Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (1983)
Paul M. Johnson | English | 1983 | ISBN-10: 0060935502 | 880 pages
Audio + PDF | MP3 - 64kbps | 1,2 GB | ULD&FF
A general history of the 20th century, as viewed by a quirky British Conservative journalist; a book as highly praised by some on the "right" as reviled by some on the "left" (see a lengthy review quoted below). This a reading of the the original (1983) edition, not of the later, revised and updated versions. A PDF copy of the 1991 edition is attached.
A few notes:
(1) The audio book and the PDF text are not of the same edition -- the former is the original 1983 edition, the latter the revised 1991 edition.
(2) This has been digitised from old cassettes, and the tape wasn't in the best condition. Some attempt was made to compensate for some of the defects, and a mild noise scrubbing was applied; but, although listenable, the result is not exactly first class quality.
(3) The reader, Larry McKeever, although reasonably competent in English, does a thorough and impartial job of relentlessly butchering almost all non-English phrases and names. How a narrator with such a shortcoming could have been chosen for this type of book is beyond me.
This highly opinionated, sometimes interesting but ultimately unconvincing book has received considerable mass media attention, no doubt because the perspective it advances dovetails neatly with the world view of the Reagan administration. Modern Times can best be described as a massively researched but nonetheless idiosyncratic history of the twentieth century by a fallen-away liberal turned Neo-Conservative moralist. Because the author-a British journalist-attempts to fit a mass of material into a rigid and controversial ideological framework, the reader discovers a "mixed bag": occasionally challenging or stimulating ideas interspersed with interpretations and "facts" which many historians will question.
Johnson clearly dislikes most of the developments of the past seven decades, an era he cynically views as characterized by several objectionable forces: coercive statism, professional politicians, social engineering, liberal intellectuals (who usually play a "socially disruptive role"), collectivist economics, and most distressing of all, moral relativism (a by-product, he claims, of Einstein's theory of relativity). Johnson tends to view history as the product of dominating personalities; for example, he describes (inaccurately) the Chinese civil war as more or less a personal conflict between Mao and Chiang, with few socio-economic causes. Similarly, Third World problems since decolonization are attributed not to the colonial legacy, world economic patterns, or other factors, but rather to the mistakes of misguided political leaders.
Not surprisingly, given this approach, most twentieth century leaders and thinkers emerge as "villains" with few redeeming characteristics. The list is long and includes obvious candidates like Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin and Pol Pot. But many historians would give a more balanced (often even sympathetic) account of some of his other "villains": Sun Yat Sen, Mao ("a brutal . . . ruthless peasant"), Chiang, Gandhi ("a political exotic"), Nehru, Sukarno, Trotsky ("a moral relativist of the most dangerous sort"), Lenin, Tito ("a political gangster"), Keynes, Freud, Peron, Castro, Allende, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Kaunda, Lumumba ("a worthless scoundrel"), Hammarskjold, Nasser, and Franklin Roosevelt. Only a few heroes or semiheroes emerge, mostly proponents of free enterprise economics: Churchill, Harding ("a generous and unsuspicious man"), Coolidge (who presided over America's "Arcadia"), Hoover, Eisenhower ("the most successful of America's twentieth century presidents"), Nixon, Jean Monnet, Adenauer, Salazar and Franco (dictators who promoted growth economies). That many historians would differ with his assessment is due, he believes, to campaigns by liberal intellectuals and the media to willfully distort the record.
Although some points are effectively argued and reasonable, this book will distress many historians because it adopts simplistic one-dimensional perspectives, ignores or too facilely dismisses evidence which challenges those perspectives, and states its own interpretations with an unwarranted certainty (many opinions begin with such statements as "the truth is . . ."). Many of his positions are absurd; he tells us that worldwide student discontent in the late 1960s and 1970s derives from the (presumably massive) influence of French structuralist intellectuals like Braudel and Levi-Strauss, and that China's problems in the post-Manchu era chiefly resulted from the "moral relativism" of that country's leaders (rather than from imperialism, overpopulation, or the like). Many other views are merely outrageous (and often ethnocentric); he alleges that "a shark-like instinct to savage the stricken" (p. 190) helped prompt Japan to invade China in the 1930's. Many statements are misinformed or inaccurate: Johnson identifies three types of Muslims (Sunni, Shia and Kurd!), and divides Uganda into a Christian south and Muslim north (Christians dominate both regions).
In this short review I cannot possibly identify all of the problems with this lengthy and detailed analysis; instead, let me note a few telling examples which reveal the flavor of the work. Throughout these chapters the author campaigns against "social engineering" by governments; hence, he condemns without qualification Maoist China as a "lurid melodrama" (p. 548). Yet, he ignores cases of "social engineering" that clearly brought long-term benefits (Meiji Japan, Chulalongkorn's Siam, United States civil rights laws) and fails to identify "social engineering" in cases he admires (the American Occupation of Japan, the Vietnam War). While blaming "moral relativists" (too simplistic a category) for the ills of the world, he ignores conflicts resulting from the passions of "moral absolutists" (Ulster, Lebanon, the Indonesian massacres, Khomeini's Iran). He praises (rather naively) British colonialism for constructing an unrepressive rule of law and free market economies; but he never considers that, for example, Burmese peasants-their land increasingly lost to foreigners, their culture under attack from ethnocentric (even racist) British policies, their actions circumscribed by British force and the threat of force-might view colonial rule differently than Johnson's mostly British sources. He staunchly defends British rule in India, which leads him to seemingly condone the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 and portray Indian nationalism as misguided and out of touch with the desires of the Indian masses. Johnson claims that colonialism triumphed because Afro-Asian peoples lacked the will to resist, neatly ignoring the many wars of resistance and anticolonial rebellions. To support his case against Idi Amin, he accuses the Ugandan dictator of generating intertribal strife most observers attribute to other causes and offers as fact many unsubstantiated (although not necessarily implausible) stories from media accounts about Amin's exotic personality. He praises the Chilean junta which overthrew Allende for sponsoring economic revival through free market policies, but he neglects or downplays the cost (many thousands killed or jailed, civil liberties suspended, unions proscribed) and the recent economic shambles these policies have generated. He contends that economic liberty (a free enterprise market economy) and political liberty are inevitably linked, a claim that will surprise the thousands of political prisoners and exiles from capitalist dictatorships like South Korea, Brazil, and the Philippines. To Johnson anti-Americanism in the world results from America's upholding of "free will" as opposed to "determinism"; he apparently supports most American interventions to "determine" the political future of countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam (even praising "free fire zones" as humane), oblivious to their impact on world opinion.
In an appropriately committed but muddled conclusion to an occasionally useful but mostly unrewarding book, Johnson promotes Sociobiology as the needed intellectual panacea for deterministic thinking, pointing the way perhaps to a new competitive and religious world in which he will feel more comfortable.
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