Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Japan, "Modernism" and the 19th century origins of Fascism

By Jon J. Ray

I would like to thank Jon for allowing me to post his work.  Jon is the publisher of the blog GREENIE WATCH, along with a host of others,  dealing with every social issue in the world.  RK.

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 ham fistedly managed by Bismarck 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.

Perhaps the most vivid evidence of the orderly British transition is the survival right into the present day of the House of Lords, still a highly esteemed body but quite unlike any other present-day upper house that I know of. So Britain had plenty of cultural modernism in its day but Fascism never made significant inroads into British political life, despite the efforts of Sir Oswald Mosley.

So now I come to where I disagree with the Marxists (with whom Griffin, mentioned above, seems to agree partly). I think the Marxists have got the wrong end of the stick altogether. Marxists see Fascism as a form of defense of the old order when it was clearly quite the opposite. They see it as a defense of traditional values when Fascists themselves saw themselves as the vanguard of the new. Particularly in Italy it is clear that Fascists were the modernists, not traditionalists. Extreme modernists such as D'Annunzio were simply co-opted into Fascism.

One can perhaps excuse the Marxist confusion a little in that both Mussolini and Hitler did make major allusions to the past -- Mussolini aiming to re-establish the Roman empire and Hitler glorifying Germany's imagined pre-Christian lifestyle. But it is starkly clear that these allusions are to an imagined and remote past rather than to the actual immediate past. Neither man was a traditionalist in any sense. Both had visions for their countries that were thoroughly modernist. The visions were rather vague and inchoate but that was part of modernism.

But the major point behind the Marxist critique is that the changes wrought by the Fascists were much less sweeping than those wrought by the Bolsheviks in Russia. The Fascists left most of the existing structure of society in place. Does that not make them defenders of the status quo?

But it must be remembered that the modernists were idealists rather than the hate-filled smash-everything monsters of Bolshevism. And the "hope and change" message offered by the modernists was every bit as vague as a similar message in the 21st century. Their ideals left very little guide for action. So their actions were rather limited when they came to power. They were clear that they needed to gain close control over society but they saw that this could be done by laws and regulation rather than by mass-murder -- so chose that more orderly path.

The one ideal that they aimed to implement was the thoroughly socialist ideal of a better deal for the workers -- and they in fact did that by much expanded social welfare legislation. And they intruded further into the lives of the workers than even social democratic parties had ever envisaged -- even providing cheap recreations for the workers (The "Dopolavoro" system in Italy and the "Kraft durch Freude" movement in Germany).

The Fascist control of their society was extensive and intrusive but not obviously destructive. They were in that way closer to the social democrats than the Bolsheviks. So the transformation of society under the Fascists was more restrained than what happened in Russia but it was still obviously motivated by socialist ideals and was just as disastrous in the end.

But what about the nationalism of the Fascists? Where does that fit in? It was in fact one way in which the Fascists did NOT innovate or stand out. Nationalism was normal across the political spectrum in Europe at the time. There were few more ardent German nationalists than Friedrich Engels, for instance. Yes. THAT Engels: Karl Marx's co-author. And Mussolini saw that. He saw that the working classes of Europe had supported their respective nation-states in WWI and it was largely that realization which eventually caused him to give up Marxist class-war ideas and invent Fascism instead. Hitler too was repulsed by class-war ideas.

So one can conclude that the political manifestation of modernism in the form of Fascism was largely a poorly managed response to an economic transformation. A new world called for new ideas and Fascism purported to offer that.

I will close by pointing out very briefly the rather obvious tie-in to the fascination with Japan that prevailed for a while in Europe. Japan modernized at the most breakneck speed of all and yet still seemed to retain all its traditional values! No wonder the modernists were fascinated! In fact, Japan had something for everyone, which is why it had so much influence (now mostly forgotten) in the run-up to WWI.

Footnote: I am mildly pleased to see that the Wikipedia entry on Bismarck agrees fairly closely with what I have said about him. I don't always have orthodox history on my side!

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