It will be at least thirty and more probably fifty years before a coherent, agreed upon picture of the twentieth century emerges among historians. Nevertheless, enough of a hint of some broad pattern is already apparent (surprisingly) to encourage attempts to discern, or rather guess at, some of the features of that picture.
The one thing that I think is already apparent is that when that "coherent, agreed upon picture" does arise, it will be very different from the one we would have expected as recently as the beginning of the nineties.
Anyway, I've lived through a bit more than half of it and fully intend to live through at least as much of the next century (I'm a time tourist you see). I've even participated in a number of the popular causes, only to see most of them go sour. Therefore, I reckon I have as much right as anyone to try a few early guesses.
I can see at least six obvious phenomena that typify the twentieth century:
1. Brilliant, paradigm-breaking advances in the physical sciences early in the century such as relativity and quantum theory that changed the way humans saw the universe and offered tantalizing glimpses of an overall design, but then largely stalled.
2. Steady, solid, incremental technological and industrial developments that drove huge increases in wealth and human welfare. These technological advances to some extent derived from advances in pure science, but the better technology then allowed better instruments that in turn allowed more scientific advances, thus forming a virtuous circle.
3. A spread of representative democracy to an astonishing number and diversity of countries, combined with an unfortunate inability for that democracy to advance much beyond a fairly crude level, or resist capture by whatever local elites existed or arose(1).
4. Psychological, sociological and anthropological fantasies masquerading as science that drove utopian cults such as Communism, Nazism, some forms of Humanism(2) and the sixties revolution (3).
At their worst, these delivered death to tens of millions and social and personal ruin to hundreds of millions of people, corrupted societies and threw away centuries of painfully acquired social experience. At their best, they delivered some pockets of real good, but at the cost of long term social disruption and damage.
5. The failure of the elites. The new progressive, intellectual, governing and media elites that rose to power on claims of moral and intellectual superiority proved to be easily influenced, or even seduced, by the vilest or stupidest cults, fads and fashions such as Communism, Nazism and Culturalism(4). In the end, they mostly used their power and influence to advantage themselves at the cost of the ordinary people.
6. A gradually emerging, bitterly resisted realization towards the end of the century that any group that gained any power within any society would exploit that power for personal and group advantage and that the exploitation would increase with time. That if trust was placed in princes, or saviors, or elites, it would be betrayed. As the old mystery-schools taught: Real gains are seldom made without thoughtful, personal decision and effort. Neither are they achieved by surrendering authority to any other being
In short, the twentieth century was the century of applied technology as much as of science, where huge advances in human welfare happened despite, not because of, the efforts of the elites and intellectuals. In fact, its most noticeable feature was an utter failure until almost its end to apply good science to the understanding and betterment of societies and individual human lives.
You will note that I haven't even mentioned war. Although much is usually made of the frequency and scale of war and genocide in the twentieth century this was in truth only an incidental byproduct of these and other factors and of very large populations. From the point of view of risk to an average citizen of the developed world, the twentieth century was not unusually unsafe when compared to other periods in history.
Which of course begs the question - what of the future? Well, to begin with, I find an eerie resonance between the closing years of the twentieth century the closing years of the nineteenth century.
Incidentally, this resonance is being noticed in a surprisingly diverse range of human endeavors by many people from all parts of the political spectrum. Most don't possess the historical knowledge to really understand what they are seeing, due to the failure of historical education, but they are vaguely aware that something big is going down and that it is somehow hauntingly familiar.
It's hard to put exactly what this resonance is into words, but I notice our leaders and elites developing the same kind of inflexible, imperial and often (in retrospect) stupid behavior that typified the European ruling elite in the late nineteenth century. Behavior that seems more driven by internal group conflicts and competition for power than by any reference to the real, external world.
Likewise, technological and social developments are moving against large sections of the current elites as developments such as computers and the Internet start to gradually erode the monopoly they hold on important areas such as information, law, media and marketing. This is generating enormous tensions as those in positions of high responsibility, sensing the change to come, abuse their position to seize vast wealth for themselves and their children while they still retain power.
The same signs of an impending paradigm shift are appearing in the physical sciences. By the end of the nineteenth century it was obvious to any intelligent observer that unsustainable cracks had opened in the then universal scientific paradigm, the Newtonian Universe and that sooner or later it would be replaced. The same kind of cracks are now apparent in cosmology and quantum theory and even relativity may not be safe.
In other words, I suspect we are due for another big change. That the timing may more or less duplicate what happened last century is more a matter of the waves of economic, scientific and social change just happening to coincide with the end of the century than anything to do with the millenium.
Incidentally, I suspect that things will come to a head somewhere around 2014, same as last time. I just hope we can arrange an outcome that is more fun.
NOTE: If I seem to be harping on about the elites' mistakes in uncritically aligning themselves with self-obviously stupid or evil cults and ideas, I can only say that this utter failure of those who claimed to be the most intelligent and moral sectors of the population cannot be emphasized too much. It is important to remember this as these same groups, often even the same individuals, still claim to be the natural leaders of Western Civilization and indeed the world.
Perhaps, when large numbers of self-declared intelligent, morally superior and reasonable people all agree on something, it is best to fix it in a very cold and skeptical gaze.
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Reproduction is permitted for non-commercial purposes provided the material is complete and unaltered.
Copyright 1999 Stephen Heyer
(1) Of particular note is democracy's capture in English Law countries by the legal profession. It is not that lawyers are especially bad people, but in English Law countries they form a very self-consciously privileged and rather narrow elite. This is understandable as their education and career is so demanding and interesting that it tends to restrict their social interactions and development. In other words, they are not one of the groups you would want dominating government.Back to Text.
The medical profession is of course another such group, but rather less politically active.
(2) The fairly extreme forms of Humanism based on the error or Culturalism that claim that a person is entirely formed by his or her culture and denies him any innate nature. Not only is this totally inaccurate, it leads to bad parenting, bad social design and dangerous attempts at utopian social engineering.Back to Text.
(3) The sixties revolution, or rather its justifying theories, were based on a mixture of wishful thinking and junk science, the prime example being Margaret Mead's "Coming of Age in Samoa". Worse, some areas such as the peace, anti-nuclear anti-gun and anti-Christianity movements turn out to have been, at least to start with, little more than KGB scams designed to confuse and damage the West, or offshoots of Communist religious dogma (Encounter: Communism, 14/2/1999 discusses some of this).
The opening of the KGB records to scholars and testimony by many aging, ex-communists, shows that from the thirties financial and organizational help from the NKVD and its successor, the KBG, was far more important to some of the groups who shaped the sixties revolution than even the Right supposed. It must be emphasized, however, that the great mass of the people involved in these movements were unaware of this.
Note that I'm not saying that these movements would not have eventually arisen without outside help, just that they grew so large, so fast and took the rather extreme, in fact religious, form they did because of it. For example, greater responsibility would have been demanded from governments once people realized the insanity of having thousands of nuclear weapons, enough to damage the planet's ecology, mounted on missiles all ready to go and of building huge, inherently unsafe nuclear reactors for power stations (small reactors can be made safe but not big ones).Back to Text.
(4) The degree to which many Western intellectuals, especially in academia, admired and were influenced by Communist ideas at a time when Stalin was murdering millions of people is now notorious. Even worse, was that a group who claimed to be the champions of tolerance ostracized and destroyed the academic career of anyone who dared to point out what was really happening in Russia.
Of course, few were Communists or even fellow travelers, most considered themselves merely left or liberal. (Liberal seems to have come to mean (a) progressive-moderate-left, (b) supporting fashionable groups and causes rather than being truly tolerant and (c) with strong centralist, verging on authoritarian, tendencies.) Nevertheless, the left wound up saddled with many policies and beliefs that were sourced from Communism, or as I mention above, from KGB and fellow traveler activities.
With many honorable exceptions, the German elites proved to be just as eager to support the Nazis, once they saw which way the wind was blowing.Back to Text.