Modern Times (3): Enemies of the Twentieth Century

Paul Johnson has a point of view. And in Modern Times he takes no pains to hide it. His narrative history of the twentieth century (see my first installment here) is replete with heroes and villains. The three enemies of the twentieth century that he vilifies throughout, roughly in the order he takes them up, are

  1. 1. Moral Relativism
  2. 2. Collectivism/Social Engineering
  3. 3. Intelligentsia

This unholy trinity,

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according to Johnson, was the adversary of humanity. His opening chapter is titled “A Relativistic World,” and he sees this philosophical bent as the foundation on which the savagery of the century was based. His second chapter, “The First Despotic Utopias,” tells us what rushed in to fill the space vacated by a clear sense of right and wrong. The Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan all used some form of collectivism or social engineering to impose their will on their own people before seeking to impose it on others. Even Western nations fell into the trap, according to Johnson:

The truth is, Prohibition was a clumsy and half-hearted piece of social engineering, designed to produce a homogenization of a mixed community by law. (p. 212)

Some of Johnson’s harshest words come for the intelligentsia, who promoted both relativism and social engineering, providing the grist needed by those with the will to power. He shows how misguided such bravura was when he writes:

[On the eve of the 1930s] at the very moment the American intelligentsia turned to totalitarian Europe for spiritual sustenance and guidance in orderly planning, [totalitarian Europe] was in fact embarking on two decades of unprecedented ferocity and desolation–moral relativism in monstrous incarnation. (p. 261)

After World War I, the German university became beholden to the Right, paving the way for and defending Nazi-era thinking and action. Political correctness of that time and place was fascist. Johnson thus offers a cautionary moral for universities in all ages:

The tragedy of modern Germany [between the wars] is an object lesson in the dangers of allowing academic life to become politicized and professors to proclaim their “commitment.” Whether the bias is to the Left or Right the results are equally disastrous for in either case the wells of truth are poisoned. (p. 125)

For Johnson, religion was not the enemy. The market was not. Rather:

The state had proved itself an insatiable spender, an unrivalled waster. It had also proved itself the greatest killer of all time. By the 1990s, state action had been responsible for the violent or unnatural deaths of some 125 million people during the century, more perhaps than it had succeeded in destroying during the whole of human history up to 1900. (p. 783)

And who are the heroes who pulled us out of this hell hole, brought an end to the Cold War, expanded democracy and reduced the threat of a thermonuclear nightmare? Johnson thinks

it was essentially the work of outstanding popular leaders, who mirrored the thoughts, desires and faith of ordinary men and women. It was certainly not the work of the intelligentsia, of philosophers, economists and political theorists, or of academics generally. The universities had little or nothing to do with it. (p. 698)

The unprecedented violence unleashed by the combination of relativism, collectivism and the intelligentsia in the past century is damning. Despite Johnson’s criticism of the state, it was “outstanding popular leaders” working through the mechanism of the state who helped bring their influence to a close.

Likewise universities, while surely populated by professors biased left and right, are also home to many of the intelligentsia who, in good will, regularly go with honesty and humility wherever the truth leads them. Johnson’s no-nonsense and broad-brush assessments, despite his 800 pages, oversimplify.

As Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn famously said in The Gulag Archipelago, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

We can’t idealize the solution the way Johnson wants to or the problems that plagued the last hundred years may follow us into the next.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

4 thoughts on “Modern Times (3): Enemies of the Twentieth Century”

  1. Thanks for these juicy nuggets from PJ. I have been a fan for many years too!!!!
    One of his best eye-popping descriptions is in his book The History of Christianity. Check out his take on the Jerusalem temple in one of the early chapters!!! Trust me…it is BOSS!!!!!!
    Thanks for the blog and Merry Christmas and love to all!!!!

  2. The trouble with Johnson is that he concerns himself with the smoke of concealment which is all that moral relativism, collectivism/social engineering, and the intelligentsia amount to. They are the fog of concealment; they hide the conspiracies that are going full blast, driven by greed, power, lust, and hatred to the nth degree, a savagery not to be believed. C.S. Lewis got close to reality in his sci/fi trilogy, even naming one of the real conspirators in Perelandria, Cecil Rhodes, in a supposedly fictional list of conspirators. Amazing. And one wonders about Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle and 1914. However, one does not have to wonder about such in Taylor Caldwell’s Captains and The Kings (a rather commendable work of fiction for having a bibliography) and Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope along with his The Anglo American Establishment which provides the 6th will and testament of Cecil Rhodes, and -Viola!- we have at least 12 state schools on, at least, the secondary level for training students to become officials in a world government. Why they even asked an 11 year old this question on a computer where he was mentored by a 20 year African American college student: “If you were an official in a world government and had an over-population problem with a country in Africa, how would you handle it? a. Have a war and kill them off. b. Use an infectious agent, germ or disease, and kill them off. c.Let them starve.” And that was in 1983 (30 years ago it will be this coming Summer). Which will we have: The taking of the whole earth by antichrists with slavery designed for the half billion left after the great Termination/Extermination or the Third Great Awakening in which every soul on earth is converted and which is the beginning of the thousand generations of converts on earth plus every soul on a million billion planets, if man is allowed to reach the stars in a permanent way? A 1000 generations might be anywhere from 20,000-900,000+ years, just so God’s humorous remark in Rev.7:9 about the number of the redeemed being so many that even He would not like to try. I pray for the Awakening. After our God is greater than we imagine. Besides, there already enough in Hell

  3. Dr James: You’re right that the problems Johnson mentions have not gone away. Some people can still be astonishing brutal, often bringing along a circle of likeminded followers through force of personality or just through force. Ideologies or ideologues of the left or right are still problematic because they don’t allow for nuance, for the gray areas of an extremely complex world. You can’t put individuals or groups into one-dimensional groups and think you will solve any of the worlds problems. Subtlety and humility, along with passion for the well-being of humans, is what leaders need. Andy

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