Last and First Men

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America and china 1. the rivals

AFTER the eclipse of Europe, the allegiance of men gradually crystallized into two great national or racial sentiments, the American and the Chinese. Little by little all other patriotisms became mere local variants of one or other of these two major loyalties. At first, indeed, there were many internecine conflicts. A detailed history of this period would describe how North America, repeating the welding process of the ancient "American Civil War," incorporated within itself the already Americanized Latins of South America; and how Japan, once the bully of young China, was so crippled by social revolutions that she fell a prey to American Imperialism; and how this bondage turned her violently Chinese in sentiment, so that finally she freed herself by an heroic war of independence, and joined the Asiatic Confederacy, under Chinese leadership.

A full history would also tell of the vicissitudes of the League of Nations. Although never a cosmopolitan government, but an association of national governments, each concerned mainly for its own sovereignty, this great organization had gradually gained a very real prestige and authority over all its members. And in spite of its many short-comings, most of which were involved in its fundamental constitution, it was invaluable as the great concrete focusing point of the growing loyalty toward humanity. At first its existence had been precarious; and indeed it had only preserved itself by an extreme caution, amounting almost to servility toward the "great powers." Little by little, however, it had gained moral authority to such an extent that no single power, even the mightiest, dared openly and in cold blood either to disobey the will of the League or reject the findings of the High Court. But, since human loyalty was still in the main national rather than cosmopolitan, situations were all too frequent in which a nation would lose its head, run amok, throw its pledges to the winds, and plunge into fear-inspired aggression. Such a situation had produced the Anglo-French War. At other times the nations would burst apart into two great camps, and the League would be temporarily forgotten in their disunion. This happened in the Russo-German War, which was possible only because America favoured Russia, and China favoured Germany. After the destruction of Europe, the world had for a while consisted of the League on one side and America on the other. But the League was dominated by China, and no longer stood for cosmopolitanism. This being so, those whose loyalty was genuinely human worked hard to bring America once more into the fold, and at last succeeded.

In spite of the League's failure to prevent the "great" wars, it worked admirably in preventing all the minor conflicts which had once been a chronic disease of the race. Latterly, indeed, the world's peace was absolutely secure, save when the League itself was almost equally divided. Unfortunately, with the rise of America and China, this kind of situation became more and more common. During the war of North and South America an attempt was made to recreate the League as a Cosmopolitan Sovereignty, controlling the pooled armaments of all nations. But, though the cosmopolitan will was strong, tribalism was stronger. The upshot was that, over the Japanese question, the League definitely split into two Leagues, each claiming to inherit universal sovereignty from the old League, but each in reality dominated by a kind of supernational sentiment, the one American, the other Chinese.

This occurred within a century after the eclipse of Europe. The second century completed the process of crystallization into two systems, political and mental. On the one hand was the wealthy and close-knit American Continental Federation, with its poor relations, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the bedridden remains of Western Europe, and part of the soulless body that was Russia. On the other hand were Asia and Africa. In fact the ancient distinction between East and West had now become the basis of political sentiment and organization.

Within each system there were of course real differences of culture, of which the chief was the difference between the Chinese and Indian mentalities. The Chinese were interested in appearances, in the sensory, the urbane, the practical; while the Indians inclined to seek behind appearances for some ultimate reality, of which this life, they said, was but a passing aspect. Thus the average Indian never took to heart the practical social problem in all its seriousness. The ideal of perfecting this world was never an all-absorbing interest to him; since he had been taught to believe that this world was mere shadow. There was, indeed, a time when China had mentally less in common with India than with the West, but fear of America had drawn the two great Eastern peoples together. They agreed at least in earnest hate of that strange blend of the commercial traveller, the missionary, and the barbarian conqueror, which was the American abroad.

China, owing to her relative weakness and irritation caused by the tentacles of American industry within her, was at this time more nationalistic than her rival, America. Indeed, professed to have outgrown nationalism, and to stand for political and cultural world unity. But she conceived this unity as a Unity under American organization; and by culture she meant Americanism. This kind of cosmopolitanism was regarded by Asia and Africa without sympathy. In China a concerted effort had been made to purge the foreign element from her culture. Its success, however, was only superficial. Pigtails and chopsticks had once more come into vogue among the leisured, and the study of Chinese classics was once more compulsory in all schools. Yet the manner of life of the average man remained American. Not only did he use American cutlery, shoes, gramophones, domestic labour-saving devices, but also his alphabet was European, his vocabulary was permeated by American slang, his newspapers and radio were American in manner, though anti-American in politics. He saw daily in his domestic television screen every phase of American private life and every American public event. Instead of opium and joss sticks, he affected cigarettes and chewing gum.

His thought also was largely a Mongolian variant of American thought. For instance, since his was a non-metaphysical mind, but since also some kind of metaphysics is unavoidable, he accepted the naïvely materialistic metaphysics which had been popularized by the earliest Behaviourists. In this view the only reality was physical energy, and the mind was but the system of the body's movements in response to stimulus. Behaviourism had formerly played a great part in purging the best Western minds of superstition; and indeed at one time it was the chief growing point of thought.

This early, pregnant, though extravagant, doctrine it was that had been absorbed by China. But in its native land Behaviorism had gradually been infected by the popular demand for comfortable ideas, and had finally changed into a curious kind of spiritism, according to which, though the ultimate reality was indeed physical energy, this energy was identified with the divine spirit. The most dramatic feature of American thought in this period was the merging of Behaviorism and Fundamentalism, a belated and degenerate mode of Christianity. Behaviourism itself, indeed, had been originally a kind of inverted Puritan faith, according to which intellectual salvation involved acceptance of a crude materialistic dogma, chiefly because it was repugnant to the self-righteous, and unintelligible to intellectuals of the earlier schools. The older Puritans trampled down all fleshy impulses; these newer Puritans trampled no less self-righteously upon the spiritual cravings. But in the increasingly spiritistic inclination of physics itself, Behaviorism and Fundamentalism had found a meeting place. Since the ultimate stuff of the physical universe was now said to be multitudinous and arbitrary "quanta" of the activity of "spirits," how easy was it for the materialistic and the spiritistic to agree! At heart, indeed, they were never far apart in mood, though opposed in doctrine. The real cleavage was between the truly spiritual view on the one hand, and the spiritistic and materialistic on the other. Thus the most materialistic of Christian sects and the most doctrinaire of scientific sects were not long in finding a formula to express their unity, their denial of all those finer capacities which had emerged to be the spirit of man.

These two faiths were at one in their respect for crude physical movement. And here lay the deepest difference between the American and the Chinese minds. For the former, activity, any sort of activity, was an end in itself; for the latter, activity was but a progress toward the true end, which was rest, and peace of mind. Action was to be undertaken only when equilibrium was disturbed. And in this respect China was at one with India. Both preferred contemplation to action.

Thus in China and India the passion for wealth was less potent than in America. Wealth was the power to set things and people in motion; and in America, therefore, wealth came to be frankly regarded as the breath of God, the divine spirit immanent in man. God was the supreme Boss, the universal Employer. His wisdom was conceived as a stupendous efficiency, his love as munificence towards his employees. The parable of the talents was made the corner-stone of education; and to be wealthy, therefore, was to be respected as one of God's chief agents. The typical American man of big business was one who, in the midst of a show of luxury, was at heart ascetic. He valued his splendour only because it advertised to all men that he was of the elect. The typical Chinese wealthy man was one who savoured his luxury with a delicate and lingering palate, and was seldom tempted to sacrifice it to the barren lust of power.

On the other hand, since American culture was wholly concerned with the values of the individual life, it was more sensitive than the Chinese with regard to the well-being of humble individuals. Therefore industrial conditions were far better under American than under Chinese capitalism. And in China both kinds of capitalism existed side by side. There were American factories in which the Chinese operatives thrived on the American system, and there were Chinese factories in which the operatives were by comparison abject wage-slaves. The fact that many Chinese industrial workers could not afford to keep a motor-car, let alone an aeroplane, was a source of much self-righteous indignation amongst American employers. And the fact that this fact did not cause a revolution in China, and that Chinese employers were able to procure plenty of labour in spite of the better conditions in American factories, was a source of perplexity. But in truth what the average Chinese worker wanted was not symbolical self-assertion through the control of privately owned machines, but security of life, and irresponsible leisure. In the earlier phase of "modern" China there had indeed been serious explosions of class hatred. Almost every one of the great Chinese industrial centres had, at some point in its career, massacred its employers, and declared itself an independent communist city-state. But communism was alien to China, and none of these experiments was permanently successful. Latterly, when the rule of the Nationalist Party had become secure, and the worst industrial evils had been abolished, class feeling had given place to a patriotic loathing of American interference and American hustle, and those who worked under American employers were often called traitors.

The Nationalist Party was not, indeed, the soul of China; but it was, so to speak, the central nervous system, within which the soul presided as a controlling principle. The Party was an intensely practical yet idealistic organization, half civil service, half religious order, though violently opposed to every kind of religion. Modelled originally on the Boishevic Party of Russia, it had also drawn inspiration from the native and literary civil service of old China, and even from the tradition of administrative integrity which had been the best, the sole, contribution of British Imperialism to the East. Thus, by a route of its own, the Party had approached the ideal of the Platonic governors. In order to be admitted to the Party, it was necessary to do two things, to pass a very strict written examination on Western and Chinese social theory, and to come through a five years' apprenticeship in actual administrative work. Outside the Party, China was still extremely corrupt; for peculation and nepotism were not censured, so long as they were kept decently hidden. But the Party set a brilliant example of self-oblivious devotion; and this unheard-of honesty was one source of its power. It was universally recognized that the Party man was genuinely interested in social rather than private matters; and consequently he was trusted. The supreme object of his loyalty was not the Party, but China, not indeed the mass of Chinese individuals, whom he regarded with almost the same nonchalance as he regarded himself, but the corporate unity and culture of the race.

The whole executive power in China was now in the hands of members of the Party, and the final legislative authority was the Assembly of Party Delegates. Between these two institutions stood the President. Sometimes no more than chairman of the Executive Committee, this individual was now and then almost a dictator, combining in himself the attributes of Prime Minister, Emperor, and Pope. For the head of the Party was the head of the state; and like the ancient emperors, he became the symbolical object of ancestor worship.

The Party's policy was dominated by the Chinese respect for culture. Just as Western states had been all too often organized under the will for military prestige, so the new China was organized under the will for prestige of culture. For this end the American state was reviled as the supreme example of barbarian vulgarity; and so patriotism was drawn in to strengthen the cultural policy of the Party. It was boasted that, while indeed in America every man and woman might hope to fight a way to material wealth, in China every intelligent person could actually enjoy the cultural wealth of the race. The economic policy of the Party was based on the principle of affording to all workers security of livelihood and full educational opportunity. (In American eyes, however, the livelihood thus secured was scarcely fit for beasts, and the education provided was out of date and irreligious.) The Party took good care to gather into itself all the best of every social class, and also to encourage in the unintelligent masses a respect for learning, and the illusion that they themselves shared to some extent in the national culture.

But in truth this culture, which the common people so venerated in their superiors and mimicked in their own lives, was scarcely less superficial than the cult of power against which it was pitted. For it was almost wholly a cult of social rectitude and textual learning; not so much of the merely litçrary learning which had obsessed ancient China, as of the vast corpus of contemporary scientific dogma, and above all of pure mathematics. In old days the candidate for office had to show minute but uncritical knowledge of classical writers; now he had to give proof of a no less barren agility in describing the established formula of physics, biology, psychology, and more particularly of economics and social theory. And though never encouraged to puzzle over the philosophical basis of mathematics, he was expected to be familiar with the intricacy of at least one branch of that vast game of skill. So great was the mass of information forced upon the student, that he had no time to think of the mutual implications of the various branches of his knowledge.

Yet there was a soul in China. And in this elusive soul of China the one hope of the First Men now lay. Scattered throughout the Party was a minority of original minds, who were its source of inspiration and the growing point of the human spirit in this period. Well aware of man's littleness, these thinkers regarded him none the less as the crown of the universe. On the basis of a positivistic and rather perfunctory metaphysic, they built a social ideal and a theory of art. Indeed, in the practice and appreciation of art they saw man's highest achievement. Pessimistic about the remote future of the race, and contemptuous of American evangelism, they accepted as the end of living the creation of an intricately unified pattern of human lives set in a fair environment. Society, the supreme work of art (so they put it), is a delicate and perishable texture of human intercourse. They even entertained the possibility that in the last resort, not only the individual's life, but the whole career of the race, might be tragic, and to be valued according to the standards of tragic art. Contrasting their own spirit with that of the Americans, one of them had said, "America, a backward youth in a playroom equipped with luxury and electric power, pretends that his mechanical toy moves the world. China, a gentleman walking in his garden in the evening, admires the fragrance and the order all the more because in the air is the first nip of winter, and in his ear rumour of the irresistible barbarian."

In this attitude there was something admirable, and sorely needed at the time; but also there was a fatal deficiency. In its best exponents it rose to a detached yet fervent salutation of existence, but all too easily degenerated into a supine complacency, and a cult of social etiquette. In fact it was ever in danger of corruption through the inveterate Chinese habit of caring only for appearances. In some respects the spirit of America and the spirit of China were complementary, since the one was restless and the other bland, the one zealous and the other dispassionate, the one religious, the other artistic, the one superficially mystical or at least romantic, the other classical and rationalistic, though too easy-going for prolonged rigorous thought. Had they co-operated, these two mentalities might have achieved much. On the other hand, in both there was an identical and all-important lack. Neither of them was disturbed and enlightened by that insatiable lust for the truth, that passion for the free exercise of critical intelligence, the gruelling hunt for reality, which had been the glory of Europe and even of the earlier America, but now was no longer anywhere among the First Men. And, consequent on this lack, another disability crippled them. Both were by now without that irreverent wit which individuals of an earlier generation had loved to exercise upon one another and on themselves, and even on their most sacred values.

In spite of this weakness, with good luck they might have triumphed. But, as I shall tell, the spirit of America undermined the integrity of China, and thereby destroyed its one chance of salvation. There befell, in fact, one of those disasters, half inevitable and half accidental, which periodically descended on the First Men, as though by the express will of some divinity who cared more for the excellence of his dramatic creation than for the sentient puppets which he had conceived for its enacting.

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