The 20th Century Revisited

The dark forces of modernity are powerful, but ‘they cannot conquer forever.’

John Sargent, “Gassed,” 1919
John Sargent, “Gassed,” 1919 (photo: Public Domain)

Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains … some samples or glimpses of final victory. —J.R.R. Tolkien

[T]ogether through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat. —Galadriel

It’s been almost 20 years since the 20th century’s demise; almost 20 years since that late lamented century joined its many predecessors in the long line of the ‘long defeat’ of humanity of which Tolkien spoke.

Perhaps enough sand has now sifted through Time’s hourglass, and enough dust has settled on the surface of those recent events, to enable us to look back with an objective eye on the last century and the lessons it has to teach. It began optimistically, if by optimism we mean the naïve assumption that humanity was not enduring the long defeat (the objective consequence of the Fall) but was on the verge of enjoying the final victory (itself a consequence of the Fall as the self-deceptive ‘fruit’ of Man’s desire to be God). The optimism found expression in the rise of Marxism, both in its pure unadulterated form, communism, and in the superficially more attractive form of socialism, communism’s equivocating sister. The Marxist intelligentsia, epitomized by the Fabian Society, began the 20th century on the crest of a triumphalist wave, certain of the eventual collapse of capitalism and the subsequent dawning of an age of social justice which would be implemented by a benignly all-powerful State. Marxist purists even believed that this would constitute the end of history, the final triumph of man in the permanent dictatorship of the proletariat. Man, liberated from the primitive shackles of feudalism and the transitional injustice of capitalism, would live happily ever after in a never-ending communist utopia. How amusingly naïve and childish this now sounds, a hundred years later.

At the heart of this utopian nonsense is the belief in ‘progress,’ roughly defined as a blind faith in humanity’s continual ascent, unguided by anything or anyone except its own inherent genius and its own inherent goodness, from the primitive swamps of ‘superstition’ (religion) to the noble heights of ‘science’ (not really ‘science’ at all, but scientism, the superstitious belief in the unerringly benevolent power of technology).

A famous and enthralling intellectual battle was fought in England during the 1920s by H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, as the champions of ‘progress’, and by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, as the champions of the ‘unprogressive’ permanent things. Twenty years later, as the full horrors of the Second World War came to light, Wells admitted defeat in his last book, The Mind at the End of its Tether, a work of deflated pessimism that was effectively a recantation of his earlier works of inflated optimism. He was defeated, ultimately, not by the arguments of Chesterton and Belloc, which he remained too blind to see, but by the horrors of the 20th century. His optimism about a brave new world of bright new technology was laid waste by blitzkrieg, by technologically-assisted genocide and by the atom bomb.

Tolkien, never one to be blinded by the promises of technology, had experienced, as a combatant in the First World War, what he called the ‘animal horror’ of the Battle of the Somme, and he was under no illusions about the destructive consequences of the animal horror of the Second World War:

I have just heard the news… Russians 60 miles from Berlin… The appalling destruction and misery of this war mount hourly: destruction of what should be (indeed is) the common wealth of Europe, and the world… wealth the loss of which will affect us all, victors or not. Yet people gloat to hear of the endless lines, 40 miles long, of miserable refugees, women and children pouring West, dying on the way. There seem no bowels of mercy or compassion, no imagination, left in this dark diabolic hour… The destruction of Germany, be it 100 times merited, is one of the most appalling world-catastrophes… Well the first War of the Machines seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter – leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines. As the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful. What’s their next move?

Their ‘next move’ was the fortification, with nuclear bombs, of the Iron Curtain that descended across Europe after the war. As the fires of World War chilled into Cold War, the servants of the Machines promised ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD!) to each other. In the meantime, the all-powerful States of communist China and the Soviet Union were using technology to murder their own ‘dissident’ citizens on a scale of which tyrants from less-technological ages could have only dreamed. Stalin and Mao murdered dozens of millions, beside which even Hitler’s inhuman atrocities seem amateurish by comparison. Hitler, however, was defeated before his diabolic work could be completed; Stalin, Mao and their successors had much more time to perfect the art of mass murder in the service of ‘progressive’ utopia. The facile fantasies of the Fabians and their ilk had become nightmares, their dreams broken on the broken bodies of the victims of ‘progressive’ ideology.

Marxism does not have a monopoly on ‘progress,’ of course, and ‘progressive’ utopias come in many other guises and disguises. If the mask of Marx has been removed to reveal the ugly death’s head lurking beneath its seemingly attractive propaganda, the mask of Mammon has been much more successful in concealing the skull skulking behind its cosmetic surgery. The self-worshipping ‘democracies’ of the ‘free’ world have already killed more people than the combined efforts of Stalin, Mao and Hitler. The abomination of abortion, the legalized and highly profitable slaughter of the innocents, has resulted in the killing of tens of millions of babies in the United States since this most barbaric of ‘progressive’ acts became law. Millions more have been killed in other ‘progressive’ democracies since the madness of legalized infanticide erupted on the face of the culture of death in the 1960s and 1970s.

From genocide to infanticide, it would seem that the 20th century was intent on suicide, killing itself in an orgy of self-abuse. It died, however, of old age, after its five-score years had elapsed, older but apparently none the wiser from the experience of its excesses. In its crass credulity and its inability to see any merit beyond the meretricious, the century had much in common with many of its predecessors. The ‘long defeat’ is awash with centuries as bad and barren as this last addition to the listless list. Writing of the 16th century, Chesterton bemoaned the ‘cold queen of England… looking in the glass’ and the ‘shadow of the Valois… yawning at the Mass,’ berating a time in which a decadent Europe was failing to respond to the threat of Islam. Plus ça change…

Plus ça change indeed! Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same. In the final analysis, the most notable thing about the 20th century is its remarkable similarity to its predecessors. The same pride, envy, greed, lust … The same selfishness. The same old humanity making the same old mistakes. No progress, only the same old mistakes repeated ad nauseam. Or, as Chesterton would have put it, responding to the naïve ‘progressive’ presumption of H.G. Wells, merely the everlasting men making the everlasting mistakes. Putting the matter into a theological nutshell, merely the Fallen falling; sinners, sinning. Plus ça change.

There is, however, one important difference; a difference so noteworthy that it demands that we sit up and take notice. It is a difference summed up by the Catholic convert and socio-economic visionary, E.F. Schumacher, when he commented that modern man had become far too clever not to be wise. Schumacher was alluding to the fact that the increase in technology has made man potentially far more destructive, yet he is turning his back on the philosophy and theology necessary to teach him how to use his new powerful tools with the prudence necessary. Modern man is like a 7-year-old with a machine gun; he lacks the wisdom and virtue to be playing with the technology he has at his disposal. It does not bode well for the new century that spreads itself threateningly before us.

No matter. The ‘long defeat’ of Fallen Man will continue as it has always done. Human history is not so much a race with time as a dance with destiny, and the dance will continue until the Lord of the Dance decides to bring the Music to an end. Until then we must always remember that the Music has an end. It has an end in both senses of the word; it has finality, at least in its temporal manifestation, and it has purpose. Knowledge of the end is the beginning of wisdom. Nor must we forget that this knowledge of the end is itself the ‘glimpse of final victory’ to which Tolkien referred. We must never lose sight of the promised victory, even in, especially in, the midst of the long defeat. Christ promised his Church that the gates of Hell will never prevail against her, and the Church, like Galadriel, has fought the long defeat ‘through ages of the world,’ through many, many centuries. The 20th century is merely the latest century, though possibly not the last. The dark forces of the Mordor of Modernity are powerful, seemingly all powerful, but, as Frodo exclaims at the crossroads, ‘They cannot conquer forever!’