European integration: A view from 1943

The internet has pretty much done for the traditional second-hand bookshop. I used to know of a least a dozen within half an hour’s walk in Brighton. Now I can only think of a couple. And besides, these days I don’t have the time or need to go browsing for second hand books. A cheap copy of anything is source-able through Amazon, Abebooks and the like.

This is a pity in some ways. It’s killed off the art of stumbling on a chance, obscure book that offers a sudden fresh, potentially paradigm-shifting perspective. After all, didn’t Philippe Schmitter come up with the idea of democratic (neo-) corporatism after a chance second-hand find in aBrazilian livraria ?

Despite this, I did stumble on something like this amid the celebrity biogs and crime thrillers on the book shelves of our local Oxfam shop: The Unity of Europe  (Victor Gollancz, London 1943) by Hilda Monte, a thin hardback book of just under two hundred pages printed on yellowing wartime paper, published as part of the 1936-48 Left Book Club series, which served as a popularising outlet for socialist and communist ideas.  The book says Not For Resale To The Public – presumably you had to subscribe to the LBC – but I bought it for £1.

Hilda Monte

Hilde Meisel (Hilda Monte)

 The book’s author Hilda Monte was, in fact,  Hilda Meisel, a socialist/Marxist journalist and economist of a slightly  unorthodox kind (never a CP member either in Germany or Great Britain, it seems)  of a Austro-German Jewish background who came to Britain in 1929 and remained after the Nazi takeover and into the war. Her book is one a broad genre of the period by writers of various political persuasion anticipating the political and social shaper of post-war Germany and post-war Germany. Part of this mix – awhich we we we are still grappling 60 years with this – is this issue of co-operation,  federation, integration of now, small and declining European states, whose political and economic power had peaked.

Proposals for a more federated and united Europe were, of course,  two a penny in 1930s and 1940s. Fascists, liberals, agrarians, socialists and communists all seem to have pretty much agreed that the interwar European system of multiple sovereign national states was a resounding failure. But Meisal’s argument is that as (more or less), a single economic unit, Europe needs be integrated as a whole (including Germany), rather than in the more widely floated form of two-three state federations with purely geopolitical rationales. She also rejects idea of initially integrating industrialised developed West European states – the form that integration, in fact, took after 1956 following the convenient amputation of the East by the Cold War division of the continent. The form of integration she proposes is, naturally, of the left.

Although aware of the need for decentalisation where possible (subsidarity, we might now call it), the socialist ‘‘European Union’ she envisages will be based around a European Central Authority to include both representatives of national government and the functional representation of interest groups – a prophetically Schmitterian touch – which will control post-war reconstruction, trade and immigration policies (140-1). Institutionally, she sees that a ‘… European Central Reserve Bank will need to be established, and either one single currency introduced across the Union, or a fixed relationship between currencies established’ (p.141).

Reasonably enough, given that this is 1943, she does not elaborate on just how these post-war institutions will come about or what they will look like – although the Tennessee Valley Authority of the Roosevelt New Deal is mentioned and, in general, the economic prosperity generated by Europe integration is expected to trump popular attachment to national states (at least in Eastern Europe). In outline, a kind of Marxist Monnet Method.

The book also has topical echoes in its preoccupation with inequalities and unevenness of European development. She sees the European

Inner and Outer Europe

Source: The Unity of Europe, p.40

(and indeed global) economy in terms of fairly modern terms core and periphery (‘Inner Europe’ and ‘Outer Europe’ as she puts it). However, the under-development and unevenness that preoccupies her is that between rural underdeveloped economies of Eastern and Southern Europe, on one hand, and industrial and/or modern economies of Scandinavia and Western Europe, on the other. She is thus very much focused on agrarian modernisation and peasant politics and strategies for industrialisation of the Balkans and East Europe.

Come the 21st century, such an East-West split is still with us, although it is no matter a question of industrial core versus agrarian periphery. Communism in Eastern Europe – not surprisingly, only distantly and vaguely anticipated an author writing at a time when German troops were in Stalingrad – brutally industrialised and agriculturally modernised the region, leaving its own distinct legacy of backwardness.

The Cold War division of Europe is only unanticipated: possible Soviet influence in Eastern Europe is seen as a benign complement to the socialism she hopes and believes and will develop at the heart of the continent. This is founded on a rosy, not to say naïve view of the economic and political system of Soviet Union, characteristic of much of the British Left in 1930s and 40s, as George Orwell lamented  at the time.

‘[W]ho knows’, the author asks ‘if , with fewer goods to buy and rather inadequate housing conditions, the workers and peasants of the Soviet Union have not been better off because they had not be afraid of idleness or lack of markets’ before claiming still more implausibly, as we now know with half a century’s hindsight that the USSR had ‘… devised methods of directing and controlling economic life without depriving the individual of every chance of making economic decisions’ (122, 137).

The author’s analysis of the prospects for post-war Europe has a similar dose ideological wishful thinking: ‘socialism’ – vaguely defined in terms of economic planned, collective ownership and workers’ control – is the only solution. Nothing else will do and a renewal or rebuilding under Capitalism Brought Up To Date is unimaginable. Proposals for what sound like a form of democratic social market corporatism or ‘co-determination’ – from of all quarters, the Federation of British Industry (the main employers’ organisation, forerunner of today’s CBI – are roundly rejected. A mistake, you feel in hindsight, given how easily the post-war settlement was dismantled in 1980s without formal corporatist institutions in this country.

Commemorative stone, Landhausstrasse 3, Berlin

Sadly, Hilde Meisal did not live to see the end of the war to do a second take on the subject. As interested in active resistance than writing and theorising – unconfirmed rumours say she was involved in a 1939 plot to assassinate Hitler – she became in clandestine operations of the US OSS (the precursor of the CIA) to infiltrate intelligence operatives into Germany and was shot by an SS patrol on the Swiss-German border 18 April 1945. She is best remembered as (in Germany) as a resister, leaving behind fragmentary  journalism and pamphleeting in German and English as well as two-three books for a popular audience of which The Unity of Europe is the most substantive.

If she had survived and lived a long life, she would be 97 .

You wonder what she would make of today’s Europe, the EU and its current crisis.

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