98 Making the inevitable happen

Posted on April 22, 2012 by


I was reading Eric HOBSBAWM’s excellent eulogy on Tony Judt[1] this rainy morning. One sentence struck me. Speaking of the end of the Communist system, this Marxist historian stated: “The real heroes of the period [i.e. the end of Communism] were Gorbachev, who destroyed the USSR, and men within the old system like Suárez in Franco’s Spain and Jaruzelski in Poland, who effectively ensured a peaceful transition and were execrated by both sides.”

How right HOBSBAWM is! We are enamored of “heroic history” and always look for the hero who ushered in the “new”. We pay no attention to how the transition was initiated, or who triggered it. Wrong. The hero is also – even foremost – the one who had the sense to destroy the old without making shambles of it. The wrecker is just as important as the builder, if not more.

The true hero makes the inevitable happen. Like Moses, however, this hero will most likely only lead his people till the Jordan, yielding to a new man for crossing into the Land of Milk and Honey.

Seen in this light, one of the great statesmen of the XXth century was Charles De Gaulle[2]. He was able to liquidate France’s empire without ushering in civil war in the metropolitan area. The skill with which he personally led the negotiations with the Algerian revolutionary forces was masterly – yielding always just as much as public opinion could bear so as to pre-empt the political import of an inevitable reactionary putsch that would accompany the process. Once the “dastardly deed” accomplished he strengthened stability of the presidential Vth Republic and built up vague nationalism as counterpoise to the inevitable disarray what followed separation from French Algeria. That in the ensuing years he manipulated nationalism so as not to isolate his country too much from NATO or the EU must be seen as a glorious moment where he led the nation away from its past and into a stable future.

Do “destroyers of the old” get due recognition? Seldom, I’d say. The French Revolution enabled Napoleon. History has fawned on him, and mostly damned the precursors, citing contemporary sources. Are these sources reliable? Hardly, I’d say. Writing about the Roman Empire Mary BEARD comments on contemporary witnesses: “Most senators during most reigns were collaborators (as most people are under most systems of power, however brutal); and when regimes changed they made every effort to reposition themselves, usually by excoriating in speech and writing, in ever more gory detail, the emperor who had been their friend.”[3]

In describing “scientific revolutions” Thomas KUHN outlines a linear path from “current paradigm” to “crisis” to “new paradigm”[4] – the image would be a billiard player displacing or pocketing the old one. Or Athena emerging fully dressed from Zeus headache.

The description is most probably incomplete. Change is a complementary process of destruction AND creation – not one of creative destruction.

[1]           Eric HOBSBAWM (2012): After the cold war. London Review of Books – Vol. 34 No. 8, 26 April.

[2]           Other statement would qualify, according to this point of view. Foremost I’d cite President EISENHOWER, who made the KENNEDY-JOHNSON duo inevitable.

[3]           Mary BEARD (2012): It was satire. LRB – Vol. 34, No. 8, 26 April.

[4]              Thomas KUHN (1962): The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago University Press, Chicago.