British historian Paul Johnson’s 1983 book Modern Times is a brilliant and eminently readable history of the world from the end of the First World War to the early 1980s (Johnson later updated it in 1992). Some of Johnson’s vivid descriptions of the leading personalities and events of that time period are unforgettable. And the book’s central themes continue to have relevance in our 21st century world. In fact, Johnson’s book confirms George F. Kennan’s assertion that if you look to history for an understanding of what is happening in the world of the 21st century, all the lines of inquiry lead back to World War I.
In Modern Times, Johnson highlighted political, geopolitical, and social trends that have reached fruition in our own time. One such social trend was the rise of moral relativism brought on by the seemingly endless slaughter of the war, the subsequent “sexual gnosticism” promoted by Sigmund Freud and others, and the decline of traditional religions. Today moral relativism informs every aspect of modern culture and politics, from popular music and internet pornography to unrestricted abortion and the widespread denial of personal responsibility. Johnson noted that after the First World War, notions of “right and wrong” began to be viewed as outmoded and certainly unfashionable. Johnson wrote that moral relativism “formed a knife … to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.” Today, the Judeo-Christian culture — what’s left of it — is under attack as never before.
Johnson understood that moral relativism had political and geopolitical effects. “Among the advanced races,” he wrote, “the decline and ultimately the collapse of the religious impulse would leave a huge vacuum.… In place of religious belief there would be secular ideology. Those who had filled the ranks of the totalitarian clergy would become totalitarian politicians. And above all, the Will to Power would produce a new kind of messiah, uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatever, and with an unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind.”
The new messiahs included Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Johnson called them “gangster-statesmen” who ruled “despotic utopias,” and in today’s world their successors are Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, the Mullahs in Iran, Vladimir Putin, Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro, and others.
Perhaps the most important theme of Modern Times was Johnson’s description of the rise of the modern state that first manifested itself during the First World War. Johnson quotes the American pacifist Randolph Bourne on the eve of the U.S. intervention: “War is the health of the state.” The First World War, Johnson wrote, “demonstrated both the impressive speed with which the modern state could expand itself and the inexhaustible appetite which it thereupon developed both for the destruction of its enemies and for the exercise of despotic power over its own citizens.” Winston Churchill in the first volume of The World Crisis noted the horrors perpetrated in World War I by what he called “the mighty educated states.” Such horrors, Johnson noted, were beyond the capacity of individuals to commit. “The destructive capacity of the individual, however vicious,” Johnson explained, “is small; of the state, however well-intentioned, almost limitless.” As the state grows, so, too, does its destructive capacity.
Today, the growth of state power is a feature of every modern country, including the United States. And the modern state’s appetite for more power is never sated. Today’s modern states are armed with surveillance technologies that dwarf those of Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. And today’s state leaders, in Rahm Emanuel’s notorious phrase, “never let a crisis go to waste.” In our own country, the vast and in some cases unprecedented powers assumed by some state governors and the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic are a testament to Johnson’s prescience.
Two of the chapters on the United States in Modern Times make for uncomfortable reading today. Johnson titled those chapters “America’s Suicide Attempt” and “The Collectivist Seventies,” and they recount events that eerily resemble the events of the past few years. Johnson’s description of the street riots and the Leftist drift of the universities in the 1960s has echoes in the recent Antifa and Black Lives Matter riots, while today’s universities have been totally captured by the Left. The Democrats’ lavish and irresponsible spending on the Great Society programs of the 1960s has its counterpart in today’s Democratic “infrastructure” bills to supposedly combat the pandemic. America’s long, divisive, and lost war in Vietnam that preceded a Soviet geopolitical offensive foreshadowed the similar debacle in Afghanistan in the midst of a communist Chinese geopolitical offensive. The similarities even extend to what Johnson called the “media putsch” of Richard Nixon in the Watergate hysteria which was reprised with even more hatred and venom against Donald Trump.
At the end of Modern Times, Johnson sensed what he called “palimpsests of freedom,” as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sought to tame the ever-growing state, and Pope John Paul II revived the Judeo-Christian impulse. But it was only a pause — and a brief one at that — in the destructive 20th century trends that Johnson identified for us in Modern Times.