1993-05-16: Modern Times

Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (1983)

by Paul Johnson (1928-)

In the first two chapters, Johnson sets out several memetic influences which affected the course of the rest of the Twentieth Century. It is interesting that his book was completed before the fall of Communist power, and so his views of the establishment of that power are not contaminated by that epochal event.

Chapter 1, A Relativistic World, contends that the post WW I world was shaken by two great influences. First, the dramatic support Einstein’s world view was given as a result of the eclipse of 1919 shook people’s notion that the physical world was as it seemed. Suddenly everything was “relative”, whether that made sense or not. This resulted in an undermining of established authority. Whether true or not, this is a common meme about the twenties. The other influence was the popularization of Freud’s ideas of the psyche, and the influence of sexual repression on the formation of personality. Again, it is hard to know the extent to which this influenced people, although it seems to have had wide currency among so-called “intellectual” circles (some of which are always looking for excuses to escape the social constraints of their time).

Part of the chapter describes the political currents of the treaty negotiations, particularly the notion of self-determination. This was fairly new at the time, and became a dominant theme not because of logical necessity, but because the alternative theory of imperial domination of disparate peoples by divine right was discredited by the actions of the Germans leading up to the war. There is also an interesting account of the poor performance of Woodrow Wilson in the post-war period, and of the rule of the first woman “President”, his wife “who had spent only two years at school”.

Chapter 2, The First Despotic Utopias, describes the rise to power of Lenin’s Bolsheviks; their technique and the influence of a single strong-willed man with a close-knit fanatical following are well-described. Lenin had been helped into a position to disrupt the Russian war effort by the Germans, who certainly had no idea of what he might do; Lenin himself expected to be arrested immediately on his arrival in Russia. Johnson describes the influence of Nietzsche, as opposed to religion, on Lenin. The conflict of these two meme-complexes in one man should be instructive, if enough is known about it. At any rate, Lenin demonstrated the “will to power” perfectly, and its consequences.

As Lenin’s methods and intentions became clearer through 1920, some Western political leaders (such as Churchill) became concerned, and there was talk of stopping him. However, there was little will to interfere in Russain affairs, and the Tsarist alternatives seemed at least as bad. Johnson points out an apparently impossible alliance: that between the Prussian generals and the Bolsheviks. Though the class and society they represented was anathema to Bolshevism, there were practical reasons for them to cooperate. After the war, Germany’s arms industry was dismantled by the Treaty of Versailles. By establishing factories and design centers in Russia, they were able to work around these restrictions, to the benefit of both parties. Also, as Johnson says, in the “aftermath of the war, both groups saw themselves, and certainly were seen, as outlaws. There was a spirit of gangster fraternization in their arrangements, the first of many such Europe was to experience over the next twenty years.” This alliance was mainly kept secret until 1939. It basically lasted from November 1917 to June 1941. In the end, it was Russian tanks based on German designs that rolled over Germany in 1943-45.

In addition to Lenin’s revolution, Johnson describes the failed attempts of November 1918 to April 1919 to establish Marxist/Leninist/Communist regimes in Kiel, Munich, Berlin, Bavaria, Halle, Hamburg, Bremen, Leipzig, Thuringia and Brunswick. By then Lenin’s atrocities and economic failures had discredited socialist movements.

By mid-1919, new types of ‘vanguard elites’ were appearing in Europe, socialists who nominally followed Marx, but appealed to national and ‘race’ feeling rather than to the unresponsive ‘proletariat’ and the international aspects of Marxism. These sentiments were especially strong among the losers at the Versailles talks. In Austria they were called Heimwehren. In Hungary a short-lived ‘Communist’ republic was succeeded by the regime of the anti-semitic Julius Gombos, calling himself a National Socialist, and appealing for justice, revenge, and a purge of ‘alien elements’. In Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (‘Ataturk’) embraced national socialism. Even Italy, a big gainer at Versailles, had a grievance, in not receiving the Dalmatian coast.

Mussolini started as a Marxist, becoming a heretic (as many other Europeans did) as a result of Lenin’s economic failure. His personal ability took him from the formation of a new party, the Fascists, in 1919 to the head of government in 1922. He seems to have had little program, other than keeping power. Nonetheless, or perhaps because of this, his regime was anathema to Lenin, who could not fit his movement into any scheme of Marxist history.

In the meantime, the development of radio, the international telephone system, mass-circulation newspapers, and rapid forms of travel had produced a kind of “social and political holism”. Johnson uses a disease metaphor:

The Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century century had migrated over the course of more than fifty years and there were some areas it had never reached. The influenza virus of 1918 had enveloped the world in weeks and penetrated almost everywhere. The virus of force, terror and totalitarianism might prove equally swift and ubiquitous. It had firmly implanted itself in Russia. It was now in Italy.

This striking formulation of the memetic principle was written before 1983, and apparently without exposure to Dawkins. One of the interesting aspects of Johnson’s description of Lenin’s revolution and rule is the extent to which Lenin, in the first five years, established all of the patterns that have determined the course of the Soviet Union for the next sixty years. Another is the fact that it is uncontaminated with knowledge of the collapse of the Soviet and Eastern Bloc governments; Yuri Andropov was the leader of the Soviet Union when the book was finished.

Chapter 3, Waiting for Hitler, describes the currents of political influence and public beliefs leading up to the rise of Hitler. Johnson finds the most significant conflict in the period of the Weimar Republic between ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’. He uses the term Easterners for those who look to Germany’s eastern cultural origins and destiny, and the term Westerners for those who look to the civilizing influence of Western Europe. The Easterners idealized the Volk, the rural ideal of the peasant landscape and ancestral castles. This contrasted with the urban ‘proletariat’, which had no roots or landscape of its own, and was regarded as corrupting the natural German Volk‘s life. This movement was active in Napoleonic times; the burning of ‘alien’ and ‘foreign’ books which corrupted ‘Volk culture’ took place as early as 1817. The Volk movement was against anything not of the Volk; inevitably it was anti-semitic. When the post-war dislocations brought a large number of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland, they became a source of concern. Additionally, much of the ‘civilization’ (meaning ‘anti-culture’) of Weimar, in film, art and theater, was created by Jews; this was proof for many of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy traditional German culture.

Johnson also describes the political activities and fortunes of the parties, and the effects of the hyper-inflation of the twenties. He explains how Article 48 of the Weimar constitution could be used to create dictatorship. He counters some myths (as he did in earlier chapters as well), such as that reparations caused the inflation. He also displays some myths in detail, which made the public, to the extent they believed them, susceptible to the propaganda which was used to control them, by Hitler and others. He again mentions how German military production was secretly shifted to Russia.

In describing Hitler, he points out his artistic outlook (if not talent), and mentions the theatrical approach he took to his and his party’s public image. Hitler borrowed from and improved upon Mussolini’s symbolisms, and the detail that went into such things as public speaking events (lighting, amplification, set design) and uniforms made Hitler’s regime the enduring standard for totalitarian effects.

Johnson points out Hitler’s appreciation for Lenin’s strategy and tactics, if not his philosophy. Where the Marxists based their beliefs on class, Hitler based his on race, which had the advantage of being visible. But Hitler was aware of the manner in which Lenin achieved power and then took over the apparatus of the state. The failure of his putsch in Bavaria served to focus his efforts on a less direct scheme.

Chapter 4, Legitimacy in Decadence, describes the changes in values in the Twenties, which naturally began earlier. The word ‘decadence’ clearly expresses a value judgement itself. He covers France and England, and the strains in their alliance, and also treats the notion of colonialism and imperialism.

The section on England is particularly relevant to American and British cultural changes in the period. Part of the source lies in differences between the great English universities of Oxford and Cambridge:

Hitherto, the axioms of British public policy at home, and of British imperialism abroad, had reflected the moral climate of Balliol College, Oxford, under the Mastership of Benjamin Jowett. Its tone was judicial: Britain’s role in the world was to dispense civilized jsutice, enforced if necessary in the firmest possible manner. It was epitomized in the person of Lord Curzon, fastidious, witty, urbane and immensely cultured but adamant in the upholding of British interests, which he equated with morality as such. ‘The British government,’ he minuted to the cabinet in 1923, ‘is never untrue to its word, and is never disloyal to its colleagues or its allies, never does anything underhand or mean . . . that is the real basis of the moral authority which the British Empire has long exerted.’ Naturally, when need arose, the moral authority had to be stiffened by tanks and aeroplanes and warships operating from the string of bases Britain maintained throughout the world.

At Cambridge a rather different tradition had developed. While Oxford sent its stars to Parliament, where they became ministers and performed on the public stage, Cambridge developed private groups and worked by influence and suggestion. In 1820 a Literary Society had been formed, of twelve members known as the Apostles, which propagated the early heterodoxies of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Its recruits, collectively chosen and secretly elected – not even the mere existence of the society was ever acknowledged – were of high caliber but teachers and critics rather than major creators: the one massive talent, Alfred Tennyson, quickly slipped away in 1830. The Apostles’ world-picture was diffident, retiring, unaggressive, agnostic, highly critical of pretensions and grandiose schemes, humanitarian and above all more concerned with personal than public duties. It cultivated introspection; it revered friendship. It was homosexual in tone though not often in practice. Tennyson captured its mood in his poem ‘The Lotus Eaters’.

(These statements would be worth independent checking, perhaps in Who’s Who; I don’t know what the ‘heterodoxies’ refers to.)

In 1902, Lytton Strachey was elected to the Apostles. He had earlier formed a separate society which became known as the Bloomsbury Group. Strachey seized on a work by G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica, whose last two chapters constituted an attack on the Judeo-Christian doctrine of personal accountability to an absolute moral code and the concept of public duty, substituting non-responsible hedonism based on personal relationships: ‘By far the most valuable things which we know or can imagine are certain states of consciousness which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of personal objects. No one, probably, who has asked himself the question, has ever doubted that personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art and Nature are good in themesleves.’ Strachey undertook to spread this gospel, which gave friendship higher claims than conventional morality, and was ethically superior to any wider loyalty. In the words of fellow-Apostle E. M. Forster (in 1939): ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’

In 1916, Strachey protested conscription, though he got medical excuses for his own case, rather than risk the penalty for refusal. He spent the war writing Eminent Victorians (book report), a condemnation of precisely those virtues and principles the men in the trenches were dying to uphold. It was published in 1918 to immediate acclaim and lasting influence. Over several years that influence, along with the efforts of many people of similar outlook, undermined public belief in the ‘right’ of British actions, and made plausible the increasing educated opinion in Britain that the iniquitous peace, continuing imperialism and armaments themselves were the direct cause of war.

Johnson seems most concerned with the influence of Strachey’s circle on public policy as it relates to foreign affairs. I think the influence must have been even more important on personal values and the relative importance people gave to their societal or personal obligations and desires. The memes for giving priority to personal desires over social needs are certainly stronger now than they were during the war, and this seems to stem from influences that strengthened greatly in the Twenties.

In addition to these important matters, Johnson describes French society between the wars. As in Germany, it contained a dichotomy. The split was partly religious, and partly over colonial policy (particularly spending French money in foreign colonies). It was manifested as two large blocs, neither of which would support a government headed by the other, which resulted in paralysis and a conversion from ‘forward’ defense against Germany to the Maginot mentality.

Johnson’s brief analysis of colonialism and imperialism finds that there was no single thing that can be said to be true of all the various European colonial empires. They were established with different rationales and served different purposes. He finds no evidence for the idea that native societies were ‘exploited’ by colonial masters, but he is referring to net economic calculations; he says the British colonies at least were a net drain on the British economy. He does not address the cultural effects of imperial policy.

Chapter 5, An Infernal Theocracy, A Celestial Chaos, describes the state of Japan and China during the Twenties. Japan’s ‘revolution from above’ in 1868 converted it into a powerful industrial nation, modeled on the most obvious European traits of the times: “Bismarckian Realpolitik, the scramble for Africa, the arms-race, the ferocity of Ludendorff’s war machine and the cult of power through violence, culminating in Lenin’s triumphant putsch.” They invented a state religion, Shinto, and a ruling morality, bushido, neither of which had any influence before 1868. The leadership developed political institutions that provided totalitarian control, with strong military influence.

Japan had no tradition of the rule of law; and the notion of honor was more important than hierarchy. So it could sometimes be ‘right’ for a subordinate to ignore the law or disobey a superior. The only way to know for sure was to let a consensus form; judgement by collective conscience could determine whether a past choice was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. In this way, Japan seems to have had a very ‘relativist’ approach to these questions, long before Einstein’s relativity weakened Western moral authority. Another problem for Japanese democracy was that Japan only late “developed the kind of civic consciousness which in Europe was the product of town life and bourgeois notions of rights. The town itself was an import. Even Tokyo was, and until recently remained, an enormous collection of villages. Its citizens had rural not urban reflexes and attachments.” The memetic difference between village (tribal) culture and urban (pluralistic) culture is critical to the development of modern societies. If Johnson is not mistaken, Japan (or Tokyo) might be a good case study for the transition, if the evidence still exists.

The second half of Chapter 5 describes the state of China in the Twenties, which was chaotic. There was little or no effective government. Regional war-lords dominated most of the country, and there was little sense of national identity. The Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang were both trying to forge popular support into an organization capable of national governemnt. Western powers occupied some areas for their commercial interests. The Japanese saw the vast land as an escape valve for Japanese population pressure.

America had adopted a stance protective of Chinese rights, which pitted it against Japan; however, it did nothing to prevent Japanese efforts to establish influence by force.

Chapter 6, The Last Arcadia, describes the state of America, at least its political power centers. A study of the time found America to contain 106 ethnic groups. Some literature of the pre-war years and the Griffith film Birth of a Nation (1915) had proposed the idea of America as a melting-pot, which captured some popular following. It also fostered bigotry based on a fear of reduction of the quality of the northern european race being diluted by interbreeding with inferior races. The Ku Klux Klan was established in 1915.

The chapter describes the US in the Twenties, in a narrow sense. This chapter illustrates Johnson’s concentration on the centers and sources of economic and political power, with little attention to the memetic ebb and flow that support that power. So the Twenties for Johnson is a decade of triumph for American business under Harding and Coolidge, Ford and Edison. He takes pains to refute some false historiography about Harding, and extols the virtues of Coolidge as the right man for his time.

He gives some economic and social statistics indicating the extent to which American industry grew to world dominance (34 percent of world production), the increase of women in the workplace, and the effect of mass media (movies and advertising) on creating a classlessness unique in America.

Johnson devotes more attention to the memetic aspects of the Twentieth Century, but in a fairly narrow sense. He lays the blame for most of the evil regimes (Lenin, Stalin, hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Japan) on the loss of absolute moral codes, respect for hierarchy, individual responsibility. This attitude makes his first chapter emphasis on social relativism understandable, though the argument is very weak and not clearly drawn. A clear memetic picture would probably support the same conclusions, and be more convincing.

He sees WW II as largely the result of moral failure in the West in the face of the will to power of Hitler and Stalin, and their lackeys. It seems likely that Neitzsche has a place in memetic history, for the way in which his ideas gave non-religious men an alternative faith to drive them.

He describes the British loss of India, determined in 1935, as part of the twentieth century process of appropriation of democratic forms by lawyers and other professional politicians, in which category he includes both Lenin and Gandhi. He sees Gandhi’s success as solely a result of British tolerance, and wonders if there is a Gandhi in Russia. He seems to miss the point that Gandhi’s methods reflected a memetic paradigm shift, from the Social Realm to the Reflective Realm, much as the pre-1914 Suffragist movement was ruthlessly crushed by British troops and police, and later accepted. (He never discusses the Suffragists.)

After describing the mess Gandhi and Nehru made of India, he turns to the so-called Third World, and shows that it was no more virtuous than the imperialists, and no less imperialist when opportunity offered. Using Sukarno’s Indonesia as an example, he cites the technique of mass-guilt in the slaughter that typically takes place when a regime or faction is toppled by another. For Johnson, this is moral relativism at its worst, since by ordering everyone to take part, no one is especially guilty. He terms the century the age of slaughter.

In describing the Bandung Conference of 1955 that kicked off the Third World movement, Johnson notes that Israel was not present, and then describes its recent history. One of the “post-dated cheques” Britain wrote at the end of the Great War was for a Jewish homeland in their Palestine Protectorate. By the 1940’s, however, it was widely recognized that Europe and America were heavily dependent on Arab oil. In addition, the British had appointed as Grand Mufti (chief magistrate) in Jerusalem Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, a man who hated Jews and hated moderate Arabs who did not hate Jews. He murdered more of these Arabs than he did Jews, and effectively destroyed moderate Arab public opinion. Johnson also describes the Jewish terrorist organizations as the first to combine world-wide propaganda, Leninist cell-structure and modern technological terror, creating the prototype that has inspired more than forty years of imitators.

One of Johnson’s themes is that professional politicians, people who have never experienced any other kind of career, have determined much of the course of the Twentieth Century. One of their characteristics is an urge for “social engineering” (a bad use of the word “engineering”), which has resulted in many of the worst abuses of large populations, and created many of the worst problems in modern times.

In the chapter, The European Lazarus, Johnson describes the rise of post-war western Europe, and the creation of the EEC. He sees the key to have been the rise of two men with pre-war viewpoints: deGaulle and Adenauer. Another factor was that the early EEC was based on a fine two-way balance between Germany and France. Had Britain been a part, the three-way strains would have been impossible to deal with. As it was, Britain was shackled by its pre-war political system. Whereas France and Germany got new constitutional forms, Britain was shackled by its lack of a written constitution, which had resulted in the rise of the unions and their Labour party. This political situation had resulted in the passing of laws that unbalanced British Common Law, giving the unions powers that discouraged investment and encouraged the growth of the public sector. Relative to the EEC countries, Britain’s economy performed miserably.

In chapter 19, The Collectivist Seventies, Johnson condemns the ‘structuralists’, those who sought to find the cause and answer to problems in the patterns and structures, micro- and macro-scopic, of societies, along Marxist, but not exclusively economic, lines. For instance:

In Structural Anthropology, first widely read and translated in 1963, Claude Levi-Strauss insisted that, though social structures were not visible to the eye or even detectable by empirical observations, they were present, just as molecular structures existed though undiscoverable by all but the electron microscope. These structures determined the cast of mind, so what appeared to be acts of human will were merely concordance with the structure. For Levi-Strauss, as for Marx, history was not a succession of events but a discernible pattern working according to discoverable laws….

What all the structuralists had in common was the Marxist assumption that human attributes and activities were governed by inanimate nature. Hence it was the function of the social sciences to discover such laws, and then for society to act upon their discoveries.

He then lays the blame for Utopian schemes and the disastrous social engineering experiments on this approach. His criticisms are likely to be leveled at any attempt to find “social laws”, including memetic theories. This is like blaming all physicists, even Newton, for the evils of nuclear bombs.

In the final chapter he praises the Sociobiology of Edward Wilson:

His own work lay with insects but he drew on a vast array of detailed empirical studies to mount his case that the time was ripe for a general theory analogous to the laws of Newton or Einstein. ‘The principal goal of a general theory of sociobiology’, he wrote, should be ‘an ability to predict features of social organization from a knowledge of the population parameters’ and ‘information on the behavioral constraints imposed by the genetic constitution of the species’. Wilson’s book aroused the same kind of fury as Darwin’s Origin of Species. It offended a range of versted interestts: not the churches, this time, but the radical social scientists, especially the Marxists, who had to a great extent taken over the role of religious indoctrination. The claims of sociobiology, an exact science, suggested that their work and beliefs were no more than a metaphysics, a form of superstition.

The furor over these works illustrates the ability of works of social science to arouse emotional responses in defense of intellectual positions closely held and identified with.

Johnson’s last paragraph is:

Of course it could be argued that, if men were genetically programmed to improve themselves, a fundamental doubt was cast upon the whole process of seeking social and economic equality. Might it not run counter to a beneficial biological process under way in every second of creation, without any conscious human decision? Was not human planning to produce a ‘classless society’ not only intrinsically unattainable but positiviely harmful, in that it conflicted with the hidden but magisterial plans of nature itself? It might. The experience of modern times, when human activism led so often, and on so grandiose a scale, to inhuman destruction, suggested as much. On the other hand it might not. It was possible human improvement could be used to reinforce natural selection. The essential thing was to find out. Thus by the 1980s, the wiser minds amongst us had returned to Alexander Pope’s conclusion: ‘The proper study of mankind is man.’

Thus Johnson ends his book. It is a breathtaking effort to make sense of the currents of the twentieth century, and provides much raw material for a memetic study of the same topics, as well as many test cases for the predictions such a study would generate.

There is a second edition of this work, published in 1991, containing an additional chapter about the collapse of the Soviet Union and its bloc.


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