Sir Ralph Norman Angell Lane (December 26, 1872 – October 7, 1967) was an English lecturer, writer, and peace activist. He wrote the famous The Great Illusion (1910) and was actively engaged in working for world peace, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1933. Angell's thesis was that war benefits no-one—neither winner nor loser—economically or socially. With arguments that seem ahead of his time, Angell argued that national boundaries (defining territories for living, food and other resources) no longer define differences among human societies, as religion, ethnicity, political views, and so forth are varied within nation-states and cut across their domains. With increasing globalization, and wars in the latter twentieth and into the twenty-first century reflecting ideological more than physical disputes, Angell's work continues to have relevance.
Angell was born on December 26, 1872 in Holbeach, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom, as one of six children to Thomas Angell Lane and Mary Brittain. He attended the Lycée de St. Omer School in France, and the University of Geneva. At the age of 17, he moved to the United States and spent seven years working in California, including jobs as a cowboy, vine planter, an irrigation-ditch digger, and a mailman, eventually becoming a reporter for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and later the San Francisco Chronicle.
He returned to England briefly in 1898 to tend to family matters, but then moved to Paris, France where he became involved in newspaper work. He first became a sub-editor to the English language Daily Messenger, and then a columnist to Éclair. He also worked as a correspondent for several American newspapers, following the Dreyfus Affair and covering the Spanish-American War. He published his first book Patriotism under Three Flags: A Plea for Rationalism in Politics in 1903. From 1905 to 1912 he was the Paris editor for the Daily Mail.
In 1909 he published a book, Europe's Optical Illusion, which he later renamed to The Great Illusion. The book immediately became a bestseller, being translated into 25 languages and selling over two million copies. It gave rise to a theory popularly called “Norman Angellism.” Angell established the Garton Foundation, receiving financial support from industrialist Richard Garton and Joseph Rowntree. In 1913 he founded the pacifist journal, War and Peace, the contributors to which included Arthur Ponsonby and Ramsay MacDonald.
At the start of World War I, Angell formed the Neutrality League and advocated that Great Britain stay out of the war. He later joined the Union of Democratic Control, which was active against the war.
After the war and over the next forty-one years, Angell published more than forty books on topics in economics, politics, and international affairs. In 1920 he joined the Labour Party in Britain and served as a Member of Parliament and a member of the Consultative Committee of the Parliamentary Labour Party from 1929 to 1931. He declined to participate in the re-elections, believing that he could serve the public better without political affiliations.
From 1928 to 1931 he edited the popular newspaper Foreign Affairs. He was knighted for his public service in 1931. His numerous memberships lay among the Council of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the World Committee against War and Fascism, and the Executive Committee of the League of Nations. He was also the president of the Abyssinia Association. In 1933 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Angell continued to deliver lectures long after his retirement. At the age of 90 he traveled to the United States on a two-month lecture tour.
He died in 1967, at the age of 94, in a home for the aged in Croydon, United Kingdom. He never married.
Angell is mostly remembered for his 1909 work, Europe's Optical Illusion, renamed to The Great Illusion for the American market. In it Angell argued that war between modern powers was "futile," in the sense that no matter what the outcome, both the losers and the victors would be economically worse off than they would have been had they avoided war:
Are we, in blind obedience to primitive instincts and old prejudices, enslaved by the old catchwords and that curious indolence which makes the revision of old ideas unpleasant, to duplicate indefinitely on the political and economic side a condition from which we have liberated ourselves on the religious side? Are we to continue to struggle, as so many good men struggled in the first dozen centuries of Christendom — spilling oceans of blood, wasting mountains of treasure — to achieve what is at bottom a logical absurdity, to accomplish something which, when accomplished, can avail us nothing, and which, if it could avail us anything, would condemn the nations of the world to never-ending bloodshed and the constant defeat of all those aims which men, in their sober hours, know to be alone worthy of sustained endeavor? (Angell 1913)
He claimed that even if Germany won the war and established political control over the rest of Europe, it would gain nothing economically. Workers in the newly subjected countries would still have to receive their salaries, and commodities would have to be purchased at market prices. Nothing would change, and common people would gain nothing from being part of a larger nation. Even worse, their economic situation would decline, as their welfare benefits would decrease due to the ruling government's inability to provide for the extended population.
Angell actively opposed World War I. He believed that a lasting peace cannot be achieved based on economic or military power and the right of conquest, but only based on mutual partnership. He thus propagated the belief that only negotiations and talk could lead to solution of the problem:
The fight for ideals can no longer take the form of fight between nations, because the lines of division on moral questions are within the nations themselves and intersect the political frontiers. There is no modern State which is completely Catholic or Protestant, or liberal or autocratic, or aristocratic or democratic, or socialist or individualist; the moral and spiritual struggles of the modern world go on between citizens of the same State in unconscious intellectual cooperation with corresponding groups in other states, not between the public powers of rival States (Angell 1913).
His book gave rise to "Norman Angellism," the theory that holds that "military and political power give a nation no commercial advantage, and it is impossible for one nation to enrich itself by subjugating another."
Throughout his life, Angell was a classical liberal and opposed Marxist theory that war was the product of capitalism. He also rejected some Labour Party members’ belief that economic depression was the result of capitalism, and thus that capitalism needed to be abolished.
In the inter-war period he wrote against dictatorship and opposed some American political currents that wanted to back Stalin in his confrontations with Churchill. In his Peace with the Dictators? (1938) he attacked the policy of the British Conservative party that was condoning Japanese and Italian aggression. During the Cold War he actively opposed communist ideology.
Originally published in 1909 as a short essay, The Great Illusion grew to become a bestseller, selling over two million copies and translated into 25 languages. It had a tremendous impact on the intellectual community and gave rise to "Norman Angellism," the theory that was used by numerous theorists on international peace who advocated the futility of war. The book is still often cited in the contemporary literature of the twenty-first century, especially by those who oppose American foreign policy.
Some have suggested that the two World Wars that took place after The Great Illusion was published were in fact a tragic confirmation of Angell's thesis. The losers in the war received nothing but grief, while the winners were forced to rethink and restructure their influence, ultimately getting nothing back, except millions of deaths, huge debts, and broken economies. Other historians have argued that Angell disregarded the reality of the complex situation in Europe with its alliances, hatreds, and rivalries between nations and therefore was being utopian.
Angell wrote almost 50 books during his lifetime. He was actively engaged in bringing world peace, work for which he was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize.
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