The World on Fire

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Anthony Read, Jonathan Cape, £25

For socialists the most exciting year of the last century was probably 1919. While the 1917 Russian Revolution had shaken the world, its full implications only became apparent when the First World War ended in November 1918. The next two years saw the world in turmoil. "We are running a race with Bolshevism and the world is on fire," said US president Woodrow Wilson at the time of the Versailles Peace Conference.

Millions had been killed. In five defeated states (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey) the old rulers had lost all credibility, in the states liberated from occupation and empire the new rulers had yet to establish themselves. Even the neutral states wobbled. The victors were no less nervous: "We seem to be the most frightened victors that the world ever saw," said Walter Lippman of the US. Nearly half the population of Europe was said to be starving. "We can count food in calories, but have no way to measure human misery¶â€š" said one contemporary.

There are already several books about 1919. Perhaps the best is David Mitchell's 1919: Red Mirage. The title reflects Mitchell's social democratic background, but, written amid another major upturn in the class struggle, Mitchell's account remains valuable and exciting.

Not so Anthony Read in this new book, The World on Fire. This is reactionary history written to appeal to the sentiments of conservatives and others frightened by a new century. Read even opens with the suggestion that the Bolsheviks in 1919 were the Taliban and Al Qaida of their day with Lenin as... you've guessed it.

As such they had no time for such bourgeois niceties as truth, humanity and honour. It would be easy to ridicule this as a neoconservative mishmash, and this is partly what it is. Just as today's "war on terror" needed its dodgy dossier, so Read's book is a dodgy historical dossier in its attempt to assimilate the past into the present.

But books, especially ones about exciting times, can escape their author's intentions. Despite Read's best efforts something of the spark of 1919 does shine through. Read's problems arise partly because he spends a disproportionate time on the US and Britain, no doubt to appeal to readers familiar with these countries.

But this creates a difficulty. He can easily disparage revolutionaries, socialists and workers in other countries, hoping that readers will be less familiar with them. It is harder to write off workers and intellectuals who protested against the inequalities and brutalities of societies that are more familiar to his readers. It is equally hard to make heroes of British and US right wing politicians who, Read says, created "a climate of irrational fear, unfounded suspicion and blind intolerance". Inadvertently, he is forced to bring out just how much "lying, inhumanity, injustice and plain thuggish brutality" was needed from the West's cultured rulers to preserve "Western civilisation" at a time when its barbarisms had set the world on fire. As Socialist Review readers may see it, this perhaps shows that Read is right in a way he doesn't intend, and not a lot has changed.