Commentary Magazine


Modern Times, by Paul Johnson

Triumph of the State

Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties.
by Paul Johnson.
Harper & Row. 818 pp. $27.95.

It must surely be one of the great paradoxes of our times that as “the power of the state to do evil expanded with awesome speed” (in Paul Johnson’s words), its ability to fulfill its traditional obligations—namely, maintaining an adequate defense and a solid currency, and guaranteeing the physical safety of its citzens and their property—declined precipitously. Social and institutional forces undreamed of by the state-builders of early modernity have in our time come to the fore, gradually replacing the old forms of paternal absolutism with a conception of state power as a means of organizing society and of supplanting the family as the basic physical and psychological provider.

Modern Times, the latest and most far-reaching of Paul Johnson’s several excellent interpretative accounts of the political, cultural, and psychological challenges facing the peoples of the West, is specifically devoted to illustrating the effects of this change, which he defines as the triumph of relativism and its consequent political vice, the faith in social engineering, in “the notion that human beings can be shoveled around like concrete.”

The link was made clear already by Kierkegaard and, more famously, by Nietzsche, decades before the fall of the old order, when they indicated that the philosophical destruction of traditional morality must necessarily lead to nihilism. God having been killed by the philosophers, and belief in objective morality being gradually erased by the discovery of the “real” mainsprings of behavior in the work of Marx, Darwin, and Freud, the resultant psychological vacuum was filled, as Nietzsche foresaw, by the Will to Power. “A new kind of messiah” appeared, Johnson writes, “uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatever, and with an unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind. The end of the old order, with an unguided world adrift in a relativistic universe, was a summons to such gangster-statesmen to emerge. They were not slow in making their appearance.”

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Having identified the negative pole of modern history in the connection between moral relativism and the abuse of vastly increased state power in new and monstrous ways, Johnson then proceeds to recount that history from World War I until 1982 in broad and fascinating detail, always relating the facts and his incisive analyses to his basic theme. Thus, “the effect of the Great War was enormously to increase the size, and therefore the destructive capacity and propensity to oppress, of the state.” Germany, which had gone farthest, provided an impressive model (“war socialism”) for Lenin and his Bolsheviks, who began systematically creating “the first despotic Utopia.”

Johnson’s chapter on the Weimar republic is one of the gems of the book, argued in terms of what he calls “the East-West division” in German minds. The “Easterners,” who had ruled Germany and who now sought to blame their hitherto powerless rivals, the “Westerners,” for their own defeat in war, saw liberalism and democracy as a betrayal of the national culture, which they sought to preserve by calling for a “national awakening” and a revival of the “true” sovereignty of the state.

In the next chapter a subsidiary theme emerges, namely, the idea of Western imperialism as developed by J.A. Hobson and refined by Lenin. Colonial powers, instead of being judged on their merits, were now seen as always and everywhere evil. “The process whereby this crude and implausible theory became the conventional wisdom of most of the world, over the half-century which followed the Versailles Treaty, is one of the central developments of modern times, second only in importance to the spread of political violence.”

In Britain, the rise of this belief in the interwar years was simply a part of a general loss of faith in the values of the culture. Sophisticated British public opinion became dominated by cynicism, lethargy, and a lack of passion well described by Johnson as a “torpid dampness.” Of particular contemporary interest are the many features of the interwar British scene which anticipated the current peace and freeze movements in the West, such as the belief that armaments in themselves cause war or the way in which “the clergy, seizing on the peace issue as a remedy for declining congregations and their own flagging faith, . . . saturated the discussion in a soggy pool of lachrymose spirituality.”

Not until chapters 6 and 7, on America in the 20′s and the Great Depression, are we given to understand clearly what might be the positive pole of modern history to set against the negative pole of anarchic state power, political violence, totalitarian collectivism, and Western self-hatred. It is, not surprisingly, the beneficial power of economic freedom, when set in a framework of limited institutions, to produce material goods and psychological satisfaction more abundantly than any utopian model of social engineering, and thereby also to counteract the very tendencies which destroyed old Europe.

Against prevailing prejudice, Johnson judges Harding and Coolidge highly as Presidents, though faulting the former for his choice of aides. But it is in his account of the onset of the Depression that Johnson really makes his point. Hoover was a failure not because he did nothing, but because he tried to do too much. As Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge, he “showed himself a corporatist, an activist, and an interventionist,” and as President, in the fateful fall of 1929, he “agreed to take on the business cycle and stamp on it with all the resources of government.” Protectionism, in the shape of the disastrous Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930, was only a logical corollary of Hoover’s exercises in vulgar Keynesianism avant la lettre.

According to Johnson, the Depression would have been over by 1932 if the counter-cyclical efforts had not been pursued with such ruinous energy. This suggests, in turn, how false it is to credit the advent of Roosevelt as a great turning from callousness to compassion and from craven fear of business to energetic stimulation of the economy by government. From the start this was a myth, though one of fateful proportions, establishing for fifty years the notion that the Democrats were the party of progress, of compassion, of intellectual respectability, and of that new thing, “social justice.”

The man-made disaster of the Depression had repercussions which have lasted to this day, as Johnson shows. Perhaps the most pervasive was the powerful reinforcement of cynicism, skepticism, and the “30′s spirit, which had repudiated the virtues of capitalist enterprise and embraced those of collectivism.” The march of “The Devils,” as Johnson, echoing Dostoevsky, calls Stalin and Hitler and their henchmen, continued, bringing about, in due course, “The End of Old Europe” in 1939-41. With Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, which sealed Germany’s fate and admitted Soviet power and rule to the very heart of the old continent, a new era began.

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It is only proper that Johnson should devote as much space to the first twenty-odd years of our modern times as to the last forty, for it was in those fateful years of the Great War, the 20′s, and the 30′s that the shift to relativism, violence, and ideological justification of power was accomplished. What has happened since has generally been either a result of experience or an expansion of the fateful legacy of those years.

Johnson’s account of the end of World War II and the early postwar period is fair and straightforward: the sorry tale of Allied folly and Soviet purposiveness, and its human cost in Europe and elsewhere, in 1944-45, can never be told often enough. Nor does it hurt to have another stake rammed through the corpse of the revisionism which has sought to “blame” the U.S. for the cold war, initiated entirely by Stalin in his efforts to expand Soviet power beyond the front lines of 1945.

After treating the cold war, Korea, and the 50′s—“the most prosperous decade of modern times”—from the American perspective, Johnson next turns to the “failure of vision” and “collapse of will” that ended the British empire and turned much of South Asia and Africa over to superficially Westernized elites of professional politicians, “men who had never engaged in any other occupation except politics.” Often they were lawyers, like Nehru, or agitating journalists, like Sukarno; sometimes junior officers, like Nasser; occasionally even clerics, like Nyerere. Triumphantly they went to Bandung, in Indonesia, in 1955, to celebrate the rise of the “non-aligned nations” of the world, and Bandung “completed [their] corruption. . . .” Political posturing and rhetoric, a belief that all problems could be solved by the simple act of propounding dramatic solutions, was combined by them with a contempt for actual economic progress and a resentment of the West which grew commensurately with the evidence of failure of their own regimes.

The final sections of the book pass from Africa through another look at India and China in the 60′s and 70′s to “The European Lazarus” and “America’s Suicide Attempt.” Johnson’s account of the West European revival is succinct and accurate, although I must register a rare dissent from his view of de Gaulle as the “outstanding statesman of modern times.” Certainly, de Gaulle’s sense of history and his exercise of paternal authority were enormously beneficial to France and to Europe. But these advantages were probably outweighed by his utter failure to understand the nature of totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union, which he tended, naturally, to see as an old-fashioned empire with which one could negotiate on a basis of common interests, and even more by the incredible folly of his foreign-policy elite, who lacked his compensating greatness. The damage done by Gaullism to Atlantic solidarity has yet to be overcome.

In “America’s Suicide Attempt” Johnson correctly notes that the Cuban missile crisis was essentially a defeat for the U.S., in that the price paid for withdrawing the missiles was a guarantee of inviolability for Castro’s regime, with all that this has entailed in the Caribbean, in Africa, and in Central America. Kennedy is represented by Johnson as a weak President who not only surrendered American interests and principles in the Caribbean, and refused as well to honor solemn agreements (by not reacting to Soviet and East German violations in Berlin in 1961), but also, in the way he entered Vietnam, initiated a drama which became the very core and symbol of the end of American will to sustain a coherent global policy in behalf of the free world.

As the reader of Modern Times proceeds through “The Collectivist Seventies,” he may well feel that there is not much to be said for the chances of freedom and of positive human forces in an age of ideology, political violence, professional revolutionaries, and state control of society. In a final chapter, “Palimpsests of Freedom,” Johnson does see the forces of natural liberty at work and the fruits of economic good sense in “the Pacific free enterprise state, which by the early 1980′s was perhaps the most encouraging aspect of human society.” But these are merely islands in a rising sea. In general, “the state was the great gainer of the 20th century; and the central failure.” Even if it is no longer seen as the engine of human happiness except by “a small, diminishing, and dispirited band of zealots,” nevertheless, it is the states that have the power; and power, even when it does not corrupt, coopts.

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A work of this size, and of such forthright and explicit judgment, must be read to be appreciated. Even those skeptical of the basic premise—that the modern predicament is the result of moral relativism—can share the excitement and tragedy of the political history of the 20th century as it unfolds in Paul Johnson’s marvelously incisive and synthesizing account.

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