Against the World: Anti-Globalism and Mass Politics between the World Wars 
by Tara Zahra.
Norton, 352 pp., £14.99, March, 978 1 324 07520 2
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Historians​ are often drawn to what I think of as the ‘strange bedfellows’ problem. When I explain to students Britain’s odd mid-century political alliances – the Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald teaming up with his Conservative predecessor Stanley Baldwin in 1931, the Labour leaders who expelled MacDonald for that act themselves joining Churchill’s cabinet in 1940 – I sometimes draw a graph on the blackboard. One axis represents the usual political spectrum, with MacDonald, Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin on the left, Baldwin on the soft right and Churchill on the hard right. But then I bifurcate it with another axis, which differentiates leaders and parties by their attitude towards state intervention. At times of acute global crisis – depression, world war – that second axis could, suddenly, trump party loyalties, drawing MacDonald and Baldwin together to meet unemployment through deflation and retrenchment (not job creation schemes), and, ten years later, enticing Attlee and Bevin to join Churchill in a government determined to pull every statist lever to win the war. The Labour leaders came in because they were patriots, of course, but also perhaps because they knew they could use those wartime controls to build social democracy.

Tara Zahra’s Against the World is a more ambitious and capacious version of my blackboard exercise. We tend to see the unstable interwar era through its sharp political antagonisms, she writes – as ‘a battle between fascism and communism, democracy and dictatorship’. She wants to put another axis through those divides, distinguishing people and movements by their position on globalisation. Her use of this term is, she admits, ‘self-consciously anachronistic’. Her interwar ‘globalists’ were often internationalists seeking to promote transnational regulation or co-operation; her ‘anti-globalists’, too, identified as nationalists or socialists (or, worse, National Socialists) and were often as eager to capture someone else’s share of the global pie as to avoid international entanglements. Yet the period did see a sharp rise in hostility to what were regarded as frightening forces – economic fluctuations, mass migration – far beyond ordinary citizens’ control, not to mention antagonism towards any group, especially Jews and refugees, associated with them. If we cut into history with this new variable, what affinities are revealed? How much explanatory purchase does ‘anti-globalism’ have?

I have a lot of sympathy for this inquiry, partly because a graph or chart is the space in which lapsed social scientists (like me) feel most at home, and partly because I’ve long admired this historian’s nose for a good topic. Zahra’s projects often begin from a simple act of noticing something that runs against the grain of an era and of historians’ explanations. She did this first in Kidnapped Souls (2008): when so many historians were writing genealogies of national identity, she discovered a vein of what she called ‘national indifference’ within just those populations supposedly on fire for self-determination. Yes, nationalists in the Czech or Polish borderlands might have wanted to drive sometimes bilingual children into national schools or national projects, but their parents could be pragmatic ‘side-switchers’, enrolling their offspring in whatever school they found better or more convenient, as parents are wont to do. It isn’t that they didn’t care about politics or self-determination – but perhaps they didn’t care that much, not when they had livings to earn and children to raise.

Against the World begins with a similar moment of insight, and once again Zahra got there before the rest of us. As she notes, the decades after 1989 saw an outpouring of research on international institutions and movements as historians enlisted to write the prehistory of the liberalising, post-Cold War world in which we suddenly found ourselves. But perhaps we paid too little notice to the forces that liberalisation unleashed (especially after 2008): the export of manufacturing jobs, the attack on trade unionism, the erosion or privatisation of welfare entitlements, the sharp rise in income inequality, and the emergence of enormous, internationalised and tax-sheltered private wealth, not to mention a host of bottom-feeding hucksters and strongmen promising to restore power, riches, borders and often whiteness to one nation or another. Zahra did notice, however, and being a scholar of an era (interwar) and place (East Central Europe) plagued by bombastic, racist politicians and resentful publics, caught the resonances. This book, begun in 2016 following the Trump election and the Brexit referendum, is thus ‘no less a history of the present’. We have been here before, Zahra implies, and look where it ended.

Across seventeen pacy chapters organised into three parts, Zahra traces the causes, course, contradictions and consequences of this earlier wave of ‘anti-globalism’. She touches briefly on the immigrant opportunities and hopeful progressive internationalism of the turn of the century and then sketches their wartime defeat. A first pair of strange bedfellows – the Hungarian Jewish feminist Rosika Schwimmer and the right-wing antisemitic American car manufacturer Henry Ford – anchor that story: when the two teamed up in 1915 in a quixotic plan to send a ‘peace ship’ to Europe to negotiate a settlement to a war ravaging trade and human sympathies alike, it wasn’t hard for politicians and journalists to make them look unpatriotic and ridiculous. It was civilian suffering, though, and especially the impact of Britain’s blockade of the continent, that stoked ‘anti-globalist’ sentiment. Like Britain, Germany was profoundly dependent on imports for its food supply before 1914; unlike Britain, it wasn’t able to safeguard those supplies through control of the seas. By 1917 the blockade had driven the average German diet below 1100 calories per day and Austrian diets still lower, and taught all Central European populations a sharp lesson in the perils of depending on international supply chains you can’t control. The urban gardens and back-to-the-land movements that feature so prominently throughout this book gained their first mass following in this moment.

Historians have often analysed the chaotic decade that followed as a struggle between Woodrow Wilson and Lenin – both internationalists of a kind – for the loyalty of populations eager to decide their own fates. In the second part of her book, Zahra instead looks for, and finds, evidence of disenchantment with and retreat from internationalism. The 1918 flu pandemic made states more enthusiastic about border controls, while the decisions reached at the Paris Peace Conference meant there were more such states and borders, especially in Eastern Europe, as four great empires retreated or fractured. The victors profited but were rarely satisfied with their spoils: Zahra retells the story of the year-long occupation of Fiume in 1919-20 by Italian paramilitary troops led by the ultra-nationalist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, after the city had been awarded to Yugoslavia at the conference. Fiume’s inhabitants supported the occupation less because they were fervent Italian nationalists than because they knew their city would decline if it weren’t stitched into Italy’s better trade networks. (Decline it did.) The new post-Habsburg states, however, leaned into economic nationalism. Tariffs and other beggar-my-neighbour policies were hardly in their interest, but when Austria appealed in desperation to the League of Nations for financial and food aid, the conditions imposed in this early instance of ‘structural adjustment’ were harsh enough that other states declined League aid. Instead, nationalist and counter-revolutionary politicians blamed those ready-to-hand scapegoats, the Jews, for the presumed depredations of ‘international finance, unchecked migration, cosmopolitanism and national disloyalty’. The United States remained ‘globalist’ in that it sought global markets for its goods and repayment of its loans, but it too sharply restricted immigration. In 1914, Zahra tells us, 283,738 Italians entered the US; in 1924, Italy’s quota was 3845.

Within many works of global history is a tighter, more focused book struggling to get out. This is no exception. The third part of Against the World, which absorbs half its pages, turns to the varied and sometimes contradictory ways states and peoples embraced, or at least sought to ride, the ‘anti-globalist’ tide of the late 1920s and 1930s. Zahra concentrates especially on the various back-to-the-land or autarkic movements that sprang up all over, taking us from Austria’s suburban settlements to Henry Ford’s promotion of workers’ gardens, the New Deal’s programme to provide land to eager ‘homesteaders’, the Indian National Congress’s promotion of hand-spun khadi cloth and Fascist Italy’s autarkic new towns. These initiatives had different political hues: Vienna’s settlements ‘truly emerged from below, from popular mobilisation’, and initially had the support of its socialist government, while Gandhi asked followers to take up hand-spinning not just to combat imperial dependence but to embrace a simpler and more spiritual life. Yet the anti-collectivist and patriarchal ethos central to homesteading gave progressives pause; within a few years, Vienna’s socialist government was building apartment blocks for urban workers instead. Only when faced with hunger and mass unemployment in the 1930s did Austria give ‘internal colonisation’ a second chance. Even so, results were ‘modest at best’: the proportion of the farming population continued to decline; much food was still imported. Nazi planners just took this as more evidence that Austria was too small to survive on its own. After the Anschluss, its settlements were made to serve the economic and racial imperatives of the Reich.

Few cases show so clearly the uses to which even idealistic ‘anti-globalism’ could be put, but paradox and underperformance dogged many of the ventures Zahra chronicles. Khadi cloth was time-consuming to spin and scratchy to wear. Some 300,000 Depression-era Americans appealed to the Division of Subsistence Homesteads but by 1937 only 14,000 families had been accommodated. Italy’s new towns declined into fetid swamps. Yet individual states’ jealousy of their sovereignty meant that efforts to lower tariffs and promote trade – notably through the World Economic Conference of 1933 – failed as well. The international economic ventures that thrived during the Depression – Zahra highlights the innovative Czech shoemaking firm of Tomáš Bat’a – did so by accommodating anti-globalism rather than repudiating it. Instead of exporting Czech-produced shoes to India, Bat’a built factories and trained a workforce in India itself. True capitalists, after all, don’t much care where their products and profits are made.

Zahra​ makes her points through cases and vignettes, telling each story well. But as I read on, I felt a measure of unease. Is this episodic and narrative approach, tackling large subjects through small stories, the best way to write global history? Zahra has chosen her cases based on her languages and expertise and in order to ‘give voice to the diversity of individuals’ galvanised by the promise or evils of ‘globalism’, and this thickly descriptive method brings out the variety, political promiscuity and often misdirected zeal of ‘anti-globalist’ efforts. It is less well suited to assessing representativeness and significance. To pose again the question raised by my graph: did ‘anti-globalism’ have enough ‘throw’ to push politics out of alignment in this period? Does a focus that tends to find common grievances across polities of very different types help us understand the catastrophe that followed?

More use of methods that historians have mostly ceded to social scientists – counting and comparing – might have helped answer these questions. There are numbers in this book, but too often they tell us the scope of this or that project and not how it compared with rival imperatives or developments. I was of course interested to learn that 300,000 Americans wanted homesteads in the 1930s and that so few got them, but might that be because Roosevelt’s government was employing three million workers by 1938 to build bridges, roads and public buildings, thus prioritising collective goods over individual ones? The numbers Zahra cites for the US’s cruel Depression-era deportations of Mexican families are indeed shocking, but it’s worth noting that they are a fraction of the skyrocketing numbers of the postwar era and especially those produced by more recent ‘globalist’ US administrations. The statement, in a discussion of Ford’s marketing strategies, that ‘in 1929 alone forty million Ford automobiles arrived in the Soviet Union’ also gave me pause (there weren’t forty million cars of any make in the whole of the United States in 1929 and less than 1 per cent of that number in the USSR). As the cited source clarified, Ford sold the Soviets not forty million cars but rather cars and parts worth forty million dollars – a deal that enabled the Soviets to build a plant and produce roughly eighty thousand Fords annually by the late 1930s. This information supports Zahra’s point about the way capitalists adjusted to states’ autarkic impulses by selling equipment and knowhow as well as goods, but slips like this (which we all make) should be caught before, not after, publication – and if trade presses called on historians for peer review, not simply blurbs, they would be.

If more counting and comparison might have helped determine the significance of ‘anti-globalism’, so too would bringing the state – or rather the variety of states and their varied capacities – more fully into the story. Zahra is right: there were strong currents of populist ‘anti-globalism’ in the interwar years and plenty of political leaders eager to whip up feeling for nationalist and often nefarious ends. But, as she acknowledges, the 1920s were different from the 1930s in this regard: only in the 1930s and under the impact of the Depression did a fairly toxic brew of nativism and nationalism gain the upper hand. Even then, if the world order did move sharply away from economic liberalisation and integration, it moved not towards the further proliferation of isolationist mini-polities but towards their consolidation, often through force, into mutually distrustful, hierarchically integrated blocs. But, precisely because the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and only that empire) had not just retrenched but dissolved entirely, its successor states were exceptional: if they were especially susceptible to the appeal of ‘anti-globalism’, they were also especially unable to adjust to the era of bloc formation. Fractured, antagonistic, without reliable protectors, and unable to recombine, they were distinctly vulnerable among European states.

Larger or luckier states had more choices. The US and USSR were so big they could turn inwards, but most great powers (or wannabe great powers) re-imperialised or looked for weak neighbours or hinterlands to dominate. Britain and France threw tariffs around their empires, selling and buying increasingly within those captive markets; Japan bound Taiwan, Korea and, later, Manchuria tightly into its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere; Germany extracted itself from Western banks and secured its oil and food supplies through preferential agreements with – and then just domination of – Eastern Europe; Italy willingly broke with its First World War allies in a costly bid to build a new empire in Ethiopia. ‘Anti-globalism’ was little more than a rhetorical gloss on such schemes. How much manpower and treasure went into those swampy Italian new towns compared to that overweening Ethiopian project?

When the Allied powers emerged from the cataclysm of the clash of blocs in the Second World War, they combined to remake the world. They rebuilt global international regulatory structures, sometimes seeing them as a way to insulate capitalism from democracy. But what this often made point occludes is that at least some of these postwar planners had enough sympathy for their shattered, war-weary fellow citizens to support robust social democratic welfare and employment policies too – projects that, whether visionary or merely instrumental, also in some measure insulated democracy from capitalism. The undoing of that order happened not in the interwar era, nor in the postwar period, but in our generation, when Western democracies chose to lean into globalisation while reneging on solidarity. From this act of radical self-harm we may not recover.

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