That was a question put to me by some perceptive young men and women and I thought I should share my response with the readers. The opinion and analysis furnished in this column is my subjective understanding of the issue, hence liable to criticism.
History seems to have cracked a terrible joke on us!
The exclamation above might reek of a measure of cynicism, but if the trends prevalent in the world of global power politics are allowed to run their course, the portentous present, in all likelihood, will inevitably lead us to a dreadful future. Once again the indicators suggest that in the words of the German Philosopher Friedrich Hegel, the only thing man has learnt from history is that he has not learnt anything from history.
I am saying this because the politics of the ultra-right has taken over large parts of the world as hostage. Liberal values have been substituted with xenophobia, and the sentiments of accommodation and acceptability for others are being deemed anti-national in various polities including the contemporary champion of liberalism, the United States.
In some cases, nationalism draws its credence from religious exclusion. In India, for example, the pretence of secularism has become a memory of the good old days when Jawaharlal Nehru was at the helm. The reversal of fortunes in the so-called ‘largest democracy of the world’ has taken an ironic turn — what is being manifested is exactly the opposite of what Nehru subscribed to.
A Hindutva zealot, Narendra Modi, despite having orchestrated the 2002 massacre at Godra in Gujrat was swung into power a couple of years ago. As if it was enough, he appointed a well-known Muslim-despising mahant Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in which Muslims live in large numbers.
Donald Trump — with all his eccentricities including his obsession with Islamophobia — heading the only super power of the world, the United Kingdom embracing Brexit, and France where the possibility of Le Pen assuming power cannot be ruled out, the Western world is re-inventing itself in the light of the kind of rabid nationalism that overwhelmed Europe during the early twentieth century. Let us also not forget North Korea’s aggressive bid to throw the gauntlet to the United States, which, of course, is nothing but a footnote to the larger picture of international power politics.
All said and done, the forces of ultra-right have staged a comeback with vengeance in all the major power centres of the world.
It has to be borne in mind that nationalism always prospers at the cost of antipathy for the ‘other’. The first and the second world wars were grim reminders of extreme nationalism which split the western world into two warring camps with consequences that we still teach about in our classrooms. The real question, however, is that despite the ascendancy of the ultra-right in world politics, and the ensuing chaos and mutual hatred gaining ground, does the possibility of a third world war still exist? Has nationalist politics been elevated to a stage that nation states will pounce upon each other?
If the answer is in the affirmative, can such a possibility be circumvented while knowing full well that in case such an eventuality as a world war takes place, human existence on the face of planet earth will be completely wiped out? Despite that realisation, can we (the humans) do without it?
Such questions must be examined in the perspective of history. To be forthright, human history is not the history of peaceful co-existence. Should we then conclude that the inevitability of war is an irrefutable fact of history? Once, a senior historian told me the ‘present’ is contingent on the way people read their history and it is the reading of the history that determines their future.
While teaching European history for several years, the simplest conclusion that I drew was that war is one of the constants of history, and its occurrence has not diminished with the rise of civilization or democracy. My long-held belief in peace as the most cherished human value appears to be a mere illusion that reformers and prophets nursed and nurtured without much success.
Undoubtedly, one cannot dispute the historical fact that in the last 3,471 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war. Many of us even today acknowledge war as the ultimate form of competition and natural selection in the human species. “Polemos pater panton,” said Greek thinker Heraclitus. War, or competition, is the father of all things, the potent source of Ideas, inventions, institutions, and states. From the wheel, artillery and faster means of communications to the arrival of the internet are all by-products of war.
At the risk of being branded a cynic, one can safely pronounce that material progress and war go hand-in-hand. All the progress that we witness today would not have been possible, had peace been a continuous, uninterrupted phenomenon throughout human history.
Having said all of this, the oft-quoted adage — history repeats itself — seems quite preposterous to me. Therefore, I can afford to repose optimism in the sagacity of the human who has seen the devastations of the two world wars. I do believe that a large majority of us have learnt the lesson. More importantly, the objective conditions of global politics have also changed.
Let us examine it from the angle of the categories of the ‘dominant’ and the ‘Order’.
Given the particular way in which I was reading history at a certain time in my life, peace seemed to me ‘an unstable equilibrium, which could be preserved only by acknowledged supremacy or equal power’. So far, peace has been established only on someone’s terms and that ‘someone’ is always the beholder of supremacy. Peace therefore results only from victory or defeat. If this is so, the question that stares at us is this: is the phenomenon of peace worth hankering for?
That question kept nagging me for quite a while. A personal evolution in my understanding of the human phenomenon nudged me to a more nuanced way of reading and interpreting history. Reading a mammoth volume by James Watson, “History of Ideas: From Fire to Freud” helped me to imagine two ‘constants’ in history, ‘the human quest for dominance’ and ‘his/her yearning to establish Order’. These two ‘constants’ to some, may seem contradictory to each other but in actuality they are “mutually constituents”. It is always the dominant one who sets the condition for the Order to materialise.
In the pre-modern times, the one wielding military strength was the sole determinant of the Order. To a great extent that holds true of the modern times as well. However, during the last several decades the category ‘power’ has assumed a new connotation. The powerful must have economic resources and a solid knowledge base, as these two factors have become most crucial to call for an Order. Particularly, the emergence of China as a world power has changed the ways and the means of defining dominance. Economic muscle has come to be the principal determinant of the peculiarities of the order.
Thus, in this changed scenario in which military muscle is fast giving way to other variables, competition will be waged in the realm of economy, and economic strength emanates from a creative process. Thus, the knowledge base becomes equally vital. In view of these observations, the third world war, even if it happens, will happen in a way that will be different from how the Second World War happened.
Since I hate the cliché ‘history repeats itself’, I will only briefly comment on it at the conclusion. We the historians have been accused of standing by and watching as historical patterns continue to re-enforce themselves due to the repeated follies of human beings. Much of this is due to the non-academic historians’ refusal to engage with history, and of the state apparatus’s mistrust of the academic historian. As a result, we do not negotiate with history, giving the impression that we allow it to repeat itself.
The rather innocent question “is a third world war possible” is predicated on this assumption of the historians’ inability to influence history. What I have said today is my attempt to engage and negotiate with history as a historian whose future is embedded in the belief that a third world war, if possible, will not be a war of swords and guns, but of control of economic and epistemic means of production.
As a pacifist, I hope human beings will learn that these economic and knowledge-based wars can be utilised to progress the cause of humanity. If that can be ensured through a war, then a third world war — a war of ideas and of distribution of resources — is the most desirable war in the ultra-right, exclusionist narrative of history currently prevalent.