Home | Author's Note | Foreword | Prologue | Introduction
Book Synopses | Afterword | Indexes | Commentary | About Us|Books
Originally published: 1983, Revised 1991
784 pages
Chapter 22


Paul Johnson

French Impressionist Georges Seurat's most famous work, A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte, was painted in 1884. It is a wall-sized scene of bathers, picnickers, and holiday strollers. It looks like an ordinary painting until one discerns upon close inspection that there are no brush strokes on the canvas, only tiny dots of color. Seurat's intent was to achieve an accurate sense of shading through the application of various hues one dot after another so that the tone would change subtly but precisely. This style of painting is termed pontillism. The effect of his composition is striking.
     So it is with Paul Johnson's Modern Times. Combined with detailed observations-the dots of time and place, of personality and perception-his broad sweep effectively investigates the causes and effects and the consequences of twentieth-century history. Johnson's accumulation of fact, informatively analyzed by reference to the first principles offered in the works of the other authors found here, results in an articulate and practical explanation of how the world organized and disorganized itself during the last hundred years.
     History is obviously the province of the professionals but it is of practical importance to all of us. While politicians and the media tend to use history selectively, the rest of us too often foolishly ignore these historical distortions and suffer the aftereffects generation upon generation. Johnson has taken twentieth-century history from before the First World War to the demise of the Soviet Union and crafted a fact-by-fact account with the same panoramic sweep and minute detail of a Seurat canvas.


     Johnson's introductory chapter covers several overarching realities. Perhaps the foremost change that occurred in the early part of the twentieth century was the demise of divine right monarchs (who reigned through the grace of God) and the rule of religion over matters that were mostly secular. The power of these two elements was coextensive with the rule of what law existed at the close of the nineteenth century. The transition to democracy in some cases and totalitarian dictators in others appeared as a simple separation of state and church. The full consequences, however, spelled death to hundreds of millions of people primarily through the loss of both religious foundation as the guiding public impulse and the restraint of mostly benevolent modern royal families.
     Religion is mystical and often totalitarian. When Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), one of many famous and infamous nineteenth-century German philosophers, belittled religion's mysticism as being beneath the modern human intellect, and when science began to make religion look paltry by explaining its miracles, the totalitarian practices formerly cultivated by religion were reconfigured. Modern systems of governance became predicated on secular "principles," malleable principles at that, or, on the darker side, they were based on mere human desires, even whims. These systems replaced the authority of the church or king. As Johnson explains, the collapse of religion's hold (which people had understood as submission to God's guiding moral hand) often allowed the resulting vacuum to be filled by a "will to power" embodied in the force of men who were seen to
control their own destiny. In the end, the replacements for totalitarian clergy were often totalitarian demagogues, vested only with the urge to control others and a confidence conferred by nothing more than self-interest in the guise of righteousness. The new messiahs were uninhibited by religious sanctions of any type; the results were both pre-ordained and deadly-intellectually, spiritually, and literally.
     The eight hundred pages of this book remain captivating and unfailingly readable throughout because of how well Johnson weaves drama into his account. His essay has such range that readers must frequently pause to think about both its magnitude and the interconnectedness of its pieces. One is continually reminded of the need to keep a double focus-on the big canvas and on the smaller dots of color. The ability to maintain a binocular view is especially valuable in understanding the twentieth century's complicated history; Johnson's text helps to make this possible.


     Johnson studies the causes of much of the last century's insanity-from World War I near the beginning, to the unavoidable first war in Iraq toward the end-and he not surprisingly finds them rooted in human failings. Observers are not sure whether to draw hope, because these antecedents are known, or to despair, because the previous century's horrors were the result of mundane and persistently repeated causes and effects. Too often we suffered an inability to make public judgments on what was good and what was unacceptable; we delayed making necessary decisions even as the potential consequences of those decisions turned into practical inevitabilities. The lesson of Neville Chamberlain, prime minister of Great Britain (who tried to appease Germany's Adolf Hitler in 1938 and instead allowed the conflagration of World War II to eventuate) is a stark example of what happens when people and nations don't act when they must. Of course, that judgment is hindsight, but it does not belie how the factual context of those times should have more easily allowed right to insist on the use of might. The lesson in that case, a slight play on Walter McDougall's admonition in Promised Land, Crusader State (Chapter 20) that "force must sometimes precede reason," was that force should have been used to induce reason. Today, America's actions in Iraq reflect more the latter sentiment than the former. In all cases, unfortunately, we only see how well we arrived at decisions after the fact.
     Underlying twenty-first-century society are the same problems with which Johnson begins his comprehensive recalling of twentieth-century history. We find familiar his themes of racial and religious antagonism; ethnic discrimination that results in "cleansing," a euphemism for murder (why do we allow such misguided, sanitized, and reluctant language to obscure reality?); petty and grand jealousies and larcenies; and modernized and aggrandized versions of the seven deadly sins: greed, envy, sloth, etc. In other words, no matter how much we might learn from the past the future will still be populated by human beings who have not changed much. Thus history is likely to repeat itself no matter how much we insist that should not be true. The only solace is that we can affect the course of events even while understanding we cannot control them.
     Perhaps Johnson's most damning investigation begins with the Treaty of Versailles which set the terms for the conclusion of World War I. The stupidity of politicians (with revenge on their minds and fear in their hearts) who controlled the peace process at the end of the conflict merely set in motion a chain of events that inevitably resulted


in more warfare. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was the most naive and hence most dangerous of these men (the righteous are ever thus) while the British and French leaders were equally as destructive in their own and opposite ways. As Johnson
observes, the wisdom of those who understood the human experience-from British economist John Maynard Keynes to American columnist Walter Lippmann to the ever present, ever observant Winston Churchill-was ignored or dismissed, to the peril of all. There followed the rest of the twentieth century's history which Johnson presents in fascinating relief, and with object lesson after object lesson to bolster his theses.
     One of this volume's most interesting analyses is Johnson's investigation into the causes and depth of the Great Depression of the 1930s which was a worldwide phenomenon. Johnson succinctly demonstrates how the Depression was not the result (much less the necessary result) of leaving a self-regulating economy to its own devices. Unfortunately, exactly the opposite was true; it was government intervention, not laisse-faire economic practices that caused the economic and social destruction of the Depression. Johnson uses the example of the negative consequences inflicted by the 1930 passage of the Hawley-Smoot tariff act in the U.S. just as the Depression was beginning. This legislation caused retaliatory and destructive counter-tariffs to be enacted around the world, with a concomitant decline in international trade and national well-being. The result of this interference could have been avoided but only if facts had been allowed to intrude upon fanciful economic and social theology.
     In defiance of the meddlesome collectivists and utopians throughout the twentieth century, Johnson shows why such presidents as Dwight Eisenhower, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge (who are often remembered derisively by paternalistic intellectuals) were men worthy of a respect verging on veneration. They were great historical figures precisely because they seemed to do so little while clearly doing so much. Not only did they control government spending, bureaucracy, and regulations, they also kept in check the size of the social burden, which causes ruinous inflation when it becomes too great. A few examples from the Coolidge presidency serve to demonstrate just this point. Under Coolidge's guidance, unemployment was essentially non-existent (employers competed for workers), the cost of living went down 2.3%, the budget showed a surplus, and the debt from World War I was paid off.
     When Ike was in office wages went up steadily while prices remained stable. The workday and workweek were shortened, yet productivity


rose. Taxes were lowered and parents could send their kids to college and buy a family home, all on one income. As Eisenhower observed in his laconic manner, inflation must be controlled before social security is attended to because a stable government and a sound economy provide the only reliable form of communal safety at all levels of society. The non-interventionist presidents, Johnson notes, were not emotionally or intellectually distant; they merely understood the necessity of allowing Adam Smith's invisible hand to control the market. He observes:

               What is important in history is not only the events that occur but the events
               that obstinately do not occur.

     Turning to the administrative side of governing, Johnson fully investigates corporate government. On the half of the ledger where he explores the world's open societies he uncovers the seeds of the now-endemic welfare state and sees their germination in the need for government power in a far different venue: at the peak of war efforts. As John Dewey, one of the modern era's scholars of socialism claimed:

               No matter how many among the special agencies for public control decay
               with the disappearance of war stress, the movement will never go backward.

However, Johnson observes concisely and in juxtaposition to Dewey that

               private property and private liberty tend to stand and fall together.

Liberty and property can be secure, even in extreme circumstances, only if citizens act with intention. If they do not, then both property and freedom are easy prey for the demagogues. The progression is thus: governmental controls over individual lives during wartime work well as emergency measures but they do not function benignly in the long run; most importantly, they are indeed difficult to reverse. Johnson notes that government expansion to meet the needs of war changes a population's character, rendering people compliant to the state's direction because they don't know where else to turn for guidance. Lingering docility after a war does allow the "intellectuals"-who fought for, or may have even caused the war-to contend that they are better equipped to manage the peace.


     The historical progression is from a collectivist war-footing, to the intellectuals' socialistic answers in questions of governance ("we know best") when the war ends, and eventually, sometime after the peace, to totalitarianism at worst, or the welfare state at best. Because socialism does not and cannot work voluntarily force is necessary to both implement and sustain it. This is the collectivist side of the twentieth century's historical ledger. It can be stymied but only if citizens take responsibility for their society; that is, if they are wary. Those who recognize and then demand a return of control can and do dismantle some of the machinery of government. It is often two steps backward-during the war-and one step forward once the war is over, until socialistic collapse threatens society, as it did in Britain in the 1970s. Then citizens can begin to regain control and return to a free-market economy, as occurred under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s.
     Johnson's investigation and comparison of the political leaders of the twentieth century remains especially useful. The facts surrounding the rule of many elected officials who usurped public trust should make us cautious of choosing ordinary people to lead in extraordinary times. Too many leaders have been ordinary in the sense that they were incapable of a judicious comprehension of history, of sound theory and/or of competent execution, yet they suffered from messianic delusions of omnicompetence or even omnipotence. They had visions that were sometimes so flawed, or were on occasion so incoherently attempted, that Johnson's readers are moved at least to reassess history's judgments of both their personalities and their actions: de Gaulle (France), Hammerskjold (UN), Mao (China), Adenauer (Germany), and even Gandhi (India). Of course, the demonic murderers-Stalin (Soviet Union), Hitler (Germany), Pol Pot (Cambodia)-though in a class by themselves, were notable only for their ruthlessness, a non-universal competence, that had little to do with leadership and much to do with insanity.
     Throughout his treatise, Johnson explains what went wrong and what went right in the twentieth century. There are ways, he recognizes, to destroy or to build a country. He comments:

               The collectivists dismissed the Western notion of freedom of choice and 
               providing for oneself based on sound employment and replaced it with a
               paternalistic vision of compulsory and universal security.


     Collectivist bureaucracies functioned to control not just their economies in a paternalistic fashion, but society in a totalitarian nightmare. As Johnson notes, in terms of economics, governments should be designed to issue regulations aimed at perfect competition not utopian fantasies. There is a role for the government, but as has been demonstrated by so many of the authors reviewed here it should have a minimalist cast. The ultimate success of governing comes down to economics, the dismal science, and its operative energy: human incentive working in an open society. The arrogance of government or individuals who think they are smarter and more powerful than something quite ineluctable-human striving-has inevitably resulted in failed policies and economies.
     Over the course of the twentieth century the progressives and totalitarians experimented with governmental direction or confiscation of the engines of commerce. They thought this necessary to support their welfare states. The progressives crafted their design by means of insupportable taxation and economic regulation; the collectivists went further and physically seized productive property, an act that they called nationalization. In those cases the government simply took over the assets and operations of core businesses such as communication, banking, transportation, heavy manufacturing, etc., and ran them as state enterprises. But without the instrument of a free market that sets realistic prices reflective of real costs and offers incentive, the wealth necessary to support any government simply failed to materialize and each of these welfare states faced collapse.
     In order to compensate for (necessarily) inadequate tax revenues as fewer economic activities occurred (economic activity having been depressed because incentive had been quashed) the collectivist central authority had only one alternative to support their bad social/fiscal habits: print more money. The result was classic inflation; an increased supply of money chasing fewer goods and services. In this circumstance a country can become decapitalized (meaning the value of its money is greatly reduced or even destroyed) in short order. To study the details of twentieth-century collectivist economic disasters, the companion volume to Modern Times is Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw's The Commanding Heights (Chapter 29), the story of how the free market, capitalism, and democracy evolved to change the world step by step, country by country, after the intellectual disaster of totalitarianism had run its course.


     Taking a slightly different tack, Johnson reserves special enmity for what he termed the most destructive twentieth-century demon, the professional politician, and the era's most radical vice, social engineering. The professional politician, as Johnson comments, sees the masses in terms of votes, power, and control (for the good of the citizenry these "statesmen" will take the helm) while ordinary people see politicians much differently, as purportedly and properly serving the interests of their freedom. Johnson observes that for the "real" nation (the people) democracy ultimately matters less than the rule of law. This is a concept that has been remarkably important throughout history, particularly as nations develop, but less often observed by either politicians or historians. Law is the foundation of order; without law order has no definition. The best example of this equation is the contrarian Fidel Castro in Cuba. When Fidel proclaimed that "Revolutionary Justice is based not upon legal precepts but on moral conviction," Johnson judged this to be the end of the rule of law in
Cuba. "Moral conviction" is too amorphous, too idiosyncratic and far too subject to both differences of opinion and, more importantly, corruption to be a standard. Where one person's morals or philosophy or convictions result in government by decree there is neither law nor any reason to expect justice. As the West deals with the twenty-first century's militant Islam and comes to understand why progress toward its own dual goals of peace and freedom in the Middle East have been slow in coming it will most likely arrive back at Johnson's foundational comprehension of both the utility and allure of order as necessary before democracy can be practiced with any degree of success.
     As Johnson observes the twentieth century's nouveau totalitarian leaders and dissects their motives he finds that "men are excessively ruthless and cruel not out of an avowed malice but from outraged righteousness." And, of course, from greed. This was especially true in the political vacuum that began appearing during the 1950s in the so-called Third World. As colonialism waned and European governors withdrew in favor of indigenous despots-esteemed as saintly merely because of their erstwhile subjugated status-righteousness and entitlement in these countries ran rampant. Johnson details the African post-colonial experience in particular and describes the slow descent into continental lunacy.
     This decline was fomented, Johnson argues, by the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955 when the non-aligned nations (unaligned


with either the West or the Communists) joined together to plan their own utopias but with even less skill and fewer tools than their former colonial masters. None of the post-colonial rulers or bureaucrats had any experience in creating wealth; they were pure intellectuals who, not surprisingly as Johnson explains, thought that they could tax the air to garner the resources for their economically vacuous master plans. Their failure was inevitable, of course, and we see the results still in the twenty-first century.
     In spite of petty and idealistic claims that matters are changing there remains a dearth of rationality and a devilishly large portion of corruption in the emerging democracies that received their freedom before they were prepared for it. Johnson warns at the end of his dissertation of an equally dim prospect for Europe as a result of the European community's reach for universal government ruling over sects, religions, language groups, races and cultures that are far from ready to meld and disappear into a unified entity, or even a united economic system. It isn't that despots will emerge, rather, unity will be unattainable because of too many conflicting goals and histories. At that point enmity, Europe's worst bugaboo and most persistent emotional response, will prevail.
     In spite of Johnson's observations about the foundation of good governance, there still is room left for his apprehension regarding the potential for future "mischief." Although mischief sounds benign for the devastation wreaked by human on human in the twentieth century, atrocious crimes always begin with misdeeds that are fairly trivial and correctable. We correct mischief in our children with mild rebuke and, if their unacceptable activity persists, with a stronger sermon, but when they continue to misbehave, we visit the force of consequence upon them. It was precisely the force of consequence, no matter how obvious its need, that was ever ignored in the adult world of the twentieth century. Will we do this over and over again? Or will we recognize and then act against those who "seek by force and achieve by cowardice" their selfish goals, the attainment of which requires the destruction of a civilized society?
     At the end of his survey, Johnson concludes that there are no strict inevitabilities in history. That lesson learned and then practiced could set civilization on a path of sustained improvement. But
difficult choices would have to be made. Human reality cannot take a back seat to vacuous and emotionally freighted political sensitivity-something of a current trend in modern politics. There is a difference between


good and bad, and where that difference goes unrecognized or unobserved or uncounted, people suffer, sometimes hideously. Under the totalitarians of the twentieth century, the suffering didn't need to be imagined.

About the Author
Born in Barton, Lancashire, England in 1928, Paul Johnson was educated at Stonyhurst, England's oldest Catholic boarding school, and at Magdalen College, Oxford. Early in his career as a journalist he worked as assistant editor of Paris-based RealitÚs (1952-1955) and then at the London weekly New Statesman (1955-1970) where he was the editor during his last six years. Johnson has been a visiting lecturer at educational institutions around the world and has won numerous literary awards.
     Since he edged away from journalism and began concentrating on history, Johnson has written nearly thirty books and an untold number of articles and other pieces. He is most famous for Modern Times, his stunning epic of twentieth-century tyranny. Prior to the publication of this work liberals commonly distinguished between bad right-wing totalitarianism (fascism and Nazism) and justifiable left-wing totalitarianism (socialism, welfarism and Communism). The crimes of the latter the liberals conveniently swept under the rug while saluting their utopian intentions. Johnson justifiably denounced all totalitarianism as evil. Obviously not the first to do this, he nonetheless made a great impact by holding one dictator after another systematically and openly accountable for their savage killings.
     Johnson emerged as a herald of liberty in the 1970s. "I had once thought liberty was divisible, that you could have very great personal liberty within a framework of substantial state control of the economy," he reflected, "but I don't mind saying I was quite wrong. The thing that finally convinced me was the issue of compulsory unionism." He made his conversion clear in Enemies of Society (1977), an extended attack on what he called the "fascist left."
     Modern Times has been translated into twenty languages and sold more than six million copies.
     Johnson lives with his wife of many decades, Marigold Hunt, in Bayswater, London. They have three sons, a daughter, and five grandchildren.

Available through:
HarperCollins Publishers
10 E. 53rd St.
New York, NY 10022


Back to Top