On May 8, 1945, when World War II in Europe officially ended, much of the world lay in ruins. But if the human capacity for destruction knows few limits, the ability to start over again is just as remarkable. Perhaps that is why mankind has so far managed to survive.
No doubt, millions of people at the end of the war were too hungry and exhausted to do anything much beyond staying alive. But, at the same time, a wave of idealism swept across the wreckage, a collective sense of determination to build a more equal, peaceful, and safer world.
That is why the war’s great hero, Winston Churchill, was voted out of office in the summer of 1945, even before Japan surrendered. Men and women had not risked their lives simply to return to the old days of class privilege and social deprivation. They wanted better housing, education, and free health care for all.
Similar demands were heard all over Europe, where the anti-Nazi or anti-fascist resistance was often led by leftists, or indeed Communists, and prewar conservatives were frequently tainted by collaboration with fascist regimes. There was talk of revolution in countries such as France, Italy, and Greece. This did not happen, because neither the Western Allies nor the Soviet Union supported it. Stalin was content to settle for an empire in Eastern Europe.
But even Charles de Gaulle, a resistance leader of the right, had to accept Communists in his first postwar government, and he agreed to nationalize industries and banks. The swing to the left, to social-democratic welfare states, occurred all over Western Europe. It was part of the 1945 consensus.
A different kind of revolution was taking place in Europe’s former colonies in Asia, where native peoples had no desire to be ruled once more by Western powers, which had been so ignominiously defeated by Japan. Vietnamese, Indonesians, Filipinos, Burmese, Indians, and Malays wanted their freedom, too.
These aspirations were often voiced in the United Nations, founded in 1945. The UN, like the dream of European unity, was also part of the 1945 consensus. For a short while, many prominent people – Albert Einstein, for one – believed that only a world government would be able to ensure global peace.
This dream quickly faded when the Cold War divided the world into two hostile blocs. But in some ways the 1945 consensus, in the West, was strengthened by Cold War politics. Communism, still wrapped in the laurel leaf of anti-fascism, had a wide intellectual and emotional appeal, not only in the so-called Third World, but also in Western Europe. Social democracy, with its promise of greater equality and opportunities for all, served as an ideological antidote. Most social democrats were in fact fiercely anti-communist.
Today, 70 years later, much of the 1945 consensus no longer survives. Few people can muster great enthusiasm for the UN. The European dream is in crisis. And the post-war social-democratic welfare state is being eroded more and more every day.
The rot began during the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Neoliberals attacked the expense of entitlement programs and the vested interests of trade unions. Citizens, it was thought, had to become more self-reliant; government welfare programs were making everyone soft and dependent. In Thatcher’s famous words, there was no such thing as “society,” only families and individuals who ought to be taking care of themselves.
But the 1945 consensus was dealt a much greater blow precisely when we all rejoiced at the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the other great twentieth-century tyranny. In 1989, it looked as if the dark legacy of World War II, the enslavement of Eastern Europe, was finally over. And in many ways, it was. But much else collapsed with the Soviet model. Social democracy lost its raison d’être as an antidote to Communism. All forms of leftist ideology – indeed, everything that smacked of collective idealism – came to be viewed as misguided utopianism that could lead only to the Gulag.
Neoliberalism filled the vacuum, creating vast wealth for some people, but at the expense of the ideal of equality that had emerged from World War II. The extraordinary reception of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century shows how keenly the consequences of the collapse of the left have been felt.
In recent years, other ideologies have also emerged to fill the human need for collective ideals. The rise of right-wing populism reflects revived yearnings for pure national communities that keep immigrants and minorities out. And, perversely, American neo-conservatives have transformed the internationalism of the old left by seeking to impose a democratic world order by US military force.
The answer to these alarming developments is not nostalgia. We cannot simply return to the past. Too much has changed. But a new aspiration toward social and economic equality, and international solidarity, is badly needed. It cannot be the same as the 1945 consensus, but we would do well, on this anniversary, to remember why that consensus was forged in the first place.