The following address was given to the H.L. Mencken Club’s Annual Meeting; November 21-23, 2008.
Before William F. Buckley settled on writing God and Man at Yale in 1951, the 25 year-old had something quite different in mind as a debut volume. Buckley planned, and may have begun drafting, a book caustically entitled Revolt Against the Masses, his full-frontal assault on New Soviet Man, as well as Mass Man, American-style, waiting to be born in his home country. The targets would have been the New Deal, central economic planning, and the regnant egalitarian thinking . Or at least, that’s how I imagine it. But I don’t think I’m too off the mark. As Jeffrey Hart relates, later in life Buckley would famously say that he’d rather be governed by the first two hundred names in the Boston phonebook than all the dons at Harvard; however, his instincts were never populist and were originally fast aristocratic. And, in my mind, Buckley started out in an intellectual place more interesting than where he ended up.
In 2008, it’s worth noting that God & Man at Yale, the book Buckley did write, can still “fit in” to the conservative canon—be reissued, sold in conservative book clubs, and quoted from at official conservative gatherings—in a way that Revolt Against the Masses simply cannot. So where was this strange book coming from?
The title is, of course, a play on Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses of 1917, a book now neglected by the American Right, in which Gasset defends Classical liberalism, while rejecting democracy and arguing for the need for hierarchal order.
Buckley might have been introduced to Gasset through a writer who was clearly influenced by the great Spaniard, Albert Jay Nock, a friend of James Buckley, William’s father, and a frequent guest at the Buckley household throughout the 1940s. Nock is remembered today as an “anti-state” libertarian and defender of natural, “unalienable” rights, but, as with Gasset, at the center of his oeuvre is a forthright elitism. Opposing “the State” (as Nock capitalized it) meant opposing the “artificial aristocracy” of demagogues and bureaucratic higher-ups, those encroaching on the sphere of the “natural aristocracy” of talent, refinement, and economic productivity—“social power.” Nock’s magnum opus is dedicated to the “remnant” of this class, “[t]hose certain alien spirits” It’s a book for everyone and no one.
In giving his unwritten volume as outlandish a title Revolt Against the Masses, Buckley could not have avoided evoking, in some manner or form, the spirit of H.L. Mencken. For it was the great American journalist who made of his whole career a kind of one-man “revolt against the masses” kamikaze mission. In the Menckenian imagination, the “superior man” (a category of person in which Mencken, no doubt, included himself) was beset on all sides—if it wasn’t the collectivist state trying to bring him down, then it was the hordes of unwashed American boobs:
All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both.”
Mencken certainly had a distaste for “all government”; however, as we’ll see later, if there must be a state, then he’d prefer one of the aristocratic variety.
If Buckley had ever taken up writing Revolt Against the Masses, he would have also, no doubt, confronted the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, even though at the time Nietzsche was at the nadir of his international reputation. Ortega’s term “revolt of the masses” is a reiteration of Nietzsche’s concept of the “slave revolt in morality,” or Sklavenmoralität, and Ortega relies heavily on Nietzsche in other respects as well, updating Nietzsche’s notion that the European states were forces of “spiritual flattening,” that nation-state itself represented the “death of peoples,” “the coldest of all cold monsters.”
Buckley’s unwritten book has always been one of my favorite “What if?”s of intellectual history in that it not only signals a “path not taken” for Buckley and his conservative movement, but reveals a fissure in the 20th-century American conservative mind. As I mentioned above, The Revolt Against the Masses would be out of place amongst the fare at, say, the Conservative Political Action Conference—sitting along side titles like Liberal Fascism, Intelligent Design 101, and the latest anti-Hillary T-shirts—but the book would be at right at home in the library of what’s come to be known as “the Old Right.”
The Old Right, whose history has been written by, among others, Murray Rothbard and Justin Raimondo, was never a political organization per se—and it certainly never resembled the partisan racket Buckley’s conservative movement has become. The Old Right was, for better and worse, oppositional in spirit, or, in the words of Sheldon Richman, “[S]omething approaching a principled national political movement [that] coalesced in opposition to Mencken’s twin bugaboos, the New Deal and U.S. participation in the [Second World War], and to the man responsible for them, Franklin Roosevelt.” [My emphasis]
The choice of the word “Right,” as opposed to “conservative,” is significant. For at the time, “conservative” lacked its current connotations and was generally a term of derision, synonymous with “backwards.” Moreover, the Old Right was composed of many former liberals and progressives: including Robert LaFollette, John T. Flynn, and, notably, Mencken and Nock. But most importantly, the Old Right was simply not “conservative,” strictly speaking, in that its leaders didn’t want to preserve or protect the status quo—to the contrary.
Mencken is an excellent example in this regard. He is, of course, most famous for his hilarious barbs against the rural and uncouth. Menckenisms like “booboisie,” “Bible Belt,” and “Monkey Trial” (the name Mencken gave to the 1925 legal proceedings against John Scopes for the teaching of evolution in Dayton county), have entered the vernacular. Someone like William Jennings Bryan, the evangelical prairie populist, would seem to embody most every aspect of Americana Mencken despised—a demagogue “animated by the ambition of a common man to get his hand upon the collar of his superiors, or failing that, to get his thumb into their eyes.”
But beyond sniping at philistines, Mencken pursued a much broader critique of American society, and of American political culture in particular. Mencken became notorious for calling Roosevelt a fraud and would-be dictator, while most of the rest of press was at his feet, but then Mencken had also opposed Herbert Hoover, as Rothbard describes it, for being a “pro-war Wilsonian and interventionist, the Food Czar of the [First World W]ar, the champion of Big Government, of high tariffs and business cartels, the pious moralist and apologist for Prohibition,” a president who “embod[ed] everything [he] abhorred in American life … conservative statism.” Terry Teachout has described Mencken as leading an American “adversary culture” before such a term had currency.
It’s thus no surprise that Mencken inspired (and continues to inspire) a great deal of confusion of categories. His Smart Set and American Mercury magazines were both aimed, as their names imply, at educated, cosmopolitan readers, and this led many to assume that Mencken was on the intellectual Left—and his “booboisie” salvos and promotion of authors like Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair did little to disprove this theory.
And yet, as Mencken made explicitly clear in his founding editorials for both his magazines, their positions were strictly “Tory”—right-wing—and Mencken himself has consistently hostile to any and all “progressives,” leftish governmental reforms. As Rothbard documents in “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty,” in the 1920s, writers like Nock and Mencken were regarded as being part of the “extreme Left,” and, indeed, they often aligned themselves with quasi-socialists. And yet with FDR’s ascension, and with most of the Left having “hopped on the New Deal bandwagon,” Mencken and Nock became regarded as intellectuals of the reactionary “far Right,” the mouthpieces not of Upton Sinclair but America First! and Robert Taft. Both men swung, perilously, from one end of the political spectrum to the other, without actually changing their philosophies, or even adjusting their positions on issues one lick.
After the Second World War, the categories have become even more confused. And rediscovering Mencken and the Old Right now produces a kind of dizzying, ideological reversal effect, as we learn that quite a bit of what we take for granted as “right-wing” in the post-Buckleyite era simply was not so in the age of Nock and Mencken.
As mentioned above, the Old Right congealed around opposition to FDR, the New Deal, and U.S. entry into World War II, and yet the contemporary conservative movement has made its peace with all these things (with a few mild critiques of New Deal economics notwithstanding.) Indeed, U.S. participation in the Second World War has been converted into an almost sacred object that a conservative questions and criticizes at his peril (just ask Pat Buchanan about that.)
The figure of Nietzsche also brings the divide between Old Right and New to the fore. In 1908, Mencken made his reputation writing the first exposition of Nietzsche’s thought in the United States, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and later translated The Anti-Christ into English. (And, as I mentioned above, even the devout Catholic William F. Buckle couldn’t quite avoid these aristocratic, Nietzsche-esque undercurrents in Old Right thought.)
And yet today, the conservative movement rejects a thinker like Nietzsche out of hand. The movement organ Human Events compiled a catalogue of the “10 most harmful books” and included Beyond Good and Evil among them. (Nietzsche, of course, would appreciate being called “dangerous,” though Human Events certainly meant the project as a “Do Not Read!” list.) More recently, a movement publishing house has issued the title 10 Books That Screwed Up the World, with Beyond Good and Evil in the number-eight slot. In a back-cover blurb, a conservative critic notes that the author has “read the worst books in Western Civilization so that you don’t have to.”
The movement’s favored philosophers and theologians inform us that what really plagues the West is the menace of “moral relativism” (and no less than the Pope concurs.) And yet Mencken is a thinker who says boldly, “[P]rogress”—technological, philosophic, and economic—“has been made, not as a result of our moral code, but as a result of our success in dodging its inevitable blight.” (I, for one, have never met a “moral relativist,” indeed, most Leftists I’ve encountered seems to suffer from a hypertrophy of moral outrage, but I’ll put that aside.)
And then there are the movement’s requisite encomia to “democracy,” or “democratic-capitalism,” and claims that it is America’s “democratic” character—and notably not its status as a constitutional republic—that makes it exceptional, indeed, makes its “system” ready for export.
And yet, with Mencken, one encounters a flamboyant hostility to democracy, in theory as well as in fact. Mencken viewed democracy as “perhaps the most charming form of government ever devised” specifically because it is “based upon propositions that are palpably not true” (its Big Lie being that “the people” are a reservoir of wisdom and virtue.) Democracy is the theory that “inferiority, by some strange magic, becomes a sort of superiority—nay, the superiority of superiorities.”
The New Right tendencies that are most patently opposed to these sensibilities of the Old would seem to dovetail in a famous passage from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which, by no coincidence, comes in a chapter in which Bloom attacks Nietzsche as, somehow, the prophet of fascism, antiwar hippies, and the ‘60s Cool Kids:
[W]hen we Americans speak seriously about politics, we mean that our principles of freedom and equality and the rights based on them are rational and everywhere applicable. World War II was really an educational project undertaken to force those who did not accept these principles to do so. [My emphasis]
Bloom, as student of Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojève, is a peculiar figure, to be sure. But his words would undoubtedly be endorsed by most every movement leader and major Republican politician today. (Paul Gottfried has remarked that when he was asked by Human Events to take part in its “dangerous books” symposium, he suggested The Closing of the American Mind as number one!)
With Barack Obama’s landslide victory, there’s certainly been no shortage of conservatives claiming to be spending their times in the wilderness reconnecting with “roots” of various sorts. And some intrepid souls might start looking beyond the familiar names of Buckley, Kirk, and Burnham and seek to rediscover Mencken, Nock, and the Old Right. And certainly, the “libertarianism” of these men is attractive our age of massive government bailouts and the increased power of the welfare state.
But then “rediscovering” Mencken is inherently more radical and dangerous than many might recognize in that his writings are informed by a basic worldview, an ideological core, that is wholly incompatible with that of the Buckleyite Right (or at least as it developed over the past 25 years.) There are good reasons why Revolt Against the Masses remained unwritten.
A useful prism for capturing what is so unsettling about Mencken is the figure of Friedrich Nietzsche, for not only was Mencken a scholar and translator of Nietzsche, but Nietzsche operates as a kind of touchstone and interlocutor throughout all of Mencken’s criticism and journalism.
Terry Teachout is also right, in more ways than one, when he calls Mencken’s book on Nietzsche “an autobiography in disguise, a fillet of Nietzsche in which the young critic gazed into the abyss, say his own image, and found it good.” Examining “Mencken’s Nietzsche” tells us much about what it would mean to rediscover H. L. Mencken as a major theorist of the American Right—revealing the strengths but also the serious limitations of the Sage of Baltimore. Mencken has much to teach us, but in the end, he, too, must be overcome.
In his own autobiography, Ecce Homo (1888) Nietzsche announces, “[O]ne day my name will be associated with the memory of something terrible—a crisis without equal on earth… I am no man, I am dynamite.” From there he speaks of earthquakes, floods, and wars “the like of which has never been dreamed of.” Mencken never read the posthumously published Ecce Homo and thus can be excused for beginning his own book on Nietzsche demurring, no, Nietzsche’s ideas are “not likely to inflame millions” and many are “quite harmless, and even comforting.” What follows is a portrait not of the godfather of fascism or leftwing postmodernism, as we’ve become accustomed to, but of Nietzsche as kind of “joyful libertarian” (to borrow Rothbard’s term of endearment for Mencken).
Mencken’s Nietzsche is a modern-minded individualist, a progressive, in many ways, and awfully Menckesque. “Friedrich Nietzsche was a preacher’s son, brought up in the fear of the Lord. It is the ideal training for sham-smashers and free-thinkers.” The Nietzschean project is “a counterblast to sentimentality—and it is precisely by breaking down sentimentality, with its fondness for moribund gods, that human progress is made.”
In Mencken’s account, there are no ominous “shadows over Europe” or “waves of nihilism” on the horizon, and prickly and disturbing concepts like the “blond beast” and “active nihilism” are deemphasized. The book is instead besprinkled with phrases like “human progress,” “ideal anarchy,” and “libertarianism,” and Nietzsche is associated with thinkers like Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley. When Mencken references Nietzssche’s notorious concept of the Übermensch (“Superman”), Mencken describes him as belonging to a “aristocracy of efficiency” (Tüchtigkeit)—almost as if he were a great industrialist from out a Ayn Rand novel.
Mencken’s Nietzsche is, at least prima facie, Nietzsche Lite.
But then, there’s a whole other aspect to this rather implausible and inaccurate portrait of “the Anti-Christ.”
In discussing Nietzsche’s ethics, Mencken argues (again rather implausibly and inaccurately) that Nietzsche believed, “no human being had a right, in any way or form, to judge or direct the actions of any other being … The gospel of individualism.” This sounds “harmless, even comforting.” But attached to this claim is a conspicuous footnote, and if the reader is willing to flip to the back of the book, he’ll find this caveat:
[W]hen [Nietzsche] spoke of a human being, he meant a being of the higher type—i.e. one capable of clear reasoning. He regarded the drudge class, which is obviously unable to think for itself, as unworthy of consideration. Its highest mission, he believed, was to serve and obey the master class.”
Less harmless and comforting, and less “libertarian.” Such passages make clear that Mencken’s support for an “ideal anarchy” is more instrumental than normative; that is, a free society is justified in that it allows the “natural aristocracy” to rise and rule (and not because it is ethical in itself).
In his correspondence with socialist Robert Rives la Monte, published as Men Versus The Man (1910), Mencken claims the Will to Power is the source of every great achievement in the arts, commerce, and science. It’s also “immutable,” an ineluctable fact of human nature, and thus any form of government that attempts to “ameliorate it,” like socialism, will eventually fail—and should fail. The ideal instead is to develop an order in which the Will to Power of the higher types—usually suppressed by the “conspiracy of government”—is allowed to flourish, while the resentment-laden will of the masses is minimized.
Mencken glimpsed an approximation of this kind of social order in the German Empire of Bismarck and the House of Hohenzollern. Writing about this Prussian paradise for the Atlantic Monthly during the onset of the First World War, in an article entitled “The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet,” Mencken described a society to which “[t]he philosophy of Nietzsche gave coherence and significance”; here was a “delimited, aristocratic democracy in the Athenian sense—a democracy of intelligence, of strength, of superior fitness … a new aristocracy of the laboratory, the study, and the shop.”
Such an essay is a useful corrective to the commonly held view of Mencken as merely a muckraker and serial social-leveler, a man who wanted to bring down any and all powers that be. True, Mencken could spoof the WASP elite of his day with the best of them, writing of, say, “stockholders’s wives lolling obscenely in opera boxes, or of haughty Englishmen slaughtering whole generations of grouse in an inordinate and incomprehensible manner, or of bogus counts coming over to work their magic upon the daughters of bathtub kings.” But in poking fun at old money and new, Mencken’s objective was hardly egalitarian: the decadent WASPs must be cleared away and room made for a new elite, who, as Mencken probably imagined it, would march into power with copies of Zarathustra and The Anti-Christ under each arm. The problem with America was not that its ruling class was too powerful, but that it didn’t have the right kind of ruling class.
What makes Mencken’s “libertarianism,” if we’re to call it that, so startling and intriguing is that it is not primarily based on the polarities we’ve become used to in the postwar libertarian and conservative movements: for instance Liberty and Tyranny, the Individual and the State, Collectivism and Freedom. Instead, Mencken concerns himself with the interaction between physiological types—the, in Mencken’s mind, inevitable conflict between the superior man and the resenter, between those capable of advancement and creating abundance and those who simply want to get their fingers in the eyes of their betters, between the strong and the weak.
In this line, Mencken didn’t wear his “anti-Christianity” on his sleeve simply due to his well-developed desire to shock, nor did he oppose the faith for any of the “secular humanist” reasons of the contemporary Left. Mencken instead viewed Christianity as an expression of a deep-rooted social-leveling, egalitarian spirit of inferior men. It was, and remains, paradigmatic of the “slave revolt in morality,” turning full circle, the “revolt of the masses”—and as such was mental poison for the strong-hearted whose actions would be labeled “evil” and “selfish,” while the meek, it is said, shall “inherit the earth.”
Mencken’s very Nietzschean sense of the inevitably clash between higher and lower types lies just behind many of his “progressive”-sounding pronouncements, like this famous one regarding the advocates of Old Time Religion in Tennessee (“Homo Neandertalensis”):
Every step in human progress, from the first feeble stirrings in the abyss of time, has been opposed by the great majority of men. Every valuable thing that has been added to the store of man’s possessions has been derided y them when it was new, and destroyed by them when that had the power. They have fought every new truth ever heard of, and they have killed every truth-seeker who got in to their hands.
Christianity qua resentiment reappears in some of Mencken’s more famous formulations, such as his claim that democratic man can’t overcome his “beautifully Christian” notion that “happiness is something to be got by taking it away from the other fellow,” as well as his definition of Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
It is possible to criticize Christianity from the Right, and such a project was at the hear of Mencken’s “revolt against the masses.”
* * *
In coming to a critical perspective on “Mencken’s Nietzsche,” one might observe that Mencken never really understood Nietzsche, or even that all those “progressive,” “libertarian” views Mencken projects on his subject are actually part of the same egalitarian-Christian paradigm Nietzsche sought to reject. One could also argue that practices like traditional Catholicism and Orthodoxy can be retainers of hierarchic social values. But then a more substantial, and perhaps devastating, critique can be leveled against Mencken using Mencken’s own terms.
Though Mencken’s depiction of Nietzsche as a proto-Mencken is a bit fatuous, Nietzsche was, on some level, a sham-smasher, and skepticism and liberty, the ultimate Menckenian values, hold pride of place in Nietzsche’s philosophy. As he writes in The Anti-Christ, “[G]reat spirits are skeptics. Zarathustra is a skeptic. Strength, freedom, which is born of the strength and overstrength of the spirit, proves itself by skepticism. Men of convictions are not worthy of the least consideration in fundamental questions of value and disvalue. Convictions are prisons.”
Similarly, though Nietzsche isn’t known for his philosophy of science, he actually had one, and it is, indeed, rather “progressive” in a way Mencken would admire. According to Nietzsche, science advances as those ossified prison-convictions are successively shattered and overcome.
But then there’s another aspect to Nietzsche’s argument that the Sage of Baltimore never properly understood.
Within the modern sciences (that is, the breaking of conviction, sham-smashing), Nietzsche discerned a deeper, unspoken conviction undergirding the entire enterprise, and one so pervasive and indispensable that it’s almost never confronted directly. Nietzsche remarks in The Gay Science, “We see that science, too, rests on a faith.” This primal conviction, or “first principle,” is that “truth has value.”
The “value” of truth might seem self-evident; however, for Nietzsche this is never so. Indeed, throughout his works, he provocatively asks whether one should think of truth as having much value in itself at all. Great liars and manipulators usually come out on top? Thus why not deceive? Why not allow oneself to be deceived, allow oneself to forget the past, much as do the animals, since self-delusion and “living in the moment” are both sure roads to happiness? And since “conscience does make cowards of us all,” maybe an occasional abandonment of the critical capacity is good and necessary?
In making such thought experiments, Nietzsche’s point is that the Will to Power (in its worldly, domineering, and euphoric sense) and the Will to Truth are very often opposed and incompatible—and most likely derive from different sources. And where Nietzsche thought truth-seeking arose might come as a surprise to those who think they know him all-too well. Nietzsche, of course, imagined himself as the anti-Christian without peer, but then he argues that the Judeo-Christian tradition is the foundation for truth-seeking—and ironically, “we, too, are still Pious”:
“[E]ven we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians, still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith, …that God is the truth, that truth is divine.”
Such passages give new meaning to Zarathustra’s injunction, “Love thy enemy.” Nietzsche relies on Christianity, even if he wants to overcome it.
Reading Mencken, on the other hand, one gets the impression that all he ever saw in the Christian tradition were those obnoxious boobs of Dayton country throwing their heads back to “speak in those tongues—blub-blub-blub, gurgle-gurgle-gurgle” Christianity is for Mencken the NASCAR of theologies, and little else. And in his all-too-easy “Christianity vs. truth” formulations, he wasn’t willing to see the division in his own heart between the Mencken who dreamed of a new Prussian master-class and the Mencken who valued, not only his personal liberty, but truth as divine—and was willing to pursue it at the cost of self-alienation, loneliness, and an existence that was often monkish. As a social critic, he seemed to want to simply get rid of Christianity as a false, hokey doctrine of the unwashed, and didn’t recognize, as did Nietzsche, that getting rid of Christianity would mean getting rid of the entirety of the Western tradition.
Mencken deserves to be rediscovered as a major thinker of the American Right, but for the reasons mentioned above, and a few others, we might want to hesitate a bit in joining him in his “revolt against the masses.”
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