Chapter 5

The ‘Golden Twenties’
The ‘new era’, the ‘Jazz Age’, the ‘Golden Twenties’—this was how media and mainstream politicians extolled the United States of the 1920s. It had emerged from the war as the world’s biggest economy, prospering while Britain and Germany tore at each other, buying up many of Britain’s overseas investments and continuing to grow until output in 1928 was twice what it had been in 1914. The growth was accompanied by a seemingly magical transformation in the lives of vast numbers of people. The inventions of the 1890s and early 1900s, which had previously been restricted to small minorities of the rich, now flooded into mass use—the electric light, the gramophone, the radio, the cinema, the vacuum cleaner, the refrigerator, the telephone. Henry Ford’s factories were turning out the first mass produced car, the Model T, and what had been a rich man’s toy began to be seen in middle class streets, and even among some sections of workers. Aircraft flew overhead with increasing frequency, and reduced the time of the cross-continental journey from days to hours for the fortunate few. It was as if people had been plucked overnight out of darkness, silence and limited mobility into a new universe of instant light, continual sound and rapid motion. The phrase ‘Jazz Age’ gave expression to the change. There had always been popular musical forms. But they had been associated with particular localities and particular cultures, since the mass of the world’s peoples lived in relative isolation from one another. The only international or inter-regional forms of music had been ‘classical forms’, provided for relatively mobile exploiting classes, and sometimes religious forms. The growth of the city in the 18th and 19th centuries had begun to change this, with music and dance halls, singing clubs and printed sheet music. However, the gramophone and radio created a new cultural field receptive to something which expressed the rhythms of the industrial world, the tempo of city life and the anguish of atomised existence in a world built around the
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market. Jazz, or at least the watered down jazz that formed the basis of the new popular music, could take root in this. It was created out of a fusion of various African and European ‘folk’ idioms by the former slaves of the American South as they toiled to the dictates of commodity production. It was brought North with a huge wave of migration from the cotton and tobacco fields to the cities of the world’s most powerful capitalism. And from there it appealed to millions of people of all sorts of ethnic backgrounds and in all sorts of countries, carried forward on the tide of capital accumulation. All this happened as recession and unemployment became a mere memory and people began to take ‘prosperity’ for granted. The US economist Alvin H Hansen expressed the prevailing wisdom when he wrote in 1927 that the ‘childhood diseases’ of capitalism’s youth were ‘being mitigated’ and ‘the character of the business cycle was changing’.147 Another economist, Bernard Baruch, told an interviewer for the American Magazine in June 1929, ‘The economic condition of the world seems on the verge of a great forward movement’.148 The conflicts of the past also seemed a distant memory to the middle classes. The defeat of the steel strike in 1919 had destroyed any will by the American Federation of Labour trade union organisation to expand beyond the narrow ranks of skilled workers. A series of police actions ordered by attorney-general Palmer and future FBI boss J Edgar Hoover had smashed the old militants of the IWW and the new militants of the Communist Party. Workers who wanted to improve their own position saw little choice but to put faith in the ‘American Dream’ of individual success—as future Trotskyist strike leader Farrell Dobbs did when he voted Republican, planned to open a shop and aspired to be a judge.149 Leading economists, businessmen and political figures such as John J Raskob, chair of the Democratic National Committee and director of General Motors, declared that ‘everybody ought to be rich’ and claimed they could be if they put a mere $15 a week into stocks and shares.150 There even seemed hope for the poorest groups in US society. Impoverished white ‘dirt farmers’ from Appalachia and black sharecroppers from the South flooded to look for work in Detroit, Chicago and New York. These were the years of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’, when even the Northern ghetto could seem like a beacon of hope to the grandchildren of slaves. There was still immense black bitterness and anger. But it was channelled, in the main, through the movement of Marcus
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Garvey, who preached a programme of black separation, black capitalism and a ‘return to Africa’ which avoided any direct conflict with the US system. For those who did not look below the surface of events the ‘American Dream’ seemed to be accepted everywhere in one form or another as the number of people buying and selling stocks and shares grew to record proportions. The arrival of the new era and the Jazz Age was delayed in Europe. In Germany the crisis of 1923—when it seemed either socialist revolution or fascist rule was on the agenda—was followed by a brief spell of savage deflation. But then loans from the US (the ‘Dawes Plan’) gave capitalism a new lease of life. Industrial production soared to overtake the level of 1914, and political stability seemed restored. Elections in 1928 returned a Social Democratic coalition government, while Hitler’s Nazis only received just over 2 percent of the poll and the Communists 10.6 percent. In the summer of 1928 Hermann Müller, leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, could exude confidence: ‘Our economy is sound, our system of social welfare is sound, and you will see that the Communists as well as the Nazis will be absorbed by the traditional parties’.151 Britain had gone through a major social crisis two and half years after Germany. The chancellor of the exchequer, Winston Churchill, was determined to symbolise the restoration of British power by fixing the value of the pound at its pre-war level against the dollar. The effect was to increase the cost of Britain’s exports and lead to increasing unemployment in core industries. The government set out to offset the increased costs by a general cut in wages and an increase in working hours, starting with the mining industry. The miners’ union refused to accept this, and its members were locked out in May 1926. Other union leaders called a general strike in support, only to call it off after nine days, abjectly surrendering despite the effectiveness of the action, and allowing the employers to victimise activists and destroy basic union organisation in industry after industry. Once the Ruhr crisis and the general strike in Britain were out of the way, the tone of the new era in the US began to influence mainstream thinking in Europe. The middle classes could benefit from the new range of consumer goods produced by the mass production industries, and it seemed only a matter of time before these spread to sections of workers. And if the US could escape from economic crisis, so could Europe. In Germany Werner Sombart echoed Hansen in stating, ‘There
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has been a clear tendency in European economic life for antagonistic tendencies to balance each other, to grow less and finally to disappear’.152 Not to be left out, Eduard Bernstein argued that his prophesies of the peaceful transition of capitalism towards socialism were being fulfilled. It would be absurd to call the Weimar Republic a ‘capitalist republic’, he wrote. ‘The development of cartels and monopolies had brought about an increase in public control, and would lead to their eventual metamorphosis into public corporations’.153 Even in Britain, where unemployment continued to plague the old industrial areas, the Trades Union Congress celebrated the first anniversary of the miners’ defeat by embarking on a series of talks with major employers, known as the Mond-Turner talks. The aim was to replace conflict by ‘cooperation…to improve the efficiency of industry and raise the workers’ standard of life’.154 A minority Labour government took office with the support of the Liberals in 1929. The belief that capitalism had achieved long term stability affected the ruling group inside Russia. In 1925 its two increasingly dominant figures, party general secretary Joseph Stalin and theoretician Nicolai Bukharin, took this belief to justify their new doctrine that socialism could be achieved in one country. Capitalism had stabilised itself, they claimed, making revolution unlikely.155 Taking up the terminology of the German Social Democrat Hilferding, Bukharin argued that the West had entered a stage of ‘organised capitalism’, which permitted rapid economic expansion and made crises much less likely.156

The birth of the new
If middle class public opinion and popular culture seemed to recover some of their pre-war optimism in the mid-1920s, the recovery was precarious. A generation of young men in Europe had seen their illusions trampled in the mud of Flanders, and it was not easy to forget this. The atmosphere was closer to cynical self indulgence than reborn hope. This found its reflection in the ‘high art’—the painting, sculpture, serious music and literature—of the period. Even before the war there had been a minority challenge to the comfortable belief in steady progress. The mechanisation of the world already seemed double-edged—on the one hand displaying an unparalleled power
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and dynamism, and on the other tearing to shreds any notion of human beings ordering their own lives. Philosophical and cultural currents emerged which questioned any notion of progress and gave a central role to the irrational. These trends were encouraged as developments in theoretical physics (the special theory of relativity in 1905, the general theory of relativity in 1915 and Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle’ version of quantum physics in the mid-1920s) undermined the old mechanical model of the universe. At the same time the popularity of psychoanalysis seemed to destroy the belief in reason, once so important for Freud himself.157 Artists and writers attempted to come to terms with the novelty of the world around them by a revolution in artistic and literary forms. The ‘revolution’ was based on an ingrained ambiguity—on both admiration of and horror at the mechanical world. What came to be known as ‘Modernism’ was born. Characteristically the emphasis was on formalism and mathematical exactness, but also on the discordance of clashing images and sound, and dissolution of the individual and the social into fragmented parts. High culture up until the mid-19th century (the Hungarian Marxist critic Georg Lukács argued that 1848 was the key date) had centred on attempts by middle class heroes and heroines to master the world around them, even if they were often tragically unsuccessful.158 The high culture of the period after the First World War centred on the reduction of individuals to fragmented playthings of powers beyond their control—as, for example, in Kafka’s novels The Trial and The Castle, in Berg’s opera Lulu, in T S Eliot’s poem The Wasteland, in Dos Passos’s trilogy USA, in the early plays of Bertolt Brecht and in the paintings of Picasso’s ‘analytical Cubist’ phase. Yet the internal fragmentation of works of art and literature which simply reflected the fragmentation around them left the best artists and writers dissatisfied, and they tried with varying degrees of success to fit the pieces into some new pattern which restored a place for humanity in a mechanical world. The difficulty of doing so within a reality which was itself fragmented and dehumanised led many to draw political conclusions. Already by the 1920s Italian ‘Futurists’ had embraced the blind irrationality of fascism and Russian Futurists had embraced the Russian Revolution’s rational attempt to reshape the world. Through much of the decade most Modernists tried to evade a choice between the two through a self conscious avant-gardism
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which deliberately cut them off from popular culture, even if borrowing some of its idioms. They may not have shared in the illusions of those years, but they did little to publicly challenge them. However disillusioned with the ‘Golden Twenties’, their Modernism still took its assumptions for granted. The world had been through a dozen years of war, revolution and colonial rising. But by 1927 the consensus in international ruling class circles was that the trauma was over. There were not too many dissenters when US president Coolidge declared in December 1928, ‘No Congress of the United States has met with a more pleasant prospect than that which appears at the present time.’ Few people had any inkling of the horror to come.

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