“We shall repeal the 20th century.” These were words spoken by American economist Murray N. Rothbard (1926 – 1995) near the end of an article he wrote in 1992. Another American economist, Gary North (b. 1942), who is a historian and theologian as well, used these words near the end of a lecture he gave in 2010.
Rothbard made clear why he wants to repeal it, when he asked, ironically:
“Who would want to repeal the 20th century, the century of horror, the century of collectivism, the century of mass destruction and genocide, who would want to repeal that! Well, we propose to do just that.”
With “we” he meant what he hoped would be a resurrected movement which in America is called the Old Right, a movement that was libertarian in its core, supported decentralised structures, laissez-faire economics and minimal interference of the government into private lives. This movement was effectively killed off around the year 1900 and replaced by interventionist, imperialist, big-government and big-business supporting politics.
Similar things had happened, or were happening, in Europe. Nationalism was the name of the game, and that sentiment lead to centralised governments continually increasing their interventions into the economy to suit their lust for power. Imperialism was the natural outgrowth of this development. This in turn lead to the original catastrophe of our time, World War One.
Considering that we are by now one fifth into the next century, it is clear that we have been unable to repeal the 20th century. For, as an idea, or phenomenon, the 20th century, in all its awfulness, is still firmly with us. So, how can we go about “repealing” it?
A first, essential step would be to investigate the roots of the “collectivism, mass destruction and genocide” which so contorted Western societies and thus the whole world.
I think we need to look at the loss of faith in the Christian God as the prime cause. As the Russian communist-turned-anti-communist-and-orthodox-Christian dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1918 – 2009) said on the occasion of his acceptance, in London on May 10, 1983, of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion:
More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
The prime prophet of these circumstances, which befell not just Russia, but in different manifestations practically the whole world, was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900). Here is what historian Paul Johnson writes about him in his book “Modern Times”, at the end of the first chapter (the title of which is “A Relativistic World” [Perennial Classics 2001, p. 48]).
[Nietzsche] saw God not as an invention [as Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx had done] but as a casualty, and his demise as in some important sense an historical event, which would have dramatic consequences. He wrote in 1886: ‘The greatest event of our recent times – that “God is Dead”, that the belief in the Christian God is no longer tenable – is beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe.’ [from the fifth part of The Joyous Science, or The Gay Science] 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 behaviour than either Marx or Freud. In place of religious belief, there would be secular ideology. Those who had once filled the ranks of the totalitarian clergy would become totalitarian politicians. And, above all, the Will to Power would produce a new kind of messiah, uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatever, and with an unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind. The end of the old order, with an unguided world adrift in a relativistic universe, was a summons to such gangster-statesmen to emerge. They were not slow to make their appearance.
(Nietzsche’s “The Madman”, the short story in which he proclaims that God is dead and what that means for all of us, is here. The German original is here (No. 125).)
When we look around us, God appears to remain resolutely dead. Of course, many people, millions even, still diligently do God’s work and believe in Him. But large swathes of institutions and laws of modern societies cannot be called godly.
However, this is nothing new. According to the Bible, it is not unprecedented that God appeared to be, at least, very distant. The years of slavery in Egypt before the Exodus of the Israelites. The Babylonian exile. The centuries between the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and the arrival of Jesus.
In more modern times, the time from the wars of religion in the 17th century to the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries looks like such an era as well. And then, when (quite possibly due to a widespread return to God and adherence to His laws) unprecedented growth and prosperity came to the West, God again died in our hearts. And then came the ideologies that plague us to this day.
The Christian God is a God who was resurrected from the dead. That is where our hope must reside, if we ever want to shake off and repeal the 20th century.