Ihave called my lecture ‘Barbarism, A User’s Guide’, not because I wish to give you instructions in how to be barbarians.footnote1 None of us, unfortunately, need it. Barbarism is not something like ice-dancing, a technique that has to be learned—at least not unless you wish to become a torturer or some other specialist in inhuman activities. It is rather a by-product of life in a particular social and historical context, something that comes with the territory, as Arthur Miller says in Death of a Salesman. The term ‘street-wise’ expresses what I want to say all the better for indicating the actual adaptation of people to living in a society without the rules of civilization. By understanding this word we have all adapted to living in a society that is, by the standards of our grandparents or parents, even—if we are as old as I am—of our youth, uncivilized. We have got used to it. I don’t mean we can’t still be shocked by this or that example of it. On the contrary, being periodically shocked by something unusually awful is part of the experience. It helps to conceal how used we have become to the normality of what our—certainly my—parents would have considered life under inhuman conditions. My user’s guide is, I hope, a guide to understanding how this has come about.

The argument of this lecture is that, after about a hundred and fifty years of secular decline, barbarism has been on the increase for most of the twentieth century, and there is no sign that this increase is at an end. In this context I understand ‘barbarism’ to mean two things. First, the disruption and breakdown of the systems of rules and moral behaviour by which all societies regulate the relations among their members and, to a lesser extent, between their members and those of other societies. Second, I mean, more specifically, the reversal of what we may call the project of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, namely the establishment of a universal system of such rules and standards of moral behaviour, embodied in the institutions of states dedicated to the rational progress of humanity: to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, to Equality, Liberty and Fraternity or whatever. Both are now taking place and reinforce each other’s negative effects on our lives. The relation of my subject to the question of human rights should therefore be obvious.

Let me clarify the first form of barbarization, i.e. what happens when traditional controls disappear. Michael Ignatieff, in his recent Blood and Belonging, notes the difference between the gunmen of the Kurdish guerrillas in 1993 and those of the Bosnian checkpoints. With great perception he sees that in the stateless society of Kurdistan, every male child reaching adolescence gets a gun. Carrying a weapon simply means that a boy has ceased to be a child and must behave like a man. ‘The accent of meaning in the culture of the gun thus stresses responsibility, sobriety, tragic duty.’ Guns are fired when they need to be. On the contrary, most Europeans since 1945, including in the Balkans, have lived in societies where the state enjoyed a monopoly of legitimate violence. As the states broke down, so did that monopoly. ‘For some young European males, the chaos that resulted from [this collapse]. . .offered the chance of entering an erotic paradise of the all-is-permitted. Hence the semi-sexual, semi-pornographic gun culture of the checkpoints. For young men there was an irresistible erotic charge in holding lethal power in your hands’ and using it to terrorize the helpless.footnote2

I suspect that a good many of the atrocities now committed in the civil wars of three continents reflect this type of disruption, which is characteristic of the late twentieth-century world. But I hope to say a word or two about this later.

As to the second form of barbarization, I wish to declare an interest. I believe that one of the few things that stands between us and an accelerated descent into darkness is the set of values inherited from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. This is not a fashionable view at this moment, when the Enlightenment can be dismissed as anything from superficial and intellectually naive to a conspiracy of dead white men in periwigs to provide the intellectual foundation for Western imperialism. It may or may not be all that, but it is also the only foundation for all the aspirations to build societies fit for all human beings to live in anywhere on this Earth, and for the assertion and defence of their human rights as persons. In any case, the progress of civility which took place from the eighteenth century until the early twentieth was achieved overwhelmingly or entirely under the influence of the Enlightenment, by governments of what are still called, for the benefit of history students, ‘enlightened absolutists’, by revolutionaries and reformers, Liberals, Socialists, and Communists, all of whom belonged to the same intellectual family. It was not achieved by its critics. This era when progress was not merely supposed to be both material and moral but actually was, has come to an end. But the only criterion which allows us to judge rather than merely to record the consequent descent into barbarism, is the old rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Let me illustrate the width of the gap between the period before 1914 and ours. I will not dwell on the fact that we, who have lived through greater inhumanity, are today likely to be less shocked by the modest injustices that outraged the nineteenth century. For instance, a single miscarriage of justice in France (the Dreyfus case) or twenty demonstrators locked up for one night by the German army in an Alsatian town (the Zabern incident of 1913). What I want to remind you of is standards of conduct. Clausewitz, writing after the Napoleonic wars, took it for granted that the armed forces of civilized states did not put their prisoners of war to death or devastate countries. The most recent wars in which Britain was involved, that is to say the Falklands war and the Gulf war, suggest that this is no longer taken for granted. Again, to quote the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘civilized warfare, the textbooks tell us, is confined, as far as possible, to the disablement of the armed forces of the enemy; otherwise war would continue till one of the parties was exterminated. “It is with good reason”’—and here the Encyclopedia quotes Vattel, an international lawyer of the noble eighteenth-century Enlightenment—‘“that this practice has grown in a custom within the nations of Europe”.’ It is no longer a custom of the nations of Europe or anywhere else. Before 1914 the view that war was against combatants and not non-combatants was shared by rebels and revolutionaries. The programme of the Russian Narodnaya Volya, the group which killed Tsar Alexander II, stated ‘explicitly that individuals and groups standing outside its fight against the government would be treated as neutrals, their person and property were to be inviolate.’footnote3 At about the same time Frederick Engels condemned the Irish Fenians (with whom all his sympathies lay) for placing a bomb in Westminster Hall, thus risking the lives of innocent bystanders. War, he felt as an old revolutionary with experience of armed conflict, should be waged against combatants and not against civilians. Today this limitation is no more recognized by revolutionaries and terrorists than by governments waging war.

I will now suggest a brief chronology of this slide down the slope of barbarization. Its main stages are four: the First World War, the period of world crisis from the breakdown of 1917–20 to that of 1944–47; the four decades of the Cold War era, and lastly, the general breakdown of civilization as we know it over large parts of the world in and since the 1980s. There is an obvious continuity between the first three stages. In each the earlier lessons of man’s inhumanity to man were learned and became the basis of new advances in barbarism. There is no such linear connection between the third and the fourth stage. The breakdown of the 1980s and 1990s is not due to the actions of human decision-makers which could be recognized as being barbarous, like the projects of Hitler and the terror of Stalin, lunatic, like the arguments justifying the race to nuclear war, or both, like Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It is due to the fact that the decision-makers no longer know what to do about a world that escapes from their, or our control, and that the explosive transformation of society and economy since 1950 produced an unprecedented breakdown and disruption of the rules governing behaviour in human societies. The third and fourth stages therefore overlap and interact. Today human societies are breaking down, but under conditions when the standards of public conduct remain at the level to which the earlier periods of barbarization have reduced them. They have not so far shown serious signs of rising again.