything that is important in them. They have both been set going by the shot fired in April 1775; they have both been triumphs over social injustice, poverty, and hopelessness. These revolutions are true daughters of the American Revolution, and to have fathered this mighty brood is indeed an achievement to be proud of. And now come the paradox, and, I should also say, the tragedy. At the moment when the sound of that historic American shot was circling this planet for the third time, at the moment when the American revolutionary spirit had come within sight of inspiring the whole human race, America herself disowned paternity, at least for the younger and less decorous batches of her offspring.
It has been suggested recently by at least one American student of American history that America did not wait till the twentieth century to dissociate herself from the World’s response to the resounding American shot’s reverberations. The founding fathers of the United States lived to witness the French Revolution, and at least one of the most eminent of them, John Adams, put on record his repudiation and rejection of the American Revolution’s French eldest daughter after she had jilted Lafayette and had plunged into Jacobinism. I owe my knowledge of the following passage to an article by William Henry Chamberlin in The Wall Street Journal of 31 March 1961. John Adams is quoted by Mr Chamberlin as having said that “Helvetius and Rousseau preached to the French nation liberty till they made them the most mechanical slaves; equality, till they destroyed all equity; humanity, until they became weasels and African panthers; and fraternity, till they cut one another’s throats like Roman gladiators”.
This bitter verdict on the Jacobin revolution gives us some notion of how John Adams and like-minded American contemporaries of his would have reacted to the Communist revolution, if they could have lived to witness this still more violent subsequent response to the echoes of the revolution which the founding fathers themselves had launched. The founding fathers had, no doubt, carried their own revolution just as far as they had intended, and evidently some of them were unwilling to see revolution, either at home or abroad, go even one inch farther. This is indicated by the bitterness of those words of John Adams’s that I have just quoted. But his words are not only bitter; they are also ironic. They bring out the irony of the contrast between intentions and results; and this is one of the perennial ironies of human life. It is seldom indeed that the consequences of human action work out according to plan; and one might venture on the generalization that they never work out as intended when the action is of the violent kind represented by revolution and war. The more violent the initial act, the more likely it will be that its consequences will escape control. Has there ever been a revolution or a war that has produced the results, and none other than the results, that its authors intended and expected? The American revolutionaries, like their French counterparts, and unlike at least one celebrated batch of Roman gladiators [to what is he referring?], were not “too proud to fight”; and they could not fire their shot without its being heard by other ears, and without its being taken as a signal for non-American, and perhaps un-American, action. In illustrating the vanity of human wishes by the example of the Jacobins, John Adams was unconsciously passing judgement on himself as well. Fabula de te narratur is the comment that he invites in retrospect. But Adams’s anti-Jacobin invective, which thus recoils like a boomerang on Adams himself, leaves his co-founding father Jefferson unscathed. Jefferson recognized that the price of political liberty would be “turbulence”, and he was not distressed by this prospect. “I hold,” he wrote to Madison, “that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
“Too proud to fight” was a phrase used by Woodrow Wilson to defend American neutrality in the First World War. It was immediately used against him.
Thus Adams’s conservatism was not shared by all the founding fathers; and Emerson was not the first American to acclaim the World Revolution and to recognize it as being the American Revolution’s offspring. America had already given a blessing to the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century revolutions in Europe which it would be difficult for her ever to revoke, since it has been written into the map of American place-names. The names of the Corsican, Greek, Polish, and Hungarian revolutionary leaders Paoli, Ypsilandi, Kosciusko, and Kossuth have been thus immortalized. On the other hand, no Leninburg or Trotskyville has ever jumped out of the map of the United States to catch my eye. Of course there is less room for putting new names on this map nowadays than there used to be. Yet, if tomorrow a new territory of the United States were to be staked out on the face of the Moon, I do not think that any of the mushroom cities there would be likely to be called Fidel, though Fidel is really rather a beautiful name if American lips could pronounce it dispassionately.
Today America is no longer the inspirer and leader of the World Revolution, and I have an impression that she is embarrassed and annoyed when she is reminded that this was her original mission. No one else laid this mission upon America. She chose it for herself, and for one hundred and forty-two years, reckoning from the year 1775, she pursued this revolutionary mission with an enthusiasm which has proved deservedly infectious. By contrast, America is today the leader of a world-wide anti-revolutionary movement in defence of vested interests. She now stands for what Rome stood for. Rome consistently supported the rich against the poor in all foreign communities that fell under her sway; and, since the poor, so far, have always and everywhere been far more numerous than the rich, Rome’s policy made for inequality, for injustice, and for the least happiness of the greatest number. America’s decision to adopt Rome’s role has been deliberate, if I have gauged it right. It has been deliberate, yet, in the spirit that animates this recent American movement in reverse, I miss the enthusiasm and the confidence that made the old revolutionary America irresistible. Lafayette pays a high psychological price when he transforms himself into Metternich. Playing Metternich is not a happy role. It is not a hero’s role, and not a winner’s, and the player knows it. But, in those early nineteenth-century years when the real Metternich was fighting his losing battle to shore up the rickety edifice of restored “legitimacy”, who in the World would have guessed that America, of all countries, would one day cast herself for Metternich’s dreary part?
What has happened? The simplest account of it is, I suppose, that America has joined the minority. In 1775 she was in the ranks of the majority, and this is one reason why the American Revolution has evoked a world-wide response. For the non-American majority of the majority, the American revolutionary appeal has been as attractive as it was for eighteenth-century America herself. Eighteenth-century America was still appreciably poorer than the richest of the eighteenth-century West European countries: Britain, Holland, the Austrian Netherlands, France. No doubt America was, even then, already considerably richer than Asia or Africa; yet, even measured by this standard, her wealth at that time was not enormous. What has happened? While the sound of the shot fired beside the bridge at Concord has been three times circling the globe, and has each time been inciting all people outside America to redouble their revolutionary efforts, America herself has been engaged on another job than the one that she finished on her own soil in 1783. She has been winning the West and has been mastering the technique of industrial productivity. In consequence, she has become rich beyond all precedent. And, when the American sputnik’s third round raised the temperature of the World Revolution to a height that was also unprecedented, America felt herself impelled to defend the wealth that she had now gained against the mounting revolutionary forces that she herself had first called into existence.
What was the date at which America boxed the compass in steering her political course? As I see it, this date is pin-pointed by three events: the reaction in the United States to the second Russian revolution of 1917 and the two United States immigration restriction acts of 1921 and 1924.
The American reaction to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia was not, of course, peculiar to the American people. It was the same as the reaction of the rich people in all countries. Only, in the United States, it was a nation-wide reaction, because, in the United States, the well-to-do section of the population had become, by that time, a large majority, not the small minority that the rich have been and still are in most other parts of the World so far.
Rich people, not only in the United States but everywhere, have, I think, taken Communism in a very personal way. They have seen in Communism a threat to their pocket-books. So Communism, even when it has raised its head in some far-away country, has not felt to the rich like a foreign affair; the threat has seemed close and immediate, like the threat from gangsters in the streets of one’s home town. I think this explains the fact – and I am sure this is the fact – that Russian Communist aggression has got under the skins of the well-to-do in the Western World, while German nationalist aggression has not angered them to the same degree. This relative complacency towards German aggressiveness, as contrasted with the violence of the reaction to Russian aggressiveness, has made an impression on me because, I confess, it makes me bristle. I have noticed it among the rich minority in my own country, and I have noticed it still more among a wider circle of people in the United States. It is a rather startling piece of self-exposure. It is startling because, among the various dangers with which we have been threatened in our time, the danger to our personal property is not the one that we ought really to take most tragically. As a matter of fact, the well-to-do Western middle class would have been fleeced economically by the Germans, as thoroughly as this could be done by any Communists, if Germany had happened to win either the first or the second world war – and Germany came within an ace of winning each of these wars in turn. But the tragic loss that would have been inflicted on the Western World by a German victory would have been the loss of our political and our spiritual liberty. In two fearful wars that have been brought upon us by Germany within the span of a single life-time, we have saved our liberty at an immense loss in infinitely precious human lives. We have had no war with Russia in our life-time, and the Western and the Communist camp are not doomed to go to war with each other, though at present the common threat of self-annihilation in an atomic third world war hangs over us all.
Of course someone might reply to what I have just been saying by admitting the whole of my indictment of Germany but pointing out, at the same time, that Russia, too, threatens our political and spiritual freedom, besides threatening just our pockets. This is true. Yet, if I had to make the terrible choice between being conquered by a nationalist Germany and being conquered by a Communist Russia, I myself would opt for Russian Communism as against German nationalism. I would opt for it as being the less odious of the two régimes to live under. Nationalism, German or other, has no aim beyond the narrow-hearted aim of pursuing one’s own national self-interest at the expense of the rest of the human race. By contrast, Communism has in it an element of universalism. It does stand in principle for winning social justice for that great majority of mankind that has hitherto received less than its fair share of the benefits of civilization. I know very well that, in politics, principle is never more than partially translated into practice; I know that the generous-minded vein in Communism is marred by the violent and intolerant-minded vein in it. I also recognize that Communism in both Russia and China has been partly harnessed to a Russian and a Chinese nationalism that is no more estimable than German nationalism or any other nationalism is. Yet, when all this has been said, I still find myself feeling that the reaction of rich individuals and rich nations in the West to Communism since 1917 has been an “acid test”, to use President Wilson’s memorable words [the phrase is used in his Fourteen Points]. Anyway, it is, I think, indisputable that the reaction in the United States to Communism in and since the year 1917 has been a symptom of a reversal of America’s political course. It is a sign, I think, that the American people is now feeling and acting as a champion of an affluent minority’s vested interests, in dramatic contrast to America’s historic role as the revolutionary leader of the depressed majority of mankind.
The United States immigration restriction acts of 1921 and 1924 are, I believe, pointers to the same change in the American people’s attitude during and immediately after the First World War. Naturally I realize the urgent practical considerations that moved the Administration and the Congress to enact this legislation. The First World War had just brought to light a disturbing feature in this country’s domestic life: I mean, the persistence of the hyphen. [He means in phrases such as Italian-American and Irish-American.] An appreciable number of United States citizens, and of immigrants who were on their way to becoming citizens, had proved still to have divided loyalties. The American melting-pot had not yet purged out of their hearts the last residue of their hereditary attachment to their countries of origin on the European side of the Atlantic. There was evidently a long road still to travel before the process of assimilation would be completed, and this race between assimilation and immigration might never be won for Americanism unless the annual intake of immigrants were drastically reduced. Moreover, the pre-war immigrants were under criticism not only for still being pulled two ways by divided loyalties; they were also under suspicion of perhaps not being representative samples of the best European human material. The introduction of an annual quota would enable the United States Bureau of Immigration to sift the candidates for admission and to select those who promised to make the best future American citizens, and the policy of restriction was thus recommended by a eugenic motive as well as by a political one.
These considerations, by themselves, would have made some measure of restriction and selection desirable after the First World War anyway. But the main motive for the enactment of the acts of 1921 and 1924 was, I believe, a different one. Europe had just been ravaged by a war of unprecedented magnitude and severity. European belligerent governments had stopped their subjects from emigrating in order to conserve their supplies of cannon-fodder. And, now that the war was over, it was feared in the United States that the flow of immigration would start again, and this time in an unprecedented volume. A flood of penniless Europeans might pour into the United States in quest of fortunes in the New World to compensate for ruin in the Old World, and this probable rush of millions of European paupers to win a share in America’s prosperity was felt to be a menace to the economic interests of the existing inhabitants of the United States, who had a monopoly of America’s wealth at present.
If I am right in this diagnosis of the main motive for the United States immigration restriction acts of 1921 and 1924, the American people went on the defensive at this time against the impact of European immigration for the same reason that made America react so strongly against Communism. Both these reactions were those of a rich man who is concerned to defend his private property against the importunity of a mass of poorer people who are surging all round him and are loudly demanding a share in the rich man’s wealth.
What would have been the effects on America’s economic life if immigration into the United States had been left, down to this day, as free as it was during the century ending in 1921? Presumably the present population of the United States would have been much larger than it actually is, but it does not necessarily follow that the average income per head would have been lower. Experience tells us that a country’s total annual product is not a fixed amount. It may be increased by various factors. One of these stimuli to production may be a steep rise in the volume of population through a reinforcement of the natural increase by immigration. For example, the massive and unrestricted immigration into West Germany from East Germany since the end of the Second World War has been one, at least, of the causes of West Germany’s unexpected and surprising post-war economic prosperity. On this analogy it is conceivable that the economic effects of the United States immigration restriction acts of 1921 and 1924 was contrary to the legislators’ intentions and expectations. While conserving the previous income per head of the existing population of the United States, the immigration restriction acts may have prevented the income per head from rising so fast and so high as it might have done if immigration had been left unrestricted. A continuance of unrestricted immigration might also perhaps have saved the United States from the great depression of the nineteen-thirties. These are hypothetical questions which even an economist might find it hard to answer, and I am not an economist. But I would suggest to you that, whatever the economic consequences of those immigration restriction acts may have been, these economic consequences have not been the most important. The political and psychological consequences have, I should say, counted for more, and these non-economic consequences have, I should also say, been unfortunate for America as well as for Europe.
So long as immigration into the United States from Europe was unrestricted, America’s ever open door kept America in touch with the common lot of the human race. The human race, as a whole, was poor, as it still is; and America was then still a poor man’s country. She was a poor man’s country in the stimulating sense of being the country that was the poor man’s hope. She was the country, of all countries, in which a poor immigrant could look forward to improving his economic position by his own efforts. America did not, of course, even then, offer this opportunity to immigrants from the whole of the Old World. The opportunity was always restricted to immigrants from one small corner of the Old World, namely Europe. All the same, so long as America still offered herself as even just the European poor man’s hope, she retained her footing as part of the majority of the human race. In so far as she has closed her doors since 1921, she has cut herself off from the majority. This self-insulation is the inevitable penalty of finding that one has become rich and then taking steps to protect one’s new-found well-being. The impulse to protect wealth, if one has it, is one of the natural human impulses. It is not particularly sinful, but it automatically brings a penalty with it that is out of proportion to its sinfulness. This penalty is isolation. It is a fearful thing to be isolated from the majority of one’s fellow-creatures, and this will continue to be the social and moral price of wealth so long as poverty continues to be the normal condition of the World’s ordinary men and women.
I will close this first lecture in the present series by trying to drive this point home in a piece of fantasy. Let us imagine a transmigration of souls in reverse. Let us slip our own generation’s souls into the bodies of the generation of 1775, and then set the reel of history unwinding with this change in its make-up. The result that we shall obtain by this sleight of hand will be startlingly different from the actual course of events in 1775 and thereafter. The Declaration of Independence will now be made, not in Philadelphia, but at Westminster. King George III will raise his standard, not at the Court of St. James’s, but at Independence Hall (of course that building will not bear its historic revolutionary name; it will be called “Royal Hall” or “Legitimacy Hall” or some other respectable conservative name of the kind). The other George, George Washington, will take command of his royal namesake’s army. There will be no Continental Congress here in Philadelphia for George Washington to serve. The revolutionary parliament will be on the other side of the Ocean. It will be at Westminster. And the revolutionary leader will not be a George, but a Charles, namely Charles James Fox. The bridge beside which the embattled farmers will fire their shot will not be the bridge at Concord. The flood that it spans will be the Thames. The shot will be heard round the World, but it will be an Old-World shot, not a New-World one.
This nonsense that I have just been talking will have had its use if it has illustrated my thesis. I am maintaining that, since 1917, America has reversed her role in the World. She has become the arch-conservative power instead of the arch-revolutionary one. Stranger still, she has made a present of her glorious discarded role to the country which was the arch-conservative power in the nineteenth century, the country which, since 1946, has been regarded by America as being America’s Enemy Number One. America has presented her historic revolutionary role to Russia.
Is this reversal of roles America’s irrevocable choice? Is it a choice that she can afford to make? And, if she were to change her mind once again, would it now still be possible for America to rejoin her own revolution after having parted company with it forty-four years ago? I shall be taking up these questions in the second and third lectures in this series.
The second and third lectures were called The Handicap of Affluence and Can America Re-Join Her Own Revolution? The first, of which I have quoted all but the opening in these two posts, was called The Shot Heard round the World.
For the first post, I referred to the extract in EWF Tomlin, editor, Arnold Toynbee, A Selection from His Works, with an introduction by Tomlin, OUP, 1978, posthumous.
For this post, ie the remainder of the lecture, I referred to Questia’s online version of America and the World Revolution and Other Lectures, New York, OUP, 1962, which prints three sets of lectures given in different places in the New World in 1961 and ’62. The quotation from Jefferson is garbled here. I have corrected it. I have presumptively corrected one or two other mistakes: texts on Questia are not page-images and are not reliable. The Pennsylvania lectures were printed in the UK on their own as America and the World Revolution, OUP, 1962.
America and the World Revolution and Other Lectures, New York, OUP, 1962