Hammering out the siècle

Fin de Siècle
March 29, 1996

Is the end of a century always the end of an age? Here is a book designed to tell us. The 11 essays collected here by Alex Danchev, the fruit of a series of seminars at Keele University in 1992/94, are at best uncertain even on this point. They hover between the two prescriptions the authors were given: is there a meaning to the 20th century? And what, if anything, is ending?

These two uses of the French word sicle have produced a tension, though often a fruitful one, in the attempt to find both meaning and conclusion. The problem was generated a century ago, when the classical fin de sicle happened to coincide with the actual ending of a century, though it stretched well beyond it. Now we have the collapse of communism. The temptation to see the end of the century as the end of an age is once again irresistible. In fairness, most of the contributors avoid any simple coupling. Their subject really is the wider meaning of our century. Even Charles Townsend's coruscating piece on the 19th-century version and its gradual unravelling makes little pretence that our post-communist decade really is an end, and the 21st century a beginning.

The meaning of the century is approached along two distinct paths. The first encompasses the contribution of some major powers to defining the centuries great issues - America, Japan, Russia and Europe. Edward Acton uses his discussion of Russia to lay bare the wider question of the relationship between planning, political authority and economic success. Russia is "the supreme cautionary tale of the 20th century". That brief period of euphoric confidence in planning and its bureaucratic and professional agents, beloved of fascist technocracy as well as Soviet modernisers, like the now misplaced confidence in the healing power of science, has disappeared - destroyed by the grim evidence of the Gulag, Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

We are all, as Chris Brown argues here, moving towards the view that open markets and participatory politics do not have serious competitors. It was confidence in that assertion which led the United States away from a perfectly rational isolationism towards an ideologically driven pursuit of world power after 1945. The Manichean world constructed by American leaders, as John Thompson points out, was a necessity given the incomprehension of the wider American public about what American's internationalist responsibilities were.

The second path is trodden by he "isms" - nationalism, Islamism, economism, nuclearism, globalism. There are plenty of others, but all the ones chosen for the volume are meaty choices. Some clearly define the century. The problem posed by nuclear weapons is nicely put by Richard Wyn Jones: are they in control or do they control us? Are they instruments, or do they create a substantive pressure of their own? The jury is still out on this one. We must be satisfied that they have been mastered enough to allow us even to reach the next century. The other "isms" raise enduring puzzles about the most appropriate form of state or community life; about the tensions of globalism on the one hand, and the search for subordinate identities, of religion or race or locality, on the other. The nation state has persisted remarkably well. This has proved to be Hegel's century much more than Marx's.

If there are real fin de sicle anxieties in the 1990s they concern the role that religion might come to play in a worldwide revival, from Bible-belt America to the liberated Orthodox Christians of the new Russia. Maha Azzam's sensitive treatment of the Islamic revival shows that western secularists, so long used to the idea that religion was doomed, will have to adjust to more than fashionable multi culturalism. Religion will be back on the agenda next century.

In the end the meaning of the century, a more portentous subtitle than its authors perhaps intended, is too large a question for a book of essays, stimulating and authoritative as they are. The fin de sicle is even more elusive, for in truth the end of an age is a state of mind as much as a set of institutional or political changes. The late 19th century was obsessed with decay, degeneration, decline. The Great War confirmed this sense of a progressive history distorted, wrecked even, on mass war, mass mobilisation, mass psychosis. The language in the 1920s and 1930s was all of New Age or New Order, of transcending the bankrupt culture of the new mass age. 1945 brought that cycle to an end. We still live with its consequences. It will need a bigger revolution than the collapse of communism to turn the end of this century into the end of an age.

Richard Overy is professor of history, King's College, London.

Fin de Siècle: The Meaning of the Twentieth Century

Editor - Alex Danchev
ISBN - 1 85043 967 2
Publisher - I. B. Tauris
Price - £39.50
Pages - 225

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