Relativity and Relativism in the 20th century

The magisterial history of the 20th century Modern Times opens in an unexpected way. Instead of launching into a description of New Year’s festivities or presidential addresses, British historian Paul Johnson elucidates the development of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the idea that time and space are relative, not absolute. “Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism” (4).[1] Einstein’s discovery, presented with elegant lines of argumentation, began “a comprehensive revision of Newtonian physics” (2), and thus started the process of the world turning itself upside down.

The author delivers his elegy on faith in the aftermath of the First World War:

“Among the advanced races, the decline and ultimately the collapse of the religious impulse would leave a huge vacuum. The history of modern times is in great part the history of how that vacuum had been filled. Nietzsche rightly perceived that the most likely candidate would be what he called the ‘Will to power’, which offered a far more comprehensive and in the end more plausible explanation of human behavior than either Marx or Freud. In place of religious belief, there would be secular ideology.” (48)

This is Johnson’s primary thesis. When a people abandons the Judeo-Christian God, then and only then is the time ripe for a Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, or Mao to seize the reins of power.  When a people’s religious convictions stray from their moorings, what is to restrain a strong or overly-ambitious utopian from overthrowing the status quo? What stands between a silver-tongued Hitler and his goal? When relativity prevails, anything goes.

What Einstein proved through science, Marx asserted in the social and economic realm and Freud in the personal and moral sphere. The sciences and arts collectively injected poison into the system. These men taught mankind to doubt the senses, space and time, right and wrong, law and justice. Intellectuals and artists became aware of a “fundamental revolution” in the culture (8). “The impression people derived from Einstein, of a universe in which all measurements of value were relative, served to confirm this vision – which both dismayed and exhilarated – of moral anarchy.” (11) Again, Johnson bemoans the loss of the old world system, writing:

“Plainly it [i.e. the old order] could not be fully restored, perhaps not restored at all. A new order would eventually take its place. … There were … disquieting currents of thought which suggested the image of a world adrift, having left its moorings in traditional law and morality.” (47)

Einstein, a non-practicing Jew, “acknowledged a God” (4). The greatest physicist of the twentieth century was also a firm believer in a system of absolute morality. As a result of what may have been his greatest discovery, though, Einstein made a significant contribution to the popularization of relativism and atheism.

The repercussions of Einstein’s monumental change were manifold and would be felt for at least the next eighty years. The idea that “all is flux”, that science, morality, religion – everything must be questioned or rejected in favor of the strong is the presupposition that plagued the twentieth century, the bloodiest that humankind has ever known. Several leading intellectuals contributed to this psychological unrest, as well. Sigmund Freud wrote that the primary force of mankind was sexual. Karl Marx maintained that the central force was economic.  Both agreed that Nietzsche’s tenet was right, that “God is dead” (48).

Paul Johnson bewails the years that follow from this rapid turn away from traditional ethics and natural law. The repercussions demonstrate the dual impact of great scientific innovators. A secondary thesis of the text is: “The end of the old order, with an unguided world adrift in a relativistic universe, was a summons to teach such gangster-statesmen to emerge.” Indeed, “[t]hey were not slow to make their appearance” (48). Although the “gangster-statesmen” are not the main focus of the book, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot bring Johnson’s primary thesis into view.  Karl Popper once wrote of “the law of unintended consequence,” and the twentieth century after 1919 reflected a colossal shift toward relativity. The unintended consequence of rejecting both the deity and personal responsibility was “moral anarchy” (11). It was onto this world scene that tyrants like Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao sprang.

As one example of this new prototype of gangster-statesman, Lenin’s religion was his peculiar brand of Marxism.  He was the “anchorite” of totalitarian politics, living “the revolution twenty-four hours a day” (51-52).  Indeed, “No man personifies better the replacement of the religious impulse by the will to power” (51).  For all his passion and revolutionary fervor, “Lenin was very far from being an orthodox Marxist” (54).  He and the Italian Mussolini shared unorthodox ideas for their parties:

Both saw the party as a highly centralized … and ferociously disciplined agency for furthering socialist objectives.  Both wanted a leadership of professional revolutionaries.    Both thought revolutionary consciousness could be brought to the masses from without by a revolutionary, self-appointed élite.  Finally, both believed that, in the coming struggle between the classes, organized violence would be the final arbiter. (58)

It was during this time that the dictator grew the state such that “… in Russia, the predominance of the state in every area of economic life was becoming the central fact of society” (14).  Again, “Lenin had systematically constructed, in all its essentials, the most carefully engineered apparatus of state tyranny the world had yet seen” (84).  Johnson maintains that he is both the chief catalyst for the horrors of the twentieth century and the forerunner for most of the dictators who would follow him.  Nevertheless, Mussolini achieved visible success earlier than Lenin.  Both men were driven by the Nietzschean Will to Power. 

There remains a bond between these two that separates them from their intellectual forebear.  “If the whole of Marx appears in his book, wrote Trotsky, ‘the whole of Lenin … appears in revolutionary action’” (55).  Churchill saw Lenin and his Bolshevism for what they were: “Of all the tyrannies of history,” he once remarked, “the Bolshevik tyranny is the worst, the most destructive, the most degrading” (74). 

The actions of Lenin, Mussolini, and Lenin’s successor, Stalin, were directly responsible for the deaths of well over twenty-three million men.  Yet the history of the twentieth century would not be complete if the discussion ended with these three autocrats.  For the horrors of Tojo and his “fire-eater” strategy in Japan, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Hitler’s anti-Semitism in Germany, and Mao Tse-Tung’s Great Chinese Famine and then mass suicide which left a death-count of between forty- and seventy-million and cannot be ignored.  As ruthless and grisly as these men were, they should not overshadow the ideas at the heart of the great conflicts and world wars.  The greatest clash of worldviews was between atheistic Communism and Christian freedom.  As a holdover from the reforms (perhaps the deforming changes) of Lenin,

“In the old world, personal autocracies, . . . had been limited, or at least qualified, by other forces in society: a church, an aristocracy, an urban bourgeoisie, ancient charters and courts and assemblies.  And there was, too, the notion of an external, restraining force, in the idea of a Deity, or Natural Law, or some absolute morality.” (84)

The U.S.S.R. was at its core a rebellion against the Christian order and system. There was one man who understood the gravity of the situation – one statesman who “even began to grasp the enormous significance of the establishment of this new type of totalitarian dictatorship …” and that man “was Winston Churchill” (73).  He saw the rise of Lenin, Hitler, and the other demagogues through the lens of history and saw the enormity of it all. The world was blinded to what was happening.  Perhaps because of “altruistic passion for disarmament”, or in hopes of a stable economy, many men “will delude themselves about realities” (175).  Churchill, however, ever the astute student of history, recognized the monster for what he was.  Even after Germany had swallowed Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1939 – and plebiscites showed overwhelming support for the Anschluss – Neville Chamberlain had the audacity to speak of “peace for our time”.  Chamberlain saw Hitler as a buffer to the Soviet Union and thus “did not want [him] overthrown” (354).  He believed that the rival totalitarianisms would keep each other in check.

In March 1939, however, Hitler denounced his pact with Poland, and Germany’s territory expanded again. The “gangster pacts” began with one between Germany and Italy (359).  Hitler continued to play on the fear and hatred of his people, and America became like beaten, fearful dogs. “At the very moment the American intelligentsia turned to totalitarian Europe for spiritual sustenance and guidance in orderly planning, it was in fact embarking on two decades of unprecedented ferocity and desolation – moral relativism in monstrous incarnation” (261).  Churchill’s words, though, inspired the West to stand firm against this tyrant.  By the end of the war the Jews had lost over 6,000,000 to the madman, perhaps the most infamous of the gangster-statesmen.  Over 60,000,000 died in World War II, making it the bloodiest conflict in history.  These defeated regimes, the Nazis and Soviets, preached, practiced, and embodied moral relativism.

[1] All citations are from Johnson, Paul. Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. 1983. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Print.

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