M.A.R. Habib

The vastly complex history of the twentieth century could be viewed from many perspectives of profound relevance to literature, criticism and theory: the history of the women_s movement and the struggle for women_s rights; the growth, since the later nineteenth centuries, of various labor parties throughout Europe, and their struggle on behalf of the working classes; the continuation of imperialism and the subsequent world scale phenomenon of decolonization; the rise to world power of Fascism; the growth of the Soviet Empire and the Cold War between the Western world and the Communist bloc; and, more recently, the changing composition of the so-called Islamic world and its relation to the West. Each one of these complex phenomena has inspired a great deal of literature and criticism, much of which has not merely passively recorded events but often participated and shaped the ideological atmosphere in which they occurred.

Most of these phenomena were, in important ways, specific to the twentieth century. Other trends of the twentieth century were more obviously continuations or intensifications of tendencies that had long been in movement: rationalization, urbanization, secularization, the increasingly practical deployment of science and technology, the growth of the middle classes, and the increasing refinements of the techniques of capitalism. In many ways, these broad movements came to a head in certain colossal events and phenomena of the twentieth century, whose impact overrode distinctions and interests of class, gender, race, nation and religion. These events included the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia, the First World War (1914-1918), the great economic depression of the 1930s, the Second World War (1939-1945), the Cold War and the arms race, the predominance of America as a world power, the emergence of the so-called _third world,_ the social and political unrest of the 1960s, and a general swing in the West toward right-wing politics in the 1980s. Many of these developments culminated in the collapse of much of the Communist bloc by 1989 and of the Soviet Union by 1991.

Here is how the historian Eric Hobsbawm summarises the major movements of the twentieth century:

An Age of Catastrophe from 1914 to the aftermath of the Second World War was followed by some twenty-five or thirty years of extraordinary economic growth and social transformation, which probably changed human society more profoundly than any other period of comparable brevity. In retrospect it can be seen as a sort of Golden Age, and was so seen almost immediately it had come to an end in the early 1970s. The last part of the century was a new era of decomposition, uncertainty and crisis _ and indeed, for large parts of the world such as Africa, the former USSR and the formerly socialist parts of Europe, of catastrophe. As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, the mood of those who reflected on the century_s past and future was a growing fin-de-siecle gloom.1

It is worth looking briefly at some of the phenomena cited by Hobsbawm. The devastating impact of the First World War, fought between the major powers Germany and Austria on the one side (joined by Turkey and Bulgaria), and France, Russia and Britain on the other (allied with Japan, Italy and America) was unprecedented in history. Hobsbawm states that this war _marked the breakdown of the (western) civilization of the nineteenth century._ _This civilization,_ he continues:

was capitalist in its economy; liberal in its legal and constitutional structure; bourgeois in the image of its characteristic hegemonic class; glorying in the advance of science, knowledge and education, material and moral progress; and profoundly convinced of the centrality of Europe, birthplace of the revolutions of the sciences, arts, politics and industry, whose economy had penetrated, and whose soldiers had conquered and subjugated most of the world (AE, 6).

It is clear from this succinct formulation that the ideals of the Enlightenment, embodied in the various institutions of the capitalist world, had culminated in a catastrophe on many levels, economic, political and moral. The psychological impact of this catastrophe on the world of thought and letters was equally profound. Arguably, it was the First World War, more than any other phenomenon of the twentieth century, which led thinkers in all domains to question not only the heritage of the Enlightenment but the very foundations of Western civilization. The sheer scale of devastation and carnage produced by the war accelerated the process whereby long-held assumptions _ the power of reason, the progress of history, providence, the moral dignity of human beings, the ability of people and nations to live in harmony, as well as our capacity to know ourselves and the world _ were plunged into a mode of moral, spiritual and intellectual crisis.

Subsequently, the Great Depression of the 1930s represented _a world economic crisis of unprecedented depth,_ bringing _even the strongest capitalist economies to their knees._ Hobsbawm remarks that liberal democratic institutions declined during between 1917 and 1942, as fascism and various authoritarian regimes rose to power. The Second World War, waged by the allies (Britain, America and France) to contain the expansionist ambitions of Nazi Germany (aided by the totalitarian regimes of Italy and Japan) wrought not only a second wave of wide-scale destruction but, in its aftermath, the disintegration of the huge colonial empires of Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, which had subjugated one-third of the world_s population. It was the _bizarre_ alliance of Capitalism and Communism which, ironically, saved the former, with the Red Army playing an essential role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. This alliance, says Hobsbawm,_forms the hinge of twentieth-century history and its decisive moment_ (AE, 7). Notwithstanding such measures as the formation of the United Nations in 1945, and NATO in 1949, the twentieth century, as Hobsbawm states, _was without doubt the most murderous century of which we have record,_ both by the scale and frequency of warfare and also _by the unparalleled scale of the human catastrophes it produced, from the greatest famines in history to systematic genocide_ (AE, 11). All of these phenomena _ the two world wars, the rise of fascism, the depression and decolonization _ had a profound impact on literature and criticism.

The subsequent era, from 1947 to 1973, was one of considerable growth and prosperity, which harbored, according to Hobsbawm, the greatest and most rapid economic and cultural transformations in recorded history (AE, 11). Apart from the unprecedented technological advances, whereby most of the world_s population ceased to live in agricultural economies, this era witnessed numerous political and social revolutions, whose principles were variously expressed by Che Guevara in Latin America, Frantz Fanon in Algeria, and the philosopher Herbert Marcuse who inspired radical intellectuals in America and Europe. Political revolutions and movements against colonialism erupted in many parts of Africa; the earlier Black militancy in America, inspired by figures such as Marcus Garvey and later Malcolm X, broadened into the Civil Rights_ movement of the 1950s and 1960s, whose leaders included Martin Luther King, assassinated in 1968. Many of the sentiments behind these movements were powerfully expressed in African American literature. The African-American heritage has been increasingly explored and theorized in recent decades by critics such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In the Middle East, things were no less turbulent. The termination of the British mandate in Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 led to persistent conflict between Israel and the Arab nations, fought out in bitter wars in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. This conflict has profoundly shaped the literature and the literary critical principles of the entire region; it was analyzed in several works of the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said.

Throughout this period, Western capitalism pursued the path of increasing monopoly and consolidation, often employing the principles advocated by economists such as John Maynard Keynes who thought that the inequities of capitalism could remedied, and prosperity brought to all, using monetary control rather than the nineteenth century principles of laissez-faire. A generation of students in America and Europe, however, reacted against what they saw as the repressive, unjust, sexist, racist and imperialist nature of the late capitalist world, epitomized for many by American involvement in the Vietnam war. In May 1968, left-wing uprisings of students and workers shook the University of Paris, as well as Berkeley, San Francisco State, Kent State and elsewhere. Much literary theory in France and America, including feminism, took its impetus from this atmosphere of unrest and agitation. The twentieth century saw an acceleration of trends begun much earlier, such as urbanization, an explosion of population, and the spread of capitalism over most of the world. The later twentieth century brought a new awareness of ecology and the extent to which modern industrial life and production had damaged the environment. Modern criticism and theory has broadened to encompass all of these developments.

The collapse of the Communist bloc and the Soviet Union led many to proclaim that Marx was dead. As we enter a new century, it is clear that the Cold War has been replaced by a new dynamic, which itself has served as the foundation for much recent criticism and theory. The relatively stable international system of Communism was succeeded by local ethnic, tribal and religious conflicts in Yugoslavia and areas of the former Soviet Union. Since the early 1990s, the core of this new dynamic has been underlain by America_s unopposed predominance as the major world power, fuelled by formulations of a _New World Order._ The relative impotence of the political left has left its mark on the nature of theory, and what is viewed as radical or conservative. What has occupied centre stage since the attacks of September 11 on the World Trade centres has been the _war on terror,_ stereotypically seen as aligning the Western world against what is known as radical Islamism. The more knowledgeable proponents on both sides urge that the war between Islam and the West is an ideological concoction with no basis in either the true nature of American democracy or the true nature of Islam. Islamic scholars such as Leila Ahmed, Fatima Mernissi, Akbar Ahmed and Aziz al-Azmeh are currently debating questions such as the compatibility of Islam with democracy, the status of women in Islam and the connections between Islam, Christianity and Judaism. In doing this, they are revisiting Islamic history, literature and the Qur_an in the light of modern literary and cultural theories.

To return to a general characterization: Hobsbawm states three ways in which the world has changed from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century: it is no longer Eurocentric, though America, Europe and Japan are still the most prosperous; the world has in certain important ways become a _single operational unit,_ primarily in economic terms, but also increasingly in terms of mass culture; and, finally, there has been a massive disintegration of previous patterns of human relationships, with an unprecedented rupture between past and present. Capitalism has become a permanent and continuous revolutionary force that perpetuates itself in time and extends its empire increasingly in space.