On this Fourth of July, to understand how America — and much of the world — began to go off the rails in the 20th century, it’s worth flashing back to the tremendous opening shot of Paul Johnson’s opus Modern Times:
At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.
No one was more distressed than Einstein by this public misapprehension. He was bewildered by the relentless publicity and error which his work seemed to promote. He wrote to his colleague Max Born on 9 September 1920: ‘Like the man in the fairy-tale who turned everything he touched into gold, so with me everything turns into a fuss in the newspapers.’ Einstein was not a practicing Jew, but he acknowledged a God. He believed passionately in absolute standards of right and wrong.
He lived to see moral relativism, to him a disease, become a social pandemic, just as he lived to see his fatal equation bring into existence nuclear warfare. There were times, he said at the end of his life, when he wished he had been a simple watchmaker.
The public response to relativity was one of the principal formative influences on the course of twentieth-century history. It formed a knife, inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.
Last week, while searching for that quote, I came across a 2010 comment on Johnson’s thesis by econo-blogger Bryan Caplan and a post at the long-running British libertarian blog Samizdata which both referenced it with some gentle criticism. As Johnathan Pearce wrote at the latter blog:
Like Caplan, I am not entirely sure that moral relativism captures the full nature of what went wrong in terms of the 20th Century, although I think Johnson does capture quite a lot of the problem with that concept. For me, the ultimate disaster of that century was the idea of the omniscient State and of the associated idea that governments, run by all-knowing officials, could solve many of the real or supposed problems of the age. The 20th Century was not unique in witnessing the growth of government, but it was an age when government had, like never before, the technology at its disposal to be immensely powerful, probably more so than at any time since the Romans (and even the writ of Rome had its limits). We are still, alas, in the grip of that delusion that government can and should fix problems, although there is perhaps, hopefully, a bit more cynicism about it than say, during the late 1940s when the likes of Attlee were in Downing Street.
Johnson is right, however, to point out that in a world where there is no stated respect for the idea of impartial rules and law, no respect for reason and for the idea of objective truth – or at least that it is noble to pursue truth – that terrible consequences follow; every irrationality, might-is-right worldview, will fill the vacumn. However, unlike Johnson, I do not think that morality requires the anchor of belief in a Supreme Being, and he tends to make the mistake, like a lot of devoutly religious folk, of assuming that atheists, for example, cannot arrive at a moral code, which seems to rather overlook the role of people such as Aristotle, who had a huge impact on views about ethics, and from whom other religions have borrowed (think of the Thomist tradition in Catholic thought, for instance).
I think he’s right. Part of the problem is that “moral relativity” and moral relativism sounds at first glance like a swingin’ night on the town in Manhattan during the Beame era – that squalid perigee of the 1970s when the city birthed Death Wish, Taxi Driver, and, heck, Saturday Night Fever, a hopelessly nihilistic period that, ironically, a surprising number of liberal New Yorkers bored with Mayor Bloomberg’s current great clean-up of the human soul would be happy to return to.
But at the risk of going to the well once too often, I’d say the real cause of the woes of the 20th century was this:
Whenever a revolutionary movement took shape, it effectively banished the past. But it wasn’t just history that vanished – Nietzsche killed God, and millennia of Judeo-Christian religion. Marx paved the way for systems of government where freedom of choice and economic knowledge accumulated over centuries of trial and error could be junked for a top-down centrally-planned command and control economy.
Progressives began to argue that man himself could be reengineered – as Tom Courtenay’s Pasha/Strelnikov character says to Julie Christie’s Lara near the start of David Lean’s version of Dr. Zhivago shortly before Hell descends, “It’s the system, Lara. People will be different after the Revolution.” And if they weren’t, they could be engineered to be different. H.G. Wells and other late 19th and early 20th century “progressives” believed this concept implicitly, Fred Siegel wrote in a 2009 article on Wells in City Journal magazine:
In A Modern Utopia, written in 1905, Wells updated John Stuart Mill’s culturally individualist liberalism in light of the horizons opened by Darwin and Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics. Biologically, argues the book’s narrator, the “species is the accumulation of the experiments of all its successful individuals since the beginning.” That means, he says, that the “people of exceptional quality must be ascendant.” Further, “the better sort of people, so far as they can be distinguished, must have the fullest freedom of public service.”
What provides the possibility for such freedom is eugenics. Wells has no use for the iron laws of Marxism, but he replaces them with the iron laws of Malthus and Darwin. “From the view of human comfort and happiness, the increase of population that occurs at each advance in human security is the greatest evil of life,” he writes. “The extravagant swarm of new births” that created the masses was “the essential disaster of the 19th century.” Man’s propensity to reproduce will always outstrip his productive capacity, even in an age of machinery. Worse, the “base and servile types,” who are little more than the “leaping, glittering confusion of shoaling mackerel on a sunlit afternoon,” are the most fecund.
In Anticipations, Wells had already argued horrifyingly that the “nation that most resolutely picks over, educates, sterilizes, or poisons its People of the Abyss” would be ascendant. For the base and servile types, death would mean merely “the end of the bitterness of failure.” It was “their portion to die out and disappear.” The New Republicans would have “little pity and less benevolence” for the untermenschen, “born of unrestrained lusts . . . and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity.”
In A Modern Utopia, Wells, stung by criticism of Anticipations, backed off, but only partway. “Idiots,” “drunkards,” “criminals,” “lunatics,” “congenital invalids,” and the “diseased” would “spoil the world for others,” Wells again argued. But their depredations required “social surgery,” not total extermination. That meant preventing people below a set income and intelligence from reproducing, as well as isolating the “failures” on an island so that better folk could live unfettered by government intrusion. Remove the unfit, and there will be no need for jails or prisons, which are places “of torture by restraint.” Illiberalism enables liberalism.
In practice, the notion that groups of men deemed “inferior” could be eradicated did not begin with, nor was it exclusive to, the Nazis. Stalin used famine as a weapon to reorder early Soviet society; the German obsession with eugenics preceded the Nazis by decades. It was certainly very much in the intellectual atmosphere of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s while the Nazis gathered strength and plotted their own version of Hell.
In addition to killing off older forms of humanity, birthing “The New Man” was an obsession of both National and International Socialism in the first half of the 20th century, as Alvin Toffler wrote in his 1980 book, The Third Wave:
As a novel civilization erupts into our everyday lives we are left wondering whether we, too, are obsolete. With so many of habits, values, routines, and responses called into question, it is hardly surprising if we sometimes feel like people of the past, relics of Second Wave civilization. But if some of us are indeed anachronisms, are there also people of the future among us — anticipatory citizens, as it were, of the Third Wave civilization to come? Once we look past the decay and disintegration around us, can we see emerging outlines of the personality of the future — the coming, so speak, of a “new man”?
If so, it would not be the first time un homme nouveu was supposedly detected on the horizon. In a brilliant essay, André Reszler, director of the Center for European Culture, has described earlier attempts to forecast the coming of a new type of human being. At the end of the eighteenth century there was, for example, the “American Adam” — man born anew in North America, supposedly without the vices and weaknesses of the European. In the middle of the twentieth century, the new man was supposed to appear in Hitler’s Germany. Nazism, wrote Hermann Rauschning, “is more than a religion; it is the will to create the superman.” This sturdy “Aryan” would be part peasant, part warrior, part God. “I have seen the new man,” Hitler once confided to Rauschning. “He is intrepid and cruel. I stood in fear before him.”
The image of a new man (few ever speak of a “new woman,” except as an afterthought) also haunted the Communists. The Soviets speak of the coming of “Socialist Man.” But it was Trotsky who rhapsodized most vividly about the future human. “Man will become incomparably stronger, wiser and more perceptive. His body will become more harmonious, his movements more rhythmical, his voice more melodious. His ways of life will acquire a powerfully dramatic quality. The average man will attain the level of an Aristotle, of a Goethe, of a Marx.”
As recently as a decade or two ago, Frantz Fanon heralded the coming of yet another new man who would have a “new mind.” Che Guevara saw his ideal man of the future as having a richer interior life. Each image is different.
Yet Reszler persuasively points out that behind most of these of the “new man” there lurks that familiar old fellow, the Noble Savage, a mythic creature endowed with all sorts of qualities civilization has supposedly corrupted or worn away. Reszler properly questions this romanticization of the primitive, reminding that regimes which set out consciously to foster a “new man” usually brought totalitarian havoc in their wake.
It would be foolish, therefore, to herald yet once more the birth of a “new man” (unless, now that the genetic engineers are at work, we mean that in a frightening, strictly biological sense). The idea suggests a prototype, a single ideal model that the entire civilization strains to emulate. And in a society moving rapidly toward de-massification, nothing is more unlikely.
In the 1970s, after American progressives forced our ignominious departure from South Vietnam, the combined efforts by dictators in that era to start from zero and return to the primitive took on frighteningly macabre forms, as this 2000 BBC article on Cambodian tyrant Pol Pot notes. Pol Pot dubbed 1975 “Year Zero,” and then…
When he came to power in 1975, he quickly set about transforming the country into his vision of an agrarian utopia by emptying the cities, abolishing money, private property and religion and setting up rural collectives.
Pol Pot’s radical social experiment claimed the lives of countless Cambodians.
Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort was killed. Often people were condemned for wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language.
In his classic “The Great Relearning” essay, Tom Wolfe wrote that the notion of Starting From Zero wasn’t limited to governments, but often any sufficiently large societal force that believed it could jettison history. Wolfe credits the Bauhaus, the Weimar-era German modern architecture academy of the 1920s, with coining the term. But the concept preceded the Bauhaus by decades, and it would outlive that academy’s relatively brief lifespan. It was a concept that was – and is – simply in the DNA of the far left. Its notion would be adopted, as Wolfe noted most humorously, by the hippies of the 1960s, who embraced the idea of “free love” and simultaneously jettisoned the seemingly bourgeois notion of modern hygiene (or as Ayn Rand would dub them in the 1970s, “The Return of the Primitive”), and by newly liberated gays exploring their own version of free love in the following decade, with what were ultimately even more self-destructive results for many by the early ’80s.
Or as Wolfe wrote, “But in the sexual revolution, too, a painful dawn broke in the 1980s, and the relearning, in the form of prophylaxis, began. All may be summed up in a single term requiring no amplification: AIDS.”
So while Johnson was right that moral relativism played a role in the history of the 20th century, the real horrors were caused by those who believed that they can hit the CTRL-ALT-DLT buttons and completely reboot every aspect of civilization, based on whatever was intellectually in fashion at the current moment.
Nowadays, self-styled “progressives” move forward into the past at a more relaxed pace. Or as the leitmotif of a recent video by PJTV’s Bill Whittle memorably went, “Slowly…Slowly…”