The 20th Century: Development And Human Dusk

The question of development pessimism and belief in progress has run like a main theme through the debate of ideas of the 20th century. And the discussion about how the heritage of the Age of Enlightenment best be put to use has been a perpetual point at issue. Now that the end of the 20th century is approaching it is time to sum up the current of ideas of the century. The anthology Framstegets arvtagare (The Inheritors of Progress)1 is a good start.

One of the main lines of thought within the French 18th century enlightenment-thinking was that man with his reason has the necessary means to create a happy world and the process of progress history tells us about can only be halted temporarily. Science is the engine of this process and it is a positive process. “One day the moment when the sun only shines over free men who won’t recognise other masters than their own reason will come…” the French philosopher, mathematician and politician Jean Antoine Condorcet writes in his book about the progress of man in 1793.

It may not seem very strange that man started doubting the process of progress during the 20th century, considering the background of two world wars and a number of other conflicts throughout the world. Moreover, both world wars were also in direct connection with a new technology which had been drawn up by science and which was now used for deeply destructive purposes. During World War I gas was used and during World War II it was nuclear power.

Apocalyptic visions

In the introduction to Framstegets arvtagare Nils Runeby, professor emeritus in the history of ideas at Stockholm University, quotes the German expressionist dramatist George Kaiser in his large drama of the future Gas, written in 1917-1919: “I have lost the image of man. What did he look like?” “Tell me: where is man? When will he come into existence and give himself the name of – man?”

The questions are framed because of the horrors of World War I and its gas-warfare. In Kaiser’s drama gas is the major source of energy and the prerequisite for technical and economic development. The world industry and the manufacture of arms need ever more gas to insure progress. Meanwhile the workers are worn out in the course of production.

In Kaiser’s drama the inheritor of the gas production breaks with the basic thesis of his father. He looks to democratise production through profit-sharing and right of co-determination. When a terrible gas explosion takes place he tries to stop the technical development, abandon gas production and instead create a small-scale agrarian society.

But his adversary, the engineer, incites the workers against him. Production is, according to the engineer, “built on human reason and human reason cannot build it differently.” The risk of new gas explosions is worth taking in the name of progress and production continues. The same opposition still remains during the next generation. But rationalisation and dehumanisation have now developed even further and production decreases due to the wearing out of the workers. The workers urge for rebellion. The inheritor of the day tries to reach a truce and wants to carry through a spiritual revolution, reach an inner freedom, which is not of this world. The borders between the countries shall also be obliterated. But an enemy country, however, takes over production. The technician wants to use poison gas against the enemy, but the inheritor sees no other way out than letting the gas explode and thereby annihilates himself as well as mankind. “Gas is in many respects a play typical of the time,” Nils Runeby writes. But it is more than that. The questions which will follow mankind during practically all of the 20th century are related to in the drama: The relationship of man to the new technology and the alternatives to the prevailing order of society.
The atom bomb and the “peaceful” nuclear power, the green wave and the searching for an alternative society, New Age and the pursuit of inner spiritual peace, wage-earners’ investment funds and other attempts at democratising production re-evoke the discussion illuminated by Kaiser’s drama. And now, as before, the discussion about the new technology is tied up with feelings of doom.

Technological parentheses?

The discussion initiated during the 19th century, caused by the rise of industrialism and the enormous population expansion of the towns thus continues in the beginning of the 20th century. The discussion of the ever-present dangers of the new technology and apocalyptic visions of destruction have been man’s constant companions through history, but a new dimension is added during the 20th century – the new technology may lead to the obliteration of mankind.

As I am writing this article I hear an account of the Nobel festivities at the city hall of Stockholm. The reporter explains why only every other lamp in the chandeliers is shining. It is because half of the lamps, worked by gas, are turned off. The architect Ragnar Östberg believed, along with many others of his time, that gas, not electricity, would be the major new source of energy. Some days before I have read an article in a magazine stating that many nuclear power plants around the world are being shut down because production is simply becoming too expensive. If that prophesy holds out no political decisions concerning the liquidation of nuclear power will be necessary – the decisions will be taken by the market itself, due to insufficient profitability. As an ironic twinkling of history we suddenly find the possibility that the two technical solutions which have been associated with technical optimism and faith in progress, but which have also been involved in two world wars and have brought on feelings of doomsday in mankind, might go to history as technological parentheses. Can that possibly be? And which conclusions can we possibly draw from this looking at the future, confronting new technology again blessed by technicians and market forces?

In the beginning of the 20th century another threat to European civilisation is growing. After the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Russian-Japanese war a fear of the “yellow danger” spread through Europe. But in the 1920s the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset explained that there was another road to walk than that of fear. The image of the world had been altered and we now had, according to Ortega, reached a polycentric world history with a number of equal and compatible cultural spheres. The fact that this opinion would not gain great influence and hardly still has by the end of the 20th century is another story.

The East-West opposition

The Russian Revolution in 1917 and the founding of the Comintern in 1919 were also of decisive importance for the beginning of the 20th century. “The Soviet Union became the alternative, vision and field of experiment to sympathisers all over the world, and to adversaries it was a threat to the established order of things,” Runeby writes. The threat posed by the new Soviet Union to the established set of values is also, in my opinion, too often forgotten in today’s debate and in the name of superficial anti-Sovietism. The fact that the whole project, as the French Revolution, later got off the track and lost its inner motive power to change, is another matter. It is, however, understandable that a slight shiver went through the salons in the European capitals when the author, critic and People’s Commisar Anatolij Lunatjarskij in 1917 proclaimed: “The end has come not only for the autocratic and bureaucratic regime which has stood in the way of art, but for all forms of class and caste prejudice.”

“Shaking heads with thought explosions,/ roaring with the artillery of the hearts/ stands up from time/ another revolution -/ the third revolution/ that of the spirit”, Vladimir Majakovskij proclaimed.
Crister Skoglund, in one of the most interesting contributions of the book, points to how Lenin broke off with the philosophy of the master Marx on a number of central points and it may be worth pointing these out for those who do not know. Skoglund writes: “Firstly he (Lenin) doubted the ability of the working class to accomplish a socialist revolution by its own power.” According to Lenin a small enlightened élite of professional revolutionists was needed – a vanguard of the movement.

“The second point…was in the view of the stage theory of historical materialism.” Marx and Engels presumed that a socialist revolution would be the natural reaction to capitalism having reached its highest level and having exhausted its possibilities. A revolution could thus be expected in the most developed capitalistic countries and not in a half-feudal peasant country.

In his little publication About Our Revolution Lenin explained that if a country had to have reached a certain level, these prerequisites needed to be obtained afterwards. According to Skoglund, the enormous enforced industrialisation and urbanisation projects of Stalin shall be understood as based on this wish to afterwards create the conditions for the socialist revolution already carried out.

The third point “where Lenin differed from marxism was in the consideration of the state.” To Marx and Engels the oppressive state was something that would wither in the long run, when the working class had seized power. Instead, the old autocracy of the Tsar was superseded by a new autocracy, to many even more unpredictable and thorough than the former.

The opposition between the Soviet Union and the West later came to influence almost all of the debate of ideas of the 20th century in one aspect or another – for or against, the one camp or the other, black or white. All positions in between were considered suspicious.

In 1922 the fascists seize power in Italy and in Germany Carl Schmitt, theoretician of law, sits thinking about a theory of human behaviour characterised by a fundamental difference between friend and foe. The enemy is he, who is “a negation of one’s own existence and thus needs to be combat and driven back in order to preserve one’s own way of being.” The ultimate form of combat is war. A “total” state which forces the different group interests together under its will to rule is needed. Schmitt put himself at the disposition of the leader state when the nazis came into power in 1933. “Is there any way of freeing mankind from the misfortune of war?” This question was framed in an open letter from Albert Einstein in 1932. The question was put to Sigmund Freud in Vienna. According to Einstein the state collaborates with the trading in arms and often the religious communions. Thereby it can “organise and direct the emotional life of the masses.”

The urge of destruction at work in every living being

“The masses” is an expression typical of the time and mass behaviour was at the focus of several literary accounts during all of the 19th century and later also of scientific works and direct political aim. Staffsan Källström develops the subject in a chapter of the book and writes: “Accounts of the masses and…the theorising of mass psychology, is thus the product of a historical situation characterised by great changes of European society – but also by strong social opposition. The masses will often be equalled with the working class…”.

In The Psychology of the Masses Gustave Le Bon, French, writes that the masses are “impulsive, easily angered, incapable of rational argumentation, overly turned to the emotional life.” The theorising around the masses can be regarded as an attempt by the established society to defend itself against the advance of the working class. Also Freud takes the side of reaction and claims: “Because the masses are lazy and unintelligent, they do not want any restrictions…” Responding to Einstein’s question Freud proclaims himself incompetent of giving any answer except the one already formulated by Einstein. He does, however, want to exchange the word “power” for that of “violence”. Conflicts between people – as between animals – “in principle” are solved with violence, according to Freud. Whether muscular strength or spiritual superiority be used, the aim is to render harmless the adversary. “We see that law is the power of an association. It is still always violence…” Freud writes about the urge of destruction which “is at work in every living being and that it works on the falling apart of the living being, on bringing life back to the state of the dead substance.” Freud also contests the belief of the Bolsheviks that meeting material needs will lead to the disappearance of aggression. According to Freud, this is an illusion. The only action that can be taken to counteract war is, according to him, mobilising the other urge, love and identification.

A year after Einstein’s letter, both his and Freud’s writings, along with those of Kaiser, were burnt in the German university towns. The writings of those not accepted were degenerate. “Intellectual” was used as an insult. Meanwhile the rumour of a Jewish world conspiracy, responsible both for the international capital and the Russian Revolution, was spread.

Barbarism versus culture

“Now the enemy, the stranger (according to Carl Schmitt) was identified and then all methods were allowed,” Runeby writes. “The necessary action” he calls the counter-reaction. “Popular front” became a central concept at the end of the thirties in order to try to stop the fascist advance. In practice this implied that communists, social democrats and bourgeois democrats ought to form a common front. The thesis was theoretically formulated by the secretary general of the Comintern, Georgi Dimitrov.

The major mobilising between the blocks took place during the Spanish civil war in 1936-39. “Fascism stood against communism, dictatorship against democracy, violence against freedom, barbarism against culture, upper class against lower class, Catholicism against atheism, order against anarchy.”

The British author Robert Graves wrote with regard to the situation in England: “Never since the days of the French Revolution had a foreign political affair divided the reflecting British opinion in this way.” “The same should be valid also for other countries,” Runeby says, An interesting exercise would, in my opinion, be putting the question to the political parties of today, protecting democracy, what their attitude to the Spanish civil war was at the end of the thirties. Another question which could also be raised would be which actions of protest they carried out and aimed at the growing fascism and nazism.

Rationalism = disillusion

The Spanish war and the forming of fronts brought, again, up the theme of man’s exposure and confrontation with apocalyptic violence. John Iven’s film The Spanish Earth with script by Ernest Hemingway, Picasso’s painting Guernica, the French writer André Malraux himself actively participating in the Spanish war, and his novels, can be quoted as examples. During the World War II the problems of the Spanish war also became those of the resistance movements. The decision to offer resistance of the individual. A decision not enforced by any external authority and which wasn’t a matter of submission to any mass movement. Concepts like commitment, unity, solidarity and a reawakened humanism enter the stage once again. After the war the theme of mankind regarded as one big family becomes an attempt to heal the wounds of the war. André Malraux wants to illuminate this through a “Museum of fantasy” where works of art from all times and continents would give an impression of the unity of mankind.

“Of course,” Runeby writes, “this can be seen as a variety of the image of solidarity and unity. It can also be regarded as an answer to Kaiser’s question. It is precisely in this unity they want to find the image of man.”

Max Weber, German sociologist and economist, launches another image in the beginning of this century. Modern western society is, according to Weber, characterised by a value rational acting being replaced by a goal rational acting. It is a process where ever more actions are motivated by the intention of reaching a certain goal and which can be arranged into a common tendency to rationalise, which influences the modern west. Maybe this way of thinking is at the heart of western stress. Modern western man is able to free himself from believing in magic and unpredictable forces affecting our lives. Society moves towards “Entzauberung,” demystification or broken spell, at the same time depriving us of many illusions about a meaning of existence. The feeling of becoming increasingly disillusioned is the other side of the process of rationalising.

The task laid before man was that of trying to reach back to the origin, to natural man and seeing the world as it is, without myths or unnecessary ornamentation. The idea of scraping off all unnecessary cultural varnish also came to affect the style called functionalism.

But “functionalism” is not only an artistic concept but also a factor affecting the social sciences. It would, however, be incorrect to believe that functionalism dominated intellectual life during the interwar period, says Skoglund. “Just as common, if not more so, was a negative attitude to modern life and the society they lived in. Man of the new age was regarded as inane, superficial and crassly materialistic. The unity in the small community of the old days was thought to have been lost and replaced by impersonal businessminded approaches and false smiles.” Democracy was considered “old”, “tired”, “decrepit” and incapable of meeting the demands of the new times both by leftists and rightists.

Another often recurring theme was that important functions in society had been entrusted to complete good-for-nothings. These trains of thought, along with others, precede the growth of nazism. But there were also groups claiming that instead of concentrating power at the hands of one strong leader, power should be given to a special group of experts. The concept is called technocracy and enjoyed a strong support in certain circles during the interwar years.

Crister Skoglund also stresses an important point, much too often forgotten in the debate of today: “Germany and Italy were the leading fascist countries, but it is important to keep in mind that similar anti-democratic ideas were strong in other countries as well. All of East Europe with countries as Romania, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were dominated by different kinds of dictators.”

There is a world outside Europe

But the anthology Framstegets arvtagaredoes not only deal with the 20th century up until World War II. It also deals with the discussion and the debate of ideas following the end of the world war up until our days. About currents of ideas as positivism and structuralism and a recurring strong faith in technology and science and the development of a new psychology and a new vision of man.

It also deals with a renewed radicalism developing during the sixties, a new rise for marxism and the thoughts of freeing man growing up in several areas.

Lena Eskilsson summarises modern feminism and the development of the women’s movement in one section. In another section Nils Runeby writes about how the European-centred conception of the world is changing once again, how an image of the third world develops and a multicultural outlook takes root anew. And also postmodernism is included.

Framstegets arvtagaredoes not claim to paint a complete picture of the century, but contains thematic sections by different authors. The focus is on questions of visions of society and man.

I think this book is a very praiseworthy attempt at grasping and supplying a picture of the development of ideas during the 20th century. The quality of the contributions may vary from very good to not so good, there may be many different voices speaking, as there always are in an anthology, but the overall standard is high. And it surprises me a little that the book has hardly been reviewed in any of the major media. It would well deserve it. Our politicians, not least, ought to be better educated concerning the historical debate and reminded that their ideas and ways of thinking may not always be so exquisitely novel. The debate of ideas of the early 20th century is also, in my opinion, too much forgotten and definitely worth mentioning and acquainting oneself with. Many of the questions reappearing in different forms during the century were already framed then.

The discussions of ideas of the 19th century are already treated in diverse ways and the time after World War II is still so near that we are familiar with it.

But the time in between has fallen from our collective consciousness and its history has not as of yet quite been written, which is also one of the reasons why this article has been focussed around that period, which in no way implies that the second part of Framstegets arvtagarewould be any less worth reading.Now to referring to our starting-point, the faith in progress of the Age of Enlightenment. The postmodernists claimed in general that the whole enlightenment project had collapsed. I ask Nils Runeby about his attitude to the heritage of enlightenment:

-I think there are aspects of the enlightenment we carry with us in certain parts and which we cannot kick out.
I also ask Nils Runeby what he thinks are decisive aspects of the 20th century that we will carry with us into the future and which may be possible insights? Having pondered for a while he explains that they are actually banalities but nevertheless important:

-I think it is about new miseries. That our image of the world surrounding us is different. Our realisation of the increasing wearing of nature and man as a consequence of development. It is no happy story we find, but an insight. Meanwhile there is still hope that we will be able to live here and that it is more a question of organisation than shortage.

In some ways it seems that man’s eternal faith in progress, despite temporary setbacks and collapses, reappears anew in ever new attires during the 20th century. Maybe faith in progress and criticism of civilisation in perpetual interaction should be seen as one of mankind’s inner motive forces.
The concept of “human dusk” in the title is taken from the title of a famous anthology of expressionist poetry, Menschheitdämmerung, published in 1920. The concept is based on the German Götterdämmerung, dusk of the gods, which is the German word for Apocalypse.

The Inheritors of Progress, European history of ideas 20th century - anthology

Published 5 May 1999
Original in Swedish

Contributed by Ny Tid © Lars Vikström / Ny Tid / Eurozine


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