The 20th Century: Testing Grounds for Government Ideology

The 20th Century: Testing Grounds for Government Ideology

“From the development of the welfare state in America to the fascist uprisings of Europe and the communist revolutions throughout the East; nearly every inch of the globe witnessed an ideological revolution, each advancing the government’s role in a nation’s society and economy – for better or worse.”

As global economic and diplomatic discontent plagued the last half of the 19th century, some of the world’s most influential thinkers pondered new roles for the state; ones which utilized government unlike most prior to the turn of the century. However revolutionary the ideas may have seemed, these fundamental new roles for the state came into the first-world usage as the brewing tensions came to a boil in the early decades of the 20th century, marking a nearly unparalleled movement in first-world governing style. From the development of the welfare state in America to the fascist uprisings of Europe and the communist revolutions throughout the East; nearly every inch of the globe witnessed an ideological revolution, each advancing the government’s role in a nation’s society and economy – for better or worse.

As our nation entered the 20th century, we faced crippling issues of inequality, bureaucracy, and poor living conditions in the era known as the Gilded Age. The backlash to these issues is not to be understated as they were pivotal in transitioning our government from a passive bystander of corruption and inequality to a force which actively polices the economy and assists the poor. The Progressive Era took full effect in 1901, as Theodore Roosevelt (a.k.a. “the Trustbuster) assumed the role of the presidency after the assassination of President McKinley. During his administration, Roosevelt wielded the government as a device to drive widespread social innovation in a manner rarely seen before. Throughout the Northern Securities antitrust case, the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Hepburn Railroad Regulation act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, and much more; the decade which followed McKinley’s death witnessed the beginning of unprecedented government intervention in the private sector – usually in the interests of workers. Decades later, Teddy Roosevelt’s distant cousin, Franklin, assumed the presidency with a mission to expand the government’s role even further. Throughout his administration, he enacts ‘the New Deal,’ which founded countless new organizations to provide work and assistance to the poor. Ultimately, the welfare state (as begun by the Progressives and almost perfected by the FDR administration) has best proved to stand the test of time. Since the beginning of America’s modern era, our nation has been on a spectrum of privatization and nationalization, however, even at our most privatized, we continue to enjoy government welfare programs such as Social Security, while also embracing the luxuries of the free-market.

Discontent with precisely the same factors which defined the Gilded Age in the West also raged throughout the East as well; however, many Easterners were not as moderate as Western social democrats such as FDR. In November of 1917, there arose a collectivist revolution in Russia, led by Vladimir Lenin of the Bolshevik Party and inspired by the writings of Communist thinkers such as Karl Marx. The revolution, successful after nearly a decade of civil war, sought to replace, not only the aristocratic Czar (who wielded autocratic decision making) but also the capitalist system itself – which they felt contained inherent flaws which could not be fixed with moderate state intervention (as the Western social democrats believed). Instead of utilizing the government to create more fluid class mobility, the Bolsheviks believed that the class system needs to be abolished all-together and replaced with a socialist economy being entirely directed, protected, and monopolized by a Soviet government. By 1919, communism was no longer just a theory but the driving philosophy of one of the world’s largest nations; a philosophy which was inherently expansionist, as evident in the Communist International (formed by the Soviets in 1919). The organization epitomized Soviet foreign policy, which denounced slavery worldwide while declaring capitalism to be the ultimate chains which hold the world captive. With its apparent intent being to export revolution worldwide, the Soviet Union terrified the Western nations as they saw an incredible threat; both to domestic stability at home and foreign interests abroad. As early as 1920, the United States, in a project led by Attorney General A. Michell Palmer, began conducting raids on supposed “radical centers” throughout the nation. Although most of the over 6,000 people were eventually released, it was an early foreshadowing of the hugely significant US/Soviet conflict of interests, philosophy, and culture, which will later balance the world on the edge of nuclear war for the decades to come. Today, Russia (as well as most other ‘communist’ nations) openly participate in the global market, yet they (like most nations in general) continue to boast a large state which directs the nation’s economy. We can look back today, in a world shaped by Cold War conflicts, and learn how their solution of putting all faith in the government failed to resolve the issues which they sought to address. However, we can look back on their critique of capitalism and begin thinking about how to solve these problems democratically and within the limitations of our time.

However, the Communists were not the only advocates for a radically expanded state. Just one continent over and 16 years after the Russian Revolution, Hitler took power in Germany (1933) with a differently styled mission to expand his nation’s state. Although sharing authoritarian tendencies with Stalin and the communists, the fascist dogma of the 1940s favored the state to be utilized as a different device; one to enforce and reiterate existing hierarchies rather than equality. The doctrine of fascism was deployed by many other European nations as well, including Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party (who have held power since the early 1920s but became increasingly hostile leading to WWII) and the Francoist dictatorship of Spain, whose Nationalist faction eventually emerged successfully from a brutal civil war. Their dogma, one of authoritarianism and militarism, was initially accepted by the United States and other nations, who had less opposition to the fascists than the communists. However, after years of Germany pushing its boundaries (both literally and euphemistically) and rounds of appeasement, the uneasy truce was eventually broken after Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, igniting the bloodiest conflict in human history. Today, we can look back at the utilization of this authoritarian capitalist system and easily condemn the ideology, as well as the atrocities which were committed in its wake and the factors (militarism, nationalism, and authoritarianism) which contributed to its flaws. However, the central philosophy of the regimes is still significant as it has influenced our contemporary government, society, and culture tremendously.

As the United States government transitioned to a modern welfare state in the early twentieth century, many other significant nations were undergoing metamorphosis as well; however, they were abandoning liberal principles altogether while we were merely evolving. Earlier in the century began the Russians’ transition into the world’s first Communist state, soon followed by multiple desperate European nations abandoning their post-WWI democratic systems in favor of authoritarian fascist regimes. Although there is much to learn from these systems (good and bad), only one thing is blatantly evident upon first glance; the early 20th century witnessed an enormous shift in government ideology and political doctrines – many of which unseen (in practice) before this point. The significance of this phenomena is unable to be understated as it has shaped the governing styles used today and the political landscape which we currently find ourselves in. As a historian, it is easy to see the destruction formed in the wake of authoritarianism (both left-right and right-wing) and the prosperity derived from social liberalism throughout the 20th century. However, much of the examination which scholars indulge in today would still be theory if it were not for the developments of the 20th century; the tragic yet invaluable testing grounds for government ideology.


Works Cited

Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People. MacGraw Hill, 1993. 


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