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365 days that shook the world

1917 opened a trapdoor to the future, less because of the Russian Revolution than because the US seized its chance to lead. It has continued to do so—until now…

The American Century 1917-2017

Three years ago the anniversary of 1914 was met with sorrow, puzzlement and nostalgia. Images of that year’s long summer evoke a world we have lost, a belle époque torn to pieces on the battlefields in a bloody autumn. Three years on, there is another centenary, but it comes without sepia tint. Instead, we recall the revolutionary year of 1917 through the grainy black-and-white shots of the bullet-swept streets of revolutionary Petrograd, as the harbinger of a century that was dynamic, violent and unforgiving. If 1914 dug a trench—a divide with an old world to which there’s no going back—1917 was instead a trap door. We dropped through into a brave new world, a world stirred by global ideological conflict and currents of economic and political change on a scale never before seen—a world dominated by new powers, and above all by the United States. One hundred years on, the shock of 1917 still reverberates, even as that “new order” disintegrates before our eyes.

As the world prepares for the Trump presidency, the perspective becomes sharper on 1917 as the point of departure for America’s globe-straddling hegemony; because in 2017, it will at last become impossible to ignore the reality that we are living through its end. During the American century, the mission of the US, at least in its own estimation, was to spread liberal values using the enormous financial and military resources at its disposal. Now, it seems that we may be moving into a new era of stripped down realpolitik, where the art of the deal is valued more than the encouragement of democracy or any other value. The US, and countries beside, are increasingly inclined to act openly in their own self-interest, without even the fig-leaf of moral leadership. It is suddenly urgent to ask: is the era of politicised foreign policy, the era that began in 1917, now behind us?

Although a year of radical global upheaval, 1917 was not of course a complete break. History does not permit a total rupture. There were many precursors to 1917: the “second” industrial revolution, the Maxim gun and barbed wire, imperialism and anti-imperialism, the Kishinev pogroms, Boer War concentration camps, the horrors of the Belgian Congo, the wave of revolutions that convulsed Russia, Persia, Mexico and China after 1905 and the quiver of new social movements—mass unionism, suffragettes and anti-colonial nationalism. To these forces, all of them already at work before 1914, the maelstrom of the war added its own ghastly torque. By the end of 1916, well over four million men had been killed. Meanwhile, the home front witnessed a shocking immiseration as inflation bit, supplies ran out and the 19thcentury “night-watchman” state failed the challenge of total war.

Adam Tooze teaches history at Columbia University. He is the author of “The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of the Global Order” (2014). “Sudden Stop,” a global history of the fallout from the financial crisis of 2008, will appear in 2018. @adam_tooze

Historians as a tribe are given to endowing particular dates with totemic significance. Sometimes their importance becomes evident only in retrospect, and requires great effort to establish. But certain moments—1848, 1945, 1989—write themselves into history through the sheer force of events. Whether 2017 could one day rank among them is necessarily an entirely speculative question. But there can be no disputing that 1917 qualifies, because of the way in which four truly transformative shocks converged.

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In Prospect’s January issue: Adam Tooze and Francis Fukuyama examine the “American Century.” Tooze says that the 1917 opened the door to the future because the US seized the chance to lead, rather than for the Russian Revolution. Fukuyama says that the US has fallen from its perch, a change embodied by the election of Donald Trump. Anna Blundy puts Samuel Pepys on the couch and uses his diaries to psychoanalyse the Restoration’s chronicler. Also in this issue: Chris Bickerton examines the rise of populist parties across Europe, Peter Tatchell and Malcolm Rifkind debate whether the Uk should stop pretending Trump’s US can be its best friend, Philip Collins reviews a collection of Brexit books and DJ Taylor examines Alan Bennett’s diaries.