Year XXXII, 1990, Number 3 - Page 248
Lewis Mumford, born 1895 in New York and died January 1990 at the age of 94, is universally known above all for his works on the history of the city, and more generally on the development of the urban phenomenon. His international reputation began to establish itself after the publication of The Culture of Cities in 1938. But some of his intuitions, which today are generally accepted, and his stubborn refusal to compromise, brought him many problems in his day.
The following comment from one of his many letters to the London urbanist Frederic J. Osborne gives a more definite idea of the extent, including financial, of Mumford’s success up to the 1950s: “Whether I can go to Europe next Spring, as I now plan and hope, depends, to put it brutally, on how well The Conduct of Life sells; and I can have no preliminary opinion about that. If I trusted in statistical demonstrations I could prove by a graph that since Technics and Civilization (1934) sold 5,000 the first year, The Culture of Cities (1938) 7,500 and The Condition of Man (1944) 11,000, The Conduct of Life should sell about 12,500, in which case, despite the fact that I’ve had to draw $4,000 in advances, I should be able to go!”
On the other hand, as regards political difficulties, when he exhorted Americans in Men Must Act (1939) to act quickly to prevent the spread of fascism and nationalism in Europe, he was publicly accused of being a warmonger and an advocate of American-style fascism. But Mumford would not be swayed from his convictions and, together with Borgese, signed a “Declaration on World Democracy” in 1940 in which he condemned fascism and the American hesitation to intervene against Germany. With Borgese he made a series of approaches to members of Congress and the President of the United States. One example of these initiatives is a telegram sent to Roosevelt in June 1940, saying among other things: “The Country looks to you for positive leadership ... Upon your ability and willingness to exercise this leadership during the next few weeks will depend whether you will go down in history as the Buchanan or the Lincoln of the present world civil war”. Starting from 1946 he began to become involved in anti-nuclear campaigns and campaigns in favour of creating a World government, while the 1950s saw him a ferocious critic of McCarthyism, of rising American nationalism and of over-ambitious European nationalism. From 1952 onwards, because of his pacifist activities, he was accused of being a Communist and subjected to FBI surveillance. But even in these circumstances he did not give up his ideas. In another letter of the 1950s to his friend Osborne, Mumford explains that “if I were a British statesman at this moment I would bend every effort to establishing a United Europe, and, once I achieved this in some sort of rough working form, I would make it clear that the presence of American troops and installations in Britain was unwelcome”.
His impatience with the dominant myths of his era – the nation, money, cars – has its origins, as he himself describes in some autobiographical writings collected in The Human Prospect (1956), in a twofold encounter with European culture.
The first encounter went back to when, as a fifteen-year-old pupil of the Stuyvesant school, attending classes given by German, Polish and Russian teachers, he came into contact with the new theories in scientific and technological fields (especially the theory of relativity ), and with socialist culture. If it had not been for those European teachers, comments Mumford, “I might have lived and died in my part of the upper West Side without realizing that neither the Democratic nor the Republican party had ever recognized the class struggle”. This was an encounter which would later bring him seriously to consider Marxism, to the point of defining at the beginning of the 1930s (in Technics and Civilization) a sort of post-Marxian theory, which incorporated the method of planning and the federal model to tackle problems posed by the internationalization of the production system.
The second encounter with European culture, on the other hand, came about through the Scottish biologist and urbanist Patrick Geddes, and in particular with the latter’s major work, Cities in Evolution, published for the first time in 1915. Patrick Geddes was among the first to study the phenomenon of urban agglomeration in particular geographical locations, for which he coined the term “conurbation”. Patrick Geddes introduced Mumford to the problems of the evolution of urban civilization and of the evolution of the state dimension, starting from the city-state. The influence of Patrick Geddes on Mumford was such that the latter, in testimony of the esteem which he bore the maestro, baptized his first-born son Geddes (this son was to fall in Italy during the Second World War at the age of nineteen). Mumford summarized his relationship with Patrick Geddes thus: “My relations with old Geddes were never intimate; he was too old and I was too young for there to be any real partnership between me and that old Bull of the Herd, until he had died; but he turned my mind into fruitful channels and made me ready to bridge the gap between city and country”.
In trying to continue and build on Geddes’s work, Mumford became aware of the importance of studying the urban phenomenon not only in relation to technological evolution – the fundamental theme of Technics and Civilization, which is intended as a continuation of the work begun by Geddes – but also, and above all, in relation to institutions. And it is precisely in relation to this specific aspect that Mumford’s contribution is significant from the federalist viewpoint, both as regards the articulated structure of federal government starting from the city level – a standpoint which brought him to criticize sharply the great urbanists of our century, in particular Le Corbusier – and as regards his vision of World government, a vision which, after an initial enthusiastic response, brought him into ever-greater conflict with another great contemporary innovator in urbanistic thinking, Jane Jacobs. Apart from their differences of opinion on the characteristics and functions of the city, it is their diverging views on the world political future which explain the ideological disagreement between Mumford and Jacobs, who writes in Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984): “We must be grateful that World government and a world currency are still only dreams”. In contrast, Mumford saw in the prospect of world democratization the only possible salvation of civilization and did not hesitate, for example, to attack publicly politicians and architects who did not realize the democratic aim of the UN, as can be seen, according to Mumford, in looking at the seat of the United Nations Secretariat: “In relation to the seat of the Assembly the overwhelming prominence of the Secretariat is ridiculous – unless the architects actually intended a cynical representation of the fact that the technical revolution had already taken place and that the effective decisions are taken by bureaucrats ... To sum up ... the Secretariat should have been planned on a human scale, subordinated in its location and planning to the seat of the Assembly ... The Building of the Secretariat ... although technically new, is architectonically and humanly speaking antiquated” (in Symbol and function in architecture, Art and Technics, 1956).
To summarize Mumford’s idea of the city, it could be said to contain, as the basic cell of every human institutional structure, the seed of cosmopolitanism and World government. According to Mumford in fact, the primary function of the city is to transform power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity. And these positive functions cannot be carried out without creating new institutions capable of controlling the immense energies at the disposal of modern man. “What we have to conceive and work out is a federal system of government which shall be based upon a progressive integration of region with region, of province with province, of continent with continent: each part loose enough and flexible enough to adjust to the continuing changes in local and transregional life” (p. 354, The Culture of Cities). The definition of the politico-institutional framework in which the urban phenomenon has developed and is still developing, is the key to reading Mumford’s view of history. Commenting on the incapacity of Italian and German cities in the fifteenth century to form a solid union to safeguard at the same time their independence and their co-ordination, Mumford explains how “the weakness of these confederacies, like that of the Greek cities, served as a warning to the astute writers of the Federalist Papers” (p. 390, The City in History). He also explains how, as a consequence of the incapacity of the most flourishing European cities to take the initiative of creating federal-type unions, the various unifications implied an inevitable loss of power, freedom and autonomy of the cities in general. Only Switzerland and Holland tried with some success to solve the problem of unification without damaging the autonomy of the urban centres. But these states were too marginal to be able to reverse the tendency to concentration of power already under way in Spain, France and England. And hence it is to the “disruption and fossilization” of the Italian and German urban reality of the sixteenth century that much of the responsibility can be attributed for not having been able to oppose an alternative political model to the centralised organisation of European countries. And so he continues a little further on in the same chapter of The City in History: “We who live in a world still corroded by a similar folly, now embracing the planet rather than the continent of Europe, can, without any sense of ironic superiority understand this fatal impasse. The medieval corporation vainly sought to solve within the walls of the town problems that could be handled only by breaking down the walls and deliberately pooling their sovereignty and their control in a wider unity. Forerunner in so many political departments of the sovereign national state, the medieval town, handed on to the state all its own limitations, magnified many diameters. By displacing the city, by refusing to make use of its corporate functions, the state in turn helped to weaken and debase municipal life” (p. 391, The City in History).
As far as his vision of a World government is concerned, from his very first works the globalization of the process of civilization and institutions is always present in Mumford. In Technics and Civilization (1934, but there had already been two previous drafts of this book, in 1930 and 1932), tackling the problem of a more rational management of planetary agricultural resources, whose thoughtless exploitation would produce unsustainable imbalances in nature, he declares: “The private appropriation and exploitation of the land, indeed, must be looked upon as a transitory state, peculiar to capitalism, between customary local agriculture based upon the common needs of the small local community and a rational world agriculture, based upon the co-operative resources of the entire planet, considered as a federation of balanced regions” (p. 382, Technics and Civilization).
Immediately following the Second World War, these early intuitions induced him to support without hesitation the battle for the creation of a World government, and to consider the problem of how the Russo-American confrontation might be transformed into a policy of cooperation – an indispensable policy, as the events of the second half of the eighties have shown, if a new phase of international relations is to be embarked-on. (Mumford’s approach to this problem can be seen in his essay, published for the first time in Air Affairs of July 1948, which we partially reproduce here from the book In the Name of Sanity, 1954). His growing commitment to this question, expressed in numerous articles (Mumford had started his journalistic career at the age of fourteen) and public addresses, is apparent again in his correspondence with Osborne. He wrote to the latter, who was sceptical about the possibility of World government, in an attempt to convince him in 1947: “What you say about the practical impossibility of World government is true; and in ordinary times we should bow meekly to your judgement. But in the present situation I am tempted to quote the sign that someone saw in one of our military headquarters: the difficult we do immediately; the impossible will take a little longer. I admit that World government will take a little longer; but the nature of our present crisis is such, with respect to the powers of destruction we now command, that if we don’t make serious steps toward World government immediately, if we continue the present jockeying for military position and advantage – and by ‘we’ I mean particularly my country and Russia – the results will be far more disastrous than the worst mess that premature World government could conjure up. I confess I don’t know fully how to make the Russians see this, still less how to get any home pressure exerted on the Russian government; but I do think that my own countrymen, by failing to take positive measures to disarm Russian suspicions and by persistently using wrong symbols-like the ex-Wall Streets hark, Baruch – have raised obstacles that could have been avoided and have made the situation more difficult. Our greatest weakness, which is a universal one, is the failure to realize that we are facing a situation that is without precedent, therefore without practical guidance of any sort in history; and that we must attack it with a continued vigilance than even war itself doesn’t usually command. We are still asleep ...” The rather ungenerous reference to Baruch – who some months previously, during the negotiations between Baruch and the Russian delegation led by Gromyko, had been attacked in the press by members of the American Administration, causing a crisis which almost led to the resignation of the American delegation – while on the one hand showing Mumford’s utter disregard of the principle “my country right or wrong”, on the other hand shows the bitterness of one who had seen fade away the first great opportunity of laying the foundations of a partial World government. A bitterness which however was immediately followed by the determination to act and influence those in power as is testified in point of fact by the essay which we publish here. A determination which despite his age and poor health, stayed with Mumford until the end and which could be seen in his continued refusal to abandon his commitment – what is impossible, as he often said, “if the world at large is not in a more hopeful state”.
“MIRACLE” OR CATASTROPHE*
[...] In short, no purely military measures will give us the power to prevail over Russia’s ideas or to avoid a final collision with those ideas on a field of battle. If we continue to rely upon negative measures alone, we are headed straight for war, extermination, and the wholesale disintegration of modern civilization. The fact is that both the United States and Soviet Russia have misconceived their national interests, and have acted as if one side or the other would absolutely prevail. Both are wrong. There is no way out of the present impasse which will not require painful sacrifice by ourselves as well as the Russians; for unless we contrive an honorable method to meet each other halfway we cannot continue to live in the same world. If we are to live together politically, Russia will have to abandon its fascist methods; for they are hostile to all the forces that enhance and develop human life. We, in our turn, will have to give up, not the institutions of democracy, but the notion that mammonism and mechanism are the be-all and end-all of human existence. So the next question is: on what basis, before it is too late, can the governments of both states retreat from suicidal course they have been following? Countries that possess instruments of genocide must either bring about an Open World – the world symbolized by the air age – or perish within a closed world.
With these facts in mind, I present a series of proposals as a basis for immediate discussion and quick action. The underlying premise of these proposals is that they must without reserve be as significant and as hopeful to the people of Russia and the Communist-dominated countries as to the people of the United States and their allies. The program presented is mainly a combination of separate suggestions, put forward by different individuals and groups, but so far unconnected and unintegrated. If for brevity I put the succession of operations and proposals in a series of brusque propositions, it is not because I believe that, once the discussion is actively stated, still better suggestions may not be produced, but only because I believe that the facts themselves must be persuasive. If they are not, no eloquence or grace or modesty on the part of the present writer will bring about conviction.
Under ordinary circumstances, the first steps we should take, before war fever mounts higher, would involve heavy risk. So long as our negative policy persists, neither the armed forces nor the State Department could sanction them: at the moment I write our government seems even reluctant to guarantee eventual military support against Russian invasion. But the risk will be diminished almost to zero, if we immediately attach to our note of warning an honest plan of conciliation. Preliminary to this first proposal, in order to leave Soviet Russia in no doubt as to the consequences of her actions we should through our Chief Executive address the Soviet Government somewhat in the following manner:
The United States and Soviet Russia are already at war: we know that as well as you do. We do not propose to postpone facing the ultimate issues by further temporizing, withdrawal, or appeasement: that would only add heavier penalties to the final reckoning. Though you have so far won the opening moves of this war, we do not for a moment concede the possibility of your being victorious. But we do know that if the cold war became a hot one, both our countries would meet irreparable disaster and defeat. While we warn you that your next step toward subjugating, directly or indirectly, by political or by military means, any other country in Europe or Asia will be treated by us as an overt act of war, we beg you to pause long enough to consider the consequences. We have a selfish interest in asking you to stay your hand, because we know that war would work our ruin as well as yours. Confident of our own strength, determined to do our full share to head off this final catastrophe, we come to you now with a series of related proposals, for our common advantage.
First proposal. Let us arrange a world armistice, limited to one year. During this year let us restrain every word, every gesture, every move that would convey hostility or belligerence. Let our armies remain where they are, or withdraw to their own territories. In American labor disputes, we have learned the value of a “cooling off period”. So long as we rattle arms at each other, neither side can hear the other speak; and neither is in a disposition to listen to the other. This armistice will erect an extra safeguard against “incident” that would bring on a blind retaliation, as the blowing up of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor brought on the Spanish-American War. Above all, the purpose of this armistice is to create an atmosphere of tranquility, sanity, and good will: such an atmosphere as has not existed between the Western powers and Soviet Russia since the very birth of the Soviet Union. We suggest the time limit of one year in order to insure that both sides will direct their utmost efforts toward arriving at our common goal, security and peace, without rousing the suspicion that further delay might mean, for the other party, some new military advantage.
We attach to this plea for an armistice a Second Proposal: also by way of preparation. We believe that no immediate meeting of our representatives will succeed, so long as they carry into that meeting the convictions, the attitudes, and the fixed ideas they have brought to all the other conferences. We believe it is possible to transform these rigid attitudes – though not without risks to our respective ideologies – by showing that neither totalitarianism nor democracy, communism nor free enterprise, can hope to survive a war of extermination. Unless we are full of blind hatred for humanity itself, like Hitler and his followers, that fact must give us both pause.
This thesis, we believe, is open to demonstration. To this end we suggest that you join us in inviting the United States to take part in an honest, impartial inquiry into the nature of the “total war” we have both been preparing. Our purpose is to arrive at an objective assessment of its certain consequences to our own countries and to mankind at large. At present all the resources of science are being used to create new forms of extermination, without the slightest public effort being made to apply a scientific prognosis to the results. We believe that only the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth can save us from the hideous forces we now have unleashed.
Once the struggle between our countries becomes intense, we shall both resort to mass extermination, on the widest scale. Do you doubt it? We can deduce what means you may use: we know our own capacities. There is no defense against genocide by countergenocide: the only possible form of security is the conquest and complete occupation of the country practicing it; and for either of us to effect that end, we should have to have every other major power in the world as our active ally. In a single handed fight we would practice unlimited destruction and extermination without coming a step nearer that goal.
As to American capacities for mass extermination, we shall spare you any guesswork on these matters: we propose at this world conference to lift all restrictions of military security, so-called, in order to make known the actual number of atom bombs we now possess, their deadliness in terms of those we dropped on Japan, and our productive capacity in all other instruments of genocide. We will make public the means we now possess for poisoning air and water and soil on a scale that will ultimately exterminate life in every form. You may check our conclusions with your own scientists and with their colleagues in other countries. Since this conference seeks to lay bare the data on which rational conclusions about the safety and welfare of the human race must be drawn, we suggest that it take the form of a world congress of scientists, particularly nuclear physicists, chemists, bacteriologists, geneticists, ecologists: people whose conclusions, if anything like unanimous, would have final authority. Day by day, they would reveal the essential facts, interpret them, and assess them. Mankind would listen.
At present, all this knowledge is subdivided, secret, inviolable, remote from all but the most casual public scrutiny: hence every action we are preparing to take is, even for our highest government officers, a leap in the dark. We propose to provide the necessary data – hoping all other countries will do the same – that will enable the scientists concerned to estimate, quantitatively, the deadliness of the weapons we now possess: likewise the increasing ratio of danger as time goes on. Within two months, once secrecy is lifted, we are confident that the facts can be brought together and weighed, and the inevitable conclusions drawn. Such a period, therefore, would be more than a cooling-off period, in which frustrations and angers would be erased and self-control and mutual respect established. This period, for the other nations of the world as well as ourselves, would be dedicated to bringing about a profound moral change: such a complete transformation as took place during those memorable days of the French Revolution when the feudal estates of France, voluntarily and almost overnight, renounced all their ancient feudal privileges.
We grant that the difficulties are great: both our countries must change their minds; and that will be a harder task for you than for ourselves, since during the last decade the peoples of Britain and the United States have come to understand the interdependence of mankind: former isolationists like our Senator Vandenberg became foremost advocates of world co-operation. We have further steps in mind to make your own reversal of policy easier. But to carry this change through, it is important that your political representatives and ours should attend this congress of scientists day by day, and that our peoples should have a complete daily report of all the proceedings. This will be a day of judgment for all of us: perhaps a Last Judgment on our civilization.
What would the conclusions of such a conference be? An American can perhaps anticipate them with more readiness than his Russian opposite number; for these conclusions have already been stated for us by men not lacking in military skill, in manly self-confidence, or in patriotism. Generals MacArthur and Arnold have both said that There will be no victor in World War III. Behind their judgment as soldiers stands an overwhelming mass of scientific evidence. We rely upon that evidence, once it is fully exposed, to effect a change of heart and mind in every government and in every people, a change capable of making them uproot their fixed ideas, mollify their hostilities, and stimulate the processes of co-operation. Without such a change, the next series of proposals would face insurmountable barriers. With a sufficient change, we can go forward with the main business in hand.
Only with some such beginning can we hope for success in undertaking more positive measures. One must assume, as the basis for possible success, that the rulers of Soviet Russia, though they will have serious difficulty in giving up their dogmatic suppositions and prejudgments, are as capable as we are of acting on honest evidence – provided that they realize that every alternative door, which might let them bolster their power without demanding any closer co-operation with the democratic nations, is closed. The conference that assesses the possibilities of genocide will in fact close every door but one: the door to World Government.
The Third Proposal, then, is that Soviet Russia and the United States take the initiative in transforming the dummy model of the United Nations, which is a disguise for a feeble confederation of independent sovereign states, into an effective working machine: a complete system of world government. To do this every nation will have to relinquish part of its sovereignty and initiative in all matters of common concern to the rest of mankind: in particular, to surrender the implements for making war, to a central governmental authority, capable of instituting justice and effectually maintaining peace. Without this proviso for guarding minorities, equalizing burdens, removing grievances, no suppression of arms will be effective and no lasting peace will be possible. Whatever illusions people have nourished till now, there is no halfway point along the road to world co-operation at which we may safely stop: we cannot by degrees add powers to mechanisms originally designed to remain inert and powerless. Today it is a question of All or Nothing. Unless we establish a world government capable of creating an Open World, with an ever-frees movement of men, goods, and ideas across all national boundaries, we cannot even create an inspection force large enough to insure against secret forms of rearmament and genocide. Every national must be, of right, a citizen of the world, and while retaining every local social affection and loyalty, his highest allegiance must be to humanity.
Will Soviet Russia, which now belligerently resists co-operation of the most tentative kind, even refusing to join UNESCO, take this gigantic step? Before the conference on genocide, the odds would be heavily against this happening. But once Soviet Russia had agreed to the armistice and had made a careful calculation of the ultimate results of mass extermination, if the cold war became a hot one, the situation would be far more favorable to a decisive reorientation in Russian policy, even if that brought on a change of Russian leadership. To make this reorientation easier, the United States should underline the peaceful intent of all our proposals by concrete actions the nature of which would leave no doubts in Russia’s mind. At this point, it is hardly possible to appraise the potentialities of enlisting Russia’s support for world government without reading and pondering G.A. Borgese’s brilliant exposition of “What to Do with Russia” in Common Cause (October, November, and December, 1947). In the current proposals I am doing little more than attaching Mr. Borgese’s general theme to a more specific series of objectives.
Fourth Proposal: To prove our good faith in taking the lead for world government, a good faith that the Russians may continue to doubt, we should meet them more than halfway. Secure in the existence of our present military machine, enlarged, we hope, to meet every demand of classic warfare, the next gesture, however generous, would involve no direct military risk that would not be easily reparable. Even before the United Nations is transformed into world government, before adequate inspection measures can be devised and put into operation, we should cease manufacturing atom bombs and other instruments of extermination. As soon as Soviet Russia indicates a willingness to accept world government, with all that it implies, by way of democratic procedure, we should dismantle our atom bombs, destroy our biological weapons, and forgo any further production of atomic energy until this can be handled by a world authority.
So much for a program designed to lessen Russia’s suspicion and hostility, and to create a confidence that would make possible equally firm measures of co-operation on her part. But we should re-enforce these measures, again voluntarily, by taking the initiative for world justice, creating a pattern which will be followed more comprehensively by world government, once it is in working order. Pursuing Mr. Grenville Clark’s wise suggestions, we should meet Russia’s demand for control over Dardanelles by declaring our willingness at once to place all international straits and canals under United Nations administration; and in advance of a plan for rationing energies and primary resources, we should extend the Bernard Baruch proposals for a World Control of Atomic Energy to other essential resources: petroleum, say.
If American statesmanship makes world co-operation its prime objective, we must realize that both the Baruch Plan and the Marshall Plan, like Lend-Lease before them, cannot be considered as purely temporary expedients, designed to bolster a disintegrating world economy. Quite the contrary, they must be known as the cornerstones of a post-imperialist economy, designed to transform a world based on the one-sided exploitation of the weak by the strong, with each economic group, each national state, intent on private advantage, into a co-operative commonwealth of the nations, spending prudently on peace what they have hitherto spent so recklessly on war, sharing abundance instead of destroying it, forgoing temporary profits for durable human welfare. In terms of a world organized to produce peace, national monopolies and exclusive rights of exploitation do not make sense. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”: this is no longer a hollow dictum of religion but a directive for economic action toward human brotherhood.
No single action that the United States might take belligerently in opposition to Russia would so effectively undermine in the Russian aggression and hostility, or break down the ideological case Russia has built up against us in the minds of the poor and exploited countries of the world, than the announcement of our willingness to participate in a system of world resource rationing, as a condition of establishing a world government. In a single stroke, we should transform the Kremlin’s powerful ideological sword into a shattered icicle. Put forward in good faith and backed by appropriate acts, such a policy would disarm Communist belligerence more effectively than any quantity of lethal weapons. The appeal would be addressed, not to governments but to the peoples living under communism, who are as eager as the western democracies to live in peace.
Behind all these proposals is a simple fact, effectively stated by Professor Borgese: any plans for coming together with Russia instead of fighting her must envisage objectives and goals which make sense in terms of her ideal purposes as well as ours. We cannot create an effective world government if we think merely in terms of containing communism; nor shall we provide for peace and security if at the outset we give up the hope of including Russia in this larger system of unity. In a world organized for peace, capitalism and communism may both, in a limited sense, survive: but they cannot hope to exist side by side on their own exclusive terms without undergoing any further change. If the logic of events forces Soviet Russia to accept, against all her historic traditions, continuous from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin and Malenkov, the unfamiliar methods of Western democracy, which world government necessitates, the same logic also applies to the United States: we must accept and further that tendency toward the equalization of economic privileges and advantages which the conservative de Toqueville identified with the rise of democracy itself.
In neither national nor international life has that equalization process reached its terminus; but the fact is that it has gone much further in democratic England, our closest partner, than in Soviet Russia. Now a progressive equalization of wealth between nations is one of the substantial promises of world government: indeed, our more farsighted industrialists understand by now that it is the foundation even for a healthy national economy. If we lack the political intelligence to go along with this movement and to direct it we shall become the target of the world’s envy, jealousy, hatred: on those terms, we shall turn the world over to Soviet Russia, until both systems resort to mass extermination: alias “war”. All this means that world government imposes sacrifices and burdens: burdens that will bear most heavily on ourselves. But however steep the price of world government, if considered in annual contributions of taxes on a basis of national wealth, it will be picayune compared to the costs of a third world war. Every canvass of alternatives must be calculated on that basis. If our house is likely to be burned to the ground, a heavy insurance premium is cheaper than the bill for replacement.
There are certain current habits of mind that stand in the way of giving these proposals serious consideration.
The first is the fallacy of gradualism: the notion that every change must be approached by slow degrees, and that the preatomic form of United Nations may, by a succession of minor modifications, become strong enough to carry the load of world peace. Actually, the United Nations has been weakened, not strengthened, by time. Not merely has the succession of Russian vetoes flouted the authority of the majority, but even worse the United States, by its withdrawal of its own proposal for partitioning Palestine, has robbed the organization of its last vestige of dignity and power. Any organization that reverses its decision at the first hint of rebellion by a handful of hostile Arabs cannot, plainly, overcome the continental belligerence of the United States and Soviet Russia. We have no time to build a bridge across the deep chasm between the East and the West: hand in hand, Soviet Russia and the United States must both take a leap. But if one has to jump across a six-foot chasm one must go all the way: a two-foot jump will merely insure a broken neck.
The second obstructive habit of mind derives from the notion that if only the present show down can be postponed, some yet undetected agent will save us from the final catastrophe. So people kept on hoping during the period when Hitler, like Stalin and Malenkow, moved triumphantly on the path of “peaceful” aggression and domination; and despite the fact that history has completely discredited the Chamberlains and the Borahs and the Beards, their ghosts go marching on. In view of the fact that the instruments of genocide will become vastly more devastating, the sooner a peaceful showdown takes place the better: provided that we bring to the occasion positive plans and blueprints which will bring about a constructive resolution of our difficulties. Unless our political or social inventions are equal to our scientific and technological inventions, we confess complete intellectual and moral bankruptcy.
Finally, there is a kind of mental block which takes the form of saying: Politics is the “science of the possible”, and these proposals are not within the realm of the possible. By this, those who take this position mean that any proposal which involves difficulties and sacrifices of a greater order than people normally accept must be carefully kept from view, in order to spare the feelings of all concerned. But if the experience of the last ten years proves anything, this platitude is as empty as it is a mealy-mouthed. In terms of the “science of the possible” England should have surrendered to Germany between July, 1940 and June, 1941. Actually England was saved (and the world was saved, too) because Churchill told the English not what they would have liked to hear, but what they needed to hear in order to bear the day’s burden: he told them that their lot would be all but insupportable and that he could promise nothing in the way of immediate victory: nothing, indeed, except that they were about to live through their finest hour. If politics means anything today it must become the “art of the impossible”. The people who sacrifice every principle to expediency, every long-range plan to immediate profit, every hope of world government to maneuvering for position in a war that will bring about the extirpation of democracy and the disintegration of human society – it is these people who live in a world of slippery fantasies and self-deceptions. In terms of the “possible” we have only two courses open: suicide by appeasement or suicide by war. The “impossible” is world government and world co-operation: the road to life.
Not for a moment would I underestimate the psychological revolution that will have to take place before these proposals can be seriously considered. At the present moment, the chances for such a program as I have outlined being put forward within the next year are something less, I should judge, than one in a hundred; for the conceptions they are based on are foreign to most of our present leaders in both parties. Mr. Justice Douglas alone has spoken along these general lines. These ideas, indeed, might more easily come from one of our military leaders than from any visible politician. Day by day, however, the issues become grimmer and the dangers more horrifying: once all the tempting irrational exits are closed, one must hope that the door indicated by reason and common sense will finally open. That “miracle” is the only alternative to catastrophe. But we must not wait for catastrophe before we acknowledge its possibility.
On this matter, if one cannot be an optimist, one dare tot be a pessimist. In the utter hopelessness and panic of the depression in 1933, the audacious measures undertaken by the Roosevelt administration, often in contradiction to pre-election commitments, restored public confidence, encouraged enterprise, and brought about production, through hitherto unthinkable uses of public credit and public aid to the unemployed. That, in its way, was a miracle: comparable to the one needed today. So again, with the transformation of the skeptical, cynical, debunked, mainly pacifist younger generation of Americans into tough fighters who beat the Nazis at their own game: what was that, whether viewed as a technical or a moral achievement, if not a gigantic miracle? No change that these young men underwent to prepare themselves for combat is harder that that we must now collectively make under equally dire compulsion, in order to lay the foundations for peace.
The miracle of stopping our present war with Russia and averting total catastrophe is still within human scope. It will require intelligence, imagination, and audacity, all on a heroic scale: but by no means of a superhuman order. These qualities exist in every country. Let us put them to work before it is too late.
(Prefaced and edited by Franco Spoltore)
From The Letters of Lewis Mumford and Frederic J. Osborne, a Transatlantic Dialogue, 1938-1970, edited by Michael Hughes, 1971, Bath, Adams & Dart (letter of 12 June 1951).
From Lewis Mumford, a Life, edited by Donald L. Miller, 1989, New York, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, p. 405.
The Letters of Lewis Mumford, cit. (letter of 26 November 1956).
Ibidem (letter of 29 August 1944).
Ibidem (letter of 6 March 1947).
*The text which we publish here is taken from In the Name of Sanity, New York, Harcourt Brace, 1954.
Whether the United Nations has been weakened or strengthened by time is a difficult question even now to answer. Continued attempt to by pass its procedures, to take unilateral measures, to evade its responsibilities plainly weaken it. On the other hand, the increase in the powers of the General Assembly, at the expense of the Security Council, beginning with the Korean decision, was a sign of health. My judgment here was impatient and faulty.