Follow on Facebook Follow on Twitter The Conservative Book Club Podcast

Modern Times Revised Edition: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties 

Author: Paul Johnson
Publisher: Harper Perennial • 2001 • 896 pages
4.86 out of 5 • View Ratings Details • 29 Ratings
Modern Times Revised Edition

A bold and capacious mind is required for what Paul Johnson has undertaken in this book: a history of the world during the last 60 years, taking in all continents and major countries. Fortunately, the author possesses in abundance the qualities necessary to the enterprise. His ”History of Christianity” (1976) revealed him to be an able practitioner of the historian’s craft, and his ”Enemies of Society” (1977) displayed the mind of a well-informed and unyielding social critic. ”Modern Times” unites historical and critical consciousness. It is far from being a simple chronicle, though a vast wealth of events and personages and historical changes fill it; Mr. Johnson is most interested throughout in drawing conclusions, many of them provocative, from his materials. He stands in the train of those historians of the last two centuries for whom historical writing seemed profitless unless it yielded up revelations and judgments pertinent to the world around us. It should be noted that he served 15 years on the British magazine, The New Statesman, six of them as editor, which could only have fortified his historical interest in the modern world.

The modern age began, Mr. Johnson announces in the first sentence of the book, in 1919 when Einstein’s theory of relativity was confirmed. Rarely if ever has an abstruse scientific theory so captured the public imagination. Only a few people were capable of understanding it as a theory of physics, but there were vast numbers ready to see relativity as relativism and to apply it immediately to morals, politics and other spheres of life. If absolutes were suspect in science, then they must be suspect in every area of life. The names of Freud and Marx were added to Einstein’s as new prophets, albeit chiefly in the minds of intellectuals; and, what with Freud’s challenge to religion and revealed ethics and Marx’s to private property and all bourgeois values, the materials of moral revolution were at hand, one which inevitably extended to the whole world of politics.

As Mr. Johnson observes, ”the decline and ultimately the collapse of the religious impulse would leave a huge vacuum. The history of modern times is in great part the history of how that vacuum has been filled. Nietzsche rightly perceived that the most likely candidate would be what he called the ‘Will to Power.’ ” By far the greater part of Mr. Johnson’s book is concerned with precisely that, the will to power, as it has been made manifest since the end of World War I – first in Europe, then on a rising scale in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the United States.

It is in this light that Mr. Johnson sees the rise, commencing with Lenin, of ”gangster-statesmen.” Among them he includes most prominently Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler and Mao Zedong. In Mr. Johnson’s view, Lenin was by far the most influential, and there is very little in totalitarianism as it has appeared anywhere that is not based substantially on ideas Lenin expressed or things he did from 1917 to his death in 1924. He had no mandate from the Russian people to destroy parliamentary government or such personal liberties as had developed in the late 19th century. But it was Lenin who conceived a ”democratic centralism” that early proved to be the absolute rule of one man; it was Lenin who saw the historic function of Communism as the state’s absorption of literally everything social, cultural and psychological. He was also the instigator of systematic and permanent terror, and he endowed the secret police with powers of life and death well beyond anything known under the czars. Under his rule, penal slavery on an ever-wider scale was instituted.

Finally, as Mr. Johnson stresses correctly, Lenin was the true author of the policy of genocide: ”Once Lenin had abolished the idea of personal guilt, and had started to ‘exterminate’ (a word he frequently employed) whole classes, merely on account of occupation and parentage, there was no limit to which this deadly principle might be carried. There is no essential moral difference … between destroying a class and destroying a race. Thus the practice of genocide was born.”

A good deal of Mr. Johnson’s book is devoted to tracing the spread of Leninism, and all its ramifications, in the world. Ordinarily we sharply distinguish communism from what became known as fascism. But he sees the distinction as being without much difference. All the founding fathers of totalitarianism, Hitler and Mussolini included, were socialists in principle -but they shared a hatred of parliaments, personal rights against the state, free elections, intermediate associations possessed of any autonomy whatever and any form of government other than that of chosen elites. Lenin adopted one innovation from the Germans that unnerved his early supporters. After the Kaiser’s government had begun to disintegrate during World War I, Gen. Erich von Ludendorff and his colleagues, frantic to mobilize every sector and energy of society for the war effort, promoted what they called ”war socialism” – nothing less than a total absorption of society into the military effort. From the time Lenin (to the unhappiness of some Bolsheviks whom he promptly excoriated for ”Left infantilism”) adopted the fundamental principles of Ludendorff, a further feature of totalitarianism was dominance by the military.

Those who exclaimed so loudly and naively in 1939, when the pact between Stalin and Hitler came into being, simply had no comprehension of the enormous similarity of policies and institutions in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. It was Hitler’s massacre of the Brownshirt leader Ernst Roehm and his thousands of ”left” followers in 1934 that gave Stalin the idea for the later Moscow Trials, with the consequent butchery or penal enslavement of many thousands of Bolsheviks, along with high ranking military officers and government officials whom Stalin had come to fear. Mr. Johnson notes that Hitler, during his final days, lamented that he had always been too benevolent for his own good and that he had not followed Stalin’s example of killing off his generals before war began. And so comfortable was Stalin under his pact with the Nazi state that, even after Hitler had massed troops for an invasion of Russia and after Churchill and others had repeatedly warned him, Stalin refused to believe, until it was almost too late, that Hitler was going to make war on him.

Totalitarianism is but one form, the most evil to be sure, of the political state. Mr. Johnson sees statism, along with moral relativism, as the crowning disease of the 20th century, even in the democracies. ”The destructive capacity of the individual, however vicious, is small; of the state, however well-intentioned, almost limitless,” he writes. ”Expand the state and that destructive capacity necessarily expands too, pari passu.” World War I, as he emphasizes, gave immense acceleraton to the idea that the state is omnicompetent; and the varied instrumentalities employed from 1914 to 1918 by the warring states with respect to economy, social order, institutions and culture were not forgotten when the Depression hit the world in the 30’s. Nor were they forgotten during and after World War II in the democracies. Mr. Johnson stresses the fact that the first totalitarian regimes appeared in nations, including Russia and Japan, where a powerful tradition of statism had existed. We may give all the credit we like to revolutionary parties as the prime instigators of totalitarianism, but their effectiveness is intimately linked with an already existing powerful state which is accustomed to governing human minds as well as all institutions.

There are 20 closely-packed chapters in the book, and I must content myself with a modest selection to convey its riches. The chapter titled ”Waiting for Hitler” is a perceptive and knowledgeable account of the Weimar Republic and the constantly escalating tensions between the traditionalists and the modernists in it. Moreover, as Mr. Johnson writes, by the end of the 20’s, ”the syphilis of anti-Semitism had reached its tertiary stage.” Hitler’s appeal, especially among youth in the universities, lay in his being the ”romantic” type of leader which Johnson distinguishes from the ”religious” type personified by Lenin. Lenin was essentially a rigorous and puritanical thinker whose appeal for revolutionary change had a kind of religious fervor. Hitler’s approach was artistic: He conjured up visions for the Germans, right down to architectural details, of what the Third Reich might look like rather than what its political principles would be. ”Hitler’s artistic approach was absolutely central to his success. Lenin’s religious type of fanaticism would never have worked in Germany,” Mr. Johnson writes.

”The Last Arcadia” is a sparkling account of America between the wars, its fads and fashions and personalities. His portraits tend to be unconventional. Mr. Johnson admires both Warren Harding (as distinguished from ”the Ohio gang” that surrounded him) and Calvin Coolidge. It was Harding, not his unrelenting predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, who pardoned Eugene Debs who had been imprisoned by the Wilson Administration for speaking against World War I; and it was Harding who convened the international conference in Washington after the war to limit arms. Mr. Johnson does not see Coolidge as a cracker-barrel rustic but as a President possessed of a sharp, welleducated mind and whose state addresses reveal a dignified, eloquent style not often seen since.

As for Herbert Hoover, ”the apostle of laissez-faire,” Mr. Johnson shows correctly and in detail the variety and extent of his Administration’s interventions in the economy and the social order. A considerable number of agencies we are prone to think of as generated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 were simply continuations of Government enterprises first created by Hoover. For Roosevelt, either in his role as national leader during the Depression in the 30’s or in his role as geopolitical statesman during World War II, Mr. Johnson’s admiration is decidedly restrained. He points out that, despite the still-regnant myth, Roosevelt did not improve the economy, which actually worsened in 1937; World War II in effect was responsible for the end of the Depression. And we have Roosevelt’s faith in Stalin to credit for much of the Soviet Union’s hegemony in Eastern Europe and elsewhere today.

”Superpower and Genocide” is the title of a chapter that deals with what might be called one of the high water marks of ”moral relativism” for all time – what Mr. Johnson calls the ”greatest single crime in history,” the calculated, systematic slaughter of more than 6 million Jews. But, significantly, it is also in this chapter that he refers to the Allied policy of saturation bombing of civilians in Germany and to the atomic bomb project. Prior to the end of the war in Europe the atomic bomb was referred to as ”Hitler’s bomb,” since many assumed Germany would be the first target, but it became the crucial cause of the surrender of Japan, thus saving hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of American lives.

”The Bandung Generation” deals with the diverse assortment of nations that Achmad Sukarno, the president of Indonesia, assembled in 1955 in his capital, Bandung. For the first time such worthies as Jawaharlal Nehru, whose personal guest was Chou En lai; Mohammed Ali of Pakistan, Kwame Nkrumah, who later became the first black president of any African nation; Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the infamous Grand Mufti (senior judge of the Supreme Muslim Council) of Jerusalem who had campaigned against Jews and moderate Arabs alike for more than 30 years and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell were given a chance to posture on a world platform. It was the worshipful American writer, Richard Wright, who summed it all up: ”This is the human race speaking.” India is dealt with at length and with little genuflection to Gandhi. The same is true a fortiori of both Nehru and his daughter, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. This chapter also covers the Middle East, outlining how Zionism triumphed in the creation of the new state of Israel and discussing subsequent relations among Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians. Mr. Johnson writes: ”The notion that Israel was created by imperialism is not only wrong but the reverse of the truth. Everywhere in the West, the foreign offices, defense ministries and big business were against the Zionists.”

”Caliban’s Kingdoms” is a depressing, even wrenching account of Africa: the liberation of colony after colony from Europe; the great hopes of African intellectuals, most of whom had been given socialist-oriented educations in Europe; the rejoicing of millions of blacks at their freedom; and then the grim, often horrifying record, continuing to this moment, of assassination, coup, genocide, civil war, political breakdown and economic disaster in the new nations, resulting largely from unbridled statism ranging from the inept to the barbarous.

”America’s Suicide Attempt” is the title of a chapter that covers the 1960’s, with emphasis on the Vietnam War and its devastating impact upon Americans. The author, without sparing Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, argues that President Dwight D. Eisenhower ”was more responsible for the eventual mess in Vietnam than any other American.” He particularly faults Eisenhower for failing to sign the 1954 Geneva accords that brought an end to the long French war in Vietnam, and for his failure to press the leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, to abide by those accords. But Kennedy is not far behind Eisenhower in Mr. Johnson’s list of the blameworthy, especially since he approved the coup that unseated and then murdered Diem in 1963.

The Vietnam War was not all that went into America’s collective effort at suicide. There were seriously miscalculated relations with Latin America, where the United States might have brought about an economic and political renaissance in the 50’s and 60’s if it had dealt more wisely with a few key leaders -for instance, Juan Peron of Argentina. There was the student revolution of the 60’s, with its lasting degradation of education. There was Watergate (which Mr. Johnson, like most sophisticated observers across the Atlantic, regards as more hysteria than substance, one of the seizures of hysteria which, he declares, regularly and predictably beset America). There was the capture of Cuba by the Leninist Fidel Castro. Among American efforts to commit national suicide in the decade Mr. Johnson also includes the Great Society programs that caused unprecedented inflation in the United States and, not least among them, the nation’s thoughtless lapse into dependence on Arab oil.

As this sample of chapters fairly shouts, ”Modern Times” presents a world that has been mostly grim and depressing during the last 60 years. Looking only at the United States we may, if we choose, take comfort in advances in medicine, high technology and mass production of consumer goods. But, welcome as they may be, these advances are hardly likely to be of much effect against the steady decline of economic productivity; the continuous advance of statism, irrespective of administration; the serious, perhaps calamitous degradation of our culture, starting with the educational system, and the constant threat of inflation, massive deficits and high interest rates. I am thinking only of this country. Anyone who can find more hope elsewhere in the world is welcome to try.

Mr. Johnson concludes his book with an overview and assessment under the heading, ”Palimpsests of Freedom.” As that title indicates, he finds some good signs among the bad events he has recounted. He is correct in taking comfort in the death of any serious belief in socialism and statism in the West at the present time. He is correct also in his perception that the social sciences, even economics, and the ideologies embedded in them, are in the doldrums, suggesting that a new start may be made one of these days on getting back to ”the proper study of mankind” -man. I have reservations, though, about his notion that sociobiology might be that new start. On the other hand, if Mr. Johnson means that, on the evidence of human history and especially that of the 20th century, we may well have to wait a few hundred thousand years for improvement of the human lot through the same evolutionary processes that brought homo sapiens into being, I can’t argue; he just may be right. In the meantime, we can take a great deal of intellectual pleasure in his book, which is a truly distinguished work of history.

Book Review from The New York Times, by Robert Nisbet

Tags: ,

Ratings Details


Oh no.

Something went wrong, and we're unable to process your request.

Please try again later.