THE BLOG
06/10/2011 12:41 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2011

How Change Happened

If we're talking basic social change, we want to know what are the habits of empire, what kind of stories its leaders tell, what manner of effort is required to oppose the smooth lies told by power, what attitudes support this effort, what kind of opposition is likely, what time scale is probable. These, it seems to me, are some of the main topics that Adam Hochschild addresses in his engaging and wonderful series of histories.

In just his most recent few books, Hochschild has examined the scandal of the colonial Congo (King Leopold's Ghost, 1998), the anti-slavery movement in Great Britain (Bury the Chains, 2005), and the fighting of and opposition to what we now call WWI (To End All Wars, 2011). Earlier, he wrote about South Africa and about Stalinism, as well as an account of growing up in his father's domestic world (Half the Way Home, 1986).

The last three books have all been set largely in England (at least the political campaigns), and are stories of suffering, persistence, and in some cases, triumph. They are also illustrations of Margaret Mead's well-known observation that the great changes are all the work of initially small groups who often feel powerless. Unfortunately this does not mean that if you are powerless you will succeed, but it does mean that even if you are tempted to feel hopeless, you can press on knowing that most "overnight success" comes from persistence in the face of scorn and oppression.

Hochschild has heroes in each of these books: in the fight about the Congo, it's primarily E.D. Morel; in the anti-slavery movement, Thomas Clarkson; in the anti-war movement early in the prior century, Charlotte Despard plus Sylvia Pankhurst. Haven't heard of them? They deeply changed our world, and their work suggests lessons for our time. In Hochschild's lambent telling, one thing that stands out is how hard they worked and how insistently. They took risks. In many cases, they went to prison.

One character who keeps popping into Hochschild's ironically titled To End All Wars is the young Bertrand Russell. Apart from all the reasons many of us have to be grateful to Russell, I am personally thankful to him for giving me a peripatetic interview as we left an anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square and preventing me, physically, from stepping off a curb in front of an omnibus as I was walking backwards. Articulate, impassioned, he was also amused at the eagerness of a young American. And, I am happy to recall, at the age of 69 he still had a firm grip.

Now that we are relatively advanced, it's hard to imagine a time when slavery was normal, or a colonial enterprise such as King Leopold's Congo, or trench warfare. Part of what Hochschild's characters did was reveal, as investigative journalists do, as historians also do, what was going on behind the denial and the false reassurances. Much of Hochschild's books is devoted to the ghastly conditions and dangers that called forth the protests.

Today I watched a 1983 TV movie called The Day After, which is set in the area of Lawrence, Kansas, at a time when a fictional Berlin crisis escalates into an intercontinental nuclear exchange. The missiles fly just before halfway in the movie, leaving time to witness the aftermath: not a limited disaster such as a tornado might cause, but electromagnetic pulses bringing failure in all electric devices, blasts that swallow cities, and radioactive fallout over fields, houses, people.

For many in the huge ABC audience, this made-for-TV flick was probably the first time they vividly imagined how, in the words of the immortal bumper sticker, "nuclear war can ruin your whole day." Four months later Gorbachev came to power in Moscow. In 1985 he and Reagan declared in Geneva that a nuclear war could not be won and must never be fought, a change of tone from the president's early years in the White House. Did the dramatization of what nuclear war would mean in the U.S. heartland play a role?

In the case of the Congo and of slave ships, not many people knew what was going on. It took a few who saw and told and kept telling and demanded some simple but enormous changes. In the case of industrial war, as we know, it did not stop after 1919. The anti-war activists were let out of prison, and some of them managed distinguished careers, while others faded away or emigrated. Then came WWII and all the smaller wars of the last century and this, including a few in which the West is now engaged. But the anti-war people early in the 20th century did make a point of conscience, a point that keeps nagging at the dominant mode.

A founder of Mother Jones magazine, Hochschild is socially engaged, as many great historians have been, such as Hobsbawn, Thompson, and Zinn on the left. In To End All Wars, he respects the complexity of the past, such as the splits within families: for example, Sir John French was commander in chief on the western front, and later Viceroy of Ireland, while his sister, Charlotte Despard was a pacifist and communist, supporter of the Irish Republican Army. In the Pankhurst family of suffragettes, to give another example, Sylvia was strongly antiwar, while her mother was a defender of the state.

For a general reader, Hochschild gives as stirring an account as anyone, of the descent into a conflict the cavalry would have called war, but which amounted to the slaughter of men living in sodden trenches and going "over the top" into machine-gun fire. More important, he shows how the working of conscience can bring about, or begin to bring about, a systemic change. Historians may seem far from affecting current events, though President Kennedy had reportedly read Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August before the Cuban missile crisis. Who knows what might have happened if he hadn't?

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