Some Fundamental Questions of Modernity
A Comparative Glance at Finland, Japan, and Russia
Göran Therborn
University of Cambridge
”Scrutinizing Modernities”, Alexander Institute, Helsinki
Modernity: Making Use of a Concept
• Avoiding redundant labelling
• Avoiding idiosyncracy: etymological respect
• Opening investigations
A time culture, focusing on the present &
oriented towards a new thisworldly future,
questioning/rejecting the authority of the past
Breakthroughs of Modernity
• Conception of History
– Linear , Evolutionary: 18th c. Enlightenment
• Cognition
– Ancient authority rejected: Vesalius, Bacon, Descartes et al : late 16thearly 17th c.
• Aesthetics
– Partial breaks: Renaissance; Quérelle des anciens et des modernes
– Full break, late 19th c.: Baudelaire, Impressionism, Art Nouveau
• Economics
– Radical agricultural improvement; industrialization
• Politics
– Re-form & re-volution turned to the future
– Politics of nations, nation-states
4 Major Pathways to Current Modernity &
2 Major Hybrids
by Pattern of Conflict
• The European
– Internal: the nation/people vs. the prince & (mainstream) aristocracy
• The Settler ”New World”
– The settler nation vs the motherland prince & the natives
• The Ex-Colonial
– The colonized people turning the modern politics of the colonizers
against them
• Reactive Modernization:Japan, Siam, Abbyssinia
– Section of existing elite importing national politics to defend
traditional realm
Russia : European internalism & Reactive Modernization
China: Failed RM, part anti-Colonial, part European-type class war
Enduring Consequences of the Roads
to Modernity I
European Internalism
• Conception of the nation
– Constructed, as historically
rooted in language, culture,
• Leading force of the nation
– The (stratified) people
• Notion of representative
– Rights of the people
Reactive Modernization
• Conception of the nation
– Given, Ex-subjects of the
• Leading force of the nation
– The government & associated
(economic) elites
• Notion of representative
– Instrumental: Ensuring social
cohesion & state force
Enduring Consequences of the Roads
to Modernity II
European Internalism
• Role of religion & the
– Path towards thorough
secularization &
• Social relations, (in)equality
– Salience of class & class
– Path towards general
Reactive Modernization
• Role of religion & the
– Re-vitalization of state
religion, Reproduction of folk
religion & of magical beliefs
• Social relations, (in)equality
– Marginalization of class
– Reproduction of existential
inequality (status hierarchy,
deference, misogyny)
– Delimitation of economic
inequality for cohesion
Finland on the European Road
• F belongs to the Nordic cluster of gradualist, negotiated
political modernity (l917-18 civil war an aberration, due to then part of
Russian empire in revolution)
• Also to the Nordic cluster of class, with strong farmers &
limited distance popular classes-bourgeoisie
• Within Russia F was a vanguard of modern development,
in Nordic region a latecomer to prosperity
• Part of the East-Central European variant of national
language development & change
• F was culturally well connected & a Nordic centre of
aesthetic modernism: architecture, poetry, design
Japan: The Paradigmatic Case of
Reactive Modernization
The Charter Oath of l868:
• “Evil customs of the past shall be abandoned and
everything shall be based upon the just laws of
• Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world
The universalist modern program is then cut down into
characteristic Japanese particularism, continuing :
• “…so as to strengthen the foundations of
Imperial rule.”
Japanese Specifics of the RM Road
• Imperial ambition & capacity
• Continuist ”embrace of defeat”
• Preocupation with location & identity
– Out of Asia, or Leading Asia?
– Japanese ”overcoming of modernity”, Nihonjin ron
and studies of Japaneseness
The Russian Hybrid
I. Set-Up
• The European Mould
– ”The Third Rome”, late 15th c. Italian architects in the Kremlin,
18th-19th c- dynastic intermarriages, upperclass Francophony
– 1st half of l9th c.: the gendarme of Europe
– European workingclass movement
– A centre of early 20th c. European art modernism
• The Experience of Backwardness
– Outside medieval & Renaissance Europe
– Overwhelming rurality
– Serfdom & its pull-down socio-cultural effects
• Bases of European Distanciation
– Cultural: Slavicism & Orthodox Christianity
– Spatial: Eurasian bridge
The Russian Hybrid
II. Consequences
• Stalinist, statist RM overtaking the workingclass
October Revolution
– Revolutionary violence adding to violent dynamics of RM
• The Khrushchevite project continuing catching up with
& overtaking the West - & its imploding failure under
– Social meaning of Communism underdeveloped
• Post-Communist amalgamations of pre-revolutionary
religion & deference and Soviet big power institutions
& practices
– Social reform perspective lost
Prospects: After Modernism
I. Current State
• Finland
– Goals achieved: Nordic prosperity, independence of
Russia, standing in Europe
– Lost: frontier of electronics & design
• Japan
– Achieved: economic world power
– Lost: Chance of becoming No. 1
• Russia
– Achieved: Return to big power status
– Lost: parity with US, & chance of overtaking it
Prospects: After Modernism
II. Futures
• Finland
– Possibility of peaceful prosperous periphery without much need
of modernism, though clouded by the fall/sale of Nokia and the
coming structural decline of the pulp & paper industry
• Japan
– Difficulties to adapt to old age serenity, blocage of immigration,
current attempt at nationalist growth unlikely sustainability
– Improbable but still conceivable prospect of ”overcoming
modernity”, as a secure, serene, aesthetic stationary state
• Russia
– Fragile economy, brittle political institutions, clearly in need of
some futuristic modernist social project

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