by John J. Ray

I said yesterday that I might say something today about the deeper reasons behind the West's early fascination with Japan. I need to set out a lot of background to get to that point, however, and "Modernism" is a rather surprising key to that. It explains both the fascination with Japan before WWI and the emergence of Fascism after WWI.

"Modernism" is a much abused term that has had a number of meanings over the years but the version that I want to discuss here was a movement, mostly in art and literature, in the closing decades of the 19th century and continuing into the early 20th century. It took a hit from the shattering events of WWI but rather surprisingly survived. It was particularly prominent in France and Italy and in Italy eventually merged with Fascism.

It was a rather euphoric movement marked by a general rejection of previous traditions and a feeling that the modernists could create the world anew. It all sounds rather silly and egotistical nowadays but its relationship with Fascism gives it more than ordinary historical importance. Wikipedia has one summary of it here for those who want to read further.

There is a book (briefly summarized (here) by a frequent writer on Fascism (Roger Griffin) which attempts the daunting task of defining modernism -- and the author's apologies for the boldness of that endeavour must be my apologies too.

I think his approach to Fascism via Modernism is fruitful but there is also something in the Marxist account of social changes having economic causes -- so I would extend the analysis to say that even modernism can be seen as an economic product. I think economic history
explains just about all of modernism in fact. But economic phenomena do not exist in a vacuum either. Behind economic history is political history. So on to that:

After the defeat of the French by German forces in 1870, Bismarck rapidly accomplished his long-pursued task of unifying most of the German lands under the Prussian crown. Only Austria proved indigestible.

Bismarck saw the great danger of the unification, however. Unified Germany was such a
formidible economic and military power that it had great potential to strike terror into the rest of Europe. And a logical response to that terror would be for the rest of Europe to "gang up" on Germany in what would have to be a brutal and destructive war, whatever the outcome.

Rather surprisingly to some, however, Bismarck was a man of peace, despite his earlier talk of "blood and iron". His only real devotion was to his Vaterland so, although he made skilled use of war to bring about the widely desired unification of Germany, he was just as ready to use peace on behalf of Germany once that was accomplished.

And Bismarck saw the fatal weakness in hostility to Germany: Great alliances would have to be formed if there was to be any hope of taking Germany on. So for the remainder of his term as Reichskanzler he used diplomatic means to frustrate that. His constantly changing foreign policy confused everyone and prevented any firm alliances from forming. So purely to protect Germany, Bismarck achieved something remarkable: Peace in Europe.

And that peace became rather permanent. People got used to not being at war. Proof that peace was possible made it the status quo which most people wanted to continue. So even after Bismarck left the scene in 1890 the peace continued for nearly a quarter of a century more -- until 1914.

And peace in Europe had a hugely energizing effect. Scientific, technical and economic innovations had already begun in various places but with European energies diverted to peaceful pursuits rather than war, those developments got a huge kick-along and great economic progress took place. Europe emerged from a peasant age into an industrial age. Even in Russia, heavy industries emerged and railways snaked out across the land.

But these vast economic changes had a psychologically disruptive effect. As the old order
crumbled before the steam train its assumptions crumbled too. Aristocracy lost legitimacy and all values were questioned. Any thinking that had been widely accepted in the past became automatically suspect as belonging to the past only.

And that, basically, was modernism: A confidence that the old could be swept away and replaced by a new more exciting and more heroic vision of just about everything.

But again at risk of seeming Marxist, the new vision had its antithesis. Many people were suspicious of the new enthusiasms and were not at all ready to throw away the wisdom of the past. This "reaction" was brilliantly managed by Disraeli in Britain, not managed at all in France and rather hamfistedly managed by Bismarck in in Germany. Bismarck was not nearly as successful in domestic policy as he was in foreign policy, though again his policies kept his opposition off-balance as long as he was around.

So, of the major European powers, only Britain merged smoothly into the modern world --
with only a minimum of social disruption. The values of the past were largely preserved while considerable innovations to cope with changed economic circumstances were also made. Russia was of course at the other end of the scale, where adaptation to the new was disastrously managed.

 

More: http://dissectleft.blogspot.com/ (wed. Aug. 29th)

 

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