When I was 19, I had an idea of writing a history of the 20th century called The Age of National Socialism. I recalled it the other day and was surprised that it still seems like a good idea. Since then I’ve been through several churches and a religious conversion, married and divorced, changed my views on natural rights, gone from Gandhian pacifist to Bush Republican and now to pox-on-both-their-houses apolitical, yet on this issue at least, it’s surprising how consistent I’ve been. I think the reason is that I thought deeply about politics in my teens, and while on many very big questions reflection causes one to see multiple sides, on the topic of immigration, there’s only one right answer, which soon becomes clear beyond evasion. Not that the book I had in mind was just about immigration.
The thesis was basically this: that the 20th century was the age of national socialism, in three varieties: (1) welfare-state democracy, (2) fascism/Nazism, (3) the ‘socialism-in-one-country’ that was established in the Soviet Union after the failure of the Bolshevik Revolution to spread globally, and which then became the model for other socialist societies. All three were governments “of the people” in somewhat different senses. For the Soviets, “the people” mean the proletariat, as against the bourgeoisie; for the Nazis, “the people” mean the Volk, the ethnic nation, as against external and internal “aliens”; while the semi-liberal democracies of the West didn’t define the people in novel, ideological ways and still contrasted them, if anything, to the monarchs and ruling aristocracies of a bygone age. But all of them gave a kind of sacral value to “the people,” and exercised unprecedentedly pervasive power in their name, and all more or less played down the rights of individuals, though of course they fared better in the semi-liberal democracies of the West than elsewhere. By partitioning the world into well-defined sovereign nation-states– the label world apartheid is, I think, a fairly accurate characterization of this system, though in some contexts one would want to avoid the phrase so as not to give offense– the national socialists of various stripes created an unprecedented degree of inequality in wealth and freedom among the members of the human race.
The title of the putative book expresses the hope that ‘the age of national socialism’ won’t last forever. Individual rights, humanitarianism and justice may make a comeback, and perhaps in a couple of generations the idea that it is tolerable to exclude a person from a country because of his place of birth will rightly seem as weird and wicked as it seems to us today to exclude a black man from a restaurant on the ground of the color of his skin. The all-powerful nation-state may find itself hemmed in and hamstrung on all sides, curtailed from below by empowered local governments and civil disobedience and churches and newly enlightened social norms, from the side by global financial markets and treaty obligations and international NGOs, from above by a stronger UN (sorry, libertarians) and other international agencies, which may perhaps enjoy growing popular legitimacy. Anyway, I doubt I’ll write it anytime soon, so anyone who likes is welcome to take the idea and run with it.