Modern World History

The Legacy of the 19th Century

The Victorian era bequeathed a three-fold agenda to the century that began with death of the old queen in 1901. Ideology, ethnicity and modernity were all to play a significant role in determining the character of the 20th Century. They were the products of an industrial revolution which brought into existence a) a large urbanised working class increasingly well organised and able to identify its own interests b) concepts of nation or race which appealed to a deep human need for roots and identity c) a belief that science could solve all human problems. Each would help to shape the course of events, inspiring individuals to the point where they were prepared to sacrifice lives - their own and those of others - for the sake of whatever vision of the future inspired them. Yet for all their compelling power ideology, ethnicity and modernity may just be symptoms of deeper underlying forces, amongst them the steady, inexorable growth of the world's human population throughout the last hundred years. Was it this that made the conflicts of the 20th Century sharper, more desperate and more extreme? At the start of the 21st Century competition for basic resources such as oil and water still seems to be the gravest long term threat to international order.


Visiting Manchester in 1841 Frederick Engels was confronted with extremes of wealth and poverty on a scale never seen before. Was this a natural state of affairs or one that would end when factory workers seized control of the wealth they were creating? Engels and his friend Marx argued that such a takeover would be the final stage in a succession of conflicts between rich and poor that would result in a 'dictatorship of the proletariat'. The state and its apparatus of law-enforcement would then 'wither away'. Like Sir Thomas More in 'Utopia' they believed that inequality was the chiefest cause of crime; take poverty away and there would be no need for police.

To those on the 'left' in politics such beliefs are the equivalent of a religion. Opponents are described as 'reactionary' i.e. people seeking to hold back the inevitable march of events. Because they see history as dynamic they tend to think of society collectively: 'from each according to his ability to each according to his need'. They are instinctively universalist and inclusive, distrusting the divisive claims of class, faith or origin.

Those on the 'right' tend to stress individuality: 'there is no such thing as society, only individuals,' as Mrs Thatcher is famously alleged to have put it. A man or woman can have many loyalties - to family, religion, or football team, country or ethnic origin - which matter more than any generalised notion of humanity. Attempts to deny such loyalties are not only futile: they are actually dangerous and de-stabilising.

On both left and right there are degrees of extremism. On the far left communists are deeply intolerant of what Mao Tse-tung called 'petit bourgeois individualism' - the wish to succeed by one's own efforts - which they see as selfish and materialist. Socialists are more tolerant of private enterprise and are usually prepared to work within existing political and social frameworks so that change comes about gradually - through the ballot box rather than the gun. Social democrats believe in a 'middle way', allowing individuals freedom to generate their own wealth but hiving off a large chunk of it to equalise opportunities for the less well off. This, broadly speaking, is the position of 'New Labour.'

On the extreme right fascists subscribe to a wholly Darwinist view of human nature: only the strong have the right to survive. That strength may be expressed in the personality of a great leader - a Mussolini, Hitler or Franco - who embodies the superior qualities of the race. Fascism usually attracts people who already have an appetite for conflict because it is through struggle that the strongest emerge. Fascists in power tend to show little mercy to their opponents: like playground bullies they believe their victims deserve to be ill-treated. They are thus the natural allies of big business.

Between 'left' and 'right' lies the centre ground of politics where solutions to problems tend to be worked out on the basis of what seems practical and achievable. In the 19th century such pragmatism was expressed as a philosophy - 'utilitarianism' - which took as its watchword 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. It was this approach which gave us poor relief on the 'less eligibility' principle and later a state education system which had as its goal the maximum effect for the least expense. To the idealists of left and right 'utilitariansim' seemed far too cold-hearted. Dickens satyrised its effects in 'Oliver Twist' and 'Bleak House' whilst Oxbridge educated clerics set up missions in the slums of Stepney and Whitechapel to carry the word of God and the gospel of responsible living to the benighted inhabitants of 'outcast London'. Amongst those who learned their politics in this way were two creators of the British Welfare State - Clement Attlee and William Beveridge. Yet, in Britain at least, the idealists never had a majority. Elsewhere in the world the picture was different because there idealism often combined with the second great force that divided men and nations in the 20th century: ethnicity.

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Ethnicity is a hard term to define: it is not the same as race though race may be an important component of it. At heart it is a sense of shared origin, often indicated by the possession of a common language and religion. The complex nature of ethnicity is well illustrated by Iraq. As is well known, Iraq is a creation of the British, its frontiers defined in 1919 by peacemakers in far away Versailles. It consists of three very distinct regions: the Kurds in the north, the Sunni Arabs in the centre and the Shias in the south. All are Muslims but the Kurds have a different ancestry, whilst the other two groups belong to different branches of Islam. At the time of writing it seems that rivalry between these regions and mutual suspicion will overwhelm attempts to create a free, democratic and unified country.

Such ethnic rivalries were at the heart of many conflicts in the 20th Century. In 1914 Serbian nationalists trying to free other Serbs from the domination of Austria-Hungary precipitated the First World War. In 1939 Hitler's attempts to bring all German-speaking territories back within the frontiers of the 'reich' led to the Second. Similar ambitions underlay the ghastly phrase 'ethnic cleansing', used in Bosnia in the 1990's as a euphemism for massacre. In Africa where the colonial powers ignored tribal boundaries in their scramble for territory tragedies like that of Rwanda were the almost inevitable outcome.

Ironically it is often the advent of democracy after a period of dictatorship that leads to the outbreak of violence. 'One man, one vote' confers so much power on the majority that ethnic minorities fear for their future. Aligning national frontiers with those of race and religion may be the only solution but this can threaten existing majorities as in Northern Ireland. Here ethnicity may be defined by the terms Catholic and Protestant but it is history as much as anything else that divides the communities.

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It is easy to take for granted the technological advances of the last one hundred years. Since 1901 powered flight has developed to the point where it has carried human beings to the moon; oil has given us a second industrial revolution if anything more far reaching than the first; medical advances seem to herald the eradication of almost all major diseases leaving us on the threshold of defeating age itself. If religion and politics are banned from polite dinner parties modernity is a faith subscribed to by all.

Modernity is what has given the United States of America its super-power status and it was what Stalin sought for the Soviet Union with his 'Five Year Plans'. Nazi Germany also had its love affair with modernity, although Hitler distrusted its long term effects preferring to build the great monuments of the Reich in stone because they would make better ruins. Even Britain in the 1950's embraced the concept of a future based on technological progress. The 'Festival of Britain' that marked the end of post-war austerity was an almost space-age vision of the world to come.

Yet modernity has had its downside. Apart from the atomic bomb (and many other instances of the growth in killing power that technology has brought to waging of war) technology has given evil more subtle ways of doing its work. In '1984' and 'Brave New World' authors George Orwell and Aldous Huxley foresaw a future in which technology would be employed to 'brain wash' people into believing they were living in the best of all possible worlds when they were not. More recently films like the 'Matrix' series have taken up the same theme. In the 'Mad Max' movies Mel Gibson imagined a post-modern future with humanity living like scavengers in a world ruined by the over-exploitation of natural resources. And of course there is fundamentalism. Born within the very country that has benefited most from technology it is now providing ideological justification for the enemies of America throughout the world.

The essence of fundamentalism is its appeal to a higher form of authority than science or reason. Ordinarily this would be of little concern but some fundamentalists have taken over the weapon of terrorism from the political extremist, ruthlessly employing modern means of communication to magnify the effects of their actions. They may indulge in particularly brutal ways of killing, knowing that this will grab headlines throughout the world and they are rumoured to be attempting to obtain access to weapons of mass destruction, hoping that the threat of these will disrupt the world economy and cause the capitalist 'bubble' to burst. Despite the extreme nature of these acts the terrorists themselves may be quiet, law-abiding citizens, serious in nature and intelligent. They may even express regret for the innocent victims of their actions. What is the reason for this apparent contradiction?

The truth is that fundamentalism, whether Christian or Islamic, has a 'black-and-white' quality that particularly appeals to high-minded men and women. Suicide bombers are often converts, already wedded to self-denial: they reserve maximum contempt for the weak-willed who see happiness in purely material terms and who seek it through booze, pills, surgery or diet. A large part of the threat that they pose comes from the fact that they may be right, at least in one respect. Human beings cannot be happy unless they have some purpose in life that is more than mere existence. Using books that are centuries old to answer all life's questions may seem illogical but to many thousands of people fundamentalist beliefs offer a more dignified view of human nature than that offered to us by modernity on its own.

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