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Revolutionary Ideas Reorient the Turbulent 1920s

Revolutionary Ideas Reorient the Turbulent 1920s

Posted: 2022-12-16 13:02:01 By: jacob

Boyer's Modern History of Muskoka

By J. Patrick Boyer

December is dutifully winding down another 12-month cycle. Preparing for a New Year, we might make self-improvement resolutions. We’ll certainly hear retrospectives on 2022, and predictions about 2023. But for a better fix on the world and our place in it, a longer view, back a full century to the 1920s, sheds important light on what’s happening today.

In that decade – rightly called the Roaring Twenties – just about everything had come unhinged. Society itself was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from a world war and global pandemic.

The First World War hollowed out society, leaving 37 million soldiers and civilians dead or wounded. The Roaring Twenties echoed the agony of that lost generation. In January 1920 the peace treaty ending that bloodiest of wars came into force and completely re-arranged global power, creating roaring imbalances that generated a second world war just two decades later. At the same time, the Spanish Flu pandemic killed between 20 million and 50 million people worldwide, a huge range but the best estimate of the large-scale chaos of the dying.

Covid has claimed the lives of 6½ million people. Because of Covid, and the war in Ukraine, we can better grasp how people in the 1920s felt after six unrelenting years of danger, dying, military conscription, rationing of food and fuel, government censorship of news. The 1920s also roared because, after all that, people faced new realities, asked harder questions, hungered for better answers.


1920s Society in Cross-Currents of Change

New things began happening in the 1920s. Canadian women had greater freedom, including the right to vote. The war killed and crippled so many men that traditional controls of society loosened and women advanced into the vacuum of previously male-only jobs.

Prohibition of alcohol became law, followed by organized crime to provide people with illegal booze. Prohibition ended, but organized crime is still with us.

A surging automobile revolution liberated people. Motor touring was an adventure, and motorists happily began discovering new places. Hundreds of thousands more vehicles appeared each year.

The thrill of civil aviation arrived, transporting passengers further and faster, with Canada’s first commercial airline flights flying between Toronto and Muskoka.

New technologies reoriented society by shattering distance with telephones, and introducing electricity for new home, office, factory, and farm uses. Sound was added to motion pictures. Radio broadcasts became widespread and popular. Music became livelier for dancing, more soulful yet exciting with the spread of jazz. Sexual freedom was catching, and the rising hemlines of Flappers’ dresses let daring women display beautiful legs.

Underpaid workers launched general strikes and revolts. Discontented voters elected new political parties to office.

Many people with little income, from delivery boys to secretaries, believed they were making easy millions buying shares on margin at the stock market, an imaginary wealth like today’s crypto-currencies. This would end badly in 1929 when the complete crash of the stock market brought down the curtain on the Roaring Twenties, and started the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The public mind was being challenged by artists who rejected recognizable ways of painting and sculpting. Instead of replicating what they saw before them, they created distorted and abstracted forms of art.

Society, struggling with its altered perspectives about life, was seeking to reinterpret the human environment that shaped them. Just as air travel and aerial photography gave people a new sense of place, inside peoples’ minds the world of the 1920s was also beginning to look very different, too.


Revolutionary Ideas Transform 1920s Thinking

Many deep-thinkers were striving to reorient peoples’ understanding. In the 1920s the ideas of Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx created new points of departure that changed the trajectory we’ve been on ever since.

Each completed their major work much earlier, but the Roaring Twenties proved a fertile atmosphere for their unprecedented thinking. The cataclysmic shake-up of societies by the double-punch war and pandemic made people not only receptive to new thinking but hungering for deeper explanations.

In 1905, when he was 26, Albert Einstein published a scientific paper “On the electrodynamics of moving bodies” to address a specific problem with the prevailing theory about the origin of the universe. That theory, devised by English mathematician Isaac Newton, had been in place for two centuries. Newton’s theory of the cosmos had itself been based on the much earlier development of Euclid’s geometric lines and Galileo’s principles of absolute time. It was the framework for the European Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution’s rapidly expanding knowledge in all realms, and peoples’ growing prosperity and freedom through the 19th Century.

Yet while that was happening, scientists kept making observations proving that this absolute certainty about laws governing natural phenomenon was not infallible. Einstein’s revised explanation for how lengths seem to contract and clocks slowdown in particular conditions came to be called the Special Theory of Relativity. His discovery that space and time are relative rather than absolute terms of measurement had the same astonishing effect on peoples’ perception as the introduction of perspective in painting two millenniums before. It was huge.

Historian Paul Johnson traces the inception of modernity – our modern age of the 20th century – to this idea of “A Relativistic World.” Millions of dissatisfied people in the Roaring Twenties, challenging the fixed rules governing moral conduct and the social order, readily latched onto Albert Einstein’s new idea, as they understood it, that things in life were relative rather than absolute.

But Einstein was addressing a specific scientific problem in measuring time and distance. That became obscured by commentators in the 1920s popularizing and generalizing his theory of relativity. It took on countless meanings and applications, from academic scholarship and popular culture to personal excuses and criminal defences.


Everything Was Now “Relative”

It was now the particular context in which an individual had to make a decision that established the basis for deciding what to do, not the application of an absolute general rule. In light of what society had experienced from 1914 to 1920, relativity made infinitely more sense.

The previously blinkered belief in absolute truths – which underpinned how imperial powers charted the war’s mad course, the way organized religions kept adherents in line, and which moralists zealously advocated for social uplift by total elimination of alcohol – all contributed to a rising sentiment condemning the Old Order and embracing relativity.

A 1920s belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes – of time or space, of good or evil, of knowledge, above all, of value.

Perhaps it was inevitable that relativity became confused with relativism, the way people wrongly switch such words as enormous and enormity – the first meaning really big, the second, really evil. Relativity is the word describing the state of one thing being related to something else. Relativism is the theory, especially in ethics or aesthetics, that conceptions of truth and moral values are not absolute but relate to the persons or groups holding them.

From this confusion, Einstein’s theory of relativity unleashed a new and widespread way of understanding relationships that utterly eroded earlier reliance on absolute cultural and moral rules of conduct. “Relativity” introduced to psychiatry and politics, religion and finance, personal accountability, criminal justice, and just about everything, a subjective way of seeing things that increasingly eroded moral absolutism. In place of certitude would come situation ethics, comparative analysis, and public opinion sampling as some of the many ways individuals would personally decide what was the right and best thing for them to do.

The public response to relativity became “one of the principal formative influences on the course of 20th century history,” states Johnson, and “helped cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture” and the classical world. This reorientation has been playing out for a century now, and continues to accelerate in an era of “selfies” by which an individual places themself at the centre of the universe, or “fake news” when even the holders of highest political office from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin see reality as what they imagine and believe truth is what they desire it to be. And this contest between personal choice and an absolute rule is what keeps the United States in roiling turmoil today over abortion.


Sigmund Freud Introduces Psychoanalysis

While Albert Einstein’s concept of relatively was becoming elastic and generalized, so were the ideas of Sigmund Freud. He, too, had completed his original medical and psychiatric work before the Great War – his book The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900 – but his ideas only came into vogue beyond medical circles in the 1920s when everyone hungered for better explanations.

Freud, a psychologist in Vienna, focused on what caused his patients, whose disturbing behaviour seemed inexplicable, to act the way they did. He looked into a person’s mind to grasp clues for what gave rise to their behaviour. From that he propounded the concept that deeply-seeded thought patterns trigger acts that are not conscious manifestations by rational people but intrinsic responses emanating from a person’s repressed feelings and sublimated experiences.

It helped that Freud was an exceptionally good writer. His readily understandable examples and memorable metaphors conveyed clearly his ideas that human nature was largely irrational. He developed a wide and fascinated following as people began looking below the surface for what was causing people to act in inexplicable ways. To millions who’d witnessed unprecedented death and devastation from seemingly insane warfare, Freud explained that humans are not primarily rational beings moved by self-interest, but that instead human nature is largely irrational, and individuals are motivated by a mass of conflicting primitive feelings having little connection with rationality or self-interest.        

Freud purported to explain and even justify why people behaved the way they did. His psychoanalysis seemed a ground-breaking answer for why soldiers suffered “shell shock” and suggested alternate treatment for mental illness caused by traumatic stress.

“But even more spectacular, and in the long-run far more important,” notes Johnson, “was the sudden discovery of Freud’s work and ideas by intellectuals and artists.” A deluge of non-fiction books, feature films, documentaries, novels, stage plays, university courses, news media coverage, paintings, sculptures, poetry, religious and philosophic interpretations, criminal investigation, courtroom trials, medical practices, pharmaceutical treatments, and human conversations all began to have this Freudian psychological dimension as their point of entry.

At a time when people were questioning everything from the nature of religion to sexual behaviour, Freud had answers for it all, and his new vocabulary made its debut: the unconscious, the Oedipus Complex, sublimation, the ego, the id, the super ego, and the death instinct. Others coined such variants as “the death wish” and “the Freudian slip.”

The double impact of Einstein and Freud on intellectuals and creative artists who shape how others perceive their conditions was greatly magnified, suggests Johnson, because “the coming of peace had made them aware that a fundamental revolution had been and was still taking place in the whole world of culture, of which the concepts of relativity and Freudianism seem both portents and echoes.”


Karl Marx Envisages Economic and Political Revolution

Karl Marx’s influential concepts recast countless 20th century relationships.

Strongly determinative, Marx saw society operating from economic and institutional relationships that, like a locomotive moving along steel rails, followed an inevitable course. His influential theory of history – often called historical materialism – centred around the idea that forms of society rise and fall as they first advance, but then impede, development of human productive power.

The main cause of war, Marx contended, was rivalry between industrialized nations over colonies. He’d gained this insight long before World War One, based on earlier wars waged by imperial powers in the 19th century for control over colonies for raw materials and markets. Marx the philosopher, economist, historian and journalist became a radical political theorist and socialist revolutionary. As early as 1848 he’d published “The Communist Manifesto.” His critiques offered people deeper explanations about the conditions that create human actions and national rivalries. After the First World War, many of these explanations rang truer than ever.

Marx thought the capitalistic system would inevitably destroy itself. Oppressed workers would become alienated, overthrow the owners, and take control of the means of production themselves, ushering in a classless society. In 1917, with the Bolshevik revolution that toppled the Czar and capitalism, Marxism moved from analytic theory to animated experiment in Russia. It played in Canada, too, when the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike was blamed by the government on Bolsheviks, and in Muskoka when Dyson Carter published the communist newspaper of Canada at Gravenhurst and served as president of the Canadian-Soviet Friendship Society from 1949 to 1960.


Muskoka History Includes Global Influences

In studying Muskoka’s modern history, attention is needed for both local events and global developments that impact the lives – or in this case, the thinking – of Muskokans. The inseparable nature of these three strands of revolutionary thinking informed a political culture that burst on the 1920s scene with consequences still shaping our lives today.

Einstein the German mathematician and physicist unsettled society by the unintended consequences of others extending his theories of relativity beyond the realm of applied science. Freud the Austrian neurologist pioneered a modern psychology that unhinged traditional society by creating an alternate basis for analyzing beliefs and behaviour, and developing different practices for treating mental illness. Marx the German revolutionary philosopher inspired the founding of many communist regimes, and the efforts to create even more, around the globe through the twentieth century.

The more the theories of Einstein, Freud, and Marx were popularized for mass society, the more distorted became their understanding. Yet that did not diminish their centrality to the political culture which shaped our modern world.