The greatest problem of our century has been the unraveling of traditional social ties caused by rapid industrialization and technological change. Compare today's family, today's churches, today's businesses to those of 1900; it does not matter where the comparison is made―America, Europe, Asia, and Africa have all undergone essentially the same process of change. Only the extent to which change had been made differs among the various cultures of the world, for the crisis of disintegrating traditional social ties is a universal phenomenon. In the place of traditional values politicians have only been able to offer nationalism, a concept that combines industrial goals and mass education to produce a homogeneous people that can be easily organized and directed. This nationalism has produced external and internal wars of terrible ferocity: external wars against competing national states and internal wars against those minorities that differ significantly from the projected national type. The appearance of the national states is therefore partly to blame for this deterioration of civilized values, for wherever national states are created there is the subsequent appearance of nationalism, industrialization, and social change.
The initial impulse in the face of the collapse of accepted values was "each man for himself." The selfish individualism of nineteenth-century capitalism became hedonism, dadaism, nihilism. The product of almost a century of looking out for oneself, to hell with everyone else, has produced a lonely figure that I relate to the mythological self-centered Narcissus.
The classical myth told of a handsome youth who broke the heart of the nymph, Echo, by ignoring her. Nemesis, asked to punish him appropriately, decreed that he should fall hopelessly in love with the next creature he saw. As it happened, he looked into a pool of water and saw his own reflection. He died staring longingly at his own image. Narcissus thus becomes an important figure for our understanding of recent times, when it seems that many people think only of themselves, dying a spiritual death of isolation and loneliness.
This is not out only contemporary problem. At the same time that our familiar social base has broken apart, our society has sought new arrangements that gave promise of stopping the slide into narcissistic individualism. By and large this has been a very unsatisfactory process. The most determined efforts to organize all members of society into a cooperative system failed the most drastically: Fascism, Nazism, Bolshevism. Not all efforts to remake mankind have been so extreme, but they have helped to produce a conformist personality, the product of mass culture that I call the Faceless Man.
What does it mean for a person to look at himself and see nothing more that the product of modern advertising or the squalor of mass poverty?
NARCISSUS AND THE FACELESS MAN
Reflections on Individuality and Conformity
Second edition 2003
William L. Urban
This book was written with the aid of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 1982 and 1983 Monmouth College was the recipient of an NEH grant for Curriculum Development to produce a group of interdepartmental humanities courses for senior students. These courses were to stress values rather than facts, concepts rather than data.
This project was a natural outgrowth of the direction that Monmouth College had been taking since early 1979. New impetus came from President Bruce Haywood, who as part of his British military service immediately after World War Two had interviewed Nazi educators and been appalled that intelligent and highly trained people could justify horrible crimes on the grounds that they were only acting in the interest of science; when he emigrated to America, he saw in small liberal arts colleges the best place possible for the morally-grounded education that he believed was necessary in our ever more technologically-based culture. Impressed by the courses already proposed to emphasize liberal arts throughout the typical student’s entire undergraduate experience, he argued the new curriculum should be more than value centered―it should stress desirable values. Assisting the faculty in the formation of the new courses were Dean William Amy and Professor Huston Smith from Syracuse University.
My particular course was later renamed “The New Individual” because the registrar’s shorthand “Narc and Fac Man” made little sense. “Narcissus and the Faceless Man” was the outgrowth of years of thinking; it was the only Issues and Ideas course (originally Thought and Belief, a rather better description of the original intent, since it does not reduce religious belief to a secular phenomenon) to be adopted by other faculty members. Many of my ideas came from two Summer Seminar projects of the National Endowment for the Humanities, one in 1977 at Brown University directed by Tony Molho, the other in 1981 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill directed by Aldo Scaglione. Also, inspiration came from the faculty of Monmouth College, who not only contributed ideas, but also allowed me to teach practically whatever I wanted―every field of history, and also humanities, classics, and even modern foreign language. At another school I might have been confined within a specialty in my department and never have had the opportunity to do the reading which provided other ideas, all of which constituted the impetus for this book. I wish to thank especially my colleagues Nelson Hart and Stafford Weeks, Bruce Haywood and Bill Amy, and Marshall Morris of the University of Puerto Rico, for their comments and criticism.
For typing the manuscript for the second edition, I wish to acknowledge the work of the departmental secretary, Rita Schwass, and my student assistants.
Extensive revisions were made during my Sabbatical during the spring semester of 2003.
The greatest problem of the twentieth century has been the unraveling of traditional social ties. Rapid industrialization and technological change have brought every developed country greater health and wealth, but this (like everything in life) has come at a cost―to the environment, to established institutions, to traditional ways of making a living. But most of all to revered social ties. Compare today’s family, today’s churches, today’s businesses to those of 1900; it does not matter where the comparison is made―America, Europe, Asia, and Africa have all undergone essentially the same process of change. Only the extent of the change differs among the various cultures of the world―the crisis of disintegrating traditional social ties is a universal phenomenon. In the place of traditional values politicians have only been able to offer nationalism, a concept that combines industrial goals and mass education to produce a homogeneous people that can be easily organized and directed. This nationalism has produced external and internal wars of terrible ferocity: external wars against competing national states and internal wars against those minorities that differ significantly from the projected national type. The appearance of the national states is therefore partly to blame for this deterioration of civilized values, for wherever national states are created there is the subsequent appearance of nationalism, industrialization, and social change. Recognizing the problem, of course, does not resolve it (despite the academic tendency to equate “understanding” with action), and there is no turning back this part of our history. But understanding is essential to guessing which actions might be effective. (And politics has more guessing to it than science, no matter what experts tell us; “chaos theory” partly explains this truism.)
How did traditional ties unravel? One answer is that, as rural folk moved into the city, they learned that people did not share as had been done in the village (or as was supposed to be done, but did not always happen), and they certainly could not count on neighbors to realize when they needed help. Running water and toilets were inadequate substitutions for social ties, and loneliness emphasized the fact that every aspect of life, from courtship to death, involved more individual responsibility than before. The initial impulse in the face of the collapse of accepted rural values was “each man for himself.” The opportunities for making wealth often combined with smug feelings of superiority over those who lacked the skills, daring, health and stamina to succeed; and, indeed, there were always some who wanted to blame others or the economic and social system for their personal failures. The selfish individualism of nineteenth-century capitalism devolved into hedonism, Dadaism and nihilism; and the more complicated society of late twentieth century America replicated those concepts under new names. The product of almost a century of looking out for oneself, to hell with everyone else, I’ve got mine, Jack, and screw-you has produced a lonely figure that I relate to the mythological self-centered Narcissus.
The classical myth told of a handsome youth who broke the heart of the nymph, Echo, by ignoring her. Nemesis, asked to punish him appropriately, decreed that he should fall hopelessly in love with the next creature he saw. As it happened, he looked into a pool of water and saw his own reflection. Narcissus died staring longingly at his own image and thus became an important figure for our understanding of recent times, when it seems that many people think only of themselves, dying a spiritual death of isolation and loneliness.
This is not our only contemporary problem, of course. At the same time that our familiar social base has broken apart, our society has sought new arrangements that gave promise of stopping the slide into narcissistic individualism. By and large this has been a very unsatisfactory process. The most determined efforts to organize all members of society into a cooperative system have failed the most drastically: Fascism, Nazism, Bolshevism. Not all efforts to remake mankind have been so extreme, but these political movements produced the most extreme versions of a conformist personality. Even where the conformism is less directed by the political leadership, as in the United States, the power of movies, radio, ads, fads and social peers is so powerful that even non-conformism is highly conformist. The product of mass culture is what I call the Faceless Man.
What does it mean for a person to look at himself and see nothing more than the product of modern advertising or the squalor of mass poverty? Many people on our planet have swayed this way and that between insipidity and desperation for many years, some seeking meaning in life, others seeking life itself. The enemy of this mass man is always identified not as a specific person necessarily, but as individualism, selfishness, and non-conformity in themselves. Often half-educated people see these traits only as aspects of capitalism, elitism, atheism, anti-social behavior, or mere boorishness. For the conformist mass man, that which is good is that which the majority of people do, or that which will benefit the majority. The wishes of the individual come later, if at all. The faceless man is not new in this world. What is new is the pressure that mass communication and modern law enforcement can bring to bear on those who wish to dissent.
Every culture in the world has been torn between these undesirable extreme positions, extremes that unfortunately complement each other. This is the paradox of modern times: that narcissism and conformism feed on each other. As one becomes stronger, so does the other. Inevitably, society, which cannot function well when dominated by extremists, suffers. This is a confirmation of the truth of Greek warnings against hubris (the insolent disregard of moral law and restraint) and Roman admonitions to follow a path of moderation. Apparently only narcissistic personalities are able to sway multitudes into abandoning their individual opinions, to bend to the combination of persuasion and terror, and commit some of the most terrible mass crimes of human history. That has been a guiding thread through twentieth century history: armies marching off joyfully in 1914 to end up in trenches, barbed wire, and poison gas; civil wars in China, Vietnam and Cambodia, Russia and Spain marked by brutal atrocities and horrible reprisals; a fascist dictatorship in Italy and militarists in Japan who invaded Ethiopia and Manchuria, carrying modern imperialism to its illogical extreme, preparing the way for more armed aggression; the Nazi nightmare that brought us World War Two and extermination camps; the Bolshevik dictatorship that produced Stalinist purge trials, the destruction of entire classes of people, and the Gulag Archipelago; and, most recently, the Taliban regime recreating an imagined medieval religious utopia. In less devastating ways other narcissists followed the fads of the day, mimicking exactly the clothes and the words of actors, singers, and popular figures, conforming even to the attitudes of self-styled “non-conformist.” That has been the popular history of our past century: the flapper era, gangbusters, hoboes, join the marines, hippies, flower children, drop-outs, and drug addicts. In short, these groups have been as conformist as the most loyal party member of the more dangerous political organizations. Only their uniforms were different and they did not salute as they obeyed.
In the late nineteenth century western citizenries had come to believe that their civilization had triumphed over the horrors of the past, especially war. There was evidence to the contrary, but still the bloodshed of August 1914 came as a shock. There was worse to come: this did not prove to be the short, heroic combat that everyone predicted, but a prolonged agony which not only slaughtered so many young men, but also consumed the accumulated wealth of decades past and the promised production of years to come. Nor did peace bring an end to the suffering. Extremist behavior became more acute during the 1920s. Not only had the horror of the World War destroyed faith in moderation and traditions, but both the narcissists and the faceless men were reacting to an unprecedented expansion of communications. For the first time in human history, millions of people could read, could listen, and even see one event simultaneously; they could be angered, moved, encouraged and frightened at one time. Moreover, specialists in the field of mass communication knew how to use their new tools effectively. The Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels was the master of the faceless man in Germany, the advertising men of Madison Avenue the manipulators of the American narcissist.
Even in the 1930s the majority of mankind did not participate very greatly in either of the extreme positions. Italians could take Mussolini as a joke, and even Californians (the ultimate stereotype of the narcissist) could live day to day without trying to imitate Hollywood stars. However, the political extremes were louder than the middle and they were much more visible. Moreover, they were committed, dedicated, and ruthless. Those in the political and social middle did not have a consistent philosophy to defend, and they were not organized. So the political extremes triumphed more and more frequently, until finally they burned away in World War Two.
By and large mankind has never lived so well as the decades following the Second World War. There has been unmatched prosperity and unimagined progress in the world of science and economics. Even the worst evils of the immediate past―Hitlerism and Stalinism―passed away, along with diseases such as smallpox, polio and (briefly) malaria. That is not to say that the world was perfect, for it was far from all it could be; nor that all danger was past, for throughout the Cold War we had the capacity to destroy in hours what all the war machines of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 could never have achieved. But that danger somehow passed us by. The late twentieth century will be remembered as a golden age, and so might ensuing decades, if only we can find a sure and middle ground between the narcissists and the faceless men.
The problem of the extremes is still with us. We armed ourselves against the Soviet Union because of a well-founded fear that Stalinism was still alive and well and that the Soviet leaders would make us into a nation of faceless men. The Soviet Union armed itself against us partly because of a fear that individualistic capitalism will make the Russians into narcissists. While these reflections might be true, at least to some extent, it would be inaccurate to intimate that every problem is a reflection of political power blocs. Every nation has its groups that would suppress individualism and require its citizens to conform to its values; every nation has its narcissists who think of nothing but the latest movie, the newest dance, alcoholic beverages, sex, and drugs. Every nation has its terrorist problem, its drug crisis, its gangs and gangsters. Hunger and disease, illiteracy and poverty exist widely. Many people still live under political or religious tyranny, and more people live in regions of political anarchy than was true at any time in the twentieth century.
Despite all this, we should not despair. There is a practical middle ground. In the past it was possible for a person to be an individual and still recognize civic duties and responsibilities. In the present most people still sense that there is a middle ground, but act as if it is constantly shifting underneath their feet. This is a frightening experience. We must learn to recognize this terrain and to see why we have come to perceive it as more unsteady and changing than it really is.
This is where the study of history proves its worth. Only history can give us a perspective on where an individual or a society is. Only by knowing the past and simultaneously looking at the present can we see trends and patterns; only by knowing the past can we escape the dread fear that all is unknown and unknowable, that we are experiencing everything for the first time and that no wisdom is available to help understand anything.
This method is thus very different from the theoretical approaches used by Jűrgen Habermas and John Rawls. Apparently the pragmatism of John Dewey has had its influence on me: if an argument cannot be followed by the man in the street, it is not a very useful argument. Or, if not the man and woman in the street, then at least the average liberal arts student. Perhaps even the average faculty member.
This book is intended to look at the historical background of modern social disintegration and the subsequent rise of narcissism and extreme conformism; also, to look at the tradition of pessimism that has risen in this century. The thesis is not pessimistic. Rather it is optimistic in the extreme. It says that if we can understand why we behave as we do, if we can recognize the ideas that move us, then we can control our behavior and form our society in ways more amenable to the human spirit.
William Urban, 2003
Lee L. Morgan Professor of History
The Loss of Faith in the Future
The Tradition of Pessimism
There are only three ways to view the future: that things will get better, that things will not change, and that things will get worse. The first is the traditional optimism characteristic of Americans, the second the wisdom of the world-weary oppressed peoples, and the latter the pessimism of European intellectuals that has been recently transplanted to our shores. The last of these is of the greatest interest, because it has become deeply embedded in intellectual circles.
The tradition of pessimism is so deeply ingrained in our Judeo-Christian heritage that it has become even part of our most secular views of the world. According to the Hebrew Scriptures Adam and Eve were without sin until they ate the fruit of knowledge; afterwards each generation of human beings became more evil; and periodically God called down His wrath on either mankind as a whole or on those who ignored their special responsibility to obey his commands. The Greeks believed that the Ages of Gold and of Silver were followed by the eras of Bronze and Iron, each epoch being less glorious and virtuous than the preceding one, until at last they reached the miserable level of classical times. Christianity combined the two great cultural and philosophical systems in such a way that the Golden Age and the Garden of Eden were represented by the Apostles and the Church Fathers, with each succeeding generation having less and less to say. This was partly Christ-like humility (Anselm said that we can see farther than our predecessors only because we sit on their shoulders), partly awareness of the barbarism of the times, and partly―but perhaps most importantly―an expectation that the approaching Second Coming would occur when the mankind was again ready for destruction, as it was in the time of Noah. Hence, in order for the Second Coming of Christ to take place as predicted, each generation had to be worse than the one that had gone before, until the end, when human wickedness would stir God’s righteous anger into action.
One finds this attitude everywhere. Most commonly it appears in the denunciation of education: “Students do not work as hard today as when I went to school, they are not as polite, and their music is no longer civilized.” Since the people who say this were criticized by their parents in the same tone, the conclusion must be that at some point in the distant past everyone was able to read, write, and master mathematics, that they dressed in a conventional manner and listened to their parents’ music. Unfortunately, historians have never been able to locate this time of total perfection.
The most common form of denunciation refers to crime: “When I was a child, we never locked a door.” To be sure, there were times and places when this was true; there are, even today, places where it is true. It is a commonplace in rural communities. When everyone knows everyone, each assumes responsibility for looking after one’s neighbors in ways that makes it difficult for thieves to operate. The world today, however, is overwhelmingly urban, and it is becoming even more so. The more people there are, the more difficult it is to keep track of individuals; the opportunities there are for criminals to blend into the background of faceless men.
The darkest form of pessimism is perhaps found among environmentalists, who tend to see the potential dire consequences of every technological change. Since environmental degradation is often connected with population growth, activists tend to share strong views on issues that link the two (birth control, abortion, animal rights, vegetarianism and globalization). This makes them easily parodied by their opponents; they sullenly return the favor (humor is hard to combine with a belief that the end of the world is nigh). Readers of New Yorker cartoons will easily recognize both stereotypes.
It is not important to document the existence of pessimism further. It is merely necessary to remind ourselves that it exists, and in pervasive ways, even among college students, whose fully cognizant memories barely go back past their high school years, when everything was better.
The Tradition of Optimism
One of the characteristics that separate the modern era from the medieval is the partial abandonment of the pessimistic tradition. This hopeful lookout began in the Renaissance and reached its zenith in nineteenth-century liberalism. In a very real sense these eras are one and the same, for although the Renaissance was characterized by the appearance of new attitudes toward art, music, and learning, it was the nineteenth century’s rediscovery of the Renaissance that made it so important to us as a model for individuals and for society. Two historians of that era in particular “created” the Renaissance we know today, and historians ever since have quarreled about the accuracy of their ideas. The first was Jules Michelet, the French popular historian who invented the term Renaissance (rebirth) and described the classical origins of its thought and culture. The second was Jakob Burckhardt, the Swiss historian who emphasized that the Renaissance was important for the rediscovery of the individual and the effort to create the perfect man (the “Renaissance Man,” the humanist, the “all around man”). 
The Renaissance itself had embodied its ideals in a system of education that stressed an understanding of the world and of mankind through the study of literature and nature. The educators of the nineteenth century thus were prepared to revive the original ideals, and under the influence of Michelet and Burckhardt they again sought to make their students into Renaissance men. The most successful schools of this tradition were in England, described at their best in Tom Brown’s School Days. Later it was said that England’s wars were won on the playing fields of Eton, the most famous of the boarding schools. What was really meant was that the English system of education produced the kind of men who could conquer, govern, and defend an Empire. This Empire, moreover, was so attractive that, like the Roman Empire, even those brought into it unwillingly were ready to perpetuate not only its values, but even its occasionally comic affectations. English became the world language, to the eternal frustration of European intellectuals who believe that God is a Frenchman.
A second source of optimism was the Enlightenment, and it was overwhelming French in origin and attitude. The Enlightenment appeared in the eighteenth century after the religious wars had spent their fury. As educated men and women were persuaded that it was futile to organize the world on the basis of divinely-inspired rules, they sought to use reason and rationality to eliminate outdated customs and ideas. In particular they disliked narrow-minded religion and the strict rules that priests and pastors promulgated, for those seemed more suited to preserve priestly power than to serve the good of the congregations. In any case, the rules interfered with freedom of thought and made the improvement of society difficult. A fundamental dispute thus arose, with secular agitators presenting an optimistic view of the possible future, and religious propagandists decrying every suggestion for change as a move away from old-fashioned, trusted, proven morality. The modern controversies between secularism and fundamentalism of all varieties can be traced easily to this era, with the secularists generally using satire and humor effectively to undermine the position of the ecclesiastics. Voltaire was the most famous writer of this secularist tradition, but the American world contributed men like Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, and H. L. Mencken.
The third source of optimism was the economic success of the industrial era. People could see that year by year life was getting better, and they could not imagine any end to this progress, though at times they expressed dissatisfaction with the rapidity of change and the unequal distribution of the new wealth being created. Still, it was hard to be unhappy with electric lighting and flush toilets.
All of these traditions came together in America, where they joined with something new―a new country, with new traditions, establishing itself on lands formerly only lightly settled by peoples who were reluctant to make the social changes necessary to defend their patrimony. Whether the Frontier Theory is true or not, that concept does serve to explain certain aspects of the American spirit. When settlement outran government services, communities had to improvise these for themselves, thus creating a self-confident can-do attitude that expressed itself in new social attitudes and individual initiatives. An abundance of land made it possible for many Americans to work for themselves, a development which created a labor shortage; wages then went up, so that individuals who saved their money and worked hard could later become self-sufficient. This had a great impact on class structure on the frontier: nobody could become extremely rich, for no one could afford to hire many farm workers (thus some began to import slaves, who could not quit their jobs and begin to work for themselves); nobody except a slave needed to be poor unless physically or mentally handicapped. America became a land with fewer class divisions and restrictions than Europe.
As Americans moved inland, they were unable to obtain the products of Europe or keep abreast of European fashions; therefore, they began to develop their own products and customs, which were more egalitarian with each generation. The need to find a substitute for human labor led to the development of many small labor-saving devices and a tinkering tradition that further added to American self-confidence and self-esteem. Lastly, the religious traditions of the frontier developed in the absence of a state church, so that in worship, too, every man was responsible for himself. By the nineteenth century American self-sufficiency, optimism and pride were proverbial. In their own minds, Americans were God’s chosen people, the finest and freest in the world.
Although critics of the frontier theory have been able to demonstrate that many of its original formulations are incorrect or overstated, no competing theory offers a better explanation of many characteristics of the American personality. Moreover, so many Americans believe in the frontier theory (even if they do not recognize it as the source of their ideas), that one can explain their attitudes toward politics only by referring to it. Presidents Johnson and Reagan were able to communicate to their fellow Americans a set of ideals that Europeans found comprehensible only when described as “cowboy diplomacy.” Modern historians use parts of the frontier theory to explain American optimism (David Potter in People of Plenty) and willingness to innovate (Jensen’s modernization theory). Whatever its origin, American optimism was so overwhelming that few of the pessimistic European ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries took root here. America was the land of the future, and alien pessimistic ideas had nothing to contribute.
Modern Pessimism in Europe
The industrial revolution had brought not only visions of a better future, but also more drastic economic cycles, the destruction of old occupations, the impoverishment of small farmers and artisans, and the flight of the unemployed to the factories and slums of the cities. The disillusionment of the masses and of sensitive onlookers led to the development of socialist movements. The unifying aspect of socialism is the intent to organize society in a fair and humane manner. Traditional economic philosophers, however, were skeptical that any such reorganization would be either easy or possible.
Some economists followed the thought of Thomas Malthus, a cleric in Ireland, who postulated that prosperity would cause population to increase; that, in turn, would encourage the cultivation of marginal lands until the exhaustion of the soil or bad weather produced starvation; at that time people would die in sufficient numbers that the marginal lands did not need to be worked; then prosperity would return, briefly. This was a very gloomy picture of the future, and, to make it worse, these economists said authoritatively that little could be done to prevent the economic cycles and the terrible hardships that accompanied them.
Still others were Social Darwinists. Following the generally-accepted guidelines of evolution, Herbert Spencer set forth the doctrine of the Survival of the Fittest. Naturally, those who flourished were by definition the fittest, and any effort to restructure society and redistribute the economic rewards was a violation of natural law. If the poor starved, that was a natural and therefore just process. It was unfortunate that many must suffer and some die, but that was the law of nature.
The socialists rejected such views. They combined Enlightenment rationality and outrage with Christian sympathy and charity to describe a society of equal citizens sharing in the work and rewards. Some socialists sought to achieve this utopian society peacefully; they emphasized government and voluntary actions to promote education, health and welfare. Others were devout Christians and Jews who believed that their religious values were best expressed in society through socialist programs. As a result, by the end of the century, many European voters had taken socialist criticisms to heart; working successfully on the guilty consciences of the well-to-do, where possible socialists and their friends organized political movements to win elections and take control of the government legally.
Other socialists, however, concluded that the property of the rich could be shared only after it was seized by force; they organized conspiracies to prepare for a general revolution. A handful of anarchists, who made socialist principles into an unprecedented demand for individual freedom, sought to bring down their allegedly repressive society by assassination and terror. Looking upon what seemed to be a perversion of otherwise admirable attitudes, the upper and middle classes of the fin de siécle responded with grotesque inappropriateness. Repression was widely used on the continent, using secret police and censorship to quiet the radical; suspicion was more common and less official, with the public becoming reluctant to entertain even the most reasonable proposals. As a result, more socialists came to believe that the radicals had to be right, that only violent change would resolve the contradictions and cruelty of modern society. Eventually the general public lost interest. On the one hand people became devoted to pleasure and entertainment, a life of frivolity well-known to us through Offenbach and the can-can; on the other hand it became caught up a militaristic nationalism that thinking people could see would lead inevitably to a catastrophe for western civilization.
Against this background of trouble we can see the outline of intellectual thought of the time. Johann Gottlieb Fichte suggested a new form of national state would supervise all economic activities and control the cycles of boom and bust. Marx had predicted the collapse of capitalism and the triumph of a socialism that would evolve into communism; as he grew older Marx abandoned hopes for peaceful transfer of monopolists’ resources to the proletariat in favor of organizing a conspiratorial elite that would seize them. Nietzsche proposed moving beyond such questions by adopting a new morality that abandoned the Judeo-Christian heritage. This was also the great era of imperialism, when nothing seemed impossible for Europeans. Arrogance and pride characterized the expression of national feeling in almost every state; those emotions were inflamed by the rapid industrialization, but they also often combined with feelings of inferiority and fear. Intellectual society was schizophrenic―at one time seeing no limit to European creativeness and conquest, at another seeing imminent destruction from within and without.
In short, this was a troubled generation. It was both optimistic and pessimistic, and the constant swing from one emotion to the other was exhausting and exciting at once. Consequently, moderate opinions could generate only a small following among intellectuals; only predictions of impending catastrophe or prospects of Utopia were applauded.
The writings of Oswald Spengler, a noted German philosopher-historian, offered both a warning of danger and hope for the distant future; and consequently they were greeted with loud applause when they appeared just before the outbreak of the First World War. In a thick volume entitled The Decline of the West, he proclaimed the approaching end of the present civilization and the birth of a new order. He postulated that history repeats three great cycles of civilizations. First there is the Apollonarian era, best represented by Ancient Greece, which emphasizes ideals and pure thought. A Greek statue, for example, represented a god-like ideal person, one that served as a model to a less than perfect but improvable mankind. Second comes the Faustian civilization, which stresses power, action and accomplishment. In history this was best represented by Rome. In Roman art one can see realism, individualism, and cruelty. The last stage is the Magian, a time of religious experience, mysticism, and drugs. As the name indicates, it was first represented historically by the Near East, and is identified with magic and the supernatural. The Middle Ages was such a society, and it was succeeded by the Renaissance, which was essentially Apollonarian.
Spengler said that the nineteenth century industrial society was a Faustian civilization in its last stage. As capital became more important that creative energy, the stockbrokers had become the rulers of society; and though their certificates of stock may have replaced the machine as the symbol of the reality of power, the time was approaching when a Caesar would arise, take control, and inaugurate a new era. The will to power of the Caesar would prevail. As the Faustian state failed, as it must, a Magian era would follow.
The First World War and its aftermath seemed to confirm Spengler’s prophesies. Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Franco and a host of minor dictators brought an end to the hopes of classical liberals for a future with political and economic democracy. How much Spengler contributed to this is impossible to measure, but since many read his statement that the individual could only work for change in the direction of historical necessity, surely some of them abandoned their faith in democracy just when the fragile post-war democracies of Europe most needed the committed support of every citizen. It may be that Spengler contributed to what was later called a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The 1914-1918 war itself was a terrible blow to western civilization, with its millions of dead, more millions wounded, and many more lives ruined or disappointed. Material losses can hardly be calculated either; at the least the work of a generation past was lost and that of a future generation sacrificed as well. Moreover, though the triumph of German militarism would have been terrible, the victory of the Allies was hardly better―Russia left to the Bolsheviks, Italy to the Fascists, and ultimately Germany to the Nazis.
Theologians reacted by abandoning their nineteenth-century belief in the perfectibility of mankind. In the wake of the war Karl Barth popularized the almost forgotten theologian, Kierkegaard, and stressed anew our fundamental sinfulness. In effect, Barth despaired of any significant improvement of mankind as a whole; the war had uncovered the horrors hidden inside the soul of a western civilization which had been covered over by a century of peace: now we could see how greatly we stand in need of God’s grace. In this he furthered that intellectual cry of despair called Existentialism which reached its greatest audience two decades later through the works of Kafka and Sartre. Theirs was a despair without God, without the hope of ultimate salvation. Existentialism has its roots in Kierkegaard's statement that “existence precedes essence,” that is, just as the universe was chaos before it took form, so human life is without structure or meaning until we each give it form and significance; this form and significance will be highly personal and subjective; and, lastly, whatever we create subjectively will not last―it will return to nothingness and chaos. Paul Tillich could take this existential philosophy to form the basis of a new relationship between individual man and God, but most existentialists were agnostics who saw little purpose to our continuing to strive, to work, to sacrifice ourselves for others. This philosophy was not a constructive one for the unstable and weak democracies that had been created out of the fallen empires of Europe.
Democracy received yet another unintended blow in 1922 with the publication of The Revolt of the Masses by the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. He was specifically attacking contemporary Fascism, which he saw as the offspring of liberal democracy and technocracy. The civilized world of the educated man was being destroyed, he said, by the new barbarians, whose joy in mediocrity was matched only by the emptiness of their souls. Ortega y Gasset called for a united Europe that would find purposeful tasks that brought out the best in men. Not empty technology, he said (for he considered narrowly-trained scientists the worst of the barbarians), but freedom and joy in struggle and accomplishment would be the salvation of a troubled Europe. Unfortunately, of his many wise words and insights, the reading public remembered principally those in his title.
Moreover, fascists (and of many non-fascists in the artistic communities, especially those coming from the Futurist movement) delighted in breaking the rules of civilized behavior. If someone important thought them barbarians, so much the better. When Mussolini told the crowds he did not have plans, he just acted, and he “didn’t give a damn!” (Actually, a little more colorfully: non me fregga!). The crowd roared its approval. Ortega y Gasset seemed to have put his finger on the problem that faced the individual in the twentieth century. Even his fascist enemies agreed on the nature of the problem, but their solution was the opposite of his: the abandonment of civilized values, the ridicule of rationalism, and the application of force and violence.
The triumph of Hitler and Stalin, with the subsequent introduction of terror as government policy, seemed to confirm every denial of optimism that was uttered during the Great Depression and the crises that led to the Second World War. All this had its impact on America, too.
Pessimism Comes to America
There were few thorough-going pessimists in nineteenth century America. To be sure, there were those who thought that American society was hopelessly materialist, that democracy would inevitably lead to mediocrity, that “inferior” immigrants would swamp the native stock, or that native racism would lead to social or civil war. But they could not maintain their arguments long in face of the obvious social and economic progress that was achieved during our westward expansion. Frederick Jackson Turner introduced a cautionary note in his Frontier Thesis, indicating that Americans had developed their primary characteristics as a result of having access to cheap land on the frontier, and after 1890 that land was no longer available to settlement. But Americans did not even stop to ponder his message. We were too busy with the Gay Nineties.
The high point of American optimism was reached in the years between 1898 and 1917. Americans were self-assured in their belief that they and their democratic system could not only be so perfected as to eliminate domestic problems, but also to correct the errors of all mankind. Democracy was the way to the future, and capitalism guided by a benevolent upper class was the vehicle.
The war against Spain expressed those attitudes well. The intent was to free Cuba of tyrannical and backward foreign oppressors. American good will would replace Spanish cruelty; American businessmen, Spanish overseers; and Protestant missionaries, Roman Catholic priests. In addition, Cuba would become politically independent as quickly as democratic institutions could be established. The swiftness and decisiveness of the war seemed to confirm that God blessed the enterprise. 
Few foresaw that Americans had no magic wand that could transform Cuba instantly, and many were therefore disappointed in the slow progress of the island’s population in advancing toward utopia. The same disappointment was met in dealing with Puerto Ricans and Philippinos, who became a part of the American empire because Congress in the declaration of war had not thought to mention them specifically in the statement that America sought no territory for itself.
Still, this so-called progressive era was accustomed to encountering problems on the road to perfection. If it had been unwise to acquire colonies, that could hardly be undone now; surely Americans could managed those lands more properly than native strongmen would―and if necessary, troops would be sent to Haiti and Central America, even to Mexico, to defend democracy and capitalism. It was indeed subsequently found necessary to intervene to secure a canal in Panama for the Navy and American businessmen. Then troops were dispatched against petty dictators and radical revolutionaries; with a mixture of good motives and bad, American marines were constantly involved in Latin America from the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt to that of F.D.R.
The culmination of the policy of establishing democracy was the American entry into the First World War. Known to Americans as the “War to End All Wars” and “the War to Protect Democracy,” it ended in bitter disappointment: Wilson could neither put through his Fourteen Points nor persuade Americans to join his League of Nations. Americans, disappointed and now somewhat cynical, took refuge in an isolationism and a pacifism that were at once a statement of American perfectionist dreams and a rejection of efforts to make foreigners behave morally.
The defining phrase was “American Exceptionalism.” Americans had found a proper way of life for Americans, but it could not easily be exported. Nor could it easily be copied. The American Way of Life may not have been easy to define, but it was no less real for all of that; and it was in danger from immigrants and the temptations of world power. Americans, therefore, withdrew so completely from the effort to make the world better that the economic collapse of the Great Depression and the outbreak of the Second World War were made more or less inevitable.
American optimism reached its low point just before World War Two, when the Great Depression began to seem incurable. However, the Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression were not mortal blows to American optimism. Somehow we got through it. Franklin Delano Roosevelt put our attitude into words, saying, “All we have to fear is fear itself.” He gave leadership to a nation that had come to doubt itself. Even those many who hated him (and he was hated as passionately as he was loved) found in him a symbol they could respond to.  Consequently, it was not until the end of the Second World War that a well-thought-out philosophy of pessimism found a home in America.
One reason that Americans were not fundamentally pessimistic in this era was that we lacked a philosopher of despair. Our rejection of foreign models was almost universal. Not even the many varieties of Marxist thought had significant impact on us. Then, in the 1940s a few intellectuals found a typically American analysis of our situation, complete with data and graphs, in a work by a Yale professor, Pitrium Sorokin. It was also typically American in its basic optimism.
The philosophy of Sorokin relied heavily on Oswald Spengler for its concepts, but without the heavy sense of doom pervasive in the Decline of the West. For Sorokin, whose 1943 Crisis of our Age was widely read, the great trial was already over―not something terrible and vague in the future. He postulated three types of culture: the ideational, the idealistic, and the sensate. We were in the last stage of the sensate culture, with its dualism that “told of peace while waging war; urging cooperation while competing vigorously,” and its chaotic syncretism that made popular “musical styles ranging from classical to popular to blues to jazz” (to use one of his favorite examples).
Sorokin documented the types of culture that characterized various eras by cataloguing works of art, literature, advances in technology, and so forth, indicating in columns what percentage of society’s efforts were put into various activities. His superficially scientific approach demonstrated clearly the secular, sensual nature of modern society. That was no endorsement of its values.
For Sorokin there was a consolation that the future would be better than the present, if only people would act to change their morality, transform their values, and reverse the decline in civilized manners. The future belonged to the ascetics and the saints, who would conquer the last resistance of the nihilists and hedonists. The people of the sensate culture would turn to God, become more understanding of the role of the Absolute in the world, and thereby establish a new and better culture: “The road that leads not to death but to the further realization of man’s unique creative mission on this planet.”
Sorokin’s book was only a momentary sensation. By 1950 it was clear that Americans were on the way to a greater Sensate Culture, not away from it. He had miscalculated, apparently, and his punishment was in being ignored, then forgotten.
The next half decade was filled with more frightening visions of the present and the future. The most enduring portrayals came from Great Britain―1984 and Animal Farm, from the pen of the one-time communist, George Orwell, whose experience in Spain during the Civil wars revealed to him the total hypocrisy of Stalinism. The first book described the anti-Utopia of a society continually at war, with all industry and all news media in the hands of a totalitarian state personified by “Big Brother.” The official party required the educated person to commit every moment of time and every emotion to the war effort, to the development of a unified society, and to the destruction of internal and external enemies. Not only was news controlled, but history was continually rewritten to confirm the party’s eternal wisdom. Words were given new meanings, and the language was being restructured so that the complex thought of free men would henceforth be impossible. The ultimate enemy was the emotion of Love, which the Anti-Sex League sought to combat with slogans, party rallies and propaganda. Orwell’s society seemed so plausible after the Hitler and Stalin eras, so possible in view of the rapidity of technological advance, and so predictable in the Cold War rhetoric of contemporary politicians, that 1984 became a code word for the undesirable but perhaps inevitable future.
Animal Farm was a more sophisticated parody, and for that reason perhaps made less impression on American readers. Drawing on English history and the Russian Revolution, Orwell presented a revolution on a farm where the animals thenceforth held power. Ultimately the pigs took control, and through the slogan “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” he depicted the betrayal of the revolutionary goals by the new rulers. Orwell’s pessimism was fundamental: the revolution will leave everyone even worse off that he is at present. Everyone, that is, except the pigs.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley depicted a more pleasant but ultimately more soulless anti-Utopia. Drugs, gene-manipulation, and the removal of every source of frustration created a cattle-like society in which individual thought, passionate love, daring, courage, and creativeness could not exist. A strong readership for this book has been maintained because in so many ways Huxley’s vision of a society pursuing chemical happiness, free sex, and sensual entertainment seems to be coming true.
Almost at the same moment, a vitriolic denunciation of American mores appeared in Phillip Wylie’s A Generation of Vipers. Wylie had insights into the appearance of Nazism and Communism, but he was remembered for his attacks on Motherhood and Apple Pie. “Momism” became a byword for the overprotective, selfish domination of society by frustrated women. Unable to achieve anything themselves, the women of America effectively suppressed their menfolk so that they, too, could achieve little. In fact, nothing in contemporary America pleased Wylie; and his opinions were widely shared.
A reaction was to be expected. Someone had to be responsible for the decline in standards, for America’s troubles. With the beginning of the Cold War, Americans began to realize that external dangers had not disappeared with the fascists, and many began to wonder if America’s internal problems were not connected with the external threat. War in Korea and the Russian detonation of an atomic bomb suddenly rocked Americans out of their post-war tranquility. It was discovered that spies had passed on atomic secrets to Stalin, and it was presumed that other agents were still at work. Senator Joseph McCarthy outlined a fearful plot against American institutions that set off a nation-wide Red Hunt. This far overshadowed earlier American panics such as those which inspired the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams and the sedition trials and deportations of the 1919-1920 Red Scare. “McCarthyism” became a frightening phenomenon―the combination of fear, hatred, and patriotism that led past the bounds of rationality to the persecution of individuals for past or present political beliefs; and the definition of “communist” was always rather vague, so that non-communists with non-conformist ideas usually suffered more than did the secret agents of a world conspiracy.
The communists were real, however, as the archives of the KGB revealed in the 1990s, but most, like Alger Hiss, were removed from positions of power before the Cold War began. The communists in Hollywood, whose propaganda consisted largely of making the bankers, railroads and large ranchers the villains in B-westerns, saw themselves as martyrs to a noble cause and accused those who pointed them out as the traitors (of their friends, rather than of their nation), successfully stigmatizing them as tattle-tales (while those who informed on employers or the government were called whistle-blowers). Emotions ran high on both side, and neither side shrank from hyperbole.
It was in this atmosphere, in 1951, that Hannah Arendt published what many considered a classic study, the Origins of Totalitarianism. Although it is not a book that has aged well―it is wordy, loosely organized, and its central theme of a steadily growing system of terror has proved to be too strongly stated―it had a great impact on intellectuals.
Her theory of totalitarianism resembled the novels of Franz Kafka: nightmare-like situations in which the helpless individual awaits a terrible but unknown fate, a fate which he deserves for committing some crime of which he is unaware. She described the inefficient but ruthless police state that destroys not only the enemies of the new regime, but also the neutral populace and even its own supporters. The system of terror fragments society, breaking down all organizations―social groups, churches, political parties, and even the family. Only questioning obedience and a belief in the rightness of party decisions give an individual the faintest hope of physical survival. Most notable in this system, the concentration camps are more concerned with breaking the will of the individual than in destroying opposition (otherwise extermination camps would be preferable). In short, the goal of the totalitarian state was the transformation of the human character. Anything was permitted in order to achieve this transformation.
Hannah Arendt also had other significant insights into the Hitler and Stalin eras. The most important was encompassed in the phrase, “the banality of evil.” The ultimate truth of the totalitarian system was not that exceptionally evil men had triumphed over good men. It was that after the opening stages, when armed revolutionaries had won the struggle, the bureaucrats of the all-powerful state would be perfectly ordinary people who had risen to high position by their willingness to conform; these people would manage terror in much the same way they would operate any other business or government office. Inspired by fear and the necessity to avoid all critical thinking, guided in policy by orders, decrees and routine, and separated by mounds of paper from the atrocities of the concentration and extermination camps, a very normal man could issue the most horrible orders, then go home to his family and pets. An ordinary human being, like Adolf Eichmann (responsible for the arrest and transportation of the Jews to Nazi extermination camps), was therefore all the more frightful because anyone could have done the same terrible deeds. As the English poet wrote: “There, but for the Grace of God, go I.”
The Temporary Triumph of Pessimism
From the examples mentioned in the foregoing section one might assume that American optimism had received deadly blows in the late 40s and early 50s, but in fact American society rebounded strongly and resumed its traditional rosy view of the world. American armies had won World War Two, losing only a few early naval battles against the Japanese and one North African tank battle against the Germans; every other major engagement was an American victory; and now American armies stood ready to defend democracy around the globe.
This aspect of American optimism must not be overlooked: As a policy America embarked upon the replacement of fascist institutions by democratic ones. Though the way was hard, the means were found―War Crimes Trials, the Berlin Airlift, restructuring schools and courts, protecting minority political parties, and the freedom of the press and of speech. The former enemies―Germany, Japan, Italy―became models of social and industrial success. Americans were naturally proud of this achievement, and one can easily understand why the assumption was so widely held that Americans could do the same everywhere in the world.
At the same time, of course, the Soviet Union was advancing very rapidly on all fronts. For many years it seemed as though communism might indeed triumph, and perhaps this feeling of eventual victory was as important to the Soviets as the threat of massive retaliation in restraining their armies in those years when they possessed an immense advantage in tanks, planes and manpower.
America met the challenge of Sputnik (in 1957 the Russians launched the first artificial earth satellite) and in 1969 landed the first men on the moon. The Civil Rights Movement, after advancing so slowly for decades, made significant breakthroughs in legislation and public acceptance. Social legislation reached its high point in 1964 with President Johnston’s ambitious War on Poverty. Consequently, it was only slowly that Americans realized that not everything was possible.
A small number of students had come to this conclusion earlier―the academic imitators of the “hippies.” But they had been far outnumbered by the “silent generation” and the growing number of activists who sought to remake the nation along the lines of its professed ideals.
The disillusion that came in the late Sixties and early Seventies can be summarized in one word: ‘Nam. It was in Vietnam that Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon took up the challenge of defending democracy, ending poverty and illiteracy, and creating a model of America in the Far East. Since democracy was not even established, much less defended, and since relocation camps and black markets were much more in evidence than land redistribution programs or the growth of a sound economy, and―most important―since the Vietnamese did not respond enthusiastically to the presence of an American army, a growing number of Americans began to question the wisdom sending a half-million Americans to fight in swamps and jungles against an enemy who hardly seemed to need the aid he received from the Soviet Union and China. Moreover, an invasion of North Vietnam (the only way to stop the infiltration of troops and war materiel into South Vietnam) promised either to become a repetition of our Korean experience or to escalate into World War Three. Therefore, the presidents conducted a limited war, using air power to a degree unimagined even in World War Two. The war was too complicated to be summarized in a few lines here, but it is important to remember that the public became both disillusioned and divided over it. Both the right and left wings of public opinion disliked the way the war was fought (the former wanting victory, the latter to get out), and in a general sense both extremes considered that it was the wrong war in the wrong place. The real enemy was the Soviet Union, Red China, or poverty, or nationalism, or our own paranoia, depending on who was making the analysis. Yet three American presidents, one after another, made the war the most important issue of their administrations, and the last two discovered that they could not travel freely or speak to the public without encountering massive protest demonstrations.
In this same tumultuous era came the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the riots in Detroit, Newark, Watts, and Miami, and the scandals associated with the Watergate break-in. Also, there were economic troubles, especially a “stagflation” (simultaneous inflation and a stagnant economy) that economists had said was impossible. Americans had become dependent on foreign oil and were shocked by the OPEC boycott in 1973. Lastly, there was the fear of thermonuclear war, an exchange of hydrogen bombs that would perhaps destroy mankind itself; at the least western civilization as we know it would suffer terribly.
The immediate result of this troubled era was a deep spirit of pessimism that fell across the nation. Youths who were persuaded that every endeavor was futile took refuge in alcohol, drugs, and religious cults. “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” was one popular slogan of the era. Other youths turned to a neo-Marxian radicalism called “the New Left.” A few even became political terrorists, believing that random acts of violence would bring the entire rotten structure of society down.
Even those who did not literally Adrop out” often took refuge in an intensely personal escape through materialism, hedonism, or religion. There were other highly individualistic resolutions of the problem―to involve oneself in sports, travel, or in sex. To ignore others, to ignore problems, to avoid thoughts about the future: this was the spiritual “dropping out” of the times.
Subsequently, in 1975, the social commentators Peter Martin and Tom Wolfe minted two phrases that seemed to offer insights into the contemporary scene: “narcissism” and the “Me Generation.” The second of the two phrases had the wider currency; it seemed to explain not only the decline in good manners and concern for others, but also such phenomena as “self-improvement,” “mind-expanding drugs,” and “gamesmanship”. The nation was shocked when an entire New York neighborhood listened to the cries of a girl being raped without anyone calling the police; but the shock went deeper when it was realized that there was a nation-wide attitude of non-involvement. The idealism of the Peace Corps era was gone, and the volunteer army could not fill its ranks. Women were demonstrating for equal rights with a vigor that seemed to say that they did not want to be “ladies”. “Assertiveness training” became an excuse for boorishness. The so-called Youth Culture rejected much that was traditional, while often wearing costumes that harkened back to earlier generations. The first phrase, “narcissism,” had deeper intellectual meaning. It had first been defined by Sigmund Freud as the psychological state of a person incapable of caring for others, a person who thinks only of himself. The narcissistic personality, in the psychological sense, encompasses both the charming personality who exploits others for his own benefit and the psychopath who refuses to recognize any legal or moral restrictions on his behavior.
It was social historian Christopher Lasch who made the most effective use of the term “narcissism.” His 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism, sought to explain the moral crisis, the feeling of pessimism and despair, and numerous other apparent social problems in neo-Marxian terms. He said that America was in the last days of the culture of competitive individualism. Capitalism was dying. And good riddance.
As Lasch saw the problem, modern capitalist society brings out and reinforces narcissistic traits in everyone, especially through advertising that encourages consumption; but also through bureaucratic dependence, which effectively limits freedom. Dissatisfied individuals, treated as numbers and not as human beings, retreat back into a selfish search for personal fulfillment: travel, sports, sex, and drugs. Only by abolishing capitalism, he says, can a new society be created that allows the full development of each individual person.
Lasch’s criticisms of American society are so fundamental that they bear discussing no matter what one thinks of his conceptual framework. Why, for example, have American sports been so heavily emphasized in recent years? Why do we so honor “personalities” who have no claims to fame except being well-known? Why are there no more heroes? Why is there so much pessimism about the future?
Lasch’s answer to the last question is an interesting one: There is no interest in the future (not even a belief that there will be one past the era of the hydrogen bomb), because there is no interest in the past. Only a culture that realizes how the present is part of a continuum, that the past bears importantly on today, can even conceive of a future. American culture has played down the role of history in the education of youth and in explaining current events. We are now paying the price for that policy. The first step to a better future is a better understanding of the past.
This concept has had great importance in the preparation of this book. If we are to deal with the pessimistic attitude that appears in America about once a generation, we must first look at the history of western thought that has created the European tradition of pessimism and America’s occasionally embracing it.
Essential to this is the definition of some basic concepts related to our concepts of individuality and conformity: What is normal? What is abnormal? We must grapple with those concepts before we can analyze our present spiritual crisis. Only when our ideas about the role of the individual in a society are clearer can we move into a discussion of whether our society is progressing in a natural or unnatural direction.
It will help to remember that we are not the first to be concerned about American culture. In fact, we may learn a great deal about ourselves by reading a book written about a very different America long ago.
Alexis de Tocqueville
A young French nobleman who visited the United States in 1831 made some of the most insightful and stimulating observations about American life and customs ever put on paper. His analysis of Democracy in America gave grounds for both optimism and pessimism, in that certain characteristics of democracy that led toward conformity, dullness, and perhaps even toward tyranny, were offset by other characteristics and national institutions. American life, he predicted, would be a perpetual contest between these mutually hostile tendencies. He wrote: “I know of no country in which there is as little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.” What he meant was the “Tyranny of the Majority” would suppress minority thought by the force of public opinion; dissenters would be shunned, shut out, and banned from society. Offsetting this was the fact that America had no great military organization, no natural enemies of consequence, no great financial crises, no heavy taxes, and no large cities. Hence, America had no significant controversies.
These observations have been the point of departure for many discussions of conformism in America. Without question they will continue to spark controversy in our era. Our situation has changed greatly in the century and a half since de Tocqueville wrote, but his remarks about national character seem surprisingly fresh and valid.
If national habits can be changed, as de Tocqueville says that American customs were changed by democracy, then we have grounds for both optimism and pessimism. We can make of our society what we want, but we must be careful about making fundamental changes in our system. Institutional changes may cause less desirable character traits to develop that leave our institutions without a proper foundation in the attitudes and customs of the American people.
Individuality, Normality, and Abnormality
We recognize that people differ from one another, but we only rarely recognize how much people differ. We tend to say, “we are all alike under the skin,” and we emphasize our essential equality because we have learned through hard lessons what occurs when we stress the natural superiority of some people and groups over others. Nevertheless, people are different―culturally, psychologically, and physically. To note these differences is not to make value judgments about them―although, in practical affairs, we may be obliged to do so. Avoid it anyway. What we must recognize is that such differences are not random happenstance: each variation has proven its usefulness in assuring the survival of the species or a society. Therefore, each variation has an intrinsic worth.
The differences in culture are self-evident. We have all encountered culture-shock in some form. Similarly, we have observed that some people are outgoing and some are shy, some are trusting and some not; moreover, we recognize that physical beauty, artistic talent, and athletic ability are not equally distributed. We seldom take a detailed look at these variations; though a few may stare, they usually see only that which is most superficial.
It is interesting in a study of individuality and conformity to realize that not only are we sufficiently alike that we can be studied as a biological species (as in medicine), but also that we are so different that specialists are needed for treating our eyes, teeth, feet, and every other physical organ, and still other specialists are needed to deal with our unresolved psychological disorders. As we study uniqueness, we develop certain ideas of what is “normal,” that is, we see that a majority of unique characteristics fall within a middle range, and so we can call extreme cases “abnormal.” While keeping this definition of “normality” in mind, we should recognize that within its range exist vast differences that make each of us completely individual and unique.
It is broadly known that no two sets of identical fingerprints have been found, or identical DNA, and we recognize differences in athletic ability. The two major explanations for these: first, that God created each individual unique so that he could fulfill his part of a divine plan, and secondly, that the process of evolution requires that each individual creature differ slightly from every other of its species so that a gene pool of sufficient size exists for meeting the various emergencies of struggle, disease, and sexual selection―the individuals who survive will pass on their superior characteristics to future generations.
Examples of the degree to which individual body parts may differ usually surprise us. Stomachs can vary in size greatly, some being six times the capacity of others, and the location may vary by as much as eight inches. Livers are so unique to each mammal that ancient priests and shamans used to take them from sacrificial victims to foretell the future, reading the various bumps and knobs as significant signs. There are eleven different patterns for the extensor muscle of the human index finger, and eight different patterns of tendons running to the back of the hand. That explains why some people can throw a curve ball better than others.
Blood types apparently vary among people as a response to the challenges of specific climates. Heat and disease present problems met by one blood group or another better than others, yet not so uniformly that an entire population becomes a single blood group. A well-known example of a blood-linked characteristic is sickle-cell anemia. In Africa the sickle-cell trait is helpful in combating malaria; thus, Blacks who have the trait survive and Whites, none of whom have the trait, die. Thus, tropical Africa is completely Black and in many parts of the Caribbean the Black population has thrived better than the White immigrants. When Blacks come to the temperate climates, however, the sickle-cell trait is not useful, for the trait also produces a large number of congenital anemia victims who die young after a lifetime of suffering. In a temperate climate like that of North America, the benefits do not balance off the disadvantages.
In a similar manner, individuals and groups react differently to drugs. Alcohol can make some individuals intoxicated at 0.05% of fluid content (in effect, a very small alcoholic beverage) and others are not affected at 0.4% (meaning they almost never become intoxicated). Sometimes the effect of a drug is complicated by other factors. For example, men and women often have unequal reactions to alcohol because of their differing body weights; if a 120 lb. woman drinks as much as a 180 lb. man, she is likely to become intoxicated well before he does.
Reactions to drugs vary so widely that many can be safely taken only under a doctor’s guidance, and even then complications can arise. Illegal drugs, which often vary widely in strength and purity, are therefore highly dangerous. The degree of addiction, too, varies greatly among individuals. Some people are resistant to a degree, others quickly become dependent. All of us are affected by the high cost of illegal drugs, because few addicts can supply their habit by legal means; some users obtain money by selling drugs to others, and like good entrepreneurs, they have to persuade non-users to try their wares, knowing that some will become addicted; some turn to crime, and others to prostitution.
Mental ability varies as widely as physical ability, and authorities are not completely in agreement how it should be measured. Clearly, linguistic and mathematical abilities are distinct, and for the purpose of college admission further special abilities in social studies and general science are tested. However, every specialist is aware that test results reflect not only native ability, but also the past experience in the home and school (what games were played, how the parents talked to the children, how much homework was demanded), health (was the student at the proper weight, had he been ill, did he eat well on the day of tests), weather (high or low pressure, cold or cold day, rain or shine) and, of course, the motivation to do well. It has been suggested that these tests are too narrow, that perhaps we should also develop tests for how we relate to object and to ideas, for how we work with people, and for our dexterity and strength. Only then can we make judgments about the capabilities of an individual on the basis of standardized tests.
The conclusion of this rapid survey of our biological inheritance is that, when looking at individuals, it is often hard to say what “normal” is. If we list any ten physical criteria for normality, the chances are 1 in 2 that any individual will be in the mid 50% range for each criteria. The odds that any of us will be in the mid 50% range for all ten criteria are only 1 in 1024.
Common sense tells us that this statistic is misleading. In practice we assume that most people are normal. Only when a physical characteristic varies from the norm extremely do we call it abnormal. And to be abnormal is not the same as being deviant.
If we cannot always describe what “normal” is, we have even more difficulty in telling what “deviant” is. The best we can say is that “deviant” is a strongly defined and disapproved difference from what is perceived as normal in one culture (but not necessarily in others―fatness may be normal among one group, deviant in another).
We often determine what normality is by first defining deviance. Thus, normality can be defined as that middle ground between deviances.
Deviance is a cultural term. A hunchback may be an abnormality, but he is not blamed by his society for his infirmity, whereas a drunkard is held responsible for his deviance. A leper may be excluded from society, but only because his illness is considered contagious and very dangerous. In contrast, a criminal is held responsible and is not only excluded from society, but also punished. Generally, deviance refers only to behavior for which a person can be held responsible.
Law is the instrument of society for determining deviant behavior and for punishing it. This definition may be too simple, for the law is not designed merely to detect and try lawbreakers; the law also has the symbolic function of establishing the norms of behavior and publicly affirming the values of society.
The legal norms of society are invariably set higher than customary behavior, so that they are a standard or ideal that reflects the goals of the community. Consequently, norms are not always followed closely by law enforcement officers, who have sufficiently important matters to deal with that they overlook minor infractions. For example, we set a speed limit that is considered safe for all the roads of a region. Any individual violating this speed limit may be arrested, but unless the limit is exceeded in a flagrant or dangerous manner, the violators are usually disregarded. However, there may be a “crackdown” on enforcement after a bad accident or when a general feeling emerges that too many people are speeding too often. This is a public affirmation of values that can be made only by catching and punishing violators. Thus, the “criminal” is a necessary part of the system of establishing norms. Also, as this example shows, actions that are legal at one time and place (or illegal but not thought of as criminal) may be both illegal and criminal at another. Jaywalking is an illegal activity that most of us commit from time to time without considering ourselves criminals, however unwise it may be at the moment, however bad an example it is for children, and despite our knowing that the law specifically forbids crossing the street in the middle of a block.
The criminal’s response to his arrest often determines how society and the police handle the matter. A reckless driver who acknowledges his fault and promises to do better is generally let off with a fine and a warning, while a young and defiant lawbreaker could be classified as delinquent. A mentally ill person or a drunk is usually considered sick. The cynical lawbreaker is the hardest to deal with, for he will use every means available to outwit the enforcement of the law and or to turn the law to his personal advantage, using the letter of the law to evade the intend of the law. Police often classify these people as hard core criminals.
All forms of deviance undergo change: we modify our laws. What was illegal at one time may be required in another. For example, segregation was formerly enforced by law, whereas today the law even requires the hiring of a certain percentage of the work force from the minority group whenever a court rules that segregation still exists in practice.
Crime as Deviance
The history of law enforcement demonstrates the widely differing perception of how society must deal with deviants. In the Middle Ages crime was considered the same as sin. Since sins were conveniently divided into categories already, it was possible to determine which were venal and which were mortal; punishment for mortal sins had to be harsh even though they might appear to be minor violations of customary and written law. To give the people of the medieval era credit, however, one must remember that imprisonment was impractical and that only the rich could afford to pay fines; therefore, flogging, hanging, beheading, and similar punishments were the only available alternatives to exile (sending the criminals elsewhere for others to worry about).
The reintroduction of Roman law brought back the use of imprisonment and an effort to use the labor of the prisoners for the benefit of society. Also, there was perhaps more understanding that first offenders deserved a second chance; this attitude not exactly unknown in the Middle Ages, when occasionally an offender would be released if a local woman volunteered to marry him and see to his reformation. (A famous Frisian pirate captured by Bremen citizens said that he’d rather die first; and he did!)
It was Cesare di Beccaria who founded modern criminology by the publications of On Crimes and Punishments in 1764. A product of the Enlightenment era, he discussed his subject in purely rational terms: 1) a crime was an act against specific individuals, and the criminal must be punished only for his actions; 2) the punishment for specific acts must be specified beforehand; 3) the punishment must fit the crime; 4) the rights of the accused must be protected by legal process; and 5) the punishment must be swift. The ideas of this Neapolitan philosopher were eventually adopted everywhere in the western world.
The science of criminology advanced quickly in the nineteenth century. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarian philosophy (“the greatest good for the greatest number”), emphasized learning the origin of criminal behavior and then eliminating its causes. He believed that men reacted to two principles: pleasure and pain. Society, he said, should make legal behavior pleasurable and illegal behavior painful.
At the same time the new science of statistics was undermining Bentham’s theory of free will. When accurate records were kept, the crime rate proved to be relatively constant, no matter how the law was enforced. Similarly, the number of vehicle accidents and suicides varied little from year to year. Explaining this phenomenon was difficult. Eventually a number of determinist schools of philosophy arose.
Some determinists believed that crime originated in poverty. Hence, crime was inevitable, since poverty could not be eliminated in the foreseeable future. Karl Marx said that poverty, and therefore crime, were inherent in capitalism. Therefore, he said, the high crime rate simply proved that capitalism was morally bankrupt. In the interest of society it was necessary that the entire economic system be overthrown and a new one introduced that would eliminate poverty. Marx predicted that within a generation or two of the introduction of communism, poverty and crime would both disappear.
Others looked at the physical and mental characteristics. Cesare Lombroso said that he could identify a “criminal type” at sight as a throwback to pre-human species. If this were true, then police would not need to inquire deeply into an individual’s guilt or innocence: his physical appearance would indicate whether he was a danger to society or not. Out of the pursuit of this pseudo-science came phrenology (the study of the skull), then fingerprinting, and finally DNA. The first was a scientific dead-end, but the second and third are vital to modern criminology. Although phrenology was discredited (among all but a few modern fortune-tellers) the hope of identifying criminals before their careers had begun was not abandoned; the police and the public simply turned their attention from individuals to entire groups who were believed to be essentially criminal: Englishmen looked on Italians with suspicion, American Whites mistrusted Blacks, and everyone condemned gypsies out of hand.
The weak part of the determinist argument was always this: why were not all poor people criminals? The implication of the discovery that most poor people were honest and some rich people were common criminals was so obvious that ultimately most determinist arguments were rejected by all but cranks and racists. Criminal law had to apply to individuals who were judged on the basis of provable illegal actions.
Deliberate crime for profit and pleasure is more a problem in America than in other advanced industrial nations. Why this should be in a country with a high standard of living and reasonable opportunities for personal advancement is not easy to answer, but surely the rapid change in the economy and in society is partly to blame. In that sense, crime is a part of the process of modernization. Many countries of the world have noted this and have attempted to moderate social dislocation by the introduction of socialism. The degree to which this has been successful is still disputed.
Daniel Bell writes that “crime is a Coney Island mirror, caricaturing the morals and manners of a society.” The criminal is a distorted picture of what we all want to be―cowboy, frontiersman, businessman, athlete, policeman. He can use guile or violence, he gets his own way, he is feared and respected, and he has money. His struggle against society and the law puts him in the role of Robin Hood and Jesse James. Moreover, he often provides needed services to society: opportunities for gambling and sex, cheap second-hand items for sale, and employment for the youthful and untrained. Lastly, the criminal can rise out of his environment into an honest trade or profession―the bootlegger becomes the manager of a liquor store, the con man a salesman, the thug a professional athlete.
Organized crime in America is a model of big business: it has, reputedly, a board of directors, a chairman, lawyers, and numerous contacts in government and legal business. It provides a variety of services demanded by society and is especially well entrenched in the popular pastime of gambling. Moreover, it often aids in law enforcement, keeping potential competition in check. Lastly, it diversifies, taking over new enterprises, both legal and illegal, merging them into previous programs in ways calculated to reduce expenses and increase profits. In one way organized crime has been even more successful than other business enterprises. That is in its labor relations. When it deals with a union, it strives to control it completely, then loots the pension funds at the same time it makes “sweetheart” deals with industry.
The Mafia was able to thrive only because it provided services that many Americans really wanted. At first the organization did not extend past local groups of gangsters in the protection racket, in prostitution, and in petty gambling; and as long as it confined its activities to the slums, the American middle class did not care. The German, Irish, Jewish, and Italian mobsters might quarrel among themselves for domination of their ethnic markets, but they were unable to become “big-time” until the First World War brought in Prohibition.
The Prohibition era (1917-1933) made possible the growth and development of the Mafia. Beer and wine were the beverages of the immigrant Germans and Italians, just as whiskey was the drink of the Irish. Of the competing groups, the Irish had the immediate upper hand, thanks to their political connections and three-quarters of a century of experience in America; however, the Irish and Jews were on their way to middle-class respectability, while the Italians were confined to the slums and low-paying jobs. Thus, “Machine-gun Kelly” lost out to “Scarface” Al Capone. The Sicilian Mafia had the advantage of centuries of struggle against foreign occupation, during which time the code of silence and revenge strengthened the family ties that were part of the administrative directorate of the crime syndicate. Italian immigrants had just learned how to prosper in America when the 18th amendment and the Volstead Act came in. Outrageous violence and bribery eliminated competition and law enforcement, giving the Mafia an enormously profitable monopoly. Godfathers made millions in the liquor business. (They did not often live long, but they died rich; and everybody sent flowers at the funeral.)
The end of Prohibition required a shift of Mafia activities into other activities. Big-time gambling and labor racketeering had their turn, followed by drugs and stock manipulation. As the generation changed, so did Mafia approaches to competition. More and more, the organization took on the trappings of legitimate business. Apparently the sons and grandsons of the old “dons” saw less need to risk jail or murder, when they could remain among the wealthiest people in America and stay almost entirely within the law. Operating legitimate business and using terror, arson, and bribery only when necessary to discourage competition has proven very profitable.
A similar view can be taken of gangs. Gangs apparently form spontaneously, but with the support of part of the adult community. They offer protection to their members, provide opportunities for employment and a way of spending leisure time, and they give status to otherwise unskilled youths. Some adults benefit directly from their activities―they buy their stolen items and sell them motorcycles, alcohol, and drugs; others benefit indirectly by their control of neighborhood youth and their keeping away “outsiders” who might threaten the status quo. In this way ethnic pride and racism can be expressed through gang activity.
Public opinion is generally more negative toward gangs than toward organized crime because youths generally lack discipline and experience, so that gang violence tends to be more irrational and even more brutal than Mafia activity. The retired couple in a small apartment do not worry about gangsters beating them to a pulp outside the grocery store, but they know of friends who have been mugged by teenage thugs for a couple of dollars. This negative aspect of gangs is a prominent part of the short-run hedonism and maliciousness of the unemployed teenager out of parents’ control. The conformity among gang members assures that the anti-social acts of the leaders will be emulated by the followers, especially those younger members with ambition to lead the gang at some future date. The police can break up the gang temporarily by arresting the leaders, but the only guaranteed cure of gang behavior seems to growing up; once past adolescence, the would-be mobster either goes straight or becomes a professional criminal.
Ultimately, control of youth gangs is a matter for the community, because the police are ineffective when not backed by public opinion, by a strong family structure, and the support of the business and religious communities. When boys have homework, music lessons, practice for sports, and jobs, they have no time to spend in gangs.
The professional thief is a special case for law enforcement. What really separates the small number of professionals from the large number of amateurs is the degree of specialization. Planning a crime, dispersing the loot, and the “fixing” of cases when an arrest occurs requires an intelligence and training not found in the ordinary prison. Professional thieves generally have the kinds of skills that would make them successful in legal occupations, and therefore the average thief of normal or low normal intelligence would be well advised to seek training in a legal skill like plumbing or selling used cars, where manual dexterity and smoothness in talking are also appreciated.
Non-professional thieves are characterized by a randomness that indicate how little they know of their intended occupation. Their thefts tend to be almost spontaneous, with little scouting of the victim or location, no arrangements to sell whatever is stolen, and no contacts in houses of prostitution, gambling dens, and cabarets to provide guides for potential victims, or disposal of stolen goods, and no influence with the police and courts. They tend to be unfortunate, mildly anti-social misfits who inevitably end in prison because they are so unskilled and careless, not to say often stupid, too. In contrast, professional thieves are rarely caught and even more rarely prosecuted successfully.
In many ways the female equivalent of the thief is the prostitute. The crime is different (and there are female thieves as well as male prostitutes), but the personalities of the professionals and non-professionals are rather similar. The early home life of the prostitute is usually unhappy, so that the young girl seeks to escape; eventually she discovers that she can use sex to obtain money that will give her freedom. From that point on, the successful professional learns how to operate in a dangerous and competitive business. She becomes a mistress or a madame, learns how to dress and behave properly, how to make contacts, and how to handle money. Except for brushes with law and public disapproval, she will often thrive. The unsuccessful prostitute is really a non-professional; she does not understand her business well enough to make her own way. She is dominated by her pimp, filled with fear or guilt, and often has a severe drug or alcohol dependency. The money may be good for a short period, but all can see that the career is short, dangerous, and disagreeable. In the end she will lose her looks and her health. If adaptable, she will find work at long hours and low pay; if not adaptable, she will land in some institution for the destitute or insane. In short, it is a life of anxiety, with many more losers than winners.
In the cases of both the thief and the prostitute, their professions would be impossible without otherwise decent people being willing to buy their services. The consumer who buys television sets and jewelry at prices too low to be true may well be subsidizing a thief, and the men who patronize prostitutes are having a narcissistic experience at the cost of providing material support for an oppressive way of life. Thus, once again, the blame for crime must be shared by society in general, just as the cost of crime must be.
To raise the issue of prostitution is to bring up also the entire question of sexual norms. Probably no other area of human activity shows such a divergence of norms and behavior, of ideals and of perversions, of implied understanding and demonstrated ignorance as the realm of sex. What is said (or nor said) and what is done vary greatly, and our ignorance about behavior is immense.
It was only in the late nineteenth century that the first studies into sexual behavior were made. Havelock Ellis published in 1887 his Studies into the Psychology of Sex. Immediately the books were banned by the censors. Sigmund Freud made discussion of sex possible, though only in intellectual circles, and the popular interpretation of his theories was that sex dominates our lives. This seemed to be confirmed in 1948 when Alfred Kinsey published a scholarly volume entitled Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. That book was expected to have small sales, but to Kinsey’s surprise it made the best seller-list. He had expected little public interest because the book contained chiefly statistical summaries of thousands of interviews he had conducted over a period of years. However, he had used a bold new interviewing technique: when asking questions, he never said, “do you”?” but instead said, “how often”“ or “when”?” The results showed a far greater variety of sexual behavior than anticipated, indicated an almost universal use of masturbation, and demonstrated that the lines between heterosexuality and homosexuality were far from clearly defined. Similar results were shown in his 1953 Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. The floodgates were now open, and book after book appeared, describing human sexual activity in every aspect.
Novelists had long been pushing at the defenses of censorship. Now censorship, too, was disappearing for books, films, and magazines. The only limit seemed to be one of imagination.
What became very clear was that it was no longer easy to describe universal norms of behavior. Conservatives were outraged at the licentiousness and argued against the sex education that was being introduced into the schools, against short dresses, and rock music. Later they were even to be more upset as women’s liberation and gay rights became issues of the day. Liberals were not always thrilled, either, because all too soon there were problems with child pornography, with entire city centers being taken over by sex shows, and by increases in rape and other forms of sexual violence. Nevertheless, few people wanted to return to the days of ignorance and repression.
What was happening in America and most of the western world was called the “sexual revolution.” The nineteenth century standard established by the combination of Puritanism and Victorianism was crumbling. It was no longer accepted that women married for love, then worked at home their entire lives for their husband and family. By 1920 women had the right to vote, and in World War Two many entered the labor market; in the 1960s the family with two wage earners was becoming common. Women began demanding equality in pay and treatment, in opportunity and status; and soon the sexual double standard (men were allowed extensive freedom, but women should not even be interested) was under attack.
The liberation of women had long been under discussion. Certainly the 1848 conference at Seneca Falls was a landmark along the load, and the success of the temperance movement demonstrated the power of women. What was not expected in the 1960s was the simultaneous liberation efforts of homosexuals.
If there was ever a problem of human behavior that was little understood, it was homosexuality. A variety of theories (upbringing, early sexual contacts, reaction against role models, biology, neurotic reaction, mental instability, imbalance of glands, unusual living situations like the military or prison) came forth, with an accompaniment of Old Testament condemnations and a fear that one’s own children would be seduced.
What had made homosexual life so unhappy in the past was the constant fear of discovery and the subsequent loss of employment, friends, and family. Homosexuals were subject to blackmail, to harassment, and even to prison. Perhaps consequently, some homosexual behavior was bizarre by any standard, involving pain and degradation. When the repression lifted rather suddenly, society learned for the first time how widespread homosexual behavior was, and many people saw some of the more unhappy results of the centuries of repression. Gay bars may not be places to take the children yet, but neither are many other adult establishments.
If one looks back to 1942, one can get some sense of perspective on this matter. Phillip Wylie, in A Generation of Vipers, asked “why are we unchaste?” He answered that, first of all, we never were very chaste; people have never tried to be. Secondly, people have lost their religious fears, and they have come to discover that the old system of taboos was product “of diseased minds, of toadies, and of cheats.” Lastly, the danger of pregnancy or disease was practically eliminated for the well informed. He concluded: “One thing is sure. The pulpit cannot beat prophylaxis. It failed to beat even golf.”
The rule of thumb that all revolutions go to extremes was certainly borne out in the 1990s. Gay liberation went to gay pride, then to demands for recognition of gay marriages. Feminism went through several stages of ever increasing radicalism, until at last it seemed as though only women who could do without men altogether were really authentic feminists. This brought about a form of Thermidorian Reaction. When working class women perceived that the academic feminist elite resembled ever more a lesbian dating society, they declared that they, at least, were not feminists.
On the whole, however, the demands of gays and feminists were widely accepted. Equal pay for equal work, and respect for the individual person as an individual became both law and everyday practice. Bigots remained, but usually they remained, in reversal of the former situation, in the closet.
Individuality and Society
If anything in this world is certain, it is the variety of possibilities inherent in the human being. From the whorls on the fingertips to the whirls in the imagination, no two individuals are alike. Twins who seem perfectly identical at first glance turn out to have very different personalities; and people we have known for years may suddenly demonstrate new interests and talents. The person who was shy at fifteen may be an effective salesperson at thirty, a politician at fifty. That is what makes reunions so much fun to attend: to see who has changed and how.
We need to see that we are individuals, that our physical being and our personality are unique in this world. There is, literally, no one else quite like us. We can emphasize or minimize the obvious differences between ourselves and others; we can develop our talents or ignore them. The choices are ours. What we need is the wisdom to determine what the likely results of our choices will be, and the courage to follow through, once a choice is made.
It is sometimes upsetting to recognize how different we are from everyone else. The awareness of our individuality can bring a feeling of immense loneliness. Often this is so frightening that we seek to lose ourselves in a crowd, to conform, to be as much like others as possible; sometimes we seek to disappear in other ways, into a sea of alcohol or drugs. How much better it would be to rejoice in our uniqueness, to combine the awareness of our own existence with an equal understanding of our relationship to the rest of society, to combine the concepts of “independence” and “duty” so that they strengthen rather than weaken each other. We can only know how individual we are when we are in the company of others; in effect, we are only individual when we are part of society. We do not need to drift into abnormality or deviance in order to prove our individuality. What we need is a society that will confirm our individuality while encouraging that healthy and constructive conformity that is necessary for our welfare, even for our very survival.
Some Conformity is Necessary
Life in civilized society requires a considerable degree of conformity from all members of the community. Each of us must understand and adapt to both written and unwritten rules, i.e., to laws and to customs. While laws and customs can be broken occasionally, widespread conformity is necessary to maintain social order. Otherwise anarchy results. When organized society breaks down, all the benefits of civilization―protection, distribution of food and clothing, opportunities for employment, the arts―become difficult or impossible to obtain.
Each of us must be willing to do his part to maintain social order. We have reached maturity only thanks to the organized efforts of many people we do not even know, and our future welfare depends on the continuance of economic prosperity, law and order, and public attitudes that permit maximum individual freedom and growth. We must do our part to assure that our social system survives and is made to function even better. This is our duty, and it is our responsibility to our families, our friends, and to future generations. It is also our duty to ourselves.
It is relatively easy for a society to collapse. War, disease, and social conflict have proven this many times. But usually the society survives while simply failing to function efficiently. For example, if workers are not willing to appear at the factory at the opening of a shift, the result is low production, low profits, and low wages. Strikes thus can exert great leverage on employers and the society as a whole, because the whole economic structure is so intertwined that all parts must function properly for there to be effective production anywhere. A society ridden with strikes is often so inefficient that no progress can be made toward correcting the problems which caused the strike, no matter how willing the government and employers are to resolve the issues. Many socialist or socialist-inclined governments have come into power with high hopes, only to discover how limited is their ability to resolve basic issues; and some of these governments, therefore, have begun their reforms by eliminating the right to strike or protest, thus becoming more repressive toward labor unions than was any conservative government before them.
A successful strike requires not only a willingness to defy authority, but also a high degree of conformity from the workers. If a sufficient number do not strike, the effort will fail. Therefore, violence and threats are often applied by both sides, one to force workers to join the strike, the other to frighten them into appearing at work. This is an example of one of the world’s oldest dilemmas: when violence is used by competing groups to coerce those who wish only to remain neutral. We must choose, but any choice invites reprisals.
Conformism is not always induced by violence. We know from our own lives that each of us has been subjected to considerable training in our role in society. That is the essence of child rearing. As children we learned to speak, to dress ourselves, to mind, and to be considerate of others―in effect, to conform. The child who is not taught proper English in America is condemned to an adult life in a menial occupation. A child who does not dress properly will be scorned by his classmates and may develop psychological troubles. The child who does not obey authority figures will perhaps end up under the wheels of an automobile or in a juvenile court. The child who is not considerate of others must learn to live without friends.
Child rearing practices vary widely from culture to culture and even from family to family. Considerable latitude is possible in a modern society, where innovative thought and individualism are highly prized; it is less available in a traditional culture, where everyone must shoulder his share of the duties so that the society can survive.
It is especially important that we conform in the use of the language. Communication is so important that no one of us can be allowed to say, “It means whatever I want it to mean.” The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland could say whatever she wanted (or “off with their heads”), but no one would say that her kingdom was a model of stability and order. This is the reason that the study of language is essential.
At any level we may choose to conform. In fact, it seems as normal for us to seek not to conform at certain points as it is to conform at others. It is non-conformity that establishes us as individuals and allows us to contribute new ideas and practices to our society, just as it is conformity that establishes our right to participate in the life of the society. Our parents are often very frustrated people, because at one moment we are rebelling at what they say and at the next moment we are conforming to something they would rather we chose not to accept. A fairly good description of maturity would be to have attained a degree of knowledge about both when we should conform and when we should be independent-minded.
It is the balance of conformity and independence that gives great strength to western civilizations. Without both attributes there could be no science, no industry and no art. Nor could there be sports.
We could do far worse than to study cultural approaches to sport as a miniature study of societies. For example, Italian soccer emphasizes individual grace and speed, inventiveness, imagination and avoidance of physical contact. We can see little boys in the playground, dressed in white shirts and shorts, with grandmother not far off, shouting “Don’t get dirty and don’t sweat.” English soccer, in contrast, is bruising and bloody, brawling and individualistic, as is appropriate to a lower class pastime shunned by those who can afford to play tennis and golf. German soccer is often technically skilled and highly disciplined, with medical and scientific advisors huddling in the background. Russian teams carry this to an extreme; they are often merely well-organized machines, without stars, without innovation, like traditional Russian ballet companies―excellent, but not exciting. Developing countries go to the other extreme, often ignoring important aspects of the game, like heading the ball, making body contact, or passing the ball to teammates.
These contrasting styles reflect national, class, and cultural characteristics. In general, socialist nations deliberately do not have stars―capitalist states do; nations with an industrial background emphasize teamwork―developing nations do not. We might well debate whether the existence of concept of “fair play” is an indication of our attitude toward freedom of opportunity in the society as a whole. We might say that the philosophies by which men live are evidenced in their play. By the approach taken toward the game, each group demonstrates those values that it has applied successfully in work and war. The past success of those values is demonstrated by the very existence of that group today.
We might note that over recent decades the best soccer teams have come from modern western societies that stress a combination of individual skills and teamwork. But that is not always true. Each style of soccer has advantages, and none is completely without its charm. That is what makes international matches so popular, especially the World Cup, where all the best teams of the world compete, each with its own style. Notably the United States of America is lacking in their ranks. Americans express their isolation from the rest of the world by having their own sports―football and baseball―that are shared by practically no one else. Then, after excluding all other nations from a chance to play in the Super Bowl and the World Series, we declare ourselves “world champions.” Does this not tell us something about basic American values?
Our games are noteworthy for the high stress given to both individual initiative and team discipline. Our individualism is made most effective by a willingness of each player to conform to the plans of the coach. Also there is a high degree of acceptance of the concept of “fair play,” so much so that often bitter disputes arise about the interpretation of the rules. We Americans tinker so often with the rules, the tactics, the strategy, and the equipment that our sports constantly change. Perhaps that reflects the dynamism and restlessness of our society.
Deviant Mass Behavior
There is often not a great distinction between normal group activity and deviant mass behavior. This is seen easily in sports: the spectators and players become more and more agitated as a game reaches its climax; every now and then something happens and a crowd gets out of control. The result may be a riot or a panic, but either way innocent people may be injured or killed. Almost no one is immune to being affected by crowd behavior. The very presence of a large number of people together causes excitement, and the united concentration on one event can built tremendous tension. The noise and movement stimulate the nerves, and one joins in the shouting. Who has not come back from some event wondering why the throat is so sore, why every muscle is so tired?
The usual word for a crowd out of control is a mob. However, there are many kinds of mobs. The aggressive mob is out to lynch, to terrorize or to fight; the panicked mob is seeking to escape from danger; the acquisitive mob is out for loot; and the expressive mob wants to voice a deeply-felt concern. A mob lacks structure and organization, but it has certain characteristics that can be studied. Each mob has a definite purpose that reflects basic beliefs and emotions; each mob gathers because some event attracts attention; someone mobilizes the crowd into action, perhaps by a yell or movement; and the leaders of society (especially the police) do not come in to defuse the situation properly.
To control a mob, it is easiest in the first place to prevent the crowd from assembling and after that to stop troublesome individuals from giving leadership to a possible mob. If mob behavior turns violent, then only vigorous police action or the exhaustion of the participants can bring the mob to a halt. Of course, even easier (in theory) is to remove the causes of discontent, but we are as unlikely to stop sporting activities as to eliminate unemployment, racism and prejudice.
The worst mobs are usually those mobilized by hatred of identifiable minorities. Religious mobs made the Reformation and Counter-Reformation bloody pages in European history, just as today in the Indian subcontinent, in the Near East, and Africa entire nations have become scenes of mob activity. If this is complicated by race, the mobs can become even worse. Race has been the most severe problem of the modern era, with first slavery, then colonialism and imperialism based largely on the concept that one race or another is superior to all others. Every continent has seen lynching and riot, even mass murder, based on race, ethnicity and religion.
Jews have been victims of mob activities for centuries. Scattered from their homeland by the Romans, proud and hardworking, dedicating to their religion and families, easily identified and unable to defend themselves, Jews were blamed for every possible social ill, even for foreign invasion and bad weather. Governments could distract the public from high taxes, poor administration, and corruption by blaming all the problems on the Jews. It was terrible Russian pogroms that drove the East European Jews to seek refuge in America; and it was Hitler’s program of extermination that really gave birth to the state of Israel, their attempt to find a place of safety in a dangerous world.
It may be not be possible to end racial and religious prejudice, but it is possible to keep it under control. What is most important in this is that we remove other grievances, such as unfair competition for jobs. Also, we must educate the public so that demagogues cannot use minorities as scapegoats, distracting people from the real roots of social problems. Lastly, we need to develop a sense of understanding that our own security is only as well protected as that of the most helpless member of our society.
Pressures Toward Conformity
It is human nature to fear that which is different. Little children often react strongly to the presence of a stranger, especially if the stranger is of a different skin color or wears unusual clothes. The reappearance of a father after a long separation can be made more traumatic if he is wearing a beard.
Most individuals carry this attitude into adulthood. Many manage to suppress hesitance, but few of us can greet every person we meet without some feeling of inner tension and anxiety. Still, we try, if we have been well brought up. Also, we can tell by the subtle hints of expression and voice whether the other person is really comfortable at meeting us. And, since we wish to please, we try to act in a manner such that others are comfortable with us. Geniality is part of civilized behavior. It is what makes life easy and enjoyable, what makes it possible to meet new and interesting people and to have stimulating conversations and experiences.
There are those do not know how to meet strangers, how to adapt their own behavior, and especially how to control their own fears. They may seek to be as much like the others in their small local groups as possible and expect that others should seek to be much like them. They can be as faceless as the men and women in a mob. These people are numerous, perhaps even a majority of any given country, but they are such conformists that they cannot do anything significant without someone to tell them what to do. David Riesman in the Lonely Crowd wrote of three types of people: those who are inner-directed, those who are other-directed, and those who are tradition-directed. The last two groups are conformists, one to authorities of the present, the other to authorities of the past.
This phenomenon of conformity is usually found at its most extreme in traditional villages. Its opposite is a cosmopolitan attitude that accepts individual differences and even rewards them. In the more rapidly changing societies the truly conformist person may be unhappy, because he is continually forced to review his dress, his speech, his behavior, and his thoughts. Moreover, he is constantly measuring others by an external standard that refuses to stay put; therefore, he lives with the additional anxiety that he cannot be at all sure what the standard is. How much better it is when we are encouraged to be happy with ourselves and with the way others are. We can take people for what they are, without fearing or criticizing them.
It is not easy to rear a child or mold one’s own personality, but this must be done. From every part of society comes pressure to conform in those ways that permit civilized life to continue; we must “fit in” society as it is. We should not want to be so different that friends and strangers alike are frightened or antagonized and we should expect that others will regard extreme behavior or dress as a sign of mental or physical instability. In fact, however, we do balance our individuality and conformity in different ways―most of us have a variety of “personalities” we use in different situations (at work, with friends, with strangers, with rich relatives). The effort to manage differing balancing acts can be stressful, too, for others are strangers in part to us. This must rank among the causes for our high divorce rates. As Nietzsche said, “Every man seeks a good woman, and each has good eyes; but each buys his wife in a bag.” If we marry without a long engagement, we discover inevitably that we have married a stranger; our courtship personality is our best, and we usually lack the strength to wear it daily. When a couple discovers that each has several annoying defects in the other’s personas, the honeymoon is really over. That is when a marriage really begins, for better or for worse. One sage suggested that no couple should ever marry until they had gone camping at least once, thus having seen each other under the worst of all possible conditions. This is another way of saying that each of us has not one personality, but several, with circumstances determining which appears at any given time. This is not unnatural or bad. To suppress any of these personalities needlessly is to kill a part of ourselves and to deprive our friends of variety and surprise.
Legal Restraints on Behavior
It is often said that one cannot legislate morality. That is perhaps true. The fundamental purpose of law is not to make people perfect; it is to limit harmful behavior. If the law also serves the purpose of setting goals for people to strive toward, that is well and good, but it is not essential to civilized existence.
What law intends is for people not to steal, to injure, to murder, or inconvenience other people. What they think or what they say (within common sense limits regarding volume, slander and implied violence) should be no concern of the law. Bad manners and selfishness are legal, if regrettable. The law should be concerned with limiting harmful behavior. That, at last, is the opinion of John Stuart Mill, whose On Liberty is a classic in the study of freedom and individualism. Of all the essays recommended in this text, none surpasses On Liberty in enduring significance and provocative challenge.
There is another aspect of the law that is more important than is often realized: people tend to obey laws. Therefore, it is vital that laws support the values of the society, because the inert mass of conformism gives its weight to the maintenance of law and order. For example, when racial segregation was the law, most people assumed in both public and private life the races should keep apart; when integration became law (i.e., not just that restrictive laws were to be removed, but also steps were taken to break down the barriers that law and custom had erected), these same people generally complied with the laws enacted by their legislators. Times change, and some politicians who were whole-hearted segregationists in the Sixties became favorites of Black voters in the Eighties.
We generally do not stop to think how flexible our laws are or how we change our opinions about what is harmful behavior and what behavior should be made illegal. The history of temperance legislation (laws against drinking alcoholic beverages) is very instructive in this regard.
Drinking is a “status activity.” That is, the way one drinks and what one drinks reflect one’s class in society more than they do one’s mood. In the colonial era in America everyone drank: the aristocracy Madeira wine, commoners rum and ale, and everyone hard cider. The taverns were the community centers, and eating the favorite entertainment. Drunken behavior was punished, but not drinking itself.
After the revolution Americans pushed inland. Unable to avoid hauling their corn to the coast for export, the farmers made it into strong whiskey, which could be transported easily and sold readily. Soon drunkenness was a significant social problem. By the 1820s Calvinist ministers had begun to attack drinking itself, linking their criticism of wasting time, talent and money in saloons with a general abuse of Democratic politics. Methodists at that time did not participate much in this first temperance movement, perhaps because that lower-class church was pro-Jackson and pro-Democrat; abut when Methodists joined the temperance movement in the 1840s, using camp meetings and emotional appeals, their numbers made it possible to elect lawmakers who passed temperance ordinances. In retrospect we can see that at least part of the reason for trying to stop people from drinking was a “nativist” dislike of immigrants: the Irish drank Whiskey, and the Germans beer; both were found largely in the cities, and both were Roman Catholic. Total Abstinence became the criterion for being a true Protestant.
After the Civil War the temperance movement became broader-based and better organized. The WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) and the Prohibition Party fought for women’s rights, including the right to vote, because women would vote out male drinking. Men fought back by excluding women from saloons and male associations. Ultimately, the women won the right to vote and almost simultaneously passed a constitutional amendment (the 18th) limiting the right to manufacture, sell, and consume alcoholic beverages.
The 1920 election seemed to pit the issues squarely against one another: Al Smith was a Roman Catholic whose base was in the cities, among immigrant groups who favored the league of Nations and the Repeal of Prohibition; Calvin Coolidge was a Protestant, whose support came from the countryside and the Americans of long residence, who were against the League of Nations and against legalized drinking. Coolidge won easily.
Unfortunately for Americans, Prohibition did not work. In fact, alcoholism seemed to get worse. At least, there were more poisonings from bathtub gin than there had been deaths from over-drinking, and the public seemed willing to patronize bootleggers and speakeasies. Moreover, while consorting with underworld characters, the public acquired some new tastes: gambling, drugs, prostitution. The newspapers reported eagerly the latest excesses of the gangsters who fought for control of the illegal monopoly; headlines denounced the corrupt politicians and policemen who safeguarded the underworld’s activities. Ultimately, when it seemed that America was about to break from the combination of moral degradation and the Great Depression, Prohibition was repealed. The Mafia mourned, the nation rejoiced.
What happened was that the middle class had come to accept drinking as an approved social ritual. The upper classes had continued to drink wine and cocktails, the lower classes whiskey and beer. But now so many people from the lower classes had risen into the middle class and so many middle-class urban residents had learned to drink, that the votes were there to repeal temperance laws in state after state. Also, the sharp division between Protestants and Roman Catholics no longer existed. An ecumenical spirit was growing throughout the country. Religious-based temperance disappeared from the political scene.
People stopped thinking of excessive drinking as a sin and began to consider it as a sickness. Soon police stopped throwing intoxicated men and women into the “drunk tank” and instead took them to centers where they could get care and advice. Alcoholics Anonymous made the public further aware that alcoholism was such a serious disease that no former alcoholics could be considered cured: they never dared drink again. It even became possible to refuse to drink by using the excuse, “I’m an alcoholic.”
So many Americans drank by the 1960 that non-drinkers were often discriminated against. At parties it became difficult to find non-alcoholic beverages. Often only “hard” beverages could be obtained. In some college and university groups the effort seemed to be directed toward getting drunk as quickly as possible. This attitude persisted even after the popularity of smoking (another habit long disapproved by temperance groups) declined.
Today the social ethic seems to emphasize behavior: how to drink like a gentleman or lady. In short, we have returned to the style of the colonial era. There are ways to drink, and places. For example, one should be boisterous at a wedding celebration, but quiet at a dinner party. Above all, one must not drive after drinking: that is an anti-social act that endangers everyone. Yet on a Saturday night one driver in ten on the highway may be legally intoxicated.
Class Traditions and Behavior
It is easily verified that class traditions (social status and wealth) have an impact on behavior. We know how to act toward individuals because we can classify them by the way they act (dress, talk, behave). In short, we stereotype them. Thus, we approach a motorcycle gang member with considerably more caution than we would a salesman (even though the salesman is more likely to take your money). We expect individuals to conform to certain types of group behavior, and their behavior corresponds to the stereotype just often enough to maintain the class reputation.
There is considerable variety of behavior within any class. Karl Marx denounced any efforts to “vulgarize” his class theories by generalizing too greatly about any individual in a class; thus, although in the main labor union members may vote Democratic, there are many who vote a straight Republican ticket. And while rich people may be more common among Republicans, more than a few are Democrats.
Still, it is possible to talk about traits of the upper class, the middle class, and the lower classes, as long as one is not too rigid in applying them to all the individuals of the class. For example, a common upper-class attitude is “noblesse oblige.” It means, “from those to whom much is given, much is expected.” In Great Britain the aristocratic upper classes have often taken this as a call to duty, to devote oneself to a life of service rather than to leisure. Their children are reared in “public schools” which have a long tradition of being very exclusive, very expensive, and very private. As part of their training the students used to be kept in large dormitories, with no warm water and few blankets; they rose early in the morning, were involved in active sports with considerable physical contact (rugby is the upper-class sport), and were encouraged to have no contact with females. Study was rigorous, formerly enforced by the rod and the threat of expulsion. No soft life there; just Puritan rigor with Episcopalian rites. Even today these “public schools” remain the best way to enter into politics and business, for they train individuals for a life of work and service. Other Britons have developed the same mental toughness and physical robustness without the intense suffering and expense, but they lack the personal contacts that smooth the way to advancement. Others devoted themselves to a life of frivolity and pleasure; this is perhaps a survival of “Merry England.”
In America the middle-class was traditionally characterized by its devotion to hard work, to savings, and to postponing pleasure for a fuller enjoyment at a later time. Middle-class students have often had to supplement their parents’ contributions toward education, working while studying and holding full-time jobs during vacations. Those middle-class ideals have changed more in recent decades than any other class related concept. The growth of growth of general prosperity, the availability of machines to do routine work, the difficulty of finding jobs, and a general attitude that life is too short to postpone anything have undermined the work ethic. This ethic still exists, college students say, among their parents and professors.
The lower classes are harder to define, because there are really a variety of classes, which have only one unifying characteristic: poverty. Thus, when we talk about the “poor,” we are talking about an abstract concept for which there is little agreement about their actual state of being. The poor are always a social problem: more crime, more unemployment, more illegitimate children, more broken families, more mental illness, more alcoholism and drug use. Still, we find experts talking about the Reputable Poor, who strive to get out of their poverty, and the Disreputable Poor, who seem so unwilling to help themselves that they cannot easily be helped by either public or private aid.
It is the Disreputable Poor who make up our most prominent stereotype of the poverty-stricken. Yet this group is far from uniform. We can define at least four major subgroups. The first can be called the dregs. This group has adapted to a life of poverty so well that the members have a sense of superiority about it: they are “hip.” They know how the system works and they know that they can circumvent the rules by working a little, borrowing a little, stealing sometimes, and exploiting the welfare rules; also they know how to rip off the naïve rich who come their way. No point in trying to change things, they say, by studying or saving, because the system is fixed. They live for the moment, with no clock and no schedule, no firm family arrangements. Gambling, drinking, and smoking are major activities, with a lot of sex, too. This image of the poor as having a self-accepted lifestyle is a favorite for musical comedies and comic novelists, for vaudeville jokes and social commentators. (Guys and Dolls and My Fair Lady have unforgettable, sympathetic ne’er-do-well parts for character actors.) Individuals from this group are frustrating for social workers, because they have never learned to get up in the morning and go to work, because their family life seems so disorganized, and because they appear to be fatalistic and resentful. They are, in fact, so apparently unconcerned about society that Karl Marx gave them no place in the revolution to create a workers’ paradise. He called them the Lumpenproletariat, and considered them little more than a reactionary mob prone to criminal acts.
A second subgroup are seen as newcomers to poverty, who end up in the slums for lack of alternative housing. They are optimistic and hard working, determined to get out of their predicament. Often they are exotic, with differences of language, manners, and cooking that make assimilation into middle-class America difficult. They are often victimized by the dregs and by gangsters, exploited by business and industry, and sometimes end up as part of the dregs. But many work their way out, so that the second generation achieves working or middle class status if not wealth. Social workers hardly need to help these people; they can help themselves.
A third group is sometimes labeled skidders. These include alcoholics, drug addicts and the mentally ill. They have given up on themselves so completely that they have become thoroughly degraded. They are the example of how low a human being can sink.
Then there are the infirm. They fight against their poverty and they seek to keep their pride, but they cannot work and are therefore poor; moreover, they cannot defend themselves and are consequently frequently victimized. All they can do is to demand their rights, to complain, and to suffer. Social workers and police often come to see them as pests, even while sympathizing with them in their role as victims.
The poor have been characterized in many ways, but perhaps none so memorably as in Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. In this hilarious but difficult book, Veblen looked at class structure in the year 1900 through the eyes of a social anthropologist. The object of life for all classes, he said, is to achieve status. The highest status is that in which a person is so successful that he does not have to produce anything; he can give his entire time to unproductive activities such as sports, religion and sex. Veblen noted that since the day of hereditary wealth is gone, in the modern world even the rich usually work; therefore, the man of high status has to hire others to be at leisure for him―a wife whose life is society and entertainment, a butler, a gardener, a chauffeur. Those people work, but they do not produce. For Veblen’s analysis the distinction was crucial. Following this idea further, the upper-class young adult college becomes the ideal of the life of upper-class leisure, since one cannot produce anything of use while studying. Unfortunately for those individuals seeking higher social status by attending college, all students “study” a bit (by this social code―which we believe is less influential today than it was in the past―it was ungentlemanly to earn more than a C), so all status-seekers have to earn respect by their prowess in sports, by holding semi-religious offices (student government, fraternities, sororities), and by their success in sex (which can be implied by the possession of a “sports” car, a private apartment, and the use of booze).
Veblen believed that the lower class emulates the upper class; only the lower class cannot be successful at this, because real leisure requires money, and the poor are notoriously short of ready cash or credit. Therefore, when the poor pursue sports, religion, and sex they have to make adjustments: the rich own race horses, the poor bet on them. Still, the poor seek status by emulating the very rich in emphasizing sports, religion and sex. Unhappily, the only way for the poor to rise out of their class is by adopting a very different set of standards, those of the middle-class, which emphasize work and production; and they must learn to subordinate everything else in life to financial security and a feeling of accomplishment. Thus, ends and means are poorly coordinated.
Duty and Responsibility
No man or woman is self-created and self-educated. Each is born into a society that devotes a great part of its resources to the care and training of youth, that provides aid and comfort even to the last breath of life, and that expects each individual to repay this assistance by doing some part of the work necessary to assuring the welfare of the present and future generations. As Hillary Clinton put it, It Takes a Village. Hillary’s critics might argue that this is only a plea for big government, especially for subsidized day car, but the point is valid.
When the Roman emperor of the late second century, Marcus Aurelius, sat down in his tent to think about how many people had contributed to make him the man he was, he came up with a very long list: parents, relatives, teachers, friends, and co-workers. It is a list worth reading, for we all are more or less obligated to a similar list of persons, many of whom we never knew because we were too young to remember or whom we have forgotten.
It is a part of life to take our turn as counselor, guide, parent, and nurse. When we are ready, or perhaps even before we are, we become responsible for our parents, for neighbors and friends, for the stranger beaten by thieves and left at the roadside. It is not always convenient to be called upon to serve, but the service does give life meaning. Today, when many individuals are looking for meaning, for purposeful existence, service to others is often more significant than earning a living or pursuing pleasure.
Thorstein Veblen looked at the moral crisis of his day when he observed that men had apparently given up religious belief as the ultimate justification for life and had not found a meaningful substitute in money, sports, or pleasure. He suggested that men and women are ready to advance past the stage of “economic man,” when it was necessary to work and to fight to survive; formerly there was a division of labor―women and slaves worked; men fought―and consequently labor was considered an indignity. He noted that as we have the leisure today to reflect on our activities, many have become unhappy about an apparently meaningless existence based on economic activity and the pursuit of pseudo-combat (sport and business). He proposed that we rely more on “workmanship,” the pride in doing things well. Man, he said, was essentially a social animal, one that disliked death, destruction, and waste, an animal that thrived only in groups. In primitive societies the workmanship of the artisan was praised, and each individual could take pride in his production. In the modern industrial society, the individual cannot see his part in the production, and he has no pride in the mass-produced junk of his factory; consequently the worker is unhappy and seeks substitutes for this instinct. Meaningful life gives a purpose to life, but meaningful work must be creative, must give prestige, must satisfy the senses aesthetically, and be important. The essential truth of Veblen’s observation can be seen by the pride that men and women take in their hobbies, their crafts, and their participation in clubs and organizations, in the dedication of doctors and nurses, teachers, ministers, coaches, and politicians.
In that sense, it is not a contradiction to talk about duty and pleasure. When one’s duty involves important work that has variety, requires skill, and that has observable results, one cannot keep people from working. Work can be fun! Duty can be enjoyable!
A major problem we have in society today is to develop jobs that meet the criterion of workmanship. The jobs are often there, but they do not pay as well as the routine work. If they did, no one would do routine and “meaningless” work. Management, therefore, is responsible for making workers see the importance of their jobs, for developing products the workers can be proud of, for varying the routine of labor, and for making each person feel a part of the process of production. The Japanese were the first industrialized society to do this; and their fantastic success in the 1970s and 1980s caused many American MBAs to look at alternate ways of organizing factory operations.
This is not necessarily a new idea. Voltaire in the 18th century wrote a satire about optimism. Entitled Candide, his book exposed the hypocrisy of society and the essential unhappiness of humanity. At one point the main figure of the novel, Candide, is challenged to find one person who is really happy. He fails. Then, while in Turkey (the most barbarous land of that era) he meets a farmer who earns a reasonable living, has a healthy family, and does not worry about the affairs of the world. Asking the Turk his secret, he learns that work is the answer to the world’s problems, for work banishes the three great evils of life: poverty, vice, and boredom.
The churches have shared that secret with anyone who would listen: there is much to do in this world, and there are always too few people willing to share in the labor. On the earthly level there are the sick, the handicapped, the weak, and the unfortunate; there is birth and death, marriage and divorce, joy and sorrow. On a deeper level there is a search for divine truth and a deeper understanding of the real meaning of existence. Over the centuries men and women have found deep satisfaction in religious experience and in attempting to comfort their fellow men in both moments of sadness and happiness.
Duty and responsibility need not mean abandoning ones individuality. Selflessness can mean the achievement of a fuller individuality and self-appreciation than one ever imagined. Giving of oneself is the returning to others that which one was given earlier; thus is the circle of life complete and the personality made full and perfect.
The Conformist “Mass Man” Develops
The investigation of questions that begin with “Why” is the real subject of history. In science it is sometimes possible to determine a real cause and effect relationship, so that one can say, “Joe bumped the table so that the glass rocked and fell to the floor and broke, because when glass objects reach a certain velocity and contact surfaces of such-and-such hardness, they break.” What scientist have a harder time explaining is why Joe bumped the table. That is what historians try to do.
It is difficult enough determine what really happened in history: to tell whether a glass indeed fell from a table. It is even more difficult to speculate convincingly about the reasons why things happened as they did. Fortunately, we are accustomed to thinking about the present in relation to our past and to trying to explain events in a manner consistent with our sense of history. This means that we already have a set of beliefs about the way that people behave which we use to explain what we see happening. In this sense we are all historians. Moreover, we all have the potential to become better historians.
We all have some theories about how people came to be as they are; otherwise our world is chaotic and impossible to understand. Even if the theory is largely wrong and contradictory, it helps to orient us in this complicated world. Some theories of history work better than others in specific situations. For example, a belief that everyone is out to get you may be useful when buying a used car. One theory of history, Soviet Marxism, even claimed to be a completely scientific view of society which guided a centrally directed party in political decisions which were supposed to assure the welfare of one of the most numerous and creative peoples in the world. Whether or not we agree with this concept, we cannot understand modern politics without having an appreciation of its attractiveness―especially of its apparent offer of hope to the poor and powerless of this world.
Most historians do not try to be scientific in the most technical sense. Rather, they try to explain an observed phenomenon by selecting a number of recorded events and putting them into such a framework that they form a story. Such a story, it is hoped, will reveal some truths and some insights into both the past and into present situations. What follows, then, is a story which describes the development of the “mass man” in a way that, first, tries to make sense, and second, is true to the facts.
Medieval and Renaissance Man
European medieval man was more conformist than is the average man today, though he was not truly a “mass man.” Since economic needs dictated that the bulk of mankind had to live by agricultural production, we might expect that most people lived by farming and were therefore alike; however, climate and soil varied so greatly from place to place, as did the other natural resources and the distances to markets, that farmers were not the same everywhere; nor did everyone speak the same language, wear the same clothes, or have the same customs. There was great conformity, but it was manifested by conforming to the wide variety of local customs and in adhering to the beliefs promulgated by the one nearly universal institution of that era: the Church.
The pattern of medieval life began to break up with the organization of national states, the development of international trade, and the introduction of printing. At this time, the Renaissance, it became more possible for men to dress alike, speak alike, and think alike; but instead of conformism there appeared a remarkable secular individualism. Men and women educated in the new version of classical studies not only studied a wide range of subjects, but sought rational motives for human behavior rather than accepting their condition as God’s will. They began to believe that if human behavior could be understood, then it could also be modified; if it could be modified, it could be perfected. All that was needed was the freedom to become all one wished, and the courage to attempt to do it. The model Renaissance figure would be skilled at languages, music, art, science and literature; also at the social skills―dancing, conversation, singing; and be competent in sports, riding above all else. The motto was thoroughly classical: a sound mind in a sound body. It was also usually written in Latin. But occasionally in Greek.
Religion was still important, of course, but it was no longer central to one’s identity. Paramount now was a way of thinking we call Humanism. In essence Humanism was a study of life through observing people, especially through literature, rather than through theology and religious authority, as was characteristic of Scholasticism. However, the world was not ready for such freedom yet. Experiments in the Renaissance individualism did result in the destruction of medieval conformism, but it also generated a reaction against the semi-pagan attitudes of some humanists, which led to the birth of yet new models of conformity in both religious and secular arenas.
Martin Luther rose to fame as the liberator of Germany from the tyranny of a corrupt Roman church, but at the end of his career he had delivered his congregation to the care of the State and was urging his followers to concentrate upon spiritual life, leaving politics and morality to the rulers. In this way, many historians think, he encouraged the Germans to obey their government, to work hard, and not to think independently. This is too harsh a judgment, but there is some truth in it.
Luther was one of the most complicated men in world history. He was born in 1483 to ambitious parents who had risen out of the lower class to become petty capitalists; his father sent him to the best of schools, where he excelled as a student; ultimately, his father supported through the University of Erfurt, where he earned his doctorate and was on the point of beginning a profitable career as a lawyer. Then he underwent a conversion experience during a thunderstorm and vowed to become a monk. His father was terribly disappointed, but Luther persisted in his decision; in 1508 he was ordained a priest.
Luther had hoped to become a simple monk, but the Church was too short of talented men to allow a person like Luther to molder in a cloister. He was sent to Wittenberg to teach religion. There he was worried by the uncertainty of salvation. He was a good monk, but he was also deeply troubled. In 1512-13 a personal milestone was reached as he read in the Bible that “Man is saved by faith alone and not by doing the works of the law.” As he read more and reflected on this, his fear of not doing sufficient good work slowly vanished. He had a new insight that he as an individual could be certain of salvation, no matter what his relation to Church was. Nevertheless, Luther was not ready to challenge the Church, no matter how disturbing its practices had become.
The late medieval world was undergoing a spiritual crisis. Many expected the imminent end of the world, believing simply that things could not get worse. German politics was a mass of contradictions, with no leadership and no generally acceptable program; the country was sliding into chaos. The Roman Church was led by worldly Italians who seemed to have little real religious spirit; the popes were concerned with art, poetry, and war, all of which were financed largely by money from northern Europe; to get this money, they were selling indulgences and church offices on a large scale.
The matter of indulgences, where the Church promised reduced punishment for one’s sins, was not a new one. The practice had started during the crusades, when popes promised that warriors who died fighting for the Church would be taken directly to heaven; the practice expanded to include those who could not fight themselves, but who would help poor warriors with equipment, food, and money; eventually, anyone who did a good deed for the Church, or went on a pilgrimage, or said special prayers could obtain a variety of indulgences that would shorten their stay in purgatory, where they were supposed to suffer for their sins until they were worthy of entering heaven. The really important indulgences had been created during the financial crises of the Avignon papacy, when salesmen crossed Europe peddling certificates of indulgence for contributions of money to the papacy’s treasury. Public outcry forced a reduction in the practice, but periodically the popes issued new indulgences.
It was a particularly outrageous indulgence in 1517 that prompted Martin Luther to declare that the pope did not have the authority to issue a guarantee of salvation to anyone: salvation came through faith, not through silver. In issuing a challenge to debate the matter (the 95 Thesis), he unwittingly unleashed the Protestant Reformation.
To defend himself from conservative attacks, Luther began to write pamphlets expounding his ideas; and he was forced to develop his thoughts more than he had expected. Since, through printing his pamphlets spread far and wide, the controversy soon inflamed all of Germany―for there were many who shared his sentiments but did not have the learning or skill to attack an institution as strong and well defended as the Church. His booklet Freedom for the Christian Man was his most popular statement, with its implied liberation of the individual who lives according to the commandments of God.
The new doctrine of freedom spread rapidly among the serfs and the laboring classes in Germany. Already there had been several decades of labor trouble, and now working people seized upon the new ideas to justify their revolt against the dead hand of authority.
Quickly this came to the attention of the new emperor, Charles V, who was ruler of Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, and much of Italy as well as being the formal ruler of Germany. In 1521 he summoned Luther to a meeting of the German princes at Worms, to explain himself and justify his stand. None of the Luther’s friends expected to see him alive again when he accepted the imperial invitation. A century earlier a Czech reformer, Jan Hus, had accepted a similar imperial safe-conduct to Constance and had been burned at the stake without having had an opportunity to speak fully in his own defense.
The emperor expected Luther to recant and to confess his error or at least to acknowledge the superior authority of Church and State. Luther said instead, “I cannot and will not retract anything, for it is neither safe nor right to act against one’s conscience. Such is my profession of faith, and expect no other from me.” He then made the statement, “Here I stand. I cannot act otherwise.”
When Luther left the imperial hearing he expected to be arrested soon. Instead he was kidnapped by a friendly prince, the elector of Saxony, who hid him in the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach and gave him the task of translating the Bible from the Latin into the German language. The result of this enforced leisure was a product of true genius: first the New Testament, then later the Old Testament, both written in an impressive German that caught the imagination of readers. Luther’s powerful style won over many to share his beliefs and his language was soon adopted as the model for the High German that all educated Germans speak today. His hymns became popular, and his printed sermons were reproduced widely.
Luther was the hero of the hour. He was hailed as Germany’s deliverer, as God’s messenger. Then, the liberation of the spirit got out of hand: enthusiasts demanded a similar liberation of the body. With religious reform provoking social revolution, Luther had to choose between the survival of his religious message and his popularity among the masses. Peasants and laborers were not only removing unfit priests from office, they were looting churches and refusing to pay taxes to clerical and noble landlords. The peasants of South Germany issued “The Twelve Articles” abolishing serfdom and called on Luther to lead them; they were joined by citizens of many cities, and even some churchmen. As the peasants saw the nobles preparing to resist, they formed armies and attacked castles and country homes wherever they could. The nobles, with their near monopoly of military skills, struck back. The result was a terrible civil war.
Luther loathed anarchy and disorder, and he was always uncomfortable in ambiguous situations. Therefore, he did not hesitate long to choose sides in this conflict: he chastised the lords for excesses that caused the peasants to riot, but he condemned the peasants more: it was God’s business who ran the government, not the subjects’. He said that the people had the freedom of reading and interpreting the Bible, but they must still continue to do their duties and pay their debts. Then he wrote his famous tract Against Robbing and Murdering Peasant Bands which concluded, “Let everyone who can, strike, strangle, stab secretly or in public, and let him remember that nothing can be more poisonous, harmful, or devilish that a man in rebellion.” The princes of northern Germany rewarded Luther by firmly establishing his church in their domains, but the peasants of the South returned to what became known as the Roman Catholic Church, and they never forgave Luther for his betrayal, just as many nobles never forgave him for having encouraged the peasants in the beginning. The war had never been hard-fought and terribly bloody. Over one hundred thousand peasants died. The harvests failed and starvation resulted. Serfdom was reinstituted, and princes everywhere took steps to stop all talk that might lead to future revolutions.
The Lutheran Church was soon organized so as to protect the Reformation from outside dangers and inward threats. The new head of the Church was each local prince, who appointed the bishops and priests, and who was responsible for the protection of morals; he paid the salaries and collected the tithes; he suppressed all competition, either from the Roman Catholic Church or other Protestants. Luther had a free hand to carry out internal reforms: he replaced Latin with German, so that everyone could understand the worship ceremony; he made the sermon and the singing of congregational hymns central to worship; he reduced the number of sacraments; he eliminated the monasteries and convents, banned the vow of celibacy, and encouraged the former monks and nuns to enter into the “true celibacy” of marriage; he ended the veneration of saints, the display of relics, and pilgrimages; he put the Bible into the hands of the common people. His reforms were thorough and effective. He eliminated most of the abuses that had been pervasive at the beginning of his ministry.
Elsewhere in Europe the abuses were eliminated, too. At the Council of Trent the Roman Catholics reviewed their situation and reformed their Church so thoroughly that for centuries thereafter hardly a memorable pope was to be found. Had that been done in 1517, Martin Luther would have been known in history only to industrious readers of footnotes. The reforms at Trent were conservative ones: Latin remained the language of the Church, and the Bible was kept strictly in the hands of churchmen; the sacraments, celibacy, and other traditions were reaffirmed. Moreover, the church authorities made certain that no Martin Luther would appear in their domains: potentially heretical opinions were repressed, and thus the scandal occurred that Galileo was censured for teaching that the earth revolved around the sun.
Free thought was not much more welcome in the Protestant north. The leaders of the Reformation soon concluded that the Copernican theory was incompatible with the teaching of the Bible, and so religious fundamentalism began its first great struggle with science. Fortunately for science, the Protestant world was not united; each prince had his own ideas about what would be permitted; and so there was always somewhere that a persecuted thinker could go.
The ultimate impact of Luther is still hotly debated. Since Luther was such a complicated man, and since he left so many volumes of sermons, polemical pamphlets, letters, and “table talk,” there were many sides of him to see. He was a good husband, he loved children, he was enthusiastic about music, food, and conversation; he hated monks, Jews, and anyone who disagreed with him. His condemnation of Jews, for example, was undoubtedly important in fostering and maintaining Anti-Semitism; and thus he must bear some blame for the gas chambers of the Nazi era. He established a church that was controlled by the state, and thus by freeing the state from priestly influence he must shoulder some of the blame both for the excessive submission of pastors and people to the orders of their rulers and for the immortal attitudes of Hitler; and he encouraged a feeling of righteousness that crushed toleration and generosity. In short, there was a combination of good and bad that make it possible for friends and enemies even today to see the man very differently. Fortunately, the ecumenical spirit that has grown so rapidly since the 1960s has permitted us to see his contributions to Christian thought better, whereas for many generations only his polemics were read; today Luther is important for Christians of all denominations.
The reformer John Calvin was born in France in 1509 and came to maturity during the most intense debates of the Reformation. In 1533 he was converted to Protestant ideas, and three years later fled to Switzerland, which was then being reformed along modified Lutheran lines.
Switzerland did not fit easily into the Lutheran pattern: the cantons (districts) were governed democratically; therefore, there was no prince to be head of the Church. Instead, each canton decided by majority vote whether it would be Roman Catholic or Protestant, and the governing council would decide how the churches would be staffed and operated. The most important individual in the development of the Swiss Protestant Church (known as the Reformed Church) was Ulrich Zwingli of Zurich, who adopted many Lutheran reforms such as the use of the vernacular language in worship, the election of pastors, the abolition of monastic vows, and the confiscation of church property by the state; he also created a church organization based on the congregation, which was essentially self-governing. Zwingli died in a civil war in 1531 while serving as a chaplain; his moderate influence was thus lacking in the contentious years of religious strife that followed.
John Calvin found the atmosphere of Switzerland stimulating. There was freedom of thought and a large number of exiles there who were eager to share their ideas. Calvin had ideas of his own, and he published them in Basel in 1536 in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. His basic thought was the unlimited sovereignty of God: God was all-powerful, all-knowing; he knew the future as well as the past and present; therefore, he could see what decisions individual man would make, and he knew whether they would ear salvation or not. Although men had free will, God already knew what they would do, and thus men were “predestined” to salvation or damnation.
According to Calvin, God had set out his plan for salvation in the Bible, which was infallible. In the New Testament, he had set out a model for a church organization; therefore, reformed Christians should reject both the Roman Catholic and Lutheran practices and instead establish their churches on the Biblical examples. The congregation was to choose their best men as ministers and elders, who were then to guide the laity in matters of conduct, dress, and worship. The sacraments unified the congregations and signified that the individuals belonged to the Church.
Calvin was soon called to Geneva with the task of establishing in that city a church that would reflect the teachings of the New Testament. The following years were not easy ones, for Calvin had to fight a party of free-thinkers called Libertines, but ultimately he won. Calvin established a New Testament Church with Old Testament morality. He created an administration composed of ministers and laymen to run the church and a separate state government to enforce the laws recommended by the church. His new government outlawed sin: cursing, joking, wasting time, playing games, drinking, fornication, wearing expensive clothes were all forbidden; thirty-four witches were burned; and fifty-eight religious opponents executed. Calvin, “the Genevan Pope,” created a model city. But he created it by rigorous methods: those who disagreed left and were replaced by exiles fleeing from persecution elsewhere. Calvinism became proverbial for its narrow-mindedness, but it brought out of individuals a seriousness and a sense of duty that we call Character.
The doctrine of predestination did not cause individuals to give up home, even if they did not know whether they were already saved or damned. They looked for Signs of Salvation, for they believed that god would favor the saved with worldly success and would allow the damned to fall into habits of drunkenness and idleness. Therefore, for anyone to have even the Chance of salvation, he had to behave like one of the Elect. The tension of Not-Knowing kept individuals working hard and worshipping diligently, so that ultimately the Calvinists became such successes in business that they dominated the middle-classes in France (Huguenots), in England (Puritans), and in Scotland (Presbyterians). They were the model of Weber’s “Protestant Ethic,” which emphasized the relationship between the church ideals that stressed work and the growth of the modern middle-class.
The Calvinists did not ignore the damned: they had to obey the laws, too, even when they did not want to. Thus, an important aspect of Calvinistic thought is the effort to make society more perfect: to eliminate evils like drunkenness, slavery, pornography, corruption, bad manners, and secularism. The Bible must be the guide to all action and to the governance of society.
For America the most important impact of Calvinism was in new forms of government based on political and religious ideals which were introduced. First, there was a separation of church and State; everyone belonged to the state, but church membership was voluntary and even limited to the Elect. Secondly, both Church and State were organized democratically; all authority came from the people, for the congregation and from the voters; and there were multiple levels of government, so that representatives were elected to meet together and pass laws for like-minded communities. Power must be diffuse, because power corrupts. Thirdly, there was a great emphasis on self-reliance. New congregations could be formed as needed, and individuals reading the Bible could interpret it themselves. Lastly, there was an implicit command to resist tyranny, for it was clearly understood that government by one man would endanger both the Church and the democratic State; moreover, whenever morals or the law were threatened, the individual had to speak out in the name of God against that evil.
The influence of Calvin grew throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The success of John Knox in establishing the Presbyterian Church in Scotland led to the efforts of the Puritans in England to reform the state church there, the Church of England (an “umbrella” church that had Lutheran and Roman Catholic aspects and tried to reconcile a wide spectrum of religious ideas). When the Puritans were persecuted, they sought a refuge in America, sailing to Massachusetts in great numbers between 1629 and 1640.
American Calvinism was greatly modified in the 1700 by the “Great Awakening,” when Jonathan Edwards and other popular preachers taught that one could attain certain knowledge of salvation through an intense conversion experience. Emotion replaced intellect, and enthusiasm thrust learning out of its dominant place in the church. The backwoods preacher with his bible combined Calvinistic ethics with Lutheran grace and American frontier egalitarianism.
In the early nineteenth century the Sabbatarian movement introduced Calvinism into politics. As an expression of their belief that the United States was a “Christian” country (Christianity meaning fundamentalist Protestants), Calvinist churches sought to put a bible-based morality into law. This provoked a major political controversy in the era of “Jacksonian democracy.” The Jacksonian supporters won, but the issues returned again and again―the abolition of slavery, laws against the use of alcohol and tobacco, against gambling and horse racing, and to force businesses to close on Sunday (hence the Sabbatarian name).
Modern Calvinism is a far cry from the Genevan model. Although several American churches acknowledge their Calvinist heritage, they have few members who take the doctrine of Predestination seriously. Their “Puritanism” is considerably modified, so that often music, moderate use of alcoholic beverages, and even card-playing is permitted. Similarly, efforts to enforce “blue laws” that curb sinfulness are not as determined as was the case even a few decades ago.
Nevertheless, so pervasive was the Calvinistic doctrine in America that almost every American church and most individuals have absorbed some of its spirit. The American state was practically founded on a Calvinist model of bicameral government, as was the American college and university system. The American attitude that work is both good and essential to happiness has the same origin. Present, too, is the attitude that one should follow the Bible and not dare to dissent from its teachings. Consequently, in the modern era, as individuals came to notice that worldly success came to Roman Catholics, Baptists, and even Agnostics, that good people were not necessarily all church-goers, that Old Testament morality did not cover every social issue, people began to drop out of the churches or to demand changes in doctrine; and a democratically based church changes its methods when a majority decides to do so. Very important in this movement were social issues such as women’s rights, racism, and the obligation to assist the less fortunate. Calvinistic doctrine had come to be interpreted with a kind of Darwinistic fatalism: the poor deserved to be poor because God had condemned them to poverty, therefore, it would be unjust to do anything to raise their wages because they would only use the money to sin. Church members came to see this attitude as lacking in charity, one of the most important Christian virtues. Moreover, the extreme condemnation of pleasure―no movies, no dancing―ran against the current of an economic system that was providing more money and more leisure time to everyone. In earlier centuries the little leisure time could be filled by worship services, but now the successful churches were attracting members by organizing sewing circles, boy scouts, basketball and volleyball teams, suppers and ice cream socials, and so forth; in short, church going was fun. Strict Calvinism was doomed.
Jean Jacques Rousseau and Romanticism
Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712. A personality less suited to the city of Calvin can hardly be imagined, and at age sixteen he ran away to France. There his charm and originality made him both friends and enemies, and in 1749 he won an essay prize for his composition about the Noble Savage (the theory that men were originally good, but the more civilization they acquire, the more evil they become). His real fame came with The Social Contract in 1762, which stated that all sovereignty lies in the people and implied that a government chosen by the people cannot err, since its programs represent the General Will.
Other compositions by Rousseau praised nationalism (another non-rational idea) and progressive education. Whatever he wrote, Rousseau represented on one hand the Enlightenment (the 18th century belief in making every decision solely on logical grounds) and on the other Romanticism (that decisions should be based on emotions). Many of his contemporaries recognized the contradictory nature of Rousseau’s pronouncements, but many were swept along anyway by the enthusiasm of his prose. Rousseau described how marvelous the world could be if only the emotions were set free and then rational decisions made. For example, in education the teachers should allow the students’ interest to determine what should be studied any one day. Since everything was interesting and important, it did not matter where one began; once the students’ interest was awakened, their fascination with science, literature, art, and music would assure that eventually everything was learned better than by other methods.
Rousseau especially loved nature. In this he was joined by an entire generation that discovered the beauty of hiking, of watching thunderstorms, of travel. Variety was the spice of life and nature furnished it abundantly.
One important aspect of variety was individualism, and Rousseau furnished in his own person a model for independent, like-it-or-not individualism. He was not bound by rules or conventions, except those necessary to protect society from disorderly and violent excess; that is, he was not a criminal. But many of his contemporaries considered him an immoral rascal.
When Rousseau praised nationalism, he was describing a feeling that was almost foreign to earlier generations. People had been citizens of this or that state, adherents of this or that religion. That was how they identified themselves. Now they were taught that they were French or German, that they shared in a national language, that they had an important past and glorious future. This idea was not entirely new, but it took on new bloom―and the ultimate fruit was the French Revolution. The French exported their revolution, but in trying to make everyone French, Napoleon Bonaparte forgot one of the essential attributes of nationalism―that peoples are different, that they wish to be themselves―and so awakened the national feeling of the Spanish, the Germans, and the Russians that all Europe turned against France and destroyed him.
The National State
The romantic era gave birth to nationalism, and nationalism curbed the intense individualism of romanticism. In the national state the “people” counted for everything, the individual for nothing; the individuals were expected to sacrifice themselves for the national state.
This new state was different than the earlier national monarchies in that the enthusiasm was not for the ruler, but for a concept of a people. Naturally, each nation thought of itself as superior to all the rest, either tin wealth, or learning, or art, or “soul.”
The most important philosopher of the national state was Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who was born in 1762 in Prussia to lower middle class parents. In the university he learned to dislike aristocrats, who behaved in an insultingly superior manner toward the touchy and idealistic scholar. This led him to an early enthusiasm for the French Revolution which turned into outrage when the French occupied Germany and rearranged its borders. From his post at Berlin he taught a philosophy of history that soon won many adherents: he said that language was the basis of a national state, because the language itself creates the national character; therefore, all people speaking one language should form a nation, and all others living inside the new national frontiers should be forced to conform or to emigrate to their own proper nation. Thus he created a concept of a “Latin race” and a “Slavic race” and a “German race” that has no basis recognized by modern science but had a great impact on his own era; out of these ideas grew the “Pan-Germanic” movement and “Pan-Slavism,” each of which was of critical importance by the end of the century.
Fichte taught that each race had its own skills and specialties, and that these skills must be maintained by preserving the purity of the race. This teaching developed into a strong anti-Jewish doctrine, and into the later effort to suppress the Polish language and the Roman Catholic Church in Germany. Out of it grew the dispute between the “Little Germany” of the Prussians and the “Big Germany” of the Austrians (who included Bohemians, Poles, Hungarians, Italians, and Yugoslavs in their empire). The 1848 Revolution failed to bring democracy to Germany largely because the revolutionaries could not agree on this matter; and in 1866 Prussia fought and defeated Austria in a swift war that created a German empire on the basis of the German-speaking kingdoms.
Fichte was not content simply to create a national state; he went ahead to demand that it be economically self-sufficient and that even foreign trade should be forbidden―except that which was absolutely necessary, which was to be a government monopoly. To create a viable economic community, small states would have to be sacrificed. A small loss, he said, since they contributed little to world culture.
This national state should be governed by the best men available―scholars. Human nature was too perverse, and mobs too easily aroused, to trust the masses. Moreover, it was only logical that superior races should govern lesser peoples: “the civilized must rule and the uncivilized obey, its right is to be the law of this world.” It was a perfectly Platonic authoritarian state, one that academics and aristocrats have always approved, no matter that Plato had called his utopian state a republic.
Not long later a Frenchman named Gobineau began a “scientific” study of races and came to the conclusion that the “French race” was superior to all others. His debt to Fichte is clear, for how else could a nation composed of Latins, Celts, and Germans be considered a race? His writings provoked a storm of books, with each author discovering the superiority of his own nation, most seeming to identify language and culture with race. But not all were so generously inclusive. The “Aryan race” was invented by Richard Henry Chamberlain, who was so dissatisfied with his native Britain and its mixture of French, Irish, and Scotch ancestry that he moved to Germany and lived as close to the nationalistic, anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner as possible. Social Darwinism gave a scientific basis to this national racism, which grew to be the European insanity of the turn of the century.
Europeans discovered in this new racism a justification for the late nineteenth century imperialism. Of course, the superior white people should rule the world and exploit otherwise neglected resources. The most successful entrepreneur of this era, Cecil Rhodes, created a special fellowship for white males of America, Britain, and Germany called Rhodes Scholarships. In 1914, when Britain went to war with Germany, suddenly he discovered that Germans were really only Huns and therefore no longer eligible for higher education.
What was so unsettling in all this was the attitude that a person could be judged only as part of a national group. What he was himself counted for nothing. Subsequently, this judgment became sufficient in itself for discrimination, harassment, or even murder. Russian Cossacks burned Jewish villages and massacred the inhabitants, while Germans passed laws forbidding Poles to buy farmland: both persecuted groups fled to the United States, where Negroes were first beginning to experience legally defined segregation following the Plessy versus Ferguson decision in the Supreme Court (1896). How far beyond Europe this idea reached can be seen in the Turkish massacres of Armenians that proved to be the first twentieth century act of genocide.
In the years just before 1914 the nationalistic agitation reached its highest point. The leaders of the multi-national Austro-Hungarian Empire feared for the survival of their state. Although Austria-Hungary formed a rational economic unit, the demands of the minorities for autonomy or succession threatened what was known as Balkanization (the division of the land into impotent, quarreling caricatures of national states). When the heir to the throne was assassinated by terrorists with ties to the Serbian Secret Service, the Austrians decided to eliminate Serbia as a threat once and for all. The Serbs called on their Russian allies, who began to mobilize. When the tsar refused to stop the mobilization, the Germans attached France, Russia’s principal ally, hoping to defeat her armies before the slow-moving Russians could reach the eastern German border. The English intervened to save Belgium, which lay in the way of the German armies. The theory that strong armies and navies, close alliances, and a willingness to draw the line against a foe would guarantee peace was thus shown to be hopelessly false. Thus began the First World War.
The four years of suffering between 1914 and 1918 were almost a death blow to European nationalism, but sufficient strength remained in that idea for its most perverse forms to appear again in fascism, Nazism, and a host of others isms that flourished between the world wars. The Nazis in particular taught the world how utterly dangerous and depraved nationalism could become. In their efforts to enslave and exterminate the “inferior races” Hitler and his gang did not need to develop a single new idea; they used only ideas they had learned in school before 1914, applying them with a single-minded thoroughness unimagined in the earlier, more civilized era. The National Socialists (as they called themselves in order to make a firm distinction between them and international socialism) particularly sought to locate the Jews and Gypsies, then murdered them in a most business-like manner, without fanfare or emotion, taking care to seize their possessions, to gather up their clothes, eyeglasses, and books, then even to use the gold from their teeth and the ashes from their bodies to finance the operation.
The Nazi misdeeds against the Slavs were much less organized; nevertheless, mass starvation and the shooting of hostages accounted for millions. The Nazis had not intended to wipe out the Slavs; they were only going to enslave them, to do the work of the “master race” in the fields and factories. The Nazis used slave labor from every country they occupied to operate the factories of Germany during the war. Masters and slaves. What a perfect description of the system!
So terrible were the Nazi crimes that the world tends to forget the Japanese misdeeds in China. But there, too, the concept of a “master race” was at work, with ultimate aim of creating a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, an economically self-sufficient union of people directed by the Japanese. In a few years the Japanese earned a reputation for bad behavior that European imperialists had taken centuries to acquire.
Since 1945 nationalism has not threatened to envelope the planet in another world war. Its force in the major nations is largely spent; it burns quietly, but is not a danger. In the minor nations and in would-be nations, it is still very strong. The Vietnamese war, Americans learned, was more a nationalistic war against foreigners than a communist effort to take over a “free nation.” The Middle East remains a danger region because incompatible nationalisms must fight it out over the possession of land to which many peoples have ancient claims, and these nationalist claims have been reinforced by religious and cultural differences. Wherever racism and nationalism are joined, we must expect trouble. This means that we will not see world-wide peace in our lifetime. For many years we believed that if we were lucky, we could keep this social illness confined to the smaller and less dangerous countries in the world. But September 11, 2001, demonstrated that talking about the First World (advanced western nations), the Second World (the Soviet bloc), and the Third World (most poor, over-populated and backward) was blinding us to the fact that we are One World.
The modern world is one of bureaucracy. There seems to be no way to make any fundamental change in this: a bureaucracy organizes services in the same way that a factory organizes production. Once an enterprise (either an industry or a community) reaches a certain size, it is no longer possible to manage affairs on a person-to-person basis. Ideally, a bureaucracy reflects the need to create procedures so that information is processed methodically, in a way that guarantees action within a reasonable time, that creates files for the future, and that gives the affected individuals some protection against the tyranny of petty officials and idiotic rules. Naturally, we all know of bureaucracies that do not operate at the ideal level. The Dilbert Principle (that we are all to some extent idiots, and managers are especially so) is universal.
One acquires fairly quickly an idea of the quality of any modern society by the first encounter with its bureaucracy. There are national traditions, and often there is downright inefficiency. If one has the time and know-how, there can be a genuine zest in fighting the system or even using it for one’s own benefit, but relatively few can win without seeking the aid of someone important. In some countries entire political machines are maintained on the basis of aiding ones friends through bureaucratic mazes; usually a simple telephone call to the right person suffices. In general, the countries that are the wealthiest, the most productive, and have the fewest social problems have the best and most effective bureaucracies. Americans can take some pride in their relative freedom from bureaucratic harassment and the politeness and speed shown by most bureaucrats. Nevertheless, Americans become very disturbed when they encounter rudeness and inefficiency (as Max Weber’s iron law of bureaucracy says must occur).
What people dislike most about bureaucracies is that the very process of storing information and following procedures leads apparently inevitably to looking at people as numbers or “cases.” The individual is forgotten: he can stand in line, he can fill out papers, he can wait; what is important is the process, not the person. Naturally people dislike the attitude often evidenced by overworked, tired, and bored bureaucrats, and they do not often stop to think of the bureaucrat as someone with problems, too, as an individual who may be attempting to cope with problems beyond his control. They criticize the entire system and wish it would go away; they make a pejorative work out of “bureaucrat”; but they cannot live without the people and practices that make government, businesses, churches, and even social groups operate predictably.
The first great bureaucracies grew up in the nineteenth century, as national states struggled to gather information about their populations, their industry, and to provide services on the basis of that information. Gathering taxes was, of course, extremely important for any government, and that could be done only on the basis of an effective system to locate and assess each person or business. Police work required the ability to investigate crimes, arrest suspects, and present a case in court. Universal military service was possible only if every young male in the country could be required to present himself for induction into the armed forces. By and large very country in Europe and the Americas managed to organize bureaucracies for these purposes.
The Germans in the 1880 were the first to introduce a national health system, unemployment insurance, and a host of other social services. Surprisingly, it was the ultra-conservative government of Bismarck that led the way. France, Great Britain, and especially the United States trailed far behind. The Prussian bureaucracy was famous for its efficiency and its arrogance, and the army of the German empire was the most famous of all the bureaucracies of that new nation.
If conservative governments favored bureaucracies for police purposes and to further industry and business, it was the Socialists that saw the full use of government authority. In Europe the socialists demanded services for all the population, and often the Conservatives provided them in order to keep the loyalty of the voters from slipping over to the Socialists. In the United States, too, no one political viewpoint was responsible for the development of the bureaucracy. If anything can be shown as the cause, it was war (1917 and 1941) and the Great Depression (with F.D.R. after 1932) that required the increased use of government planning to direct the national economy to accomplish specific tasks: to produce war material, to supply manpower to the armed forces and to industry, and to control inflation; in peacetime these powers were retained to seek fuller employment and the amelioration of severe social problems.
The most direct attack upon the fundamental assumption of bureaucracy, the need to plan for the future, was made in 1944 by Frederick Hayek in The Road to Serfdom. Hayek understood how people could believe that the Utopia of the future could be reached only through a strong government that possessed the power to act along the lines planned by the leaders; but he observed that the Utopia was not coming; instead, anti-Utopias were being created. Therefore, he wondered if something was not fundamentally wrong with the entire practice of planning.
At the foundation of his analysis was an observation that every potential change requires a decision. Every effort at centralizing decision-making meant that all decisions had to be funneled through a small number of bureaucrats. While this would work in a primitive society, the more complex a modern society became, the more likely it was that the decisions would be delayed, based on misinformation, ideology or bias, or made under pressure in haste with incomplete information. He argued that de-centralized decision-making would ultimately be much more effective and efficient than centralized planning. In short, freedom would outperform regimentation and command economies.
As an example, Hayek noted that legislatures were neither able to make plans of sufficient detail to foresee every contingency nor see to their implementation: the members lacked expertise, the membership changed at each election, and there was insufficient time for debates to get everyone to agree to any plan; everything went too slowly. Therefore, in country after country, dictators had risen, justifying their violations of the law as necessary to organize the economy for the common welfare. Then, once one person or one party controlled all employment, it was possible to punish political enemies with terrible efficiency. Hayek noted that police forces were much less frightening to independent-minded people than was the prospect of being unable to earn a living. He went on to show how Hitler first continued the emergency powers of his predecessors to make himself dictator, then used the war emergency to carry through his most diabolical programs, ultimately establishing a reign of terror without parallel in world history.
Hayek stressed that this was not a quirk of German history. It was rather a reflection of our basic ignorance of how human beings and institutions behave, our inability to master complex knowledge absolutely, so that whenever we attempt to extend our power beyond its natural limits, we can expect similar unfortunate results. Hayek said that we cannot plan effectively on a large scale because our knowledge cannot be sufficiently expanded to encompass the likely results; therefore, any effort at planning on a national scale would lead inevitably to dictatorship. Our only hope, he said, lay in a return to a system of free enterprise, the dismantling of government restraints and controls, the encouragement of each individual, and in the establishment of small government units that could have provide a maximum public involvement for citizens. When larger units of government are needed, their activities should be kept to the absolute minimum. In this way Hayek gave a philosophical foundation to modern American conservatism.
Naturally, Hayek’s book provoked counter-arguments. The basic attack on his theory was against his equating planning with socialism and then socialism with collectivism. Critics said that a wide spectrum of possibilities exists and that the very existence of government planning does not mean that Nazism or Stalinism was just around the corner. An almost equally powerful attack came on his assumption that a free economy would operate fairly and justly; historically monopolies, unfair competition, and inequality of opportunity had been checked only by government intervention. To remove government controls would be to turn society over to the rich and unscrupulous, which would hardly be an improvement over domination by powerful and unscrupulous bureaucrats. In spite of these arguments, however, Hayek’s philosophy gained strength in the late twentieth century.
The essence of Ronald Reagan’s reform program was to implement Hayek’s ideas. Reagan’s opponents were alarmed (even his vice-president had warned about “voodoo economics”) Assured predictions of dire consequences, however, turned out to be false, and the American economy led the world through the 1990s. The debate over Reagan’s broader policies―a stronger military, a more active foreign policy, less government, lower taxes―is far from over. Every economic system has winners and losers, and those who stand to lose from “globalization” demand government intervention in the economy, just as those who lag behind in economic and social opportunity demand “affirmative action.” CEOs of major corporations can thus endorse protective tariffs, women who majored in the humanities can complain about the “glass ceiling” in business, and union leaders can protest against closing American plants and opening new production lines abroad.
Today, as the combination of credit cards and computers make it possible to gather information about individuals in detail undreamed of even in George Orwell’s 1984, the danger of bureaucratic control of our lives is perhaps more real than ever. Plastic identity cards could be inserted into a hand-carried computer by police for an instant read-out of the bearer’s history of work, travel, and previous arrests. For seeking out terrorists and drug smugglers, for identifying false or stolen cards, this is the ultimate weapon. But the potential for abuse is great. So far in America we have no such identity card, and our greatest worry is a mistake by a credit card company declares us to be a financial risk that should be denied credit, or identity theft. But it is clear that the ability of government and business to collect information about individuals will grow quickly, and that defense against terrorist attacks is a powerful justification for doing so. We have built in safeguards against bureaucratic tyranny as best we can: the Freedom of Information Act provides individual access to files concerning individuals; Congress requires that Census and Tax Records be confidential; and Congress forced President Nixon out of office after he lied about his involvement in criminal acts which in part were the use of CIA, the FBI, and the Justice Department for his own political benefit (Watergate). Hollywood has provided us with numerous examples of a plausible security apparatus out of control.
There is little doubt that modern bureaucracy helps to create a feeling that one is nothing more than a number, that the individual does not count for anything. This creation of feelings of anonymity may be more important than the danger of a super-state or of a Big Brother controlling our lives, for such feelings are supposedly part of our narcissistic crisis.
The Future of the Conformist Mass Man
1984 arrived without the appearance of Orwell’s 1984 state. If anything, there was less conformism in that year than ever before, and there was less general state supervision of the individual than existed in previous decades. This was true in America, in the Soviet Union, and around the world. At the same time there was more fear of developing technologies that could permit governments to look into the activities of their citizens and to regulate their behavior.
This apparently contradictory situation was the result of our experience over the past century. We had seen our hopes for the future dashed too often, and we had observed that no great development in science or social science had been introduced without its being occasionally used for harmful ends. In the development of the national states, mankind had built itself into a trap. Men and women so completely abandoned themselves to the new national and industrial conformity that individuality itself was threatened.
Still, so far, so good. The worst has been predicted often and it has not come to past. We still have reasons for both optimism and pessimism. But since pessimism is a dead-end road, with nothing to offer except a belated satisfaction in seeing bad news, we might as well be optimists. We can survive the challenge of conformity and the mass man by struggling against their domination. This contest will last all our lives, and it cannot be won without committing ourselves fully, with faith in ultimate victory.
We have no reason to doubt that we can triumph. What our parents and grandparents had to deal with was easily as dangerous and superficially hopeless as anything we have before us. On one hand they lived in a society that often emphasized a dull conformity; on the other hand, they faced the powerful and oppressive bureaucratic militarism of imperial Germany and then the totalitarian state of Adolf Hitler. Is it any wonder that the “greatest generation” refuses to admit that our present problems cannot be solved?
Another widespread response to the oppressive bureaucracies and social convention was anarchistic individualism. This reaction to coercive conformity appeared during the romantic era, when men felt free to dream impossible dreams of a new and better world. This was important to all of us, for many of our attitudes toward individual freedom have their roots in this tradition. But it also led, in some cases, to a more comprehensive conformism under the leadership of a variety of socialist and nationalist thoughts.
Responses to the Mass Man
The Nationalistic Trap
By 1900 the national state had provided itself superior to all earlier forms of government. Almost without trying the national states had subjugated the tribes that had inhabited North America and Africa and had made colonies of ancient kingdoms and empires in the Americas and Asia.
The development of the national state in Europe had been a slow process. It began in the middle ages, became important in the sixteenth century, and came to dominate nineteenth century politics. In this national state cultural and economic developments destroyed the old local traditions and livelihoods. After studying in a unified school system, working in factories, traveling on state roads and railroads, reading the same newspapers and books, buying the same mass-produced clothes, and purchasing row houses, a workman or clerk in any given country looked and sounded pretty much like his fellows everywhere in that nation.
This dullness was combined with a comparative poverty. Although there was significant progress in providing people better and safer working conditions, more healthy environments, and even some luxuries, there were also noticeable reverses. Life did not always seem to be better, and the rate of improvement was frustratingly slow. Every step forward was made only by struggling against an industrial and economic system that seemed to be aimed at reducing the workers to an extension of their machines.
What the national state offered was the ability to concentrate the efforts of millions of citizens toward national goals: to expand the economy, to expand the frontiers ― in effect, to expand the opportunities for industrialists, generals, and politicians. Unfortunately, their desires to acquire colonies and to reacquire lost territories could be achieved only at the risk of war. Even then it was apparent that war was becoming so destructive that no society could conduct one without having terrible social consequences.
This was the trap that western civilization found itself in: the national state was such a superior means of organizing people that unorganized groups inevitably fell victim to them. But the very process of organizing a national state made wars inevitable: first, wars against competing national states, and secondly, wars against those groups inside the state that refused to conform to the ideal national type.
The unfortunate results of the nineteenth century’s cultural development was a malaise that affected every class. It was a mixture of frustration, anger, anxiety, and boredom. Industrialization had achieved a high level of production, but the resulting wealth was badly distributed. Some were able to live too well, so that they tended to waste what they had, and their realization that their dominance over society would be short-lived colored their apparent gaiety with sadness and fatalism. What in America was called the Gay Nineties was in Europe a mixture of Can-Can, assassination, and suicide. On the other hand, many lived in direst poverty. The workers had come in from the countryside to seek work and housing in such numbers that many had to be satisfied with overcrowded slums. Crime and vice waited for them, with alcohol and drugs as constant companions. Many made it out of poverty, into the class of skilled workers and artisans, even into private business, but many did not. As the middle classes grew in numbers and importance, profiting from the expansion of business, they became frightened by the recurrence of ever-deeper economic cycles and the antagonism of the lower classes.
There was something in the air. Barbara Tuchmann describes it well in The Proud Tower, a portrayal of life in the Western world between 1900 and 1914. Seemingly only novelties could awaken great interest. Therefore, festivals had to be bigger, sporting events more dramatic, and political crises more dangerous. The public loved the exotic, which gave a particular impulse to the development of the circus, the theater, and to foreign policy. Imperialism was popular because it promised a combination of wealth, jobs, danger, and exotic experience. War was the ultimate thrill. Especially since 1900 the arms race had been out of control, and it was not only German militarists who toasted “Der Tag” (the day that war begins). The alliance system grew tighter and tighter, until at last almost any crisis could set off war throughout Europe. The generals assured the politicians that any war would be a short one, both because victory was assured and because the economy of no country was capable of sustaining a conflict more than a few months. In 1914 the public everywhere rejoiced that Der Tag had come. The long period of boredom was over! No one really foresaw that four years of trench warfare lay ahead.
War may have been the ultimate thrill that smashed the boredom of everyday life, but it was not the first effort to seek some relief from the problems of modern civilization. In the 19th century that efforts seems to have been tied closely to the personality of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The role of Bonaparte in western civilization goes far beyond his historical importance. What he accomplished was astonishing in itself: he was a military genius who defeated the armies of all Europe and made France dominant on the battlefields of the continent from 1798 to 1814; he was an organizer who oversaw the rebuilding of his nation after the chaos of the Revolution; he was a lawmaker whose Napoleonic Code still is the basis of much European law. His legend was even more impressive: he was the man who could take on every problem and find a solution, a man who could overcome any enemy and any obstacle. Today we know the limitations of Bonaparte well; we know that he often did little more than utilize the talents of men who had been kept out of power by the class restrictions and incompetence of the Old Regime. We no longer credit him with marvelous powers. The Napoleonic legend is gone, too, in its original form, but today we still credit other dictators with similar insights and creativeness.
It was Thomas Carlyle, a Scot born in 1795, who turned the Napoleonic legend into the general worship of Great Men. He believed that Great Men were great because they expressed the virtues of the Victorian age: courage, honor, sincerity, valor, self-confidence, struggle, and a determination to win. Furthermore, Great Men embodied the nation. He recommended that nations should seek out their best men, put them into power, and let them govern. He held that this was better than any constitution, better than any parliament. In the generations that followed, many men have recognized in themselves the Great Man of their nation and have followed his advice to put themselves into office, to rule for the “benefit” of their country.
The concept of the Great Man provoked considerable discussions in the 1800. Friedrich Hegel, one of the greatest philosophers of the time, declared that it was not important who held the office: the situation would call forth someone who would take the historically necessary steps. He said, “Every Age gets the hero it deserves.” His argument went as follows: no man can escape the limits of his times and his culture; nothing can be achieved until the time is ripe; and once that time is reached, advancement can hardly be stopped. Any man holding office will do what is necessary, and he will be hailed by the masses as a Great Man. The Great Man, therefore, is only a symbol of the times, a representation of the spiritual force that is dominant.
Karl Marx built a philosophical system on the basis of Hegel’s concepts. He said that all men merely reflect the economic system of their era, and that as the economy develops along historically predictable lines, the economically dominant class will hold political power. The rulers are only representatives of the ruling class, and as one class supplants another in dominance, that is reflected in political changes. Friedrich Engels, who popularized much of Marx’s ponderous thoughts, summarized the concept by saying that whenever history demands a Great Man, he appears.
A variant of the Great Man theory hat became dominant in the late nineteenth century was an outgrowth of Social Darwinism: some individuals were held to be superior types produced by evolution. Frederick Adams Wood tried in vain to show that European royalty was the product of superior genes. Capitalists justified their wealth by a similar argument that their very success in business proved that they were the “fittest” for the needs of society, and thus they properly possessed the means to perpetuate themselves. The ability to manipulate money was, they indicated, no different than strength, agility, or physical beauty. Their money allowed them and their children to marry physically desirable individuals, thus combining the best of both groups of attributes. European nobles hastened to wed American heiresses, producing thereby individuals like Winston Churchill, the heir of breeding, traditional power, ancient prestige, and new wealth.
The most powerful proponent of creating a new and better man was Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher whose writings were deeply affected by a worsening mental depression that ended in complete insanity. Nietzsche created the “Superman” whose name was literally the “Above Man” (Übermensch). The Superman would dominate the future, free from the restraints of Judeo-Christian religion (stuff for weaklings), conventional morality, and fear. Although nobody knew exactly what the Superman was, or how he was to be created, the idea stuck. The Nazis tried to make themselves into supermen and to annihilate or enslave all “subhumans” (i. e., Jews, Slavs, and Blacks). Nietzsche would have been appalled at their crudeness and cruelty, and furious at their misapplication of his ideas.
If there is a lesson for us in the fate of Nietzsche’s ideas, it is that the concepts of our best thinkers will be cheapened and prostituted by mass movements and propaganda unless we understand them well enough to prevent their being misused.
Just as Nietzsche’s ideas were misused, so were the Great Man theories perverted by propagandists for upstart dictators. The crudities of modern dictatorship have been most brazenly expressed in the worship of the leader (“Der Führer”―Hitler; “Il duce”―Mussolini; Lenin; Stalin; Mao), whose most routine pronouncement becomes holy script for the future. They cannot err, they cannot be weak. Mussolini insisted on being the fastest flyer in Italy (in air force fighter planes), the fastest driver (the police kept the road clear for him), the biggest eater (he suffered from constant stomach pain), the greatest lover (his approach was so crude as to repel many women), and the most successful politician (he did not hold real elections). The cult of personality was highly developed so that Mussolini overshadowed the king and the pope. Unfortunately, Mussolini came to believe his own propaganda and the lies his ministers told to please him; he even believed that he could dominate Hitler. His misjudgments were understandable, but they had terrible consequences for the world: he helped bring on World War Two, then in his efforts to impress Hitler made mistakes that hastened the downfall of the axis powers. In the end he was the butt of jokes, his body hanging upside down on display beside that of his mistress.
Adolf Hitler was a rather short, rather dark Austrian whose racial theories about tall, blonde Germans would be laughable if they had not caused so much destruction and suffering. There was something fascinating about Hitler’s oratory, his domination of proud and successful men, and his combination of slyness, gullibility, jealousy, fear and stubbornness that affected his political and military decisions. Like the men he chose to have around him, he was a mixture of genius, farce, and hoax. Vegetarian, a teetotaler, careful not to have his name linked with women, he presented a public persona that was the opposite of Mussolini’s. In private he was suspected of strange perversions and superstitions. In the end, addicted to drugs and rattled by fear of betrayal, he died by his own hand. Why is there not a stronger Hitler cult than already exists? Partly because military historians believe that Germany would have defeated the Soviet Union and perhaps won the Second World War if Hitler had not interfered with his generals, if he had not diverted men and war material to his extermination camps, and if he had made any effort to win over the peoples of the conquered countries by fair and human policies that coincided with their national wishes. But, then, if he had been the type of man to do that, he would never have established his dictatorship and started World War Two.
What a far cry these men were from the Great Villains of religion and literature. John Milton’s Satan was a magnificent creature, one proud enough to challenge God himself for mastery of the universe. Hitler was a much less impressive creature, but such is the attraction of the villain, that books and movies about Hitler are guaranteed success. Even evil has its charms.
The Great Man theory is not dead, but it is less vital than it was before 1945, when Hitler died, and 1953, when Stalin’s reign came to an end. The very theory of Engels that every age gets the great man it deserves gave the Marxists many a difficult moment, for they could not explain easily Hitler’s triumph over Communism in Germany, a land so obviously ready for the long-predicted social revolution against monopoly capitalism.
Modern states restrict the activities of potential great men, using parliamentary democracy, encouraging prosperity, and attempting to educate both the public and potential Great Men that the theory is seriously flawed. Nevertheless, the theory still lives in the more backward areas of the world, sustaining petty dictatorship and one-party states.
Faith in the Masses
The failure of Napoleon either to maintain the ideals of the Revolution or to hold onto power caused historians and philosophers to raise new questions about the significance of events in France between 1789 and 1798. If Great Men had not caused the French Revolution, what had? The answer of Michelet, the historian, was The People.
The faith in the People was essentially romantic in that revolutionaries made no plans as to how the ideas of the people could be transmitted into practice; it was simply assumed that one day there would be a revolution, that the revolutionaries would call for elections, and that the elected representatives would decide unanimously what was best. With this fairly idealistic concept in mind, revolutionaries rose in 1830 and in 1848, each time replacing governments in France and elsewhere. 1848 was the critical moment. In that year revolutionaries took power in every major European country except England, Spain, and Russia. In France, Germany, and Austro-Hungary parliaments were elected. Europeans believed that the great day was at hand: constitutions would be written, freedom and justice would be guaranteed, and the nations of Europe would become democracies like America.
The disappointment was severe: Napoleon III overthrew the French republic and established a dictatorship called the Empire; the king of Prussia refused to recognize the Frankfurt assembly and eventually dispersed the members with troops, arresting every liberal he could find; and the Tsar sent an army into Hungary to crush the revolt there, while Austrian troops put down the Italian and Czech nationalists. The abortive revolts of 1848 proved the impracticality of the romantic dream. Improvement had to come either more slowly or more violently. Some placed their faith in educating the upper classes to permit an extension of democracy, pointing to Great Britain as the one nation where the aristocracy lived without fear of revolution or assassination and where the elite held power despite having made political concessions to the other classes. Others gave support to kings who promised national unification, then perhaps a limited parliamentary voice in political decisions. Still others looked for a more thorough reform of society, one that would pass by the national state and create new political forms. Foremost among these international socialists was a German exile named Karl Marx.
Karl Marx recognized that the 1848 revolutions had failed for lack of a consistent philosophy and disciplined leadership. He argued that future revolutions would be similar failures unless the revolutionaries planned each step ahead, so that when the opportunity presented itself each person would know what to do and what orders to obey. Thus Karl Marx became the organizer of a revolutionary movement. The members of his Communist Party would prepare the people for the revolution by propaganda, so that they would recognize the opportunity when it came, would follow the leadership of the communist party, and would agree to its program after the party had seized power. Meanwhile, the membership would remain underground, attempting to avoid detection by the police, and would retain contact with the leadership by secret gathering and the illegal distribution of their newspapers.
The police naturally took a great interest in plans to overthrow the government by force, to seize the property of the wealthy, and to institute a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (dictatorial rule by the working class). Karl Marx spent much of his life in Britain, where ideas like his were not feared; and Lenin, who succeeded him as a leader of the Marxist program, lived in exile in Switzerland.
Faith in the People was not confined to revolutionary thought. Sometimes it was frankly anti-revolutionary. Such were the cases of Pan-Germanism, which supported the most imperialist ideas of the Prussian state, and of Pan-Slavism, which is still faintly alive in modern “social-imperialism” of the USSR.
Pan-Germanism emphasized the superior genes of the “Aryan” race (for which no evidence can be produced). Its successors were the Nazis in Germany and the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. Its importance to world history is obvious, joining as it did the Superman theory of Nietzsche to earlier anti-Semitism and nationalism to produce the genocides of World War Two.
Pan-Slavism owed much to Rousseau’s concepts of the Noble Savage and the Common Will. Russia was backward, but that had the advantage of keeping the Russian peasant closer to God and to the primitive nobility of Adam and Eve. There was no point in following Western Europe, with its heretical church and its destructive individualism; Russia should seek its own future, with its collectivism, emotion, mysticism, and redeeming humanity. The future of the world was with the “third Rome,” Moscow, and the superior “soul” of the Russian peasant.
Leo Tolstoy, the aristocratic author of War and Peace not only wrote about the nobility of the common man, but he lived it: he left his palace each morning to work alongside his peasants; he believed that work and sweat among the common people was good for the soul, redeeming in itself. A generation of students followed his example, going into the countryside to work; they also hoped to teach the peasants to read and to improve their living conditions. Such idealists were the backbone of the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and in the Social Revolutionary Party they ultimately took power from the Tsar with a mandate to establish a constitutional republic; but tactical mistakes caused them to fail and lose out to the Bolshevik party (the “majority” of the divided Communist party which favored violent revolution). Tolstoy himself was a pacifist who rejected not only violent means to make changes, but who advocated a Christian tolerance of the world as it was, except for such improvements as could be made by education and persuasion.
More extreme in his Pan-Slavism was Fydor Dostoevsky, a reformed revolutionary who had been reprieved on the gallows and sent to Siberia for ten years. Dostoevsky was an imperialist who hated the West. He wanted to build up the army and navy, to conquer Eastern Europe and Constantinople, and to reform society along purely Slavic lines. He argued that Russian humility and understanding, Russian intuition, and Russian simplicity were stronger than western rationality and science; there was only one truth, and therefore only the Russian concept of truth; he argued that only the Russian understanding of God could be permitted to exist. In his novels he waged war against the western Churches and western liberalism. In effect he supported the most backward aspects of the tsarist government and crude expansionism into Asia and Europe. He is still among the most widely read Russian authors, popular for such psychological novels as The Brothers Karamazov.
As a reaction to Pan-Slavism and Pan-Germanism Theodore Herzel began a movement to restore unity to the scattered and persecuted Jews of Europe by resettling them in Turkish Palestine. In 1917 the British government sought to win the support of the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe by promising to establish a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land. The direct result of Herzel’s movement was the foundation of Israel in the wake of the Holocaust (the Nazi murder of millions of European Jews). The foreign and domestic policies of Israel cannot be understood without keeping this historical development in mind.
The anarchist movement that flourished simultaneously with the theories of the Great Man and The People was so small numerically as to have practically no potential for political success, but such was the impact of its ideas that anarchists became well-known and even feared. The caricature of the dirty, bearded bomb-throwing revolutionary overshadowed the essential humanity of the movement and caused the nineteenth century public at large to react emotionally against the very idea of anarchism.
The core of anarchist thought was the total freedom of the individual. As further developed in Syndicalism, free individuals would voluntarily join self-governing communities. In short, liberty and cooperation were compatible ideals that anarchists believed could be realized in properly educated societies. They foresaw the imminent collapse of Western society, which they expected almost any crisis might precipitate; if they could bring the crisis closer, then the day when they could rebuild society on the ruins of what had proven a failure would be all the sooner. In this sense their beliefs paralleled those of Adventist sects that awaited the Second Coming of Christ in the near future; and they shared their sense of mission, their desire to spread the good news to the unconverted.
The 1840s were the heyday of the anarchists. Frustrated revolutionaries, seeing no point in working for wages and considering it immoral to make money at others’ expense, sat around in cafes, talking and dreaming. Not surprisingly, their caffeine and alcohol-laden dreams were often quite wild. For example, the mild-mannered Johann Caspar Schmidt, a teacher in a girls’ school in Berlin, was at night Max Stirner, a debater and writer who announced that he and the state were enemies, that crime was perfectly justified, and that force was the ultimate judge of right and wrong. He attacked law and religion, marriage and money. Nobody took him seriously. He died in debt, abandoned by friends and family, leaving behind a small body of outrageous essays that later became popular in Nietzschean circles. He was the prototype of the anarchist among serious novelists.
The classic representation of the brazen anarchist who hated humanity was Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. This protagonist accused all great men of being no more than criminals; great ideas, he said, are advanced only by great deeds, which are no more than crimes on a large scale. When Raskolnikov attempted to advance himself, to make possible his education by murdering an old woman and stealing her money, he became trapped in a web of guilt; ultimately he learned that his philosophy was false and that true repentance could redeem him. Naturally, Dostoevsky’s novel was not appreciated by anarchists, but most readers took his portrayal of the twisted and perverse characters as true to life, a representation of individuals that the author had learned to know in the prison camps and the slums of Russia.
The tendency of anarchist writers to shock the public confirmed the man-in-the-street’s concept that they were dangerous people. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon became famous for two slogans: Property is Theft, and God is Evil. What he meant, few bothered to ask, but his message was not as bold as his titles. He was saying that the power of the rich was so great that they had practically enslaved the working classes. Because the rich held all the land and controlled all the industry, they could make the masses work for whatever wages they chose to offer; thus, the rich were stealing the wages of the poor. Hence, Property is Theft because in the name of private property the most sordid evils are permitted. He was saying furthermore that since an all-powerful God controls the universe, he must be held accountable for all the evil that exists; since the church and everyone who represents God on earth defends property and the status quo, man can make advances only by striking down the institutions of God and the doctrine of submission and humility that keeps the upper classes in power. Hence, God is Evil means that revolutionaries must oppose everything that is currently taught about religion and morality.
Proudhon himself was far from an organizer of class warfare. He was a propagandist, rather politically naive, and personally likeable. He was in the French Assembly of 1848, where he found himself hopelessly outvoted on every issue and ultimately arrested. His newspaper was repeatedly closed by a variety of governments. But his ideas were not completely lost: he spread his conviction that the worker was a benefactor of society in the same way that government officials and military officers were, and therefore they had a claim for pensions and medical care; he started a savings and loan bank that became a model for the transformation of the banking industry; and he established a Socialist party that eventually led to the foundation of the First International in 1865, shortly before his death. Eliminate the startling slogans from Proudhon’s thought and one finds the basic philosophy of the modern non-Marxist Socialist movement.
Michael Bakunin was a Russian nobleman whose personality and career were too fantastic to make good fiction, for nobody would believe it. Born in 1814 into a large, happy family, he had a simple upbringing in pleasant surroundings; his tutors taught him French, German, English, and Italian; his family’s influence provided him with a good appointment in the army and a post in nearby Lithuania. He seemed to have everything needed for happiness, but he was bored. His wide reading brought him in contact with Alexander Herzen, whose illegal newspaper The Bell circulated among revolutionary circles. Moreover, army officers were well known their political liberalism; they had seen something of the world and were frustrated by tsarist corruption and inaction.
In 1840 at age twenty-six Bakunin simply left his commission, his family, and his friends. For two years he lived a Bohemian life, wandering from place to place, living with acquaintances, borrowing money, and talking. He had never worked and he had no intention of ever doing so, but he never lacked for cigars and liquor (in one month he smoked 1600 cigars and his capacity for strong drink was enormous). He made friends instantly, for he was a huge bear of a man, friendly, kind, naive, enthusiastic; he could say the most outrageous things without offending anyone. For instance, he talked about the beauty of destruction, remarking how creation required first a tearing down because building could begin only after the construction site was clearing; and similarly society had to be torn down ruthlessly, with extreme violence, before it could be restructured.
His first interest was in furthering the Pan-Slavist movement, especially in reconciling Poland with Russia. The 18118 revolutions, however, found him in Austria and then Saxony; he quickly adapted his ideas to the German situation. Arrested in Saxony, he was sent to Austria, where he was twice condemned to death, then sent to Russia; the tsar read his confession, called it interesting, but left him in prison. Finally relatives intervened and obtained his transfer to Siberia, where he escaped to Japan, to America, and back to Europe.
The story of his experiences made him famous, and soon be had many listeners for his ideas. He was a more practical than Proudhon, for he believed in retaining large-scale industry under state ownership and he wished to divide production “from each according to his means, to each according to his deeds” (not “according to his needs”). He believed in a federalist world with great individual liberty, a world in which the state would ultimately wither away once it was no longer needed. Marx reluctantly agreed to the “withering away” of the state as Socialist doctrine, but in every other way he fought the ideas of Bakunin to the end.
A handful of anarchists took Bakunin’s praise of violence literally. The most serious episode came in 1871 during the Paris Commune. When Napoleon III had declared war on Germany in 1870, then gone down to humiliating defeat, the republicans seized power, but were no more successful in driving out the invaders. While the country was in chaos a left-wing revolutionary government called the Commune seized power in Paris. It operated so effectively that the hitherto invincible German army could not capture the city. After the surrender of the Republican government in the south of France, the Communards thought of themselves as the true representatives of the nation and the model for the future. Neither the Germans, nor the French conservatives, nor the more liberal Republicans were willing to accept this. Soon the remnants of the Republican army marched north. Then Germans, having dictated peace at Versailles, sat back and watched their former enemies fight it out. The civil war was bloody: the Communards executed hostages, among whom was the bishop of Paris, and the Republicans shot the socialist and anarchist prisoners they took. In the wake of this episode, throughout Europe frightened governments began to take strong steps to repress potential revolutionaries; and revolutionaries began to take revenge against individuals they considered responsible for their suffering
Life for European royalty became difficult in the years that followed. Russian tsars were common targets; Lenin first became a revolutionary after his brother was executed for plotting to assassinate the tsar. But this “Propaganda of the Deed” was not limited to kings.
The most famous terrorist was Ravachol, a minor French criminal who became persuaded that a few random acts of terror would cause society to collapse. Finally caught by the police, he greeted his death sentence with the cry, “Long Live Anarchy,” and went to the guillotine singing anti-clerical songs. A long series of random bombings followed until the police broke up the anarchist organization with concentrated raids and imprisonments. In the United States anarchists assassinated Presidents Garfield and McKinley, wounded Teddy Roosevelt and were blamed for the Haymarket Riot in Chicago.
The last of the great anarchists was a very different personality. Peter Kropotkin was never at a barricade, never an advocate of violence. Born into the highest Russian nobility (former princes of Smolensk), he was given to the care of a family of serfs and ignored by his father. Later a left-wing French tutor instructed him in revolutionary ideas. Subsequent service as a page in the imperial household only caused him to revolt against the elegance and wastefulness of the super rich.
He studied science at St. Petersburg University and was sent to investigate the natural resources of Siberia. There he learned to love the Cossacks and native peoples, but to hate the prison system that extended throughout the back country. His scientific reports were models of accuracy.
In 1866 he witnessed a uprising among Polish exiles. Appalled by the ruthlessness of the army’s repression of the rebellion, he went to Europe on an extended trip to visit anarchist and socialist leaders. Back in Russia he began to speak in working class neighborhoods and was arrested. His escape from the most notorious prison in Russia made him famous, and he was thereafter a favorite speaker in European anarchist circles.
Kropotkin’s theories revolved around the concept of Mutual Aid. In contrast to the popular Social Darwinist theories, he argued that man is an animal that survives by cooperation: the long childhood of human beings makes it impossible for an individual, or even a family, to see to his own needs without help; similarly, animals graze and even hunt in groups; “survival of the fittest” is misunderstood, he said, because the fittest animal is often the most social.
He argued that the crisis of capitalism was not overproduction, but under-consumption. Man can produce more than he needs. The real problem is how to use leisure time, how to combat boredom. Man is a creative animal with the inborn need to do useful work.
Kropotkin was a worker himself. He wrote numerous books and continued his scientific work. He contributed to Elicus Reclus’ ethnographic history―a pioneering work for cultural anthropology―writing the volumes on Siberia and Manchuria in flawless French. The Geographie Universel was important for the future of anarchist thought; it described the folkways of many small and isolated cultures in the world, with a great emphasis on their intrinsic worth. The anarchist philosophy was that each individual should be allowed to live as he wished, that each culture should be allowed to pursue whatever customs it chose; moreover, no people should be forced by economic or political systems into the industrial age, or required to give up their language, their religion, or their ancient habits. This attitude permeated the new sciences of archeology, ethnology, and sociology.
Kropotkin lived to see the triumph of the Russian Revolution, but he had no influence because he had opposed the violent overthrow of the government in the October Revolution of 1917. His death in 1921 was celebrated with a great funeral, but within a few years all his followers were arrested by Stalin.
Anarchism was important in Spain in the 1930s, especially among the Basques and Catalans, who wished to preserve their cultures against an oppressive Castilianization (the effort to make everyone speak Spanish). They fought on the Republican side in the Civil War, lost, and fell back on terrorist tactics. Into the 1980s Basque terrorists assassinated police officials, Falangist party officials (followers of Franco who was put into power by Mussolini and Hitler), and soldiers.
In the 1960s anarchism had a strong revival everywhere. The most famous incident was the Paris strike of 1968, which brought down the government, and the riots that swept across Europe that spring. Out of it grew several terrorist organizations: the Bader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Red Army Faction in Japan, and the Red Brigades in Italy. These groups quickly established connections to Palestinian groups and the IRA; they obtained money and weapons from communist secret services, especially in East Germany and found refuge in Third World nations where the rulers and people hated everything associated with the West.
Hatred of western civilization is nothing new. Even in Ancient Greece and Rome intellectuals and churchmen were denouncing the democratic and secular nature of their culture; they were able to repress these trends during much of the Middle Ages, but churchmen and scholars still found much to criticize; naturally, their successors found the Enlightenment almost beyond enduring. In Russia Slavophiles hated the reforms of Peter the Great, seeing in the West nothing but soulless and lascivious worldliness and corruption; they retreated into humorless mysticism. They seem often to have equated a lack of bathing with cultural purity.
The rebirth of terrorism in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution was of a different origin―in the medieval assassins and the jihad. It is necessary to understand that cult of martyrdom, too, but it is of an essentially different character than is the terrorism of the anarchist tradition. Most often it looks back to a medieval religious utopia envisioned in the Koran; other times it is frustrated nationalist/socialist dreams. Either has little in common with western anarchism.
Anarchism and Radicalism in America
Names of political movements change over the years. In the early American Republic the Whigs who represented economic liberalism split into Federalists and Anti-Federalists, disagreeing fundamentally over the question of how much government was necessary. The former wanted liberty for businessmen and the protection of property; the latter were more concerned with the rights of the common farmer and workman. This class division was even more strongly marked in the Jacksonian era (1830-1860). In more modern times we have conservatives and liberals.
In an effort to avoid the confusion that comes from the fact that 19th century liberals have become our 20th century conservatives, the terms radical and anarchist will be used here to denote political, economic, and social tendencies that characterize Americans who cherish republican forms of government, individual enterprise in the economy, and personal liberty in social affairs, but who give differing stress to the rights of the community versus the rights of the individual. The anarchist tendency favors the individual in all areas of behavior except economic, where one should limit the power that wealth can give; the radical tendency favors the community in most areas of behavior, but is more willing to trust the individual in economic endeavors, believing that competition provides a self-regulating means of correcting abuses. This definition, we should note, uses “radical’ in the sense of its Latin root (radix = root) which emphasizes its fixed and traditional orientation that stands in strong contrast to the more rootless anarchism. Alas, relatively few individuals fall into one camp or the other completely, so the boundary lines between the two are often blurred. Alternatively, one can say that the difference is between personal and economic anarchism.
Since Americans often believe simultaneously in both traditions, the line between anarchism and radicalism is difficult for us to draw, but unless we make the effort we cannot understand modern American liberalism and conservatism. The modern American left has its heart in the anarchist tradition, the American right in the radical tradition. Neither realizes how much they have in common; both would rather emphasize the ways they differ.
The anarchist stresses the freedom each individual has to act, so long as he does not harm anyone else; the radical emphasizes the freedom to act, with a stress on the duty of each person to look after himself. The anarchist would limit the power of individuals to exploit others; the radical would require individuals to obey laws that support an organized society. What they have in common is a deep belief that we can develop ourselves to our fullest only when we are free, and each has a great distrust of those who wish to oversee our welfare.
This being the case, it should not be surprising that the true home of both modern anarchism and radicalism was not in Europe, but in the United States. Europe was not only disciplined socially, but the police there possessed the means to locate and arrest political malcontents; moreover, over the centuries European governments had forced their anarchists and radicals into exile in America. From the time of the Pilgrims a large percentage of the immigrants had come over the Atlantic to escape repression. Sometimes this was for religious reasons, sometimes to avoid oppressive military service, and sometimes in search of economic and political freedom. Furthermore, America had its own home-grown revolutionaries, for the spirit of toleration and freedom of thought was matched by the right to move into new regions and form new associations. Some gave their energies to making themselves wealthy. They created not only personal fortunes, but also a widely shared belief that every citizen should have the right and the opportunity to get rich. This was the capitalist ethic that was later reflected most strongly in the Whig and Republican parties. Other people believed that wealth should be shared; these idealists, immigrant and native alike, thought it was more important to establish a perfect society, free from the old traditions and restrictions. Often they sought to create voluntary utopias; from Brook Farm to Nauvoo1 from Rhode Island to Bishop Hill, voluntary communities flourished, then faltered, then became secularized or dissolved. This practical expression of anarchistic principles had few roots in the European tradition; often it was frankly religious in its make-up; and while its proponents may have been discouraged by their many failures, they never lost hope. They later found their most congenial home in the Progressive, Populist, and Democratic parties.
All of this is further confirmation that the heart of American anarchism and radicalism arose not from European ideas, but from American ones. European ideas, therefore, become important only among college educated Americans and had a significant impact only after World War Two, when large numbers of young people understood how important advanced education was to financial and social success, and to the enjoyment of life itself.
Foreigners have great difficulty in understanding Americans because they fail to recognize the American roots of beliefs outwardly similar those they hold themselves. This is important because today they need to understand us, and many willfully do not. When they say that our two major political parties are alike, they come close to a fundamental truth; but they come closer to a basic error. It is not so easy. Americans, and American institutions, are too individualistic to classify easily. It may help that universities around the world are establishing American Studies programs. America, like any culture around the world, has to be understood on its own terms, not merely viewed as a second-class reflection of the observer’s.
American free enterprise is basically a radical concept. It argues that if each individual competes fairly, the best of all possible economic worlds will result, and from that will come the best possible social world; that ending government restraints on individual enterprise would permit the natural industry of the American people to produce such abundance that we could feed and clothe the world. Few Americans can escape learning this philosophy. Thus, each of us is probably a bit of a radical in his deepest soul. Moreover, most Americans have learned that we can be the most free on the frontier, where we can escape from the restraints of society and convention, where we must learn to live according to the rules of nature rather than those of man. From this philosophy, which is retold endlessly in film and print, each of us is probably a bit of an anarchist as well. These anarchist and radical tendencies are not mutually exclusive: many Americans believe in both. This helps make us a complex people.
A consequent result of the development of these American attitudes was that each new group of immigrants with an anarchist or socialist philosophy found themselves somewhat out of place in their new situation. They made few converts to their ideas and often soon abandoned some of the basic tenets in favor of American ones. Those who continued to believe in European anarchism and socialism became isolated and frustrated. Their hopes of winning over large numbers of followers died with their first generation. The tiny Socialist and Marxist parties they founded had an impact only on intellectuals familiar with European thought and in that handful of urban centers where sweatshops and slums seemingly confirmed immigrant beliefs that capitalists were exploiting the working classes.
Native American anarchism and radicalism, in contrast to their European counterparts, were not doctrinaire. They were pragmatic, down-to-earth, shaped by individual leaders, and often emotional; religious motivation was deeply intertwined with philosophical or economic ideas, even they appeared purely utilitarian or even agnostic. Certainly the violence and atheism of European anarchism was lacking; and the exploitive aspects of industrial development were more often tempered by philanthropy. Moreover, some of their most important concepts were accepted by their political opponents or at least given the respectability of a hearing. When the public at large came to agree that women must be recognized as equal, racism combated and the distribution of wealth be modified by progressive taxes, their movement was undercut; and since they were unable to develop other equally attractive ideas, their political influence declined. As an example of this, we might look at the Civil Rights movement. The doctrine that all men should be free was first proposed by Quakers and German separatists before the Revolutionary War; Americans had to fight a bitter Civil War in order to eliminate slavery; yet another century passed before we removed the last legal restraints on the freedom of Blacks and other minorities. Such reforms were not achieved easily, and the frustration and danger involved in the efforts were such that only deeply committed persons could persist in them.
Since abolitionist and civil rights activities were often illegal and also opposed by public opinion, many of the individuals involved came from backgrounds easily identified with the anarchist tradition. These people, now called progressives and liberals, emphasized the rights of the individual vis-á-vis those of the society, arguing that we can best judge how free each of us is by looking at the degree of freedom possessed by the poorest, weakest, and most unpopular individuals among us. This is the most common use of the term liberal in political speech today.
Conservatives share many concerns with liberals about social problems, but differ on the means of resolving them. In understanding this it helps if we do not forget that conservatives are economic liberals. Almost every reform that has been proposed by liberals has been accomplished with some conservative cooperation. Without the public’s cautious nature and our form of government assuring that all changes will come slowly and by legal process, we might have experienced the loss of our basic freedoms in the name of liberty, as has happened in other nations. Our reforms come slowly, but all the more surely for having attained a broader public acceptance during the transition period. So completely does public opinion sometimes swing to the opposite side of an issue, that individuals cannot be convinced that they once held outdated views unless shown public statements they had made years before. Each reform changes American society a little. Sometimes this change is for the better, but not always. Certainly we have not achieved utopia despite the plans, discussions, time, and money we have put into it; but often we have made significant improvements.
The names of William Braddock, Roger Williams, William Penn, Patrick Henry, Sam Adams, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Smith, Lucretia Mott, Elisabeth Cady Stanton, and John Brown are landmarks on our development toward being a society that sees itself as a city on a hill, a model to the rest the world. None of those men and women can be classified as a conformist. Most were rank individualists. Yet none advocated the collapse of society.
We can classify their ideas in the anarchist tradition only if we remember that their roots are in an older, native tradition, not those of Bakunin or Kropotkin. Those great leaders and dissenters emphasized the rights of individual conscience, denounced the conformity required by king, priest, and society, and proposed the creation of new forms of human organization that stressed brotherhood and cooperation. Similar ideas have appeared in every era of American history and give rise to every significant political and social crisis. They are properly grouped with anarchism both for their broad humanitarian, libertarian ideals and for the otherwise strange combination of civil disobedience, pacifism, and occasional outbursts of violence that are associated with them.
In the 1960s these ideas reappeared in Civil Rights protests, then in the opposition to the Vietnam War, and finally in the Women’s Rights movement. In company with these protest actions we found communes, the abandonment of old social codes, new assumptions about sex, and new attitudes toward drugs. Since many of these ideas had been tried by earlier generations of American idealists, many people were familiar with them, so the ground was ready for their revival. American society of the Sixties found aspects of the new ideas attractive, even though most people rejected the underlying philosophy. The surface aspects of the movement, especially informal dress and new musical styles, persisted years after the protests ended.
In the United States a small number of anarchists of a more purposeful nature were important in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam demonstrations. Unlike their fellow citizens, who shared many of their instincts for justice and fairness without understanding why, these people were better grounded in intellectual theory. Unfortunately, their intellectual preparation was not matched by common sense. Their leadership through the Students for a Democratic Society demonstrated organizational genius, but their influence vanished practically overnight when a few of them concluded that America was ready for violent revolution. They looked at the number of men resisting the draft, they saw Blacks rioting in major cities, they heard learned commentators denouncing the general apathy of the American voter, and they concluded that the entire rotten structure was tottering so badly that even a slight push would bring it down. Once destroyed, society could be rebuilt on a new and better foundation. Declaring the “days of rage,” they went on a rock-throwing spree through Chicago, calling on people to join them and overthrow American society. They badly misjudged the situation: Blacks had been burning neighborhoods for their own motives, among which armed revolution was not to be found. Similarly, men were evading the draft because they considered the Vietnam War a terrible mistake, not because they wanted to overthrow the American way of life. The Students for a Democratic Society, having squandered overnight their moral capital, vanished. The leaders went underground and became ineffective terrorists. When they emerged years later, they had changed their ideas considerably: some were Christians, most had taken on conventional jobs and identities, and one was even a stock-broker.
The Rise of Terrorism
At this same time frustrated anarchists in Europe returned to the traditional use of murder and terror. Striking at targets of opportunity (military bases, power lines, judges, politicians, and industrialists) and almost at random (bombs in train stations and subways), they soon lost the support of the general public. Wherever they retained some base of operation, they survived the intensive manhunts and continued their efforts to bring down society: in Germany and Italy they found refuge among left-wing student groups; in Basque parts of Spain they were hidden by local nationalists who felt that their culture was threatened by an oppressive government that thought only of Madrid; in Ulster the Provisional Wing of the Irish Republican Army won the support of many Roman Catholics by attacking the Protestant majority government (despite the terrorists having no use for religion in the left-wing society they envisioned for the future). In some of these cases, the terrorists were hoping that the use of violence would he a short-term program of such success that they could either take over the new government or become a leading political party―terrorist bodies had made that transition in Israel, Algeria, and other emerging nations.
It was more difficult to make the change when no success resulted. The most spectacular terrorist organization of the 1960s was Al Fatah, an organization of young Palestinians who sought to make the world aware of their cause. Their earlier pleas for justice had fallen on deaf ears because their vision of a Palestinian state meant necessarily the destruction of Israel, and because their earlier propaganda had been more suitable to an Arab audience than a western one. At that time Israelis were much admired: they had come to the Holy Land with almost nothing, the tattered survivors of the Nazi death camps and refuges from Arab nationalism; they fought overwhelming numbers of formidable enemies and won; and they built a democratic state that contributed musicians, scientists, and philosophers to western culture. In contrast the Arab peoples seemed incompetent to master their many economic and political problems. They were unable to aid the Palestinians who lived inside Israel, and they left the refuges around the borders of Israel to rot in huge camps, dependent upon charity (the United Nations) for the necessities of life. Al Fatah was, to a certain extent, copying tactics used by the Israelis against the British and Arabs in the last days before independence. When the Palestinians learned that their early exploits, particularly hijacking airplanes, was earning their cause great publicity, they applauded their new heroes. Together with more moderate presentations of the Palestinian cause, the terrorists provoked many westerners to reassess their attitudes toward Israel. However, once the terrorist tactics had served their primarily function of attracting attention, further terrorism produced a counter-effect: the European and American publics reacted in ways that favored Israel all the more. Still, terrorism seemed to have worked: the pragmatist faction in the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) found itself forced to work with Al Fatah and the even more radical groups that arose later; and world opinion had shifted from an almost unconditional support of Israel to an almost universal condemnation of Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians. Israelis, facing a United Nations where bloc voting condemned everything they did, no matter that nations leading the condemnations were violating human rights in worse ways, learned not to trust their very survival to any outsiders (one holocaust in a century is sufficient for any people. Ask the Armenians). Population growth among Palestinians changed the focus from land alone to resources, especially water, and from an agricultural focus to a post-industrial one. Jews fleeing persecution and hardship, especially from Russia, present Israelis with the problem of finding homes and work for people who have not shared the experience of nation-building. The impasse in Middle Eastern politics has become ever more difficult to resolve; and yet, paradoxically, the potential for a resolution remains strong. History has ways of embarrassing the most well-informed predictions of experts.
Almost every nation has come to agree that methods used by terrorists hurt everyone (it matters not whether your airplane is blown up by terrorists, insurance swindlers or angry spouses, innocent people die), and skyjackings raise tensions between nations to unacceptable levels. International agreements to return hijackers and the introduction of search procedures at every airport made airlines relatively safe to fly again. International agreement to return hijackers and the introduction of search procedures at every airport made airlines safe to fly again. But the golden age of speed and convenience for ordinary travelers was gone forever. Moreover, terrorism seems to have worked: weak governments found it necessary to give in to their demands, and often their numbers swelled with new recruits.
The greatest blow to terrorism came when European communism collapsed in 1989-91. The fall of Soviet-style governments happened so quickly that the secret police failed to destroy even their most embarrassing files. It became quickly apparently how much the terrorists had relied on the KGB and the East German Stasi for money, training, and refuge. Several German terrorists were arrested in the former East Germany, living ordinary life under assumed identities. Not all were so easily rounded up, however. Some had thrived on Western help, especially in Afghanistan, and many were supported by oil money and nationalist parties. Some have combined with drug cartels, and others identified with wars of ethnic independence.
With terrorism so very significant in today’s politics, it is important to remember how old its roots are. Moreover, it is necessary to note that the classical anarchist ideas can combine with other traditions (Irish nationalism, Shiite martyrdom, and ancient tribal hatreds). The small group identification that is threatened by the formation of tribes into national states has as its major means of protest the bomb and dagger. Even though the end of the Cold War has meant that dissident groups will no longer be able to call one or the other of the major powers to their aid, so that hiding places are no longer available for them to use after committing acts of terror, we will live with terrorism for a long, long time.
It is important to remember is that the world is a complicated place, with old traditions and even older feuds. Not every trouble is a reflection of great power rivalries. Islamic fundamentalism, which may be the most important ideological movement of the coming decades, is essentially unconcerned with the wishes of world powers or other religious traditions. In the past, where fundamentalists of almost any variety found their most basic political plans frustrated by secular governments or foreign armies, they have turned to terrorism. The future is unlikely to be different.
When we take this into account, we see that not all terrorists are anarchists, nor are all anarchists terrorists. The names are so connected in the public mind as to be almost interchangeable, but that is very misleading. Anarchism as a concept is very much alive today. As an attitude toward authority it has currency even among non-anarchists, and a large number of “communes” were formed in the 1960s by people who had no idea of the origin of the word; many couples or groups of individuals just decide to “live together,” to share the work and contribute to the common fund; minorities have begun to demand respect and a great voice in decisions that affect their future. Terrorism is a world problem that may or may not be connected to anarchist thought directly or even indirectly (as in nationalist yearnings for independence, as in resistance to oppressive governments). Yet, as we have seen, terrorism in itself is nothing new. Its roots are comparatively old in our world of new nations. Similarly, efforts to combat it are relatively ancient.
The first answer of European conservatives to the radicals and anarchists of the nineteenth century was a simple No. The French Revolution had upset society beyond rebuilding in its original form, but at least the descendants of the Old Regime could reestablish themselves as the masters, using a combination of traditional political forms and new police tactics. In this way Metternich of Austria made himself the leader of European politics from 1815 to 1848, using the armies of every conservative government to support wavering monarchies whenever the population threatened to remove them. In the long run, however, it was impossible to rely solely on tradition and force; it was necessary to develop philosophies that justified the rule of the aristocracy.
At the heart of authoritarian rule was the belief that democratic government was not possible, or if possible, not desirable. The Ancient Greeks were divided on the possibility of democracy, but the most important―Plato and Aristotle―were strongly in favor of rule either by an enlightened tyrant or by an aristocracy. Plato’s Republic outlined a perfect society, in which each person has a place and stays in it. The laws are to be made and enforced by the best men and women (the guardians, or the scholars), and rigid safeguards prevent any innovations that might bring about changes. New ideas are particularly to be avoided. With Plato, most ancient Greek philosophers believed that in a democracy either very mediocre men would come to power or the “mob” would run wild; in either case, the best men would be excluded from important offices.
The Romans, in contrast, in their very practical way believed in both aristocracy and mediocrity. The aristocrats did not want brilliant men to hold office; outstanding geniuses tended to be nobles with ambition or ambitious commoners; either way they represented a danger to the nobility. Consequently, Roman republicanism strove to eliminate the rise of Great Men. This involved a combination of tradition and education, restrictive laws on office-holding, a division of power among several government bodies, and assassination. Roman emperors learned to disguise the nature of their rule by retaining a republican facade to their government and generally adhering to the constitution and traditions of their nation. These processes worked so well that many Roman offices and ideas have been incorporated into modern governments; for example, the United States government has a Senate with powers that would be easily understood by Romans.
Through the Middle Ages there was a simple, even crude belief in the biological superiority of the nobility, who were confident that if a tall handsome, intelligent man appeared in the ranks of the peasantry or middle class, investigation would prove that he was really a noble child stolen from his real parents or that he was the offspring of some noble gallantry. The lower classes were believed to be all boors (Bauer, or peasants).
The concept that the ruling classes were superior in every way has persisted through the centuries. Even the American author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, made Tarzan the child of English nobility, a being so naturally gifted that he surpassed everyone in strength, agility, and even inborn politeness and manners.
America was the exception to the belief that democracy was impractical. George Washington refused the opportunity to become king; he carefully governed within the law and after two terms retired from the presidency. Thomas Jefferson put our democratic ideas and faith in the common people into eloquent words that have persuaded generations of their truth. A half century after Jefferson Lincoln said, “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Democracy cannot only work, but it can produce men like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, men who are all the more worthy of honor and respect because their kind has been so rare in world history.
We tend to take those men for granted. We do not think of the trials they faced, the temptations they passed by. We forget that the Federalists looked upon Jefferson as a French agent, a desperate revolutionary who would one day unleash a social war against the rich; we forget the vicious politics of the Jacksonian era; and we even lose sight of how contemporaries misunderstood and mocked Lincoln.
American politics was not all idealism and justice, not all that clearly democratic. City bosses built machines on the votes of immigrants, so that from the 1820s in Boston and New York until the death of Chicago Mayor Daley in 1979 bosses were often dominant in state and national politics. American history is full of smoke-filled rooms, rigged elections, and votes that were bought, stolen, or lost. It is sometimes surprising that democracy did survive.
As a result of our experience with corruption and incompetence, American comedians and social satirists have made a living joking about crooked politicians and the stupidity of the people who elected them. Mark Twain was renowned for his bitter wit, but even he was surpassed by Ambrose Bierce. In the early twentieth century H. L. Mencken invented the word “boob” to describe the “homo americanus,” and he quipped that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. Democracy, they implied, inevitably resulted in general mediocrity.
Nonetheless, Americans never entirely lost faith in themselves or in their politicians. Teddy Roosevelt ran for office in spite of his friends warning him that politics was dirty. He insisted that a gentleman could be a fighter, too, and he loved the great struggle against power and corruption. The Progressives who followed him into the Republican Party were matched by those Democrats who came in the footsteps of Woodrow Wilson. Demagogues appeared in America, but except for the state elections dominated by the KKK and occasionally by powerful and ambitious individuals, they failed to win national power. The case was otherwise in many other parts of the world.
Europe was particularly suited to receive anti-democratic philosophies. Not only was there a distrust of any idea that might lead to a revolution or anarchism, but every educated person had read Plato, listened to conservative churchmen, and enjoyed wealth and prestige past the dreams of American scholars, pastors, and businessmen. In the 19th century most politicians were content to dismiss democracies as weak and leaderless. Bismarck put this attitude best, saying “God takes care of fools and the United States of America.” Certainly there was no model that upper class Europeans wanted to follow, except perhaps that of Great Britain, which seemed to have found the secret of offering political power to the masses but somehow reserving it for the aristocracy, of talking about freedom and justice while acquiring the greatest empire in the history of the world.
Democracy, then, in the opinion of opinion-makers, was hypocrisy. That was the conclusion of the distinguished Sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto (1843-1923). He taught that human behavior followed very ancient irrational processes, and that the dominant groups use these instincts to secure their power. Democracies, he said, were fundamentally no different than any other form of government, because everywhere an elite rises to the top. There may be a circulation of the elite, as incapable members prove unworthy of sharing power and as outstanding individuals rise from the masses, or there may be an overthrow of one elite by another; but whatever the origin of the elite, the elite always rule. The elite justifies itself by a Social Myth. The masses should believe the myth, he said, but the elite should recognize it for what it is, a fairy tale for fools. Pareto’s students learned his profound cynical maxims and concluded that it mattered little which people held office or what they professed: power was all that mattered and everyone exercised it for the benefit of an elite. What one had to do was to become a member of the elite.
It was the French philosopher, George Sorel (1847-1922), who developed the concept of the Social Myth into its most dangerous form. He emphasized the irrational nature of the Social Myth, tying every historic movement to a belief in some unlikely or impossible goal―the early Christians expecting the Second Coming, the Enlightenment working for the education of all men. In this sense he was the exact opposite of Karl Marx, teaching that ideas, not economic facts, dominate society. Thus he found a ready audience among the enemies of Communism, the Fascists.
Mussolini openly espoused Sorel’s ideas: he declared that fascism was a doctrine of action, not of plans, of vitality, not of rest, of struggle, not of cooperation; war, violence, and contempt for fairness and justice were the characteristics of the true fascist man. He praised the art and poetry of the nihilists and futurists, proclaiming that their vitality and innovation were truly progressive.
Mussolini’s fascism was not totalitarian, though he often wished it was. He tried to dominate all aspects of Italian life―children in youth programs, men in the army―but his doctrine that action was more important than ideology, his belief that everything was a myth, worked against such a goal. Who could be serious about subordinating everything to a party, when the party itself proclaimed that it did not believe its own statements? He was brutal, but assassination was rare and he became anti-Semitic only after he signed the Pact of Steel with Hitler.
Authoritarianism fell short of totalitarianism by a long way. The techniques may be similar―police brutality, control of the press, spies, informers―but the degree of public involvement is far less. The authoritarian state is content to ignore those who do not make open resistance. It allows individuals and even some groups to disagree with the doctrine and goals of the state, but as long as there is no defiance, churches may remain open, individuals may own private property, and intellectuals may read what they wish.
Authoritarian governments may be terrible. Graham Green has described the worst in his novels The Power and the Glory (Yucatan under the control of Mexican revolutionaries) and the Comedians (Haiti under “Papa Doc” Duvalier). But the degree of horror in an authoritarian state is essentially different from that in a totalitarian one.
The totalitarian state is based on the masses. Unlike an authoritarian state, which relies on the police, a totalitarian state is dependent upon manipulated public opinion and the unquestioning obedience of every person. The combination of fervent belief in the goals of the state and the fear of being considered a traitor create a totally different public attitude from that of the authoritarian state: in the totalitarian state the people enthusiastically support the party and the leader, and individuals selflessly abandon their personal plans when asked to make sacrifices.
As incomprehensible as this selflessness often is (even to former adherents who reflect upon their feelings and action), it is easily verified: Hitler Youth going off to fight Communism at age sixteen, Kamakazi pilots diving into American warships, veteran Communist leaders confessing to crimes they could not have committed, and Chinese and Cuban university students marching off to work in the fields. This enthusiasm is contagious: everyone feels involved; everyone believes that progress is being made, everyone is certain that great advances are coming soon.
This spirit of common endeavor cannot be manufactured easily. If it could be, there would be more totalitarian states in the world. It may be that nations are only ripe for totalitarianism in certain periods of their history, periods when disappointment and frustration are at their worst, when a party and a leader appears who can present traditional goals in such a way that the public responds idealistically. Also, the traditional ruling classes must have lost power and prestige, so that they and their methods can be replaced by a ruthless bureaucracy that crushes all forms of open and passive resistance.
The first totalitarian state was in the Soviet Union. It was well prepared by a communist party take-over: the tsars, the aristocracy and the bureaucracy had ruled by force and terror; they had kept the country backward and poor; and they had gone into two wars foolishly (1904 with Japan, 1914 with Germany, Austria, and Turkey) and had lost them both. The tsarist government was incompetent: it did not equip the army properly and could not even feed it in the field, it could not stop revolutionary ferment, it could not even collect taxes. When the tsar abdicated in early 1917, his brother refused to accept the crown; in short, the tsarist government was incompetent even to dissolve itself properly.
The moderate republican government of Alexander Kerensky that replaced the tsar’s ministers made a mistake in continuing the hopeless war against Germany. Within six months the moderate Social Revolutionaries had failed to provide food, to secure peace, or to win military victories. In October of 1917 Vladimir Ilich Lenin gave the orders to his Bolshevik Party to overthrow the discredited government. In doing that he precipitated Russia into a civil war that made further resistance to the Germans impossible. When he signed a peace treaty with Germany (Treaty of Brest-Litovsk) and promised land to the peasants, he was able to concentrate on the struggle with the many enemies of his communist program. Ultimately his slogan of “bread, land, and peace” won over peasants and laborers who had suffered so much in the war. Then his armies, led by Leo Trotsky, defeated the inept tsarist loyalists, the dispirited republicans, the unhappy minorities, and avoided direct confrontations with the troops sent by France, Japan, and the United States. Lenin had to give up land (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland), but at the end he held undisputed power in Russia.
The Civil War had been brutal, and “War Communism” had been justified as an emergency measure. Lenin then backed away from implementing more of his party’s plans for radical reforms, relying on his NEP (New Economic Policy, essentially a free enterprise program for farmers and small businesses) to win public support for a program of industrialization and education. He died in 1923 before he had accomplished much. His legacy was a large body of theoretical writing that described what the future of socialism would be.
It took his dour and reclusive successor, Joseph Stalin, almost a decade to secure absolute power. Through his chairmanship of the party, Stalin placed loyal followers in key positions, then ousted his rivals one by one. (Many confessed of conspiring with capitalist enemies over the years. Trotsky fled into Mexican exile, where he was murdered in 1940.) Once Stalin acquired power, he used brutal secret police tactics to crush opposition to plans for a rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union, sending millions of protesters to forced labor camps in Siberia. To feed the workers he collectivized the farms, seizing the grain and cattle he needed; when farmers killed their cows and sheep rather than pay taxes, he ordered the government’s share of production seized anyway and left those peasants to starve by the millions. Agricultural production fell, especially after his mass arrests of “kulaks” (rich farmers), but the government’s share was greater than before. Fearful that his opponents might seek to overthrow him, Stalin ordered “purges” of the intelligentsia, the army, and even the Communist Party. Finally, he purged even the secret police.
Stalin’s most ingenious invention was the Show Trial, in which high-placed officials confessed to the most heinous and unlikely crimes. The victims went to the gallows or to prisons camps proclaiming their loyalty to the system and to Comrade Stalin, saying that they must be guilty because the Marxist-Leninist doctrine and Stalin could never be wrong.
The Soviet model or totalitarianism was all the more fearful because it was so unpredictable. This came largely through mismanagement, for the Communist Party had never been able to overcome the chaotic administrative practices it had inherited from the tsars. To guarantee that no one would be missed in the mass arrests, not only were suspected individuals taken, but also their families, their relatives, their friends, and their co-workers; and naturally, the friends and families of those people, too, came under suspicion. As the net spread ever wider, no one could feel safe.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, the terror eased. Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 denounced Stalin’s crimes at the party Congress and began “de-Stalinization.” As a symbol of the change he moved Stalin’s body from Lenin’s Mausoleum and his statues from the city squares and public buildings. He denounced the “cult of personality” that characterized Stalin’s rule. It appeared briefly that communism would evolve rapidly into a more conventional, socialist state.
But this was not to be. The rapid liberalization of the Soviet Union came almost to a halt when the satellite nations tried to move even more rapidly to dismantle the Stalinist system. When the Hungarians tried to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact in 1956, Soviet troops and tanks restored order. Khrushchev did not return to Stalinist terror, but he was more adventurous in foreign policy. He came close to thermonuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis and by erecting the Berlin Wall; he supported a variety of nationalist/communist revolutions, so that the Cold War spread across the globe.
Khrushchev was removed from office in 1964 by a group of party leaders who believed that he was erratic, incompetent, and as great a danger to them as Stalin had been. The next eighteen years Leonid Brezhnev headed a group of elderly men who very slowly changed the Soviet state from one based on slave labor and fear to one based on modern military power and national pride. As an example of the changed attitudes, Khrushchev was not killed, but only sent into retirement. In this new climate it was possible for very courageous individuals to write about the past and criticize the present. They were liable to be harassed, to be put in insane asylums, to be exiled; but no longer did they automatically go to the Gulag Archipelago, the worst of the Arctic slave camps. Even so, the Soviet leaders permitted no deviations among the satellites, as the Czechs learned in 1968, when their reforms were cancelled by invading troops.
The second totalitarian system was created by Adolf Hitler. His system was highly organized, as might be expected in the most advanced industrialized nation in the world.
World War One and its aftermath had made the rise of Adolf Hitler possible; pre-war Germany would have paid little attention to an unemployed Austrian demagogue, even one who had a genius for riding the crest of political and social discontents. Unlike Lenin and Stalin, who prided themselves on their having rejected the past, Hitler built on both ancient and recent traditions. He denounced the Versailles Treaty, which he blamed for the hyper-inflation of the early Twenties that had wiped out the savings of every family in Germany and brought on corruption and crime in a nation that had prided itself on hard work and honesty. He called on Germans to turn back to honored standards, to overcome weakness and shame, and to make Germany a proud nation again, one with a strong economy and a powerful army.
It was this outward conservatism that caused many people to misjudge the Nazi Party he headed. Many still do think of Hitler as a conservative, or a reactionary, but in truth he was as much a revolutionary as Stalin. His Nazi Party was the National Socialist Democratic Worker Party; in contrast to international socialism, he advocated a national socialist program that would benefit German workers. He blamed all Germany’s problems on the Versailles Treaty and the Jews. His program was to gather all power into the hands of the Nazi party and himself, the Führer, then to organize every aspect of German life so that when the time came, he could reverse the allied victory of World War One.
Hitler’s chief enemies were the generals, the aristocracy, and the Roman Catholic Church. He worked carefully to win their neutrality, to remove them from important posts, or to crush them. He put his own men into office. Some of his underlings were evil geniuses: Goebbels in propaganda, Speer in industry, Himmler in the state secret police. Hitler could not have achieved total power without them, but he always kept power in his own hands. He established concentration camps for political opponents; he turned the goon squads loose on Communists, Socialists and Jews. He signed a Concordat with the pope and then arrested thousands of priests who objected to euthanasia (putting the mentally ill and aged to death). He financed the Nazi-like parties in nations around the globe, supporting imitators and admirers in Hungary, Rumania, Greece, Egypt, Argentina, and many other places. He found a willing ally in Japan, the most westernized nation of the Far East.
Hitler rearmed Germany, fought practically the entire world, and almost won. His victorious armies were followed by special SS units that rounded up Jews, Gypsies, and Socialists for extermination, that kidnapped millions of foreigners for slave labor, and that committed crimes of such a magnitude that ultimately the almost helpless people of Europe fought back with every method at their disposal. When American, British, French and Soviet armies occupied Germany, they agreed that Germany would first be de-Nazified, then never again be allowed to become a threat to world peace. Similar and more effective plans disarmed Japan.
The third totalitarian system was that of Mao Tse-Tung in China. His was a Chinese version of Stalinism that no Russian could recognize, either in the 1930s or the 1970s. The situation that brought Mao to power was the complete chaos of his nation, which for a century had been invaded and humiliated by foreigners and whose leaders had proven incompetent either to maintain the traditions or adapt to modern techniques. His authoritarian rival, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, would have finished Mao’s city-based communist party in the 1930s if the Japanese had not attacked and disrupted his efforts. Such had been the fate of the Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s, a superficially similar revolt of peasants and intellectuals whose armies fell before the revitalized imperial forces and foreign mercenaries. Mao, however, led his surviving cadres on the “long march” into the interior, far from Chiang’s forces. In the hill country of northwest China Mao reorganized his party on a rural basis and became well-known as an agricultural reformer. When the Second World War ended, he emerged from the mountains with an effective army that was required to speak politely, pay for food arid shelter, and to distribute confiscated land among the peasants. His second greatest weapon was the incompetence of Chiang, who removed promising commanders out of fear they would outshine him, and who wasted vast amounts of American arms and money; Chiang, not understanding the devastating effect of hyper-inflation on the economy and public morale, printed money without restraint. He ignored American warnings and soon no government official or army officer could feed his family without extorting money or stealing it. Public confidence in Chiang vanished. By 1949 Mao ruled in China.
Within a short time Mao showed that he was not the agrarian reformer that everyone expected: he forced all the peasants into communes, closed all private businesses, and instituted Marxist education for every age and every class. From birth to death, people were taught to honor the words of Chairman Mao. Opponents were rarely shot: millions went to re-education camps, and more millions starved. China became a highly militarized state, and the army became the core of the communist system.
At first the Russians gave Mao considerable help, especially during the era of the Korean War, when they were allies against the United States. But after de-Stalinization began in the Soviet Union, Mao began to go his own way, for Stalin was his great hero and model. Eventually the Russians went home, taking even the plans for the projects they had begun. Mao prepared for war with Russia, building bomb shelters for his population, massing the army on his northern border, and constructing his own missiles and atomic bombs.
Mao was an innovative thinker whose ideas often held fatal flaws. His “Great Leap Forward” was supposed to make China into an overnight industrial power; instead, it confirmed Chinese backwardness for years to come. His “Red Guard” made the youth into a massive combination of secret police and voluntary work crews; they arrested officials and workers who failed to display sufficient enthusiasm for interrupting projects in order to participate in emotional denunciations of capitalism, the “paper tiger” America and Soviet reactionaries. His nation became the last word in unthinking conformism (outdone only by Pol Pot in Cambodia). His China had only one face: his.
Mao eventually eliminated starvation in China, but his impractical programs eliminated progress and production, so that nobody did very well; moreover, thirty to fifty million may have died in his various purges and relocation programs (largely of starvation). All Chinese wore plain blue clothing, smiled a lot, and kept their thoughts to themselves; when they could, they escaped to Hong Kong. China was a puzzle to the West: in massive hunts the people killed all the birds, then hunted down the flies that multiplied when the birds were gone; the hard work and discipline of ancient China returned, as did some of the corruption and inefficiency.
In strong contrast to Red China was the prosperity of three other Chinese states: Taiwan (Chiang Kai-shek’s refuge), Singapore, and Hong Kong. They demonstrated what Chinese intelligence, hard work, and frugality could do. Red China first had the opportunity to changes its policy after Mao’s death in 1978. China today is industrializing rapidly, its goods are sold around the world, and political change may even follow someday. But for years it was not clear what direction China would take, and only an inexperienced optimist would dare predict what the distant future will bring. Traditional China was never hospitable to foreigners, and if anything, the China of the near future is likely to be amalgam of traditional China and Mao’s dreams. Despite its ruthless one-child policy, China still faces a population crisis, with the accompanying problems of providing housing and jobs, environmental degradation, and an increasing need for critical resources such as oil and water.
Theories of Totalitarianism
By 1980 the American fear of totalitarianism was a far cry from that of 1950, when the future seemed to belong to the most ruthless and terrifying party dictatorships of all time. In the 1950s a theory of totalitarianism evolved that is important to understanding our reactions even today.
The analysis of Hanna Arendt in her Origins of Totalitarianism was that the dedication of the masses was the key to Hitler and Stalin’s power. The masses hated the status quo, hated the middle class ideals, and above all hated the responsibility of individual existence; therefore, the masses sought to lose all individuality by forcing everyone into an emotionally-based movement. Since not everyone was willing to make this sacrifice, terror was needed to break down every aspect of individual existence-family, church, friends. Small nations, therefore, cannot become truly totalitarian states, because they cannot afford to sacrifice enough people to create the Terror.
Arendt described the leadership of this mass as a new elite formed from drop-outs of traditional elites: failures in professional and social life, cynics and adventurers. The new elite hated the old society and its dullness; it longed for excitement, action, and change; it did not matter what was done, as long as it was new and outrageous. Then, after the new elite had won power and established itself by terror, it was replaced by routine office-holders; the old leadership was killed or arrested, and ordinary bureaucrats came forward to install the program of almost random terror that maintains the leader in power.
Propaganda is not necessary, she says, except for impressing outsiders. Those in the system respond to the Terror, which is directed against the friends of the new regime as well as its enemies. The rulers have contempt for facts and therefore feel free to lie shamelessly; no one will dare question them. If people are both gullible and cynical, they can be told anything.
There must be an identifiable enemy. It does not matter who it is. The more implausible, perhaps the better, because then the nature of the enemy conspiracy can be painted as all the more secret and mysterious. Both Hitler and Stalin picked the Jews as scapegoats. Each blamed all the failures of the past and present on a Jewish conspiracy, often quoting from a notorious anti-Semitic forgery called the Protocols of Zion. But Jews have not been alone as victims. Totalitarian states need a wide variety of perceived hidden enemies to justify the reign of terror.
As Arendt described totalitarianism, it had to continue to grow and grow, because there was no way to halt it or for it to change. Americans who had seen the crimes of Hitler and Stalin came to see the Red Menace closing in on the United States; for a while it appeared that the United States might move in the direction Arendt suggested, with the “Jewish communists” as the principal danger to be avoided. Once again anti-Semitic propaganda tried to make the Jews the scapegoat for policy failure, thus echoing the accusations made by medieval crusaders and churchmen by Russian tsars and Cossacks, and by Nazis and Communists, and taken up later by Islamic fundamentalists. Only narrowly, some suggest, did America escape a native totalitarianism, so intense was the fear of an outside totalitarianism. 1984, it seemed, was a potential description of America. Others felt that the fear was highly exaggerated. No mass party existed, no leader, no national crisis. Nor was anti-Semitism an effective vehicle for a demagogic leaders in America: Hitler had shown the falsity and cruelty of that ancient myth, and veterans who had just fought a world war to stop his kind of racism were not about to adopt his ideas. Moreover, the success of Israel as a democracy and an American friend and the constant efforts of groups such as B’nai B’rith to counteract racism, have dulled the edge of this myth that always seems to accompany totalitarian thought.
George Kennan, an American diplomat and historian who first proposed the Containment Theory that was American foreign policy in the 1950s and 1960s, had contributions of his own to the theory of totalitarianism. First of all, he noted, totalitarian states are born in war. Therefore, to avoid falling under a native totalitarian despotism, avoid war. Secondly, totalitarian systems are born only where democratic institutions never existed or where they fail. Therefore, take special care to protect our liberties at home and to extend them to all members of our society; encourage free institutions elsewhere as much as possible. Lastly, totalitarianism is born where there are traditions of militarism and uniformity. Therefore, we must foster diversity and individualism.
Authoritarianism has been present in western society since the rise of the national state. The government, representing a ruling class, group, or cabal, uses all the conventional power at its hands to arrest or exile any person who threatens its monopoly of power. Censorship, police spies, and a system of identification characterize the simple authoritarian state, whether run by a king, a czar, or a military dictator. Caesar, Nero, Cromwell, Napoleon, Metternich and countless banana republic rulers were all simple authoritarians. Often ruthless, vicious men, the dictators were nevertheless satisfied with the possession of power and wealth, and perhaps the adulation of the mob. But “authority” was sufficient, and they left their subjects their private views, their businesses, and their religion whenever these did not threaten the state.
Totalitarianism is easily distinguished from old-fashioned authoritarianism. A dictator or oligarchy may seem to be totalitarian in the use of military force, propaganda, and a monopoly of essential aspects of economic life, but in fact may have made little progress past the practices of Metternich except in the use of electronic communications; and some countries ruled by authoritarians have such poor telephone systems that Metternich’s communications may have been superior.
The first major difference between the systems is that the totalitarian party sees the world in Social Darwinist terms (perpetual struggle for survival, for domination) and Manichean concepts (good versus evil). There is no room for compromise, for accommodation, or even common pity. Everything in life must be subordinated to the struggle, and the struggle must be directed by a leader or group who sees and explains the nature of the contest and the danger of the enemy.
Secondly, the existence of a directing elite is central to totalitarianism: an elite of committed, trained ideologues. The old elite of aristocracy and wealth long ago lost the fervor of its convictions, and moreover, for centuries has tolerated the existence of other centers of power―guilds, trade unions, religious communities, and social groups. The new elite allows nothing to escape its purview―hence, the “total” in totalitarianism.
Finally, the new elite must be willing to use every kind of violence to achieve its ends. Terror is essential to establish, consolidate, and further the regime’s power. Moreover, this terror must necessarily be turned upon the elite itself, thus ensuring discipline and hindering the formation of opposition even within the community of new rulers. The secret police must be everywhere, or believed to be so. Spies and informers are an integral part of the system, and no one who refuses to cooperate enthusiastically can expect to receive a state education (the only option) or any job above that of a laborer.
Life in a totalitarian state is often exceedingly lonely and private. No one can trust anyone else, for even the slightest suspicion of unorthodox views may lead to arrest, imprisonment, and perhaps death. Courage fades away quickly, being replaced by conformity and sometimes fanaticism. The populace is cowed. There is no center of resistance―church, civic organization, school or family―that is not in the service of the state.
It was this picture of the future―the apparently inevitable triumph of evil over good that made the totalitarian model so frightening. Fortunately, the alarmists have, so far, exaggerated the permanency of totalitarian rule. The fate of the Nazis and Fascists―military defeat and the even worse disgrace when their crimes against humanity were revealed―has prevented the rise of any significant Fascist or Nazi movement since 1945, though the 1930s saw a wide number of them. The Soviet state evolved considerably after the death of Stalin. Many objectionable features remained, but the Show Trials of the 30s and the Great Purges went the way of the Gulag Archipelago; and Communism has been largely abandoned after the dissolution of the Soviet union in 1991. In China the shadow of Mao Tse-tung receded slowly after his successors began to appreciate the progress of other Asian states operating more or less on the western model. Will the Chinese Communist Party continue to follow the pragmatic faction’s lead to copy those states? No one knows, but the chances seem good; and, in any case, there is little likelihood of a return to the days of “The Great Leap Forward” or the Red Guards.
Minor totalitarian states still exist, but the worst (Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Idi Amin’s Uganda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) were overthrown from abroad and others (like post-revolutionary Iran and North Korea) are inefficient. Only Cuba seems a model for emulation, but it ceased to thrive once the subsidies from the Soviet Union ended. There are always a few who believe in these systems, generally those who stand to share in the enjoyment of power. Those few who believe that a third-rate universal medical care program is worth the sacrifice of political freedom may more numerous in universities than among the general population; but that is a group with the time and enthusiasm for political activism.
Totalitarianism seen in this light is less the Wave of the Future than it seemed in earlier decades. It may have run its short, evil course; and now that we recognize its signs, we may be able to combat it in the future. On the other hand, totalitarianism may have a revival anywhere. Its conditions for appearance are well-known―social change that disturbs wide sections of the populace, the inefficiency of the government in meeting the crisis, and a consequent loss of hope in conventional remedies; the subsequent rise of demagogic leaders who identify credible scapegoats, who offer a plausible resolution to the crisis, and who form a mass party dedicated to the overthrow of the existing political system; lastly, a devastating war that wrecks the government, the economy, and the self-confidence of the ruling class.
The totalitarians of Russia, Germany, and China all seized power in the wake of wars that had brought their countries to the point of collapse. In order to end the real or imagined chaos, corruption, and inefficiency, and frightened by the display of violence exercised by the party’s uniformed thugs, the common people acquiesced in the seizure of power. Once a police system was established, with total control of communications and economic distribution, the new elite did not need long to consolidate power. A few years, with a period of mild behavior and reasonable concessions, sufficed to put into operation the secret police, the courts, and the concentration camps.
If this analysis is correct, the best way to avoid totalitarian regimes is to avoid the crises that pave their way to power. Especially avoid a cataclysmic war, for wars led to the later recrimination that makes for factions in political life, and military training accustoms men to united action under the orders of a leader.
How one deals with totalitarian states in existence is less easy to counsel. If one wages war against them without swift success, one aids them by providing excuses for excesses of violence; Hitler was able to execute the Jews and Gypsies readily under the cloak of wartime secrecy. If one ignores them, one appears to approve of their methods. No handy rule of thumb has yet been devised for putting political morality in action. This is perhaps where genius is called for, to handle individual cases in the matter best calculated to achieve results. As with individual people, some regimes can be cajoled, some bought off, some moved by pressure on threats, while some must be physically restrained. If we were only perfect ourselves, how much easier the decision would be!
This is not to ignore the real danger and the real evil that totalitarianism represents. In order that Auschwitz not be repeated, it must not be forgotten. So that the Gulag Archipelago not be revived, we must know what it was. Moreover, recognizing the paradox that narcissist individualists prepare the way for the most mind-numbing conformity, we must encourage responsible individualism and diversity. Those traits are the enemies of totalitarianism and conformism everywhere.
We must not expect to see individualism and diversity protected everywhere. The individual, the family, and the community suffer so greatly under totalitarian rule that it is difficult to introduce democracy into a society once it has undergone government by terror. Unlike the aftermath of authoritarian rule, where resistance groups have usually survived, when a totalitarian regime collapses, there are few resistance leaders; and any leaderless society is liable to dissolve in chaos, as has happened in several post-colonial states. American success in introducing democracy into Germany and Japan must be rated among the major achievements of modern times. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, faced with the prospect that its empire would revolt in the 1950s, turned back from liberalization. Though far from the Stalinist past, the Soviet leaders feared the loss of personal power and the rise of destabilizing opposition among the national minorities; therefore, they maintained a strong hold on the economy and political scene, but governed through a central committee that prevented one man from assuming dictatorial power. Russia’s failure to achieve democracy and prosperity immediately after 1991 demonstrate how long a shadow the earlier forms of misgovernment have. In a similar manner, many newly emerging countries lack the traditions of toleration and self-government that are necessary for democracy, and, unfortunately, their leaders often think of themselves as uniquely suited to find short-cuts to material prosperity; or they are grossly addicted to the exercise of power that they cynically use whatever means are necessary to remain in office. Democracy in our understanding of the word remains a long way off.
Similarly, individuals who escape from totalitarian systems meet great difficulty in adjusting to a life of choice. Often those who are convinced of one political truth, when disillusioned, swing all the way across the political spectrum to espouse a political philosophy that is as close to its opposite as possible. The same often happens with religious fanatics who break with their past beliefs.
Therefore, once again we see the real strength of a society that values toleration, freedom, and self-reliance. To protect ourselves in the future we must continue to encourage the development of personal characteristics that undergird liberty by recognizing the interplay of personal freedom and responsibility toward others. A totalitarian state has neither; a free nation must have both.
The deep-seated superstitions that often determined many aspects of primitive society have not been eliminated from modern civilizations. Underneath our surface rationality and logic lie attitudes and beliefs that once probably served as the wisdom of our caveman ancestors. More than a small percentage of our American population fall back on these superstitions in moments of crisis, and many people spend large amounts of money on charlatans who specialize in the occult and the fantastic.
The palm-readers, the spiritualists, the ESP searchers, and the astrologers are not new-comers on the scene. Even the Romans tried to eliminate them as a danger to civilized values. Nevertheless, they thrive despite every effort of education or ridicule to reduce their influence. The professionals in the business of the occult use common sense, fear, greed, and play on the need of their customers for something to believe in and someone to trust. Often they perform the roles of priests, ministers, and financial advisors. Sometimes their techniques are primitive, sometimes very sophisticated; sometimes they rely on slight-of-hand magic, sometimes solely on personality.
Some professionals believe in what they are doing. This is especially true of the UFO investigators, who believe that they have discovered a gigantic conspiracy on the part of the world governments to hush up the most important development or human history. Others are crude confidence men, taking advantage of gullible or frightened people, offering in their special knowledge a key to understanding the complexity of the world.
Why these people are so successful is sometimes a mystery. To an educated mind their appeals seem so childish. Yet the world is filled with ordinary people who are mentally ill, mentally deficient, gullible, poorly educated, or simply brought up to believe in, say, ghosts. If a person believes in ghosts, he can be haunted; moreover, he will find evidence of ghosts wherever he goes. And the book publishers, itinerant speakers, and “consultants” will seek him out to take his money. He cannot pass through a grocery check-out stand without looking at national pulp-paper magazines telling stories that reinforce his convictions.
These beliefs are a “cop-out” comparable to drugs―“true believers” in conspiracies seek a greater reality “out there,” while drug addicts often seek an internal reality heightened by chemicals. Either way, the usual result is to drop out of the real world, to cease all efforts to resolve real problems, by insisting that true reality is something else, something that cannot be seen or proven except to devotees of the faith.
Drugs and mass hypnosis are important to the spread of these cults of conspiracy. Hashish was necessary for the clan of medieval Assassins; and drugs may be the medical explanation of the “living dead” that is at the root of voodoo beliefs. There is much we do not know about our world, and it is difficult to give rational explanations for every perceived phenomenon. Moreover, we know from the periodic outbreak of UFO sightings or crop circles that people see what they want to see; and they will not accept explanations less spectacular than that of visitors from other planets.
Religious cults are another problem, but a very serious one. They have an amazing diversity. Yet they have several characteristics in common: all cults have a narcissistic leader, and the members become arch-conformists, giving themselves completely to his orders and decrees; each cult claims a monopoly on truth, claiming that everyone else is either in error or actually in the service of some satanic power; and each cult exercises total control over the lives of its members, assuring that no outside activities detract attention from worship and service. If life in a cult is so rigid and austere, why are cults so popular? The answer is fairly simple. First, cults offer some admirable goals―like the abandonment of consumer values, a reorientation of life toward God and the service of man, a break with all the unhappiness caused by doubt, fear, and insecurity. Secondly, cults build on the human frailties of loneliness, fear, financial distress, and family troubles. The cult becomes the family of the idealist and isolated, becoming ultimately the whole reason for existence. At this point the cult becomes easy to distinguish from more orthodox religious bodies. When the leader’s words drown out all other communications, and when cult members no longer have contacts with the outside world, their culture becomes a miniature totalitarian state. The future of any cult is unpredictable: most dissolve, leaving the members disappointed; some linger in physical isolation, having lost the principal personality or idea that made them originally attractive; some become orthodox religious bodies. The examples of Jonestown and Waco show how dangerous membership in a cult can become.
Superstitions and cults contribute to the complexity of modern life without necessarily contributing anything new or useful. For the historian, the cultural continuity of such mass movements is one of his chief justifications for the study of the past. We have not emerged far from our primitive roots into the era of modernization. We dare not forget that right around the corner are ideas and attitudes that can destroy us, or so weaken our society that we lose our liberty. Essentially, superstition and cults are reactions to modernization. Sometimes we seize on beliefs known to be false, but are all the more attractive because they are incompatible with modern thought.
Education has diverse goals. Sometimes these are contradictory; sometimes they only seem to be contradictory. For examples, college professors tend to emphasize the difference between training and education, as if preparation for a career in medicine or art is laudable, while a future in management or manufacturing is not; at the top of the liberal arts ladder are literature and the arts, toward the bottom is education. Students, of course, ignore most of this. They understand that a college education is almost essential to their hopes for employment. Sometimes this is because they must master skills essential to their future jobs, sometimes because employers want proof that their employees have the brains to read and write and the commitment to stick with something for four years. (Anyone who can sit through university lectures for four years certainly demonstrates commitment, patience, and good-will).
Educators are frustrated by the practicality of the students’ wishes, and over the centuries have developed programs that will at the very least expose the students to a world of ideas that reaches far beyond career goals. In nineteenth century America this was achieved by offering only a few classes, mainly the study of the classics that every student had to take. In the twentieth century this was through prescribing a selection of courses that would assure at least a minimum contact with courses that would “broaden” the students’ perspectives.
This latter program has generally been known by the name of General Education. Started in the 1920s by Progressive educators such as John Dewey, it relied on “distribution requirements”―selections of courses in the liberal arts (principally literature, language, religion and philosophy), in the newly founded social sciences (government, sociology, psychology and sometimes history, which were to illustrate methods of resolving social problems scientifically), and the sciences. In 1945 a presidential commission headed by James B. Conant of Harvard issued a report General Education in a Free Society. It proposed a series of interdisciplinary courses that would counteract the tendency toward increased specialization in departmental offering that were undermining the spirit of Gen Ed.
At the heart of this report was an emphasis on ethics and morality. Students were to be confronted by questions of right and wrong, students were to be taught the cultural mores of western democracy and the importance of the traditions of western civilization. Colleges and universities across the nation quickly adopted Gen Ed requirement, usually building them around western civilization courses, surveys of literature, and introductions to the social sciences and science. Almost immediately, however, there was a backlash among faculty, many of whom believed in a value-free educational environment.
The resulting struggle over Gen Ed was not a pretty one. On the one side were memories of the Nazi scientists searching for pure knowledge; on the other were accusations of religious indoctrination and McCarthyism. The secularists won the day. Margaret Mead’s ideal of sex without guilt was accepted widely, even though some suspected that she had observed what she wished to see rather than the true complexity of the societies in the South Sea (as was later shown to be the case). Freud’s ideas appeared everywhere, though the shallowness of his research was known from the beginning. Many secularists, it turned out, relied more on feelings than on rational analysis, and nothing brought the feelings to the surface quicker than the drug culture of the Sixties.
Many colleges and universities abandoned Gen Ed in these years. The general belief was that students should be free to pick and choose, just as they could select a personal life-style or belief system. Majors changed significantly, too, as departments found themselves under pressure to demonstrate that students wanted their courses, and grade inflation soon followed.
In the 1990s Gen Ed programs were reinstated, but not with the traditional goals. In place of western values now appeared multi-cultural emphases. Students were to learn tolerance and acceptance of other people’s values and practices; they learned that their own values were loaded with racism, sexism and bigotry. At the same time, efforts were made to make minorities aware of the values of their own cultures, of the oppression that their peoples had suffered. And now it was their turn to exercise power.
Ironically, the multi-cultural emphasis on diversity was accompanied by an insistence that all members of the subgroup reflect that group’s most essential characteristics. Moreover, the self-proclaimed leaders of each group strove to ensure that group members followed their personal agendas. Dissent and individualism were discouraged. This narcissistic stereotyping created a truly faceless man―or, if one yielded to feminist demands for linguistic equality, no matter how stylistically awkward, a faceless man or woman.
The term political correctness appeared at this time. To a certain degree this party-less movement was nothing more than an extreme form of good manners (traditionally, cultivated people do not use vulgar terms) that hoped to modify people’s behavior by requiring them to avoid using words that would offend people. The cartoonists and comedians were the first to realize the dangers of political correctness, followed by those who had previously considered themselves liberal, but were now considered racists and sexists for being insufficiently radical in seeking to eradicate those evils from our society. Success was considered proof that one was compromised (making money in business, or in the case of Israel, winning wars). American universities were soon awash in the “cultural wars.” Culture lost.
University and college faculties were divided into three groups―those who believed that political correctness was a danger to freedom of thought and speech, those who believed that it did not exist, and that large middle block who wanted nothing more than for the whole business to go away so that they could teach in peace. The controversy became significantly intertwined with Affirmative Action and Multi-Culturalism. University and college administrations hastened to create policies that would satisfy those who shouted the loudest; their primary goal was to maintain campus peace, but they were also sons and daughters of the Sixties who fondly imagined that they would have been at Woodstock, Selma and Birmingham if they had been born earlier.
The inevitable public backlash was moderated by the economic boom that had begun in the Reagan years and continued through the Clinton administration. As long as there was enough money to satisfy everybody to a certain extent, and there were jobs to go around, the system worked. Around the world, however, the system was not working equally well everywhere. Strains could be seen, and many countries suffered a near or complete breakdown.
What the second millennium will bring is impossible to say. On the one hand, totalitarian communism is discredited, Latin American dictators have disappeared except in Cuba, and the internet is providing unprecedented access to information. On the other hand, the challenges of poverty, ignorance, religious fanaticism and ethnic violence may be greater than ever. The direction of local and world politics will probably be decided by factors beyond the control of even the most powerful individuals, corporations or nations. This is sometimes called globalization, but it is more accurately termed modernization.
The Crisis of Modernization
The foremost crisis of modernization is the breakdown of traditional models of behavior. Modern social organization requires a much more flexible person, one who can adjust to performing a variety of tasks, one who can be retrained for new tasks as the old ones become obsolete. That means, in effect, that no one can expect to have one job or one profession throughout life. One must be constantly learning, constantly adapting. That is a difficult task for an individual and a society, and there are hardships involved in such a situation. We must expect greater personal problems in adjustment that will be reflected in mental and physical health problems, marital difficulties, drug abuse, and crime. As members of society we must find ways to help individuals adjust.
This crisis is far greater in developing nations, but no society is free of trauma caused by economic and social change. Some nations, like Haiti and the People’s Republic of China, have suffered greatly; some, like Switzerland and Sweden, have progressed so far that boredom is a pressing national issues.
Also, the modern society has greater wealth and more leisure. It is not easy to see that this wealth is equitably divided or that it is spent profitably. We do not want to create a society that reflects the worst habits of ancient Roman aristocrats―selfish, wasteful and slothful. That is a prescription for social revolution and ultimately repression by the dominant classes.
There is plenty of work that needs to be done. Few hospitals, homes for the aged, or youth programs reject volunteers. There are still plenty of people who need to be provided with goods and services. Moreover, work is good in itself, in that it gives meaning to our life. But this work must be useful, meaningful, and enjoyable. Our challenge is to provide this work. When we provide it, we will resolve many of our social problems (Voltaire’s poverty, vice, and boredom). We can make our communities better places to live, if only we all work at it.
The future does not lack problems. The problems have been piling up for generations. We will see problems with protection of the environment, the spread of technology into areas yet undreamt of, and provision for privacy. None of these are new. Our ancestors faced them all, too, and they did not always master them well. The Thames River is today cleaner than in the Elizabethan era, and almost every nation has a healthier population than ever before. But we have challenges, and we must do more than survive. We must do more than just achieve material wealth. We must leave this world better and freer than we found it.
The Survival of Freedom
The decades that followed World War Two were not easy ones, but neither were they as bad as many had expected. Society did not collapse, the Great Depression did not return, and somehow World War Three was avoided; the great victory of totalitarianism did not materialize.
It often seems that many people were disappointed in the non-appearance of the nightmare visions. Some Americans are rather disgruntled that they have not needed their air-raid shelters and their guerrilla training; some Europeans still grumble about Americans being immature and naive; and a few communists still believe that their system could have produced more the western economy. But not many. In the industrialized world too much has changed for the old ideas to persist. There the young people are concerned about jobs, marriage, mortgage rates―and also alcohol, drugs, and being overweight. Sports are much more important than politics. Older people worry about inflation, crime in the street, and the morality of the younger generation. In short, it is a much better world than appeared in the pages of 1984 and Brave New World.
In the non-industrialized world it is a different matter; the crises there are serious. There the old philosophies still flourish, there hatred and envy will probably survive for many years to come. Terror will provoke political repression, and dominant minorities in multi-ethnic states will see terror as their only means to crush virulent competing nationalisms. With luck this struggle will be conducted without atomic weapons or bringing on World War Three. Unfortunately, given the ineffectiveness of the United Nations in many recent crises, there seems no way to bring all states together to work on problems that threaten the existence of all of us. There is a generation gap: the underdeveloped world must suffer through all the struggles that Europe and America underwent between 1800 and 1991. Therefore, utopia and world peace are a long way off. What we can hope is that we, the world community, will pass the future crises better than we did the past ones. We can keep hope alive in the knowledge that we are not facing new problems, and that we have survived them before.
is true for the crises in customs and behavior. We will see crime, drugs and
all the other problems of recent decades. Narcissism and conformity will not
disappear; they are here too stay; and we might as well get used to it.
Chapter Six: A Resolution of the Problem
The Possibility for Hope in the Future
Was there a “Me Generation”?
Tom Wolfe’s “Me Generation” and Christopher Lasch’s “Narcissism” have been widely accepted by social historians and commentators as valid descriptions of the American cultural scene and the attitudes of many youths between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. These were, of course, not the only characteristic of the era. In fact, there were entire classes and regions that were only marginally touched by these phenomena.
One of the surprises that every would-be historian experiences comes when he first asks people what they were doing during some great event. He learns quickly that he will encounter a variety of responses. For example, some people suffered in the Great Depression, some experienced mild hardship, some prospered, and some hardly realized it was going on. During World War Two some Americans served at the front, some worked in factories, some drove trucks, and so forth; but the vast majority of people continued at their regular business, only reading about the war or seeing it on newsreels. Similarly, when one asks about the “Me Generation,” the wide variety of responses is significant.
What makes a social movement? Obviously a large enough number of people behave in such a manner that it comes to the notice of intelligent and observant men and women. But how many is enough? Social research seems to indicate is that only a relatively small number of people change their behavior significantly. Shifts of five to ten percent can cause an otherwise marginal number to appear to be the dominant group in society; groups move from just outside the sphere of attention to the center. This shift is caused by economic changes that give more or less money to youth, by educational philosophies that prepare more people for middle-class occupations, by prosperity or recession, by cultural attitudes toward consumption and pleasure, and by shifts in political thinking. In creating the “Me Generation” all these processes were present. In addition, the world situation and the philosophy of pessimism made plans: for hard work, sacrifice and service seem naive, foolish, and useless.
Historians generally judge the power of a group by its influence in political and economic matters. There the “Me Generation,” a largely youth-oriented group, had some definite impact: Laws were passed that gave individuals considerable rights to behave as they wished. The individuals had always existed, but they were either repressed or ignored; now their demands received a hearing. These laws involved serious issues: the right to privacy, the freedom to dress as one wished, the selection of a sexual life style (homosexuality, birth control, abortion, divorce), and access to narcotics. In economic matters, it was Madison Avenue (advertisers) who decided that these young people were now the most important economic group in America in terms of disposable money for personal luxuries; consequently, the media managers directed their songs, their movies, and their ads at this group. This had the expected result on teenagers, who by the combination of earlier parental pressure to conform and by the outset of puberty made to feel insecure about peer approval, always follow fads unthinkingly. Naturally, fads are of sufficient importance that many older individuals also chose to mimic youth by buying this or that, by dressing in the approved manner with name-brand merchandise, and by adopting the latest slang words.
We should note that there was important resistance to much of this change. In particular older people reacted to drugs, birth control, and abortion. The Constitutional Amendment to guarantee women equality with men was defeated by a coalition of people who disliked what was happening in the name of equality. Moreover, many who like the new trend disliked what they saw in the large cities―entire districts being taken over by drugs, prostitution, and crime―and they were worried when these social evils began to appear in the small towns and suburbs.
When we reflect that the vast majority of people took no position any way or other, but continued on with daily life as before we can see how small the numbers of people were who did more than play-acting. Thus, it took only a relatively small number of defectors from the “Me Generation” before national magazines were declaring its demise.
Is There a “Decline of the West”?
The first to warn that western civilization was declining can hardly be identified, for one of the principal characteristics of our civilization is a sense of history; thus an interest in the rise and fall of cultures and nations. Already among the Ancient Greeks and Romans, among medieval churchmen and Reformation preachers, there was a sense that life was short, that civilization would someday die, too. Edward Gibbon’s magnificent title, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, appealed to Englishmen in 1776 because they were at the height of their power; from that point; must not they go inevitably downward? Similarly, after every great advance we wonder if this is not the apex, the summit, after which we must go downhill.
Today the pessimistic view of the western future is tied with the rise of formerly subject states. Peoples who were once hopelessly backward are now able to defy, even threaten the western powers. In Asia cheap labor and innovative technology produce articles so low in cost and high in quality as to threaten to bankrupt traditional western industries; in 1973 the oil producing states (OPEC) almost brought about the collapse of the western economy by a partially successful boycott. War in the Persian Gulf threatens to cut off oil to Japan and Europe, which would perhaps precipitate a world-wide depression. Every day we learn new ways that our fate is partially determined by the actions of others. Our economy and even our military’s security are held hostage by people we hardly knew existed only a few years ago.
A survey of this development would require a book in itself, yet some aspects of the problem can be summarized quickly. Who profits most from foreign factories and from imports? Obviously, the advanced nations do. The American and European firms that have built the factories also reap much of the profits―a situation the Communists described as “neo-colonialism.” Who benefits from the cheaper products? The consumer. What do the advanced countries then sell to the newly-industrialized nations? Goods of complexity and quality that they cannot produce themselves. How do the backward countries pay for these? From the jobs that the new factories provide. The advanced and backward nations need one another, yet inevitably the backward states must seek to change their dependent status; as they do, the advanced states will seek to guarantee their own freedom of action. Yet, the more the backward states rise, the more trade is created, and the more all states benefit.
In short, the world is becoming interdependent. As one nation advances, so should all the others. If one nation or group of nations prospers at the expense or others, then trouble will arise; we must take care that the world does not become a collection of Charles Dickens figures, with poverty and crime amidst great wealth and luxury. Globalization, like the industrial revolution, will cause the less productive members of society to change their methods of earning a living and perhaps also their residences. For these individuals, these will be hard times. Yet in the long run, for them as well as for the rest of society, the result will be positive.
One can see today that advances far outnumber declines; the main problem of the late twentieth century was the speed of advance, whether a nation could advance faster by the western model, a Soviet model, or a Chinese one. Mixed into this have been problems of population growth, apparent lack of natural resources, and social dislocation as traditional practices are discarded in favor of poorly working imitations of western ones. 1991 saw the collapse of the Soviet system and the radical modification of Chinese model. Even so, the failure of communist economic systems have not discouraged idealists and ideologues, and would-be dictators and religious extremists still insist on experimenting with socialist systems, but that part of the human race that wants the best combination of economic prosperity and personal freedom is adopting western economic practices and western models of democracy.
In no area―standard of living, science, literature, even basic morality, and certainly not in medicine or food production―can one speak of a decline of the West. Alas, in too much of the post-colonial world, the parts which rejected western models, we see widespread failure.
Modernization as a World Phenomenon
Modernization (globalization) brings with it problems. Problems bring unhappiness and criticism. Therefore, we must expect that for our lifetimes we shall live with a continuing criticism of everything we attempt.
Yet it is in the face of the problems and the criticism that we can remain hopeful. Change is not always for the worse. That was the theme of our most ancient religious traditions―that each generation declines in morality and wisdom―and we have been accustomed to accept that judgment without thinking. Yet, if we think about it, do we really believe that the world of modern communication, of medical miracles, of organized welfare, and of fantastic economic production is less well off than the world of our grandparents? Why should we not hope to meet the challenges of the future? Our biggest problem is found in our way of thinking.
In fact, this is no way different than the problem faced by people in emerging nations: their difficulty with modernization is the need to adopt new modes of thinking: workers must adapt their patterns of thought to those of the factory. They must come to work on time, work at specific projects without understanding the whole, change work assignments often and learn new skills; they must work among strangers, obey the boss, not stop for conversation; they must live in a city, adjust to loneliness among crowds, became accustomed to movement, noise, and anxiety. Their home life becomes another, separate world, and the comrades of the workplace are not necessarily the same as those of the neighborhood, the temple, the bar; sports, religion, and relaxation take on new dimensions. Television, magazines, newspapers, and radio further emphasize the variety of life, the confusion, and the choices that must be made.
In 2005 Thomas Friedman published a striking new book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. He argues that the internet as done more than "level the playing field." It has made the world flat. Nations formerly languishing economically and intellectually are now racing to the front of the field, and nations (such as the USA) which are falling behind in math and science will soon become the low-budget workers of those who are setting the pace.
As we proceed with modernization (globalization), we realize that the adjustments need not be all made by the worker. The workplace can accommodate social and individual needs, and wise management will seek to minimize the difficulties brought on by office and factory routine. In Moslem countries, for example, work can be interrupted for prayer; in countries with mass transportation systems, work hours can be staggered so that not everyone has to be on the subways and buses at once; electricity use can be managed by price so that consumption is not concentrated during working hours.
We know that this adjustment will not be easy. Even in the United States we find that we have tremendous problems. One person in five is effectively illiterate. For our society that presents a great challenge, for print is still our principal means of communication; and while there are still plenty of jobs that require muscle rather than brains, these are fewer in number each year; also, few people really want to do those jobs. Moreover, illiteracy is dangerous. The most disastrous chemical accident of modern times happened because illiterate workmen in a Michigan factory mixed Dioxin into cattle feed despite the clearly worded labels; all they knew was that the bags were the same color.
It is not easy to change a people’s ideas. Americans, for example, know that as technology advances, every occupation will be affected. What one learns today will be out-of-date in a few years. Therefore, one must learn not only what the present state of the art is in any profession, but one must have a sufficiently broad education that it will be possible to change with the times.
Not everyone will have a college education, but each citizen must have more than a narrow technical training. We should take advantage of our tinkering tradition to assure that each individual has opportunity to create, to explore, and to develop his skills to the utmost; to make workplaces that are satisfying, interesting, and well-paying. If we do not we will have on one hand an unhappy conformity of the laboring classes, on the other an ever larger number of drop-outs, who prefer crime or welfare to a dead-end job. However, today many young people still chose to pursue the immediate objective, a job, and therefore seek training in same specialty that may not exist in ten years or twenty. This will be one of our challenges for the future: to assure opportunities for a fuller life even for those who seemingly do not care for anything beyond money.
For those who do choose higher education it is widely agreed that for this purpose a liberal arts education has numerous advantages, among which are the insights it gives into life that allows us to appreciate what is happening to us and around us, that teaches us how to enjoy life more fully.
Hope for the Future
Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” So is life even today. If we choose to look for the depressing, we find it; when we look for something hopeful, we find it, too. If we are well-rounded people, we should see both. Hopefully, we will also try to do something about the worst, so that when we reflect on what our life means, we will not be at a loss for something to say.
We live in a world besieged by problems. Two of these are Narcissism and Conformism. We need not surrender to either extreme, for we can retain our individuality while conforming to the needs of society. We can do our duty without giving up free will.
The analogy of sports may be useful once more: the modern team is composed of individuals who put themselves under the direction of a coach, who sees to their training and discipline. If the coach is overly strict and rigid, his team will probably not react swiftly to new situations; moreover, some members will drop off the squad. If the coach has no discipline, the players will be out of shape, will not remember the plays, and will probably be quarreling among themselves at the critical moment of the game. The coach who can use the individual talents of each player, while subordinating each player to the needs of the team, will be the consistent winner.
Modern society is like the sports it watches: variety, skill, and action. In this sense, then, the critical matter in modern society is management. The managers of the modern world are like the coaches. They must be fair, they must listen, and they must make decisions. Not an easy lot.
If we can balance the needs of the individual and the needs of the group, we can achieve in society what successful teams achieve in sports. We must allow individuality without going to the extreme of narcissism, and we must assure reasonable conformity without becoming “mass men.” We must learn to manage ourselves, to create that dynamic tension between our individual selves and our duties toward our fellow men. We must practice that combination of dissent and obedience that characterizes popular democracy in the workplace, in the community, and even in the national government. Mutual tolerance and respect, an awareness of our past, and confidence in the future are essential.
We must maintain a set of ideals, even unachievable ones, and set against them pragmatic goals. Unreachable objectives have been essential to every great religion and to most worthwhile enterprises. But equally important is the sense of accomplishment that comes with having attained some success, however small, on the way. One of the roles of an elite is to understand the ideals and the immediate goals of its society. In the past this elite was hereditary, with military and religious functions. Today our elite is chosen by education, and its principal function is managerial.
West European and American society has been successful largely because it has learned how to choose its managers. This has not been easy, as the political processes of the past centuries have shown; and that is why political history has been so important in colleges and universities because that is the story of how we came to have our present political and economic managers. Our present management has made continuous adjustments in the use of individual talent and group labor, trying always to get a more effective balance for the task in hand.
The Soviet economy lagged behind its western competitors largely because Marxist philosophy insisted that anyone can be a manager; all they had to do was follow the plans given out at the top. In short, the system was rigid, rather the opposite of the extreme flexibility of the classical free enterprise system (which does not really exist any more). Underdeveloped countries adopted this model in the hope that they could make swift economic progress without wasting resources and energies, avoiding seeing a few people grow rich while many became poor, protecting traditional cultural and religious practices, and, most importantly, assuring those who held power that they would not have to yield power to present and future rivals. Dictators came to rule, in part because they seemed the only alternative to ethnic rivalry and chaos. In such a situation it was impossible to have a class of modern managers. It was not a matter of money, as is sometimes believed: one can destroy a modern state’s economy, as happened with Germany and Japan in World War Two; within a generation those people have rebuilt everything and once again lead the world in production and innovation. No primitive state anywhere has demonstrated a similar economic miracle.
Americans seem to have avoided the fate that pessimistic theoreticians said would befall any multi-cultural state, that the dominant classes would eventually find themselves at war with the under classes; if not at home, then with the oppressed peoples of their neo-colonial empire. If readers still believe this, then this book has failed in its intent.
If the general argument of this book is true, the American future should be hopeful. We are an energetic, innovative, disciplined people. We can recover from almost any catastrophe, overcome any difficulty. We are, after all, the traditional nation of optimism, the land of the future, the land of unlimited possibilities.
And if America is a success, the chances are good that the world will be better off as well.
 Academicians may continue to say that the rich get rich, etc., but this seems almost to be an effort to affirm another popular myth, that of the ivory tower, where thoughtful intellectuals can substitute imagined communities for the hard facts of the real world.
 The extents to which societies can change vary. America at the turn of the millennium is adapting to change very well. So did it also in the 1920s, when the internal combustion engine and electricity made possible sweeping revolutions in lifestyles, industry and farming―in fact, one might argue that the changes of that era were more fundamental and profound than those at the end of the 20th century. On the other hand, traditional societies in the Third World have not done well. I will argue that one might wish to be somewhat tolerant of this reluctance to change. The past suggests reasons for not rushing the process of change. It is now fashionable in academic circles to denounce the United States Constitution for its failure to give the vote to women and to abolish slavery. However, the Constitutional Convention had to make compromises to maintain national unity, and although many today say that compromises with evil are wrong no matter what the reason (so much for compromises, one might think, since “good” people are those who agree with you); some of the founders of the country were slave-holders, and therefore nothing else they did merits having their names on schools or monuments. The French Revolution, however, attempted to make sweeping changes all at once. The result was civil war, the Terror, the Napoleonic dictatorship, and, ultimately, the return of the Ancien Regime. Is there not a lesson in this? Edmund Burke certainly thought so.
 It is worth pondering why, once the obligation to care for one’s relatives was, necessarily, abandoned as impractical in the urban environment, a void is left that is rarely filled by a concern for the larger community. In the Western tradition benefactors have endowed churches, libraries, and colleges (for which academics like me are thankful). All this for people they hardly know. Perhaps the scene in The Godfather I explains it as well as can be done: when Michael’s father asked why he had enlisted, to fight for strangers, Mike said simply that he was an American. That should have explained it all. The old man didn’t understand, but he was still proud of his son.
 Discussions over the roots of terrorism have been most instructive in this. America’s principal sin has been its very freedom and of prescribed class and gender roles.
 The great totalitarian movements of modern times (Communism, Fascism, Nazism and Militant Islam) grew up amid the ruins of ancient states (Russia, Austro-Hungary, Germany and the Ottoman Empire). Their leaders did not grow up poor and oppressed, but were sufficiently well off to have an education and to have traveled. This fact should give educators pause, because it runs contrary to our deep faith that knowledge will transform people for the better. The shock of learning that Germans had committed genocide was all the greater because everyone had assumed that only primitive peoples were capable of such evils.
 Today we would not use such gender-specific language, but something more cumbersome.
 Liberated women denounced the paternalism of traditional society, but somehow failed to mock its absurdity effectively. It was not the case that women were completely powerless: in the early twentieth century they persuaded men that once alcoholic beverages were forbidden and women had the right to vote, that society would change quickly for the better. Subsequent experience might suggest that worldly-wise men and women of that age were somewhat justified in their skepticism. This is not an excuse for resisting social change today, only a reminder that even the most necessary progress does not always move in the anticipated direction.
 In the twentieth century this has been applied by liberal such as Paul Erlichman (The Population Bomb) and Paul Kennedy (Limits of Sustainable Growth), while conservatives such as Julian Simon have argued that society has the flexibility and resiliency to survive and flourish if governments do not interfere unduly.
 Perhaps nobody has understood exactly what Nietzsche’s “Superman” was to be, but many thought they did; some of his interpreters preached a new racism under the doctrines of Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism.
 It has been noted in the 21st century that what the world dislikes most is not America’s unethical actions, but those based on ethics─European intellectuals hate American egalitarianism (especially in cultural matters), religious fundamentalists and cultural conservatives hate the freedom that America allows women and Jews, atheists dislike American religiosity, and dictators fear democratic values. More fundamentally, those who believe that every primitive society is superior to any civilization are appalled by the fact that almost everywhere young people prefer American prosperity and the accompanying work ethic to traditional poverty and honoring ancestral leaders.
 Economists and historians can argue whether or not his programs helped ameliorate the effects of the Great Depression (and to what extent he simply claimed credit for programs already started by Hoover), but he changed the focus of the Democratic Party from states’ rights to national issues and he emphasized the essential morality of everything he proposed. This helped make him a great wartime leader.
 Many communists were identified in the closing year of the Second World War, after the wife of the head of the Communist Party went to the FBI. The rule of thumb for all spies, therefore, as for crooked CEOs of the early 21st century, is to not divorce your wife! Political radicalism had been popular in the Thirties, when many intellectuals came to see communism as the only alternative to fascism; consequently, there were many prominent people who had attended meetings, signed petitions, or even taken out membership in the communist party. Many others had grown up in the progressive tradition and recognized only vaguely how that movement was being taken over by organized radicals. Most lacked the time and energy the party demanded of the true believers, and so were rarely more than “fellow-travelers.” They remained progressives and liberals, however, and often passed down their mixed political philosophies to the “pink diaper babies” of the Sixties.
 Graham Greene defended his Oxford friends’ spying for the Soviet Union by saying that “surely we have all done worse things than betray our country.” Lillian Hellmann defended Stalin’s every crime, even long after his death, either denying that they had occurred or saying that they were necessary. And she was not alone.
 This is not to denigrate the achievements of the Soviet Army, but if the Japanese militarists and Nazis had concentrated on overthrowing Stalin, there is little doubt that they could have done so. Stalin, whose paranoia had cost him all popular support outside the party, who had destroyed the officer corps of the Red Army, and whose foreign policy made possible Hitler’s early conquests, was most fortunate in his enemies. Only Hitler could have turned the liberation of Russia into the Great Patriotic War.
 Some were sons and daughters of earlier radicals, raised on the principle that McCarthyism was the true face of American democracy. Many more were attracted first by civil rights, then learned that resolving social and racial problems were harder than they had imagined. Others were religious idealists. A few learned via principles of “soft Marxism” and French philosophy from teachers and professors that America had been a bad idea from the beginning. Yet others saw politics, drugs and eastern religions as alternatives to the dullness of middle class life.
 The renewed pessimism of the 1990s is less easily analyzed, appearing as it did in an era of general peace and prosperity. In many ways it is an echo of the Sixties, with ecology and discrimination as widely-shared concerns; as the students of that era became the full professors, they began to pass on their views to new generations of students. This is important for consciousness-raising, since a majority of high school graduates now attend college. But beyond a general feeling about these issues the focus is more diverse: population growth, the ozone hole, global warming and such issues are not easily addressed, other than to stop industrialization (globalization); discrimination is no longer just race, but also gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation; war is less an issue, because distant conflicts are difficult to influence; and ever fewer people are willing to discuss local issues, though these are present in ever greater numbers. While communication is faster, cable television and the internet make it harder to reach those who have little prior interest, so protesters have to work harder to be noticed. Moreover, the proverbial rebellion of youth often results in a dismissal of the progressive agenda.
 Police enforce jaywalking laws only when it becomes a nuisance, or after a child is injured or killed. The child sees an adult standing between cars, waiting for a break in traffic to cross, then imitates the behavior, unaware that it is too short to be seen by drivers and being too inexperienced to judge vehicles’ speed accurately. While many see jaywalking laws as mere impediments to personal liberty, John Stuart Mill would probably approve them.
 One cannot go through life without acquiring some stereotypes, because it is impossible to approach each situation as a new event. Moreover, many stereotypes have factual foundations (professors do tend to read a lot) and may even be statistically valid. But if is one thing to say that all black cats are feline and another to say that all cats are black; and yet another to believe that a black cat crossing one’s path is unlucky.
 The fact that Kinsey’s methodology has been criticized is as unimportant as scholars rethinking Freud, or learning that the works of Margaret Mead and Rigoberta Menchu are semi-fictional, or that Carlos Castenada was a complete fake: once the public has a concept in its mind, it keeps it there. It sometimes takes an Adolf Hitler to discredit an idea, and even he still has followers.
 A person who is a liberal on some issues may be conservative on others. Moreover, intelligent people will modify their beliefs over time. It has been said, tongue in cheek, that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, and a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested. It is also possible to be of two minds on some subjects, to see both sides of an argument, and to be honestly puzzled about what the best course of action is.
 The size of the gay/lesbian/transsexual community is still under debate. Although a figure of 10% is commonly given, there are reasons to think that this figure is far too high, even if bi-sexuals are counted. Nevertheless, today it is a more active, more public political group than its numbers would suggest. Perhaps only the abortion lobby is more effective on the left side of the political spectrum.
 Most theories of revolutions postulate that moderates begin a movement that is subsequently taken over by leaders who advocate more through reforms; these are then ousted by leaders who are more radical, who will eliminate rivals and resistance by terror; when the radicals lose public support; moderates and conservatives will reclaim power, adopting many of the practices of the once-hated Old Regime. In the French Revolution this occurred in the month of Thermidor.
 There are, for example, no strikes in Castro’s Cuba. This is a common phenomenon is what Stalin called a “worker’s paradise.”
 Neighborhoods and even entire nations can fall into chaos. The choice between disorder and a strongman is not a pleasant one, but it is easier to remove a dictator or a godfather than to create a modern civil society.
 There is no surer guide to political orientation than the respect which is given to language. Hyperbole and sloppiness reflect the quality of a person's thinking as accurately as dogmatic insistence on grammar and pronunciation.
 Working in a college environment, I have occasionally heard individuals argue for hiring or recruiting minorities so that a particular viewpoint could be heard. This is stereotyping. The proper argument is to have individuals of diverse backgrounds around so that the majority can see that they are individuals, not stereotypes, and can succeed as well as anyone else.
 Also because social utopians rejected compromises as rigidly as did social conservatives. Ecclesiastes’s admonition that there is a time to talk and a time to act was lost on these secular revolutionaries. They talked and talked until everyone was frustrated and bored, and finally Bismarck showed the Prussian king how to dismiss the constitutional assembly at Frankfurt; Bismarck then implemented some of the revolutionaries’ best ideas, carefully assuring that he retained real power in his own hands. Military victories over Denmark, Austria-Hungary and France were followed by economic prosperity and unprecedented advances in science, music, literature and education. Bismarck seemed to have proven the premise that only a pure race could achieve its natural destiny. At least, this was the lesson that the Austrian Adolf Hitler drew from comparing German successes to the failures of the multi-ethnic Austrian-Hungarian monarchy.
 The tsar was reluctant to mobilize, and Rasputin, who would have warned the tsar against war, was not in the capital. But Nicholas II was unwilling to risk the anticipated popular reaction to his backing down again, as he had done in the Bosnian crisis of 1908. Wilhelm II of Germany, certain that he could manage the crisis personally, went off for a sailing holiday; but it made no difference. He failed just as miserably as Nicholas and for the same reason: fear of appearing weak. The Austrians and the French alone wanted war. Neither, however, wanted war with the other. The decisive matter was railroad schedules: once mobilization was declared, the trains began to move, and no one could stop them without disrupting the process so thoroughly that military defeat would follow if the other side did not simultaneously stop its mobilization. No one was willing to trust the other to risk disaster; no one was willing to risk the public reaction to having thrown away the opportunity to score an glorious victory and escape forever from the arms races and the war scares that had marked the pre-war years.
 Americans still tend to think of blue-collar laborers when they think of unions, but the majority of union members today are government workers. Thus, efforts to reform a bureaucracy today have much less chance of success than in past years when the “spoils system” was in place―at that time each change of political administration meant widespread replacements of personnel. This demonstrates once again the lesson that every gain has its price.
 While some denounce neo-colonialism, others tell Latin America, “send us your bananas, cheap, but do not compete with American companies and unions.” Not long ago economists taught that the Smoot-Hawley tariff made the Great Depression worse by discouraging international trade, but today university faculties denounce globalization with a fervor that would make Fichte proud.
 These conservatives are usually Republicans, some of whom have come to prefer the philosophy of pre-Roosevelt Democrats, that the national government’s role be kept small. At the same time that Republicans began sounding like Jacksonian Democrats, the Democratic Party began to adopt policies once associated with the Whigs (ancestors of the Republican Party) for a more active role for the federal government. It is wrong to see the parties as opposites in every case. For example, both parties still retain strong memories of the Progressive tradition; and each have survived secession movements and absorbed third parties.
 As a result of these influences and others Americans have developed a national character that is difficult for foreigners to understand, or for Americans who think that intelligence cannot exist between the Hudson and Sacramento rivers.
 This is why the term radical was introduced earlier, since it avoids confusion when discussing whether conservatives are the real liberals or not; in Europe most “liberal” parties are “conservative,” in that they espouse minimum government and maximum individual liberty.
 One makes a serious mistake if one assumes that tyrannical governments come to power by promising to do evil.
 Yes, there was once a time when the high officials of the Protestant state churches were not leftists. The Roman Catholic Church before Vatican Two was very conservative; if not exactly pro-capitalist, it was at least strongly anti-communist; and Vatican One (1870) had declared, in essence, that governments on earth should be like that in heaven—monarchies.
 One can hear echoes of this in Post-Modern French philosophy.
 Mussolini’s glorification of violence has obscured what might have been fascism’s one significant contribution to political science: the Corporate State. The idea that leaders of industry, labor, the military, the churches and universities should cooperate in planning a national economy is one that many intellectuals of the left favor. They would, of course, be appalled to be reminded the fascist origins of the idea, as though Mussolini’s willingness to use force to insure compliance was not essential to the program functioning at all. But Mussolini started out as a socialist. In fact, his parents named him Benito after the Mexican hero, Benito Juarez, in hopes that he would similarly be a political radical.
 Mao, who was developing his own cult of personality in China, denounced the Soviet leaders as deviationists and broke from Soviet leadership in foreign policy and economic development.
 In Haiti voodoo served the Duvalier regime. The dictator’s nickname, Papa Doc, was earned by his skills as a witch doctor.
 In the 1990s sexual and gender identities were reinvented or reconfigured in ways that future generations will probably find as amusing as we see Victorian manners. In this, too, predictions may be widely incorrect, but a sense of irony may be worth cultivating. Even cynicism, some might say.
 One can get into interesting arguments concerning wages paid by international companies in third-world countries. On one hand are local workers eagerly seeking the jobs because the pay seems very good and other jobs are not available, while on the other hand union members and academics denounce the companies for paying slave wages. On one side are those who think that the state is best able to decide how to allocate resources; on the other are those who realize that sometimes businesses lose money, and that if these business are private, they go broke, costing only the investors money, whereas state enterprises are immortal and thus rack up losses year after year after year. Both sides believe that some enterprises have to succeed to pay for those which do not, but at this moment socialist governments are “privatizing” many services. Unless history performs yet another trick upon us, these policies will eventually reversed, then reversed again, and again and again.