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. Moral Relativism
- 2. Collectivism/Social Engineering
- 3. Intelligentsia
This unholy trinity,
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.