The Modernism Debate

Where does modern liberalism come from?

In my view, the hallmark of modern liberalism is cultural liberalism, which distinguishes the liberalism of Modern America from the liberalism of Victorian America. The former is primarily an aesthetic form of liberalism. The latter was primarily a political and economic form of liberalism. It was concerned with the extension of individual rights and laissez-faire economics.

In the 19th century, Americans were utilitarian individualists. In the 20th century, they became expressive individualists. In the 19th century, the state was minimal, the economy was relaxed and culture was cohesive. In the 20th century, the state grew in importance, the economy became more regulated and the culture became relaxed. Liberalism changed dramatically in the early 20th century. It became focused on self liberation, expression, realization and the transformation of consciousness.

In the 1910s, Modernism arrived in the United States from Europe. This led to a shift in sensibility from the Romanticism of 19th century America to the Modernism of 20th century America. The Victorian mainstream of 19th century America came under assault by the Young Intellectuals who embraced Modern values. The Lost Generation that came of age around World War I and which was young in the 1920s rebelled against their parents who had supported World War I and Prohibition. They read H.L. Mencken who heaped scorn on the Puritanism of the boobosie, Sherwood Anderson’s freaks in Winesburg, Ohio and Sinclair Lewis who skewered Middle America and its values in Main Street and Babbitt.

The key transitional figures between the values and beliefs of Victorian America and Modern America generally had one foot in radical politics and the other in Modern art, literature and philosophy. In Greenwich Village, they were heavily influenced by the Modernist avant-garde, the radical socialist and anarchist fringe and Friedrich Nietzsche, H.G. Wells, Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud. Darwinism cast a shadow over them in the background. Generally speaking, these people saw Victorian America as a cultural desert that was crass and materialistic, racist, fundamentalist, puritanical and oppressive of minorities. They wanted to dynamite the old culture and replace it with a new one that was secular, cosmopolitan, modernist and antiracist and which valued individual self-expression and cultural liberation above all else.

From its inception in late 19th century France, Modernism had been about self exploration, elitism, hyper alienation, the autonomy of aesthetics from morality and society, rejecting the past and tradition in favor of the present, the pursuit of endless novelties, non-conformist experimentation in sex and drugs and shocking the bourgeois through transgression who had always been the great enemy of the avant-garde. When the spirit of Modernism crossed over into progressive liberalism, the result was cultural liberalism. Since the 1920s, modern liberalism has been driven by the old avant-garde impulse to tear down traditional moral and culture norms and shock the bourgeois in the name of self expression.

From Darwin’s Bulldog T.H. Huxley, the Young Intellectuals learned that Christianity had been debunked. From Friedrich Nietzsche, they learned that God was dead and traditional morality was bullshit too. The slave morality of the herd animals was holding back the self realization of the higher men – people like themselves – whose work was the bridge to the Übermensch. From Nietzsche, H.G. Wells and Henri Bergson, they took away mystical vitalism. From H.G. Wells, Emma Goldman and Sigmund Freud, they took away sexual liberation. From Friedrich Nietzsche, William James and John Dewey, they took away subjectivism and relativism. From Franz Boas, they took away antiracism. From the avant-garde, transgression against bourgeois norms, the religion of art and self expression. From Jews like Horace Kallen and the pragmatists, they took away cultural pluralism.

“Victorians” and “Moderns” differ in several key ways:

  • The Victorians were religious. Moderns are secular. They differ in metaphysics. 19th century America was dominated by Protestantism. In 20th century America, Christianity became more of a subculture and a lifestyle. Protestant elites no longer set the tone of American culture.
  • The Victorians believed in objective truth. Moderns believe truth is subjective, relativist, based on perspective. Postmodernism has taken this to an extreme. They differ in epistemology.
  • The Victorians believed that morality was true, universal, obvious. Religion and traditional morality imposed sharp limits on individual self-expression particularly in sexuality. They differ in ethics.
  • The Victorians believed in laissez-faire economics. Moderns believe the state should regulate the economy. They differ in economics.
  • The Victorians believed that art should depict nature and have an uplifting moral purpose. Moderns believe in art for art’s sake. Art is solely about the self-expression of the artist. Art does not have any social purpose. It doesn’t have to depict nature or the divine or even reality. Victorians subordinated art to religion and morality. Moderns subordinate religion and morality to aesthetics.
  • Victorians believed in hierarchy and sharply limited who could participate in politics. Moderns believe in equality and have leveled the hierarchy and now everyone can participate in politics.

There are countless differences.

In the 19th century, the upper middle class was liberal and nationalist. In the 20th century, the upper middle class became liberal, cosmopolitan and globalist. Victorians were racists who repressed sexuality. Moderns became antiracists who celebrate sexual liberation. The former was extremely confident and took great pride in Western civilization. The latter has lost confidence and has rejected Western civilization. Moderns repudiated the Victorians by inverting their values.

Among other things, Moderns threw out perspective and representation in painting, tonality in music, ornament in architecture, traditional prosodic rules in poetry, plots in literature. Darwin and Einstein inaugurated revolutions in biology and physics as sweeping as Copernicus and Galileo did in astronomy in the 16th and 17th centuries. There was a similar revolution in mathematics. The 20th century became obsessed with psychology in a way that wasn’t true of previous centuries.

Culturally speaking, the 19th century ended in World War I and our current age began. British dominance came to an end. American isolation from Europe came to an end. We discovered that the universe was expanding and that the Milky Way was only one of many galaxies in the universe. Film, automobiles, photography, flight, mass circulation magazines and electricity had developed before World War I, but became far more common afterwards. Radio was developed in the 1920s. There was a revolution against Victorian norms in manners, morals, taste, politics. Women acquired the right to vote. The “New Man” and “New Woman” and “New Negro” changed gender norms and race relations.

All of this is to say that “liberalism” was one thing before this epochal transition and became something else afterwards. Virtually everything including liberalism was radically unsettled and transformed when the 19th century became the 20th century in World War I. A century ago, the values which are now “mainstream” in our time like modernism, cosmopolitanism and antiracism were new, but have since put down deep roots in our culture thanks to the mass media and higher education.

Just as World War I was the culmination of the British-led 19th century which terminated when European nation-states went to war (the rise of ethnic nationalism in Europe was driven by Romanticism), could the American-led era of the 20th century be headed to a similar denouement? Romanticism created a strong sense of ethnic solidarity within nations. This sense of solidarity between Western elites and the masses led to the World Wars between nations. Modernists have reversed this relationship and destroyed this sense of solidarity within nations. Could the 20th century order come crashing down when this lack of cultural solidarity and legitimacy of institutions leads to war breaking out within Western nations?

The present reminds me of the time around World War I when Britain was overextended and fading as a world power. Germany and the United States were growing strong. No one but the most elderly people remembered what a real war was like. International tensions were rising. New technologies were changing culture. In my view, Modern values are unraveling the social fabric and ultimately will plunge America into a devastating crisis which will discredit them not unlike the Victorians.

Anyway, I have been studying this transition because I think we might be arriving at a similar moment. It feels like our times are coming to an end and building up to a looming crisis. The “mainstream” is obviously entering a crisis. It has been brought about not by us or “Russian interference,” but by its own most cherished values which are working themselves out to their logical conclusion.

About Hunter Wallace 12381 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent


  1. Hunter,
    I would propose that here is the origins of modernism, I copy from Wikipedia on William of Ockham…

    “William of Ockham was a pioneer of nominalism, and some consider him the father of modern epistemology, because of his strongly argued position that only individuals exist, rather than supra-individual universals, essences, or forms, and that universals are the products of abstraction from individuals by the human mind and have no extra-mental existence.[27] He denied the real existence of metaphysical universals and advocated the reduction of ontology. William of Ockham is sometimes considered an advocate of conceptualism rather than nominalism, for whereas nominalists held that universals were merely names, i.e. words rather than extant realities, conceptualists held that they were mental concepts, i.e. the names were names of concepts, which do exist, although only in the mind. Therefore, the universal concept has for its object, not a reality existing in the world outside us, but an internal representation which is a product of the understanding itself…”

    This I propose became the foundation of the Protestant revolt against the Church, which became the foundation for Liberalism which begat Modernism which acts as an Ontology for defending the millions of understandings now of truth. Which I think you will agree becomes a path toward allowing the truly insane to have equal voice to the sane.

    You seem to be trying to defend both traditional American culture and Protestantism and seem to be melding them together as one and they very well might be. The way I see it is that it was the Protestant attack against authority that contributes to the problem we face now. When authority loses its force everything then becomes an option. Even as you will argue that Protestantism did not exhibit this early on, the trend had been established and the years it has taken to reveal its downside now show today.

    I cannot figure out which facet of Protestantism you ally with. To my mind in very simplistic terms I see two general tendencies. One being the literal interpretation of the Bible which does not stand up well to contemporary scientific thought. The other being one of personal understanding of the Bible, sometimes being nothing more then emotion and a direct relationship to God. Both have contributed to our situation, the one exposes the Bible as flawed and the other reveals truth as subjective.

    There is another side to this story though which you ought to give a little time toward. There is an argument that the American founding itself was flawed and there is also the Catholic perspective on the history of our situation.

    I sense a sort of bias against Catholic thought but they have much to say about the whole process of our demise culturally. I am not adequate to provide the details but can only speak to it at a surface level
    There are two books which you might find of interest. In both cases I myself have not completed the books, which concerns me a little in recommending them but as far as I have gotten they seem solid.

    1) Liberty the God that Failed by Christopher Ferrara. My remembrance is that he makes a strong attack against Locke. Being a traditional Catholic he take a lot of dives into freemasonry and that may weaken his case in some eyes but his discussion of Locke seems pretty solid to me.

    2) A Deeper Vision: Understanding Catholic Intellectual Tradition. Robert Royal.
    This book is an attempt to reconcile Scholasticism with Vatican II and attempts to show how the Church intellectually tried to deal with Modernism. It is a bit heavy on Catholic thought as the title suggests but it is a bit of an eye opener to the intellectual issues they were tracing all the way back to the Middle Ages and up to the present Modernism in which they were immersed.

    The point essentially of both books is to salvage God as the objective background for what is true and to escape the subjectivism which has led us to the purple haired beauties, screaming harlots and mascaraed soy boys of today. The Church has been making an attempt to find a way to salvage morality as historically defined, at least in some quarters, though arguably by imbibing some of the modern toxin they have succumbed on the superficial plane of human behavior.

    I offer this in the spirit of good will and hope you do not think me as anything but humbly trying to provide insight that might be of use.

    • Senhor- Bom Dia.

      Yes, HW is a ‘mystery wrapped in an enigma’ – and not in a good way. As has been stated, HW says he is a conservative (more-or-less) Lutheran, having been ‘converted’ by his late father-in-law, who used to run the League of the South. However, neither his writings, nor his comments about things cultural, historical, or theological (which he has studiously avoided) display even the smallest shred of ‘Lutheran consciousness’ garnered from a reading of the source materials-e.g., the Augsburg Confession, Book of Concord, or even the Catechism. In other words, his Weltanschuung does not have the ‘savor of the Holy Spirit,’ as Fr. Seraphim Rose says.

      As an American, his is a ‘cultural protestantism’ -a sort of ‘veneer’ that overlays (often quite thin) whatever geographical area defines ‘America’ for him/us. There is NOTHING – and I can say this with a fair amount of surety- even among most Americans – even among most American[sic] ‘Catholics,’ to inform this blatantly anti christian, secularist worldview. Which has come about, and can be laid TOTALLY at the feet of Jews. And when either Scripture or Church history IS brought to bear on issues, instead of an intelligent appraisal, the yahoos on this (and almost every other board) dismiss it, post haste.

      We have become, as Roman-subju-(subJEW?)-gated Judea, was during Christ’s day: i.e., ‘We will NOT have this man (Christ/Christianity) to rule over us!’ Thus, your comment – “…The point essentially of both books is to salvage God as the objective background for what is true and to escape the subjectivism which has led us to the purple haired beauties, screaming harlots and mascaraed soy boys of today” falls on deaf ears. Historic Orthodox and conciliar, confessional, virile Protestantism also has her ‘plans’ for turning aside from our demise as a civilization. (cf. Institutes of Biblical Law- RJ Rushdoony)

      While I would say (having watched Rome self-destruct from my youth onwards) using Roman theological constructs(Pre-Bergoglio) was merely postponing the inevitable, now I fully agree with Dr. Farrell’s observation, articulated by Anthony Flood, in his analysis of Farrell’s ‘GOd, History, and Dialectic’-

      “The basic thesis of these essays is thus that there are Two Europes, Eastern and Western, First and Second respectively, and that both are the effects and consequences of very different and ultimately contradictory theological presuppositions and methods. These essays argue that these different and mutually exclusive presuppositions and methods have permeated every facet of legal, social, and cultural conventions. But to say this is to say nothing new, nor terribly original, and certainly nothing terribly upsetting to the “multiculturalist” or “Judeo-Christian Conservative.” The thesis of the Two Europes is explored in these essays from the presupposition that the Western, Second Europe is derivative and aberrant. ”

      America has become the most ‘self-aware,’ of those ‘derivative and aberrant’ civilizational counterfeits of the West. And for that, she is being judged of Almighty God.

      • Boa Tarde

        Very astute of you to recognize the Portuguese in the Senhor. My wife is Portuguese so I stole that from her.

        I have assumed that Hunter has avoided the religious question during his essays in order to either protect his Lutheranism from going under the spotlight or to keep his blog from blowing up. Perhaps in private he may investigate the issues resident in the theologic/philosophic historical developments. I personally cannot see how it can be overlooked even as an element of a secular investigation. Since I subscribe to the ideas of my religion this to me however is the entire issue. I see the whole history of our civilization as the battle between good and evil even though the demarcations between the sides are often obscured. There is a Satanic force twisting and confusing and disordering all of us at this present moment as it has done back to our origins. Today though there are more efficient tools being employed and a greater majority no longer have the means to self discipline in order to win. To some degree I think we are all submerged and the only way out is to find where the first derailment occurred and then to follow that forward while defeating the errors on each step of the way,

        The other thing and I think it flows from my point above is how Hunter has come to the conclusion that Modernism is an Aesthetic Sensibility. To my mind Art is downstream from intellectual discoveries. There usually is a lag between the two but always the art can be traced backward to the idea from which it was derived. Sometimes this idea was first seeded centuries prior. To me then Modernism is linked to an a change in Ontological assumptions. While I am not competent myself to understand how, when or where I have developed the sense that something went radically wrong in how we came to understand the meaning of being and thus degraded the meaning of Human Being.

        Nevertheless I do applaud Hunter for his efforts and I find them very interesting because he appears to be on a personal quest to understand what has happened to the country which it would seem he cares deeply about. I myself as old a man as I am still wrestle with my relationship to the country of my birth. I feel patriotic towards it while simultaneously I find myself disenfranchised from it. Hunter is providing me a lot of information thru his reading it and distilling it in a way that I simply do not have the time for. Thus his work is giving me what I consider interesting insight and to some degree helping me reconcile myself to my homeland by revealing its past in anew way to me.

        Thanks much for the reply. I will check out the link to the essays which you sent. I have it book marked and in a quick review of the opening find the ideas intriguing.

    • Senhorbotero,

      I don’t agree with the Catholic take on the origins of liberalism.

      The origins of liberalism are in the revival of materialism in the 17th century. Modern philosophy was a response to the Scientific Revolution which developed in the background of the Late Reformation. The key event was the shattering of the Aristotlean-Ptolemic cosmos by Copernicus and Galileo. The “mechanical philosophy” as it was developed by Pierre Gassendi and René Descartes had nothing to do with Protestantism. If memory serves, it was also around this time that Democritus, Epicurus and Pyrrho were rediscovered and their doctrines helped inspire modern physics. Hermeticism was also related to the development of modern science. Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz and other early modern philosophers were all responding to this.

      The “Republic of Letters” as it emerged in the 17th century wasn’t Catholic or Protestant. It was a network of people who were interested in the new science. Louis XIV established the French Academy of Sciences while also revoking the Edict of Nantes, suppressing the Huguenots and rolling back Protestantism in continental Europe. Issac Newton’s physics, which built on his predecessors, inspired the Enlightenment. The French Revolution exploded out of the bosom of Catholic France, not out of Britain or Prussia, which had been marinating for a good half a century in the naturalism and materialism of Enlightenment philosophy.

      As for Modernism, it was a movement in the arts that began around the middle of the 19th century in France with Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert and Théophile Gautier. It is not an ideology. It is an aesthetic or a sensibility like Romanticism, Neoclassicism or Baroque. The central claim of Modernism is art for art’s sake: the autonomy of aesthetics from religion, morality, society, anything outside the self expression of the artist including the divine, nature or reality itself. Modernism is not liberalism. Liberalism prioritizes the individual. Modernism prioritizes the self. Liberalism was very different in the 18th and 19th centuries when it was combined with Neoclassicism or later with Romanticism than it became in the 20th century under Modernism.

      Thanks for the comment. Hope that helps. As I see it, liberalism and modernism are extremely corrosive of ethnically incorporated communities and all religious traditions. This is true of Baptists. It is true of Catholics. It is true of Orthodox Christians. It is true of Islam. This is why so many Muslims hate Western culture.

      • Hunter, I just want to acknowledge your reply to me. I spent four hours last night tossing about composing my perspective and forming a reply to you which I am now not going to post.

        I just read your recent expose on Trumps Platinum Plan and I am frankly devastated by it. You have been calling him correctly all along. I will vote for him primarily because the alternative is so dire. At this point I am going to try and refrain from injecting my thoughts and to simply follow along with where you are going. I am losing confidence in Western Civilization and am becoming more and more unwilling to support it. Someone once told me that at the end of the day it is about nothing more then supporting ones own race. It is looking now as if that is true.

  2. One can argue endlessly about different perspectives throughout American history, I would make the case that without common sense, guts, and heart no system works for very long. Particularly when the people at the top have lost faith in their own culture, which seems to be what’s happening now. One of the reasons why things are the way they are, a huge guilt trip has been laid on the American people. Much of it from the so called better people.

  3. As much as I hate to admit this, Spencer did have a good point when he referenced other periods in Western European history that could be called “Modernism” as well. Sure the transformation from traditional European cultural norms to today’s aberrant ‘free for all’ has moved at breakneck speed, but past charges that shook up society like the “Protestant Reformation ” could easily be charged not only with heresy but as “Modernists.”

  4. I’ll take the “the state should regulate the economy” to some extent such as the FDA over the “laissez-faire economics” the pervaded in the late 19th century with toxic food and pervades today in China where it’s routine for food to be full of toxins so the owner can save a buck and even buying a western brand, (such as Johnny Walker to avoid poisonous Chinese liquor) doesn’t mean the item isn’t a counterfeit. In the 19th century our foods were loaded with borax, salicylic acid, formaldehyde, etc and our home furnishings were loaded with Arsenic. This was all changed for good reason, a good society requires some rules to keep the psychopaths from running wild.

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