Illiberal Modernism 1900–50: A Global Moment?

AHA Session 172
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room 103 (Hynes Convention Center)
Sven Beckert, Harvard University
Charles S. Maier, Harvard University

Session Abstract

The years between 1900 and the end of World War II witnessed the formulation and implementation of radical political departures from what was seen as a corrupt liberal modernity. Politics were laid out “in a new key” (Carl Schorske). Opposing the liberal tenets of the marketplace and bourgeois self-fashioning, illiberal modernizers used mass mobilization, economic planning and state dirigisme in an effort supplant a crisis-ridden and seemingly obsolete capitalist order. From the Young Turk revolution in 1908, the Bolshevik takeover in Russia (1917), through the ascendancy of Fascism in Italy (1923), the elimination of the party system in Japan (1932) and the beginning of National Socialism in Germany (1933), to the reformulation of the role of the state in the New Deal USA (1933), and the advent of Peronism in Argentina (1943) – an incomplete list – political projects of the first half of the 20th century years styled themselves in explicit opposition to the crisis-ridden liberal order. In each case, the imperative was to challenge capitalist liberalism, sometimes identified as ‘Western,’ through an agenda of modernization by alternative but illiberal means. In key areas such as labor sciences, eugenics, economic planning, the creation of infrastructure, industrial rationalization, and consumerism, illiberal modernizers competed with the ‘West’ and with each other in an effort to create more equitable, if less liberal, societies and economies. Often, this new political key included a turn to the irrational, secular-religious, and utopian.

This panel aims to establish a synoptic view of these and similar projects, with the immediate aim of developing a framework for theorizing the global turn to illiberal modernization. The panel assembles papers from historians of the 20th-century who investigate the concrete ways in which illiberal modernization articulated itself as a political project around the globe. We want to address these paramount questions:

·      To what extent can we identify common reasons for the trend to illiberal modernization in the first half of the 20th century? Are these reasons structural in nature (industrialization, global economic volatility, decolonization) or ideological (anti-liberalism, collectivism)?

·      What is the relationship between the different projects of illiberal modernization of that era? To what extent did they communicate with, borrow from, or oppose each other? Was there an awareness of working on a common project?

·      What is the relationship between illiberal modernism and anti-colonial politics? To what extent did anti-imperial thinkers and decision-makers adopt illiberal modernist agenda?

·      Taking into consideration the theme of the AHA 2011: did illiberal modernization re-arrange the relationship of societies to the sacred? What role did the ‘re-enchantment of the world’ play in the politics of illiberal modernization?

·      Finally, how could a synoptic understanding of the successes and failures of illiberal modernization efforts help us contextualize the master narrative of Western modernization (modernization theory)?

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